As co-Director of the Program in Critical Theory, I work at the intersections of Asian American studies, psychoanalytic critique, feminist and queer theory, and postcolonial studies. I am interested in questions of racialization, regulation of gender and sexuality, and politics of resistance -- from the late 19th century decline of British colonial rule in the Indian Ocean through to the Pacific and the rise of American global power in the 20th century.
Currently, I'm working on book about America’s long obsession with Indian spirituality and why so often those groups come to be called cults. Fascination: America's "Indian" Cults argues that our current cultural investments in yoga and mindfulness have a much longer and deeper-seated history going all the way back to the early republic. It enquires into the practices and philosophies seemingly imported from India, but in fact homegrown, that so enthrall an America public and that continue to shape its racial and spiritual self-conception. Our conception of “Indian” spirituality is in fact a very long experiment in American self-invention. This project is deeply invested in understanding what truly fascinates us about communities and spiritualities that offer total belief and total enthrallment-- even and especially as we might claim that we would never ourselves join.
My other current project, Bengal to Berkeley, looks at conspiracy as a legal, philosophical, and political concept to understand the rise of the surveillance of "bad" racial and sexual subjects in WWI America.
An Empire of Touch: Women's Political Labor & The Fabrication of East Bengal (Columbia University Press, 2019), my first book, was awarded the Harry Levin Prize for outstanding first book by the American Comparative Literature Association in 2020 and the Helen Tartar First Book Subvention Prize (2017). A South Asia imprint by Penguin Random House (2019) is available here. I am affiliated faculty in the Program in Gender & Women’s Studies; Center for Race & Gender; LGBTQ Citizenship Cluster; AARC; Institute for South Asia Studies. I also serve on the editorial boards of Representations and the Critical South book series.
I earned my BA in International Relations (Development Economics) and English from Mount Holyoke College and my PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
My current book project, Fascination: America's Hindu Cults considers the allure and scandal of so-called “Hindu cults” in America. This book upends the geography of encounter between the United States and India by tracing the transmission and elaboration of figures, ideas, and social forms seemingly imported from India, but in fact homegrown. In America, Hindu cults have long enthralled the public imagination and fundamentally shaped its racial and spiritual self-conception.
Working across material that ranges from correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to the docuseries Wild, Wild Country (2018), Fascination tracks what the oft-pathologized and occasionally criminalized genealogy of particularly Indian spirituality might tell us about changing American concepts of the individual, kinship and family, sexuality, and law. It considers both threats posed by charismatic figures who invite followers to join intentional communities and the language of cultic deprogramming—returning one to oneself—to understand the psychosocial and political work of the category of the individual. Fundamentally, this project engages a central problem of humanistic inquiry: how to think critically about a concept and a set of historical figurations that demand either total self-abnegation or unwavering doubt. That is, how do we take seriously the experiential reality—affective, sensorial, social—expressed by adherents of being moved, of being cured, of being radically seen and loved, without diagnosing misrecognition, deception, or illusion? Or, without ourselves becoming enthralled? This is a matter of reading—distant and close.