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Below is the abstract for the keynote talk that I will give in two weeks at the “Feeling Queer/Queer Feeling” international conference to be held at the University of Toronto, May 24-26, 2017.

For complete details go here: http://versus.recherche.usherbrooke.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Queer-Feeling-2017.pdf

Feeling Queer poster

“Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight” 

John Paul Ricco

This talk is part of my ongoing conceptualization of “queer neutrality.” In my recent book, The Decision Between Us, I read the late Roland Barthes as someone engaged—in his “mourning diary,” his lectures on the neutral, and in his last book Camera Lucida—in “neutral mourning,” as distinct from Freud’s mourning and melancholia. In this paper, I am interested in theorizing an accompanying notion of “neutral affect.” By attending to the empirical contingency of the extemporaneous and erotic moment as the scene of queer feeling, I am interested in what interrupts neoliberal scripts of self-becoming and what is referred to as an “event.” More specifically, today, in the midst of hipster capitalism’s appropriation of cool from post-World War II black culture (see Shannon Winnubst’s new book, Way Too Cool), there is the need to re-conceptualize in order to reclaim what I am theorizing as black neutral affect. My primary focus here is Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight, and its remarkable representation of the aesthetic, ecological and potentially cosmological dimensions of this affective ethics of the neutral.

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In reading the Prologue to Giorgio Agamben’s The Use of Bodies (Stanford, 2016; originally L’uso dei corpi, 2014), I now more fully understand why Tom McDonough, in his prepared comments for the recent roundtable discussion of my book The Decision Between Us, turned to Guy Debord’s last film, In girum imus note et consumimir igni (1978) and juxtaposed Debord with Roland Barthes, and Barthes’ essay, “Leaving the Movie Theatre” (1975).  Debord’s title, which translates as “We turn in the night, consumed by fire” is, in its Latin inscription, a palindrome. More specifically, it is a palindrome that—as Agamben points out—in turning on itself performs what it says. Namely: loss and death as the result of a fatal desirous attraction to a luminous light in the night. I am not sure if this was part of Tom’s unspoken intention, but I wonder whether one of the reasons he referred to Debord’s last—and what he describes as Debord’s greatest—film, was not only because Debord has been so central to his own work for the past several decades, but perhaps also because the theoretical argument that I present in the first chapter of my book is equally structured by a palindrome that also serves as its title: “Name No One Man.” My title, like Debord’s, also palindromically performs what it says: in this case, the multiplicty of anonymity. An anonymous multiplicity that is here enacted by erasure as its own aesthetic-erotic praxis of withdrawal and loss (e.g. Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953—which is the focus of that chapter).

As Agamben goes on to explain, Debord’s title functions like an emblem (impression/phrase/motto) + image, of moths (the “we” that is speaking in the Latin) drawn to the flame of a candle that will consume them in its heat. The moths then, are sort of like moviegoers going to the cinema, in which an equal attraction to a bright light in the night represented for Debord one of the principal (although perhaps not ultimately fatal)  forms of alienation within what he called the society of the spectacle.

But as McDonough points out, for Barthes, it is not so much a matter of “going” to the movie theatre and of being attracted to the light that shines in its cinematic darkness (one might say that the diurnal time of the cinema is always nighttime), but precisely of “leaving” the movie theatre—yet without forfeiting an experience of pleasure. Indeed, as I have argued in both The Logic of the Lure, and in The Decision Between Us, there is an art to (and ethics of) “leaving” (departure, withdrawal, retreat), and in this way is its own source of pleasure for both the leave-taker and the one who is left. I think here for instance of Foucault telling us, in one of his last interviews, that the most erotically intense moment is when—presumably after a one-night stand— the boy leaves in a taxi. In turn, there is another sense of pleasure that is derived from the implication that in leaving, there is yet another place to go and where, in departing, one might be headed. As we know, this was exactly Barthes’ modus operandi: of“taking off” (as he himself puts it) from the gallery opening, the dinner party, the opera, the theatre or the cafe, and then going to the club, the drugstore, the bar, the park or, simply wandering the streets at night on the way back home, and along the way cruising and sometimes picking up hustlers.

