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Editor's Introduction Arrow Vol 1 No 2 Contents
About borderlands Volume 1 Number 2, 2002


On What Grounds? Sovereignties, Territorialities
and Indigenous Rights

The Editors

1. This collection of articles emerged from an online forum called ‘Sovereignties’ that was part of a larger conference, Globalization: Live and Online, organized by Dr Catherine Driscoll at the Research Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Adelaide University in the second half of 2001. The ‘Sovereignties’ discussion brought together theorists from all over the world to engage with issues arising from what has increasingly been referred to as a ‘crisis of sovereignty.’ Twelve months later, the result is an extremely rich collection of articles, addressing sovereignty at sites as diverse as cows and airports and exploring themes ranging from sodomy to reconciliation and intellectual property rights.

2. Today inter-state and supra-national structures, along with the globalized forms of neo-liberalism all short-circuit the legitimacy and autonomy of the nation-state. It increasingly appears that political and physical boundaries no longer serve to delimit the nation-state’s ‘natural’ borders: the nation simultaneously exists and disintegrates amidst transnational allegiances and contestations, information vectors and flows of capital, cultures and labor power, and the generally increasing movement of people around the world. For many, the nation is no longer the ‘a priori’ of identification and belonging, since a range of postnationalisms now intersect with and undermine the institutions of national statehood. In consequence, the ideological stability of state sovereignty is breached, while at the same time the political leverage of new and not so new social movements (deterritorialised, post-national, mobile, global), is enhanced.

3. As Arjun Appadurai argues, the combined impact of increasing transnational mobilities and post-national social forms places the nation-state ‘on it’s last legs’. (Appadurai, 1996:19) And Saskia Sassen, one of the most incisive theorists writing about contemporary transformations of sovereignty, this situation requires a new set of enquiries and questions. As she asks:

Has not sovereignty itself been transformed? Can we continue to take it for granted, as much of the literature on the state does over and over again, that the state has exclusive control over the entry of non-nationals? Is the character of that exclusive authority today the same as it was before the current phase of globalization and the ascendance of human rights? (Sassen, 1996: p.xv)

4. However, in thinking and speaking of sovereignty’s crisis, we are dealing with the predicament of a specific and relatively recent form of political organization. So it is vital to remember that the modern nation-state was constituted through colonial processes and continues to be bound to the ownership of the human, animal and natural resources of particular geographical territories.

5. The growth of networked communications systems, the globalization of cultural and economic exchanges, and apparatuses of command and control have linked the world into a complex whole, enabling a dense matrix of mobility and circulation. Within these processes, the nation-state is forced to move from being a sovereign regulator of its subjects to an institution that must facilitate and respond to the increasing production of mobilities across its borders. Among the most recent and controversial studies of the transformations of sovereignty in globalization is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, which argues that modern sovereignty is being challenged by a new postmodern republicanism based on the lived experience of an internally heterogeneous multitude. (Hardt and Negri, 2000) Defined by irrepressible circulation and movement, the multitude resists the inevitability of belonging to a fixed and determined topos: to a nation, an identity, and a people. But as Hardt and Negri warn, this very resistance is threatened by the sovereignty of capital unleashed from its modern, nationalist constraints.

6. On What Grounds provides a space in which different understandings of and stakes in sovereignty are expressed and worked through. The contributors to this volume address questions including: in what circumstances does the claim to grounds facilitate strategic and tactical political struggles? Under what conditions does the claim to grounds produce certainties and orthodoxies that close off political possibilities?

