Feminist Theory Week 9: Stallings “Funk The Erotic”

I’m blogging my way through the course texts for my grad feminist theory seminar. This week, it’s L.H. Stallings’s Funk the Erotic.

As we have learned from Federici, Pateman, and Murphy, contemporary Western concepts of the body are grounded in self-ownership: one can own one’s body as labor-power or as human capital. Stallings uses the idea of “funk” to develop a concept of embodiment grounded not in ownership but in sensory pleasure and aesthetics. As Stallings argues, “When sexuality is theorized as imaginative experience, it becomes art as experience and less bound by capitalism’s emphasis on production and biopower’s reproductive ordering of time. It becomes embodied knowledge” (8). In other words, studying the aesthetics of sexual practices–how they engage the senses, produce sensory pleasures, etc.–treats the body as a locus of non-cognitive or non-propositional epistemologies rather than either property (as capitalism would have it) or as legitimacy (as biopolitical reproductivity would have it). Focusing on how sex feels (what feels good, what doesn’t, the formal and discursive practices behind specific structures of feeling) takes the focus off re/productivity.

This focus on aesthetics imagines the body as a sensory domain, not as labor power or human capital. For example, as Stallings argues, analyses that reframe sex work as an aesthetic practice (instead of a labor practice) can “reconsider the term sex work for the way it could contribute to the potential antiwork politics and postwork imaginations” (16). Because it doesn’t take the body as labor-power, but as a vehicle for producing and experiencing sensory pleasure, this aesthetic approach to so-called “sex work” doesn’t see the activity as work, at least in the capitalist and contractarian sense of the term. So, the problem with the “sex work” framework is that it reduces everything to work, and can’t see outside that capitalist/contractarian frame. In this capitalist/contractarian frame, sex must have value, either ethical or economic value. Assessed through the “sex work” frame, “the individual who performs antiwork activities involving sex must engage melodramatic narratives about sexual morality and/or embrace a capitalist work ethic for his or her work to have value–specifically redemptive value” (19). Aesthetics is a different kind of value, one focused on pleasure rather than moral or economic value. So, studying sex work and workers as aesthetic practices rather than work reveals a system of aesthetic values that is not grounded in the same set of basic presumptions that ground hegemonic systems of ethical and economic value, presumptions like who the subject of ethics or economics is, or what constitutes value in the first place.


The Human & Aesthetics Over Ethics

The aesthetic practices of funk require one to perform a non-human body, that is, a body that isn’t configured by the coordinates (such as the aesthetic sensus communis (if you want to be Kantian) or distribution of the sensible (if you prefer Ranciere)) that define the white cisheteropatriarchal concept of “the human,” which Wynter calls “Man.” As Stallings argues, “the human imagination requires a specific spatiotemporal world and being; funky being requires another. With funk, there is no definitive separation of mind and body that intends to disembody imagination or represent reality” (8). Building on Spillers, Stallings identifies “flesh” as one such mode of non-human or “funky” embodiment. According to Stallings, aesthetics is the method of inquiry best suited to study funk’s non-human bodies because unlike ethics, it does not presume nor produce Man/the human as its subject.


In the Red

Funk and funky embodiment is a “reorganization of senses and the sensorium” (11) that allows us to perceive “new sensoriums and ways of being that cannot and do not align with Western traditions of humanism” (11)–i.e., things that are otherwise framed out of “human” sight, hearing, touch, smell, etc.

According to Stallings, “human” perception is structured by “singular and binary sensory expressions in which objects could be easily commodified into a collectible artifact to reflect an empire or an empire’s wealth” (12). A good example of this “singular and binary sensory expression” is what Alia Al-Saji identifies (and critiques) as “objectifying vision.” Ashon Crawley makes a similar critique of such perception, which uses techniques of “categorical distinction” to reframe sense perceptions into property that can be enclosed. Though Stallings doesn’t spend a lot of time critiquing “human” perception, her project begins from a place similar to Crawley’s: funk is a method of perception that doesn’t enclose bodily sensations in order to transform the body into private property. According to Stallings, one of the main ways this enclosure happens, at least in literary studies, is through “valu[ing] one sensory experience over another” (11). An example of this is the “textuality/orality” version of the audiovisual litany that’s often found in black studies: the idea is that Western culture is textual whereas Afrodiasporic ones are oral/aural. Because it is a “multisensory and multidimensional” funk can “interrup[t] and dismantl[e] sensory regimes left over from the Enlightenment and modernist periods in black America that would fetishize written text and then orality” (14). Funk’s multisensoriality is also multidimensional: it both engages many of the 5 senses at a time, and appeals to senses that exist in other metaphysical and ontological dimensions:

Greek, European, and modern American sensoriums only consider five senses,

whereas the black sensorium, funk has revealed, as Western medicine is only now beginning to, that there are more than five senses. In funk, we might add to that list nociception, proprioception, temporal perception, interioception, and other extrasensory perceptions (knowledge gained and processed from the interior and exterior)–hence funk’s futuristic implications (14).

