Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak | The Indefinite Future of Abolition

By Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

The collective project of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought at Abolition Democracy 13/13 was on a) capital reparations, b) Black Lives Matter, and c) the global future. My interest is in the fact that for all those projects, on anything, the “future” is the future anterior, in other words something will have happened which is not what we planned. It is in that conviction that I have written.

It is also in that conviction that I addressed the powerful poet Ian Manuel who began our evening’s proceedings; gently reminding him that, whatever his plan, he cannot separate himself from “academic poetry,” for he has put his poetry in a book — My Time Will Come — and therefore, he has placed confidence in good teachers of poetry, almost always in the academy.[1]

There is not much awareness of our concerns in the world. In February 2020, I was in the New York Grand Armory celebrating the 19th Amendment, women’s suffrage. The participant on the stage beside me did not know what the 15th was. It is because of this that Du Bois writes: “[t]he War Amendments [the 13th, 14th, and 15th] made the Negro problems of today:” Black Lives Matter.[2]

Something will have happened other than what we have planned. This future anterior will take care of the current Republican leader of the Senate and consign him to oblivion. But for the moment, his unfortunate removal of the Party from reparations requires a reminder to learn the distinction between historical responsibility and personal guilt. The white Christian male owner of property has received privileges historically that should weigh on the conscience of every responsible individual belonging to that race and gender, not just the country’s lawmakers’. Enough said.

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 secured the rights of others.  This complex attitude if it is to be taken as common sense, depends on education that begins with child-rearing.

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.  This is where I join forces with fellow-panelist Woods Ervin, telling us that ideology critique is necessary because of the “popularization” (their word) of the idea of abolition.

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.

As I pointed out in my last session with the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, Abolition Democracy 2/13, 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.” [3]

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 insist only on enforcement.  Du Bois himself works at having his readers internalize the wish to imagine the other – the broad base which contains that kernel of socialism – use capital for others. He underwent a disciplinary change at the behest of a canny editor, moving from disciplinary history (The Suppression of the African Slave Trade) and a work that may be described as creating the field of qualitative/quantitative sociology (The Philadelphia Negro). With his third book, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois moved into the Humanities, so that Black folk, and indeed, white folk would listen; whereas they would not, to specialized books of history and sociology.  Indeed in this book he placed a line of a Negro spiritual, without words, only European notation, for the implied reader to perform. At our meeting, Katherine Franke mentioned the Homestead Act of 1862. Du Bois’s anonymous Negro spiritual in European notation for “Of the Laws of Freedom” in Souls of Black Folk is “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” When in 1862 General Howard – the dedicated leader of the Freedmen’s Bureau (and the subsequent founder of Howard University) – was obliged to tell freed men and women that they had to return their land to the plantation-owners, sometimes their own past masters, they broke out, in unison, to sing precisely this song.[4] In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois makes it clearer:  “not . . .  much has been said of what freedom meant to the freed; of the sudden wave of glory that rose and burst above four million people, and of the echoing shout that brought joy to four hundred thousand fellows of African blood in the North. Can we imagine this spectacular revolution? Not, of course, unless we think of these people as human beings like ourselves.”

And then, the more difficult second step: for us to think we are like them – the real imaginative labor.  “Not unless,” Du Bois continues, “assuming this common humanity, we conceive ourselves in a position where we are chattels and real estate, and then suddenly in a night become ‘thenceforward and forever free.’ Unless we can do this, there is, of course, no point in thinking of this central figure in emancipation.”[5]


I had 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.[6]

As we read 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.  I direct this particularly to our panelist Woods Ervin, that has been involved with trans self-determination for many decades.

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:

If you are going to work out a system, you need a plus and a minus, you need a difference. And the primary difference that is accessible to human beings, is sexual difference. Not gender, sexual difference. 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.”[7]

To isolate and locate caste at this originary level is to make it impossible for us to think it.  Also, it includes the dangerous incalculable supplement of the possibility of desiring violence.  We must think beyond legal abolition here.  Annihilation relates to the realm of justice – not just institutional law.  Otherwise, 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.

What I am proposing, through the practice of literary reading, is a training of our students’ habit of “normality,” continuing through further teaching and rearing, developing a worldwide collectivity, generation by generation, rearranging the groundlevel affect of greed, and parochiality at all ends. Making ready for the annihilation of social injustice. The literary, teaching you to suspend yourself into an other’s text, can help in the internalization of this mindset.  This is because it can stage events that are unavailable in so-called real life.  I will give you two examples.

