Jean-Luc Nancy

Emmet Gowin, Mariposas Nocturnas (book cover)

Below is a paper that I presented at a workshop on capitalism and photography held at the University of Toronto, September 15-16, 2017. I will be working on it for the next several months, in preparation for it being included in a collection of essays on Capitalism and the Camera that is being edited by Kevin Coleman, Daniel James, and Ariella Azoulay. Comments and suggestions are welcomed.

For the past 15 years, the American photographer Emmet Gowin has been photographing more than a thousand species of moths on visits to Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, French Guiana, and Panama. This month, Princeton University Press will publish a monograph of these images, titled, Mariposas Nocturnas: Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity. Since the book has yet to be released, and I did not have the opportunity to see the recent exhibition of these images at the Morgan Library, I am operating at the moment with a bit of a deficit. I was recently drawn to this photography project while exploring the figure of the moth in modern philosophy and criticism; a series of references that ranges from Part Two of Heidegger’s 1929-30 lecture course on The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics and his discussion of the animal as being “poor in world,” to Guy Debord’s last film (1978), the title of which, In girum imus note et consumimur igni, is the ancient phrase that, as a palindrome, reads both forward and back: “We turn in the night, consumed by fire.” Finally, to Giorgio Agamben who, in his book The Open: Man and Animal (2002), and more recently in The Use of Bodies (2014), considers Heidegger and Agamben’s uses of the figure of the moth as an emblem of captivation that is, respectively, either a non-revelatory instinctual drive or as being completely consumed by the bright light of spectacle.

Within the context of our discussion of capitalism and photography, and the specific attention that I want to direct to issues of the Anthropocene and Capitalocene theses, the moth is not only an emblematic figure for a desirous attraction that proves to be suicidal, but also of an emulation in which a body sets itself on fire in a sacrificial activist gesture of protest and refusal. As such, the moth functions as an “indicator species,” that, precisely in its beauty and diversity (taking terms from the subtitle of Gowin’s new book), not only signals the loss of those very two things (an aesthetics of bio-diversity?) due to epic and epochal species extinction, but also the auto-immune disorder of the anthropological-biological machine and its own death-drive. Gowin’s photo grids are clear reminders that this anthropological machine and its taxonomies is also an optical machine (that obviously includes photography in all of its various technological permutations and capacities).
At the same time, given that any taxonomy is always also a historiography, and given that every place on a map is also at the same time a moment in history, Gowin’s focus on the moths of Central and South America underlines the fact that the future time of extinction that humanity finds itself living today is unevenly distributed, and that the fatal affects on the global South and the global poor require a politics and ethics that absolutely resists capitalism’s general equivalence of catastrophes, as it also remains committed to a sense of equality derived from the fact of common inequivalence, our incommensurability one to another, which is say, as co-existing—geo-ontologically (to cite Beth Povinelli)—without any single, common measure.


In the phototropism of moths, that is, in their instinctual impulse to fly towards the light, we find an all-too-ready metaphor for that optical drive and its captivation that is photography. The convergence is made all the more material in Gowin’s interest in photographing the moths as living specimens. This involved him luring the insects at night by artificial light and capturing them as they landed on variously coloured surfaces that he had gathered, in many cases from reproductions of works of art by Degas and Matisse and others. It is here that the aporia of the “mariposa nocturna” (the nocturnal moth) is revealed, and thereby, in turn, the phototropic limits of photography itself.


Moths fly by night, hence they are nocturnal. Yet taxonomically classified as such, they are only rendered as epistemological objects in terms of their relation to the light. The light that attracts them and illuminates them. This is their phototropism and it is here that they might be viewed as species emblems or metaphors of photography. Photo-ontology of life, in which light = life. Light as dis-inhibitor ultimately proves to be a fatal inhibitor (it is the lure that kills). Gowin reproduces this photo-visual economy, one that, as a photographer he shares with the moths, what we might describe as the “photographic night:” illuminating and capable of capturing an image and producing a taxonomic image of the specimen including in its ornament, colour, pattern—beauty. The ground of the moth is no longer the night, but instead is an image (in many cases here: image reproductions of works of art, themselves being images made by Matisse, Degas and others. The ground of the image = [is always] an image—as this also requires us to re-conceptualize what is meant by “ground”). So without the nocturnal darkness of the night, and without the light of the flame that consumes, do we still have mariposas nocturnal? Or do we instead have the conservation, via photography, of the illuminated night—what I am calling the photographic night?