Because it reorganizes the coordinates of embodiment away from “human” ones and toward extra- or non-human ones, funk is a mode of “extrasensory” perception.

So how does it do that? How does it reorganize perception? One way is to capitalize on the inherent multisensoriality of aesthetic media. For example, literary texts have more than just visual and verbal materiality. The writers that Stallings studies “understood how to develop strategies necessary for shifting signs and signifiers into touch, hue, tenor, tone, performance, and emotion” (12). For example, she argues that Octavia “Butler’s focus on smell as an affect of erotic attraction versus biological factor for reproduction gives her vampire and human characters an out from human ethics consistently legislated to preserve and protect white male supremacy and patriarchy” (134). Another example is “transworld” identity. A version of what Maria Lugones calls “world travelling,” transworld identity is built on the experience of code-switching–reorienting the coordinates of one’s perception and performance in order to inhabit a variety of spaces (209-11). Whereas we traditionally think of code-switching is something oppressed people do when moving back and forth from privileged to non-privileged spaces, Stallings argues that it’s something black artists do when moving between the “human” world and post-human worlds, such as the worlds in Butler’s fictions or Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist universes, “creating new worlds and ways of being” (211). Basically, code-switching is a way to create alternative, speculative metaphysical dimensions that aren’t overdetermined by “human” modes of perception and their effects of transforming everything into private property.

Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” is an example of this type of “funky” code switch. As Doreen St. Felix emphasizes, this song/video, along with other aspects of Rihanna’s ouevre, prioritizes cash and its smell or perfume over and above wealth. Wealth is accumulated and heritable private proprety–it’s what white people have more of relative to black people of equal income. “Cash flows” (St. Felix), it is more liquid than wealth in the financial sense, and St. Felix identifies several metaphors for this liquidity in Rihanna’s work: there’s her discussion of cash as a perfume, and all the water in the “Pour It Up” video. According to Stallings, “funk’s philosophical link to the sense of smell” makes it the foundation of an “alternative mode of being that derives from sensus communis that prioritizes smell” (6). “Pour It Up”’s emphasis on the smell of cash uses funk to switch the frame from wealth/whiteness as property to cash/funk. In the cash/funk frame, the sex work depicted in the video takes on new meaning. It’s not work, because it’s not the labor of a body transforming ‘wild nature’ (i.e., black women’s bodies) into private property (for white patriarchy). It’s also not performed by conventionally cis/hetero/patriarchially gendered–i.e., human–bodies. Funk’s code switch takes what happens in the frame of the video and locates it in a different metaphysics and ontology–a different world populated by extra- or non-human beings who are not overdetermined by “human” ontology and metaphysics. As Stallings emphasizes in other work (“Hip Hop and the Black Ratchet Imagination”), though it’s conventional to see women strippers and their male rapper audience in terms of heterosexual desire and normativity, the dancers’ use of black dance performance traditions and aesthetics–such as funk–displace scripts of femininity and put their bodily gender performance in transition. They don’t change their physiology, but the metaphysical frame with and through which they and others perceive their bodies. And because “this is what rappers get caught up in–the fantasy of woman whose origin is in the female dancers’ undoing of woman,” (HHBRI138), this fantasy also undoes them as “men.” Thus, Stallings concludes:

the strip club genre and the hip hop strip club also develop as a result of the unacknowledged presence of black women with various gender performances and sexual identities within the club, on stage and off, whose bodies and actions elicit new performances of black masculinity. Moreover, when woman is undone in this way, we note the potential for such undong to temporarily queer men” (HHBRI 138).

These more-than-human genders are examples of the kind of “trans” embodiment that, according to Stallings, results from the practice of funk. There has been no actual change in physiology, or even outward appearance or comportment (which is the way “human” metaphysics understands trans bodies); what has changed is the frame, the “world” that contextualizes these gender performances and relations.