“Remaindered Life”: Durba Mitra in Conversation with Neferti Tadiar

“The survival of the world depends on the gendered work of subsistence and reproduction, carried out predominantly by women in the global South.”

Neferti Tadiar’s Remaindered Life (Duke University Press, 2022) is the feminist work for our global present, offering an indispensable framework for conceptualizing the lives of the people in “most of the world,” to use Partha Chatterjee’s phrase. For Tadiar, this precarious present is a story of people who seek to survive and thrive, who persist in “becoming-human” against a global economic and political order that wages a “war to be human.” Under the guise of freedom and democracy, this war defines the human against the most disempowered and disenfranchised: poor people, migrants, workers, women, and queer and trans people. Yet, despite this war, formerly colonized people engage in ongoing projects of living. They are, in Tadiar’s words, a “decolonizing peoples” who enact creative forms of world making while caught in a cycle of dispensability. Decolonizing peoples survive circumstances of confinement, displacement, and exploitation—the workers who move across the world as nurses and nannies, the domestic laborers who do unremunerated care and cleaning for the most affluent people in the world, and the migrants who move from rural villages to postcolonial city streets to work in dangerous conditions for construction or transport. Even as they do the work the rest of the world will not, decolonizing peoples refuse conditions of alienated labor and ongoing displacement.

Tadiar meditates on how people find ways to create worlds and survive dehumanizing work via a theory she terms “the remaindered,” in which people live life in excess and in defiance of the development calculus that sees human freedom solely in terms of productive, measurable economic activity. Remaindered Life elaborates on this calculus of disposability and defiant survival across wide-ranging domains and theorizes what it means to persist for people who are forcibly in motion in perpetual systems of migration and incarcerated in modern systems of global capital. It is a constellation of theories about interstitial spaces of human flourishing and survival in a time of totalizing war.

So often, in contemporary discussions of ongoing colonialism and decolonization, people ask: How do we find freedom outside of colonial systems of oppression? Is there a way out? Remaindered Life cautions against any romantic imagining of freedom as outside of coloniality yet insists on the life-making possibilities of decolonizing people. I engage Professor Tadiar on the limits and possibilities of freedom in conditions of racial capitalism and colonialism, feminist theories of abolition and solidarity, and ask what it means to survive in a time of climate crisis and authoritarianism today.

On Disposability and Survival:

Durba Mitra (DM): In Remaindered Life, you critique the calculus of disposability that has defined what it means for people to be valuable and productive citizens in the Global South. You develop a language to conceptualize what it is to survive in a world intent on abandoning millions of people who are valued only for their expendability.

How did you come to these ideas of disposable and remaindered life? What drew you to these issues?


Neferti Tadiar (NT): The early part of my academic career was very much marked by the Global War on Terror. By that time, I had already effectively written two books grappling with the social consequences of the Cold War to the post–Cold War in the Philippines and had dealt with the history of US imperialism and counterinsurgency as it played out there over the course of the 20th century. Having grown up in the Philippines and continuing to maintain my life there through family and friends, I knew those social consequences intimately, and so this new war on terror was in some ways already familiar. But as familiar as this latest US imperial war was, having to witness this latest war’s unfolding over the next two decades from within the US, participating in teach-ins and protests against it for years, I really felt not only the imputed disposability of the peoples targeted by war but also the close link between that war-inflicted disposability and the general disposability required to uphold an American way of life.

