Reading notes – McKittrick Demonic Grounds

As I see it the “prison industrial complex” forms the geographic template and cartography of struggle for abolitionists, as it describes the entire systemic infrastructure of ongoing racial chattel slavery from the instiutional down to the ideological and interpersonal microphysics of modern carceral power. In this perspective, the prison industrial complex (the “PIC” in shorthand) is the entire militarized and regimented landscape of punishment, at once industrialized and often in excess of the logic of industry entirely, that is specific to the contemporary expression of global racial capitalism and Americanizing white supremacist dominion. This is the point of view provided by revolutionaries in the early-1990s and was translated into a massline cartography of struggle by organizations in orbit around Critical Resistance, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and Anarchist Black Cross formations at the turn of the twenty-first century. I begin from an analysis of these spatially particular analytical premises as my first point of departure for several reasons that need only brief mentioning, however it is from my understanding that this is—though only contingent on shifting circumstances—the “correct” sense of geopolitical coordinates to generalize in projects mobilized with intentions of abolishing antiBlack (and therefore the entire matrix of racist patriarchal) violence in all of its macro to micro structural forms. As argued by radical-to-revolutionary Black feminist theorists for nearly thirty years now, “it is possible and necessary to weave together the many and increasing strands of resistance to the prison industrial complex into a powerful movement for social transformation.” (Davis 1998)

Katherine McKittrick asks: “[W]hat kinds of possibilities emerge when black studies encounters human geography…?” She writes further: “Connecting black studies and human geography opens up three meaningful points: first, as mentioned, are the ways in which disciplinary and epistemological desires privilege traditional geographic options; second, are the ways in which traditional geographic aims in fact illustrate how blackness and black subjectivity are implicit to the production of space; and finally, are the ways in which alternative imaginary and real formulations of space and place disrupt and augment existing geographic narratives and maps.” (McKittrick 9-10)

Here McKittrick’s analysis is duly useful, in that she grasps, at least in theoretical terms, the relations of domination and resistance that constitute the formative Middle Passage chattel relation as it materializes in space, over time, and figuratively through language: “The slave ship, as a materiality, contains and regulates; it hides black humanity because it ‘just is’ and because those inside, bound to the walls, are neither seeable nor liberated subjects.”

“Black women’s histories, lives, and spaces must be understood as enmeshing with traditional geographic arrangements in order to identify a different way of knowing and writing the social world and to expand how the production of space is achieved across terrains of domination.” (xv)

To understand the PIC as a black feminist geography first necessitates understanding it as a Black geography. McKittrick once more allows us to appreciate this aspect:

Black geographies comprise philosophical, material, imaginary, and representational trajectories; each of these trajectories, while interlocking, is also indicative of multiscalar processes, which impact upon and organize the everyday. Black geographies are located within and outside the boundaries of traditional spaces and places; they expose the limitations of transparent space through black social particularities and knowledges; they locate and speak back to the geographies of modernity, transatlantic slavery, and colonialism…” (7)

In short, “black imaginations and mappings are evidence of the struggle over social space.” (9)

Moreover, with an attention to the structural intersections between gender-based violence and anti-Black racism, McKittrick frames the discussion further by theorizing: “Geographic domination is a powerful process. However, if we pursue the links between practices of domination and black women’s experiences in place, we see that black women’s geographies are lived, possible, and imaginable. Black women’s geographies open up a meaningful way to approach both the power and possibilities of geographic inquiry….. If we imagine that traditional geographies are upheld by their three-dimensionality, as well as a corresponding language of insides and outsides, borders and belongings, and inclusions and exclusions, we can expose domination as a visible spatial project that organizes, names, and sees social differences (such as black femininity) and determines where social order happens” (xiv)

PIC as landscape not only of oppression but a fluid paradigm for the theorization of cartographies of survival, resistance, impasse, and struggles over social power. As McKittrick writes: “The built environment and the material landscape are sites that are intensely experiential and uneven, and deeply dependent on psychic, imaginary work.” (2)

Three quotes from McKittrick help frame my latest intellectual obsessions with uprooting white supremacist historiographies that erase the still unfolding story of imprisoned Black radical (and thus abolitionist) intellectual genealogies:

“If who we see is tied up with where we see through truthful, commonsensical narratives, then the placement of subaltern bodies deceptively hardens spatial binaries, in turn suggesting that some bodies belong, some bodies do not belong, and some bodies are out of place.” (xv)

