How might the abstraction of aesthetics help us think through the fleshy materiality of race and gender? How would valuing bodily knowledge transform our political, cultural, and economic institutions? How might co-authoring provide a model for ethics in the world?

In episode 93 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews feminist scholar Amber Jamilla Musser about how abstraction and materiality work together in the context of racialized sexuality; why the art/activism/academia braid for Amber really comes down to the politics of embodiment; how to navigate credit, voice, and schedules when co-authoring with another writer; and why valuing and highlighting embodied knowledge is key to how Amber imagines otherwise.

Guest: Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser wearing a black shirt and glasses. Text reads: Amber Jamilla Musser on episode 94 of the Imagine Otherwise podcastAmber Jamilla Musser has published widely on race, critical theory, queer femininities, sexuality, and queer of color critique. She is the author of two books examining racialized sexuality and aesthetics: Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (New York University Press, 2018) and Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (New York University Press, 2014).

Amber received an MSt in women’s studies from Oxford University and her PhD in the history of science from Harvard University. She has held fellowships at New York University’s Draper Program in Gender Studies and Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, and her research has been supported by grants from the Ruth Landes Memorial Fellowship and the Arts Writers’ Grant from the Warhol Foundation.

She currently teaches American studies at George Washington University and writes art criticism with Maureen Catbagan for The Brooklyn Rail.

We chatted about

  • Why we need to rethink race, sexuality, and power (02:07)
  • How the aesthetic helps us think through racialized fleshiness (03:38)
  • How Black feminist artist Mickalene Thomas is taking on the white canon of art history (05:36)
  • The political significance of aesthetics (08:39)
  • The ethics of co-authoring (10:01)
  • Imagining otherwise (14:38)

Red and orange gradient. Text reads "I am invested in cracking open what people consider knowledge. If we can shift the priorities of what people consider valuable, if we can think about how there is all of this knowledge in our bodies that can be accessed, we can learn to value difference in a more ethical way." Quote from Amber Jamilla Musser on the Imagine Otherwise podcast

Takeaways

Rethinking racialized sexuality

Thinking about race, sex, and power together is really important because they’re really the ways that society has been organized….At the same time, its offer ways to think about different modes of existing either parallel to these structures or outside them, at least temporarily. It really feels exciting to me because this is really the central node through which people understand themselves and society. So it feels like it’s getting to the crux of a lot of issues.

The role of fleshiness

At the heart of my thinking about sexuality is this idea of flesh and fleshiness. For me, flesh is the site through which knowledge is taken in and produced and then how it becomes externalized and how we organize ourselves. So thinking through this knot of modern racialized sexuality really means thinking about the particular ways that the flesh has been organized.

The political importance of aesthetics

A lot of what I’m trying to do in these projects is really make a case for thinking about the political valence of the aesthetic and also an argument that knowledge is residing in the production of these works. So it is art, but it is also entangled in all of the other things that we traditionally look to to see how worlds are organized, how politics are made, how power is transferred, how hierarchies are established. It is my firm belief that if we train ourselves to understand aesthetics in this way, we can begin to shift valuations that have happened and, in turn, produce a different world.

Co-authoring is hard! But rewarding

The process of cowriting, a lot of it is letting go and a lot of it is really being open to the surprise of what this other person is going to bring to the table. We’re also coming from different backgrounds….It feels very much like the way that I want to see ethics embodied in the world. It feels important to do, but whenever you’re negotiating with somebody, it’s always tricky….It’s really a lot of learning from each other and being open and being vulnerable. Also, there’s a lot of ego swallowing and being like, “Okay, that, that is true, that that argument that I thought I wanted to make, that I thought was so clever, actually doesn’t fit and maybe it doesn’t work.” I have to be open to letting that go.

Imagining otherwise

I’m invested in cracking open what people consider knowledge….I really do firmly think that if we can shift the priorities of what people consider valuable, if we can think about the idea that there is all of this knowledge in our bodies that can be accessed in all of these different ways, that we can learn to value difference in a more ethical way, we can relate to others better. We can hopefully deprioritize the individual, give more space for autonomy, more space for opacity, and be able to better relate to each other and respect each other and respect different modes of being. If that could actually happen, that would produce a lot of really concrete changes. It doesn’t feel that impossible. It feels so doable, but the changes I think ultimately would be massive.

More from Amber

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 93 and my guest today is Amber Jamilla Musser.

Amber has published widely on race, critical theory, queer femininities, sexuality, and queer of color critique. She is the author of two books examining racialized sexuality and aesthetics: Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (New York University Press, 2018) and Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (New York University Press, 2014).

She currently teaches American studies at George Washington University and writes art criticism with Maureen Catbagan for The Brooklyn Rail. Amber has held fellowships at New York University’s Draper Program in Gender Studies and Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, and her research has been supported by grants from the Ruth Landes Memorial Fellowship and the Arts Writers’ Grant from the Warhol Foundation.

In our interview, Amber and I discuss how abstraction and materiality work together in the context of racialized sexuality; why the art/activism/academia braid for Amber really comes down to the politics of embodiment; how to navigate credit, voice, and schedules when co-authoring with another writer; and why valuing and highlighting embodied knowledge is key to how Amber imagines otherwise.

[01:35] [To Amber] Thank you so much for being with us today, Amber.

Amber Jamilla Musser: Thank you for having me. This is really great fun.

Cathy: So you’re the author of two recent books, both of which have made a big splash, I’m excited to say. Both of those books offer very robust feminist and queer theorizations of racialized sexuality: Sensational Flesh, which is about masochism, and Sensual Excess, about what you call “queer brown jouissance.” What do you find particularly compelling about rethinking the ways that race, sex, and power intersect in history as well as our contemporary world?

Amber [02:07]: Thinking about race, sex, and power together is really important because they’re really the ways that society has been organized—longer than the long twentieth century but at least since then. So I think that it feels really powerful to give different narratives that centralized racialized sexuality and really see the ways that they are working together to produce situations or structures of power that people find themselves embedded in.

I think at the same time, its offer ways to think about ways to think about different modes of existing either parallel to these structures or outside them, at least temporarily. It really feels exciting to me because this is really the central node through which people understand themselves and society. So it feels like it’s getting to the crux of a lot of issues.

Cathy [03:03]: You write a lot about embodiment and fleshiness and the ways that racial sexuality is lived in really intense ways at the level of corporeality. But you also write a lot about abstraction and aesthetics. Often these, in a variety of fields, get pitted against one another. You have the deep materiality of the body versus the abstraction of aesthetics or art or philosophy or theory or what have you. Why bring those things together? How does abstraction or aesthetics help us think through some of the complexity of flesh?

Amber [03:38]: Yeah, that’s a great question. One thing I should say is that at the heart of my thinking about sexuality is this idea of flesh and fleshiness. For me, flesh is the site through which knowledge is taken in and produced and then how it becomes externalized and how we organize ourselves. So thinking through this knot of modern racialized sexuality really means thinking about the particular ways that the flesh has been organized.

One of the reasons that I’m moving towards the aesthetic is to give access into thinking about how we can think about flesh. For me, sexuality is one arena but aesthetics is also another way that people have made sense of and produced knowledge from the body and left traces of their bodies through these different organizational systems.

[04:39] I don’t want to say that it’s more fun than thinking of science, because my background is in history of science, but it offers a way to think about how we might imagine knowledge being organized in ways that people don’t expect. So I think it gives this sort of subtle insight into how society is working or how people want things to work. Because of that, it also offers this repository for what hasn’t been made as legible as, say, a scientific discourse on sexuality or something like that.

It’s that duality. It is a site of knowledge, but it requires different types of, I don’t want to necessarily say decoding because I don’t think that’s necessarily the point, but it’s very imbricated in this larger product of understanding how people are enmeshed in society.

Cathy [05:30]: Do you have a favorite case study or example from either of those books where you really got to dig into some of the details of this?

Amber [05:36 ]: I would say that a lot of that kind of analytic work comes out most in Sensual Excess where it’s about the oscillation between things that are engaged with a system of power and also offering something new.

I would say that in a lot of ways it’s not my “favorite” case because I like them all. I don’t write about things I don’t like. But Mickalene Thomas’s, Origin of the Universe stands out to me as a particularly legible example of this. So the painting is—in some ways you can read it as a self-portrait. But it’s also a redoing of Gustave Courbet’s [painting] Origin of the World, which is the torso of a woman’s with splayed legs. There’s been a lot of mystery about who this woman is.

[06:22] So Mickalene Thomas redid that, but she used herself. She took a picture of her in that pose and then projected it, painted it with vibrant colors, and put on a lot of rhinestones. So I’m thinking about her explicit engagement with not only that painting but the genre that it represents, which is kind of between the world of the sexological and the pornographic in that it’s assumed that by we will know more about what sexuality is by looking at this woman’s vulva. That’s the point of Courbet’s painting.

[07:17] It’s interesting because Thomas doesn’t obscure anything per se, but produces her own iteration with these rhinestones, by putting her own body in. She has these different references within her work to the work of Audre Lorde and other Black feminists. She talks often about and uses her mother as muse. So they’re all of these other layers that manifest themselves aesthetically. You can read the rhinestones as a sort of invocation of shine, as producing a certain type of tactility to the painting. Even though obviously you’re not supposed to touch the painting, it still feels like very haptically engaged and also very 1970s, which sort of goes to thinking about her mother and towards thinking about Audre Lorde and other projects in Black feminism because they’re manifested through the aesthetic.

You can do the work of decoding what else could be at stake. So it’s sort of a rejection or the taking on of the Courbet [painting], but it’s also a rejection of that and the production of this other kind of fleshy mode of being,

Cathy [08:05]: The way that you’re approaching these artworks and these cultural texts that you’re looking at is such a great example of how attention to aesthetics or the artistic or creative element of a text can be brought together really fruitfully with attention to power or an interest in social change as well as that kind of deep analytical or academic interest. So I’d love to turn now to how you find these three different realms—art, activism, and academia—spread across your various projects. What excites you about bringing those three realms together?

Amber [08:39]: For me, it goes back to embodiment. So I mentioned that my background is in history of science. I think a lot of what I’m trying to do in these projects is really make a case for thinking about the political valence of the aesthetic and also an argument that knowledge is residing in the production of these works. So it is art, but it is also entangled in all of the other things that we traditionally look to to see how worlds are organized, how politics are made, how power is transferred, how hierarchies are established.

It is my firm belief that if we train ourselves to understand aesthetics in this way, we can begin to shift valuations that have happened and, in turn, produce a different world. As the name of the podcast is, right? Imagine otherwise. And to really think about knowledge being embedded in these different sources, to reprioritize what it is to relate to others and really shift our orientation toward the world.

So in that way, I really do see this production of knowledge as itself a really important part of social justice. Because it builds from this set of orientations and works outward.

Cathy [10:01]: So in addition to the solo-authored research that you produce, you also co-author several pieces with Maureen Catbagan and you cover several contemporary art exhibitions and shows for the Brooklyn Rail. I’m curious about that process of co-authoring because this is something that a lot of Ideas on FIre clients have questions about. It’s certainly something that I’ve dealt with in various ways or struggled with in various ways. What have you found either particularly challenging or rewarding (or maybe a combination thereof? I don’t know.) about writing with somebody?

Amber [10:33]: Yeah, I mean co-authoring in a lot of ways feels like a thing that happened to me, rather than a thing I was necessarily seeking out.

Maureen is an artist who I write about in Sensual Excess and we’re also friends. A lot of my solo work was emerging from conversations that I was having with her. I’d write something and then I’d be like, “Okay, here’s what I’m thinking about.” And she’d be like, “Oh, you know, this is great, but you need to push it.” So we decided to make that relationship a bit more formalized and actually write right together.

It’s an interesting process because when I write myself, I obviously have control over everything that is happening, the kind of argument that I’m going to make, and I sort of map it out ahead of time and think like, “Okay, this is, I know this is where I want to end up.”

[11:23] The process of cowriting, a lot of it is letting go and a lot of it is really being open to the surprise of what this other person is going to bring to the table. We’re also coming from different backgrounds. I’m an academic so I have a lot more time to write than she does. I also have a lot more practice. Basically, we go to things, we have conversations about it, and we each have our kind of different perspectives. Then I’ll write out a first draft that integrates both of our ideas and then she’ll come over and go over everything and shift words, push different arguments.

[12:16] It’s really been interesting to figure out how much structure she needs in order to feel the freedom to make her own arguments and then also how much letting go, I can have. I’ll be like, “Well, I put this in because I think this is important.” And she’ll be like, “Well, you didn’t really make a case for it in the writing. So I cut that.”

It feels very much like the way that I want to see ethics embodied in the world. It feels important to do, but whenever you’re negotiating with somebody, it’s always tricky. In our case, one of the things that’s also complicated is, because my general profession is writing, it’s also a negotiation around credit and making sure that she gets equal credit for the things that we write together and that my name or my technique doesn’t overshadow her contribution.

[13:21] It’s wonderful because it’s really a lot of learning from each other and being open and being vulnerable. Also, there’s a lot of ego swallowing and being like, “Okay, that, that is true, that that argument that I thought I wanted to make, that I thought was so clever, actually doesn’t fit and maybe it doesn’t work.” I have to be open to letting that go, whereas in my own work, I could be like, “All right, I’m just going to massage this.” And I can be stubborn and keep it in. But it is sort of like they’re their own other pieces, which is cool also.

Cathy: What kind of projects are you working on now?

Amber: We actually just finished two pieces for the Brooklyn Rail, one on Lorna Simpson’s new show, The Darkening, which is up at a gallery in Chelsea and then another one for Sonya Clark’s exhibit in Philadelphia [Monumental Cloth: The Flag We Should Know]. It’s about the truce flag that was flown to signal, well to start the process of, surrendering at the Civil War.

A lot of the things that I write about on my own are more figural, but with Maureen we tend to gravitate towards more abstract pieces, in large part because it gives us more space to be able to kind of smuggle in other ideas. Like here’s this ethical framework that we want to think about and this artwork is the occasion for thinking about that.

We’re starting to write, or we’re hoping to write, a book. It’s going to be thinking seriously about different artists that produced their own versions of the gaze and different forms of ethical relation that follow from that.

Cathy [14:38]: So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask folks, which really gets at that big why behind all of the work that you do. That’s that version of a better world that you’re working towards when when you do your solo-authored research, when you go to exhibitions, when you work with students. What kind of world do you want?

Amber: It’s such a complicated question, right? Because there are so many different dimensions. There are obviously practical things in the world that I want that I think would not necessarily be surprising.

I feel at this point most invested in really cracking open what people consider knowledge and really thinking about ways that that can shift series of valuations. I really do firmly think that if we can shift the priorities of what people consider valuable, if we can think about the idea that there is all of this knowledge in our bodies that can be accessed in all of these different ways, that we can learn to value difference in a more ethical way, we can relate to others better.

[15:43] We can hopefully deprioritize the individual, give more space for autonomy, more space for opacity, and be able to better relate to each other and respect each other and respect different modes of being. If that could actually happen, that would produce a lot of really concrete changes. Because it doesn’t feel that impossible. It feels so doable, but the changes I think ultimately would be massive.

Cathy: I agree. Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the creative ways that you imagine otherwise.

Amber: Thank you for having me.

Cathy [16:22]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]