In taking up the example of the moth, Heidegger defines its distinction as light-seeking in terms of its attraction not to the intensity of the light but to its magnitude. In other words, not the light source itself, but the surface that it illuminates. It is in this way, explains Heidegger, that the moth is attracted not to the brightness of the moon but to the large surfaces that the moonlight illuminates—the shine and shimmer of its surface effects. According to Heidegger, moths fly into the flame because the candlelight does not illuminate a large surface (the attractor or dis-inhibitor for the moth), and so moths fall victim to the source of light itself, as though bereft of a surface attraction and a place to land.


But is there a way to think existence otherwise than in terms of this relational economy and its violent metaphysics of presence—of enclosure and disclosure, concealing and dis-concealing? Perhaps somewhat curiously, given commonly held assumptions, Heidegger enables us to think otherwise in this regard, and in part largely against himself and the distinctions that he argued exist between the animal and the human. It requires another way of thinking about (visual, corporeal) captivation in terms of a non-revaltory openness and intimate rapport with the outside, a conceptualization that might be located (at least partially) in Heidegger’s take on animal captivation. For Heidegger, the animal, in its driven directed-ness to- and toward, is neither ontologically tied to itself nor to its environment, but is said to be suspended. This suspension of the animal means that the animal is neither closed off from its environment, (note: Heidegger will not bestow upon the animal the sense of a world), nor disclosed as a presence in the world, but is instead “an openness for…” (Metaphysics, 248) and a being taken by…


As Agamben notes, “The difficulty arises here from the fact that the mode of being that must be grasped is neither disclosed nor closed off, so that being in relation with it cannot properly be defined as a true relationship, as a having to do with” (Open, 54). The animal is open in or to a non-disconcealment, it is exposed to the outside in a non-revelatory (i.e. non-metaphysical) way, yet that nonetheless forcefully disrupts the creature in its every fibre.


In following Heidegger when he writes that, “not-having-to-do-with…presupposes a being open…on the basis of this possession it [the animal] can do without, be poor, be determined in its being by poverty. But because this having is a being-open…the possession of being open is a not-having” we might discern not only that “the animal’s poverty in world…is nonetheless a kind of wealth” as Heidegger notes (Metaphysics, 255), but also how animal captivation can equip us to think about a non-appropriating rapport with the world, in which not having per se (“highest poverty” of the Franciscan order, for instance), is (again) the way to think otherwise about our “having to do with” the world, including perhaps to the question, “what is to be done?”


In a text with that title, originally given as a lecture in 2012, Jean-Luc Nancy points out that, “by making ‘having to do’ (devoir faire) into a question, [our history] freed it from a given order of ends [praxis without telos, production; hence beyond Kant and Marx]; by coming up with ends prescribed by an entire humanity [e.g. Anthropocene thesis], it designated the horizon of an ultimate production [eco-modernist human-techno sustainability].” However as Nancy immediately goes on to say, “that horizon has changed with the perspectives of destruction and auto-destruction: we are no longer facing a sole end with another side that brings damage, or disasters, and at times the indefinite proliferation of new ends.” In other words, at a time when human history and its modern capitalist manifestation is recognized as indelibly inscribed into the very geologic matter of the Earth, living the future time of extinction means to be bereft of one’s dis-inhibitors and inhibitors. “Completions exceed themselves; entelechies resemble entropies” as Nancy concludes (Diacritics, 2014, 42.2: 112).


Beyond Heidegger, poverty in the world is a direct result of a humanity that is poor in world (ecological, but more broadly as living in a world in which it is difficult to make sense). In his very final course on “The Beast and the Sovereign,” Derrida claimed that there is no world, only islands. But as we have known all-too-well for some time now (and well before Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean), there are no more islands either. Their shores have been inundated, the rising ocean levels having tempestuously reclaimed them or as we have recently seen, their shores have been extended as the hurricane takes the water out of the ocean.