“For black women, then, geographic domination is worked out through reading and managing their specific racial-sexual bodies. This management effectively, but not completely, displaces black geographic knowledge by assuming that black femininity is altogether knowable, unknowing, and expandable: she is seemingly in place by being out of place.” (xv)


 “The simultaneous naturalization of bodies and places must be disclosed, and therefore called into question, if we want to think about alternative spatial practices and more humanly workable geographies.” (xv)

Borrowing from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, I want to suggest that geographies of domination be understood as “the displacement of difference,” wherein “particular kinds of bodies, one by one, are materially (if not always visibly) configured by racism into a hierarchy of human and inhuman persons that in sum for the category of ‘human being’. Gilmore highlights the ways in which human and spatial differentiations are connected to the process of making place. The displacement of difference does not describe human hierarchies but rather demonstrates the ways in which these hierarchies are critical categories of social and spatial struggle. Thus, practices of domination are necessarily caught up in a different way of knowing and writing the social world, which foregrounds the ‘geographical imperatives’, that lie ‘at the heart of every struggle for social justice.” McKittrick is therefore one of the first to argue in academia the stakes following the historiographic blueprint of PIC abolition praxis as embedded in the Black radical intellectual writings, lectures, and organizing of Angela Davis and  Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

 Black thinkers “insist on an alternative vantage point and therefore a different sense of how geography is, and might be, lived out. While the self-evident workings of transparent space have normalized uneven geographies, it is important to remember that they are also experienced, and mapped, vis-à-vis different (in this case black) vantage points. It follows, then, that new or different geographic demands are always taking place. These demands not only document how displacement is differently lived out by black subjects on the ground, they also reify how the production of space, and the project of geographic exclusion, while unjust, can inspire a different kind of spatial politics.” (24)

– “political contestations are also structured by psychic and physical geographies.” (24)

– A la Glissant: “[F]orging a relationship with and writing geography, in part, brings the subject into begin; body liberation coincides with dismantling how and where specific bodies are hemmed in.” (27)

– “A black sense of place, then, is produced by and through long processes of racialization; it is not necessarily a bound or unintelligible place for the black subject, but a condition of “all-too-human” existence, which is understood through the displacement of difference and future possibilities.” (28)

– These ideas”rupture traditional geographies by insinuating a different geographic language into the landscape, a language not always predicated on ownership and conquest. This re-ordering of geographic knowledges, peoples, and landscapes opens up new and radical spaces for discovery and different sites of being. Thus, geographic struggles transform—philosophically and materially—blackness and black humanity in the world; they map subaltern subjects with and through existing spaces and also call into question obligatory geographic rules that perpetuate injustice.” (28)

  • McKittrick writes: “Populations who occupy the “nonexistent” are living in what has been previously conceptualized as the unlivable and unimaginable. If identity and place are mutually constructed, the uninhabitable spatializes a human other category of the unimaginable/native/black. (130) Moreover, “This geographic transformation, then, does not fully erase the category of “uninhabitable,” but rather re-presents it through spatial processes as a sign of social difference. This is expressed through uneven geographies: spatial arrangements that map and measure populations according to “normal,” “a normal way of life,” or the normally inhabitable. Presently, this spatial re-presentation brings to mind the discussions advanced by Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore on U.S. (California) prison expansion, which Davis describes as the “perfect site for the simultaneous production and concealment of racism.” What their work shows is not only the (concealed spatial management of race/gender/class, but also the ways in which new geographic formulations are produced according to -“normative views of how people fit into and make places in the world.” (131)

As McKittrick’s theoretical unpacking of the relation between Black feminist poethics and the production of workable human geographies validates, the collective knowledge production of CR’s founding members generates this very “body liberation” materializing as a pedagogical creativity, enabling new sites of struggle to be inhabited and engaged. The prison industrial complex, in a PIC abolitionist framework thus operates as a demonic grounds, or workable terrain of praxis. In her words once more, “Recognizing that “new forms of life”, occupying interhuman grounds (beneath all of our feet), can perhaps put forward a new worldview from the perspective of the species—that is, from outside the logic of biocentric models: not as genre or mode of human but as human.” (135) This is what it means to inhabit the insurgent grounds of abolition.