Leslie Alexander

History, Rutgers-New Brunswick
How We Got Here: Slavery and the Making of the Modern Police State

Leslie Alexander small image In the United States, surveillance and policing in Black communities have always operated as a form of possession, a desperate attempt to assert white patriarchal authority over Black people and to contain the quest for Black freedom. This pattern emerged during the formation of colonial America, persisted throughout the era of enslavement, and continues well into the twenty-first century. My proposed project documents slavery’s laws, policies, and practices to illustrate how colonial authorities cultivated a system of surveillance designed to extract labor, loyalty, and submission from the enslaved. It also explores the complex web of legal codes, patrols, and militias that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to track and govern Black people’s lives in sickening detail. In so doing, they created a precedent for state policing and social control that has possessed and haunted future generations of Black people in America.


Ethel Brooks

Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Rutgers-New Brunswick
Possessions, Encampments and Palmographies: Romani Knowledges of Worldmaking

Ethel Brooks small imageThis project explores Romani gendered worldmaking, encampment, and intimate archives as practices of everyday life, intergenerational knowledge production, and survival. In this work, I write I draw from my own family histories, stories, and practices of intimacy, taking seriously the ways in which we embody and are embodied by our ancestors, as a practice of possession. We call upon our ancestors, our foremothers, to possess us, even as we work to possess our histories and shared sense of being through collective memory, on the one hand, and passing down stories, artifacts, and ancestral knowledges with our communities, on the other. This project foregrounds the gendered possessions, invocations, and claimstakings that take place as we draw upon our pasts and invent our collective futures. These gendered possessions are central to Romani femme world making and are even more crucial given the absence of Romani people and our histories from dominant historical narratives.


Leah DeVun

History, Rutgers-New Brunswick
Kindred Spirits: Memory, Queer Archives, and the Meaning of History

Leah DeVun small imageIn the wake of resurgent anti-LGBTQ repression and violence, historians and their readers find tremendous meaning in identifying LGBTQ “ancestors” in the past and documenting their lives. In their search for ancestors, however, LGBTQ scholars are often forced to reckon with the limitations of the historical archive. The few textual sources that survive are fragmentary and problematic, and they drastically limit the stories that we can tell using traditional, historicist methods. What do we do when the histories we need are unrecorded or unrecoverable? Some scholars have embraced creative and even radical approaches to fill in the silences of the historical record and to create narratives about the past. My proposed fellowship project examines attempts to recover history through spirit possession, prophecy, mediumship, and other forms of otherworldly communication. This proposed project analyzes a long history of spirit possession, from the medieval to the modern, and it explores how groups make claims about the possession of history -- that is, who owns or controls historical memory.


Allan Punzalan Isaac

American Studies and English, Rutgers-New Brunswick
Death, Dying, Diaspora and Other Worlds

Allan Isaac small image“Death, Dying, Diaspora, and Other Worlds” explores through cultural works various social formations and reimaginings that have emerged in response to Filipino diasporics at the end of their lives: the refitting of Philippine funeral homes to accommodate families working abroad; films about how workers’ deaths are reabsorbed into nationalist discourse; and how a Filipino American writer explores the sensations of dying through the feminized aswang monster figure that too migrates across the Pacific to possess the dying daughter of the family. The paper for the IRW seminar “Possession” discusses the work of queer, Philippine-based, installation and movement artist, Leeroy New, who explores the science fiction of diasporic movement in his global works, the “Mebuyan” installation works and the “Aliens of Manila” series. New connects the precarities of both environment and human bodies in fusing organic and inorganic, dying and living material, material and immaterial, stasis and movement, disposability and permanence—as mutually constitutive in creating and evoking the otherworldly and other worlds.


Alexander Liebman

Geography, Rutgers-New Brunswick
Land Dispossession, Plant Possession: Tracing Women and Youth Campesino Refusal and Plant Mysticism in norte del Cauca, Colombia

Alexander Liebman small imageIndustrialization and urbanization have led many political theorists to proclaim the “end of the agrarian question” in the 21st century, where peasantries have disappeared or fail to influence political-economic processes. Throughout the global South, however, dispossession and enclosure have occurred unevenly, with ongoing resistance to industrialization. In norte del Cauca, Colombia marijuana and coca-producing campesinos engage in struggles for recognition, occupy land, and practice care and community reproduction stitched together with urban transformations and transnational illicit economies. How might being possessed – by land, by plants, by intergenerational sociality – thwart dispossession and craft new bodily and territorial politics? I explore how campesinos’ use of plant medicine yagé opens spaces of queer(ed) possession reformulating more-than-human and intersubjective relations, challenging narratives of urbanization, land loss, and family disintegration. Plant mysticism articulated with campesino struggle reimagines territory and care outside autopoetic pathologization of campesino victimhood produced by the State and mainstream social sciences.


