Feminist Theory Week 10: Stallings & Royster on trans aesthetics in Rihanna, Michael Jackson, & Grace Jones

Describing a “turn away from the political world’s emphasis on movement (or a movement) as buttressed by walks and marches and turn to the party’s articulation of movement” (179), Stallings challenges us to rethink common concepts of political movement. Though we usually understand these in terms of political parties, protests, and speeches, Stallings argues that dancing and partying are political in an entirely different way–in that Rancierian way of reorganizing the distribution of the sensible, thus creating a different world, full of different kinds of persons and different kinds of interpersonal relationships than we find in the hegemonic world order. She calls this the “modification of party as an organization into party as a ritual occasion for freaks interacting with nonhuman sacred forces” (180). The main point here is that politics happens in places traditionally understood as either nonpolitical or as regressively political.

Question 1: To what extent do philosophical and popular discussions of politics demand “seriousness” of politics–that it be displeasurable, that it be work? If we imagine politics as work, how does this limit the possibilities of transformation that politics can do? What non-work examples of politics can you think of?

One such place is the strip club, which is typically analyzed as a place of the patriarchal and capitalist objectification of women. But Stallings argues that this type of analysis obscures the way black dance aesthetics create non-human gender performances: “we do ourselves a disservice and miss the movements happening before our eyes when we consciously separate ‘Make it rain trick,’ ‘The booty don’t lie,’ and revolutionary thought” (195). Stallings is primarily interested in the way dance movements can be ways of experiencing physical, sensual, even sexual pleasure in ways that aren’t focused on the genitals (and their overdetermination by binary sex categories). This movement is an example of “neutral sexuality[, which]  refers to a sexuality not centered on orgasm and penetrative intercourse” (181). Because it isn’t grounded in male or female sex organs, neutral sexuality is a performance of genders other than men or women.

This type of sexuality doesn’t just happen in dance. It also happens in the extra-verbal vocal performances Royster identifies in Michael Jackson’s oeuvre. “Through his cries, whispers, groans, whines, and grunts, Jackson occupies a third space of gender, one that often undercuts his audience’s expectations of erotic identification” (119). I have written a long piece about how this technique appears in contemporary pop, which you can read here.

Question 2: Do Stallings and Royster have similar theories of trans aesthetics (I’ve copied some Royster below)? What are the stakes and implications of defining trans aesthetics in the way they do?

  • “a transgender aesthetic and transgender ‘voice’…the baggage from a culture that does and does not see her…’sewing sequins onto our cultural hand-me-downs.’” (121)
    • “we might be able to link the transgendered aesthetic of Bornstein’s ‘sewing sequins onto our cultural hand-me-downs’ with the expressionism in ‘blueing’ of music from the African diasporic tradition that we hear in Jackson’s work. Both present an aesthetic of transformation of performer and listener; both attempt to capture the beauty of a lived experience in the body; both counter dominant narratives and makers of meaning” (121)
    • “creating a world with the always-existing possibility for change” (122)
    • “performances create a magic in excess of the bodies that perform them” (124-5)

Listening list: