Issue #121 Divergent Survivances

Divergent Survivances

Elizabeth A. Povinelli

Karrabing Film Collective, Day In The Life, Australia, 2020. 

Issue #121
October 2021

Although we can loosely define survivance as a form of existence that can be characterized neither by life nor death, the term has multiple etymological and conceptual genealogies depending on when, where, and with whom we begin. It is like so many other things that move in our shared but differentiated world, to paraphrase Dipesh Chakrabarty on climate change. How might these routes—note, not roots—matter, socially and politically? For instance, what is at stake if we route survivance through the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida rather than the Chippewa literary critic Gerald Vizenor? What is at stake if we understand their proper names as standing in for broader divergent approaches to inheritance and heritability, memory and mourning, mortality, immortality, and genocide—and time, timing, and tense in the ongoing shadow of settler colonialism and the Black Atlantic? And what is at stake if we consider the inheritance of this ancestral history as not merely an American problem, even though, as Hortense Spillers long ago noted, it has a specific American grammar? What if, as Frantz Fanon and so many others observed, a spectral survivance preconditions modern European—and its own—diverse grammars of exceptionalism, which we can see more clearly by routing our discussion down one or another path?

I have been thinking about the routes and worlds of inheritance for a while, certainly since 1984, when I was invited into the Belyuen Community. And definitely since 2010, when about thirty close Indigenous friends and I began the Karrabing Film Collective and I began drawing what would become The Inheritance. Around this same time, new forms and discourses of white nativism and Indigeneity on the right and the left made the problem of how we think about the divergent histories of survivance and inheritance even more crucial. In the US, ethnic DNA testing took off as white Americans and others raced to find out where they were “really from.” This was also the era when the Lega Nord began circulating an anti-immigration poster in Italy reading “Loro hanno subito l’immigrazione; ora vivono nelle riserve!” (“With no controls on immigration they ended up on reservations!”). What is at stake ethically and politically in such forms of enunciation as “we were also … ” and “we are also … ”? In English, the adverb “also” implies consequence and identity. In this case, the consequence of an identity claim, if we were also Natives once then … then what?

Right-wing cultural appropriation of Indigeneity on an anti-immigration poster by Lega Nord. 

To begin addressing this simple question, let me begin by opening some space between Derrida’s approach to survivance and Vizenor’s. I will then concretize the stakes of these divergent paths by briefly discussing The Inheritance Project, a visual historiography of the effects of settler colonialism and racism on two sets of clans: my own Simonaz clan who moved from a small village in what are now the Italian Alps to the US, and the clans of the Karrabing Film Collective, whose lands were invaded almost precisely at the same point in the nineteenth century. I’ll conclude by returning to left and right nativism, asking how we might think about alliances with others forged through histories of dispossession without forgetting that we do not all share the same sedimentations of the history of dispossessions.


When the literature on survivance begins in Derrida’s vast written corpus, certain themes and arguments tend to repeat: themes of death, mortality, and absence; and arguments about the conditions of being in general and of humans in particular. As philosopher Kas Saghafi notes, from his first writings to his last reflections on his own impending death, Derrida circuited his thought through “the constitution of time” and the problem of survivance (survivre) and heritability.1 For Derrida, every presence is made possible and haunted by an active absence. Whether talking about the sign, the subject, justice, or survivance and inheritance, the presence of everything is haunted by a preexisting absence behind and in front of it. This is certainly true when it comes to inheritance—the survivance of someone or something that has passed and is passed down. The survivance that makes inheritance possible presupposes a radical absence and a form of inexorable remaining. While passages in Specters of Marx might seem to celebrate the active, transformative aspect of inheritance as survivance, rather than a passive passing across time, this transformative activity derives not from the agency of persons but their inability to fully possess and control what came before them or after.2 Thus, for Derrida, survivance is not the continuation of the same; it is not an escape from death into some sort of Soviet cosmism nor freedom from the end through some endless repetition of the original.3 Survivance is part of the general economy of Western man, an original haunting of presence, of life, of philos, and of philosophy.