Perhaps in light of this, we can better understand what Nancy means, when, in arguing that we must think doing apart from project, intention, principle or goal and author, he quotes Celan who called for “doing without a shoreline.” Nancy interprets this as “an adventurous and risk-taking boundless doing” and derives an image from the poem itself, the last lien of which calls that doing “a shimmer from the ground” (Schimmer aus dem Grund) (Nancy, 113). A shimmer that, as Nancy says, “arises from a depth that remains endless” (Nancy, 114).


It is this shimmer that I want to think further about, in terms of photography and the night. A shimmer that is to be understood less as an image or even as the surface effects of a cast light, than according to the very precise terms provided by the poem. That is: as a “shimmer from the ground.” Meaning, I want to suggest, as humus (“soil, earth, dirt,” from which the word “human” is derived). The depth of this ground from which this shimmer comes to shine, is neither the shine of solar nor lunar illumination, but what might be described as a nocturnal depth. Not the night that is opposite the day and its light, but the geological and therefore posthumous night of the humus or ground. It is Blanchot’s “other night” and Benjamin’s “saved night.” As concerns the latter, Agamben writes that, “The salvation that is at issue here does not concern something that has been lost and must be found again…it concerns, rather, the lost and the forgotten as such—that is, something unsavable” (Open, 82)—e.g. neither the moth nor the light, but the nocturnal.


Here we are confronted with that which is neither human nor animal, existing outside of bios and hence perhaps also the bio-political. It is what Eugene Thacker has recently come to refer to as “dark life,” as that which is not only beyond the two dichotomies of human/machine and human/animal, but that occupies a zone of indistinction between the living and the nonliving. It is for example, Desulfotomaculum, the bacterium that, as Thacker explains, “thrives in the darkness of radioactive rocks” existing without the benefit or need of photosynthesis. Such extremophiles (organisms that can survive extreme conditions of heat, cold, acidity, pressure, radioactivity, and darkness—meaning: at the outer reaches of what is needed to sustain life) put into question the equation between light and life, and by “feeding off of the absence of light—are an anomaly for biological science.” In other words, they exist at the limits of the optical anthro-bio-photo-machine by which life is identified and known. Inhabiting the soil, water, geothermal run-off and insect intestines, desulfotomaculum use things like dead moths to anaerobically metabolize energy, and thereby generated a posthumous shimmer from the humus.


Now, since our bodies are at least 50% bacterial matter, and since it is clear that the ability of such matter to subsist in the dark and thrive on non-living matter—including the half-lives of the radioactive fluorocarbons that organic/biological life has produced—it is equally clear that it is such anomalous forms of existence will survive the current sixth great extinction. Therefore the Desulfotomaculum, meaning the utter absence of light, suggest the need to think in terms of a desulfotography, which is not necessarily the absence of photography (indeed, these bacteria have themselves been photographed). Instead, it effects a re-thinking of life in terms of that which in-appropriable and in fact unsavable. It thus might be a way for us to question the photographic and its ontological need for light, and how that defines photography’s relation to the living and the nonliving. What might be photography’s place in the field of critical life studies, for which the concept of life is itself anomalous and in its material existence is understood to have been always already posthumous? Simply put: might photography have a relation to the unsavable, the unimaginable and thus perhaps exist or survive without image?

I am so pleased to have my essay “The Commerce of Anonymity,” published in the latest issue of Qui Parle. Here’s the abstract, followed below by a short excerpt. You can access and download a copy of the entire article here: Ricco, “The Commerce of Anonymity” (Qui Parle, June 2017)




Always “within distance of” oneself and others: this is our place,

and to write or to draw is to discover and sustain (to varying degrees

of duration) that distance. In its proximity this distance is the source

of pleasure and the mark of intimacy—but it is also the measure of

the exact equality between one passerby and another. No longer

even in terms of the being-other of the stranger, this is more a matter

of the spacing of passage in its passing, the place that is abandoned

by and that abandons the passerby, in his or her passing, to the outside,

including the outside of identity.


There, where the studio meets the street and the street meets

the study, and the desk meets the drawing table and the drawing table

meets the urban signboard, “each face has value and refers—or

leads—to one human identity that is equal to another” (Genet). To which

we might add: each face leads toward an exact and absolute equality

that renders each of us not identical but incommensurable. Each

time with each other, it is an experience that affirms the essential anonymity

of being-together and the risks and pleasures of our ethical

and aesthetic commerce.


