Poulomi Saha

2016 Hellman Fellow


Assistant Professor, English
UC Berkeley

Project Title: Object Imperium and Global Theory Collaboration

Project Title: Object Imperium: Gender, Political Feeling, and the Making of East Bengal

Object Imperium: Gender, Political Feeling, and the Making of East Bengal examines the legibility of female political subjectivity in the postcolonial imagination. It turns to East Bengal, the historical antecedent of Bangladesh, which is today an exemplar of the international development state, to write a new narrative of political labor under empire that spans from anticolonial nationalism to neoliberal globalization. It focuses on women’s desire as a political force. Object Imperium shows that the material and affective work of women in East Bengal, on which the nationalist endeavors of India and Bangladesh have critically depended, engenders forms of attachment that disrupt established accounts of the rise of a postcolonial political modernity oriented towards the individual, rational actor and the nation-state. Object Imperium argues that, while the colonial and state archive cannot adequately account for articulations of female political desire, the public life of feeling is captured in the objects of women’s labor. Thus, Object Imperium reads a gathered archive of materiality—from textile to text, statue to sewing machine—to demonstrate the encounter between bodies and objects as a negotiation with technologies of representation that govern the legibility of political work.

In the face of scholarly trends towards the Anglophonic and planetary, Object Imperium argues that a local, material history of women’s labor in East Bengal reconceptualizes transnationalism as a locally-rooted, deeply-entangled affective category, rather than a spatial or cosmopolitan one. The intervention of this book is particularly timely and exigent given recent international scrutiny of Bangladesh following the spate of catastrophic factory incidents, as well as extrajudicial killings of intellectuals, secularists, and bloggers. Comparisons to 19th century industrial disasters in the global north stunt Bangladesh outside of the neoliberal modernity it clothes. Textiles, woven through Object Imperium’s five chapters, are perhaps the most significant referent of East Bengal; from the 18th century Dhaka muslin that constituted one of empire’s most valuable commodities to the ready-made knitwear that today dominates the Bangladeshi economy and global exports, cotton fabric materializes a history of intimate politics on and of the body that neither presupposes nor promises the sovereign, individual subject. Like the handloom khadi made famous by Gandhi, the material objects of women’s labor have been central to the fantasy of postcolonial autonomy even as women themselves appear at the antipodes of the public sphere as disruptions—hypersexual, overattached, incoherent. This book argues that these apparent excesses and failures in fact reconceive the terms of self-determination and the political.


“Support from the Hellman Fellows Fund will not only allow me to complete my first book monograph, Object Imperium, but will fund a collaborative workshop on critical theory with scholars from the global south that aims to speak to broad range of theory in the humanities outside of the American academy.”