This post builds on the research article “Not Built to Last: Military Occupation and Ruination under Settler Colonialism” by Joseph Weiss, which was published in the August 2021 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Céline Eschenbrenner: Most of the questions below have to do with the not-so-ruined quality of what you and your interlocutors call “the Base,” in the north end of Haida Gwaii. They are attempts at grasping some of the implications of your work—what’s a ruin that hasn’t been fully abandoned? What does anticipated obsolescence do to places and people, and what kind of violence does it allow for? What do we really talk about when we bring up post times, as in postmilitary, or the post–Cold War era?
But first, a little bit about your fieldwork and what got you to write this article. What was the Base like when you first went to Masset? If I got the dates right, the swimming pool was still in use, even as other military infrastructures had long been abandoned. What was it like to witness ruination as incremental and ongoing, rather than over, or ruined?
Joseph Weiss: The Base infrastructure was, for the most part, still standing when I first started visiting Haida Gwaii, though the swimming pool was out of use by the time I moved there for my dissertation fieldwork in 2012. But I didn’t “mark” the structure for quite a while. I was living in Old Massett, on the reserve, and volunteering at the local elementary school. At first I wasn’t terribly focused on the Village of Masset at all, much less on this bizarre cluster of brown buildings in the middle of town. I heard about the military presence pretty quickly, to be sure, but it wasn’t something I was attending to at first. The first time I really started to pay attention to the buildings emerged out of a completely unrelated conversation about whether or not there were gym facilities in the Masset area. The recreation center had shut down for the public by then (2012–2013), but there were apparently some people who had a key to the building and still used the facilities. Obviously, that was all over by the time the Base was bulldozed at the end of 2014.
What’s interesting to think about here is that the ruination of the Base happened from the inside-out. If you were to visit the swimming pool in 2005, almost ten years after the military “left,” you would have seen a vigorous, functioning pool, used for swimming classes and competitions. You wouldn’t have known that the pool was unsustainable and getting closer to being shut down every day, which is to say, that the process of ruination was already ongoing. I find that really interesting. The military funding (or, for that matter, the social relations) that sustained the space were already gone, so it was absolutely being “ruined,” but the material evidence for that process was largely invisible. This rewrites the Base as “trash” only retroactively, once the ruination becomes evident.
I’m quite interested in general in the way particular futures can rewrite the past. Here you have this very material instance in which something is “revealed” to be a ruin, and it reconfigures how this thing and the relations it represented are understood. At virtually the same time, you have the “revelation” that the military isn’t really gone, in terms of the maintenance of domination on Indigenous lands. The maintenance of that very ontological instability, it seems to me, is important for how settler colonialism operates.
CE: In Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction, Gastón R. Gordillo (2014) writes that he first approached Argentine ruins with the elite sensibility which tends to treat ruins as a fetish or reified objects from a long gone past and which should not be disturbed. How were you affected by the ruins you encountered in Masset?
JW: The honest answer would be not at all—which ties into the “inside-out” aspect that I mentioned above. Without really knowing what they were or what they represented, I found the squat brown buildings an eyesore. I didn’t read them as “ruins” at all. That changed when those structures were torn down and their remnants took on a much more typical “THESE ARE RUINS” appearance, but by then I also knew the history and the significance of what was going on. Also, as Hilary M. V. Leathem and I are currently writing about, by the time I saw the bulldozed ruins in person, they’d become covered in graffiti from local youth, which gave them a whole extra significance.
There’s also an interesting conversation to be had about the relationship between these very recent ruins of Canadian militarism and the older Haida village sites that exist throughout Haida Gwaii, protected primarily by the efforts of the Council of the Haida Nation and local people. Those have an impact that I think is much closer to what Gordillo (2014) is writing about.
CE: You mention the presence of a military radio outpost a few kilometers north of the Base—did you have a chance to go, and if yes, what is or isn’t going on there?
JW: The “Elephant Cage”!
I can’t go—it’s fenced off by the Department of National Defense (DND), and by the time I was doing this work the “outhouse incident” had already happened and it was clear that the military was still monitoring the area. I suppose I could have tried to get permission from the DND, but I doubt I’d have been able to write about anything that was actually going on there without an extensive permission process, and the operations of the military itself aren’t really my focus.
My understanding, though, is that it’s an active radio outpost staffed by a crew of about six or seven soldiers who, as I mention in the article and according to local rumor, have been told to wear plain clothes in town. But it’s also iconic in its own right—I have a footnote about the “elephant cage” coffee roasting company who use the radio station as their logo. This is its own kind of fetishism, as the evidence of continued military presence gets reread as a kind of historical icon that isn’t really salient anymore.
CE: What struck me as particular about the military ruins in Masset is the impossibility for those who live with them to reuse them for other purposes. For instance, you show how even after the military “left,” the swimming pool continued to be a swimming pool and military land—the land violently appropriated by the Canadian government—remained inaccessible to berry pickers. While ruins are often disintegrated by local people and turned into reusable rubble, the ruins in your article seem particularly resistant to decay. Would you say that these ruins are especially useless, or ruined, precisely because they cannot be decomposed and recomposed into something else?