Intimacy, Loss, Anonymity

Toward a Theory of Queer Neutrality

 22 June 2017


Introduction by Peter Rehberg

For the past 20 years, after having curated the Chicago exhibition ‘Disappeared’ on AIDS and an aesthetics of disappearance, John Paul Ricco has theorized erotic and aesthetic relations to loss and withdrawal tied to specific junctures of late-20th-century gay male culture and contemporary art and film. He has shown anonymity to be an irreducible relational form of the ethical – in particular in terms of social and sexual intimacy.

The workshop discussed Ricco’s paper ‘Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight’, a work-in-progress on ‘neutral affect’ that is part of his ongoing conceptualization of queer neutrality. The essay draws on Roland Barthes’s conception of neutral mourning and relates it to Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight (2016) and its presentation of an affective relation to loss that is distinct in its temporality from Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’.

By attending to the empirical contingency of the extemporaneous and erotic/aesthetic moment as the scene of feeling queer, Ricco is interested in thinking a time of affects that disrupts neo-liberal scripts of self-becoming and what is commonly referred to as an ‘event’. In addition, Ricco attends to the nuanced images of black masculinity that – he argues – are not adequately rendered by prevailing gender performative readings of the film.

Apart from ‘Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight’, two additional essays of Ricco were circulated in advance: ‘Intimacy: Inseparable from Separation’ (Open Set, May 2017) and ‘The Commerce of Anonymity’ (Qui Parle, June 2017).

Click here to go to the ICI-Berlin event page to access the videos: Intimacy, Loss, Anonymity: Toward a Theory of Queer Neutrality


My essay, “Intimacy: Inseparable from Separation,” is featured in the latest issue of the open-access journal Open Set. Open Set is a relatively new and really smart journal on “arts, humanities, culture,” edited by Kris Cohen and Christa Robbins. This latest issue is a cluster of essays, interviews and reviews organized around the relation between various forms of labour and artistic practice. It features work on or by Andrea Fraser, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Elena Ferrante, along with responses from a number of people to a questionnaire from the editors on the question of “labour.”


My “Intimacy” essay was originally written as a talk at “Unmade Bed: In the Midst of Intimacy,” a symposium organized by Jacques Khalip and held at Brown University in early-November 2016. I want to thank Jacques for organizing a series of talks that spoke to each other in such remarkably nuanced and deeply moving ways, each configured around the image or scene of an empty bed.

What I have set out to do in my essay is to return to the fundamental themes of my last book, The Decision Between Us, in order to underline and amplify its central theoretical claims concerning the inseparable relations between intimacy and separation,  shared exposure and worklessness, the abject and the abstract. But I also now foresee the text as potentially part of the Introduction to the book that I am currently completing: The Intimacy of the Outside.

I am so pleased to be a part of this special journal issue, and hope that you will have a look sometime soon.

…in a forthcoming issue of the journal L’Esprit Createur.

Irving Goh. The Reject: Community, Politics, and Religion after the Subject. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2015.

There is no better indication of the failure of the actual practice of critical theory in the academy today than the extent to which those who claim to be theorists remain wholly attached to “the subject” and “subjectivity.” Regardless of the ways and the extent to which poststructuralism and deconstruction have fundamentally put into question its ontological, political, and ethical status over the past fifty years, the subject remains incredibly resilient to critique; it is central to queer and affect theory; to disability, gender, and race studies, and it is undeniably present in the work of the most revered and cited of contemporary thinkers.

In The Reject: Community, Politics, and Religion after the Subject, Irving Goh not only traces the persistent presence of the subject in the work of Badiou (“the faithful subject of the event”), Rancière (“the uncounted subject”), Étienne Balibar (“the citizen-subject”), Rosi Braidotti (“the critical post-human subject”), and Katherine Hayles (“the flickering post-human subject”), he also provides clear and reasonable arguments as to why, in each case, this presence poses serious problems for their respective attempts to think community, democracy, religion, love, friendship, the post-secular, and the post-human in wholly new ways. More important, through his brilliant theoretical conceptualization of “the reject,” Goh offers one of the most rigorous and carefully articulated responses to the question “who comes after the subject.” Jean-Luc Nancy posed that question thirty years ago in a letter to fellow continental philosophers. Their responses were published two years later in the journal Topoi, and subsequently in Who Comes After the Subject (1991). Reading this book during my first year of graduate study, I distinctly remember the excitement I felt by the gauntlet thrown down by Nancy’s question. Over the past 25 years, I have consistently recommended the book, always a bit surprised to realize how little known it has become. Goh is thus owed a debt of gratitude for returning us to this groundbreaking volume and the seismic critical theoretical question it inaugurated.

