Symposium Introduction

H. Stallings’s Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures is a “book that one should read as well as feel; hear as much as see, touch and taste; and forsee as well as see” (xvi). It is an ambitious, sensual, and deeply engaging text that traverses black studies, women’s studies, queer theory, and performance studies, taking funk as an analytic and method that challenges the imagined universal applicability of the erotic. Instead, Stallings asks readers to consider the superfreak, sexual magic, and sex work (to name just a few sites the book lingers in) and celebrates “funky erotixxx” or “sacred-profane androgynies” that “create identity and subjectivity anew and alter political and artistic movements” (xii), and centers funk as a theoretical framework that can help us encounter work and sexuality in new and more complex ways. As Stallings notes, the book is about funk—but not about funk music necessarily—instead, it centers on the “etymological triad for funk”: smell, dance and embodiment, and mood. In other words, it treats funk “as a philosophy that usurps the divide between eros (life) and thanatos (death) since it is sustained by otherly human and nonhuman beliefs in the supernatural, afterlife, and reanimation” (3). In Stallings’s hands, funk becomes a critical analytic for examining black erotics as power and liberation, for studying “new sensoriums and ways of being that cannot and do not align with Western traditions of humanism” (11).

The contributors to this forum take up much of what is rich and complex about Stallings’s work, and I want to add one more. I want to underscore the project of writing itself, funking the academic monograph, as central to what Stallings is up to, and to consider what it might mean for black studies and women’s studies to encounter a book that begins with epigraphs from Ralph Ellison and Vanessa Del Rio, a book that tells its readers that if it were possible, it would be “encased in a hard cover made of feathers, cotton, or fur, and printed with embossed letters in deep purple or red on silk paper scented with jasmine, patchouli, Egyptian night, or some other incense ‘real black’ people love” (xvi). This is a book that collapses binaries, that jams disciplinary borders, that is promiscuous with theory and method, and thus imagines not just new forms of black sexual freedoms, but new practices of writing about black erotics.

Amber Musser

Response

Sex, Sensation, and Funky Pleasures

In Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures, LaMonda Horton-Stallings rewrites our understanding of pleasure by presenting us with an epistemology based on sensation. Horton-Stallings is explicit about the politics of this move, positioning it as a “rejection of the Western will to truth, or the quest to produce a truth about sexuality” in favor of “demonstrat[ing] how some black cultural producers have strategized against the sexual con of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy outside of politics” (xii). The knowledge that comes through and with bodies, then, forms the basis for a rescripting of labor, pleasure, and sexuality.

That sensation produces surplus, often uncontainable knowledge, is something that is beginning to be explored in various arenas of queer theory. This is territory that I broached in my book, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, when I treated the sensations attributed to masochism as a way to analyze different types of relationships to power. In that project, sensation acted as a diagnostic tool for understanding some of the different ways that race, gender, and sexuality intersect. Other recent work, such as the “On the Visceral” double issue of GLQ, edited by Sharon P. Holland, Marcia Ochoa, and Kyla Wazana Tompkins, uses sensation as a way to probe abjection and trouble the dichotomy between interiority and exteriority by examining the gut as a locus of knowledge production. Similarly, “The Haptic: Textures of Performance” issue of Women and Performance, edited by Rizvana Bradley, tackles questions of sensation by exploring the politics behind texture and its relationship to politics and affect. In these projects, querying sensation becomes a way to understand the ways in which orders of knowledge become imprinted on the body. Importantly, this form of body mapping also becomes a way to perform a new type of queer of color critique by illuminating the contours of racialization and gender on what counts as knowledge.

Horton-Stallings extends these conversations about where knowledge resides in the body and pushes for a revaluation of funk—a loose conglomeration of sensations generally associated with negative affects. Funk, she writes, is “a rewriting of smell and scene away from nineteenth-century ordering and socialization of corporeal power that represses what stinks, but that does not mean it lacks intelligence or spirituality; rather, it provides other paradigms of intellect and spirit” (6). Funk rejects colonial and Western orders of knowledge and privilege and produces its own landscape of sexuality, spirituality, and feeling. Funk touches on the non-linguistic space of the visceral—where bodies meet structure—in addition to surpassing it by rearranging what we think of as sensation itself. Horton-Stallings writes, “Funk’s move to reorder senses by privileging smell and internal kinetic energy in black communities leads us to other possibilities and configurations of bodies, psychically and affectively determined by how senses are ordered. . . . In funk, we might add to that list nociception, temporal perception, interioception, and other extrasensory perceptions (knowledge gained and processed from the interior and exterior)—hence funk’s futuristic implications” (14). This rearrangement of knowledge, sensation, and politics is what Horton-Stallings terms transaesthetics. Transaesthetics is a rejection of the separation between the mind and body and a way to describe the politics of funk.

One of the most radical implications of this political reordering is what it does to the relationship between pleasure and labor. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s separation of ars erotica from scientia sexualis, Horton-Stallings argues that contemporary regimes of sexuality are built on the idea that pleasure and labor are separate entities; funk, on the other hand, illustrates their inseparability, thereby reorganizing the lines that scholars have assumed exist between pleasure, labor, race, and sexuality. At the heart of this murkiness is funk’s ability to broaden our conception of who is a sex worker, what sex work is, and the possibility of imagination. Sex work, as Funk the Erotic tells us, has traditionally been condemned because of its association with the physical. A funky reading of sex, however, refuses to separate sex’s physical labors from its philosophical and domestic aspects. This holistic version of sex enlarges the category of the sex worker, refuses stigma, and reconnects the mind and body. Horton-Stallings writes, “We must reimagine and reconsider the terms and conditions because of the way the current connotations consistently separate and divide physical and intellectual sex labor and because of the way society hierarchically ranks and devalues the people who perform the physical labor while legitimizing the women who perform the intellectual and domestic labor, as if they could never be doing all three forms” (16). In a world in which all engagement with sex can be classified as sex work, pleasure cannot and should not be severed from labor and racial hierarchies that separate mind and body (or science from erotica) are nullified. From this point onward, Horton-Stallings promises (and delivers) a world of freakery and imagination where mind-bodies produce and emerge from stank.

I am most intrigued by this new version of a sex worker not only because I am hailed by its terms as a queer theorist, but I am compelled by the ways in which it insists that labor and sensation be thought together. Though Roderick Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black positions queer of color critique as an epistemological rupture of capitalism and the state through its exposure of the norms of whiteness and heteropatriarchy, Horton-Stallings is explicit about what this reordering feels like. By insisting on the inseparability of mind and body, sensation becomes the primary arena for producing a different order of sexuality. That is to say, that this is not a critique of neoliberalism, but a profound reorganization of Western knowledge as a whole. Before we arrive at capitalism, we have to tackle the mind-body issue and its relationship to racial hierarchy. Additionally by arguing that this mode of critique is already present and accessible through funk, Horton-Stallings opens the space for an immediate sensual imagination and awakening. That this reorganization happens through smell is particularly apt because it vivifies a sense that most do not dwell on in order to make a point about sexuality. There is always the possibility of encountering funk, you just have to open your mind to get there.

Works Cited

Bradley, Rizvana. “The Haptic: Textures of Performance.” Women and Performance 24 (2014) 2–3.

Ferguson, Roderick. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Holland, Sharon P., et al., eds. “On the Visceral.” GLQ 20.4 and 21.1 (2014/15).

Horton-Stallings, LaMonda. Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

Musser, Amber Jamilla. Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism. New York: NYU Press, 2014.

  • LaMonda Horton-Stallings

    LaMonda Horton-Stallings

    Reply

    Funk Is Force, Not Power: Perception

    Sometimes things left unsaid have simply not been shared, or they have been edited out of the record. Other times, we wish we could have said more. These things, the ones left unsaid, unshared, or edited from the record might also become threads for other seekers of knowledge to take up and mull over. The unedited version of Funk the Erotic included a playlist, greater elaboration on stank matter and funky love, a long-ass chapter on black children and funk, and some creative matter as emblematic of funk studies’ refusal to capitulate to hierarchical approaches and quantitative scholarly methods in the study of sexuality. Hence, I am ecstatic to have the opportunity to engage the thoughtful and exciting responses offered by Amber Musser, Shana Redmond, Shanté Smalls, and Kevin Quashie, since each author addresses some aspect of the aforementioned subjects.