Friendship, philos, was always the par exemple of his thought; he studied the way philos twines the logic of friendship and the meaning, politics, and ethics of philosophy. One way of describing the relationship between friendship and philosophy is that philosophy, the love of wisdom, is a kind of love only friends can have. Here, friend is defined as a form of equality of address equated under a logos of relationality disinherited of kin. But to relate friendship and philosophy in this way perverts the Derridean timing of love, friendship, and absence. Friends do not come together around this kind of love. Friendship comes into being when love is defined by an anticipation of a radical but never absolute loss, of a future absence that structures the very possibility of love as friendship. This is crucial: what ties us into the knot we call friendship is a radical opening of myself to you as a coming, inevitable loss. No social relation grounds this radical opening to loss. Thus, while marriage partners and kin can become friends, friendship always pulls away from these socially sticky bonds. The love of friendship is a form of wisdom always haunted by the our-ness that makes us unlike, and other than, all other social relationships. Good and bad news follows. I cannot be rid of you. Even death cannot end us. “I” is transformed by being for and through you, independent and often against all other social logics. The “I” of “our” friendship did not begin within my social beginnings. Nor will it end at your ending.

What may sound like we’ve entered a loopy universe actually echoes Western philosophical approaches to linguistic subjectivity. Before Derrida, Emile Benveniste, V. N. Volosinov, and M. M. Bakhtin argued that every word we speak, no matter how intimately personal, is haunted by the ghostly others we are quoting. We cannot get around this. We drag corpses into us, not behind us, every time we open our mouths—indeed, as the very condition of our existence as a subject. As we do, we continually alter and augment the ghosts of others gone but still here. These spectral figures are our precondition, but they can’t fully control their destiny, as they are routed through us. The Self emerges out of the radical absence/death of an Other which no one can ever actually end/kill. But neither of us will survive our endings, because survivance is not survival. What surprise, then, that the rhetoric and figures of ghosts, specters, and haunting litter Derrida’s writing. Beforelife is the general economy of afterlife—or, acknowledging his interest in the body of the woman as giving birth to the thought of Man, beforebirth is the general ecology of afterbirth, plus de vie is the general geontology of plus que vie, more life is more than life.4

In this sense, survivance is inheritance as unpossessable transformation; it is not an ending or a repetition of the same, rather it is a series of endless augmentations that cannot but continue the past and cannot but alter it. Some readers of Derrida’s longstanding reflections on survivance see within them a possibility for an ethics of ecological justice between humans and the more-than-human world. Philippe Lynes, for instance, pulls Derrida’s thinking on survivance and inheritance not merely into the ghostly haunting of logos, but into a more-than-human inheritance as survivance. Humans will survive their absence in much the same way as dampness interprets paper with the resultant sign of mold, software interprets software with the resultant sign of (un)readability, or paper mites and the plastic-eating bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis interpret the archive as an energy source emitting particles in turn interpreted, in the case of paper mites, as allergens.5

I admit to being deeply moved by such thoughts. But what if all of this death is, to paraphrase Sylvia Wynter, merely the overrepresentation of a certain Man and his history of massacres, rather than the truth of humans and their more-than-human relations?6 What if this survivance is not the survivance Gerald Vizenor is talking about? Vizenor himself gives credit to numerous sources for his reflections about Indigenous survivance: Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism, Baudrillard’s hyper-modernism, Derridean deconstruction, the creative practices of Native American writers and poets such as N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko, as well as his mother and his Chippewa ancestors.7 Some might wish to skip over the first part of these homages, worried that Vizenor’s citational practice might compromise his important intervention. This worry is justified given the way that intellectual time is meted out according to the rhythm of ordinal numbers. In this equation, Derrida conceptualized survivre and Vizenor deployed it. Thus, Vizenor names Derrida, but neither Derrida nor his readers name Vizenor.8 It’s tough out there. It’s tough in here. Ordinal time is deeply baked into the value structure of universities and art worlds. If Derrida said it first, well then …

Let’s put this anxiety aside for a moment so we can see how Vizenor might be evoking and refusing any sort of general economy of hauntology, substituting the specific ways that humans and the more-than-human world are related within the colonial economy of Indigenous inheritance. Two important avenues open from the divergent route Vizenor and other critical Indigenous theories plot for a theory of survivance and inheritance.