Goh structures his discussion according to three distinct valences (or “turns” as he calls them) of the reject, which can be defined as follows: “passive rejects” are those who are rejected (e.g. refugees, sex workers, black bodies, the indigenous, et al.); “active rejects” are those who reject others; and “auto-rejects” are those who ‘self-reject,’ by rejecting the a priori subjective autonomous self and its hypostatization. While the first two rejects will be familiar to any reader, the originality of Goh’s argument – and hence the potential un-familiarity of its figure or image – lies in his conceptualization of the auto-reject. Not to be confused with any form of auto-critique, de-subjectivation or the nihilism of the abject, the auto-reject is predicated upon the a priori abandonment that is the originary force of existence. Singularities are born out of this abandonment of being to existence, thereby becoming the rejects that they are in relation to others. In its rejection of self, the auto-reject sustains this infinite abandonment, perhaps right up to the point at which neither the auto- nor the reject can be sustained, where they are abandoned and rejected, and some other unforeseeable form of being-in-common is generated.

Without being immune to being a passive or active reject, according to Goh, the auto-reject breaks their dialectical cycle of rejection by “keeping in mind that there is always the possibility that one is a reject in the eyes of others” (8), and thus in doing so, at times “sidestep[s] to an adjacent space” as a way to abandon any asserted self-positioning and effectively ‘getting over itself.’ However, lest this be confused with some liberal acquiescence toward the other, Goh further specifies that this “shift or sidestepping to an adjacent space further requires that the auto-reject respect the other’s desire to not fill the space left by the auto-reject.” In that respect, “the auto-reject rejects in itself the demand for the other to arrive. It recognizes that it is always possible that the other rejects coming to presence, that is to say, rejecting appearing in the presence of the auto-reject” (8). The auto-reject is the one that abandons itself to the possibility of the other’s non-response; of the other departing and walking away, and without explanation, rapprochement, reproach or even resentment. Indeed, the auto-reject is the rejection of these very responses and imperatives. Thus Goh has outlined what might be described as a non-imperative ethics, one that is without demand (or obligation, responsibility, mutuality), or even an ethics conceived as infinitely demanding.

For one of his scenes, Goh turns to contemporary digital-network technologies and social media platforms in order to underline the extent to which the reject is the exact opposite of the subjective self or “selfie” produced by Instagram, Facebook, and the like. As he notes, the selfie subject as inward-solipsistic-me is the subject that is in constant need of approval, exposure, notoriety, trackability, and the immediacy of connection, gratification and addictive ‘updating.’ In terms of queer theory, it is interesting to note how Goh’s conception of the ethics of the reject resembles the rejection at play in the impersonal erotics of cruising and anonymous sex spaces, where it is not assumed that others will always respond or be attracted, and where the art of the consummate cruise partly lies in the subtle and at times seductive techniques of the auto-reject.

Based upon his close reading of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, along with Catherine Clément and Luce Irigaray, Goh identifies the friend who leaves town, the syncopic lover, the nomadic war machine, the animal-messiah, and the becoming-animal as various figures and trajectories that traverse the inoperative community of the reject. In our reading of Goh, we might not only begin to acknowledge ourselves to be the rejects that we are, but, in doing so, share in the impossibility of a single totalizing social unity or community ever being possible – or desirable. It is this shared impossibility (or “incompossible” as he terms it, drawing from Deleuze) of any common measure or commensurability of incommensurables, that distinguishes Goh’s uncommonly ethical and political sense of community, friendship, and the post-human. At which point we are left to ask: what comes after the reject?


I recently got around to reading the conversation between Tim Dean and Robyn Wiegman on the question of “critique.” It was published in a special issue of English Language Notes (51.2, Fall/Winter 2013) under the title, “What Does Critique Want? A Critical Exchange.”
Based upon their dialogue, and in light of a few other things that I have read this summer, I’ve put together the following notes on theory, queer theory, subjects/objects, reading, Foucault, aesthetics/ethics, and extinction.

