Paul Maple Carpenter | The Latent Power of Abolition Democracy

By Paul Maple Carpenter

In a curious – but suggestive – turn, the discussion of “Abolition Democracy,” as developed by W. E. B. Du Bois in his book Black Reconstruction in America, focused not so much on Abolition Democracy’s theoretical groundings, goals, justifications, and logics, but on the challenges, distortions, and outright failures that the concept fell victim to in the march of American history. Professor Robert Gooding-Williams addressed this topic directly when he gave an account of Du Bois’s own recognition and response to the mismatch between the ideal and reality of Abolition Democracy. The other interventions and conversations also hinged in some way around the challenge of applying the precepts and ramifications contained within Du Bois’s analysis to our own lives today. Christopher Wolfe and Ivan Calaff both spoke of the need to find not just new ways of thinking but new ways of living and experiencing our lives as we navigate all of the institutional, political, and social habitus we’re attempting to question. Professor Gayatri Spivak emphasized the paradoxes of teaching a so-called genuine or deeper way of reading at both Columbia University and schools serving the extremely poor: an act she described as freely placing oneself, through a text, with the Other, rather than simply seeking through the text some means of control or use. Finally, Professor Kendall Thomas highlighted the relevance of poetics and form in both Du Bois’s book and within the ongoing projects of education and emancipation as a whole.

These interventions all have in common some recognition of the massive gaps and metamorphoses that must occur whenever any set of values or ideas are applied to a specific instance in the world. Whether it be Mr. Calaff or Mr. Wolfe wrestling with their own life histories and relationships, or Professor Spivak trying to learn how to teach unteachable lessons to vastly different students, this knot is always present in attempts to bridge theory to practice. The invocation of poetics, then – and more broadly form, aesthetics, and contexts – becomes essential, since these are what shape and privilege certain interpretations and applications of ideas.

The centrality of this issue inevitably reminds me of my own preoccupations and practices as a film-maker and film-thinker. The moving image has occupied a remarkably broad range of aesthetic and cultural statuses – often simultaneously – and its practitioners and theorists have been commensurately obsessed with defining and situating it since its invention. The first theoretical hopes for cinema as a vehicle for radical freedom and a deep transformation of life were debated and attempted in the early Soviet period, but such hopes continued to find outlet around the world (from Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Ackerman, and others in 60s-80s militant cinema in Europe; to Jean Rouch’s anarcho-ethnographic collaborations like Petit à Petit or Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet in colonial Africa; to Brazil’s Cinema Novo; to the U.S. cinema-vérité and direct cinema generation of Pennebaker, Maysles, Wiseman, &c; to contemporary directors from the late Marlon Riggs, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Mati Diop; and many more movements and artists besides). In all instances, the value and power of a work is inseparable from its lacks and omissions. Though many of the theories and hopes that animated these artists eventually run out of steam or were broadly crushed in the face of triumphant capitalism and imperialism, these works still have the ability to expand the horizons of receptive contemporary viewers. Moreover, films, television, and other forms of the moving image undeniably persist at the center of cultural formation today. Prominent artists and aesthetic thinkers like Hito Steyerl, Jacques Rancière, and the late Raul Ruiz continue to articulate the possibility for images and aesthetic treatments to develop opportunities for freedom while remaining cautious about the applications of these same techniques in the service of domination and power. “Nothing,” Nietzsche reminds us, “is more corruptible than an artist.”

Rather than steering clear of these messy and interminable archives, we should seek in them a depth and diversity of examples that embrace the uncertain transformations lurking between script and screen, idea and practice, work and audience. Engaging with the history of attempts to translate ideas, values, and truths into forms that cannot just be understood but apprehended and accepted is essential to any conversation that sets out to effect sensible change in the world. Understanding that “reading” texts and “learning” ideas are exercises that take place solely in our own minds (as Professor Spivak pointed out, following Borges, Eco, and many others), and accepting the inevitable gap between readers and texts or students and teachers, we can apprehend how much falls away into the shadows, but also perceive the space that opens up for new perspectives, encounters, and even realities, and adjust our own approaches accordingly.

To paraphrase the film critic Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, the best way to measure the subversive strength of a work is to watch how desperately it’s censored by a dominating power. Through this lens, we can glimpse the latent power of Abolition 2/13’s subjects. The censorship, repression, and wrecking visited upon everything from the ideals of Abolition Democracy to the individual lives of some of the seminar’s panelists and those they’re close to only proves their collective relevance to questions of freedom and change. The task now becomes one of scavenging, interpreting, and transforming these fragments: not to create a merely updated idea or argument, but to move towards new ways of viewing, valuing, and acting with each other in the world. Aesthetics and form, understood broadly as aspects of any intervention in the world, as well as artful interpretation must be given central roles in this movement, both to bridge between the realms of theory and practice and to reveal and critique power’s attempts to co-opt the meanings of our own words and deeds. As we have seen with Du Bois, emancipation and abolition come not through simple negation and destruction but through challenge, subversion, and reconstruction.

In closing, I would like to offer an unusual reading of a fragment of one of the most well-known poems in modern English. T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men is often seen as a grim response to a feeling of general loss of meaning, humanity, and world; sentiments many find familiar today. But in the spirit of reconstruction, I propose we allow ourselves to view its ending from another angle: as an affirmation of the inevitable presence and eternal promise of the lacuna, into which the old world might gasp its last and from which a new world – our world, “Thine Kingdom” – might be drawn.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.


Paul Maple Carpenter is a recent graduate of the Columbia University MFA program in Film. His thesis film “Who Built the Cage / Civics Lesson” screened at the Columbia Film Festival and premiered at the 2020 edition of the Regensburg Short Film Week.


Bernard Harcourt