The Abyssal Line and the Articulation of OppressionsOn November 8, 2021 by sarmientoverano
By: Lucia Sarmiento Verano
DISCLAIMER: This article’s aim is to present a particular perspective on different types of oppression and struggles as explained by certain decolonial & feminist thinkers. We are not interested in participating in any kind of ranking of human suffering or any other oppression Olympics.
Oppression runs along different axis (gender, race, class, ability, neurodiversity etc). The effects of different types of oppression can intersect to produce a unique experience of oppression, as explained by the concept of Intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989).
We also know about the importance of articulating these different struggles collectively to achieve liberation for all. They are all interconnected. Focusing on one struggle while forgetting others does not really lead to real systemic change in this globalised world-system of colonial capitalism.
However, it is a common occurrence to see different struggles compared against each other. Sometimes taking the form a competition so as to determine which one is worse, or which needs addressing more urgently. Big media has recently done this by claiming that white working-class boys are being left behind due to the current so-called focus on issues of race and ethnic oppression. This is a clear attempt to pitch one type of oppression against another to discredit a movement. But it is not only big media that does this. We see it happen very often in conversations about racism, where white people will bring up their own oppression as working-class people for example, or white women will mention the sexism they endure.
Trying to come up with a hierarchy of struggles like so is known to be unhelpful for any liberation effort and it only serves to perpetuate the system by “dividing and conquering”. This is not to say some struggles are unimportant. As I said, they are all important and should be considered as interrelated in order to strive for liberation for all. This being said, there is an important distinction to make between two types of struggles, a distinction that does make a significant difference: abyssal and non-abyssal struggles, separated by the colonial divide. Let me explain.
Abyssal and non-abyssal oppression
Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2018) describes the abyssal line as the divide that separates the forms of metropolitan sociability and the forms of colonial sociability since the fifteenth century. He cites the work of Fanon (1968) and Maldonado-Torres (2007) to describe the structural differences between abyssal and non-abyssal exclusions. As Fanon explains, it is an ontological difference, that is to say, a difference in the quality of being.
Beyond abyssal lines, in the colonial side of the divide, lies the area of non being where “Invisibility and dehumanisation are the primary expressions of the coloniality of being” (Maldonado-Torres, 2007: 257). This is the world of “the other” the one that does not exist in discourses of “humanity” or human rights, with whom no equivalence or reciprocity is imaginable because they are not considered fully human. We are talking about the colonised, the wretched of the world, in Fanon’s words.
Relations between “us” and “them” (colonisers and colonised), in the colonial world, are not managed by the same rules and tensions of social regulation or emancipation (rule of law, human rights, democracy). The colonial oppression which happens across the colonial divide brings violence, death and exploitation (extractivism) to people of colour from the Global South.
In other words, relations in the colonial world are managed by violent dynamics of appropriation of lives and resources. In the colonial and neo-colonial states, we witness apartheid, slave labour, torture, extrajudicial eliminations, internment camps for refugees, war, racism, femicide, and primitive accumulation of capital, to this day. Having said this, is important to specify that there are pockets of south in the Global North, where people are dehumanised systematically.
It is this dehumanisation that allows for the worst violations, violence, exploitation and extractivism that characterises abyssal oppression. What Santos calls the abyssal line, is the line that divides people seen as humans by the dominant culture, from dehumanised peoples.
Non-abyssal oppressions, on the other hand, although having the potential to be violent too, happen only on one side of the colonial divide, in the metropolitan area of the global system. They involve peoples that are represented within this system, they exist, they are fully human, albeit excluded and having less access to opportunities in this current form of social regulation. These struggles strive for a less excluding form of social regulation within this system.
These non-abyssal struggles entail fighting against exploitation but not necessarily against dehumanisation/non-being. They don’t even consider the existence of this colonial zone of non-being. Victory of these struggles can happen within this system, just as a matter of redistribution of power, resources and privileges: social emancipation.
Contrary to this, victory for abyssal struggles cannot happen within this system. They require liberation from it. This is why when we are comparing class struggles with race struggles to take the most recent example, we are comparing apples and pears. The conditions of abyssal and non-abyssal oppressions and the needs and strategies for abyssal and non-abyssal struggles are different.
