Possession is a complex phenomenon that takes multiple forms, both material (land, money, bodies) and incorporeal (knowledge, reputation, lineage). It conveys a variety of meanings (economic, emotional, legal, medical, political, spiritual, sexual, territorial). It implies a gendered relationship of power between possessor and possessed. Historically, societies have understood children, women, queer people, and men from subordinated classes, castes, races, and religions to be particularly susceptible to possession: the condition of being controlled, seized, and owned as property, as well as the state of being dominated or inhabited by a spirit. Possessed people are often ascribed the status and condition of femininity, incapacity, vulnerability, and/or dependency.

Yet, possession in its religious connotation also means to invoke, access, and channel power and authority that the possessed are otherwise denied. The very state of being controlled by a divine or otherworldly force—of losing the autonomous self and submitting to the will of another—allows the possessed, if only temporarily, to transgress prescriptive norms and categories, express forbidden desires, and engage in what are often viewed as deviant and subversive patterns of social behavior and relations. As an act of communicating with the immaterial world, spirit possession also sustains relations and communities across temporal boundaries, reanimating and reclaiming ties to and memories of human and nonhuman kin. As such, possession is a potent site in which to challenge the logic of secular modernity, heteropatriarchy, and the (neo)liberalism of individualism and private ownership. Possession is a modality of disempowerment, but potentially of empowerment and refusal too.

Over the last decade, a growing body of literature has emerged on the cultures, histories, landscapes, laws, economies, and politics of dispossession that interrogates racial capitalist, (neo)colonial, and heteropatriarchal modes of accumulation by dispossession. The subject of possession has not become a widespread subject of feminist, queer scholarship in the way that dispossession has. This seminar will explore feminist and queer frameworks for analyzing and theorizing possession and its intersectional dynamics. How might feminist and queer analyses of possession complement and complicate existing understandings of dispossession and how it ought to be studied and redressed? How might feminist and queer approaches to possession diverge?


2023-2024 IRW Seminar Fellows

2023-2024 Seminar Schedule

2024-2025 Seminar Call