Modes of Relationship

In Manu Karuka’s illuminative interdisciplinary study, I was moved by the brief account of quarantine in his chapter “Modes of Relationship.” In his meditation on the Dakota Sioux ethnographer Ella Cara Deloria’s posthumously published novel, Waterlily (1988), Karuka writes:

In the aftermath of a smallpox epidemic, Waterlily finds herself in a tipi with eight relatives, the sick and the healthy living side by side. Quarantine, the narrator states, would have been shocking and unthinkable to all members of the family. It would have been “a gross repudiation of fellow human beings.” To be in relationship with fellow human beings is to share distinct kinds of vulnerability.

Our current pandemic is shocking, and almost unbearable. I cherish Waterlily’s relatives’ refusal of isolation. For most of this year, I have quarantined and distanced. I do this for the safety of myself and others. I am fortunate to have work and a stipend; but still, there is much I yearn for. I don’t know when this will end.

Karuka’s chapter provides a comparative analysis of modes of relationship. He aims to critique conventional readings of political economy by transferring scholarly focus from “the production and reproduction of capital to the production and reproduction of relationships.” (20) Importantly, he argues that: “At its core, colonialism involves repetitive failures of relationship.” (25)

Many governments ended lockdowns early—and now, with surging infections, have been reluctant to reinstate them—citing economic reasons. Yet, it’s been clear for months that a “zero COVID” policy makes economic sense. As The New York Times reported recently: “As most of the world still struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, China is showing once again that a fast economic rebound is possible when the virus is brought firmly under control.” In this context of this apparent contradiction, I had been wondering what alternative analytics might explain the firm ideological insistence upon “organized abandonment” (Ruth Wilson Gilmore) that has underwritten unconscionable risk and suffering as inevitable, even necessary. The global pandemic response has enabled capital flight, with vast wealth expropriated by an imperialistic billionaire elite. It has been a pretext for the production of “monopolized earth.” (20) Yet as Karuka diligently reminds us, the problem always exceeds the languages of political economy and financialization. Representatives of the colonial agenda understand that their project demands the “failure to fulfill relationships.” (25) They understand this so intuitively that they often don’t even say it. When life is defined by fear and the refusal of solidarity “in the precise moment when solidarity is so necessary” (25)—that is, structured by the “logic and relationships of the war-finance nexus” (37)—then the pandemic will be without end.

Even as I stay safe, warm, and grounded, I labor to the expectations of academic and cultural economies that are built, like railroad colonialism itself, on growth and territorial expansion. Against this imperative, I’ve been unmoored by this question: How do I work to contend with what is happening not as unbearable nor unconscionable, but unthinkable? I am glad to have read Karuka’s inspiring interpretation of the writings of Deloria, Sarah Winnemucca, and Winona LaDuke. It has given me much learning, thinking, and sharing to do.


Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, Transcontinental Railroad (2019)