JW: A way to understand this is that what is really “ruined” are the (possible) relationships between the settler military and Haida people. Part of my argument is that for a very long time it appeared as if the military was gone (thus giving up monitoring the territory it had claimed) on the one hand, and on the other it had left these useful things behind, epitomized by the swimming pool. The fact that both turned out to be false—the pool was unsustainable and the military was still monitoring “its” territory—is a big part of what generates these distinct affects of ruination. Repurposing has been aborted, for all intents and purposes, which doesn’t mean that it’s a permanent condition either: the graffiti on the ruins of the Base make clear that new meanings can be written on those spaces, for instance, and I would hope that eventually the ability of the military to monitor Haida lands and resource gathering activities will end. But the idea that there could be productive partnerships or mutual understandings between Haida folk and military personnel seems, for the most part, to be gone.
CE: This is kind of similar question. Some of your interlocutors describe the military ruins of Masset as “trash,” saying “all we got left was some old houses and a run-down barracks that had to be torn down” (495). But not all trash is worthless matter. What do you think makes this “trash” particularly corrosive?
JW: My answer is probably equally similar. In 1997, neither Haida nor their settler neighbors knew the Base was trash. Yet the military did know this—or at the very least had literally built temporariness into its structures—we’ll get into this in your later questions.
It was the discovery that the Base was useless that marked the ruins as trash in a social sense—something that can no longer produce any value for anyone, and acts as a material reminder of a certain kind of disregard.
CE: This one is about intentions. You argue throughout the article that the incomplete departure of military forces from Masset was a performance, an intentional act of deception and concealment. This is different from saying that their departure was merely an illusion, which, to me at least, doesn’t necessarily entail intentionality. An illusion can be deceiving, but it doesn’t have to be premeditated as such. For there to be deception, on the other hand, there must be a deceitful will. What difference does it make, for your argument, to say that departure was feigned, rather than simply partial?
JW: That’s a tricky one to answer. For one thing, the military isn’t a uniform mass (if you’ll pardon that rather bad pun). More so, I doubt very much that many of the officers involved with the transition from Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Masset as a large-scale residential base to a small radio station would have necessarily understood themselves as deliberately deceiving the population of Haida Gwaii. And yet, to paraphrase Foucault, seemingly unintentional acts in isolation have seemingly intentional effects when looked at in retrospect.
This sense of deliberateness comes from a combination of things: from military structures designed not to be maintainable (which some people definitely knew, including folks who retired in Masset), from rumors that the remaining personnel were not to wear uniforms in town, from many families not believing that the military was still monitoring the lands they had claimed as their own. To put it differently, the deception could be understood in Masset and Old Massett as deliberate, which becomes a social fact in itself that folks need to cope with.
Rather than deception or illusion, I prefer to think about all this in terms somewhat similar to Taussig’s (1987) notion of epistemic murk. Conditions of continuous violence make it difficult to discern what is real and what is not in consistent ways. Now, Taussig was writing about a context in which the violence was much more overt than in Canada, but I think we should understand settler colonialism as an essentially violent project that is regularly subtended by military force. There are processes, in turn, through which that force must be rendered illegible as force in order for a settler colony to maintain its legitimacy. This necessarily entails both large-scale structural means of deception and simultaneous good faith settler actions which make that deception seem unintentional, at best. Trying to understand this is a big part of my current research, in fact.
CE: You mention that many of your interlocutors interpreted the proliferation of military infrastructures in Masset as a sign that the military was there to stay: “the military paved the roads, provided medical services, built a school, radically expanded the infrastructure of Haida Gwaii’s north end, and even put in a golf course. It engaged in the ongoing, material, and irreversible transformation of Haida Gwaii’s landscape” (493). Maybe this is more a comment than a question, but this quote resonated with another one which I came across recently: “in the convulsions of the commodity economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled” (Benjamin 1999, 13). There seems to be a tension here between infrastructures being obsolete before they even crumble, and their ability to signify durability.
JW: To the angel of history, all of this will just look like rubble one day, right? The difference, to me, between Benjamin’s reading of modernist capitalism and the work of some kind of “post” modern settler colonialism (I know we’ll come back to posts later), is in part the fact that it is the military, the force of domination, that wants to represent two seemingly incommensurable ideas: that colonial occupation is both permanent and not in need of maintenance, so any evidence of domination has to disappear even as that domination requires consistent reiteration. That’s the constitutive paradox of “not built to last” for me as a concept.
CE: The part where you argue that high military personnel turnover undercuts the possibility for durable relationality between Haida people and soldiers was particularly convincing to me. You briefly mention it in the article, but what do you think is so subversive, or potentially revolutionary, about the emergence of mutuality between people whose encounters have historically been structured by domination? What do you think would happen, in other words, if Haida people and soldiers were given the chance to enter “indefinite” relationships?
