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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Blessed be Stallings’s Funk that transes black literary and cultural and feminist studies (10).
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” ). 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” .)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
 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.
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.
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.
3.6.17 | LaMonda Horton-Stallings
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.