    Funk Is Force, Not Power: Perception

    Amber Musser summarizes queer studies’ present mood, stating, “That sensation produces surplus, often uncontainable knowledge, is something that is beginning to be explored in various arenas of queer theory.” Certainly Kyla Tompkins, Marcia Ochoa, and Sharon Holland’s introduction to their GLQ special issue “On the Visceral” solidifies such a claim, as well as expands Musser’s statement with a critique of queer studies: “We are interested less in diluting queerness than in understanding what objects that queer studies, in its most hegemonic and Western formations, obscures” (396). The editors also insist that queer studies in its most Western formations possess an inability to refuse colonial capitalist’s production of deviance. Queerness, in this hegemonic fashion, obscures the moments of disidentification with human being and the role perception plays in the utility and pleasure of sensation. Funk does not. Perception is the state of becoming aware of something “through the senses,” and it continues to be a form of knowledge disavowed in institutional formations of knowledge and disciplines. This is why in Funk the Erotic I briefly attend to imperiocorporeal perception and cognition—a simultaneous creation of new knowledge and an acquisition of knowledge through the body to counter imperialist or colonial appropriation of bodies and cultures. These were not throw-away terms or high theory hermeneutics. Sexual imperialism, sexual terrorism, and sexual violence rely upon pain and power enforced through epistemological violence. Perception goes against the grain of rationality and empiricism. Moreover, colonization of the senses and decolonization of the senses are two of the earliest ideas presented in the book, and foundational to developing major ideas throughout the book. Comprehending the significance of such colonization for empires and their systems of knowledge as it relates to gender, race, and culture is why funk was the philosophy from which to theorize.

    Masochism is another way to decolonize the senses and produce alternative knowledge about human being. Neuroscientists have been busy in the last few years proving that pain and the way it is experienced can be altered and changed. Masochism, however, might have already proven this since it is a mode of modulating perceptions of pain. In Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, Musser insists that “. . . subjectivity, sexuality and agency[:] Masochism provides insight into this nexus because it forces us to attend to all three at once” (153). Musser’s book examines sensation in masochism to further comprehension about power in regards to race, sexuality, class, and gender. She then asks, “Can the possibilities of masochism as sexual exceptionalism/subversion . . . extend to black women?” (154). My experience with writing Funk the Erotic and theorizing about the transaesthetics of black sexual cultures compels me to answer in the affirmative. Specifically, in one chapter I note that masochism interrupts the biopolitical narratives shaping discourses about subjectivity, sexuality, and agency in regards to family and domesticity.

    In addition, developing an approach to black sexuality centered on aesthetics and affect of black art meant that I had to consistently write against and in conversation with the painful tensions around politics, identity, and agency established by white histories of sexuality immersed in biopower. Linking debates about labor with examinations of sensation led to more complex interrogations of agency that could exceed concerns of representation alone that seek to keep intact social pathologies and policies where the biopolitical dominates. In expanding upon and in agreement with Musser’s reading, this is exactly why current scholarship does turn to sensation as a way to offer new theories about sexual freedom, sovereignty, and expression distinct from sexuality erected under regimes of sexual imperialism. Musser implores that we come up with empathetic readings, make flesh matter, and see “how power can be embodied” (153). The emphasis on sensation by Musser and others allows scholars to keep emphasizing the relevance and significance of quotidian knowledge production that is so readily dismissed in policy with regards to sexuality, gender, race, and class. It also comments upon the modes of empowerment that are not epistemic. With regards to sexuality there is already quite a bit of knowledge produced by everyday people who are not academics. This knowledge production happens in the popular culture realm of music, film, television, sex work, nightclubs, and theaters. However, society seldom values such efforts as knowledge production. Understanding the link between Western embodiment and its devotion to capitalism is at the center of Funk the Erotic’s belief that action is the result of affect and thought in process. Sensation and viscerality become all the more important in regards to the modes of production now predominantly in the realm of digital and biological. Labor itself keeps changing, but in focusing on sensation we can meticulously take notice of the shifts: such awareness is necessary for rebelling against capitalism and its consumption of black bodies, culture, and perception.

Shana Redmond

Response

But She’s a Freak Though

An Engagement with Funk the Erotic

As much as I wanted to, I didn’t smell this book. There were no odors, sensual or otherwise to entice me like the beckoning fingers of scent from apple pies or porridge in the Saturday morning cartoons. The funk that seeps through pores was delivered to me otherwise. Funk is a hybrid form and method; it is, as L. H. Stallings argues, “a multisensory and multidimensional philosophy capable of dismantling systems of labor that organize race and sexuality for commercial profit” (14). My muscle memory is in my ears, that sometime sexual organ that can send its possessor into ecstasy with the opening up of a key change or the sound of the singer’s breath on a sensitive microphone. So I listened to the book and my ears tingled with each new chapter, arousing new discographies of dreams and desires from singers and emcees whose relationships to the erotic are multiple and uneven. From the clap and beat drop in Jill Scott’s “Crown Royal” (2007) that vibrates the center of the pelvis to Meshell Ndegeocello’s (1999) repetitive (and gender absent) declaration of “Only you satisfy me” to the nonverbal exhortations of Abbey Lincoln whose screams on “Triptych” (1960), I now know, are not solely reflective of her breaking point in a white supremacist society but also of her funky discontent with marriage (chapter 4), these women sound eroticism in ways innumerable and convince us that “funky black freaks understand sexuality and sexual difference as originating elsewhere; that is, outside the body” (34).

The palimpsestic freaksongs are loud in Funk the Erotic, leaping from the page and refusing efforts to suppress their feathered, silken, and holographic funk. Conventional wisdom (re: the geoculturally-specific shared and/or enforced knowledges of society) tells us that the “freaks” are (to be) hidden by walls and doors (as in a bedroom) or by eclipse or darkness (as at night). Though sometimes elusive or out of public view, we nonetheless surface, regularly, for the seeing and hearing, being drawn out by a funky search for the One. As Stallings traces, the freak and the funk are related; “Funk’s temporal displacement of a present work subject for a future unknowable subject led to the black reinvention of freak” (35, italics in original). This unknowability is the undercurrent and reserve of the funky Black freak and the prize on which we should set our eyes and ears, looking and listening for the Black women who reveal themselves to us in their own time through the “demonic grounds” theorized by Katherine McKittrick and mobilized by Stallings as an alternative to the discourses of sexuality overdetermined by masculine publics (both white and Black). Emcee T.I. utilized the trope of the freak after Rick James for a different generation of listeners and in the process exposed the ways in which the freak as outsider or outlaw is always self-referential. The “non-freak” is uniquely interpolated when they cast toward the freak not judgment but ecstasy. If a freak is known by their deeds, what of those who cavort with them? Those who conjure them? Who desire and consume them? Are they not freaks as well? Does it not take one to know one? And in terms of so-called heterosexual intimacies, how might funk as “force, not power” (5) upend the dynamics of sexuality as control?

The women of whom Rick James and T.I. sing won’t tell us—at least not entirely. They instead require the reading practice that Stallings models. We can’t listen to them so we have to listen for them. James (1981) famously identified Her as a “superfreak. / Superfreak. / She’s superfreaky, yeow” and used his funk to tell the story of a “very freaky girl, / from her hair down to her toenails.” Atlanta rapper Tip Harris (T.I.) picks up on James’s narrative with “Freak Though” (2004), a song from the platinum album Urban Legend. With singles on trapping, street beef, and hometown pride this song by The Neptunes was the Magic City in the soundscape of the album, yet Her narration was filtered through T.I.’s interiority as he details Her story and his decision-making process for the future of their relations. It’s Her sexual prowess and skill that best evidences Her freakdom: “They say that you a freak and I’m thinkin’ that they ’bout right / because that pussy so good and your mouth tight.” Her sexuality both repels and seduces him; even as he keeps Her under wraps for fear of encounter with her former lovers (“We can’t kick it out in public, gotta hide you / Cause all my patnas in the ’hood done tried you.”) he is turned out and wants to possess her (“She done showed me some shit that I ain’t see before / But what we do behind closed doors is for me to know”). At no moment does T.I. question his own freakiness, as if his witness to Her freak was from a distance and objective. The hook that he shares with Pharrell recites the struggle with his conscience, which is not over his way of being in the world but Her’s:

Pharrell: She got angel eyes, with a baby face.

TI: But she’s a freak though.

Pharrell: I want my mama and daddy to meet her. Maybe have my baby.

TI: But she’s a freak though.

Pharrell: They keep talkin’ about ya because they can’t keep up with your face. You’re my . .

TI: Superfreak. Superfreak.

Pharrell: You’re my . . .

TI: Superfreak.

Clearly sprung, T.I. attempts to ground his unease with his sociosexual world and response to its conventions of beauty by repeating, in a discernibly lower register than Pharrell’s falsetto, “But she’s a freak though.” His efforts to convince himself of what he’s already been trained to know is telling; in a city known for its dancers—those women who resist “written narratives about stripping that have become a type of performativity of sexual pathology” (192)—his encounter with and affection for a similarly categorized woman develops under the unique conditions of that city: the histories that it carries and knowledges that it produces. Indeed, “They find it hard to understand how could Tip love / this girl with him in and out of strip clubs.” Perhaps there is no better place than Atlanta for this Black love story to take place.

