Violence, Misrecognition, and Place: Legal Envelopment and Colonial Governmentality in the Upper Skeena River, British Columbia, 1888

Published date01 June 2024
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/09646639231194450
AuthorMatthew P. Unger
Date01 June 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Violence, Misrecognition,
and Place: Legal
Envelopment and Colonial
Governmentality in the
Upper Skeena River, British
Columbia, 1888
Matthew P. Unger
Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
Concordia University, Montréal, Canada
Abstract
This paper is concerned with exploring legal atmospheres during colonial expansionism
and the early period of confederation of British Columbia. By describing the theatrical
and performative aspects of legal colonialism, the archival documents from this time
represent interesting, yet oft-overlooked, signif‌icances that attention to sensory and
affective experiences captures. Examining affective atmospheresdisclosed in such
colonial settings reveals ways that the colonial regime promulgated its inf‌luence in
non-rational, non-legal manners. As well, drawing out the material conditions of topog-
raphy shows how the environment acts more than just a backdrop for the staging of legal
expansionism, as it acts also as a constitutive force in the development of colonial legal
arrangements. At the same time, the colonial regime was forgetful of these same con-
textual, topographical, and atmospheric origins of law insofar as it promulgated myths
of the universality, objectivity, and superiority of English law.
Keywords
atmospheres, law, senses, colonialism, biopolitics, Foucault, legal atmospheres
Corresponding author:
Matthew P. Unger, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University, Montréal, Canada.
Email: matthew.unger@concordia.ca
Article
Social & Legal Studies
2024, Vol. 33(3) 375391
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/09646639231194450
journals.sagepub.com/home/sls
Introduction
Settled in wait on the upper Skeena River on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia a
few kilometres from the Gitsxan communities of Gitanyow and Gitsegukla, the 74 militia
men of Battery Ccleared an area to set up camp, went hunting for big game, and made
a trek up the nearby mountain. Commanded by the Provincial Secretary in 1888 to quell
a feared Indigenous rebellion, the regimen was brought by military gunboat to the forks of
the Skeena near Essington. Making an intimidating sight so far up the river, the military
vessel eventually found its way up to Hazelton, a prominent trading town.
1
However,
apart from the displays of might and military strength, the regimen was never called
on to intervene as the conf‌lict was found to be resolved.
By describing the theatrical and performative aspects of legal colonialism, the archival
documents from this time represent interesting, yet oft-overlooked, signif‌icances that
attention to sensory and affective experiences seeks to capture (Appel, 2020) . Indeed,
examining the affective atmospheres(Anderson 2009, 2014) disclosed in such colonial
settings reveals ways that the colonial regime promulgated its inf‌luence in non-rational
manners. By non-rational, I mean factors that are typically thought of as exogenous to
law itself as having signif‌icant inf‌luence on the development of law. For instance, by
drawing out the material conditions of topography shows how the environment acts
more than just a backdrop for the staging of legal expansionism, acting also as a consti-
tutive force in the development of colonial legal arrangements. The colonial legal imagin-
ary is comprised of the material, non-material, affective, topographical, and climatic
conditions that lawmakers used to evoke atmospheres of awe and respect in Indigenous
communities, Black communities, and communities of international migrants. Simultaneously,
the colonial regime was forgetful of these same contextual, topographical, and atmos-
pheric origins of law insofar as it promulgated myths of the universality, objectivity,
and superiority of English law. In this way, I hope to show the aporetic nature of legal
colonialism as it at once thought of itself as objective and necessary, but relied on con-
tingent, theatrical, accidental, and ad hoc mechanisms for development.
In connecting current theories of biopolitics with that of atmospheres, this paper sets
out to understand the exclusionary logics of forgetfulness and misrecognition embedded
within the tactics of legal envelopment employed by the colonial regime in establishing
sovereignty in British Columbia. I am interested in how English law became, in the ter-
minology of Pierre Bourdieu (1977), doxicas it competed against other f‌ields, knowl-
edges, ways of life, and worldviews to the point that law became naturalized and its
predominance established. Examining the situation on the Skeena River discloses the
way early legal colonialism in British Columbia relied upon acts of misrecognition and
violence to seize jurisdiction of land and law in competition with the dominion govern-
ment and Indigenous communities. Additionally, this analysis helps show how legal
colonialism mobilizes images of sovereignty to bolster local, contingent, and contextual
forms of authority. By thinking through discourse in terms of legal envelopment and sov-
ereignty, I set out to provide a fuller understanding of how atmospheres function by
examining the colonial imaginary as it interacted with the topography and climate and
generated experiences of legal performativity. To further examine how difference is an
inherent part of legal atmospheres I turn to examining statements of affective
376 Social & Legal Studies 33(3)

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