Beth Povinelli on her book, The Inheritance

The Inheritance

Interview by Randeep Hothi

Randeep Hothi: The Inheritance is about many things — inter alia, your family’s migration to the US, your two parents and five siblings, childhood in Louisiana, your ancestral village at the juncture between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy, trauma, melancholy, brutality, patriarchy, and (as you say in the preface) what Hortense Spillers calls the American grammar of race. At its most explicit, the book argues that, “Inheritance doesn’t come from the past. Inheritance is the place we are given in the present in a world structured to care for the existence of some and not of others.” (p. 315) Elaborating on this, you conclude The Inheritance by explaining that: “While my family’s psychic disturbances are real and undeniable, they lie within a racial and settler infrastructure that dismisses an entire host of systematic social harms. All of us travel along this infrastructure, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or with both feet on the brakes.” (p. 312)

I think of queer theoretical criticisms of biological kinship, or what you elsewhere have called the “genealogical grid” (Povinelli 2002), and wonder whether The Inheritance might be suggesting a politics of un-inheritance, insofar as this structure of care might be re-made. On the other hand, it seems that our political horizon allows some to un-inherit what others cannot (family, religion, nation, race, and so on). Does The Inheritance point to something like un-inheritance as a project?

Beth: I am not sure in hindsight either one of us will like the words un-inherit and un-inheritance. Their sounds are wrong in an unrecoverable way. But their discordant phonologies touch on, in ways that the terms disinherit and disinheriting do not, crucial issues at the center of The Inheritance and Between Gaia and Ground, both of which came out in 2021. On the surface, Between Gaia and Ground is nothing like The Inheritance. It is a theoretical intervention in how ontological claims about entangled existence are being articulated to human and more-than-human histories of colonialism. I won’t take up space summarizing the details of the argument. But one strand in Between Gaia and Ground may be useful here, namely, the contrast I draw between the way Édouard Glissant begins Poetics of Relation and the way Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari begin What is Philosophy? The latter asks what should be the proper relation between disciplines (philosophy, science, and the arts) and their productions (concepts, functions, affects). The former begins on a slave ship in the middle of the Atlantic in order to anchor a theory of Relation to the play between the specific and infinite differences that emerged from the belly of this monstrous trade, including how this place changed our concept-work. I suppose it should not surprise me how tightly connected the two books are, given they were being completed at the same time. Still, it wasn’t really until I was talking with my friend, the wonderful curator, Vivian Ziherl, that I really thought how much both books are born along by the same question—namely, how do we anchor specific inheritances to the ongoing spiraling sedimentations of the Indigenous and Black Atlantic and Pacific?

So, yes, The Inheritance stages my family’s history—the affects and narratives about our ancestral village—in order to unwork their affective, social, economic, ecological common sense. It tries to do so by articulating the stories little Elizabeth hears about her village to the racial and colonial worlds she is actually living in. The specificities of the family histories sketched in The Inheritance act as a sort of limit case. How do I frame the disturbances that rumbled through my family based on their dispossession in relation to the dispossessions they were able to take advantage of without thought? How do we tell these stories in such a way that they do not reinforce the white nativism running rampant in the US and Europe or the soft sell of DNA capitalism? It’s all too easy to reduce such stories to something like, “See we were also dispossessed.” How to produce, instead, a framework in which one feels the deep history of dispossession that marked Europe’s emergence from within its colonial actions, and yet still demonstrate how these European dispossessions are connected to the great machinery of settler capitalism? How are Europe’s dispossessed related to that slave ship whether or not they were steering it, landing on Plymouth Rock, or fleeing endless European wars. All the violence in the book is meant to stage a simple question. What do you do with violence done to you?