It wasn’t only the war on terror, of course. The rise of megaplatforms and global finance in the same moment also evidenced—in fact, instantiated—this disposability. I had confronted the notion of “surplus populations” in the context of Metro Manila’s urban transformation, which I wrote about in my two previous books. It was in that context of post-authoritarian global urbanism in the Philippines that I first grasped the connection between disposability and urbanization. That connection between the urban excess and global aspirations in turn allowed me to bring these phenomena of war, finance, and urbanization together in the more global frame of the platform economy. My thinking on disposability was of course also very much shaped by the phenomenon of mass incarceration of Black and brown people in the US. I was at UC Santa Cruz for almost 10 years, together with my colleagues and friends Angela Davis and Gina Dent, who were among the founding organizers of the Critical Resistance movement during the same period. The influence of Angela’s as well as Gina’s political thought and practice as well as friendship on my own thinking and feeling is very clear in the book, as is Black feminist thought more broadly. I was also very much shaped by the Indigenous, Latina/x, and Asian American feminist grad students in the Women of Color Research Cluster at UC Santa Cruz that Angela and I coadvised. My time in California with this powerful Women of Color politics was a deep political education for me in the US. I cannot overstate the importance of that community in the shaping of my work, even long after I left California.

But the notion of remaindered life also comes out of an intimate awareness of the fact that, as I write in the book, zones of war are also times of living. It is a feminist awareness that has been brought home to me over and over again by Filipina women and activists in particular who live and know what it means to continue to make lives for themselves as well as for others under the most daunting conditions of violence. Joi Barrios’s poem “To Be a Woman Is to Live in a Time of War” expresses the insight that living and life-making in a time of war is itself the condition of being or becoming a woman, but that living is also a struggle to live and be free. The book builds on this insight. It builds on my own lived feminist awareness of all the gendered forms of collective life-making that we do, the care we take, for others, even as much of that work and care is denigrated or simply not seen.

By the way, I have always found this notion of reproduction as minimal work to meet our basic needs incredibly ignorant and disrespectful of what in many ways is a profound endeavor. Its utter devaluation is itself part of this war to be human that I write about. The notion of remaindered life certainly comes from this deeply felt, postcolonial feminist awareness of how much more there is to making and maintaining or reproducing life than what is presumed by colonial, capitalist visions of life. But the notion of remaindered life also comes from my encounter in Things Fall Away of expressions of enjoyments, pleasures, laughter, and desires articulated in the literary work of social movements  as “wayward life practices” that depart from the plots of their proper political subjects—superfluous or gratuitous “living,” if you will, in those very spaces of war, whether in the guerilla movement in the countryside or in the captive space of migrant domestic servitude. I think this attention to small, gratuitous joys, thrills, and flourishes as examples of remaindered life resonates with what I have also learned from queer and trans studies. In all these cases of living in a time of war, these forms of what I refer to as splendor are vital (but not, in our current ways of understanding it, “essential”) to that struggle “to live and be free.”

DM: In the face of what you describe as a calculus of disposability, how do you understand life-making for Third World women, poor people of color, and migrant workers?


NT: In the book I home in on older ways of making shared life—such as practices of dividuality, transpersonal action, and social being—that are forms of survival for many of the dispossessed. I understand that Third World women workers, poor people of color, and migrants are products of prior histories of dispossession. These are social identifiers that do not encompass who these people are but rather express the statuses they inhabit as a consequence of the sex-gender and racial logics of imperialism and capitalism. The statuses entail conditions of disposability, imposed through social, economic, and legal measures of disenfranchisement. Which means that people having to make life under these conditions are not only deprived of those conditions that support the lives of enfranchised citizens, they also face constant assault on their capacities for making life. What most have left to rely on are their families and extended social networks of cooperation and help—these ways of making shared rather than only individual life.

I should add that how people make life for themselves under such conditions is complex and varied, and I do not purport to represent any single form of life-making for these strata of folks who find themselves facing conditions of disposability. What it takes to survive under these conditions and under the violent rules of capitalist value can be ignominious, illicit, illegal, and even predatory. It can also be inventive, creative, collaborative, drawing on other modes of life-making from times seemingly past yet still present in everyday practice. To my mind, these other ways of life-making among especially the disenfranchised descendants of the colonized (what some might call the marginalized Global South) are not only what enable them to survive but also to live otherwise. It is these aspects of their life-making that interest me, and I feel we have to find ways to attend to, if we are to recreate the possibilities of another planetary mode of life for all.