The first avenue takes us to the difference between the first and second person of philos and philosophy and also focuses on the fourth person of family and land. In an interview about his writing, Vizenor notes that while “Anishnaabe dream songs” make “some us of the first-person singular pronoun,” a different form of voicing structure animates Native narrative, a form of tribal plurality.9 The fourth person Vizenor evokes elsewhere isn’t simply a plurality of individuals—intimate exchanges of friends; the rumble of conversation across a kinless crowd; or the agonistic give-and-take of the demos.10 These forms of vocal pluralities are aftereffects of the West’s social deracination of the first and second person—the ways the first and second person were ripped from the stifling enslavements of the household (oikos). Neither is the fourth voice simply another way of saying “monologics,” “dialogics,” and “heteroglossia.”11 The Indigenous fourth person has no need to mimic Western personhood as an enclosure of dialogue and as friendship (philos) ripped from the grip of the household (oikos). The Greeks may have fashioned their households as spaces of ethnic and gendered slavery that needed to be dialectically overcome, but that’s their problem, their haunting, the prehistory of their arrival on Indigenous lands. Vizenor’s fourth person is the voice of the ancestral present. It is the multiple generations of the human and more-than-human kin still pressing their obligations into the present. It registers an ongoing embodied obligation to care for and about what ancestors were struggling for.

Karrabing survivance: “If we don’t want our ancestors to be in the past, then we can’t wait for white people to change. We care for the country now so the country cares for us in the future.” Karrabing Film Collective, The Road, 2020, commissioned for Cinetracts, Wexner Center for the Arts.

The second avenue takes us to the question of how we should be thinking about the specific and general economy of survivance/inheritance. Both Derrida’s general economy and Vizenor’s specific one take on board inheritance and heritability, memory and mourning, mortality, immortality, and genocide. They both deal with time, timing, and tense. But one continually nudges us to a framework of absence within the play of (Western) humanism, the other to think about the specific relations of inheritance within the survivances of colonialism and the Black Atlantic. These are two very different approaches to “the constitution of time” and the problems of survivance (survivre) and heritability.

Vizenor’s work, for instance, focuses on literary and creative authenticity with settler imaginaries, i.e., how Indigenous and settler literary voices are evaluated as authentic and truthful within what I have called the governance of the prior. The governance of the prior splits time into “before the colonial ships hit the shores of the Western Atlantic” and after; it creates the identities of Indigenous and Settler in this temporal breach; and it locates the authenticity, i.e., the truth of people, across two social tenses. Settlers attempt to trap Indigenous truth, i.e., authenticity, in an imaginary frozen homogeneous time before “the event” of colonial massacres and dislocations. They then contrast their truth to this imaginary object as an inner unfolding of goodness and justice hurtling toward an ever deferred horizonal completion. I should repeat what I said in the beginning lest we think this is merely an American and Australian problem. This breach constitutes a European identity as much as an American one, even if each have their different grammars. In both, Indigenous voices are relegated to the cold storage of the unbridgeable pre-invasion past as they continue to die in the afterbirth of liberal democratic capitalism. For both, the massive deathscapes of African and First Nations people provided the conditions of their birth and inhabit their sacred words like “liberalism,” “demos,” “capitalism,” “freedom,” “friendship,” “neutrality,” and “reason.” If there is a general economy of Western hauntology, it is because their social and political houses are riddled with a specific ghostly presence of the massacred bodies they cannot manage or get rid of because they are the condition of their most intimate inside. This helps us understand the feverish gaze with which they look past actually existing Indigenous (black and brown) bodies for some trace of the before-all-this. They are looking into a mirror that will not cast back their own bloody hands and engorged guts.


