Post-liberal agency: decolonizing politics and universities in the Canadian Arctic
Leigh, Darcy Megan
In this thesis I theorize possibilities for post-liberal forms of political agency. Actors seeking to resist, refuse or rework liberalisms’ myths and violence are faced with a paradox. How to act against or in-spite-of the terms of political action themselves? Engagement with liberal narratives of political agency risks simply repeating their logics. Refusals of those logics risk being erased by them, if such a refusal is even possible. There seems to be little room for agency either way. This problem is further complicated by liberalisms’ diverse local contingencies and, nonetheless, the persistence of liberal political rationalities across contexts. Monolithic accounts of liberalisms buy into their universalizing logics. Approaching liberalisms as endlessly adaptable and malleable, however, misses their significance across contexts and echoes liberal voluntarism. Turning from agency to resistance offers one way to refuse liberal narratives of political action, but also reduces action to a negative and binary relation. How, in this light, might we imagine ‘post-liberal’ forms of political agency? How might we navigate and rework this set of problems? Taking political agency to be imagined and enacted locally, in situ and in practice, I draw on three years of praxiographic fieldwork with actors in higher education projects in the Canadian Arctic. In Canada, liberal logics and practices have justified and enacted colonization. The liberal settler state has reorganized and regulated politics, eroding Indigenous forms of government. Formal education has been central to this process and to liberal state-building in Canada. The thesis shows how, for those seeking to transform colonial realities, higher education is now a way of inhabiting, contesting, and reworking the meaning of political agency itself. Working closely with two university-building projects, I show that anti-colonial northern educators locate their agency not in one form of action or another, but in the dynamic interrelation of multiple forms. These actors are also concerned centrally with the ontology and spatio-temporality of particular logics of agency, and they theorize and enact these explicitly. I also show how, in response to these challenges, late liberal versions of political agency are emerging locally. As I tell this story, I examine my own implication in the research problem autoethnographically. I describe how my struggle to resist colonizing academic conventions from my own institutional setting co-evolved with the activities of participants. I describe how I followed their strategies in negotiating my own agency. I argue that in old and new universities and in the Canadian Arctic liberal narratives of political agency are latent in unexpected ways. They are also, however, often inhabited deliberately and creatively by local actors. These liberal logics of action are characterized by specific ontologies and spatio-temporalities, which they share with settler-colonialism. Settler-colonialism and liberalisms therefore intersect through these logics in higher education. I locate possibilities for post-liberal agency on this emerging and late liberal terrain. Post-liberal agency can, I conclude, be imagined in the interstices of this multiplicity of forms of agency, in the spatio-temporal and ontological practices of the everyday, and in the intersection of liberalisms and settler-colonialism in the university. My version of post-liberal agency is also, I propose, a way of decolonizing research as well as framing and practicing academic work and ethics more broadly.