On Decolonization:

DM: Today, we frequently hear of efforts to “decolonize” curricula, disciplines, and institutions, often through the language of diversity and inclusion. Many have critiqued the cooptation of the language of decolonizing/decolonization and the empty promises of such initiatives. Yet, in your work, you insist on the project of decolonization. Decolonization, as you describe it, is “our constant and historical struggle to live against and beyond the bounds set by an imperial, racial capitalist order.”

Is the language of decolonization useful in our contemporary moment? How do you see the work of decolonization now?


NT: The Philippines and Filipinos constitute an unfinished struggle of decolonization. Our history is inextricable from this struggle. We are composed of many peoples, many languages, and many geographies and cultures, and part of what we share and what we emerge from, across our diversity, is our experiences and struggles against the history of colonialism, which continues into the present. So, if I continue to use the language of decolonization, it is because decolonization is not, for me, simply the formal political efforts of the colonized to gain national sovereignty in the second half of the 20th century, but rather the centuries-long process of our own becoming.

My own personal history was deeply shaped by the legacy of the languages and practices of decolonization, anti-imperialism, and anti-neocolonialism that were so vibrant when I was growing up in the Philippines during the 1960s and 1970s—the kinds of Third Worldist feelings, sensibilities, and political consciousness transmitted by our parents and teachers, the shared aspirations expressed through the African, Latin American, and Asian literatures we read, the memories and awareness of decolonizing wars still being waged. And having lived and experienced the reverberations of this project of decolonization, I know that it was never a simple project with narrow aims. And neither was it a closed chapter of unequivocally failed struggles, despite the compromises, untoward effects, and deeply flawed visions and practices carried out in its name. I feel this is a progress, enlightenment narrative of the past. In fact, I see many of the contemporary efforts to critique and transform our present global mode of life as continuing the work of decolonization, if sometimes in radically different ways. If we are refining our understanding of how deep and pervasive colonialism’s role has been in shaping our knowledges, our structures of feeling, our very forms of being—our very political ontologies—as well as our political and economic relations, it is work that continues our peoples’ struggles to live against and beyond the global order made and upheld by a history of colonialism and capitalism. I see the work of decolonization now as continuing and strengthening these struggles to live otherwise. And if we are to understand decolonization as a radical movement of freeing transformation, then there is no arena of life that is unimportant in this movement. If anything, what so many radical social movements today show us is how crucially important colonial and settler colonial sex-gender and racial logics are to the everyday lived infrastructures and protocols of capitalism and its domination of planetary life.


On Third Worldism Today:

DM: Is there space for a Third World politics today? I am currently writing a book on the history of Third World feminist thought and am continuously in awe of the power of this aspirational vision of solidarity against authoritarianism across geographies. The Third World was a concept, not a place, a powerful political imaginary once held by the many peoples across the decolonizing world who envisioned radically different futures for themselves through global alliance.1 These visions of unity appear altogether lost today. Solidarity is hard to come by now.

What do you see as the inheritance of Third Worldism for politics today? Is there a need for Third World feminisms now?


NT: I think you just made a powerful argument for the inheritance of Third Worldism today. As part of the project of decolonization, the Third World was a concept and a political vision that remains unexhausted by its recognizable historical outcomes. I think what inheritance we affirm today depends on what we want to continue from this politics, and I think a transnational politics of solidarity is one of these important inheritances. At the same time, I think we can see with greater clarity perhaps the importance of heterogeneity and diversity for our political and ecological futures, and I think ideological unity is not necessarily an ideal we should strive for in our forging of relations of cooperation, mutual help, collaboration, and care, as well as transformative involvement and participation in and across our very diverse communities.