7. Haunani-Kay Trask’s contribution to this collection ‘Restitution as a Precondition of Reconciliation: Native Hawaiians and Indigenous Human Rights’ is an eloquent explanation of why crimes of colonialism must be adequately addressed before Indigenous people can take their places as happy citizens of a new global world order. Ned Rossiter’s thought-provoking piece, ‘Modalities of Indigenous Sovereignty, Transformations of the Nation State and Intellectual Property Regimes’ refracts Indigenous sovereignty issues through Chantal Mouffe’s concept of ‘agonistic democracy’ to examine new developments on the global and national terrain such as mandatory sentencing, privatized prisons and intellectual property rights. Drawing on Foucault’s notion of ‘biopower’ and Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’, Dinesh Wadiwel’s article ‘Cows and Sovereignty’, introduces another axis of analysis to the collection by analyzing sovereignty’s power to constitute ‘exception’ in relation to both human and animal life. In ‘Domestic Laws versus Aboriginal Visions’, Indigenous sovereignty theorists, Candice Metallic and Patricia Monture-Angus examine the colonial legal legacy that – until recently - prevented Indigenous claimants from receiving a hearing as equal partners in the Canadian Supreme Court. In ‘Defacing Terra Nullius and Facing the Public Secret of Indigenous Sovereignty in Australia’, Fiona Nicoll identifies the assumption of ‘proper perspective’ as a performative aspect of a white Australian epistemology grounded in Terra Nullius, suggesting that the more we learn about the grounds of Indigenous sovereignty claims, the more sensitive we will be to the everyday ways that we practice our whiteness against these grounds.

8. Fiona Allon’s article ‘Boundary Anxieties: between borders and belongings’, draws on Dipesh Chakrabarty and other anti-colonial theorists of globalization to demonstrate how border-crossings of media and migrants are paradoxically creating a newly ‘provincialized Europe’. In ‘Departing Sovereignty’, Justine Lloyd focuses on interstitial sites and subjects including airports, global arcades, refugees and illegal immigrants to reflect on the determining conditions of mobility in a globalizing world. Linking the problem of hospitality to the spatial and rhetorical figure of the ‘shore’, Katrina Schlunke’s article ‘Sovereign Hospitalities’ draws on Derrida’s reading of the Biblical story of Lot and the Sodomites to ask how the ambivalent status of the ‘illegal immigrant’ might displace an Anglo-Celtic Australian from the centre of national discourse, exposing the latter as a stranger from the standpoint of Indigenous sovereignty.

9. In ‘Withstanding the Tide of History’, Bruce Buchan presents a critical analysis of the reasoning of Australia’s first native title judgment which found against the claim of the Yorta Yorta nation, juxtaposing the anthropological value of ‘tradition’—which the judge determined had been washed away by ‘the tide of history’—with the material interests that the nineteenth century ethnographer and squatter (whose written account of Yorta Yorta traditions was the primary evidence used in the judgment) held in the claimants’ lands. Finally in ‘The Perverse Perseverance of Sovereignty’ Anthony Burke links the historical constitution of modern sovereignty through a founding violence against Indigenous peoples with the "globalisation" of such violence against a range of Others such as refugees, Palestinians and Muslims. He draws on a range of philosophers and political theorists to analyse the stubborn persistence of the sovereignty problematic, and its complex articulation with modern capitalism, in the face of contemporary challenges to the nation-state.

10. All of the articles in this volume touch in some way or another on urgent questions about the status of ‘grounds’ with respect to sovereignty and its politics. While globalization theorists such as Appadurai point to the emergence of ‘sovereignty without territoriality,’ Indigenous sovereignty theorists continue to claim the viability of ‘grounds’ as a means of asserting their rights. Similarly, anti-colonial movements may not wish to completely disavow the nation, arguing that only a popular reclamation of the nation-state can offset inequalities that are structural to the global political economy. This can lead to conflict and misunderstanding between those committed to a post-nationalist removal of ‘grounds’ and those stateless peoples who are literally without grounds due to genocidal practices that forcibly removed their lands and attempted to forge them into subject-citizens of modern nation-states. We hope that this issue’s exploration of different intellectual understandings of and legal relationships to a range of territories will assist readers in building their own conceptual and political bridges between globalization theory and Indigenous sovereignty theory.

Irene Watson, Fiona Nicoll, Brett Neilson & Fiona Allon

December 2002


Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: cultural dimensions of globalization, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2000

Saskia Sassen, Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization, Columbia University Press, 1996


© borderlands ejournal 2002


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ISSN 1447-0810