In giving up on “critique,” one must also give up on all forms of the “subject” (beyond merely in terms of the critical mastery of the sovereign subject) and “objects” (including the notion that as thinkers/theorists, we have “objects” and hence that our thinking is always predicated upon, as the saying goes, “one’s relations to one’s objects”—which may or may not be distinct from “object-relations” [psychoanalysis] or “object lessons” [Wiegman]). Which would also mean re-thinking the political, outside the categories of subject and object, all the while retaining a commitment to thinking the relational (Foucault, Nancy) as the spacing of the political—irreducible to—and that which exceeds the domains of—subjects or objects, identities or things (and the “identity knowledges” that they produce). Hence the relational as always already non-relational. This entails radical re-definitions and conceptualizations of the “political” (spacing) as well as of the “ethical” (relational), in which neither would operate in the mode of being “critical.” In other words: can there be political and ethical thinking that is not, at the same time, critical—yet without being naive or without rigour?

In this regard, paranoid or reparative readings are not the only options or reading strategies available. There is also, for instance: deconstructive (inoperative, un-made) readings (which are not necessarily to be aligned with paranoid reading), and those aesthetic, literary or poetic modes of reading in which affect and sense (along with pleasure, desire, erotics) are central. Yet in ways that remain impersonal and transitive, rather than deriving from, or returning to, the individual subject who feels and becomes—the nexus of the critical and the personal (Sedgwick, that is its own form of “performative narcissism.”

It is this strand that makes so much queer theory today not only reparative but therapeutic in its form and implicit intent. Queer Theory today has all too often become a project of coping (with life, affects, feelings, others, etc.), which is its own compensatory move vis-a-vis resentiment. In fact, what is the relation between the latter and critique—especially in terms of the ways in which critique is deployed in the humanities today (and in particular in queer theory) in the name of the political? Examples of this resentment (and its implicitly accompanying misogyny) cited in this dialogue include: why doesn’t she love us (asked by feminists about Sedgwick); critical theory and its lack of commitment to women (Gender Trouble); academic feminism using theory in order to feel smart and sexy; the aggressivity of Women’s Studies.

So also then, there is (once again) a fundamental rethinking of gender and sexual differences, and the difference these make to thinking, doing, making, and being-together outside the dialectic of subject-object—which might also be outside of gender and sexuality. The fact of the matter is that what Irving Goh has done for dominant critical theory in his recent and brilliant book, The Reject, needs to be done for hegemonic queer theory. Namely: to elucidate the extent to which it remains utterly beholden to the concept of the subject, and the ways in which Butler most especially, but also Sedgwick and a whole second generation are responsible for this unrelenting hold that the concept of the “subject” has had on the field.

This also points to the extent to which Queer Theory has betrayed the work of Foucault, which not only was a genealogy of the modern subject, but also an attempt to think “who comes after the subject” (in various forms of an ethical self in relation with others). Indeed, Nancy’s question from the late-1980s—asked after Foucault would have had a chance personally to respond—equally could have been written: “who comes after Foucault?” This is where Tim Dean’s quotation of Paul Veyne on Foucault is so incredibly important and useful. Veyne writes: “Foucault’s philosophy is not a philosophy of ‘discourse’ but a philosophy of relation…Instead of a world made up of subjects, or objects, or the dialectic between them, a world in which consciousness knows its objects in advance, targets them, or is itself what the objects make of it, we have a world in which relation is primary.” Of course this is also where the work of Leo Bersani comes in, and its commitment to thinking about ethical-aesthetic relationality in neither paranoid (aggressive) nor reparative (redemptive) ways. Further: we need to imagine the inorganic as beyond the human, and to think art and aesthetics in the absence of, and after life and the human. So not the traditional notion of art and its relation to immortality and the future, but art in relation to extinction and the posthumous. What I have been calling “the collective afterlife of things.”

It is in this respect that we are also dealing with questions of discourse and knowledge, which is to say, the  limits of knowing, and that is the primary task of theory—properly speaking—to trace. Including  in terms of that which exceeds gender and sexual categories and identities, and that as an experience of non-knowledge exceeds the epistemological (including epistemological mastery and the production of knowledge).

