Theoretical Musings

Sunera Thobani’s Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada
March 7, 2008, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , ,

A version of this review will appear in the Canadian Journal of Sociology, vol. 33, no. 2 (June 2008).

Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada. Sunera Thobani. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2007. 384 pages.

Sunera Thobani’s Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada stands out as an important contribution to the burgeoning field of critical Canadian Studies. In it, Thobani develops an exciting theoretical framework for explicating the relationship between national and racial subject formation that productively builds on the works of well-established Canadian scholars such as Himani Bannerji, Sherene Razack, and Eva Mackey. What Thobani calls the ‘exaltation process,’ or the process delineating the specific human characteristics said to distinguish the nation and its national subjects from others, stands out as an innovative theoretical contribution to the fields of critical nationalism, race and post-colonial studies more broadly. As such, anybody conducting research or teaching in the fields of Canadian nationalism, and especially, the constitution of national subjects, will find this book provides a useful approach.

Thobani begins her study with a thorough introductory chapter that lays out her theoretical project. She explains, in clear language, that her work uses Foucault’s theorization of subject formation within modernity, premised on the dual process of subjection and subjectification. However, eschewing the full and enthusiastic embrace of Foucault that has long been in vogue in certain circles of contemporary social theory, Thobani plots out how Foucault’s understanding of sovereignty in relation to subject formation, for example, in such works as The History of Sexuality vol. I & II, must be re-worked in any analysis of colonial relations.

To illustrate, she productively draws on the work of Achille Mbembe and Frantz Fanon, whose accounts of colonial violence figure prominently in Thobani’s post-colonial theorization. In Mbembe’s work on sovereign power, what he calls ‘necro-politics’ over colonized populations is enacted through the capacity to dictate “who may live and who must die” (12). Thobani argues persuasively that this conception problematizes Foucault’s understanding of the self-constituting practices of the subject, since different modalities of force relations than those present within the European imperial centre, the site for much of Foucault’s historical work, govern colonized populations. “The colonial world,” Thobani explains using Fanon’s explication of the colonial encounter, “emerged as a world divided: on the one side, a world of law, privilege, access to wealth, status, and power for the settler; on the other, a world defined in law as being ‘lawless,’ a world of poverty, squalor, and death for the native” (38). Thobani demonstrates how in order to theorize such colonial governmentalities, one must engage in genealogical work that interrogates distinct colonial forms of power, a task Thobani sets out to accomplish throughout this study.

Having demonstrated the necessity of conceiving multiple forms of sovereignty and subsequently, multiple processes of subject formation in colonial contexts, Thobani is able to lay the groundwork for her novel re-working of processes of subject formation.
Thobani does so, for instance, through an exploration of the role the law has played in exalting Canadian national subjects, in which she skillfully demonstrates how the violence of colonialism transforms into legal structures. Drawing on theorists as diverse as Walter Benjamin, whose “Critique of Violence” famously proclaimed that “something rotten in law is revealed,” and Giorgio Agamben, whose recent works on the figure of homo sacer and the “state of exception” have advanced highly influential conceptions of the relationship between law and violence, she explicates how Western forms of sovereignty are in fact racialized forms of power enacted in the colonial encounter, as per Fanon’s work on colonialism.

While Thobani offers a strong theoretical discussion on the relationship amongst violence, law and the making of national subjects, the true strength of her discussion is in clarifying how all of this works in the Canadian national context. For example, in explaining the formation of the reserve system, she persuasively argues that the Canadian state erased indigenous peoples from the landscape, emptying them of their human status, in a process she calls “humanitas nullius” (50). In doing so, the Canadian sovereign created ‘Indians’ as a new category of human life, juridically erasing the existence of indigenous nations (e.g. Haudenosaunee, Salish, Anishnabe, etc), since indigenous forms of sovereignty openly challenged Canadian claims to land. Law then comes to define who is worthy of the land, in this case, law-abiding national subjects, rendering indigenous claims superfluous, or indeed, against the law. In this way, the Canadian nation was conceived through racial violence, and the continual suppression of indigenous sovereignty has become the necessary condition of Canadian sovereignty. Thus, throughout Thobani’s analysis, the racial dimension of this national subject comes through clearly. In her words: “The sovereign institutionalized the subjugation of Aboriginal peoples, and the nation’s subjects, exalted in law, were the beneficiaries of this process as members of a superior race […]” (61). Therefore, according to the legal regime put in place, one becomes Canadian through persistent participation in, and tacit approval of indigenous dispossession, which, in the Canadian context, has become a naturalized feature of the colonial order, as evidenced by recent responses to the indigenous struggles in Tyendinaga, Sharbot Lake, and Caledonia.

While I cannot find fault in her analysis of how exaltation works through the law, I do wonder what effect consigning indigenous peoples to a liminality between Agamben’s zoë and homo sacer, essentially wide open to the law’s many violences, has on setting the terrain for indigenous resistances to such violences. Given precisely the diverse historical and contemporary forms of resistance organized against Canadian state sovereignty by indigenous peoples, and ongoing efforts to assert indigenous forms of sovereignty, I believe Thobani’s work, particularly in this section, would benefit from a more sustained engagement with indigenous responses to such enduring encounters.

In my opinion, one of Thobani’s strongest contribution lies in her empirical investigation of two national public consultations that took place in 1994: the Immigration Policy Review (IPR) and the Social Security Review (SSR). Using such theorists as Ghassan Hage and Sara Ahmed, she persuasively argues that these reviews provided nationals with a platform to express the prevalent anti-immigrant discourse of the time. In fact, she demonstrates how the reviews, notably the final reports, exemplify a “racially charged contemporary presentation of immigrants” (199) that scholars would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

Drawing on Hage, she demonstrates how by constituting themselves as ‘masters of national space,’ nationals are able to view racial others as objects requiring management or even control. This exaltation of nationals as those who govern national space can be done through the law, as we saw above, or can also be accomplished through such state-based practices as national reviews or commissions, through which nationals come to define themselves in relation to racial others.

Thobani’s analysis here concludes by providing the reader with what she sees as the results of the two reviews. In the first place, the reviews reproduced understandings of Canadians as white nationals, despite the ever-increasing racial diversity of the population. Secondly, they rendered legitimate the unequal citizenship rights of racial others, and even upheld the possibility of increasing restrictions on citizenship rights in the future. In this way, the reviews are a telling instance of the exaltation of national subjects in that they fixed the national subject as the bearer of a higher order of humanity in relation especially to racial others.

Besides a critical introduction to the process of exaltation, Exalted Subjects presents a solid argument for understanding the making of national subjects. Such work allows us, for instance, to plot the genealogy of the Canadian national subject, a project to which Thobani has notably contributed. While her analysis is strongest when engaging with empirical cases, she is nonetheless able to weave a compelling narrative, one that makes a particularly useful contribution to the literature.


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