Settler Minstrelsy: Paul Patton Plays ‘Waltzing Matilda’ on (Deleuze and) Guitar Hero

Theorising decolonial struggle from a settler perspective, however sympathetic to an indigenous perspective it may be, is fraught with certain pitfalls and pratfalls. If these were only embarrassing to their proponents, falling in to them would remain for the most part harmless. However, they are often indicative of an insidious settler desire to atone for the past with superficial gestures and the minor revision of state practices. The occluded aim of this ‘atonement’ is to satiate the desire of the author, and the wider settler public, to pronounce themselves finally at home, indigenous.[i] Especially when cloaked in the well-meaning of the liberal left, these convocations hide the continuation of colonisation in its movement towards final apotheosis: the moment when the settler becomes indigenous. As such, far from being benign, rhetoric of this kind is pernicious in that it superficialises debate, disavowing the terms under which this debate might become adequate to the demands of indigenous struggle (self-determination, for example), and acts as a ready accomplice for the more brutally honest, economically motivated right.

A fairly recent example, notable for the highly technical, high-European garb it wraps a creeping liberal multiculturalism in, is Paul Patton’s chapter ‘Nomads, Capture and Colonisation’ from his 2000 book Deleuze and the Political.[ii] In this chapter Patton attempts to map concepts from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus[iii] onto the terrain of ‘the legal forms of internal colonisation to which indigenous people are subject in common-law countries such as Australia, Canada, and Aotearoa/New Zealand.’[iv] Patton argues that recognition of native title marks a ‘becoming-indigenous’ of common law (and vice versa), opening a ‘jurisprudential smooth space’ between indigenous and common law, making possible ‘constitutional metamorphosis’.[v] Constitutional metamorphosis would indeed be welcome, but Patton completely misreads the conditions that might lead to the deep transformation this presupposes, unable as he is to see beyond the settler-liberal horizon of his own thought. What Patton mistakes as a becoming-indigenous of common law is quite blatantly only common law dressed in an approximation of indigenous garb, designed to give the appearance that settler law is making concessions to the claims of the indigenous population. What Patton mistakes as a smooth space between the two laws is isomorphically identical to the crystallised common law that was only ever intended to structure dispossession. It is clearly not, as Patton hopes, the mutant chrysalis that will burst forth as the butterfly of a harmonious settler society (involving an extremely suspect sounding process he terms  ‘the becoming-indigenous of the social imaginary’[vi]).

Exemplary of the blind-spot that Patton’s own stakes as a settler cause him is his claim that ‘the common law doctrine of native title was, in effect, a mechanism through which the colonial legal system could recognise and protect aboriginal title and customary law.’[vii] In its own high ideals perhaps it could, but in effect the history of the Native Land Court in Aotearoa/New Zealand, for example, is a history of dispossession by legal means.[viii] Throughout his discussion Patton takes jurisprudence at face value: a natural, good and solid ground, capable of demarcating limits for itself and remaining within them. This can only be achieved by an acute amnesia as to the actual historical deployment of the law as justification for domination and dispossession in Australia, Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand.

The opacity to Patton of this liberal bedrock is further exacerbated by his need to make everything explainable through Deleuze and Guattari’ conceptiual framework, itself extremely problematic when applied to an indigenous context. Discussing Mabo v. Queensland (1992)[ix] he formulates the public’s response to the decision as follows:


The controversy which accompanied this decision also showed that the micropolitical attitudinal shift among the non-indigenous population was by no means universal.[x] It was more a question of the opening up of a fissure within the social imaginary with respect to its colonial past and the treatment of the indigenous population. This could represent the beginning of a becoming-indigenous of the social imaginary, a line of flight along which legal and social change is possible, or it could represent little more than a minor readjustment of the legal terms in which colonial capture was carried out.[xi]


The latter option, a minor readjustment of the means of colonial capture, is, as Povinelli forcefully argues (and subsequent events prove), the more realistic. The former, becoming-indigenous of the social imaginary, is deeply problematic. In the discussion of becoming in an earlier chapter, using becoming-woman as paradigmatic, Patton asserts ‘becoming-woman … has little to do with a relation to real women’.[xii] Likewise, in their ‘Treatise On Nomadology’, a key reference for the chapter in question, D + G’s conception of nomadological thought has nothing to do with actual nomads, other than a smattering of some extremely specious anthropology.[xiii] It is reasonable to deduce, then, that ‘becoming-indigenous’ has very little, perhaps nothing, to do with actual indigenous people. This is precisely the problem. With this relation that is a non-relation ‘becoming-indigenous’ is little more than an Australian version of (virtual) minstrelsy. The ‘fissure’ he sees as opening up in the social imaginary is better understood as the antagonistic complimentarity of left and right leaning parts of the settler public, the debate between them serving to preclude any need to listen to what indigenous people actually have to say.