For Barthes, the cinema is defined by its darkness, one that he describes as “the very substance of [a twilight] reverie” and “the ‘colour’ of a diffused eroticism.” Such that, as he goes on to say, the movie house “is a site of availability (even more than cruising), the inoccupation of bodies, which best defines modern eroticism—not that of advertising or striptease, but that of the big city.”

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In his essay from 1975, Barthes draws upon another Latin motto, emblem and figure. In this case, that of the silkworm that weaves its cocoon and, once encased inside there, glows in the night, as though enveloped—like the moviegoer—by the bright light of its own desirous attraction. Inclusum labor illustrat: “It is because I am enclosed, that I work and glow with all my desire.” And at the same time, like a moth, the moviegoer is attracted to the light of the movie projector: “that dancing cone which pierces the darkness like a laser beam” as Barthes describes it.

As McDonough notes, the tactic for Barthes is not to break the fascination of the lure, but to exacerbate it, “to be fascinated by the image twice over” (Barthes). That is, to be fascinated by the image and by its surroundings, and hence to have something of a perverse relation to the cinema that is contingent more so upon “leaving” rather than going to the movie theatre.

Thus in seeking a figure (or emblem) for the specific pleasure that is derived from that form of desiring that is leaving at night, and into the night, neither Debord’s moth nor Barthes’ silkworm will suffice. Instead, it is none other than Marx who provides us with the most apt image for any number of those nocturnal creatures who, once the sun has set, set out into the night in search of that source of attraction—that light in the night—that always stands the chance of being fatal, or exhilarating in the risk that is the intimacy of the outside. As Agamben notes, it is in The German Ideology that Marx writes: “and it is thus that nocturnal moths, when the sun of the universal has set, seek the light of the lamp of the particular.” It is the clandestinity (at once secret and illicit) of this move from the universal to the particular, that Agamben will focus on as the means of rethinking the political by reviving the political’s attachment to that register of the everyday that otherwise goes unremarked and unnoticed—which includes that which remains unremarkable and unnoticeable. In turn, it is Stacey D’Erasmo who, in her response to my book, arrived at a sense of the importance of noticing precisely those things that are not readymade but that often seem to be (or are) unmade and perhaps even un-makeable (including as what might be legible as politics).
This move from the universal to the particular is the move from generic form—including something simply called “life”—to a form-of-life that, in its essential clandestinity, promiscuity and inoperativity, might be described as queer.

This is the public roundtable discussion of my recent book, The Decision Between Us: art and ethics in the time of scenes. It was held on April 1, 2016 at the University of Toronto, and featured remarks by David Clark, Stacey D’Erasmo, Jacques Khalip, Etienne Turpin and Tom McDonough.

I am deeply appreciative of the generous time and care that each of them has devoted to my work, and the many new insights that their precise observations, re-framings, and juxtapositions generated. It is certainly a rare occasion for an intellectual discussion in the academy to be structured less around questioning critique, and more in terms of a willingness to go along with another thinker and writer’s thinking and writing for awhile. Resonances and shared affinities and devotions emerge, and this is truly a genuine gift.

But I am equally grateful for David, Stacey, Jacques, Etienne and Tom’s commitment to making this roundtable discussion a real intellectual event and not simply a panegyrical celebration. They came not only as admirers but as readers, willing to probe the larger political, ethical and aesthetic dimensions of my work, and to situate those paths in relation to other contemporary discussions and events (e.g. the Anthropocene, queer pedagogy, the refugee crisis, the marriage plot, and the un-livable). And to open up my work to that of others: Roland Barthes, Guy Debord, Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle, Gertrue Stein, and Deborah Britzman—to name those that immediately come to mind.

Which also means that they did me the great honour of not imitating my style of theorizing, my particular way of speaking through a written text, and of rhetorically constructing an argument. Instead, they brought everything that makes their own work so distinct and uniquely theirs, and spoke in the very voices that have drawn me to their work over the years. This public conversation was neither a series of forgeries nor a canonization of a book or its author, but an exploration of what jointly emerged as the obscenity and scandal of thinking and perhaps trying to live in terms of “queer neutrality.”