Rather than simply sailing forward on seas of disavowal and deferral, many within Europe and its diaspora are now looking into their own pasts to find … what shall we call it, their nativism, their Indigeneity, their cultural archeology? Whatever we call it, one of its obvious and most deplorable forms come to us by way of Lega Nord, which, as I displayed above, appropriated Prairie First Nation ceremonial headdress for its anti-immigration politics. For many observers, this is obviously deplorable. But what of less obvious cultural projects, such as progressive approaches to European cultural and ecological prehistories whose enunciation remains something like “Before all this … we were also … ”?

What I am discussing here is related to but distinct from the phenomena of the ethnic fraud of “pretendians”—those who claim to be Native, First Nation, or Indigenous without any basis in genealogical or, more important, relational obligations to kin, as they monetize their identity claim.12 That said, I think what I have been saying relates to this problem—particularly the way the pretendian wants to rob the graves of others in order to fashion a faster, more efficient boat into the future.

Take for example The Inheritance Project, of which the 2021 book and film The Inheritance is the first completed element. The Inheritance Project intends to intervene in right and left white nativization on both sides of the European Atlantic. This project traces two sets of clans as they enter in or are invaded by settler and white supremacy in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. On the one hand is the Simonaz clan of Povinellis, from the village of Carisolo in what is now the Italian Alps, who began emigrating to the US in the late 1800s. On the other hand are the totemic clans of the Karrabing, who began to feel the direct effects of British settler colonialism when the Port of Darwin was established in 1869.

The inheritance of an Alpine ancestry. / The Karrabing Collective and the Simonaz clan in Carisolo.

The reasons for my clan’s change of residence from Carisolo to the US and elsewhere are clear enough. Although better known, the entrenched poverty of southern Italy was matched in the Alpine north. But it wasn’t poverty per se that Gramsci was addressing in “The Southern Question.”13 When he claimed that Italy faced “absolutely antithetical conditions” in the north and south, he was referring to two forms of governance. Gramsci attributed the poverty of the south to the grip of feudalism. But entrenched poverty also characterized the upper reaches of the Italian Alps, where family-based forms of communal village autonomy had given way to the freedoms of private property. Wrestled from the Bishopric of Trent in the eleventh century, the families that made up a Trentino village were given the right to determine and regulate themselves and their lands. Their frontier status protected and opened space for emergent linguistic dialects and ecological commons. All of this formally came to an end when Napoleon marched over the mountains as the great modernizer, Hegel’s historical action figure of Geist’s unfolding. Napoleon might have been viewed as such by southern Italians, but in the north his liberation was passed down as a moment of bitter dispossession. After his rampage, village lands were privatized. Distant government officials were given the power to make decisions about land use. The “original families” were overrun by people whom they characterized as foreigners, invaders, and thieves. When the thieves had taken everything, my clan decamped elsewhere.

My grandparents and their relatives may have changed their residential papers, but they never left the village. And one way of telling a story of our own little survivance is that it is based on an inheritance of a violent absence. The village as a fourth person was actively elsewhere, as we, its descendants, were constantly told never to forget where we came from, its shape, and smell, and ancestral graves, even as we had no content or context to remember any of this. One part of the book and film version of The Inheritance means to convey this spectral loss within the fierce attachment to a place that turned out more fractured the closer one came to it.

Maybe this provides some sense of why I have always been moved by Derrida’s and Vizenor’s work, and why, when I first arrived at Belyuen, I felt a deep sense of familiarity with the way the people there described how they belonged to each other, their lands, and their more-than-human kin. As they described these forms of belonging, I could hear in them the echoes of my grandparents: a subnational, even anti-national form of belonging that a person picks up through kin, especially through one’s father’s line; the common use of areas for living and hunting; small languages that hugged specific, small areas; the violence and social derangements of dispossession. When they asked where my family came from, I would draw a line that moved from the ancestral village, Carisolo, from which my Simonaz clan of Povinellis emerged; to Buffalo, New York, where our clan began emigrating to at the turn of the twentieth century and where I had been born; to Shreveport, Louisiana.

