Spectral Inheritance: Decolonial Response-ability to the Plural Past

Ruben Hordijk is a PhD candidate in Gender Studies (Tema Genus) at Linköping University, Sweden. His research focuses on decolonial ethics through questions of time, transgenerational trauma and ghosts.

At the beach, hawksbill turtles are disoriented. For times immemorial, the hatching turtles have oriented towards the light of the moon in order to find the ocean. But with the shining of city lights, the turtles turn their backs towards the moon and reorient towards the lights ashore. Millions of years of inheritance of knowledge, of memory, of one knowledge/memory – not an intelligence that the turtle has, but a knowledge/memory that the body is – enabled the turtle to be responsive to the deep time of relationality that has shaped them. The relationality that has shaped the knowledge/memory that allows the body to orient within the web of relations it is partaking in, is destroyed in a single second with the switching on of the lights. Turning their backs towards the past, what was their enabling inheritance has become their ignorance and death sentence: drawn to the lights of modernity they never find the water and die. Their response-ability towards the enabling past, which they embody, produces difference in repetition: response-ability to pastness is what makes futurity. The lights of modernity erase this world of relation, of knowledge/memory, of response-ability. The lights are a false promise that transforms the openness of inheritance, of the body-as-memory/knowledge-in-relation to a disoriented physical body facing only death. The moon, no longer set before but placed firmly behind the turtle, is closed off, leading to a single path of futureless death. This death ceases to be part of a web of relations, becomes non-symbiotic death, a death that only denotes the lack of a future: modernity’s response-debilitating defuturing.

‘Many philosophies of Abya Yala’s first nations have an understanding of the past as being in front of us. This is what we are here listening to and naming the mode of precedence, that is, a relation to a deep temporality that precedes us precisely in that it is both ahead of us and before us. The mode of precedence is a being before: both at one and the same time being in front of us and anterior to us’[1]

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay argues that the timeline is an imperial technology that produces a closure of the past that legitimates modern imperial state-powers in the present by positing it as the only possible present and future.[2] The modern/colonial timeline has been the way to enunciate Europe as the definition of the present and as the proprietor of the (white) future. The ‘denial of co-evalness’ of the Other amounts to the ‘denial of co-humanity’ by placing human bodies outside of the genre of the human modeled on bourgeois white men.[3] The timeline is a ‘racialized time’[4] where indigeneity is posited as always-already-dead, always-already belonging to the past, and blackness serves as the expendable fuel for the (Euro)modernizing forces. Without an unlearning of the timeline itself, Enlightenment oppositions between tradition/modernity and all other binaries it implies will continue to silently dictate the terms of the conversation. The past becomes a space either of loss or retrieval; ethics and politics are about future-oriented interventions or pro-jects in the present. The term ‘Euromodernity’ as the violent uni-versal project where only one world fits at the expense of all others[5] provincializes this understanding of modernity.

Yet, rather than arguing for multiple modernities that equally lay claim on the present, I would like to oppose Euromodern uni-versality not with an opening of the present but as an opening of the past. Re-articulating ethics and politics as a responsiveness and response-ability for the pastness as the preceding relationality that holds, carries and enables each being. Spectral inheritance is not about property or bloodline but is ‘hauntological’ in the sense that Jacques Derrida and Karen Barad develop. The language of spectral inheritance will have to confuse descriptive and prescriptive language by showing the inherent ethicality of the cosmos as a structure of inheritance. Nietzsche warned against the confusion of grammar that believes in its fiction that there must a subject who is behind the deed.[6] The language of spectral inheritance speaks of a structure of subjectivity without such a substantive subject: subjectivity is the structure of inheritance of an embodied enactment of a past that was never present. 

Alia Al-Saji mobilizes Bergson’s and Deleuze’s category of the virtual past to redefine the past not as a closed sphere of fixity and facticity but as a ‘network or the whole of relations.’[7] As such, the past remains an open multiplicity that always changes through its differential relation in each present. Karen Barad, employing Derrida’s language of hauntology – every ontology is based on the ghostly traces it excludes; every ontology is haunted; no present/presence is self-contained — equally argues for the openness of the past in the unfolding of the cosmos.

