Let Your Mind Wander in Other Spaces: Amber Musser on Black Feminisms, the Idea of the Flesh, and the Intellectual Rewards of ‘Quirky Tangents’

Amber Musser (Photo courtesy of Musser)

Professor Amber Musser (English), one of two professors who joined the Graduate Center last semester, is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work explores critical race theory, Black feminisms, and queer of color critique. Her books include Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance and Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism.

Musser spoke to the Graduate Center about her recent course, her current research project, and the intellectual rewards of exploring tangents:

GC: What brought you to the Graduate Center?

Musser: I was really drawn to the GC’s deep interdisciplinarity and the ability to work with people who are pursuing lots of different projects in lots of different fields. I’m very excited to be working with graduate students and to really get a chance to think deeply about how different fields of knowledge are created and then disseminated more widely throughout the university system. 

The Graduate Center: One of your seminars this semester was Black Feminisms in the Flesh. What do you hope students took away from that course?

Musser: What I wanted to do with that course was to really show the different ways that Black feminisms have approached the idea of the flesh. I wanted to introduce people to a variety of approaches so they could really see what a dense, theoretical area this is. It’s an introduction to a lot of different modes of thinking about Black feminism, as well as thinking concretely about the body, and different methods that people have for doing that, and what these can do and provide. Even if people are not interested in Black feminism or with the flesh per se, being able to think with the methods used by the authors we read can invigorate any number of different studies with that kind of materiality.

GG: What are you working on now?

Musser: I’m working on a project that’s tentatively titled “Between Shadows and Noise,” with a subtitle to be forthcoming. A lot of it is thinking about the flesh, but also really thinking about how we can talk about what we gain through about experiential knowledge. One of the chapters is on a Titus Kaphar sculpture that has a little bit of tamarind in it. I’m using that to talk about economies of rest and to think about what the idea of a craving is, and sort of how the representation or the presence of this fruit can kind of evoke this entirely other non-capitalist economy and then also bodily situation. 

It’s an intervention on the one hand into art criticism and thinking about how do we talk about what is art beyond what is represented — what types of structures of knowledge are present, but not necessarily explained or depicted, but that produce other types of resonances. Alongside that, the question is how to think about those resonances in a bodily form. So a lot of the engagements are thinking about physiological things. With the tamarind chapter, I’m thinking a lot about the knowledge that we gain from herbalism and sort of the way that plants impact bodies. In another chapter I’m talking about voodoo spirituality and how movement produces ideas about what the lines are between the body and spirit. In another chapter, I’m thinking a lot about the psoas muscle [a long back muscle that extends to the pelvis] and the idea that it holds trauma.

GC: You write for some publications, like The Brooklyn Rail, that are outside of academia. Do you have any advice for students who might want to write for different audiences?

Musser: I love writing for The Brooklyn Rail because it gives me a space to think concretely about one specific art exhibit, or the body of work of one particular artist at this particular moment, if I’m doing an interview. The difference in writing for that kind of audience versus an academic journal is that you’re trying to introduce theoretical ideas, but without footnotes. So it feels a lot more conversational and really forces you to get to your point very quickly, because they’re also quite short. If a journal article is 8,000 words, an art review is 800. A lot of it is really trying to be precise yet grounded and not dense.

In terms of how one gets into it — I wrote something up and then submitted it to The Rail and then once I was on their radar, our relationship was ongoing. I think it is a more open process than people might imagine. Once you start doing it, it kind of snowballs from there.

GC: Is there anything you wish you’d known when you were first starting out in your own Ph.D. program?

Musser: I think one thing that has been satisfying to realize is that as my career has gone on, all of the things that I thought were sort of weird tangents and that I, in those moments, maybe was wondering, why am I thinking about this and who cares and I should just be more focused on the project at hand, are the things that I have been able to give more time to later, and those quirky thoughts have yielded intellectual rewards. I think it’s always worth it to let your mind at least wander a little bit in these other spaces, and give yourself a certain amount of intellectual freedom, partially because also, as you proceed, you get busier, everyone gets busier, and then it’s just harder to have that space.

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Submitted on: JAN 4, 2022

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