My research investigates three fault lines of contemporary politics and culture—race, gender, and ability—through what I call “fracture zones”: the fragile areas that emerge from and surround divisions between people. I think of these unsteady fields as latticework: sets of flexible interstices that respond to and shape material and conceptual struggle over the dominant (and dominating) classifications of human life. I emphasize my pairing of struggle and instability: fracture zones, like abstract structures, are simultaneously both strong and weak. Although they can stay intact for long periods of time, fracture zones are constituted by multiple points of stress and vulnerability. At any moment the ground can collapse—and with it, the fault line, too.
As my geographical analogy here suggests, my research is grounded by land and its transformations by racial capitalism and settler colonialism, the conjoined systems of modern world-making that have shaped global political economy, governance, and social relations since 1492. But the work of analogy, befitting my normative disciplinary location in English and literary studies, is of equal importance to my scholarship, because metaphor is a key form of imagination across human classification. Indeed, the success of literature as an imperial-cum-global project of social relation has turned creative fiction—manufactured truth—into arguably the main intermediary through which people understand one another.
Truth claims are at the heart of my most advanced research project, my dissertation, which examines the fracture zone of crime. In Original Gangsters: Genre, Crime, and the Violences of Settler Democracy, I offer a new theory of genre that elaborates the interconnected role of narrative typology in entertainment products and representative governance. Building on scholarship from Black studies, colonial and postcolonial studies, American studies, and Indigenous studies on the constituent influences of racial capitalism and settler colonialism on liberal democracy, I argue that political economic actors benefit from the tendency of subaltern political and cultural expressions to be consumed by dominant forms of representation and obscured into mainstream genres.
The gangster genre is paradigmatic of this sleight of hand: despite its source in contemporaneous anti-imperial movements in southern Europe (à la Gramsci) and South Asia (à la Guha)—which I connect to the resistance of enslaved and Indigenous communities in the U.S. South and southern Africa—its global renown comes from U.S. narratives about white ethnics skirting the law as they operate informal companies. This negotiation with the racial-capitalist/settler-colonial state, however, is starkly different from the carceral and other disciplining faced by racialized people branded as criminals, gangsters, or thugs for participating in informal survival economies shaped by political disenfranchisement and stolen resources. Yet instead of addressing criminalized people’s needs, liberal institutions such as the police, civil society, and the entertainment industry appropriate and mystify their struggles, forestalling structural change.
Given my training in English and its circulation via the routes of empire, I anchor the dissertation in three contemporary case studies linked by British imperialism: the first set in India, the second in South Africa, the third in the U.S. Altogether, my investigation of the power dynamics of genre, gangsterism, and political representations will contribute to 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 settler democracy.
My next book project, Free Your Mind: Drugs, Security, and the Alien World, will take up the fracture zone of mind-altering substances by analyzing the political and psychic economies of pharmaceuticals across the spectrum of legality, use, and trade. This investigation takes off from my dissertation’s latent focus on the outlaw drug industry and its connections to state and social violence on the one hand and south-south networks, racializations, and labor exchanges on the other. Free Your Mind will examine these relations over the longue durée of racial capitalist-settler colonial modernity in its global dimensions, homing in on three overarching entanglements: opium, indenture, and what I’ve termed the “(post)colonial pain control” necessitated by sub-human labor; drug addiction and the trauma of structural violence enacted on the everyday scale of communities and personal lives; and the possibilities of emancipation through mind expansion.
Primary texts will include Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy and Roberto Bolaño’s epic 2666; Freud’s cocaine diaries and Castaneda’s peyote writings; Peter Kramer’s Listening to Prozac and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation; Indigenous philosophies of shamanism, medicine, and cosmology; archival materials in English and Spanish; and Parliament’s Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow, Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Uprising, En Vogue’s Funky Divas (whose single “Free Your Mind” samples the title track of the Parliament album), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Secondary sources will include emerging scholarship challenging orthodox understandings of addiction; uncovering the role of psychiatry and prescription drugs in U.S. biopolitical management; and analyzing the deeply rooted psychodynamics of empire. I am currently researching this project and will pursue it further after completing my dissertation.