Why is it important to centre abyssal struggles?
Now to the important bit. I am not saying one if more important than the other, or that one is worse than the other. But there is a specific reason why one needs to be centred and not derailed from by the other as it usually happens.
Let’s continue with the examples of classist and racial oppression. Historically, advancement in the conditions of the working-class ‘this’ side of the colonial divide (the western metropole or zone of being) have directly meant a worsening of abyssal oppression in the global system. More extractivism and more exploitation in the colonial world were needed to sustain a general improvement of working and life conditions in the western world, at times where the quality of life here was improving for all.
Like so, advancement and victories in non-abyssal struggles do not mean better results for everyone. In fact, they often mean worse conditions for other communities, in order to maintain the system as is. As we will see with the example below, non-abyssal struggles tend to be fights for more power and resources within this system, without the intention of dismantling the current system of power and oppression. For anyone excluded from these movements, anyone left behind, this can only mean further exclusion and intensified oppression.
Conversely, since liberation from abyssal oppression requires a dismantling of the colonial capitalism system as it exists today, it necessarily means radical change that will also lead to the dismantling of non-abyssal oppressions. In other words, anti-colonialism and anti-racism aim to dismantle capitalism (as part of the colonial system), which also means liberation for the working-classes of any race or ethnicity.
The position of the white woman’s struggle against sexism
Because we are unafraid, let’s talk about another controversial subject. White women’s struggle vs. Racial oppression. Firstly, let me state that I am not here to categorise the different struggles along the abyssal/non-abyssal line. I am no one to do so, especially for the myriad struggles or oppression that I do not experience. I also believe a classification would be unhelpful as it would hinder our understanding of the fluidity of experiences, as well as possible articulations of difference struggles. Classification also feels arbitrary and colonial in itself. Permanent categorisations as delimitations of knowledges, experiences and concepts into boxes are functions of a colonial mentality.
No, classification is not the point here. But what I can do is speak from my experience as a white woman and relay different perspectives that I have encountered in my reading. I think my specific experience has a lot to do with my awareness of the sharp difference between the abyssal or non-abyssal qualities of struggles, and my absolute commitment to focus and give precedence to fighting abyssal oppressions. Growing up in the Global South was probably what developed this awareness.
As a woman, I have my fair share of experiences with sexism and misogyny, including traumatic experiences of being objectified and used. I try to deal with those in my own time, using my support network and therapy. And I am also very careful not to juxtapose such experiences to such of systemic abyssal oppression like racism. I consider I have been humanised enough so my experience can be received and seen for what it is by society, in its full damaging extent, even though there is still tension in recognising the commonality of this experience among women.
The difference being that my experience is much more easily received and my tears can flow more freely. We only need to examine the difference in the treatment of cases of violence against white women and violence against racialised women in the media to understand what I am trying to convey.
In light of this we might consider that white women are half way between abyssal and non-abyssal struggles, as Santos suggest. They are still being objectified, oppressed and abused in different ways but they are not dehumanised to the same extent as people of colour.
Maria Lugones and Yuderkys Espinosa Miñoso go further by suggesting that the white woman struggle is entirely non-abyssal. In their work on Coloniality and Gender (Lugones, 2008), they explain this historical difference. The subjugation of women within the dominant European culture projects a role and an image onto them of vulnerability and fragility, both physically and mentally, and the passive role of the feminine.
Colonisation and the construction of racial hierarchies places entire populations in a position of inferiority. Not only this but it placed them in a position of dehumanisation, by marking them as primitive, savages, uncivilised. Historically debates have been held by Europeans to decide if Black and Indigenous people are human or beasts. The white imaginary projected animality and bestiality onto them and as such made them, like animals, genderless. Like animals, their sex was constructed in terms of sexual dysmorphia (attached to the shape of genitals) but it did not carry gendered roles or images. They did not carry the characteristics of femininity or womanhood.