Remember this is not a disciplinary turf battle.  All disciplines should be taught well to our students.  This is about preparing the machine with which the students receive these disciplines.  I am not speaking of the discipline of literature or literary criticism, which is fast being transformed into a knowledge management toolkit style operation; where statistics are gathered and we’re told that somehow this is really useful for criticism.  I am quite ready to let such teaching carry on.  It is not a substitute for whatever is happening in disciplinary humanities.  This is a bigger undertaking, upon which any future of abolition will depend.

In 1997, I invoked something called planetarity when I was asked to celebrate the move of the Switzerland-based Stiftung-Dialogik from the rescue of the victims of the Third Reich into helping asylum seekers and refugees from generally besieged African countries.  By planetarity I meant the intuition that the planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, on loan.  It is not really amenable to a neat contrast with the globe.  I cannot say “the planet, on the other hand.”  If we think planet-thought in this mode, the thinking opens up to embrace the whole range of human universals from aboriginal animism to the spectral white mythology of post-rational science.

In Mahasweta Devi’s novella “Pterodactyl,” the initialization – to take a digital metaphor – of a middle class journalist’s imagination into tribality is staged through the organizing of narrative detail.  We can teach our students how to pick up the text’s signals without thinking it is the real account of some tribal culture.  Fiction is unverifiable.  After a good deal of encyclopædic investigaton, the journalist in the story can suddenly suspend himself into imagining the space of a pterodactyl from the Mesozoic era – from two hundred and fifty to sixty-five million years ago.  The staging of rhetoricity in any text, verbal or otherwise, is the staging of the rhetoricity of the world as we know it, played by a planetary world-machine we cannot “know.”  In this bit in “Pterodactyl,” the first thing staged is the difference between a planetarity which extinguishes implacably and the anthropocene, human working behavior that destroys the planet:

We are extinct by the inevitable natural geological evolution [says the pterodactyl in the journalist’s imagination.  That is planetarity]. You too are endangered. You too will become extinct in nuclear explosions, or in war, or in the aggressive advance of the strong obliterating the weak. . . Forests extinct, animal life obliterated outside of zoos and forest sanctuaries. What will you finally grow in the soil, having murdered nature in the application of man-imposed technology? [This is the anthropocene].

Here now is the experience of the impossible: the map of the remote tribal area in Chhattisgarh which is the locale of the novella looks like an animal from the Mesozoic before the continental divide which created our map. In the novella, the map regenerates into the animal.  When the imagined message quoted above is given to the reader the bird begins to die: “The body seemed slowly to sink down. A body crumbling on its four feet, the head on the floor, in front of their eyes the body suddenly begins to tremble steadily. It trembles and trembles, and suddenly the wings open, and they go back in repose, this pain is intolerable to the eye.”  It is as it was at the beginning of the story.  The map looks like a pterodactyl.  The planetary is restored to the worldly. This can be done in didactic literary space, but of course not in our practical everyday, where we can only go from local to local, attending to their contemporary globalized outlines and substance, without ecstatic tourism, as best as we can.

My first example

Look now at Peter Dickinson’s The Poison Oracle. In the novel, a chimpanzee trained by the visiting British anthropologist on a whim solves the murder mystery, which is the ostensible subject of the novel. The potential object of his anthropological investigation, the “native” girl, in a curious subplot that takes over, exits the book dancing on a slab that the marshmen (the “natives”) called

the House of Spirits. … She sang in English. She had insisted that Morris should teach her his own language, and what right had he to refuse? What property had he in her marsh mind? . . . ‘You are fools,’ she sang to the marshmen…’You do not know cause and effect. Cause and effect.’ It was Morris’s own voice, piping triumphant and scornful through the steamy air.

The fiction makes it deliberately uncertain as to who speaks the final lines, as follows, the shared voice of the rule of law: “Soon all you fools will be dead. Cause and effect. Cause and effect. Cause and effect.”[8]

She has transformed the philosophy of the people who had come to her island to know her, into a repeatable formula, and here the writer paints in bold strokes the task of the imagination of the host.

Peter Dickinson (1927-2015), a white Englishman educated at Eton and Oxford, worked in British counterintelligence, yet here shows us, as he dramatizes an anthropologist’s experience, the possibility of the creative imagination grasping the peculiarities of the master-slave relationship with the other, whom we feel we are liberating by subjecting to the rule of law.   Malcolm X’s response, as hard as doing nothing, should have been, learn hard to imagine away from yourself; or nothing.