Let’s leave aside the easy target of white supremacists and the pretendians. Instead, let’s ask why, even for someone like me—who can write her ancestral relation to a place stretching back to the eleventh century rich with the fourth voice, the tragedies of dispossession and inheritance as the survivance of absence—we should not abstract the survivance and heritability of my pre-European, pre-national “nativity” into a historically undifferentiated Indigeneity. What forms of affiliation might emerge from a shared experience of survivance that locates its inheritance in the present, in a world structured to care for the existence of some and not others?

Let me give three nested answers.


First, even where we might be able to create a near-perfect rhyme between a pre-European past and Indigenous lives in settler colonialism, these rhymes are only a form of de-historized social relations within historical relations. Returning to statements such as “we also had … ” and “we once were … ”: What are their various political destinies as identity claims? What is the form of relation being drawn here? One way of answering this question involves taking a step back to Vine Deloria, Jr.’s book God is Red. In it, he compares the Western tradition of revelation to a Native one. In the Christian West, “the manifestation of deity in a particular local situation is mistaken for a truth applicable to all times and places.” Nothing of the sort defined the path that Native Americans took to revelation. For them, “revelation was seen as a continuous process of adjustment to the natural surroundings and not as a specific message valid for all times and places.”14 Time is not cut in revelation—a Beginning and End announced, an All imposed on existence. Survivance is not defined by absent bodies and present ghosts. Instead, survivance is how we respond to ancestral communications about altered conditions, and hence implies an obligation to adjust forms of reciprocity. Thus, with declarations and discoveries that some or all of us once had social forms akin to Indigenous relations to humans and the more-than-human world: this fact does not abrogate the histories of adjustments and altered conditions we now inhabit.

Following from this, the adjustments and altered conditions of survivance are ongoing material sedimentations. An important insight from Indigenous worlds such as the Karrabing is: if you want to keep yourself in the form you are in, you must work to keep your human and more-than-human ancestral relations in the form they are in. If not, then, as Potawatomi Nation scholar Kyle Whyte notes, in relation to the climatic “disruptions of historic and ongoing practices of colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization,” the form of these relations might need to be written in the genre of Indigenous science fiction.15 Or, as Zoe Todd, a Métis First Nation scholar notes, one might have to figure out how to forge a relation between human and petrol kin.16 The problem is not merely how to reestablish relations of kinship with an earth soiled by settler colonialism and racism, but also how to survive the differentiated distribution of liberal capitalism’s toxic harvest.17 Thus, while my Simonaz Povinelli clan “once were … also had … and refuse to relinquish what has long ago been taken,” my embodied relationship to liberal toxicity is many, many degrees removed from Todd’s and my Karrabing colleagues’ because of the ways my Simonaz clan was inserted into the structures of whiteness and settler colonialism, and the back-formation of wealth flowing into the Italian Alps. The ghostly specters haunting my family are both in those Alpine mountains and in the northern cold and southern swamps of the US where the dispossessed of the Simonaz clan were able to take advantage of others’ dispossession.

This takes me to a final point. The inheritances of survivance should not be approached as a past descending down to us as if from the sky or up to us from some deep well. Inheritance isn’t some thing that we can hold abstracted from the material sedimentations of the absent past within our present and then compare to other similarly abstracted things. I should not simply compare the shape of my Simonaz clan’s past with that of the clans of the Karrabing. This would be to ignore what a political and ethical revelation is, namely, a coming-to-understand how what might have been once has long been adjusted. Within the sedimented infrastructures of survivance, inheritance circulates not via some general economy, but via the specific ways that lives and things are sorted on the basis of their relevance and worth to those in control of the levers—and in the specific ways levers can be refused, ignored, redeployed.

This does not mean that the multiple histories of other forms of, for lack of a better word, native modes of human relation to more-than-human existence give us nothing to work with. They can help us keep in the foreground of our practices of political affiliation the great distances and deformations among peoples and their worlds wrought by liberal capitalism’s emergence from worlds of dispossession.


