Abstract In “Original Gangsters: Genre, Crime, and the Violences of Settler Democracy,” I offer a new theory of genre that elaborates the interconnected role of representational taxonomy in entertainment products and representative governance. Building on scholarship from various critical interdisciplines on the constitution of liberal democracy and political economy by European settler colonialism and racial capitalism, I argue that hegemonic genres, abetting the appropriation of Indigenous land and lives to create and reproduce settler societies and global empires, appropriate Indigenous self and collective representations and remake them to suit the disciplinary aims of nation-states and the international order. The gangster genre is paradigmatic of this sleight of hand: despite its source in contemporaneous anti-colonial movements in southern proto-Italy and South Asia, its global renown comes from U.S. narratives about white ethnics largely skirting the law as they operate informal companies. This successful negotiation with the settler-colonial/racial-capitalist state, however, is starkly different from the carceral and other forms of disciplining faced by Indigenous and racialized people branded as criminals, gangsters, or thugs for participating in informal survival economies and politics shaped by political disenfranchisement and stolen resources. Yet instead of genuinely addressing criminalized people’s pressing needs, liberal institutions such as elected government, higher education, and the mass-entertainment industry appropriate and mystify their struggles, thus forestalling structural change. Altogether, my investigation of the power dynamics of genre, “gangsterism,” and political representations in India, South Africa, and the U.S.—the three primary sites of my study—will contribute to ongoing scholarly, policy, and public discussions about crime and criminalization, the persistence of inequality, and the multiple violences enacted under the imprimatur of liberal democracy—or what I contend is better understood as settler democracy.
I anchor the dissertation in three contemporary case studies linked by British imperialism (befitting both my disciplinary studies of English and the global circulation of the language through the routes of empire): the first set in Mumbai, the second in Johannesburg, the third in New York City.
Postscript This project grew out of a seminar on postcolonial urban studies taught by my now supervisor Ashley Dawson. In it, I saw Indian filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998) and noticed how different it was from the U.S.-based gangster narratives I knew, such as the Godfather trilogy and The Sopranos. In a course that sought to supplement and correct understandings of urbanization and political economy based in European and North American contexts, it seemed to me that assumptions about the gangster genre and the informal politics and economies it represents needed to be clarified too.
In retrospect, my dissertation was also substantially influenced by the intro-to-doctoral-studies seminar I took that same academic year with my now committee member Robert Reid-Pharr, particularly my examination of how the COINTELPRO campaign against the Black Panthers was a key precedent for the post-9/11 U.S. repression of Muslim-identified people (read excerpts here, here, and here). The archival research that produced that analysis committed me to a method that would later put me in the National Film Archive of India and various South African repositories, while my focus on the U.S. state’s surveillance and repression of insurgent political movements continues in my attention to the appropriation and neutralization of struggles for change by state-backed institutions such as the public university.
In addition to subsequent courses and discussions with Ashley and Robert, I worked out significant aspects of this project with fellow committee members Peter Hitchcock (in a crucial class on African cinema that gave rise to my Johannesburg chapter) and Sadia Abbas, my outside reader who first got me thinking about the politics of genre in the electives I took with her during my MFA studies at Rutgers-Newark. And Eric Lott, who served on my orals committee, greatly enhanced my understanding of the political economic development of both New York City and the U.S. (and global) South.
I presented two excerpts from my dissertation in separate sessions (one which I co-organized with Neelofer Qadir) at the January 2018 Modern Language Association convention, and I’ve presented other excerpts at the 2016 Union for Democratic Communications conference and the Graduate Center’s 2016 Early Research and Scholarship Conference. My peer-reviewed commentary in Social Text in 2015 preliminarily sounded themes that are now central to my work, and my most recent “public” writing, “Settler Marxism and the Murdered and Missing Revolutionary Actors,” based on remarks I gave at the galvanizing 2016 symposium “The Work of Settler Colonialism,” signals my thinking on indigeneity, race, gender, and violence across the continents known as North America and Africa—indeed, across the world.
Finally, this project is inseparable from my teaching, service, and organizing at the City University of New York over the last five years and counting. My 2013 undergraduate composition course on stop-and-frisk, for instance, was an early experiment in a more praxis-oriented pedagogy that redounds in my New York City chapter informed in part by the disciplinary disciplining of black students, while the 2014 colloquium I organized on “Critical Diversities and/in the Academy: Thought and Practice,” inspired by the critical diversity work undertaken by my peers in the Ph.D. program in English, hosted four incredibly generative discussions led by scholar-activists who remain models. Meanwhile, my five years of organizing with the CUNY Adjunct Project continues to pay appreciable dividends in all facets of my academic (and non-academic) labor, not least in my ever-expanding knowledge of how inequality is managed, by the state, capital, and labor aristocracy, through divided tiers of people.