The intervention in T.I.’s story is the ultimate refusal of the hype around the freak. Informed by funk, he first establishes an alternative to his inherited heteroeconomy, saying, “It’s true that you can’t turn a ho into a housewife. / Well listen shorty, maybe I don’t want a housewife.” His recognition and dismissal of a domestic patriarchal frame both establishes another model for their ecstasy and acknowledges her ability to be and change beyond the limiting category of “housewife.” This is a reciprocal turn as he has already praised her for not “trippin’ on a nigga cause he thuggin’.” Their shared alternative economies—epitomized by the thug and the ho—are indicative of funk’s creation of “antiwork activity and postwork imaginations” (42) in which Western knowledge and wealth systems are interrupted and a “new metaphysics of political struggle” (178) produced. There is no place for admonishment, only reinvention and the reappraisal of existing ways of being. He speaks directly to Her as he explains, “The main thing that make a nigga judge you / is the same thing that make me wanna love you / from the smell of your hair when I hug you / to the way you yell ‘give it to me’ when I fuck you.” Her freedom to funk—in smell and sound alike—is the force that draws him closer, making his final decision on the issue clear: “All in all I’ve decided I’ma keep her though. / I’m a fuckin’ grown man, what I’m creepin’ for?”

While he’s decided to proceed into a future with Her, the final replay of the hook documents a nagging doubt, one that may only grow as he encounters the process of “coming out” as the lover of a freak again and again (“That’s how I feel. / Let my patnas and my mama know. / Keep it real, all the disrespect has got to go.”). The evidence that he names to establish his affection—smell and sound—are not legible to others, rightly complicating and making messy his narrative proximity to the Western vocabulary of sex and sexuality. Never once does he say that he loves Her or that She loves him (or has ever loved for that matter); this absence proposes a way of funking that does not depend on love, monogamy (“Tip girl sleepin’ wit girls / and in the mornin’ they be wakin’ up wit six girls.”) or gender legibility (“They don’t know we more like homies when we pick girls.”). Yet, T.I. relies on custody and that is the tragic flaw. Even in the midst of the possibilities available “when feelings and affect are arranged by black-Atlantic’s funk instead of Greco-Roman eros” (135) T.I. plans to “keep her,” not recognizing that funky Black freaks can’t be kept; at best, we can only be recalled, revisited, resumed. That She never appears—there’s no vocal and no video for the song—hints at the ways in which the Black freak of funk’s creation will remain a challenge to the senses, a fascination, and the undercover sage bringing new languages, feelings, and ways of being to those funky enough to stay tuned.

  • LaMonda Horton-Stallings

    LaMonda Horton-Stallings

    Reply

    Funk Is Force, Not Power: Funky Love, Solidarity & the Family Hustle

    Within the African diaspora, music functions as a method of rebellion, revolution, and future visions that disrupt and challenge the manufactured differences used to dismiss, detain, and destroy communities. The anthems developed and deployed by these communities served as articulations of defense and were so powerful that they took flight and were adopted by others. (Redmond, Anthem 1)

     

    All I wanna do is stay down for you

    But you make it so hard, bout to give up on you.

    What the fuck you gone do?

    —Tameka “Tiny” Harris, “WTFYGD”

    Redmond’s sophisticated book, Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (2013), allows me to delve into freaks’ anthems and the possible use of solidarity as a framework for repurposing marriage and marital bonds in the twenty-first century, as well as dissolutions of marriage bonds while still maintaining some sense of alternative family structures. I begin with three questions: Does solidarity come with sensation? Does sonic solidarity elicit and flame desire? What do the sounds of gender and sexual solidarity sound like when composed by freaks? Tameka “Tiny” Harris and T.I. aka TIP aka Clifford Joseph Harris comprise one of hip-hop’s most interesting examples of funky love. As a couple familiar with stank matter and least consolidated around respectability politics, they provide an example from which answers to the previously mentioned questions can be offered. Married six of the twenty years they have been together, both have enjoyed music careers and reality television stints: they have also dealt with criminal court cases, divorce rumors, and the everyday living and raising of a family. At the writing of this response, divorce rumors persist1 in connection with repeated rumors of infidelity and open marriage, the FBI’s confiscation of sex tapes depicting all manner of freakery, and leaked footage of not-so-respectable and queer interactions that suggest that both T.I. and Tiny keep trying to figure out a way to upend the dynamics of sexuality as control and the tragic flaw of custody in “She’s a Freak Though” (2004) that Redmond takes up in her analysis.

    I open my response with Tiny’s lyrics to answer Redmond’s close reading of T.I.’s “She’s a Freak Though” as it is informed by ideas in Funk the Erotic. I do so not because T.I.’s song was explicitly about his longtime lover, now wife (though it quite possibly could be), or because this is her response to any of the songs he has made, in which he publicly speculates about her fidelity while mulling over his lack of control over her while he is incarcerated and free. However, I do read these two musicians as being architects of sonic solidary shaped by black funk’s freak. Redmond knows black funk, and her questions demonstrate the distinct difference of black funk’s freak and its contestation of gender and sexual norms. In opposition to a narrative that would gender freaks as female/feminine subjects alone, Redmond asks, “If a freak is known by their deeds, what of those who cavort with them? Those who conjure them? Who desire and consume them? Are they not freaks as well? Does it not take one to know one? And in terms of so-called heterosexual intimacies, how might funk as ‘force, not power’ (5) upend the dynamics of sexuality as control?” Her argument arises from a sensorium iteration of freak that refuses the biopolitical manifestations of the Victorian freak. This is a sonic iteration of freak that understands how relationality and encounter become themes in freak anthems. Consequently, they produce a sound of solidarity that refuses conservative Western formations of family and marriage, which rely upon sexuality as control. Redmond’s own project, as well as her assessments of T.I.’s “She’s a Freak Though,” enables me to provide evidence to support such claims.

    While Funk the Erotic does not necessarily create sound-politics, it does allow anyone to broach questions about the intersection of solidarity with sexuality and gender, in addition to subsequent comments about sensation, labor, and literacy, that would enable women to figure out what the fuck to do in the face of hetero-economies that continue to under-develop Black America. Women’s bodies are always in contention in publicly regulated intimacy and relationships, and this premise can be seen whether the conditions are heterosexual, homosexual, or group arrangements. Solidarity, however, asks for something else, and teaches something else. What are the dimensions of solidarity in a public institution such as marriage that regulates intimacy, family formation, and women’s mobility? It’s the chain of custody and ideologies of owning that Redmond notes as the tragic flaw in T.I.’s anthem, but what if the song does not end there. What if the song was only the beginning of a conversation that freaks are open to: sounds of solidarity that accepts struggle as useful.

    In Anthem, Redmond writes about black anthems the way Patti Labelle sings about love and longing—with force and control before the stilettos are kicked off in preparation for climax and crescendo. Labelle never needed to drop a mike because she was too busy coming undone. Anthems, Redmond explains, can position individuals to come undone, specifically when she argues that anthems “symbolize and call into being a system of sociopolitical ideas or positions” (2). Later, she notes that anthems “require subscription to a system of beliefs that stir and organize the receivers of the music” (2). Freaks may not have organizations such as the NAACP, UNIA, ANC, but Redmond’s ideas of collective listening are what she attends to when she says that T.I. accepts and engages the trope of the Superfreak left by previous generations. This trope, as I claimed in Funk the Erotic, incorporates acceptance of funky love and stank matter so as to possibly allow black people to rearrange family structures in ways that defy the pathologization of the Moynihan Report. In her astute reading of T.I.’s “She a Freak Though,” Redmond allows us to further elaborate and follow up on this point in ways especially relevant to hip-hop generations and the potential of their freak anthems to throw into disarray future visions of domesticity. Specifically, we can think about what gender and sexual solidarity look like when those involved in intimate relationships understand the family as but one of many hustles that can be in service to the state or to a community. Numerous debates about old-school or “conscious” rap music romanticize collective identity and nationalist thought in locating racial (Diasporic and transnational) solidarity in the music genre, while eschewing gender and demonizing radical non-normative sexual politics. The Common(ish) and Fiasco(esque) approaches to gender and sexuality in rap music are not enough to alter the terrain of hip-hop since neither of those strategies ever compel us to examine the expectations of family life built on foundations on gender and sexual inequity and oppression—a chain of custody and paternal lineages.

    Redmond’s attention to a hetero-economy that T.I. inherits as a man, and his uncertainty about accepting it is crucial to how black funk freakery pushes against the public and private binaries under-developing black communities. Notably, in Anthem, Redmond details solidarity in a previous generation influenced by jazz and blues artistry, specifically stating that Nina Simone’s “sound-politics constituted new publics through the composition and performance of music” (181). To be clear, T.I. and Tiny both can stake claims to a sound politics shaped by freak anthems built on collective listening. Their sound politics become the basis of the new publics known as reality television, as well as celebrity sex tapes, that hip-hop and R & B stars of the 1990s have transformed into a counter-public. These sound politics allow T.I. and Tiny to navigate the visual economies and video consumption of their public and private performances and lives. Their VH1 Reality Television show, ironically named the “Family Hustle” captures the work of constructing family and the domestic and street narratives that they choose to participate and usurp. “The Hustle ain’t worth nothing without the love of family,” Tiny sassily proclaims in a trailer for the reality show. The show premiered two years after the “Tiny and Toya” reality show in 2009, and several years after the FBI raided the couple’s home. Tiny later revealed that the couple’s sex tapes were confiscated in that raid, and no one would ever know the degree of freakery on them had she not proclaimed to an interviewer that they were “real nasty. [Claudia: On a scale of one to ten?] Fifteen. They were nasty.” For Tiny, who takes up numerous endeavors while T.I. is incarcerated and reported to be unfaithful, and for T.I. who continues to rewrite hetero-economies after incarceration and reports of a Mayweather/Tiny affair, there is no reason to promote family in the traditional sense as it has not benefitted either. They both accept, as Redmond claims, “that freaks cannot be kept.” Ironically, what their real lives reveal in relation to their televised lives is that multiple economic philosophies are engaged in the title and the trailer catchphrase for the show. Family is seldom written as a hustle, and any hustle is rarely seen as evidence of upholding family values in traditional nuclear models, of which this one is not. Yet, the family hustle needs to be linked with ideologies of solidarity. This isn’t to say that solidarity grants or ensures fidelity that monogamous love and relationships require. Solidarity, however, could be exactly as they have structured it: a family hustle in which any superfreak’s anthem might be transferred to other publics so that future generations can survive, live, and prosper.2


    1. As of December 29, contradictory gossip sites report Tiny’s lawyers filing divorce papers and that the couple is talking and working out issues.