Immediately following the quotation above, he poses what he sees as the decisive question in ‘Deleuze and Guattari’s terms’:


‘whether the introduction of native title jurisprudence into a colonial jurisdiction from which it had been excluded could be anything more than a partial or relative deterritorialisation of an antiquated and discriminatory system of legal capture. Could it carry the potential for a larger transformation of the colonial body politic or would it be all too readily subject to definitive reterritorialisation within the framework of the existing nation-state?[xiv]


‘We should not be too quick to discount the deterritorialising power of new rights’ is his initial answer. Why? Because they are points along which a line of flight might describe itself: virtual singularities that become actualised in specific decisions, legislation and the interaction between the two.  A page later, after including two comparable cases from Canada (Calder, 1973 and Delgamuukw, 1997[xv]), the answer is less magnificent in scope: ‘In strictly legal terms, aboriginal or native title amounts to little more than a limited and relative deterritorialisation of the legal apparatus of capture of indigenous territory.’ Patton, here, seems to understand how limited the actual gains and transformations brought about through the courts are. Yet his commitment to D + G and his faith in common law (he goes as far as to claim the two are analogous to each other) allow him to sidestep the actual in favour of a vague virtual possible magnified to the point of the absurd.

By the close of the chapter, the pragmatic reticence of the ‘strictly legal’ assertion, without any clear indication as to how, has transmogrified into:


the recognition of native title is a partial reterritorialisation of the of the legal apparatus of capture by means of a refusal of its primary stage: the establishment of a uniform space of comparison and appropriation. It amounts to the assertion of an irreducible difference where before there had only been a uniform legal space of alienated and unalienated Crown land. In this manner, aboriginal or native title gives effect to the absolute deterritorialisation of the judicial apparatus of colonial capture.[xvi]


As with the becoming-indigenous that has no relation to the indigenous, native title only gestures towards what common law thinks aboriginal law to be. What Patton sees as an outside of common law is only the selfsame common law in cultural drag.  However positive and assembled the desire enunciated here is, it is the desire to become indigenous without any deep rupture or substantive social change.

Law in the colonies does not simply flap in the breeze. It has always worked in the service of the settler economic imperative, legitimated civilised barbarity, or marked the continuation of violence by other means. The Sovereign, after all, is he or she who decides on the exception. Perhaps, as with many of the strategies for escape in A Thousand Plateaus, we would do better to reverse their polarity and see them mere as descriptions of capitalisms fleet footed and mutant recombination’s. As tempting as it might be to buy a solar panel for your laptop and head out to the desert to ‘become-nomad’  (‘going native’ put differently), Donna Awatere makes the cogent point that white people already are:


White culture is thus critical for colonialism because it is nomadic. Spiritually, although not culturally, rootless. Indeed the loss of spiritual land links meant that the “culture” had become almost totally mechanical, measured and eminently transportable. White people, through the spatialization of time, thus took on the potential to become “thing”, comfort—and “property”—obsessed nomads.[xvii]

[i] Linda Hardy theorises this as the settler dream of ‘natural occupancy’ in what remains one of the best treatments of this topic: Hardy, Linda. ‘Natural Occupancy’. Asian and Pacific/Inscription: Identities, Ethnicities, Nationalities, ed. Suvendrini Perera. Bundoora, Victoria: La Trobe University Press, 1995:213-27.

[ii] Patton, Paul. Deleuze and the Political. London: Routledge, 2000. Print. Pp 109 -131.

[iii] Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987. Print.

[iv] Ibid. Patton, 2000. Pp 109.

[v] Ibid. Pp 129 -131.

[vi] Ibid. Pp  126.

[vii] Ibid. Pp 125. My emphasis.

[viii] See: Binney, Judith. Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921. Wellington, N.Z.: Bridget Williams, 2009. Print. Discussed in more detail above.

[ix] Mabo, Eddie, and Richard H. Bartlett. The Mabo Decision. Sydney: Butterworths, 1993. Print.

[x] It would be possible, here, to contest the degree to which there was an ‘attitudinal shift among the non indigenous population’, except that the threshold demanded by the micropolitcal is so low, just about anything could stand in as verification.

[xi] Ibid. Patton, 2000. Pp 126.

[xii] Ibid. Pp 81.

[xiii] For the elaboration of this argument, see Miller’s trenchant critique of A Thousand Plateaus: Miller, Christopher L. “The Postidentitarian Predicament in the Footnotes of A Thousand Plateaus: Nomadology, Anthropology, and Authority.” Diacritics 23.3 (1993): 6-35. Print.

[xiv] Ibid. Patton, 2000. Pp 126-127.

[xv] See: Calder, Frank. Frank Calder Et Al. v. Attorney-General of British Columbia [and the Committee for the Original People’s Entitlements]. Toronto: Canadian Association in Support of the Native Peoples, 1973. Print. And, Uukw, Delgam, and Stan Persky. Delgamuukw: The Supreme Court of Canada Decision on Aboriginal Title. Vancouver: Greystone, 1998. Print.

[xvi] Ibid. Patton, 2000. Pp 129.

[xvii] Ibid. Awatere…


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