Kas Saghafi, “The Desire for Survival,” in Desire in Ashes: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, Philosophy, ed. Simon Morgan Wortham and Chiara Alfano (Bloomsbury, 2015), 144. As Saghafi and others note, survivance and heritability as originally grounded in absence grounds Derrida’s vast corpus. But see his poignant “Living on: Border Lines,” in Deconstruction and Criticism: Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey H. Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller (Continuum Books, 1979), 75–176.


Haddad argues that the nature of absence in inheritance-as-survivance places us under an “injunction to inherit from the past in a very specific way.” See Samir Haddad, Derrida and the Inheritance of Democracy (Indiana University Press, 2013), 3.


Alexie Yurchak, “Bodies of Lenin: The Hidden Science of Communist Sovereignty,” Representations, no. 129 (1995): 116–57. See also Anton Vidokle’s film trilogy This Is Cosmos (2014), The Communist Revolution Was Caused by the Sun (2015), and Immortality and Resurrection for All! (2017), reviewed in Tohu Magazine .


Richard Iveson. “The Immense Work of Mourning: A Review of Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume II,” zoogenesis: Thinking Animals, Encounter, and Other Stuff (blog), June 4, 2013 .


Philippe Lynes, “General Ecology: Life Death on Earth in Derrida and Others” (PhD diss., Philosophy, Concordia University, 2017).


Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overdetermination—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257–337.


Gerald Vizenor, “The Ruins of Representation: Shadow Survivance and the Literature of Dominance,” American Indian Quarterly 17, no. 1 (1993); and “Aesthetics of Survivance,” in Natural Reason and Cultural Survivance (University of Nebraska Press, 2009). See also James MacKay, “Introduction,” Studies in Native American Literatures 23, no. 4 (2011): 6–7.


We’ve seen a similar sort of debate break out about the idea of nomadism, Relation, and original multiplicity in the works of Édouard Glissant, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. See, for instance, Neal A. Allar, “Rhizomatic Influence: The Antigenealogy of Glissant and Deleuze,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 6, no. 1 (2019): 1–13; and Barbara Glowczewski, Indigenising Anthropology with Guattari and Deleuze (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). For the conflation of influence and ordinal time, see Chadwick Allen, who in his review of the collected volume Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence wrote that the timing of the publication was off, since Vizenor had long left his residency as a radical outsider even as the concept of survivance had become ubiquitous—meaning, one imagines, dated. The ordinal logics are clear enough in both cases: it would have been if it had been, but now it is a has-been. Chadwick Allen, “Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence (review),” Studies in Native American Languages 23, no. 4 (2011): 120–24.


“Up Close with Gerald Vizenor,” Legacy, August 19, 2015, University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts.


Gerald Vizenor, Native Liberty: Natural Reason and Cultural Survivance (University of Nebraska Press, 2009).


The raw fact that a plurality of voices preexists the subject and her enunciations would hardly have shocked Derrida, Bakhtin, or Benveniste.


Sarah Viren, “The Native Scholar Who Wasn’t,” New York Times Magazine, May 25, 2021 .


Antonio Gramsci, The Southern Question (Bordighera Press, 1995).


Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red (Fulcrum, 1973).


Kyle Whyte, “Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crisis,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 1, no. 1–2 (March 2018): 224–42.


Zoe Todd, “Fish, Kin and Hope: Tending to Water Violations in amiskwaciwâskanhikan and Treaty Six Territory,” Afterall, no. 43 (Spring–Summer 2017): 102–7.


See, for instance, Landscapes of Exposure in Modern Environments, ed. Michelle Murphy, Gregg Mitman, and Christopher Sellers (University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Elizabeth Hoover, The River Is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

Indigenous Issues & Indigeneity, Philosophy
Racism, Postcolonial Theory
Return to Issue #121

This text was first delivered as a talk at the “Survivance” edition of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s New Alphabet School, held in Porto, Portugal, July 2021. It was originally published on the School’s blog .

Elizabeth A. Povinelli is Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University. Her books include Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (2016), Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (2011), and The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (2002). She is also a founding member of the Karrabing Film Collective.


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