    2. Regardless of whether Tiny and T. I. divorce, the sonic solidarity enacted by the two will need to evolve and shift so that the alternative family arrangement can be sustained and the brand they have successfully established can continue to support such a family and any future hustles made possible by it.

Shante Paradigm Smalls

Response

Transaesthetics, Transing, and Legacies of a Black Girl-Child Figure

LaMonda H. Stallings’s second book, Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures (University of Illinois Press, 2016), asks the pertinent question: “How do these narratives, which may or may not include moralizing tendencies or sexual pathologies, recognize Black women’s and men’s exchanges and consumption of sexual expressivity and strategies for dealing with pain and everyday survival among each other and outside of Black communities?” (xii). Stallings turns to funk as method to think through Black sexuality, sexual cultures, sexual mores, gender norms, and gendering. Through the methodological turn to funk—as opposed to other musical and sensorial modalities associated with Black sexual cultures—Stallings introduces transaesthetics in a manner that takes into account blackness, Black sexuality, Black transgender people, and Black children. Unlike Jean Baudrillard’s work on transaesthetics (1987, 2008) which thinks of art-making, art criticism and art’s inevitable “collapse” into sticky realms like politics, sexuality, and economy (Baudrillard 1993) as undesirable and impure, Stallings finds plausibility and possibility in “transing” sexuality, politics, and sites of economic exchange.

I’d like to focus on a short section in Funk’s fourth chapter, “Freaks, Sacred Subjectivity, and Public Spheres,” that focuses on Octavia Butler’s final published novel, Fledgling (2005). In a section that Stallings titles “Octavia Butler and the End of Monogamy,” Stallings notes “a close reading of stank matter in . . . Fledgling unveils how fiction serves as theory in the posthuman Black female subject’s life after love” (131). Stallings adroitly signals the ways Shori Matthews, Fledgling’s vampiric, eugenics experiment of a hero, complicates ethical arguments around love, sex, polyamory, and monogamy. The figure of Shori opens up space to talk about eugenics, racializing logic and white supremacy, posthumanism, dystopian fantasies, sexuality, consent, desire, and pedophilia, coercion and rape.

This section of Stallings’s work compelled me, as I have been thinking a great deal about how to talk about Fledgling with students when I teach it, and how to talk about the figure of Shori as I begin to write about her. Stallings reads Shori—a fifty-three-year-old Black female vampire with the appearance of a ten-year-old girl—as someone who undoes expectations of the human. Stallings reasons, “As long as Wright and Theodora [Shori’s adult human lovers] remain obligated to the human, Shori will be [a child and their relationship verboten], but once they understand her as something nonhuman, their relationship and interactions with her will move them onto alternative ways of being human” (132). But does discomfort about the child-adult sexual relations in the novel truly turn—for the reader and for Shori’s adult human sexual partners—on “remembering” she is vampire and not a human? Or must a reader and her sexual partners suffer memory loss and forget the resonances of Shori’s child body in order to construct a Black futurity that is relentlessly embroiled with realities of violence, reprisal, and sexual harm?

The embodied experience of reading Fledgling suggests Stallings’s caution away from investment in the human is insufficient in negotiating the complex and conflicted affective, bodily, and emotional excess when reading about sexual encounters between a child and adults. In fact, it feels like a thin argument to say that Shori is “ really fifty-three” or that her human-Ina hybridity occludes the implications of a traumatized, disabled Black girl engaging in sexual relations with white human adults. These are not simply ethical concerns that Stallings argues Fledgling foils (Stallings 131); in fact, my struggles in reading, teaching, and relating to Fledgling since its publication are multiple and include concerns regarding: the long history of the exploitation of Black children, especially girls, by white and Black folks; the “adulting” of Black children and the attendant destruction caused (murder, adult jail sentencing, sterner punishments in schools, sexual exploitation); the erasure of Black child-to-child sexuality; and the depiction of the Black child as predator.

If, as Stallings suggests, in our efforts to rethink love, sex, sexuality, gender, commitment, and other modalities of sexual, emotional, and affective relationality we need remember the “emphasis on consent within sex-positive cultures and communities versus those built on sexual violence” (131), how do we reconcile the compound ways in which Shori’s sexual desire and need for human symbionts in order to survive is allegorized with a drugged bite which subdues her intended and makes them submit to her sexual wishes, often without their consent. How can we not see this allegorization of rape as anything but rape? Shori is a complex figure that falls into narratives of victimization (child in a pedophilic act) and also victimizer (rapist). It is in this set of equations in which her figuration as nonhuman or more-than-human becomes more problematic as that figuration can concurrently be conflated with ongoing historical renderings of Black sexuality, Black people, and Black genderqueers as violent, out of control, and bestial.

It is not for the sake of morality or even ethics that I offer this contested reading of Shori, but rather to question and forestall Stallings’s particular rendering of Shori’s Black girlhood and Black girl sexuality as solely liberatory. According to Stallings, Shori’s lack of memory is a strategic ploy by Butler to “prohibit[] readers from becoming orientated to the ethics of the Enlightenment human, so that we can understand the limits of that way of being human” (133). But, of course, Black people are always already outside of the figure of the Enlightenment human, and Butler has explored myriad ways of expanding, extending, and transmogrifying humanity across her oeuvre that contests one figuration of the human, as well as the human as a valorized or stable position. I do not know what Butler intended to do, but I’d like to talk about some of the effects of a figure like Shori by asking: what does it do to figure Shori as a sexual predator, as an embodied child, and as a Black child primarily interested in sexual and emotional relationships with white adults?

In raising these questions, I turn to Stallings’s work on “transing” in her final chapter, “Black Trans Matter, Sex Work, and the Illusive Flesh.” This is not to conflate Shori’s figuration as predator and victim with transpeople, as has been done innumerable times in the service of transphobic and misgendering material and epistemic violence, but rather to think through the ways transing as a method and hermeneutic might be able to hold and deploy the multidirectionality of Shori and the histories we bring to reading her. Shori is not a transgender figure, although she is a genderqueer one—she operates in the world of power, sexuality, politics, and desire in ways that are rendered masculine and often held by men, boys, and masculine figures. Shori is also a dark-skinned Black child, which is the success of her eugenics experimentation (she can live freely in the sunlight) and the reason her “white” Ina relatives try to assassinate and undermine her.

Further, as Stallings notes, Shori represents “the least empowered subject in US society, a representation that connotes the othering of little Black girls” (132). Indeed, Shori the protagonist is also our most fraught character. Her experiences ask us to hold her flouting of racist logic, her unstoppable will to survive, and her ruthless and violent tactics used to build a human symbiont family for her own survival. One of the reasons I put pressure on the idea that Shori’s appearance as a human child can be done away with because she is “really” fifty-three, is that she is considered a child in Ina (her vampiric species) years and logic. So her childhood—signaled by her embodiment, her relationship to memory loss and lack of knowledge about Ina culture and traditions, her lack of her “own” family—is doubled, both in traditional human and Ina logic, so that we as readers and her lovers and chosen/coerced family have to face the reality of sexuality. If we employ the methodical practice of transing, that is to say, “a practice that takes place within, as well as across or between, gendered spaces . . . a practice that assembles gender into contingent structures of association with other attributes of bodily being, and that allows for their reassembly” (Stryker, Currah, and Moore 13, as quoted in Stallings 205), we can assemble the complex figuration of a dark-skinned Black child vampire predator and victim who bears the weight of her forgotten personal history and trauma, as well as that of Black girl children writ large. This will not necessarily lessen discomfort or untangle the ethical and moral knot Shori represents. In fact, it would be a disservice to either only praise or condemn Shori: she is a figure who invites us to struggle with anxieties that “inbetweeness,” uncertainty, and eugenic hybridity produce.

This transing methodological lens does not excuse Shori’s predatory behavior, it may not even contextualize it, but perhaps it aids us in seeing her more clearly without total judgment and condemnation, or total valorization. Shori is hard to behold and often hard to like, yet she presents something authentic: a victimized figure who does despicable things to survive. Shori and her sexual partners don’t simply upend ethical, staid, conservative ideas about sex and love, they also darkly explore the underbelly of US psycho-sexual history: desire for children, desire for the Black child, the conflation of sexual violence and rape with consensual sex and desires, and the sticky tendrils of Black-white miscegenation as a futuristic “solution” to racist structures. Traumatized sexual behavior is also part of “funk” in Black sexual cultures. This is not to pathologize, but to recognize how our sexuality as Black embodied people is not simply laudatory, but it is also associative and has many sites of pleasure and violence and pleasure-violence.

Shori seems to not distinguish between pleasure, violence, and ethical concerns as she is focused on survival, but she incorporates them or synthesizes them, and her audience and her lovers/victims are the ones left to wrestle and struggle with the effects of her behavior. She is in a way, the illusive flesh Stallings speaks of. Stallings elegantly writes in speaking of Black transgender sex workers:

[Toni Newman and Red Jordan Arobateau] provide narrative representations of how unruly bodies can sometimes refuse to be transformed into the service of state power. They critically and creatively document . . . while astutely attending to the supernatural effect of the illusive flesh belonging to those in the afterlife. Illusive flesh . . . serves as a counterphilosophy to embodiment about what the transaesthetic experience and representation of Otherly human bodies means to forms of life and being that exceed the biological.” (206)

Shori is illusive flesh in a myriad of ways: she is an experiment of Black human and White Ina genetic manipulation—she is an “unnatural” hybrid; Shori comes back to life—we meet her in the afterlife of whatever she had been before. Shori is birthed out of a cave, blind, deaf, mute, amnesiac, with smell, hunger, and touch as her sensorial guides. She kills on instinct until she has fed enough to become un-feral. She is uncontainable, outwitting the murderous and racist machinations of relatives. She is also inscrutable and amoral in pursuit of physical survival, this is fitting for a vampiric species. Yet, it is heartbreaking at times to experience Shori’s narrative, one that I’m reading in increasingly pessimistic terms. She survives, yes, but her entire first family of choice has been killed, she’s been robbed of her memory, her safety, and her childhoods (both human and Ina). Even if we read Shori’s relationship with Wright, Theodora, and her other adult sexual partners in the most generous terms, what she had to endure to get to that liberatory state seems painfully familiar—she had to endure the death and violation of her Black girl-child body and a violent birth into adult responsibilities.

Funk the Erotic begins and ends communally, reminding readers of the theorizing, conversation, and political work Black communities do and have done through music and the advent of “the party” (236). I hear and heed the call to engage in funk—the sweaty, the sticky, the smelly, the undesirable, the sexual; to centralize and center narratives and political work of Black transgender people, genderqueer and gender-non-conforming people who resist uplift stories, to protect and make space for trans and non-trans sex workers; to promote antiwork sentiments; and to deeply theorize and embody Black transaesthetics that can aid us in working through the places and narratives that seem impossibly fraught.

 

  • LaMonda Horton-Stallings

    LaMonda Horton-Stallings

    Reply

    Aborted Chapters and the Childing of Small People

     

    what can I say, except that I’ve heard

    the poor have no children, just small people (Ai, “Abortion”)

     

    Someday, someway

    We’ll find a new life, a new way of world

    Then the young and the old will be asked

    Not just told . . . how to live

    —Labi Siffre, For the Children

     

    We are children of production.

    Produced in conjunction

    With the urgency of our Dr. Funkenstein.

    . . .

    We are deeper than abortion

    Deeper than the notion

    That the world was flat when it was round.

    —Parliament

    Children do not know they are children until they are told. In the twenty-first century, no one wants to hear this. Even as writers, those creating child characters and writing in the genre of children’s literature, show us time and again that free black children and innocent black children are not the same. Though each remain dependents who make family, and by extension nations, possible. These writers might recall their own experience from which to draw upon, and it is this experience that parenting and the childing of small people erases in its construction of family and nation. I begin with these epigraphs to address Small’s very useful and challenging commentary about the embodied experience of reading and teaching Fledgling, as well as the long history of exploiting children, the “adulting” of black children, the construction of predatory black child, and the erasure of child-to-child sexuality. Small’s inquiry is about the public work of protecting and loving black children, but it also risks acceptance of an ideology of children that funk, but more specifically for this response, that Butler challenges. There are few to no public spheres that make space for children to be asked, not told, how to live. There are no private spheres in the United States that make such a thing possible. The same public sphere that constructs child is the same public sphere that constructs Black child as predator is the same public sphere that makes small people vulnerable to exploitation by adults. This is a problem of Western embodiment and its developmental model of the human.

    As Smalls mentions the embodied experience of reading, I ask whose embodied experience is being referenced. As critic, I cannot account for every reader’s embodied experience, what I can do and what I do is suggest that Butler’s novel exists as a type of counter-public narrative. She enacts a process of world-making in the book that intends for readers to understand that childing, like adulting, are part of the same structure and system. Here I want to ask whether Octavia Butler actually accepts the construction of the child that Smalls lays out in her response to my chapter on Fledgling. Yes, Shori is a child, but she does not know this until members of the human and Ina races consistently define her as such. An identity she refuses time and again. Moreover, Shori is not a human child and this is a key configuration of how Butler asks us to consider the fabrication of this particular genre of human being.

    Small perceptively addresses a topic/theme that was purposely omitted from Funk the Erotic: black children and sexuality. Even with this response, I fear I may not fully do justice to her critique. Using the words of Ai and Siffre enables me to condense an idea that I expanded upon in the longer version of Funk the Erotic. It included an aborted chapter entitled, “From Lil Nigs to Children of Production,” which was edited out of the final version accepted by the press. The decision to omit the chapter was so that I could theorize the ideas in that chapter for a larger project centered on “children.” Here is an excerpt from that chapter’s introduction, which takes on too much in too little space:

    In the same way that political histories and cultural narratives have written “the Black” as man and “the child” as white, each of these social fabrications have cancelled out the productivity and liberation of small black female people, or whom Harriet Wilson satirically labeled the nig. Wilson’s fiction and Ai’s poetry emphasize the alterity of young black people, and these writers’ focus on productivity and reproductivity demonstrates why creative expressions of young people cannot be separated from sexual expression between young people. Ai’s use of small people directs us toward another genre of the human, as well as differentiates it from the Victorian construction of the child, a purposely underdeveloped version of what Sylvia Wynter has stressed as the over-representation of the human within the western colonial project of Man 1—the political subject (constructed from the physical sciences)—and Man 2—the bioeconomic subject created from the biological sciences . . .(“Unsettling the Coloniality of Being . . . ,” 279, 318)

    Here, I was attempting to note two things: One, human concepts of the erotic that under-develop an entire human genre so that another genre, temporally privileged, can prosper and build and maintain an empire. Two, I wanted to note the utter lack of conversation about embodiment and small people that Harriet Wilson dealt with in her novel, and other later writing with regards to spirituality. Funk was my way into doing this in that chapter, specifically Parliament’s “children of production,” which allowed me to think through questions of work, ethics, embodiment, and temporality through funk’s disidentification of the human versus queer theory and queer child’s identification with the human.

    In chapter 2 of Funk the Erotic, I discuss black women’s erotica as a type of epistemic self-defense against epistemic and real violence carried out by the state and corporations. Additionally, the entirety of Labi Siffre’s album For the Children (1973) could be read as a treatment on the construction of the child and the epistemic violence enacted on behalf of children for their protection and innocence. The omitted chapter had similar goals in regards to paraliterature and black children’s erotic, or more specifically funky, subjectivity. Speculative nonfiction, fiction, and other paraliteratures have done the same work on behalf of children and adolescents. What the black speculative imagination has done with the construct of the child and childhood is part of a more radical move to not simply protect the innocence of people constructed as dependent and underdeveloped categories of the human, but rather they are part of a liberation narrative that asks readers to consider those who are not included in concepts of freedom and liberation. This is the work that Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Samuel Delany, June Jordan, and many others writing in the paraliteratures ask us to think about when they construct characters who as Paradigm suggests represent some fictional “Adulting” of children. But these are all fictions.

    Small’s response to my reading of Butler and to Butler’s own world-making reaffirms my decision to omit the chapter. I deleted the chapter mostly as a result of funk’s other affect: cowering fear or terror over doing research on sexuality and children. A fear succumbed to in hopes that I would find the courage to write more than a chapter, but rather offer an entire project that problematizes the child in a manner differently than queer studies does. It is a fear that Butler, Hopkinson, Delany, and Jordan have overcome through the imaginative and the fictive—despite reader trepidation and discomfort. I hope that my future project, Children of Resistance / Children of Production, will do more to sufficiently theorize funk’s children of production as sufficient models of black funk’s freedom movement that exceeds binary temporal binaries of biological development that led to the useful and engaging questions posed by Smalls.

Kevin Quashie

Response

Blessings of Funky Aliveness

Funk the Erotic is a freedom call, a liberation book rooted in the principle of the supreme rightness of the human body. To me, it is a prayer book, and in that regard, I think of these comments as five psalms of Funk.

One

Blessed is this book that starts with epigraphs from Ralph Ellison and Vanessa del Rio, a beginning that reminds us of the role that humor plays in Stallings’s imagining of black freedom; blessed be this theorizing of blackness’s blue and blues qualities.

