This is a revised extract from Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation by Ruth Wilson Gilmore.
W. E. B. Du Bois interviewed Harriet Tubman late in her life. For a while in the mid twentieth century, a small but rather raucous scholarly competition developed to “prove” how many (which is to say how few) people Tubman helped “keep moving” along the Underground Railroad. By contrast, Harvard–and–Humboldt–trained historian and sociologist Du Bois, a numbers guy if ever there was one, said hundreds. Then thousands! Why? Did he just get sloppy? Or did he begin to see how abolition geographies are made, on the ground, everywhere along the route—the time-route as well as the space-route. Indeed, was he able to redo in Black Reconstruction in America his earlier research on the Freedmen’s Bureau because of the insights—truly visionary—he gained from talking with the ancient Tubman? It’s here that I think the concept “infrastructure of feeling” might help us think about how we think about the development and perpetuation of abolition geographies, and how such geographies tend toward, even if they don’t wholly achieve, the negation of the negation of the overlapping and interlocking carceral geographies of which the prison-industrial complex is an exemplar—while absolutely nonexhaustive, as the examples of abolition geographies show.
Raymond Williams argued more than fifty years ago that each age has its own “structure of feeling,” a narrative structure for understanding the dynamic material limits to the possibility of change. Paul Gilroy and many others have engaged Williams’s thinking and shown that ages and places necessarily have multiple structures of feeling, which are dialectical rather than merely contemporaneous. Williams went on to explain how we might best understand tradition as an accumulation of structures of feeling—that gather not by chance, nor through a natural process that would seem like a drift or tide, but rather by way of what he calls the “selection and re-selection of ancestors.” In this, Williams disavows the fixity of either culture or biology, discovering in perpetuation how even the least coherent aspects of human consciousness—feelings—have dynamically substantive shape.
The Black Radical Tradition is a constantly evolving accumulation of structures of feeling whose individual and collective narrative arcs persistently tend toward freedom. It is a way of mindful action that is constantly renewed and refreshed over time but maintains strength, speed, stamina, agility, flexibility, balance. The great explosions and distortions of modernity put into motion—and constant interaction—already existing as well as novel understandings of difference, possession, dependence, abundance. As a result, the selection and reselection of ancestors is itself part of the radical process of finding anywhere—if not everywhere—in political practice and analytical habit, lived expressions (including opacities) of unbounded participatory openness.
What underlies such accumulation? What is the productive capacity of visionary or crisis-driven or even exhaustion provoked reselection? The best I can offer, until something better comes along, is what I’ve called for many years the “infrastructure of feeling.” In the material world, infrastructure underlies productivity—it speeds some processes and slows down others, setting agendas, producing isolation, enabling cooperation. The infrastructure of feeling is material too, in the sense that ideology becomes material as do the actions that feelings enable or constrain. The infrastructure of feeling is then consciousness-foundation, sturdy but not static, that underlies our capacity to select, to recognize viscerally (no less than prudently) immanent possibility as we select and reselect liberatory lineages—in a lifetime, as Du Bois and Tubman exemplify, as well as between and across generations. What matters—what materializes—are lively re-articulations and surprising syncretisms. If, then, the structures of feeling for the Black Radical Tradition are, age upon age, shaped by energetically expectant consciousness of and direction toward unboundedness, then the tradition is, inexactly, movement away from partition and exclusion—indeed, its inverse.