Dec. 22, 2022

Unpayable Debt: Decolonial Redress Beyond the Knowable

Author: Helen Gibson

Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Unpayable Debt (London: Sternberg Press, 2022) may be the best book I’ve ever read. Ferreira da Silva deconstructs post-Enlightenment thought while not reproducing the violence of the archive, ultimately providing a decolonial methodology that one may aspire to engage. In the field of Black Study, in which the right to opacity is paramount as a means of refusing violent norms, this book succeeds at remaining both oblique and crystal clear. Ferreira da Silva fundamentally dismantles prevailing understandings of property, delegitimizing legacies born of the total violence of slavery and the mechanisms of upholding these legacies via the confluence of what she calls the Colonial/Racial/Capital. Taking a novel materialist approach to the mysticism of Black nihilism, Unpayable Debt positions itself “Toward the end of this world, the known world […]” and makes viable both decolonial reckoning and a simultaneous pivot toward not just the planetary, but the cosmic (p. 17).

Ferreira da Silva’s fascinating and compelling methodology entails recourse to an Afrofuturist work by Octavia E. Butler, Kindred, in which “she, someone, everyone”—“Already interpreted, resolved by/as blackness” is transported without moving from 1970s Los Angeles to the plantation of her ancestors in 1830s Maryland (p. 13). Without moving is key here. One of the most phenomenal aspects of Unpayable Debt is Denise Ferreira da Silva’s refusal to corroborate either the transparent I (sovereign subjectivity) or the affectable I (the world of affect), both of which are critiqued for their reliance on spacetime—the situating of bodies in time (as, for example, in the field of history)—in ways that require the perpetuation of transcendental reason.

‘Quantum entanglement’

Ferreira da Silva’s criticism of critical theory is unrelenting, exposing how even beloved and much-cited critics of post-Enlightenment thought, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Cedric Robinson, upheld what she terms “the empire of transcendental reason” (p. 50). Empire here is an implicit reference to “the hold the Kantian program has had over post-Enlightenment thinking,” which “results from how its interiorizing of knowledge is a concession (an acknowledgement of the limits of rational knowledge) that performs like an unquestionable victory” (p. 117). She writes of Du Bois’ theorization of black consciousness as another world, “This shift [between Edmund Husserl’s world and Du Bois’s ‘other world’] established the basis for comprehending racial subjugation because it marked a redeployment of the transparent I that explicitly rejected but did not dismantle the nineteenth-century scientific constructions of the Human” (p. 89). Unpayable Debt contributes significantly to this dismantling.

Honoring Hortense J. Spillers’ foundational theorization of flesh, a site of zero socialization which has long acted as a jumping-off point for black feminist theory, Unpayable Debt manages to sidestep the ontological, inviting reflection on “cosmic and quantic moments” that orient themselves in terms of the infinite (p. 261). In a profound move for black feminist theory, Ferreira da Silva writes in a footnote, “[…] I probably read flesh as an ethical device and take off with it into a speculative exercise […]” (p. 35). Ultimately, she tracks ways in which the post-Enlightenment onto-epistemological world shapes “something like a black Subjectivity” that allows for fundamental critique of the world and, at least as importantly, “releases existence” beyond its parameters (p. 125).

One of the parameters that Ferreira da Silva critiques is that of space. What if transformed elementa were what made possible the kind of time travel experienced by the wounded captive body in the scene of subjugation? “Traveling as an event is a temporal probability,” Ferreira da Silva writes in a footnote on the final page of the book, “just as it is to be born and die […] the only difference, of course, Newton and Kant would remind me, is that in traveling we must account for space” (p. 300). And yet, in a fundamental critique of “relations in the form of a dialectic, which is but the unfolding of necessity—teleological (Hegel) and eschatological (Marx)—in/as time,” Ferreira da Silva asks whether traveling as the wounded captive body in the scene of subjugation can be said to have taken place at all (p. 144).

It’s not that I haven’t appreciated other books, or that I didn’t feel that something important was missing in every work of theory that failed to take her, the wounded captive body in the scene of subjugation, as a starting point for analysis (p. 15). This phrasing by Ferreira da Silva is a purposeful refusal to reference sovereign subjectivity, a notion that is fundamentally questioned in Black Study in the theorization of myriad scholars (including Ashon T. Crawley, R. A. Judy, and Calvin Warren). The wounded captive body in the scene of subjugation instead foregrounds structural conditions of possibility. Denise Ferreira da Silva is the first scholar I’ve encountered who combines what she terms a black feminist poethical—“political (ethical), practical, poetical”— reading with recourse to the cosmic (p. 294). The cosmic here is a reference to quantic units of mass energy (the stuff of which both our understandings of ‘labor’ and material ‘resources’ are made) that might have traveled 5 billion light years, Ferreira da Silva writes, since slavery.

Ferreira da Silva’s black feminist poethical reading foregrounds an ethical imperative to address the unique burdens experienced by people at the nexus of total violence in the scene of subjugation and simultaneously “offers infinity in lieu of linearity as the image of existence” (p. 290). In other words, infinite nonlinear possibilities of reality are made available via a practice of refusal (of ‘this world, the known world’) when more than the “halting of history” and its destructive oppositional interpretations—fighting against something—are invoked (p. 286). “For she [the wounded captive body in the scene of subjugation] does not face the Owner and seek his destruction or his recognition or to take his place,” Ferreira da Silva writes in explicit critique of Hegel (p. 286). Ferreira da Silva continues, “For her, the scene, its context, and its sole player, as Fanon explained, must come to an end” (p. 286).

In four phenomenally rich and hard-hitting chapters critiquing the theorization of Karl Marx, G.W.F. Hegel, Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci, Cedric Robinson, and Immanuel Kant, among others, Ferreira da Silva reads the image of “the racial event” (i.e., the construction of race) as “a singular infinite re/de/composition of the fractal”—something which is self-perpetuating on an elemental level because of a collective willingness to continue to construct the scene of subjugation (p. 294). Ferreira da Silva “repurpose[s] Walter Benjamin’s ‘dialectical image’ as an anti-dialectical tool,” allowing for something other than synthesis to occur (286). This is the profound move of her book.


At the core of Ferreira da Silva’s analysis is a refusal to accept post-Enlightenment parameters of thought—the Colonial/Racial/Capital—and a refusal to uphold these structures or subscribe to the “necessity” that grounds ‘the empire of transcendental reason’ (p. 50). This refusal of the empire of transcendental reason is coupled with an emphasis on “labor’s materiality and the implicancy of body and land,” which “raise questions of how blackness and Indigeneity may be jointly mobilized in confrontations with coloniality and raciality as a political (anti-colonial) composite when each descriptor becomes singular/singular (one of the many possible figurings), a fractal referent of the total violence that allowed for the expropriated bodies and lands, and demands the attention of everyone who owes the colonial, unpayable debt that should no longer go unthought or unconfronted” (p. 295). The theoretical move that is so significant is Ferreira da Silva’s embrace not of Kantian “indetermination,” but rather “undeterminability” (p. 291). It is not possible to know all of the meaningful details about expropriated bodies and lands, she argues in the quote above, but blackness and Indigeneity can be read as “fractal referent[s] of the total violence that allowed for the expropriated bodies and lands,” opening up possibilities for working ‘[t]oward the end of this world, the known world.’

Fractal referents, in addition to a rejection of sovereign subjectivity, are imperative to Ferreira da Silva’s positing of undeterminability and the end of the known world. Looking beyond “those whose physical integrity is protected by the juridical authority”—the subjects of liberal polities—to “those whose physical integrity is violated because, like other natural things, their juridical status is property”—enslaved people, who occupy the position of both Human and Thing—Ferreira da Silva draws attention to “the wounding and the marking […] in the soil, the waters, the forests, and the air—in transformed elementa (the most basic components) of mass energy of each and every drop of blood and each and every scream of pain” (p. 46). Here, Ferreira da Silva sets up Unpayable Debt’s readers for a profound refusal of recourse to either the world of affect (feeling—‘the affectable I’) or subjectivity (‘the transparent I’). Breaking the scene down to its quantic elements, the author demonstrates that our collective adherence to these categories of thought reproduces legacies of total violence. Readers are instead encouraged to consider the material legacies of drops of blood and screams of pain. While Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman, among other scholars, have analyzed the legacies of screams of pain, Ferrira da Silva’s emphasis on the materiality of quantic elements enables an anti-dialectical reading of cosmic magnitude. In other words, there is no synthesis, and interpretation is opened up to infinite possibilities.

How do these ‘transformed elementa,’ Ferreira da Silva asks, inform decolonization, which she defines as “the restoration of the total value expropriated from Native lands and Slave bodies under total violence” (p. 273)? The answer is undeterminable, yet imperative.

‘Re/de/composition of potential energy’

Even for those readers who have not been waiting their whole lives for a compelling critique of spacetime in the form of a black feminist poethical reading, Unpayable Debt is invaluable for its unraveling of Marxist thought. Ferreira da Silva re/de/composes labor, making a case for the cosmic and quantic significance (“quantum entanglement”) of transformed elementa (p. 270). Ferreira da Silva argues that when labor is divested of its ethical function, “[…] it is not only the distinction between ‘free labor’ and ‘slave labor’ that no longer matters but the distinction between labor, raw material, and instrument of production as well” (p. 249). All of these categories become quantum units of potential energy that can be read differently. This is the book’s most radical move: to foreground the “re/de/composition of potential energy” in a context of infinite possibility (p. 249). What is thinkable beyond the force of necessity? Journeying (without moving) through the quantic to the cosmic while absorbing this book, some readers will never be the same.