In the epigraph, del Rio says, “I never did anything where I wasn’t in on it. Even if it was something I had to do, I would always find a way to be in on it” (xi), and Stallings uses this first note to establish an ethos: not agency as a political and social term, but something deeper and more amorphous. Is it feeling? Sentience? Audre Lorde’s erotic as a kind of excellence of capacity, that “deep well” in each of us that Lorde notices from studying women’s embodied intelligence? There is something indescribable here, and though Stallings names del Rio’s philosophy “guerilla tactics” (xii), quickly she gives into the beautiful truth that it can’t quite be named or captured. It is not stoic, and it is not marshalled as a normativity; it, this thing I am calling ethos, is supple, less about intent and more about pleasure, the wildness of pleasure as a way a human being navigates being human. Or, as Loni Jones writes in the preface to Sharon Bridgforth’s love conjure/blues, “The most profoundly human act we can commit is to feel” (xiii). Yes.

Blessed be the irrefutable existence in black feeling.

Who better to try to study the juiciness of this ethos than Stallings, who better to try to render what is slippery to rendering, these practices of being a “sexual guerilla” as a subjectivity of imagination and flexibility in how one “approaches and navigates sexual violence and terrorism” (xv)? These are blue and blues practices, which means that Stallings privileges an archive of vernacular and ephemeral and understudied material; in doing this, she challenges the forms of a black studies canon. Indeed, Stallings makes explicit claim to an “ambivalent black feminism” (23), such that Funk is a black feminist work surely but it doesn’t hold onto gender(ing) as a sure anchor; instead—in keeping with Hortense Spillers, Roderick Ferguson and Jennifer C. Nash—Funk animates the gender illegibilities that are of all blackness.

This ambivalence has everything to do with noticing how “funky black freaks understand sexuality and sexual difference as originating elsewhere; that is, outside the body. On this ethereal plane, gender or sexual difference does not equate with or become sexual deviance as it does in sexology” (34). Yes—in fact one could add that gender difference does not become pathology or limitation, as is the case in coloniality and modernity. So Stallings is interested in the interiority of black gendered “sexness.”

Yes.

Blessed be Stallings’s Funk that transes black literary and cultural and feminist studies (10).

Two

Listen, then, to her words: “Fucking has always been a leisure activity with functional and aesthetic value” (35, emphasis in original). Is there a smarter sentence than this one? Perhaps not, since this sentence makes clear Stallings’s interest in sex as a way to undo how we think of work and to expose how that work-thinking helps to secure the limited imagining we have about which bodies are useful and of what it is to be human.

I’ve been reading this book in the company of a student, Quinn Anex-Ries, the two of us in an intellectual holy congress. In one of our early conversations, Quinn wrote this about funk and its slanted homophone, fuck:

In her tracking of the etymology of funk, Stallings begins with the slippage between funk and fuck (4). For me the dance between these two words is a sensory experience—how do they feel in my mouth as I say them, and what space do they take up, what materiality do they conjure? There is deliciousness as they sit heavy on my tongue, an erotic sensation, and in that way, I can appreciate how fuck becomes the embodiment of funk, not only in meaning, but through the sonic and physical experiences one might have with the words.

I know that this description is related to my own specific body and its capacities, but it also helps me to understand Stallings’s attention to these two words, intertwined in imagination and memory and the body. It expands what I know about the intelligence in my pleasure (or the pleasure in my body’s intelligence).

I love Quinn’s awareness of Stallings’s Funk the Erotic as an invitation to study the interior of embodiment. Essential to the interplay of funk-fuck is interiority, especially that of sex/work. This digraph, sex-slash-work, is my attempt to represent the intersections that Stallings explores: sex work, sex as work, the body as the material site of sex and/as work and therefore as a site of social economy and of discourse, literary production as embodied and erotic (“Writing or producing sexual representation to arouse can be a form of labor” [59]). All of these are captured by her glossing of another f-term, freak, the sexual outlaw that she dares to read as an engagement with a human beingness that is inside.

Freak and funk and fuck, then, are sources of intelligence, which is where Stallings’s arguments expand on Lorde’s theorization of the erotic. Like Lorde, Stallings wants to reject the ways that “what is profane and obscene has been gendered as masculine and made violent and excessive in the West” (xii). This is vital recovery work, since modern notions about (women’s) bodies makes sex-talk vulgar even though this vulgarity enhances men’s social power while it chastises and delimits women. Furthermore in the absence of radical narratives of black pleasure, black subjectivity becomes committed to a politics of respectability that reinforces the legislation of human worth. The impulse of Stallings here reminds me of Sylvia Wynter’s attempt to “reenchant humanism,” in David Scott’s phrasing; she is not abandoning the idea of being human but wants to unearth other ways of encountering and honoring the nonhierarchical acts of being that human people undertake.

She wants funk to be read “as a philosophy about being or (un)becoming human” (2).

The nonreproductive sex of funk becomes a queer possibility for black subjects whose racialized bodies are always already anathema to modernity’s gender logic. This is one level of (un)becoming human. But there are other levels, since funk is sensory perception, embodied movement, and force, “a philosophy about art in which the focus centers not on what is beautiful, but what is funky” (4). Hers is a transaesthetics that is interested in what “transes”: what surpasses, diverts, undermines, changes, crosses, renders mixed up and illegible in the name of freedom. (And in making this case, Stallings engages and upends Baudrillard’s dramatization of transaesthetics—the promotion of culture over art—“as the end of Western civilization” [11].)

There is a tension between the political potential of funk as a transaesthetics, and its free-in-being-ness, a tension that Stallings answers for me with this: “I see [funk] as imperiocorporeal cognition or imperiocorporeal perception—a simultaneous creation of new knowledge and an acquisition of knowledge through the body to counter imperialist or colonial appropriation of bodies and cultures. Funk is force, not power” (5). Yes, force, which emanates varyingly, has a hard-to-locate origin and a not-yet-determined destination—force, not power.

This funk-as-force is an imagining of black humanness through sex, sexuality, sexual doing and undoing. In her work, I am reminded of “The Thunder, Perfect Mind” from the Nag Hammadi—again I am back to the spiritual—those gnostic gospels that serve as the epigraph to Toni Morrison’s Jazz and to Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, lines and lines of enchantment that proclaims both sides of every binary, exploding the idiom of the human body as being imprisoned by any one idea of being:

I was sent forth from the power,

and I have come to those who reflect upon me,

and I have been found among those who seek after me.

Look upon me, you who reflect upon me,

and you hearers, hear me.

You who are waiting for me, take me to yourselves.

. . .

For I am the first and the last.

I am the honored one and the scorned one.

I am the whore and the holy one.

I am the wife and the virgin.

. . .

For I am knowledge and ignorance.

I am shame and boldness.

I am shameless; I am ashamed.

I am strength and I am fear.

. . .

But I am she who exists in all fears

and strength in trembling.

. . .

I, I am sinless,

and the root of sin derives from me.

I am lust in (outward) appearance,

and interior self-control exists within me.

. . .

I am the name of the sound

and the sound of the name.

I am the sign of the letter

and the designation of the division.

. . .

(MacRae and Parrott, “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” 297–303)

The voice here reads as a funky subject, especially in regard to the idea that “Funk proposes a loop for desire that makes and unmakes objects outside of modernity and civilization” (5). Even Stallings’s pairing of “makes” and “unmakes” is in sync with the narrator’s unfurling at the end of Jazz, her ecstatic “make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now” (229).

One just wants to revel in the brilliant constellation of Stallings’s study of “what black sexual cultures mean to philosophies of being and life” (5): Funk, she tells us, “has produced knowledge about sex but it hails from an alternative order” (9), the “it” here being the knowledge that funk produces. Funk is not tethered to the binary of body-mind, or to Foucault’s construction of the (mis)truth of that binary; it disregards the binary as real since human beings don’t inhabit being through that particular pernicious construct of coloniality and modernity. That is, the force of human being is not along one or the other of the axes made by body-mind.

Again “funk is force,” and Stallings’s investment in funk’s multiplicity is exposed beautifully in these questions: “What happens when we focus on how black people inhabit their bodies outside of the designs of ocularity? Because kinetic energy and smells express interiority, they move us beyond the limits of what it means to be socially fabricated as black and human. Since everything we know of race and gender is socially constructed around what can and cannot be seen . . . funk’s move to reorder senses by privileging smell and internal kinetic energy in black communities leads us to other possibilities and configurations of bodies” (14). Yes and yes and yes. Not the fidelity of the black (male) body through the corrective logics of nationalism—and certainly not the deformed and nonhuman black (feminized) body of antiblackness, but the body as a locus of acts and desires and sensing and experiences, a haptic body on its own and in relationality with others, an alternative understanding of black human being-ness.[1]

This idiom of funk is an apparatus for considering the human complexity of black life, black living—not discursive blackness in service of a (respectable) politic, but rich, fleshy, needy, sweaty blackness, alive and roaring blackness. Funky blackness.