The great unsaid of the book is, of course, the nearly thirty-year old relation I have with my Belyuen/Karrabing family, colleagues. I mention Belyuen once in The Inheritance, near the end of Gramma’s section (“Then you died. Then Papa died. By that time, I was far away. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Belyuen, Australia”). My earliest conversations with now deceased Belyuen women were about their lands and how they “picked them up” through kinship with and descent from specific placed based therrawin (Dreamings, clan totems), and how one could come to belong to a place through mirrh (conception spirits). I have written about this in other places—especially in Labor’s Lot and The Cunning of Recognition. When they asked me where my family was from, I sketched out my family’s history, some of which you see in The Inheritance. I talked about how Povinellis and Ambrosis, like many families from the region had, and still have, clans; how I am a Simonaz Povinelli through my grandfather; and that my Gramma was a Bartolot Ambrosi. When a group of Karrabing travelled to Carisolo in 2020—Linda Yarrowin Rex Sing, Aiden Sing and I—we had a good chuckle watching the village genealogist work with me on my clan lineage. So, contrary to a critique of genealogy as such, we found a commonality in clan- and place-based forms of belonging.

But the genealogical grids that we met each other through were refracted. How to say this? Even as we found a space of shared relation to clan-based place-belonging—my family has clans too; my family belonged to land in common too; my family was dispossessed by the unfolding tsunami of European capital too—it was also easy to see that another grid disarticulated this relation, namely the racial grid of white supremacy and settled colonialism. Linda Yarrowin and I are leading a Karrabing project that emerged from our visit to Carisolo. We are calling it the “two clans” project. It tracks how my family clans and Karrabing Indigenous clans were inserted into the infrastructures of settler liberal capitalism. We aren’t thinking of it as a comparative history of abstracted forms, but a history of how these different clans maneuvered within the very different opportunities afforded to them. For example, “Povinelli” emerged as a cognomen, in the mid to late 15th century. The first clans of Povinelli, including the Simonaz, emerged at the turn of the 18th century. Family lineage and clans were important in Trentino in part because of system of semi-autonomy governance that emerged in 12th century, called the carte di regola system. In the carte system, male heads of families, cognomen and then clans, were given the power to decide who was part of the vicini and who was a stranger and thus who and how they could use common lands and smaller private gardens. When Napoleon conquered the region in the turn of the 19th century, he abrogated the carte di regola system in order to free the region of feudalism. We were freed from our common freedom so we could possess ourselves as individualized subjects and other things as purchasable objects. Of course, what happened was that others with capital swooped in and bought village lands and resources forcing villagers into intensive wage labor. Nice studies have been done showing the effects on local mortality—it plummets. By the early to mid 1900s, the Simonaz and Bartolot clans are largely gone from Carisolo, no longer able to survive within the village. They take up knife grinding. This is where The Inheritance commences.

Of course, at the same time that Napoleon is liberating us from our autonomy, he is refusing to allow Haitians to be liberated from their enslavement. The Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard puts the difference perfectly. Europe’s dispossessed become proletarianized, and as proletariats and then petite bourgeoisie my ancestors made a beeline to the lands of the Seneca. Europeans did not merely dispossess Native Americans, and other Indigenous peoples, they tried to exterminate them. As my ancestors are flocking into Seneca lands in Buffalo, New York, the first settlers are reaching Darwin having poisoned, shot, and interned a multitude of Indigenous people along the way. As my family is being inserted into whiteness, Karrabing families are struggling to survive within it. In other words, the two clans project is a sort of prologue to The Inheritance even as The Inheritance is a sort of prologue to my relation to Belyuen/Karrabing. When placed together the American grammars of race meet Australian grammars of settler colonialism.

But I want to come back to what you quoted above about the structures of care. These weren’t the actual final words of the book. The last words are, “My Gramma offered me an avenue into this insight. It took many others to force me to begin to use it.” I think these words are as crucially important as the ones that come before then. It wasn’t the responsibility of these Belyuen women to educate me. But equally, I did not educate myself. I think these two points are important for all the reasons, issues, raised in the Act III, namely—and this is hardly a new insight—at the core of settler and racial power is the amnesia, blindness, and disregard it produces for those who benefit from it. On the one hand, this structural blindness was turbo charged in my family because of the intensity of our own dispossession narratives. On the other hand, this blindness is just a typical feature of the US grammar of race.

Randeep Hothi: If you are interested in learning more, I want to direct readers to check out the full film version of The Inheritance for a limited time here. I also direct readers to check out Professor Povinelli’s podcast with New Books in Anthropology and interviews with Duke and Columbia.

And for more of this interview — go to this link.