 

 

 

 

 

This is the final scene from Todd Haynes’ film SAFE. In it, the character Carol, (Julianne Moore) enters the windowless igloo-like cabin that has been assigned to her, at a New Age recovery centre somewhere in the southern California desert. Suddenly drawn to the small mirror on the wall opposite her bed, she approaches it and while looking into the mirror, and says, in a nearly inaudible hushed tone, “I love you.” Shot from the point of view that we take to be occupied by the mirror, and which is the point of view that we as viewers are now made to assume, it is as though Carol is no longer professing her love to her mirror reflection and thus to herself, but (or perhaps also) to some unidentified and invisible other who inhabits the space outside of the frame, and towards which her gaze is directed. This could be any one of us as viewers, or more simply and expansively, it is an alterity that Carol (and each us) is in rapport with as the singularities that we are amongst other singularities.

Leo Bersani discusses this scene in his recent book, Thoughts and Things, specifically in terms of a certain “unnamed passion” that is presented here, and that Haynes and Moore ask us as viewers to reckon with. This scene, and Bersani’s reading of it, are also featured in my current paper/talk on “The Commerce of Anonymity.” There, I argue that an impersonal and anonymous commerce or compearance is staged here at the end of the film, in which through this “unnamed passion” that is also the passion and pleasure of not naming and of going unnamed, the self is opened up to as yet unknown encounters with yet-to-be-known others.

The “you” of Carol’s “I love you” is the “you” that each of us is in the anonymous commerce of our sociality. The decision that we are left with is the decision to sustain a love that is legitimate to the extent that it operates without the safety and security provided by the legitimizing authority of the name. Love—and therefore friendship and even more broadly the commerce of encounters with strangers, passersby, and other anonymous others—is thus redefined as that which finds its legitimacy in the de-legitimzing pleasures, risks and affects of that unnamed passion that is anonymity.

 

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A blue delphinium on World AIDS Day.

I have walked behind the sky.

For what are you seeking?

The fathomless blue of Bliss.

To be an astronaut of the void, leave the comfortable house that imprisons you with reassurance.

Suffering from CMV, a virus that among other things causes a retinal infection, and without the sort of treatments developed in the past decade or so, can lead to blindness, Derek Jarman persisted in his work as an artist and in his film Blue (1993), created one of the most uncompromising visualizations of blindness and the limits of visual representation in the time of AIDS.

As an “empty sky-blue afterimage,” Blue exposes us to the empty afterimage that is the blue of the sky. Sky-blue is the nominative-adjective pairing that describes and names an emptiness and an afterimage. But only in the sense that one speaks of the city being empty, or has the undeniable sense that the blue of the sky is the ground that remains after every image.

In the middle of his book, Derek Jarman’s Garden, there is a poem, the first line of which locates the poem, the book, the garden and the gardener “under this blue sky.” Jarman’s stony Dungeness garden became a blind man’s world, as blind as “the stone in the air” in Paul Celan’s poem, “Flower.”

The stone.

The stone in the air, which I followed.

Your eye, as blind as the stone.

Flower—a blind man’s word.

To stare at the sky, as a gardener might do, is to be caught up in the visual enthrallment of staring at nothing, and to find this blindness of sorts to be irreparable—simply enough. Or, if not to stare at the sky, then to stare at what the sky makes possible: “I can look at one plant for an hour” as Jarman writes, “this brings me great peace. I stand motionless and stare.” This is also the stance and regard that Blue solicits from us and asks us to endure, to sustain.

Like the flowers that close Jarman’s garden book, and the delphinium that is placed at the end of Blue, perhaps these are the few words that remain after unsparing loss, the words that are more persistent than any final word could ever be. These would be the words dedicated to the friend who did not save my life, voiced by the body of this death. These are the words that continue “to go without saying,” by a perceiving that continues to go without seeing. Blind man’s words: Flower. Blue. Adieu.

[Adapted from my book, The Logic of the Lure, 2003]

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