Three

Mercy and refuge are to be had in funk; we should rejoice in funk, especially in the way that “rejoice” implies the repeated encounter with and in joy.

I use that word encounter deliberately because there is something spiritual in Stallings’s inclination to undo the binary between the sacred and the profane. In a lecture at UMass months back, Stallings opened with an image of black female strippers linked in a circle by clasped hands and bowed heads, an obvious moment of prayer and reverence. This image had circulated through social media and many online users wondered what, precisely, could be the purpose of this prayer, as if these people, about to undertake work, were any less of regard than a cohort of football players similarly huddled. Stallings’s arguments help us to notice how ideas about sex/work and about the spirituality of funk are at play in the image and discourse it elicits. She compels us to “recover sacred-profane androgynies, or what I term funky erotixxx, that create identity and subjectivity anew and alter political and artistic movements” (xii), these “cultures least associated with intelligence and spirituality as a result of . . . forms of social power—the profane, the visceral or sensation, and the party” (28).

There is so much holiness all over this book, which my student Quinn describes as “a cosmological transaesthetics that prioritizes the spiritual and supernatural. Stallings’s funk establishes a framework that is not interested in linear trajectories or an arrival, but in the revolution that happens when we turn ourselves over to feeling.” And the holiness of surrender is present right from the beginning, Stallings’s opening acknowledgment of her mother (“Thank you, Vanessa Horton, mother-father, for all of your sacrifices”), this first breath that offers honor to the creator and creative one by the created. There is also the attentiveness that is Stallings’s close readings, such fineness that, in a way, they are erotic acts—the lingering on words or images or bits of texts, in deep thrall and thrush. These fever-moments might be quotidian in cultural and literary studies, but in Funk they are enhanced by the unusual material Stallings studies (for example, her reading of del Rio reminds me of Daphne Brooks’s reading of Jackie “Moms” Mabley in “Afro-sonic Feminist Praxis”) and by the quality of study.

Mercy. Refuge. Rejoicing: Of course, in writing above I think of Martin Buber’s discussion of “encounter” which is often studied as the intersection between the one and an other one. What is missing from this interpretation is Buber’s attention to the preparedness of the one to meet the world with an open and sublime excellence—to be prepared for the awe that interface with any other might yield. In this way, encounter is the capacity of the human to be ready for rapture.

The connection for me is to Stallings’s “own use of what I am calling stank matter—that is, a form of creative energy generated by the self and the self’s relationship to sacred forces. Stank matter writes and orders my relationships as imaginative freedom for a sacred subjectivity that exists before the narratives of gender hierarchy and sexual pathology can coerce it into a social and political subject that is not of my own making” (123–24, emphasis in original). This is breathtaking to me, and it is also an articulation of Buber’s encounter not as the meeting between one and another, but as the excellent (here, sacred) capacity of the one to be open to buzzing palpable funky wildness.

Four

These are difficult times, especially for black people in this country. May funk be an answer to public distress.

Publicness is an intersecting term of blackness and queerness, though often, the public of queer thinking is not necessarily imagined as being relevant to the public of blackness. In Funk, Stallings pushes queer theory’s classic meditation on publicness—the idiom of public sex—to account for the specificity of blackness; she does this by using memory as both a geography and as a site of pleasure, the full-flesh demonic grounds in Katherine McKittrick’s explication. The engagement of memory is central to Stallings’s transaesthetics, as when she explains that “some black women may utilize sexual cultures as demonic grounds to erect profane sites of memory for individuals who would dare to accept sex as art (sexual magic); values aesthetics as much as ethics; lessen the influence of a singular black public sphere and sustain fluid androgyny so as to undo fixed binaries of gender that uphold work society’s division of labor” (177).

For Stallings, thinking about the interior/exterior binary of publicness is related to reconceptualizing penetration, as my student Quinn explores:

Her notion of funky erotixxx rejects penetration as a site of capitalist and colonial sexual violence and instead conceptualizes it as a source of power for women and femmes. This is accomplished through an understanding of masculine bottoming as subversion and of penetration as a site of messy interiority. The best example is her reading of Shine Louise Houston’s pornography, which “emphasizes penetration as an act of spiritual possession as well as an act of human penetration” (166). Normatively penetration is understood as an exterior force impacted on the body, a thing inherently public. But in emphasizing possession, Stallings exposes the way that the exteriority of penetration is intertwined with—and essential to—interiority, to a full human experience. The gendered and racialized discourses of penetration often miss the productive tension between interior and exterior, that the publicness of penetration can, indeed, in and of the self. That is, Stallings’s funk theorizes the “pleasure in consuming self” where the penetrated subject is both the viewed and the viewer (174). Is this not the most intimate look into the self, to be both in one’s body and outside of it all at once? It is a shared spiritual experience that is essential to an understanding of the self from the outside-in and inside-out.

Yes, the black human being in surrender to the pleasures—rather than only the terrors—of publicness. Indeed, it is Quinn again who put it together that “the sacredness of Stallings’s arguments is entwined with her thinking about publicness—that the interior makes what is public, sacred.”

Five

In the beginning—at least for a sighted-reader holding the physical book—there is Funk the Erotic’s cover, that vibrant rainbow of color that looks like the dawning of Aquarius, the creation or spilling of some thick generative liquid, a paisley representation of viscosity. This cover helped me to orient myself in this voluptuous, tumescent book: I interpreted its luminousness, its fluid and flow, its intensities; I (mis)recognized it as an icon of an alternative way of understanding black human being, away from the nationalist need for respectability or homogeneity, and far, far away from the racist, colonial modern legacy of black inferiority or worse, nonbeing.

The cover helped me to understand Stallings’s argument for pleasure’s ontological capacity (155).

Oh my, this book, this Funk that imagines an ideology of black being that is free in the richness of feeling and pleasure. Stallings’s arguments understand the role that capitalist norms of work play in legitimizing human worth, as well as how such norms undermine aesthetics—form, style, pleasure, the fullness to be had in/of doing.

Having embraced Funk I am reinforced in something I often say to students (and to myself): “There is nothing promised by work other than more work.” I have always disliked the idea that working (hard or otherwise) will produce something or will make one worthy, this specter of deservingness and optimism lingering in this untruth. Nothing is promised by work, and for me, what matters is that work is what one is doing, what one’s body is doing—to have whatever level of experience or pleasure there is to be had in the doing. Funk.

In the beginning, for me, there is the cover and then the preface: “Funk the Erotic is a book that one should read as well as feel; hear as much as see, touch, and taste; and foresee as well as see. If publishing and financial acumen allowed it, this funky-ass text would have been encased in a hard cover made of feathers, cotton, or fur and printed with embossed letters in deep purple” (xvi). This book wants the reader to be free, to be called into “looseness” by the work, by and in surrender: to fall and fall into, to feel deeply. What I read in Stallings’s description of the book she wishes we would encounter, is an enchantment, a spell that we might meet the sensory of the world as untethered as possible from hierarchical ideas of good and bad. I read this as a wish for my most radical well-being, my wellhumanbeing. This wish is so tender and so, so clear, that it moves me to tears—and then to tear into something that brings me unstinting pleasure (as I write this, it is house music). It makes me want to be free(r); it helps me to see another path to the freedom that is already mine. I love it, I love it all.

 

Works Cited

Bridgforth, Sharon. Love conjure/blues. Redbone, 2004.

Brooks, Daphne. “Afro-sonic Feminist Praxis.” In Black Performance Theory, edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez, 204–22. Duke University Press, 2014.

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. 1923. Translated by Walter Kaufman. Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Ferguson, Roderick. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

MacRae, George W., and Douglas M. Parrott. “The Thunder, Perfect Mind.” In The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume, edited by James M. Robinson, 297–303. 3rd ed. HarperCollins, 1990.

McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Nash, Jennifer C. The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography. Duke University Press, 2014.

Scott, David. “The Re-enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter.” Small Axe 8 (2000) 119–207.

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2, Culture and Countermemory: The “American” Connection (Summer 1987) 64–81.

[1] Stallings’s thinking is queer but also moves beyond queer—that is, funk is before and beyond queer, not necessarily “postqueer” but simply a habitat of being that is not beholden to the intellectual timeline of the theoretical iterations of queer.

  • LaMonda Horton-Stallings

    LaMonda Horton-Stallings

    Reply

    Funk Is Force, Not Power: A Benediction

    Thank you Kevin Quashie for believing that Funk the Erotic is “a freedom call, a liberation book rooted in the principle of the supreme rightness of the human body . . . a prayer book.” These words have helped me consider two tensions that I have been grappling with since publication of the book: the call for public scholarship and the demand to theorize asexuality. Yet, Quashie’s words signify my book’s prioritizing of interiority over each issue’s preoccupation with social life. In many ways, Funk the Erotic is influenced by my encounter with Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. Quiet has its place and moment, especially now, in the midst of so much noise.

