Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak | Abolition/Annihilation

By Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

There is no future for abolition if all sectors of society do not wish to abolish injustice.  How can this be brought about?  By way of a sustained humanities-style old-fashioned teaching program from kindergarten to the post-tertiary, so that this wish is internalized.  In other words, curricula and teacher training must be thoroughly changed worldwide.  This is the deep background of abolition.  Otherwise, abolition can mean working to have the laws changed to abolish inequality in income, in access to health, education, and welfare.  This is also an excellent goal.  But, even if the laws were entirely changed to our satisfaction, there is no certainty that having those rights of the underclasses restored means we produce a society where all classes want to bear responsibilities and demands that secure the rights of others.  This complex attitude, if it is to be taken as common sense, depends on education that begins with child-rearing.  Therefore, the first thing that we think about when we think about the future of abolition is not only the content of abolition, but also ask: how can abolition have a pretty good long-term indefinite future?  And that, to repeat, is to focus on both content and on sustaining a particular quality of education.

In contemporary culture, we connect abolition to political pressure on divestment or sanctions when it is international and developing profitable undertakings when it is domestic, this latter to persuade people interested fundamentally in something called “economic growth” (a complicated description of self-enrichment) to support the abolition of unjust practices such as voter suppression, or withholding education from female children.

Some of us are proposing that this use of an already existing interest in self-enrichment be supplemented by a transformed interest in social justice for others which may not work best for all capitalization, which includes in its process a ceaseless subalternization that is often ignored. To subalternize in the current conjuncture is to take people away from access to the benefits of citizenship, and yet to negotiate for their votes and thus produce groups on the fringes of history, who cannot be taken into account when statistical summaries are produced to justify representations of economic growth.

But given the contours of our society and our training, this tendency towards securing the future by capitalization cannot be jettisoned and can only be supplemented by a training in a more open wish for social justice for groups that do not resemble me.  Or us.

Therefore, as I pointed out in my last session with the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, W.E.B. Du Bois commented on the connection of Abolition and capitalism in a negative way: “the rank and file of the nation began to respond to” the dictatorship of the rich.  They “respond[ed] to the combined argument of industrialists and Abolitionists, especially as their seeming unity of purpose increased.” [1]

He is referring to the specific movement associated with white leadership, and he is, of course, a Communist.  But, for us it is to think to nurture, as teachers, a desire to use capital for social ends rather than the enrichment of a few, remembering to work at passing laws to regulate and to enable redistribution.  We cannot ignore this, to nurture in our collective studentship the wish to have these laws in place, generation after generation – rather than insist only on enforcement.

I have asked our group to read B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste.  This is a text first written around the time of the publication of Black Reconstruction to the people involved in caste-oppression, namely Brahmans and upper-caste Hindus, who want to get rid of the evils of the caste system.  In other words, it’s somewhat like a Black leader writing to white Abolitionists; one is reminded of Malcolm X’s words to the white woman who asked what she could do to help: “Nothing.”  What we see in Annihilation is a series of letters, but what it spells out for us is the story of its non-publication as a text for its implied readership.  Ambedkar’s point is that as he speaks, he is not acceptable to this group of reformers.

Among the things to be abolished are of course transphobia, homophobia, and sexism in the broadest possible sense.  What is interesting about Ambedkar’s position on caste is that it is at bottom about the management of surplus women, and, in a formulaic description it is the imposition of endogamy on exogamy.  This is a position that he presented in 1916 in a seminar at Columbia and, at the end of his life, he was planning to include it in the collection of what he thought was his best writings.  He did not live to fulfill this project.  But in Annihilation of Caste, he makes it quite clear that caste is not race:

As a matter of fact [the] Caste system came into being long after the different races of India had commingled in blood and culture. To hold that distinctions of castes are really distinctions of race, and to treat different castes as though they were so many different races, is a gross perversion of facts. What racial affinity is there between the Brahmin of the Punjab and the Brahmin of Madras? What racial affinity is there between the untouchable of Bengal and the untouchable of Madras? What racial difference is there between the Brahmin of the Punjab and the Chamar of the Punjab? What racial difference is there between the Brahmin of Madras and the Pariah of Madras? The Brahmin of the Punjab is racially of the same stock as the Chamar of the Punjab, and the Brahmin of Madras is of the same race as the Punjab is racially of the same stock as the Chamar of the Punjab, and the Brahmin of Madras is of the same race as the Pariah of Madras.[2]

As we leave the Annihilation of Caste, we must think this one through.  I would simply insist that if caste is understood as primarily a management of sexual difference, we are dealing with something that precedes institutional legal structures.  We are confronting the fact that sexual difference has been used in an originary fashion, in many different ways, to establish the socius.  I have repeatedly insisted that gender is our first instrument of abstraction, as follows:

Culture in my view must have an intuition of the transcendental. That is the negotiation between the sacred and the profane. How is it worked out? If you are going to work out a system, you need a plus and a minus, you need a difference. Otherwise, it won’t work. And the primary difference that is accessible to human beings is sexual difference. Not gender, sexual difference. Sex and gender are not the same thing, of course. Melanie Klein’s idea, that birth is a kind of death, an exit from the world of uterine comfort, a life-death in which the child begins to build an ethical system with, at first, need, desire, want leads us also to her thought that all the child has in terms of the ingredients for that semiotic system is part objects. We feminists were nervous about biology in the early days. When we rediscovered Klein, we began to see how sexual difference slowly moved into gendering – we began to conclude that gendering was our first instrument of abstraction – we saw this as the possibility of, the articulation of, sexual difference into “culture.”[3]

To isolate and locate caste at this level is to make it impossible for us to think it, a stronger formulation of what I have been calling nurturing the desire to implement social justice.  Hence, because I think sexual difference resides in the area of what we cannot fully think, because it includes the dangerous incalculable supplement of the possibility of desiring violence, annihilation relates to the realm of justice – not just institutional law.  Unless we think through this entire problematic, again and again, we will think of the future in terms of making plans according to our presuppositions, which do not match the undecidability of the future as such.  Annihilation is a way of suggesting that something is removed from the possibility of becoming an object of the law, as a premise for planning.

Abolition is the law; annihilation is justice.  Let me answer and hope to expand in the discussion on the 22nd.


[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 1935), p.215.

[2] B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (New Delhi: Rupa [1936]2018), p. 44-5.

[3] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “More Thoughts on Cultural Translation,” in Transversal 6


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