What is important for me to renew from Third World feminisms is a heightened political awareness of the inextricability of the struggles of women and the struggles against imperialism and capitalism. There is a need for it to the extent that we need to understand that the survival of the majority of people in the world depends on the gendered work of subsistence and reproduction, carried out predominantly by women in the Global South—the work of seeing to it that there is enough to eat and that children and the elderly are cared for; of maintaining shelters and abodes, however temporary; and of healing and restoring the ill and injured. Without this very work and struggle of survival and subsistence, imperialism and capitalism cannot continue to exist.

Today, I think a decolonizing feminism must bring that awareness to a broad understanding of the struggles of marginalized forms of life, including a broader array of genders and sexualities and more than human life, as central to something like a Third Worldist project, which to me was at its most radical in its imagination of the possibility of a decolonized world.


On Climate Justice:

DM: When I think of the world today, nothing makes the inadequacies of our vocabulary for vulnerability clearer than the hell wrought by climate destruction. Recent droughts and catastrophic flooding across Pakistan, India, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mexico, Chile, and here in the US has laid bare what many of us who work on the decolonizing world have long known: the climate crisis will have disastrous consequences and cause immeasurable loss for billions of people who have done little to create this crisis. People get thrown around in increasingly violent typhoons, they choke on the pollution caused by greed in postcolonial cities, they suffer from endless disease and extreme heat and lose access to the most basic human need, water. What are visions of climate justice that you see emerging from your work?


NT: I do think that in an oblique way, Remaindered Life is a political vision of climate justice to the extent that it is a treatise on the renewal of life, a tending to what has been denigrated as mere reproduction. Without the sheer disposability required by the dialectic of value and waste.

I’m very glad actually that you ask this question because although it may not read as directly dealing with climate destruction, the book does indirectly propose that this very dialectic of value and waste, which Vinay Gidwani and others have shown was foundational in the projects of Anglo–West European colonialism, is at the core of the environmental disaster we face today. In fact, “the war to be human” can be understood to stand for the specific anthropogenic logic of the capitalocene. This war is driven by a notion of the human as the very life-form of value, elevated above all other life and existence. It’s a war we see waged everywhere against the majority of the world’s inhabitants, the less human and nonhuman, and against the earth itself, when all this other life is subordinated to the greed, as you put it, of capitalist machines of accumulation and the kind of capital life that those machines uphold.

So if there is an ethos that emerges out of my attention to remaindered life, it is an ethos of cooperative, ecological life-making as living itself. An ethos of tending to the conditions of our shared life, which is inseparable from that life. I suppose the vision of climate justice here would be the flourishing of the diverse kinds of mutual care and cooperative life-making already being practiced among the dispossessed but extending to and learning from our more than human world. Folks like Malcolm Ferdinand refer to decolonial ecology as a vision of climate justice that I think this ethos resonates. For that vision to be realized, we do have to fight against those machines of capitalist accumulation, to keep up the resistance against the war to be human, to continue the struggle of decolonization. That goes without saying for me.

At the same time, what I have learned from feminists is that we cannot engage in the pursuit of change without the process of that pursuit itself being the site of change. And that implies a political attention to all the matters of what is relegated to mere reproduction (seen as mere means of more valuable endeavors and aims). It is by changing our practices of living—our practices of living in their felt immediacy and intimacy as well as in the systemic, mediated conditions that this living entails—that we can begin to realize a decolonial ecology. To start from that ground of caring for how we live and caring for other life enabling ours, life most subject to the disasters of this destructive global mode of life, seems to me to be a crucial pathway to planetary change.

Let me just say, finally, that this ground that I refer to as the matrix of shared life-making that remains key to the survival of so many dispossessed people cannot be understood without thinking of land and seas. For peoples of insular Southeast Asia and the Pacific, land and seas are very much part of their matrices of shared life-making—certainly the means of living that so many are being dispossessed of. As I show in the book, land as matrix of life is constantly being destroyed and made into the instrument of capture for capitalist accumulation. The issue of land, and I would add seas and air, remains at the heart of the vision of climate justice that emerges from this book, and here I have learned so much from Indigenous feminists. To attend to the renewal and regeneration of shared life necessarily means to attend to this crucial political issue of land and seas and air as the matrices of our living, the ground of our existence. And that demands that we draw on older forms of cooperative living across human and more human worlds as well as create new possibilities of shared being and living.