JW: There would be a much greater respect for Haida sovereignty. This is a much longer conversation, but colonial occupation in the province of British Columbia (BC) can’t actually be justified legally. There were no treaties made until the late 1990s (with one exception on Vancouver Island, which was not honored), but the Royal Proclamation of 1763 made the extinguishment of Aboriginal Title a prerequisite for British colonists to have a legitimate claim to the territories they were settling. So when we talk about “stolen land” in BC, this is meant very literally. One can read the ongoing legacy of court decisions involving Indigenous rights in the province as an unfolding record of a settler legal structure attempting to deal with its own illegality, something which also unfolds in the frustrations of the “modern” treaty process, as it is rather problematically termed.
Obviously there’s a lot more to talk about there, but I don’t think one can separate this from the threat of relationality. The more the forces of a given occupation come to understand the actual conditions of colonialism, the more they are faced with choices about what is right and what is wrong in relationship to people they know and care about, and the harder it is to continue to exercise a kind of blind violence against a colonized population. Or that’s what I would like to believe, at least. If we understand both the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian military as organizations that are constituted to maintain colonial domination, then those kinds of deployment patterns make a lot of sense.
CE: One of the things this article shows is how multifaceted the category of the “post” is, as in postmilitary, post–Cold War, or postcolonial. In your text, this “post” is both deceptive and premeditated. That is, if I understand well, it performs a separation between past and present and does so in anticipation. The postmilitary in Haida, for instance, was devised in the past as a demilitarized future, which never actually occurred. Is that what you were trying to get at, the “post” as a kind of discursive strategy which brings past, present, and future together in convoluted ways?
JW: That’s very nicely put. I’ve written elsewhere about the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established to do a very similar kind of “post” work. Is “post-work” a term? It should be. Unlike South Africa, say, Canada is the same regime it was when the country confederated in the second half of the nineteenth century. But because it is no longer politically practicable for settler colonization to be asserted as a natural good, the country instead works hard to frame itself as a space of liberal, multicultural tolerance where anyone can thrive. For that to actually be true, however, Indigenous populations can no longer exist as Indigenous Nations, because these Nations are politically prior to Canadian occupation and never consented to give up their own sovereign rights, Title, or cultural, social, and political structures. So you’ve got a temporal paradox, in essence, in which Indigenous populations have to always be about to disappear for Canadian sovereignty to appear as legitimate. My first book, Shaping the Future on Haida Gwaii (Weiss 2018), is about the different ways Haida people refuse that disappearance and constitute their own forms of futurity.
In consequence of all this, you have a colonial set of legal and military structures which work simultaneously to maintain domination (because that’s never changed) and to erase themselves as maintaining domination (because domination can’t exist in good liberal Canada). So the post is never really post, although it always promises itself that it is.
CE: You also mention that “the Base was not, strictly speaking, the first military base on Haida Gwaii” (489), but one of its incarnations. The Naval Radio Station Masset came first, officially as a listening station used by the Canadian government during World War II and the Cold War. Are you suggesting here that military infrastructures in Haida Gwaii and elsewhere follow a kind of rhizomatic structure, popping in and out of the surface, yet always dormant underneath it, and capable of resurfacing long after they have been demobilized?
JW: Yes! Absolutely—that’s beautifully articulated. I didn’t think of rhizomes here, but I find that framing very compelling indeed. The underlying conditions of colonialism don’t go away, but domination also needs to be disguised, so you move to a model in which the forces of that domination only appear when needed and disappear just as quickly.
CE: Finally, and this relates to the previous question, you emphasize that the military listening station north of Masset was never explicitly commissioned to dominate Indigenous populations. It was outward-looking. And yet, as you write, the very location of the base made it so that it did regulate Indigenous lives, even if epiphenomenally. “It did so as a matter of course” (501). What’s interesting to me here is the kind of incidental surveillance you point to. Canadian soldiers weren’t there to control Indigenous people, but they did nonetheless. What would you say this peripheral vision, or these attentive side glances, reveal about “postcolonial” modes of domination?
JW: I had a lot of back and forth with my editor about this, since I hadn’t originally marked the fact that the Base was a Cold War–focused institution as particularly important. But it’s actually a crucial idea, because, again, the military can’t appear to be overtly targeting Indigenous peoples, which would make it seem as if Canada is a country that is maintained through the overt, militarized suppression of subject peoples. Which it is—just look at what is happening in Fairy Creek right now! But instead we have what I refer to as “domination as a matter of course,” an ongoing process that is never presented as the “goal” of a given colonial institution, but is nevertheless its effect. This also brings us back to the fraught questions of intentionality you raised earlier—most of those soldiers (at least as they were perceived by my interlocutors) didn’t know much at all about Indigenous issues in Canada, and wouldn’t have been focused on those as a priority for their operations. There’s a kind of built-in erasure there, which couples with all the infrastructural changes that the military were bringing into the community. I mean, if they built roads and a school and were focused on the USSR, how could they be engaging in domination vis-à-vis the local population? These are perniciously constructed paradoxes with very potent effects.
Benjamin, Walter. 1999. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Gordillo, Gastón R. 2014. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Taussig, Michael. 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Weiss, Joseph. 2018. Shaping the Future on Haida Gwaii: Life beyond Settler Colonialism. Vancouver: UBC Press.