    That Quashie reads and writes this work with his student Quinn Anex-Ries speaks to the form of public scholarship (teaching and learning collaborations) being erased and overwritten by the fabrication of public scholarship. This is especially relevant if the subjects are race sexuality; two subjects publics refuse to engage with any real depth. When one sets out to write about black sexuality, and locate its power, pleasure, agency, and affirmation, alongside its negation, trauma, pain, abuse, and objectivity, if it is to be done right, the author must undo several systems of knowledge: mainly language, culture, religion, and history. The author must also refuse the reactionary impulse to be loud and resist or be silent and submit. She can instead cultivate a space for interiority shaped by the elements of quiet and reflection. Currently, academic scholars, especially those in Women’s Studies and African American Studies, are being asked to become public scholars who can make their work accessible and legible to taxpayers and people outside the ivory towers. Such calls seldom understand the complexity of this when one works on sexuality; the experience that US society says is private but then overregulates; or the thing that once anyone publicly expresses, there is risk of being deemed obscene, lewd, and immoral. For sexual intellectuals, the question of a public, an audience, remains deeply vexed. For this reason, Quashie’s articulation of Funk the Erotic as a freedom call and prayer book is welcomed. In The Sovereignty of Quiet, he reminds readers that “inherent in prayer is the idea of self as audience; that is, the praying subject speaks to a listener who is manifest in his or her imagination. . . . In this way, prayer reflects the most perfect communication—to speak to one who is and is not one’s self” (113). His attention to form and aesthetics in what he terms the Four Psalms of funk, then, introduces another mode to counter the publics of sex and the call for public scholarship. It comprehends and clarifies the ceremonies being invoked in the black sexual arts. Psalm is derived from the Greek translation, psalmoi, meaning “instrumental music” and, by extension, “the words accompanying the music.” Psalms are sacred but public. They can narrate a great commission. In this case, one that Quinn and Quashie call “an invitation to study the interiority of embodiment.” Their inclusion of poetic form alongside critical theories about embodiment continues sacred/spiritual ceremonies invoked.

    “Funk is force not power” remains an essential quote from this work. Its meaning is centered in writing as a spiritual and intellectual practice that bypasses coercion and conning for effective persuasion centered on feeling and empathy. Quashie provides the words, funk provides the music, and this is because he demonstrates that “conceptually, prayer is an expression of one’s contemplation and dreaming. And yet, this expressiveness cannot be articulated completely or precisely; it is figurative and poetic” (112). Force utilizes the figurative and poetic, power depends upon precision, wholeness, and conclusive evidence or insights. The sexual arts, and expressions and representations thereof, remain a form of nonviolence that has been seldom theorized. The sexual arts are shaped by force, where sexuality is shaped by power. In physics, force is the pull or push of any object. It can cause said object to change its direction or speed (velocity). In Jedi mythology, it is a metaphysical field of energy. But anyone versed in the coveting of blackness knows that Jedi mythology is simply an appropriation of animism and dynamism in various non-Western spiritual systems appropriated for a fictional space epic. The sexual arts have been in existence long before sexuality in the West, but some segments of sexuality studies refuse to acknowledge their existence and continue to privilege the discursive formations of sexuality.

    Since completing this book, I have been asked on several occasions why I do not address asexuality, or if funk can address or make way for asexuality. Quashie and Quinn’s awareness that the book is an invitation to study the interiority of embodiment is exactly why my answer has been two-pronged: does it have to? Would asexuality exist if funk, not eros, was the starting point of sexual identity formation and response to Western sexuality? Most recently, however, I would offer Quinn words about my work as “cosmological transaesthetics that prioritizes the spiritual and supernatural” for which asexuality does not and cannot account for. What white Eurocentric forms and methods construct asexuality? What metaphysics and embodiment have been proposed?At the 2016 NWSA conference, I was on a panel with three other black women, entitled “Always Already Colonized”? Rescripting Black Female Sex and Sexuality in Contemporary Black Feminist Cultural Production.” Almost all of the presentations concerned aesthetics, forms, genres, and sensory knowledge in their examinations of black women’s sexuality. We were invested in the haptic, poetic, and figurative, rather than the empirical and discursive. Given the conference theme centered on decoloniality and the panel topic questioning the role of colonialism in black women’s sexuality one has grounds for expecting that any questions posed to the panel would address or acknowledge the legacy of colonization and processes of decolonization. However, this was not the case when one woman privileged a conversation (a conversation) that she and her friend had about asexuality and compulsory sexuality to challenge some of the scholarship being presented. She lacked the capacity of paying attention generated by a concept of quiet. These outbursts are moves of power to center whiteness and Western knowledge, even if unintentional, since there is seldom any extensive reflection on the role of colonization in the construct of these terms and identities. If we do not have faith in the belief that “funk is force not power,” then colonization can continue to take away language, spirituality, and culture so that any rebels’ or guerillas’ attempts to reclaim them through embodied knowledge can be chastised for reproducing and maintaining compulsory sexuality.

    At the 2016 NWSA conference, I was on a panel with three other black women, entitled “Always Already Colonized”? Rescripting Black Female Sex and Sexuality in Contemporary Black Feminist Cultural Production.” Almost all of the presentations concerned aesthetics, forms, genres, and sensory knowledge in their examinations of black women’s sexuality. We were invested in the haptic, poetic, and figurative, rather than the empirical and discursive. Given the conference theme centered on decoloniality and the panel topic questioning the role of colonialism in black women’s sexuality one has grounds for expecting that any questions posed to the panel would address or acknowledge the legacy of colonization and processes of decolonization. However, this was not the case when one woman privileged a conversation (a conversation) that she and her friend had about asexuality and compulsory sexuality to challenge some of the scholarship being presented. She lacked the capacity of paying attention generated by a concept of quiet. These outbursts are moves of power to center whiteness and Western knowledge, even if unintentional, since there is seldom any extensive reflection on the role of colonization in the construct of these terms and identities. If we do not have faith in the belief that “funk is force not power,” then colonization can continue to take away language, spirituality, and culture so that any rebels’ or guerillas’ attempts to reclaim them through embodied knowledge can be chastised for reproducing and maintaining compulsory sexuality.

    What is the sexuality being referred to in “asexuality” and “compulsory sexuality?” Compulsory sexuality apparently refers to social attitudes, institutions, and practices that enforce the belief that everyone should want to engage in sexual acts or activity. However, compulsory sexuality is never simply compulsory sexuality. It entails compulsory language, compulsory forms of knowledge, compulsory binaries, and any oppositional terms or identities like asexuality that cannot broach these compulsions might be classified as compulsory sexual and racial imperialism. As much as I admire and teach the work of Rubin and Rich, from which these concepts locate a genealogy, their articulations of sexuality are rooted in Western discourses of sexuality that consistently make absent preexisting or alternative narratives of intimacy, eroticism, and desire that could be called sexuality. They do not account for the interiority of embodiment. This statement is especially important to people of color who have been displaced as a result of colonization or slavery and disconnected from the sources of the narratives, while the tropes and figurations of such narratives might remain in culture and language, as opposed to histories. Colonization literally introduces a metaphysics of being that would require anyone beholden to Cartesian dualities to create the masquerade of asexuality as a more enlightened sexual identity. As Funk the Erotic explains, not all black people in the West or elsewhere are beholden to this tired metaphysics of being.

    The phrase “funk is force not power” is especially important given these deracinated and denationalized concepts of asexuality and compulsory sexuality. Such concepts rarely consider what intimacy, desire, and sexual acts look like before Western empire and during resistance to empire. Funk the Erotic critically questions of the role of embodiment in Western formations of sexuality as power, as well as the dominance of social life over an individual’s interior life. The focus on funk as opposed to eros was also meant to interrogate eros’ link to power in Greek empire and Western modernity’s capitalism. The differences, then, between force and power hinges on whether embodiment is from the perspective of Cartesian dualities and humanism, or somewhere else. Throughout my book, I show how black cultural producers revise funk’s philosophy of force as magic, imagination, psychic expression, and ancestral relationality. Its operation happens outside of the public sphere’s functional power grab. The notion of a compulsory sexuality, while seeming to comprehend the notion of sexuality as a construct, fails to consider the ways in which religion, language, and culture of certain empires have produced a compulsion to create mind/body/spirit splits.

    Asexuality scholars who are not required to consider what exists before the advent of human sexuality should not be able to thwart a process of decolonization that could lessen or cease such compulsion. A process of decolonization should not be interrupted by asexuality scholars and communities who continue to reply upon a framework that does not question the metaphysics and modes of embodiment that produce either asexuality or sexuality. This is why Funk the Erotic’s emphasis on ancestral relationality, profane sites of memory, and sexual magic matter for the text’s main point that Quashie alludes to: funk is force not power. I am hopeful, as Quashie notes, that “we might meet the sensory of the world as untethered as possible from hierarchical ideas of good and bad.” That black women’s theories can become the basis of a prayer book, that imaginative expression can be the basis of a new spiritual existence, that sexuality can be communion with, rather than a colonization of, our senses remains vital to a continued process of decolonization for black people across the globe.

    May this response honor the form and lessen the burden of freaks. May superfreaks’ theories, anthems, and acts evoke memory, provoke sensation, and compel others to embrace the sovereignty of quiet and cosmological transaesthetics in their theories of gender and sexuality.

Shares