On Anti-Carceral Feminisms:

DM: Let me turn to abolitionist feminism. In the aftermath of massive political mobilizations against racial subjection around the world, there is more conversation about feminist abolitionism now than ever before. These efforts to expose problems of policing, incarceration, and immigration detention in the US are rooted in decades of efforts by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous feminist activists working against systems of incarceration and policing. Yet, as decades of feminist movements against authoritarianism across the postcolonial world demonstrate, police and prison abolition has always been a global project of decolonization.

In my recent research, I have documented the interconnections between extraordinary feminist protests against policing and military authoritarianism across South Asia, West Asia, across the African continent in the late 1970s and 1980s. There is also a long tradition of anti-carceral work in Filipinx feminist organizing. You theorize widespread authoritarian violence in the Philippines state under Duterte and the ongoing work of Filipinx feminist and anti-policing movements that fight for survival in spite of impossible conditions of state violence that seek to eliminate minorities, including the persecution of Muslims, and in the expendability of people, like in Duterte’s “war” on “drugs.”

How might we think across more well-known discussions of policing, incarceration, and abolitionism in the US and postcolonial and Third World feminist anti-carceral protests and organizing? What is the role of organizing in your thinking on remaindered life?


NT: As I write in the book, political organizing is very much the condition of possibility of new thoughts, and for many, the very possibility of living at all. I have been able to think and write the ideas I have because of Third World feminist activism and radical struggles against authoritarianism, US imperialism, capitalism, feudalism, and masculinist cultures in the Philippines as well as Black, Latinx, Filipinx, and Indigenous feminist activism and radical struggles in the US. I myself am not a political organizer but I have for a very long time been in relations of friendship, collaboration, and dialogue with activist organizers. So my own thinking is not only deeply shaped by these relations but also, I think, part of the broader movements in which we are all involved in the context of a global order.

We can think across abolitionist feminist organizing in the US and feminist organizing against policing, incarceration, and militarist violence in the postcolonial Third World by following the connections that, as Nadine Naber says of US imperialism, the logics of security and securitization make for us. I have tried to do that here by highlighting the connections between the mass extrajudicial killings of poor drug users under Duterte’s war on drugs and the criminalization and mass incarceration of poor Black and brown people in the US. To trace the genealogy of these logics to colonialism and slavery allows us to think across the conceptual and practical boundaries that those historical orders themselves have produced and currently maintain, and to see the centrality of punishment to our contemporary social orders, and certainly to capitalist enterprise.


What if Black Women Were Free?

By Marina Magloire

But it is not a question of simply finding some common origin for these logics. It is also a matter of tracing the ways that our peoples and communities are placed in conflicting and antagonistic relations to one another through the histories and development of these logics in diverse places. For example, I try to show the transregional connections between West Asia and the Asia-Pacific as spaces of democracy-making and democracy-promotion during the 20th century, which has resulted in Philippine workers becoming part of the very same security architecture that sees to their own expendability through local counterinsurgency wars. Philippine workers do not only replace Palestinian workers as domestic workers and caregivers in Israel but also serve as military contract workers maintaining US bases in the region and elsewhere, including detention prisons such as in Guantanamo Bay.