Mich Ling

Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Rutgers-New Brunswick
Settling Land, Alienating Labor

Mich Ling small imageThrough historical and cultural analysis of different institutions–legal, academic, and domestic–my research theorizes East Asian diasporic femmes as treacherous subjects that embody a set of racial and sexual contradictions in the present. When framed within settler colonial, imperialist and capitalist systems, East Asian diasporas are perilous and imperiled; a monstrous, feminized abstraction whose labor is excessively efficient and often, destructive. In “Settling Land, Alienating Labor,” I look at the ways that settler colonial and capitalist logics of possession forge East Asian diasporic femme subjectivities and histories. I do this through two comparative analyses—the first looks at the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tōhoku region of Japan. The second builds off these contexts through an analysis of the fictional works Thousand Years of Gold (the story of Polly Bemis) and A Tale for the Time Being. Both narratives are about East Asian diasporic femmes whose relationship to land is shaped through crisis (both natural and manufactured) and the subsequent forms of precarity and possession (hauntings, sex work, queer desire) that are animated in their aftermath.


Donna Murch

History, Rutgers-New Brunswick
Grandmothers as Care Givers: The Crack Crisis and War on Drugs in Late Twentieth Century Los Angeles

Donna Murch small imageAs an IRW Seminar fellow, I will present a section of my current book, Crack in Los Angeles: Policing the Crisis and the War on Drugs, that focuses on how cash poor and working-class communities of color negotiated the effects of Los Angeles’ brutal punishment campaigns against drugs and gangs. Essential to this story is the role played by multiple generations of women, who often bore the direct effects of incarceration and family separation, as well as the devastating impact of a public health epidemic. Not content to tell the story of the war on drugs exclusively through top down state archives, my book also explores a grassroots social history of the war on drugs’ effects on children, family and caregivers who bore much of the weight of state violence and developed essential survival strategies to fight it. At the center of this history is an exploration of the grandmother as caregiver and the ways in which alternate forms of family and social reproduction emerged in response to the drug wars. One of the most compelling (and disturbing) aspects of the paper will explore how the Los Angeles Police Department sought to co-opt the care work of mothers and grandmothers through its community policing and public relations campaigns.


Ileana Nachescu

Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Rutgers-New Brunswick
Socialism’s Possessions: Gender, Race, and Class in a Society of Equals

Ileana Nachescu small imageFor the IRW Seminar 2023-2024,I am proposing a two-pronged project: a memoir of growing up during state socialism in Romania, and a book of scholarly essays on the process of narrating socialism in a framework that subverts Cold War-era binary oppositions between the abundant possessions (physical and immaterial) of the West and the presumed socialist dispossession of Eastern Europe. The memoir examines subject formation and relationships with the material world, nature, and community in a world where collective possession was the norm. An innocent visit to the past is of course impossible, and thus the book of essays, guided by intersectional and postcolonial feminisms and feminist critiques of neoliberalism, interrogates the politics of remembering socialism for Generation Z, who have only experienced neoliberal capitalism in the West, and who have shown an interest in socialism.


Hilit Surowitz Israel

Religion, Rutgers-New Brunswick
The Spirit’s Hand: Georgiana Houghton, Spiritualist Art, and Possession as a Subversion of Euro-Western Religious 'Modernity'

Hilit small imageMy project is a critical engagement of the intersection of possession, art, and gender in the life and works of Georgiana Houghton, a little-known nineteenth-century British Spiritualist painter. All of Houghton’s paintings were composed when she was possessed by spirits, some of whom resided in her parlor and with whom she had an intimate relationship. Houghton’s artistic work is not only interesting as she produces Europe’s first abstract paintings but because they are a site of her subversion of the Victorian norms of her era. First, she explains that they are all drawn while she is possessed, a dalliance with the supernatural not supported by the rigid norms of the Anglican Church. Second, they are a challenge to the European art world and the realist paintings of the period. Third, the “spinster” Houghton rebuked the expectations of womanhood and marriage of the Victorian Era choosing a life committed to conducting seances, producing Spiritualist art, and taking an active and public role in the Spiritualist Church. Finally, Houghton was often possessed by the male dead and was charged with “speaking” for them. Thereby revealing an interesting site of gender play.


Palak Vashist

Childhood Studies, Rutgers-Camden
Revisiting the Colonial State’s 'Possession': A study of Women in the Bombay Cotton Textile Mills (1880-1920)

Palak small imageThis paper attempts to critically examine the condition of women workers and the girl child in the textile mills of Bombay in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the lens of “possession” by the colonial state and its policies of labor regulation. The idea is to explore possession at three levels. First, the vulnerable position of women in the colonial narrative serves as an explanation for paternalistic protection. Second, the economic possession of women with absolute control over wages, factory space, and working hours. Lastly, the gendered relationship of power between the employer and the employee. The attempt is to revise the rich historiography of Bombay through the lens of “possession” to explore the gendered nature of the cotton textile mills.



Additional Seminar Participants

Susan Marchand (Douglass Alumna)
Victoria Papa (IRW Visiting Scholar, Spring 2024)
Sara Perryman (IRW Undergraduate Learning Community Coordinator)
Brendane Tynes (Mellon Sawyer Fellow)


Chie Ikeya
Director, Institute for Research on Women

Sarah Tobias
Executive Director, Institute for Research on Women