I Read: Sensational Flesh: Race, Power and Masochism by Amber Jamilla Musser

For my parents, who bought me my first leather skirt”.

I squealed, tensed up a little, the delight of it. That quote is the dedication that serves to opens Musser’s Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism. The dedication is a knowing nudge, a sense of humor, the precursor to a juicy, inquisitive, heavy, complicated, truthful meditation on All Of It. Musser is funny, she’s careful, she’s pointed.

dude just buy your copy today

Ugh, it’s a fucking delight to read.

I came across Sensational Flesh sometime this summer, while diving into Black Women Radicals’ archives (specifically this). The title is delicious (just try saying it, Sensational Flesh), and the subtitle? Race AND Power AND Masochism? Let’s get in to it, please!

Musser moves through an absolute cornucopia of writers, references, relics, rituals to make masochism a lens through which we can see agency, subjectivity, and sensuality. She uses masochism as a tool, a tool that both reveals and obscures our desires. I marked up the whole damn book, rereading and digging deeper at every turn.

It isn’t a book about kink, not really. It’s a book, ultimately, about the experience of Black femininity, and how culture at large restricts, makes invisible, silences, and limits the body–specifically the Black femme body. The work introduced me to the concept of being overdetermined, the “weightiness of being overdetermined”, overdetermined by gender, race, liberalism, and identity. She says, “[b]y theorizing sensation, we acquire a way to understand structures at a level beyond the discursive. We gain access to how these act on bodies.[…] All of this is achieved without having to appeal to identity; this is about opening paths to difference” (23). Her language is rich and deeply informed, but she keeps it knowable. It feels like Musser wants the reader to read this book, wants the reader to enter into these paths of difference, these space of embodied knowledge outside of “historical, disciplinary, or identitarian relationships” (21).

But yes and however, the book is for everyone (although I admit probably 5 people would agree with me on that. I know lots of folks don’t see reading theory as pleasurable). Sensational Flesh doesn’t only theorize or illuminate but refigures the way we look, the way we analyze, the way we feel.

I just–it was delicious. I want to explain it to everyone, and absolutely want to keep it a secret. A secret because I don’t fully understand it yet. Because it feels rare and valuable. I’m writing about it because I love sharing what I’ve read and also because I’m still trying to fully grasp it. I want to explain it to everyone because the way we could be looking at desire, at pleasure, at sensation, at each other, could be so dynamic, so embodied, so de/uncolonized, so communal.

I’m rambling. The shit I’m still thinking about is Musser’s analysis of Bob Flanagan, her look at Deleuze’s Body Without Organs and rearranging of our view of illness and disability using Lorde and Deleuze, and then the ending. The ending.

the image is in the style of a mechanical magazine, but the machine featured is the side of a woman's face, neck, and shoulders all supplanted by various mechanical parts. the woman is part machine, part female, framed with an exposed neck, vaguely erotic.
This image is from Fernando Vincente. It puts me in mind of the BwO and sensation.

Let me move in order.

The analysis of Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose’s was, ultimately, beautiful. It served as a mediation on white masculinity, when she unpacks the contract between the two (Rose and Flanagan’s consensual S&M relationship) and how it works out agency and subjectivity. It served as a look at agency, Flanagan had no choice in being sick but had a choice in being sick. Look here, “[u]nderlying the discourses of realism, posthumanism, and spectatorship is the fact that we witness Flanagan grappling with his own corporeal limitations. We see him submitting not only to pain but to his body’s materiality. In this space we witness Flanagan gain another type of knowledge.” (141). This type of knowledge Musser references is hugely important in her work, embodied knowledge, knowledge beyond our prescribed modes of knowing. Musser couples this with Lorde’s writings in The Cancer Journals, the stunning meditation on the body’s losses within the body’s joy, she pairs them because,

“In contrast to Flanagan’s drive toward autonomy and singularity, Lorde seeks connection and multiplicity” (140).

Okay but wait. The paragraph I pulled that from is stunning. It seems where, if I were to divine anything, Musser lives ideologically. A place more like Lorde’s ideology. She goes on,

“Importantly, she does so because of the politics of her subject position. By affirming her place among the lineage of women who have been oppressed because of racism and sexism, Lorde positions her illness not as singular but as a manifestation of these systems of oppression. She is working against the temptation to dismiss her illness because it is hers alone. Writing a plural subjectivity spreads the responsibility for transformation and envisions health, not as belonging to the individual, but as a mark of politics. In doing this, she is reclaiming bodies that were never seen as autonomous and giving them power.”

a hand sketched image of a hand, with the pointer finger aloft, holding a small sparrow. the image is sketched in black and white pencil. the hand and bird are framed by a plain black line circle. it is an antique sketch, or at least in that style.
An image of sensation, for me. An antique drawing, no credit found currently.

Wait for it. Let me pull the BwO section in here.

Perhaps this is just what I latched on to, perhaps this is comfortable because it was both affirming and deeply new, so I read this and then encounter the BwO section, about Deleuze’s chronic (yet unnamed) illness, and his experience of pleasure in an ill body.

“As Charles Stivale write, ‘So for Deleuze the questions is clear; illness sharpens a kind of vision of life or a sense of life. He emphasizes that when he says vision, vision of life, life, it’s in the sense of him saying ‘to see life’, these difficulties that sharpen, that give life a vision of life, illness, life in all its force, in all its beauty.

[….]

Slowness is a way of being that is grounded in the real, in what really happened in how one is experiencing every money; it is a state of vigilance and attention. (142)

[….]

The Body without Organs is a body in which desire flows freely without being restricted by established patterns of organization. These flows allow for the multiplicity of desires.” (143)

And a few pages later, Lorde again, pulling the writings/experiences together to not terminate on sensation (specifically Musser cites Lorde saying sensation is not enough and yet and yet) but rather a dissolution of the self, the individual, and the sharing of embodiment, of nonidentity, of sensation:

“The link I am making between Deleuze’s mode of embodiment and those that he ascribes to the masochist forms the bedrock of a politics of nonidentity by illuminating a way to be attention to the flesh while not reifying a connection between experience and subjectivity.” (145)

–a few pages over–

“Importantly, the erotic is based on communal affective bonds–specifically joy–outside the parameters of identity: ‘The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not sharing between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.’ This formation of community through affective flows is one of the hallmarks of the plural subject.” (147)

It is Musser’s investment not in telling the reader the problem(s) but slowly moving them into a whole new way of being/seeing that is so thrilling. It has none of the didactic, the superiority, or the laziness theory can assume. Sensational Flesh is just glorious.

Miss Nina Simone, image pulled from this article.

And the ending, a beautiful summation of the work through Nina Simone’s singing of “I Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”. It’s brilliantly simple. Musser cites a song–inviting you to hear the song, look it up, experience it–and simply leaves it as an instances in which “Simone reterritorializes her flesh. She takes back her body from a landscape of lack and flatness….She’s got the life and we have her voice, a voice that breathes life, subjectivity, and possibility into the frame. When she sings we can hear how flesh and sensation matter”(183).

I wanted more. I was like ! ! !. And then I realized that’s all the only way, the lived experience/sensation of Simone’s song.

How else to end?

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