Amber Jamilla Musser

Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance reimagines our frameworks for understanding the imbrication of racialization and sexuality. It uses works of art to illustrate how racialization activates particular projections of gendered sexuality, a process that Hortense Spillers calls pornotroping. The book argues that these artists simultaneously show us how to think about modes of relationality that lie beyond these projections, a space that the author calls brown jouissance. The book grapples with the legacies of racialized sexuality while also working to center race in order to explore other modes of relating to and being with others.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what questions do you still have?

Musser: In a lot of ways this book grew out of my previous work, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, which argued (among other things) that our concepts of modern sexuality have taken for granted a certain relationship between subjectivity and agency that makes it theoretically impossible for racialized people to access sexuality, but of course people do. So, in this project I was interested in thinking about these spaces of racialized erotics that move outside of established frameworks for thinking about subjectivity and agency. I found art to be a particularly compelling site to think with because artists are often working at the boundaries of the historical and the imaginary. I actually envision this whole thing as a trilogy with the next part of the project working further beyond the pornotrope to see how folks have distorted representation to come up with new/old ways of relating to others.

NOTCHES: This book is clearly about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

Musser: Since I’m drawing on works of art, this book is also about the political power of the aesthetic. There is also an extended argument about opening ourselves for different sensations when taking in works of art. In that way, it is also making an argument for us to reframe how we know what we know–what counts as knowledge production and what counts as ways of knowing.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book?

Musser: Since this is a book of theory, its methods are sort of different in that I started with a set of questions and found myself drawn to artists who I felt spoke especially toward them. From there, I started an excavation process to delve into the different histories that the works of art were referencing.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it?

Musser: I did not expect it to be a book about epistemology or art. Initially, I was really interested in recuperating racialized femininity and I thought I would be drawing on more cultural histories and interspersing works of art with things from “real life,” but as I started writing I realized that I was most interested in the imaginary and what it could show us about how to conceptualize the erotic. That, in turn, felt important to move toward art and toward re-thinking knowledge itself.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Musser: I’ve been interested in the history of sexuality since I was an undergraduate focusing on biology. Then, I was focused on how historical concepts of gender and sexuality framed arguments in biology. Gradually, I became more interested in the largeness of the idea of sexuality and the ways in which it permeates so much of how we think about so many things. Figuring out more about how it has worked, I hope, gives us ways to think about what can be shifted in order to alter particular patterns of dominance/ repression.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

Musser: In a lot of ways it is less of a conventional history book, so I think it would be usefully paired with histories of sexuality that grapple with ways that race and sexuality have been configured in order to activate students’ imaginations about what else might be possible. I’m thinking here about Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides, which has a really great analysis of the production of the pornotrope in regards to blackness and gender fungibility in the United States. In this way, it also works well with Omise’eke Ntasha TInsley’s new book Ezili’s Mirrors, which grapples with different technologies of black gender. I also think it would pair interestingly with Ann Laura Stoler’s Race and the Education of Desire which shows the diffuse modalities of domination through sexuality in colonial Indonesia since a lot of my explorations of racialized sexuality is also about illuminating more subtle technologies behind the creation of these racialized gendered projections.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Musser: We’re in a moment when a lot of people seem to be very anxious about encountering what they perceive to be otherness. I think by identifying so many different ways that domination works through attempts to control people’s bodies, behaviors, and feelings, the book hopefully helps us identify these discourses as they appear now. But, mainly, I hope the book provides hope. In a lot of ways it is a book of imagination and a wish toward a new vision of sensuality, but one of the things it is also saying is that these modes of things have always already existed and just need to be apprehended.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

Musser: I’ve mentioned my interest in thinking more about how we perceive otherness and what this might do to reframe relating to others. These moments of non-recognition are what I’m calling noise. I’d like to think about noise and the history of sexuality.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Associate Professor of American Studies at The George Washington University. Her research focuses on queer of color critique, aesthetics, feminism, and sexuality studies. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance. She also writes art criticism with Maureen Catbagan.

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