Tuesday, February 3, 2015

New Directions in Black Feminist Studies: Amber Jamilla Musser

Masochism is important not for its essence but because it exists as a set of relations among individuals and between individuals and structures. This mobility makes it a useful analytic tool; an understanding of what someone means by masochism lays bare concepts of race, gender, power, and subjectivity. Importantly, these issues converge on the question of what it feels like to be enmeshed in various regimes of power.   –Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Musser obtained her Ph.D. in the History of Science from Harvard University.   Prior to that, she obtained a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies from Oxford University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology and History and Science from Harvard University.  Her work focuses on the intersection of race, sexuality, and affect. She teaches undergraduate- and graduate-level classes such as “Me, Myself, and I: Introduction to Identity Politics,” “People, Populations, and Places: Sexuality and the State,” and “Thinking Through the Body.”

One of her early articles, titled “Reading, Writing, and the Whip” (Literature and Medicine, Fall 2008, 204-222), she explores early psychological theories about masochism, and the relationship between some of these early theories and how masochism was written about in the literature at that time.  Specifically, Musser looks at the work of Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, an Austrian psychiatrist writing in the late nineteenth century and at how Krafft-Ebing drew upon the work of authors such as Sacher-Masoch and Rousseau.

In a recent article, titled “Objects of Desire: Toward an Ethics of Sameness” (Theory & Event 16:2 [2013]), Musser examines “objectum sexuality, an orientation in which people sexually orient themselves toward objects” and “ reflects on what constitutes sexuality, the nature of intimacy, and the agency of objects.” In this highly cogent and throughtful essay, she argues that “there is something more radical at stake in objectum sexuality. While recognizing objectum sexuality as a category of sexual orientation does provide us with the opportunity to think about intimacy as it has been refigured by neoliberalism, I argue that we view Erika's relationship to objects as a mode of desubjectification, more precisely, as a mode of becoming-object. This notion of becoming-object exploits the discourse of sameness, but inverts it. Instead of asking how are objects like subjects, the question becomes how are subjects like objects. This shift opens a window into what desubjectification can mean for questions of relationality and ethics in queer theory.” This insight leads Musser to the assertion that “This embrace of objects, of alterity, threatens to obliterate the subject/object divide and with that reframes anti-relationality as desirable and provides a way to imagine what an ethics of sameness might look like. This valorization of sameness also opens a productive conversation between theorists who advocate anti-relationality, those who work on new materialisms and those who focus on affect.60 The resonances between the dissolution of the self, an investment in animacy (and its attendant politics of non-hierarchy), and affective attachments provide the ground for this new ethics and illuminate objectum sexuality's potentiality in a spectrum of life beyond the neoliberal.”

Her new book, Sensational Flesh:  Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU Press, 2014), uses masochism as a lens to examine how power structures race, gender, and embodiment in different contexts.  It has been called “A lively and enlightening contribution to queer studies, investigating affect and embodiment as avenues for the radical reinvigoration of how we experience and think about raced, gendered, and sexualized subjectivities” by Darieck Scott, Associate Professor of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley and author of Extravagant Abjection.  “In everyday language, masochism is usually understood as the desire to abdicate control in exchange for sensation—pleasure, pain, or a combination thereof, “ says Scott. “Yet at its core, masochism is a site where power, bodies, and society come together. Sensational Flesh uses masochism as a lens to examine power structures race, gender, and embodiment in different contexts…. Engaging with a range of debates about lesbian S&M, racialization, femininity, and disability, as well as key texts such as Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, and Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, Musser renders legible the complex ways that masochism has been taken up by queer, feminist, and critical race theories.”

Jean Walton, Associate Professor of English, Women’s Studies, and Film Studies at the University of Rhode Island and author of Fair Sex, Savage Dreams: Race Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference, also lauds the book, noting that“Sensational Flesh explores the material aspects of power—how, in a Foucauldian sense, it is ‘felt’ in the body—unpacking the bodily, sensational dimensions of subjectivity. Comprehensive and exhaustive in scope, Musser leaves no stone unturned in her consideration of ‘masochism’ in all its different formulations, and in the often-contradictory ways it has been deployed.” 

Musser recently gave a talk, “Riddles of the Sphinx: Kara Walker and the Possibility of Black Female Masochism,” in CSW's New Directions in Black Feminist Studies lecture series  January 29, 2015, from 4 to 6 pm in Royce 306. In it, she will consider how we can understand black female masochism--the willful and desired submission to another. Masochism is a difficult subject to broach, but black female masochism is even more so because it threatens to produce subjects who embrace myriad systems of historical and cultural forms of objectification. Further, black female masochism is difficult to theorize because masochism as a concept requires an understanding of agency, which has been elusive for black women to claim. Through a reading of some of Kara Walker's work, this talk looks at how we have traditionally understood black female sexuality and female sexual passivity to think about the ways that discourses of race and sexuality converge and diverge.

New Directions in Black Feminist Studies is a lecture series featuring three scholars who represent the best of contemporary Black feminist scholarship. This series will contribute to the renewed energy around African American studies at UCLA, with the recent departmentalization of African American Studies and Angela Davis’s recent residency in the Department of Gender Studies. It is curated by Grace Kyungwon Hong, organized by the Center for the Study of Women and cosponsored by Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, Labor Studies Program, Institute for American Cultures, Department of English, Department of Gender Studies, Department of African American Studies, and International Institute.

Musser's talk is available on the CSW YouTube channel: http://youtu.be/ma9JmtEi7VQ

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