Indeed, this fiction stages the experience that would be impossible for the subject proposing a universal rule of law.  If you succeed in putting it in place, the underclass migrant gendered other would banalize that impossibility, slipping into your space, imitating reason.  Accept the invitation to do likewise, and inhabit the banal impossibility together: turning the key that makes the cohabitation possible: redistribution rather than rejection, built by soul-making education, on both sides.

I want to end with an invocation of the depth at which race and gender work with class.  Capital is the abstract as such, class is an abstraction.  To quote Marx’s famous words:

In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their cultural formation from those of the other classes and bring them into conflict with those classes, they form a class. In so far as these small peasant proprietors are merely connected on a local basis, and the identity of their interests fails to produce a feeling of community, national links, or a political organization, they do not form a class.  They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented. Their representative must appear simultaneously as their master, as an authority over them, an unrestricted governmental power that protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small peasant proprietors is therefore ultimately expressed in the executive subordinating society to itself.[9]

Marx is writing about what we know as Trump-formation. Without a class-consciousness, there is infantile dependence upon “a leader” “subordinating society to himself,” a problem that still continues. Society in general must learn to use the abstract power of capital against capital. Class must know, then, to fight capitalism with abstraction rather than false electoral promises, but class in fact celebrates itself through racialization and gendering. And who can ignore the fantastic contributions of visual, aural, and verbal, as well as life-cultural of “popular” art, as they come out of the global underclass when they’re not completely silenced?

“When the war ends, I’ll finish my poem”

Yet, the world underclass must learn in their deep soul that that art only expresses the problem. For the interminable solution effort, their resolving cannot be achieved once and for all by institutional law because, ideology uses race and gender as “the physical world…simply thinking itself to itself, independently of [the human being] and all its systems…[their] matter is [their] form, in a way [this is human and primate] hardware as software. The pure sensible.” Race and gender are intuited as nature itself in action.  First philosophies have known this since the ancient days.

One of the lessons of the use of abstraction (gender always involved) is in handling the desire for the ownership of property. This is indeed a big desire. As I wrote in “Nationalism and the Imagination,” I have often written that nationalism uses the most private comfort zone, even for pre-human primates, in a bit of space chosen as one’s own.  This “private” is not derived from the public-private polarization.  Therefore, the desire to “own” property is somewhere in the middle of this chain of displacements and, if we deny it, it will come back to bite us.  The point, as I keep repeating, is to regulate.  The abstract argument is as follows: in the acquisition of property, an individual releases the largest amount of capital into the circuit of capital.  This is therefore “productive consumption,” producing capital.  The ideology that I have just mentioned – the pre-private affect of a comfort zone — is used to make the buyer confuse this with individual consumption, the fulfillment of our long-held desire – supported by sexist philosophers such as Levinas in his comments on the dwelling, for example. [10]

When, at the end of the Reagan-Bush era, the Glass-Steagall act was annulled, and the separation between investment banks and commercial banks was removed, the possibility of the financialization of  unsecured debt increased exponentially, and it was through the so-called desire for a dwelling that the 2007 crisis came in precisely by way of property ownership.  Therefore, educational interference is required here to control that confusion between productive and individual consumption on the abstract level of class – you can’t give up that inbuilt desire for your own place but do not be victimized while you actually help financial capitalism. You cannot fight racialized and gendered class politics merely by abolishing various inequities.  We need deep seated and sustained educational interference. The liberal binary opposition between, on the one hand, “good cops vs. bad cops,” and “systemic racism” on the other, is an idle polarization. This ain’t just any system.

Harness the humanities (for want of a better word) – not what is happening to them under knowledge-management whiplash even at research universities, enthusiasm confined to allocation, but the world-changing collective effort that has run institutions, forever.


[1] Ian Manuel, My Time Will Come: A Memoir of Crime, Punishment, Hope, and Redemption (New York: Pantheon, 2021).

[2] A discussion of this is to be found in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Talking to Du Bois (Cambridge: Harvard Univ Press, forthcoming).

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

[4] Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (London: Oxford Univ Press, 1964), p.353.

[5] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 121.

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

[7] Spivak, “More Thoughts on Cultural Translation,” in Transversal 6

[8] Peter Dickinson, The Poison Oracle (New York: Pantheon, 1974), pp.190-1

[9] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Surveys from Exile, David Fernbach, tr. (New York: Vintage [1852], 1974), p. 239; emphases mine.

[10] Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, tr. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 1969), p.154-156.  For the general argument see Spivak, “Nationalism and the Imagination,” Aesthetic Education in an Era of Globalization (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012, p. 275-300


Fonda Shen