BAR Book Forum: L.H. Stallings’ “Funk the Erotic”
We need a different relationship to and with time and temporality to imagine new worlds and to begin bringing those new worlds into being.
“It asks us to take intellectual work, psychic labor, and play as seriously as we do organized political work.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Dr. LaMonda Horton-Stallings. Stallings is Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Georgetown University. Her book is Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
L.H. Stallings: Right now, our current political and social climate has meant dealing with four years of a president and GOP senate who’ve practiced, with personal actions and political policies, sexual violence against children, women, and gender non-conforming people. Policies exponentially damaging, if not detrimental, to people of color in each of those categories. Funk the Erotic showcases how Black people have survived the gender and sexual terrorism of U.S. empire, and therefore insists that they can continue to survive the changing same through unacknowledged cultural movements. I spend several chapters examining how different types of black sexual cultures from 19th to 21st century (sexual magic, stripping, bdsm, literary and erotic fiction about sex workers) demonstrate the incompatibility of contained intimacy and ethics in societies modernized by slavery, colonization, apartheid, and racial capitalism. So while there are contemporary states of emergency where sexual terror and sexual colonization produce perpetual control and policing of poor people’s bodies and sexual desires, threats to reproductive autonomy, threats to queer freedom, death and violence against black trans women, there is also an explosion of culture and political action by our black quotidian to signal the hypocrisies of Western social mores, as well as the avenues to counter the hypocrisies. My book demonstrates how specific cultural productions is based in funk as a black praxis of living and creating, where spirituality, eroticism, art, and sexuality merge into a force to help survive anti-blackness and sexual colonization embedded in necropolitics and biopolitics of Western empire. The book helps us understand how and why black communities across the globe have survived and will continue to survive anti-blackness and sexual violence in spite of institutional state apparatuses failing them by utilizing culture to explore and experiment with every facet of human being and feeling.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I don’t like this question because I think it assumes that activists and organizers will read or want to read the book. While I envision a wide audience for the book, I don’t assume that. I think it depends on if activists and organizers believe that funk, fucking, or eroticism are important to black political movements. I also think such a question depends on if activists and organizers believe that interior movement is as relevant as external movement, and I think historically interior movement gets codified as individualistic in dominant black political movements. If activists and organizers do read the book, I hope they take from it the importance of advocating for arts and sexual education and culture as politically necessary as other issues that have been advocated for.
“Interior movement gets codified as individualistic in dominant black political movements.”
This is why Funk the Erotic is a Black Studies approach to the study of sexual cultures, which includes ideologies from James Boggs, Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, and other intellectual activists, as well as writers, performers, and everyday folk who produce new knowledge about Black bodies. Funk precedes or is anterior to current political systems, and comes with a world order and metaphysics that requires a greater pollicization of embodiment. So, if activists and organizers read Funk the Erotic, I hope they take from it Pan-Africanist approaches to all matters of gender and sexuality, as opposed to Western approaches of morals, rights, and identities shaped by a settler colonial constitution and Judeo-Christian bible.
I also hope they take away an appreciation for the significance of play, party, and the profane in Black movements. I also hope they take away a more sensual perspective about confronting the systems of knowledge that produce our logic, imagination, modes of feelings, one in which we understand how various types of writing and reading becomes a praxis essential to undoing gender and sexual oppression.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Funk the Erotic is very much shaped by my own class background (poor and southern), which wholly shapes my sexual politics and theories in writing. So much of how sexuality and gender is regulated, controlled, and policed is classed and caste. Black studies scholar and guerilla intellectual Greg Thomas in “The Erotics of ‘Under/Development’ in Walter Rodney: On Sexual or Body Politics in Political Economies—for Guerrilla Intellectualism,” notes this as the erotics of underdevelopment where race, sex, and empire are critically interlocked with discourses of development and underdevelopment. So first and foremost, I hope readers unlearn the overdevelopment of white patriarchal imperialism and Western aristocracy systems of gender and sexuality. To that end, a list of what I hope readers will unlearn includes:
Unlearn sexual violence and sexual colonization (physical, epistemological, mental)
Unlearn the colonization of various senses and sensory experiences
Unlearn binary systems of gender and sexuality
Un-learn ideology that stipulates that discussion of sexuality only be about health/reproduction.
Unlearn how politics reduces arts and culture to the representational
Unlearn the systems that institutionalize and exploit arts and culture
Unlearn the fetishization of organizing around coherent gender and sexual identities
Unlearn the compulsion of demanding more of what you already have
Unlearn phallic embodiments of desire
Unlearn separation of mind, body, and spirit.
Unlearn what is profane and sacred
Unlearn the depoliticization of arts
Unlearn the depoliticization of education
Unlearn the depoliticization of work
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I am more inspired by anti-heroes. While I have always been personally committed to the quotidian and the profane, the trickster figure and Gayl Jones taught me that there is beautiful knowledge to be produced from and in the service of those elements.
The trickster figure has been the most important intellectual anti-hero primarily because it possesses a world order that confirms that something else was always possible before and after liberal humanism’s Man. It has very
foundation for all of my research and writing concerning Black literature and culture, and gender and sexuality studies.
Writer Gayl Jones is another anti-hero: I read Corregidora and Eva's Man as an undergraduate outside of my regular classes, and came back to them when I completed my M.A. thesis, “Creating a Bodily Text: Orality and Sexuality as Means of Empowerment in Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Eva's Man.” Studying Jones’s theorizations of blues, gender, and sexuality in her fiction and critical writing enabled me to feel fairly confident about theorizing funk as I do in Funk the Erotic.
Greg Thomas at Tufts University definitely is the last anti-hero intellectual who inspires my work. As a graduate student, I was lucky enough to have encountered Greg as a teacher, peer, and collaborator during his brief stint at Michigan State University. With Greg, I was able to see the potential of a Pan-African Studies genealogy to radically black approaches to gender and sexuality studies, especially for that which is considered deviant, immoral, and not normative.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Throughout our time in the Americas, Black artists, writers, performers, along with the economically disenfranchised, endure the brunt of representational politics and respectability politics—the burden of representation versus the freedom of imagination. This is a false choice in some sense.
In the first volume of Gayl Jones’s Palmares, the main character daringly asks of a mysterious woman visiting the plantation “Are you a slave woman or a free woman.” The woman replies “I am neither kind.” The exchange reminds readers that Palmares exists outside of Western time of modernity. Something else had already existed and will always be possible. She is not the only woman in the text who has this attitude, but others are seen as insane by others. However, just in the first volume of Palmare’s Jones has used a temporal break to help us imagine another world where there is something other than an enslaved or free woman, or a woman for that matter.
I hope Funk the Erotic initiates a temporal break with Western development and empire. I hope it helps demonstrate why we have to have a different relationship to and with time and temporality to imagine new worlds and to begin bringing those new worlds into being. It takes time and space to experiment and explore without merely reacting to current circumstances. Funk the Erotic unveils the intellectual and psychic labor and lucidness of imagining new worlds by various Black subjects, and it asks us to take intellectual work, psychic labor, and play as seriously as we do organized political work. However, imagining new worlds is not a solitary process, but rather a process of intellectual and psychic solidarity dictated by interior movements. This is a personal, intimate, and wanton practice that can be both arduous and enjoyable.
Roberto Sirvent is a teacher living in California.
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