The past is not closed (it never was), but erasure (of all traces) is not what is at issue. The past is not present. ‘Past’ and ‘future’ are iteratively reconfigured and enfolded (…) The world ‘holds’ the memory of all traces; or, rather, the world is its memory.[8]

This places ‘us’ in the midst of the multiplicitous ghostly past, which knows no closure or erasure, partaking in time’s new enfoldings. From this temporal entanglement, Barad moves to an understanding of ethicality and responsibility: 

“Time can’t be fixed. To address the past (and future), to speak with ghosts, is not to entertain or reconstruct some narrative of the way it was, but to respond, to be responsible, to take responsibility for that which we inherit (…) for the entangled relationalities of inheritance that ‘we’ are (…)”[9]

Ethicality is woven into the fabric of the world. Human and nonhuman action is (part of) that cosmic ghost dance. Every action is literally a re-membering (which is not a reaction!) of the cosmos: an enactment or differential iteration of a past that was never present. As Derrida shows,[10] this makes inheritance a necessary structure that contains an ethical injunction. One cannot choose to inherit, though one must always select. There is no possible negation or negativity in inheritance: even when one seeks to renounce, one is nevertheless responding to that inheritance, within the positivity of its structure. Inheritance seems ontological in that it is the very core of one’s being: ‘our being is inheritance, the language we speak is inheritance.’[11] Yet, it cannot provide a stable ontology and remains ‘hauntological’: ‘Inheritance is never a given, it is always a task. It remains before us.’[12] Simultaneously being ‘our being’ and ‘a task’, the structure of inheritance is a paradoxical circle of the descriptive and the prescriptive that necessitates an ethics of response-ability. Whether one consciously or unconsciously ignores, denies, selects, celebrates one’s inheritance, one always takes up and reaffirms the inheritance in one way or another: ‘Inheritance implies decision, responsibility, response and consequently, critical selection, choice.’[13]

This structure of necessity and choice, of inevitable selection, I call the in/voluntary. Every act is in/voluntarily a differing-deferring taking up of a heritage, enacting it. Inheritance shows the ethical dimension of the notion of différance as an injunction that must remain spectral. It ‘marks a place and a time that doubtless precedes us, but so as to be as much in front of us as before us.’[14] The past that gives one’s being without being given, is simultaneously futurity itself: it is the task ahead that one reaffirms. One can never possess an inheritance, but in the reaffirmation of one’s inheritance one enacts its, alters it, transforms it, and leaves open the structure of inheriting. 

In short, inheritance is an in/voluntary structure of responsibility, of response-ability for the past that produces a non-substantive subject which takes up this past that haunts it. In the taking up of this in/voluntary response-ability towards the past, as the selection and transformation of inheritance, lies the openness of the future, of futurity itself. The radical openness of the past-as-inheritance as the condition for the openness of the future, of multiple futures, is one way into the problematization of the timeline that produces a closure of the past and posits it as a before. The order of the timeline, as the closure of the past, inflating the present and the contemporary, is ultimately a condition of defuturing.[15] By using Derridean language always full of contamination and impurity I do not wish to perpetuate a certain European or French centeredness of theory, but learn from, with and nearby teachers wherever they cross our paths. This inheritance, in/as our taking up, our response-ability of various teachings opens different (I will try to avoid the word ‘new’ because, as Azoulay argues, it is hard to disentangle the ‘new’ from the imperial modality of time)[16] relationalities for projects and worlds that were never theirs – nor ours. I hope this further cultivates ways of sensing and speaking with the open relational past that offers spaces of dialogue to relearn other modes of knowing/remembering, sensing and being. 

The past is in front and anterior: in the openness of the past lies the openness of futurity. The closure of the past is disorientation where the journey of the false promise of city lights forecloses response-ability to the enabling preceding relationality of the past and leads to futureless death. Against uni-versal response-debilitating defuturing, the pluri-versal project entails relearning and reorientation towards the open, plural past.


[1] Daniel Brittany Chávez & Rolando Vázquez, ‘Precedence, Trans* and the Decolonial,’ Angelaki, 22:2 (2017), 43.

[2] Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso, 2019). 

[3] Sylvia Wynter, ‘The Ceremony Found,’ in Black Knowledges/Black Struggles, ed. Jason R. Ambroise and Sabine Broeck (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press), 215.

[4] Alia Al-Saji, ‘Too Late: Racialized Time and the Closure of the Past,’ Insights: Institute of Advanced Study Vol. 6, No. 5 (2013): 2—13. 

[5] Lewis Gordon, Freedom, Justice and Decolonization (New York/London: Routledge, 2020), 8—9.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 17 [Part I, aphorism 17].

[7] Alia Al-Saji, ‘Political Concepts: Past,’ Presentation at the New School for Social Research, April 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjRazMghJeI&t

[8] Karen Barad, ’Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance,’ Derrida Today 3.2 (2010), 261.

[9] Barad, ’Quantum Entanglements,’ 264.

[10] This discussion is indebted to Samir Haddad, Derrida and the Inheritance of Democracy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

[11] Jacques Derrida & Bernard Stiegler, Echographies of Television, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002), 26.

[12] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York/London: Routledge, 2012), 67.

[13] Derrida & Stiegler, Echographies, 69.

[14] Derrida, Specters of Marx, 19.

[15] On defuturing: Tony Fry, Design as Politics (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2011).

[16] ’The pursuit of the new defines imperialism,’ Azoulay, Potential History, 15—22.

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