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Focus on the Funk

This post was contributed by Kojo Koram, PhD student in the School of Law. Kojo attended the Focus on the Funk event in May 2016.

Focus on the Funk

On the 20th-23rd of May 2016, a community of academics, activists and artists met at Birkbeck School of Law under an invitation to ‘Focus on the Funk.’ Over three days, the likes of Gayatri Spivak, Alicia Garza, Nina Power and Lewis Gordon all took up the task of trying to think through ‘the funk’.

Law and funk

We felt fortunate to have attracted such a cast of speakers, considering how unappealing the prospect of joining a law school threatening to ‘get funky’ must have appeared upon first reading. ‘Law’ and ‘Funk’ are understandably imagined as diametric opposites; the transgression implicit in bringing them together being what initially excited us as organisers. Funk most immediately invokes a genre of music, yet the notion of ‘the funk’ transcends this particular expression, its musical form being just one manifestation of the condition of the ‘funk’.

Etymologically, the word ‘funk’ derives, in part, from the obsolete Flemish word fonck meaning ‘disturbance’ or ‘agitation’ (citation from Oxford Dictionaries). This understanding of ‘funk’ synthesised with another definition – as ‘a strong smell’ – to become the common shorthand for the atmosphere of the jazz clubs of the early twentieth century. In these clubs, the funk denoted not just the musical corruption of classical European melodies occurring on stage but a particular orientation to life that could be found everywhere in these clubs. Here, one could encounter ‘the funk’ of life. When a particularly agitated form of rhythm and blues music emerged in the 1970’s, it was christened as ‘funk’ but it hadn’t invented the idea, rather fully realised it in musical form.

So while our reference to ‘the funk’ did not only mean music, we did attempt take the music seriously. We were concerned with what law sounds like, starting not with the harmony or even silence of law within lives that rarely encounter its force but with the crescendo that greets subjectivities over-determined by law. (For further on the relationship between law and music, and the role of sound in law, see James E. K. Parker, Acoustic Jurisprudence: Listening to the Trial of Simon Bikindi.(Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015)).

In response we turned to funk, which, as a music genre, de-emphasised the melodic in favour of bringing forward that which was buried underneath, the hypnotic bassline and the interrupting, staccato drumbeat. Funk music begins with the background mess of song and then, crucially, stays with it, sustaining the failure of the soothing melody to emerge and, instead, forcing artists to express themselves from inside the groove. The result is often vocalised through a scream.

Funk as a prism

To employ ‘the funk’ as a prism to examine questions of politics and philosophy offered a challenge particularly apt for our turbulent times. We were awed at the vigour with which this challenge taken up by our guests. After an introduction by the organisers, in which we performed our manifesto outlining future plans for a different way of philosophising about law, Gail Lewis and Nina Power began with a dialogue illustrating how law’s claim to public order is haunted by ungrievable lives such as Sarah Reed’s. (See Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso 2009)). Their talk exposed the sacrificial piling of bodies upon bodies that guarantees received notions of law and order.

Then we welcomed an activist roundtable as Rupinder Pahar from the London Campaign Against State and Police Violence, Adam Elliott-Cooper from #RhodesMustFallOxford and Alicia Garza from #Blacklivesmatter illustrated the interconnection between epistemological and state violence across the Black Atlantic. (See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1993))

Next Kerem Nisancioglu, Brenna Bhander and Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman dismissed any myopic suspicions that thinking through the funk was to indulge in particularism. Rather than avoid ‘universal’ topics, this panel confronted them, compelling the audience to re-read received notions of sovereignty, property and reason. Doyens of modernity like Thomas Hobbes and Francis Galton were immersed into the funk, re-emerging as figures other than what they were, now finding the funk to be stuck to them.

Friday closed with Sarah Keenan, Stephanie Bailey, Taylor Le Meel and Karen Mirza generously talking us through the Art System from the perspective of the ‘Wretched of the Screen.’ Sarah Keenan sported a Vernon Ah Kee designed t-shirt with the words “Australia drive it like you stole it”, as she spoke about a recent unsanctioned installation which saw the projection onto the walls of Australia House of faces of refugees killed in Australian offshore detention. Both evenings were filled with wonderful cinematic and visual art exhibitions offered by our collaborators from the Serpentine Gallery, which continued into Sunday.


The auditorium was at its most full on Saturday morning, perhaps evidence of Friday’s success, but more plausibly the result of Gayatri Spivak joining us to converse with Oscar Guardiola-Rivera on ‘The Politics of Deconstruction.’ Spivak guided the audience in revisiting her engagement with Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, whilst tying her comments into the wider themes of the conference, advocating a way of reading described as ‘funky, not straight…an on-beat, off-beat, back-beat structure.’

We returned from lunch to celebrate the 70th Birthday of Paget Henry, with Lewis Gordon, Julia Suárez Krabbe and Nadine El-Enany honouring Henry by engaging with topics of such as race, rights and stunted moments of rebellion.

Later Alicia Garza, the co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, returned to the stage to take up the task of explaining what law sounds likes when you must affirm your very existence through opposition to it? What does law sound like when its ordering is predicated on your arbitrary execution? And, perhaps more importantly, what response is available to you to make yourself audible over the violence of such a law? Alicia implored the audience to respond with a fearless and furious love. Alicia’s herstory of #BlackLivesMatter reminded us that the hash-tag that captured a movement, that captured a moment, initially began life as a love-letter. #Blacklivesmatter was the sound of black love and to a world producing harmony through the negation of that love: it sounded like a scream.

Once the audience finished giving Alicia an extended standing ovation, Lewis Gordon lived up to his reputation as ‘the closer’ with a keynote that executed a nuanced synthesis of the themes that had emerged over the conference. Lewis tied together issues of challenging legal violence, decolonising the curriculum and shifting the geography of reason whilst also transforming the stage into a makeshift drum-kit. His masterful musicianship and critique offered an embodiment of relationship between a political and philosophical commitment to ‘the funk’ and its musical manifestation.

Taking legal theory into a funky atmosphere

Ultimately, we spent a remarkable three days trying to extend Beckett’s embrace of the ‘mess’ of life towards a philosophical understanding of life’s ‘funk’. We took theory to school with the musicians, a move that appears curious in our age of fetishized disciplines. Modern European philosophy emerged interwoven with music, the Kantian imperative towards autonomous, universal human subjectivity finding expression through the overtures of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. (For further on the relationship between European classical music and philosophy, see Andrew Bowie, Music, Philosophy and Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007))

Conversely, the African-American musical tradition, beginning from an understanding of modernity as catastrophe, would mutate these classical musical phrasings in the atmosphere of the jazz club. What would it mean to take legal theory into that funky atmosphere? To make law answerable to a tradition that responds to legalised structural violence with song; to enslavement with a call to ‘wade in the water’, to an unfair criminal justice system with a defiant cry that ‘we gon’ be alright’?

Our meeting was the beginnings of an exploration such questions. However, to begin with a ‘focus on the funk’ is to begin with failure and, in that sense, we met knowing that our collective ambitions had always, already failed. Yet in the embrace of that failure, we will persist in building our intellectual community, both inside and outside the academy. And we will try to fail better, each time we meet.

Watch highlights from Focus on the Funk:

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