There is thus a differential construction of gender along racial lines. In the colonial world, gendered norms and representations were reserved for humans, that is to say, for white men and women. Racialised bodies do not have a representation or an existence as humans in the colonial order, they dwell beyond the abyssal line, in the place of non-being (Fanon, Santos). In this sense, the white woman has a representation and exists as human in the world, even if it is in a position subordinate to the white man. As such, the white woman has control over what being a woman is, and what (and who) feminism is for. She also has the opportunity to represent herself and have that image mirrored in society. The white cis-gender woman is definitely not ‘the other’ in this world-order. She exists, subjugated, in the metropole, on the non-abyssal side of the world.
This is a privilege afforded to white cis women that, in my opinion, makes all the difference between theirs and the situation of racialised women and trans people. This is not to say their struggles is not a difficult one. It is just not an abyssal struggle, at least not anymore. They are not fighting against non-existence.
To finish with this example, it is important to note that mainstream white feminism has not made explicit connections between gender and race. It has focused its theory and praxis to fight against the characterisation of women as fragile, weak and passive (Lugones, 2008). In this sense it is fighting for women to gain more space, access to resources and power within this system. It wants women to be on par with men, in other words, occupy the seat of the oppressor in the same right. As such, feminism (as in white feminism) has not been struggling to dismantle the system by which a global majority do not have access to human status.
What’s more, white feminism has at times reinforced and intensified abyssal oppressions against people of colour, which is why it should not be given precedence over struggles against conditions of non-being. White women gaining power has usually meant that they oppress others further (Espinosa, 2017).
There will obviously be different views on this, I wanted to share some of the ones that are shaping my own vision of the world and global power dynamics.
I tend to agree with Santos when he says that abyssal oppression is rarely seen as oppression this side of the line (the western metropolitan side), but it tends to be considered a fatality, a question of bad luck, or in the order of things. In liberal Eurocentric thought, if oppression and dehumanisation are seen, there is a tendency to consider all oppressions non-abyssal and thus to try to force those struggles to happen within colonial logic. This is a prejudice that constitutes a significant barrier to the fight against racial oppression and colonialism as is shifts the energy to working within this system instead of dismantling it. It effectively means using the master’s tools, and as Audre Lorde would say, these will never dismantle the master’s house. I am talking about centring our discourses around logics of international development, human rights, liberal ideologies and multiculturalism (inclusion) among others. A waste of time at best, but more often than not, an obstruction.
Of course, it is never as simple as deciding one oppression is worse than another or as categorising different axis of oppression along the abyssal line. In most cases it is more complicated than that. However, this is a call to examine closely, withing each site of struggle for justice, who is being centred, what the goals of the struggle is, what the means are, and most importantly who is excluded as a result.
I would argue that awareness of the abyssal line and what it means is helpful in conceptualising global systems of power and oppression while taking into account colonial realities. At a more local level and when it is a question of organising in tangible ways it might be less helpful to stick to categories because these can become easily rigid and lead to oppression Olympics which become detrimental to any movement. What is important to keep in mind if the distinction between the goals and means of different struggles: are they about emancipation or liberation? Do they aim to change the structure of this system by reforming it, or do they seek to dismantle it?
Perhaps the issue with the articulation of abyssal and non-abyssal struggles is that our vision of social justice movements and struggles turns around the notion of groups and people gaining presence and power in this social order. The movement to gain power can only result in favour of one group at the detriment of others more marginalised. A more helpful way of strategizing could be to imagine ways in which groups and people can relinquish power in favour of more distant and more marginalised ones.
Crenshaw K. (1989) “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: 1989. Iss. 1, Article 8.
Espinosa Miñoso Y. (2017) “De por qué es necesario un feminismo descolonial: diferenciación, dominación coconstitutiva de la modernidad occidental y el fin de la política de identidade.” Revista Solar. Revista de Filosofía Iberoamericana, Dossier Epistemologías feministas latinoamericanas, v. 12, n. 1, pp. 141–71.
English version here
Fanon F. (1968) The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove.
Lugones, M. (2008). The Coloniality of Gender. Worlds & Knowledges Otherwise, 2 (Spring), 1-17
Maldonado-Torres N. (2007), On the Coloniality of Being, Cultural Studies, 21:2, 240 – 270
Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2018) The End of the Cognitive Empire, The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South. Durham; London: Duke University Press
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