So, we really have to think across these geopolitical boundaries to understand these social relations that the logics of security and expanded capitalist reproduction produce—social relations among the descendants of the colonized that uphold a global system, which dispossesses them in uneven ways. I see organizing as tracing these and other connections, contributing to the possibilities of reimagining those social relations in which we find ourselves. I see organizing as in fact forging these transformed relations. In the book I refer to this work of organizing in the context of the global Palestinian solidarity movement, which I have been involved in, as engaging in “live exchanges” as opposed to the “dead exchanges” that overdetermine debates of “freedom” and “democracy” and uphold security wars. Remaindered life can also be found in the very midst of organizing—in all the ways we buoy one another, ways of being that are also part of our respective unconquered social and cultural inheritances and that we continue to transmit in these very living relations we make. I refer to this as gifts passed among the colonized. They are as vital to organizing as to living for the dispossessed. In this way then, remaindered life can be part of the abolitionist feminist project of building new institutions and ways of life, and the abolition of a world of punishment, policing, and war.


On Art and the Politics of Living:

DM: To theorize the life that lives beyond the calculus of disposable lives, you look to diverse sites of cultural production, including art-making practices in visual art, poetry, and film. In much feminist and queer thought today, art practices become a primary space for scholars to theorize survival and refusal in the impossible conditions of racial subjection, class domination, and state violence. Yet, particularly in the US academy, people can romanticize art as a site of escape, citing poetry or visual art as resistance in the face of racial violence and class exploitation. So often, I find that people, particularly students, desire narratives of resistance but feel discomfort when learning of infrastructures of racial and colonial subjection. I worry about the recourse to art as the singular place of freedom. What kind of politics does feminist thinking about art as refusal engender?


NT: I have always thought with visual art, literature, and film. These have accompanied my thought since my first book. Literature is in fact my home base. I was trained as a reader (as well as a writer) of literature. So I’ve never viewed the spheres of cultural production as particularly exemplary of resistance or for that matter as a singular place of freedom. In fact, art and culture have been some of the most potent sites and means of colonial, capitalist domination. There are entire traditions of cultural critique that speak to this (Western cultural Marxism, cultural studies, Black studies, postcolonial studies, for example), and I have contributed my share to some of these.

Global film and literature have in fact been some of the most influential media for those processes of humanization that accompany imperial wars. And today global art, as I say in the book, is a department of capitalism with one of the highest profit margins (alongside currency markets). This industry depends on the spending down of other people’s lives for the realization of their astronomical values.

Some of the artists I write about are highly critical of the workings of value in the global art market. And yet they make their living as artists working in this highly capitalized sphere. So I read their work precisely for the kind of struggle—what I call striving and strife—that they engage in not only in that sphere (in the work) but in the broader arena of the social and political worlds that they are also involved in.

I often encourage my own students to engage in creative practices of cultural production but in very close relation to research and thinking. For me personally, thinking, writing, and “art” making have all been places of creative practices. But all these forms of creative practice also reproduce the world we inhabit. They are also subject to the very same processes of commodification and fetishism that structure our world as a nightmare of dispossession.

So when I ask my students to engage in creative practice, I ask that they grapple with the historically structured ways of seeing, perceiving, feeling, listening, and imagining that compose those very racial, sex-gendered, colonial infrastructures of subjection you mention. It’s a tall ask, I know. Nevertheless, we have to ask this of ourselves and of our students. Transformative artistic practice can, I believe, intervene at this level of our sensorial and semiotic infrastructures, as well as at many other levels. But yes, I think that would require some critical and practical understanding of the relation between aesthetic, sensorial, perceptual, and kinesthetic forms and practices, and the social, political, and economic structures of colonialism and racial capitalism that would seem to be merely the background or context of artistic practice (rather than being also their condition and consequence).

If imperial dispossession is importantly also a matter of coding realities in ways that overwrite the sense-making practices and experiences of the colonized, then transformative artistic practice can seek to restore and renew such vital organs of these communities’ thriving.

The feminist politics of art that I see engendered here would thus be a politics where art is a site of struggle and transformation, not in or for itself, but rather as an inalienable part or medium of flourishing socialities, a vital activity that is part and parcel of the collective making and remaking of our lifeworlds. So a feminist politics not so much of art as refusal but rather of the end(s) of art. icon

  1. Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: New Press, 2007).
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. Featured-image photograph courtesy of Neferti Tadiar.