BY Jayna Brown in Opinion | 22 APR 15
Featured in
Issue 19

A Different Take

Tim Stüttgen’s posthumously published book

BY Jayna Brown in Opinion | 22 APR 15

The Sun Ra Arkestra, photographed by Lee Santa, 1968 (courtesy: b_books, Berlin)

Tim Stüttgen was the quintessential public intellectual. Before his death in 2013, he was also a writer, performer, curator, and, as is demonstrated in his recently published book In a Qu*A*re Time and Place (b_books, 2014), a powerfully creative thinker. Stüttgen, who was born in 1977 in Solingen, West Germany, studied film, art and gender/queer studies in London, Maastricht and throughout Germany. As well as an academic, he worked as a music journalist, organized conferences and festivals, gave drag performan­ces under his alter ego Timi Mei Monigatti and was a part of a vibrant community of queer activists. This posthumously published book is lovingly edited by his colleagues Daniel Hendrickson and Margarita Tsomou, and in its ambition and timeliness opens up crucial dialogues desperately needed across disciplines, cultures and continents.

Stüttgen begins his book by contextualizing his own experience: as a journalist for the German hip hop magazine Juice in the early to mid-2000s and his later participation in ‘post porn’ and queer discourses. Feeling alienated by his experience of homophobia in the hip hop world, and the structural whiteness of the queer scene, Stüttgen seeks to redress, or undress, the limitations of both, using each to intervene on the other. Taking up the US queer of colour performance scholar E. Patrick Johnson’s term ‘quAre’ (a formulation of queer theory that reinscribes categories of race and class), Stüttgen profoundly unsettles both black studies and queer studies, holding them apart and folding them together.

Stüttgen’s book represents a much-needed discourse, in the US as well as elsewhere. It speaks to – and helps create – a space of intellectual dialogue untethered from the academy and its conventions and protocols. This allows access to theoretical ground often kept separate from more popular registers of analysis. As well as European theorists, Stüttgen cites a host of queer and queer of colour scholars. His use of theory is succinct and accessible, and troubles the lines between academic and popular writing in a pleasurable and enlightening way.

Janelle Monáe The ArchAndroid, 2010 (courtesy: Warner Music Group)

Stüttgen argues that to understand the black subject requires a break with Western ontology. Drawing on the work of US black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers and Martinique-born post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon, Stüttgen sets up the rest of the book by arguing that the experience of slavery and colo­nialism – and the racially-organized systems of oppression that result – are formational to the black subject’s understanding of self. Stüttgen argues that these systems disrupt black experience on a cor­poreal as well as temporal level. Such interference prevents black movement, and affects black people’s experience of self and place in relation to ‘universalizing time,’ as he put it in a lecture at Transmediale in 2013. Blackness is a ‘non-ness’, a breaking apart of the self. As Fanon writes in Black Skin White Masks (1952), the only way the black (man) can be free of this process is to explode. Stüttgen’s concept of ‘the explosive black’ is at the core of his book. (While it is a powerful concept, the term itself is jarring to the ear of an English speaker.) For us to understand black culture, then, is to break with a Western epistemolo­­-gical understanding of the human.

Drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze, Stüttgen turns to film and the heroes and heroines of the blaxploitation genre. He understands these black-cast films from the 1970s in relation to the black power movement and what he calls its ‘militant performative aesthetics’, echoing the Black Panther Party’s understanding of the ‘performative power of the gun’. Citing Kara Keeling, he suggests that blaxploitation, emerging from this imagistically powerful moment, is ‘subversive cinema’ and that blaxploitation films offer a redeployment of racist notions of the hypersexu­alized, dangerous black (male) body. The figure at the centre of his third chapter, Black Films with Blacks with Guns, is the ‘phallic black’ (another term that may grate on the ears of English speakers). Analyzing Melvin Van Peebles seminal film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Stüttgen follows Keeling in calling blaxploitation films potentially queer, in their antinormative depictions of sexuality. I would add that Sweet Sweetback … is arguably different in many ways from other blaxploitation films that followed, and that Stüttgen’s study could be extended further by looking to readings of the film highlighting its strategic inclusion of transgender figures.

Gordon Park Jr. Superfly, 1972, Film poster (courtesy: Warner Bros)

For the rest of the book he turns to Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and in his queer of colour analysis challenges the heteronormative propriety of contemporary American jazz scholarship, particularly in his interpreta­tion of Sun Ra’s sexuality. With no desire to out Sun Ra as gay after his death, Stüttgen ‘would prefer to link different antinormative modes… to his singular Ra’ish quArness.’ Sun Ra can be read as queer: in relation to the sonic assemblage of his music, and in the collective communalism of his Arkestra. I read him as queer inasmuch as his art and philosophy challenges a particular version of humanism in black studies: a desire for restoration, recovery or return. Sun Ra is instead interested in collectively ‘reinventing blackness itself’. Sun Ra was thinking beyond the human, casting out into the galaxies beyond the realm of earthbound ideas like gender, sex, birth and death, to an expansive kind of musical eroticism.

The strength of Stüttgen’s book lies in the fearlessness of his claims. He directly addresses areas of heated dialogue in black, feminist and queer studies – for instance the relationship between intersectionality and assemblage (terms that refer to the multiple relations of power which shape social life, including race, gender and class) – for which I can forgive the book’s limitations. For example, there are significant historical inaccuracies and omissions. His claim that, ‘it would take until the 1960s for black danger, in Fanon’s sense, to become explosive,’ does not take into account a long history of black insurrection. The book makes crucial claims that require more substantiation: if Sun Ra was indeed excluded from the Black Panther House in Oakland, California, then additional citation is needed. What would affect reception of this book in a US context in particular is that at times Stüttgen is unaware of the valence of his terms – the use of ‘the coloured body’ and ‘coloured’ is one key instance as the term ‘coloured’ in an US context is not commen­surate with ‘black’. It holds a fraught and painful association with the institution of racial segregation in the US. I yearned for a deeper exami­nation in places, as many of the topics he addresses are broad enough for volumes. Still, this yearning was positive; I wanted more of what the book provokes.

Jayna Brown is an Associate Pro­fessor at the University of California, Riverside. She writes about black performance, music, film and science fiction. She is the author of Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Duke University Press, 2008).