Theory is one of our principle relations to not-knowing, to epistemological erasure, and to extinction (ontological erasure). It is committed to thinking praxis as always inoperative (post-Marx and Arendt) and is a valence onto that which is unbecoming, un-livable and unimaginable. Such that the aesthetics of existence is the art of becoming-imperceptible and disappearing—but never enough. And where ethics wholly entails attesting to the fact that we—together-apart—are already living the time of extinction.

This is the remarkable text that Stacey D’Erasmo presented at “Of Queer Neutrality: Apartness, Erasure, Intimacy,” the symposium and public roundtable on my book, The Decision Between Us, that was held on April 1, 2016 at the University of Toronto. 

I am deeply moved by Stacey’s words and thrilled by the deep resonance between her thinking and writing and my own. Her book on intimacy and its written form in various works of literature and poetry is a revelation, and is its own guide towards an ethics of the nearly impossible-to-occupy space between. Many who attended the symposium have expressed their own appreciation and excitement of this text, and thanks to Stacey’s generosity, I am happy and honoured to be able to publish it here. The title is not hers, but one that I have given the essay, drawing from its own language and argument. 


Thank you to John and to the Jackman Humanitites Institute for inviting me to this discussion. It’s a pleasure to be here. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised to be asked—I’m primarily a novelist, and I speak theory about as well as I speak French, which is to say enough to get around, order breakfast, ask for directions (take a left at Ranciere…), but I’m not fluent. The reason John asked me is that I wrote a book-length essay called The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between in which I looked at how it is that writers create a sense of intimacy on the page—intimacy among characters, between reader and writer, erotic and thanatopic intimacies, intimacies for which we do not have a name. I wrote this book for a literary series on craft and criticism, but I am sure that my book was very frustrating for any apprentice writer, because when I looked at various texts what I found was that these intimacies were not, strictly speaking, there. Instead, they were produced by what John, in his book calls the peri-space or the peri-performative: the space around, the space between. Our sense as readers that an intimacy had occurred was made by various meetings, often quite brief or glancing, in verb tenses, in the image, in murderous transaction, in white space, and so on. I opened the book with an epigraph from Gertrude Stein from the “Roast Beef” section of Tender Buttons: “The kindly way to feel separating is to have a space between. This shows a likeness.”

My job as a novelist is easier than any of yours because all I have to do is give the reader the feeling that something has happened, say an intimacy of some kind. If that intimacy was detonated in the margins of the page, in the syntax of the scene, in the shadows of the subjunctive, the reader, like Nancy’s image of Psyche, doesn’t know and doesn’t care. The reader—unlike the Psyche who is, of course, more awake in the myth than prone and unconscious or maybe dead—doesn’t lift the lamp. And if you say to the reader, as I did, ‘well, you know, the room is empty, the hat is empty, there is no rabbit, also no room and no hat,’ the reader basically shrugs. She already knew that.

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However, it would be highly disingenuous of me to say that I don’t see the stakes of John’s argument, that I don’t have stakes in it, that I’m a stranger here, I don’t speak the language, I am not subject to your borders, I’m just passing and passing through. Je ne parle pas Nancy. Because, as John points out in his discussion of Felix Gonzalez Torres’ Untitled, that image of the unmade bed on the billboard is not “the representational visual form added to a preexisting content (e.g. privacy, domesticity, coupledom), but is the very scene of the ethical-political contest over these various terms, and the performative spatial praxes to which they are conventionally assigned.” It seemed to me in reading John’s book that the image of an unmade bed—the proposition that there could be an unmade bed, that the bed could be unmade—kept appearing and reappearing: in Rauschenberg’s erasure of the de Kooning drawing, in the Mystic Writing Pad discussed by Freud, in the bed used by Duras, by Breillat, by Nancy; in Barthes’ embrace of haiku and photography and his impossible wish to be exempted from the image as a kind of social military service, in the Zen concept of satori. Barthes’ neutral, of course, is an unmade bed. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ pile of candy is an unmade bed. The photographs in the book by Faucon and Baudinet are unmade beds.

This proposition is a scandal, and, as an American, it’s fitting to me that we are having this discussion in Canada, where the draft dodgers once went. John is clearly a gentleman and a scholar, but his proposition is obscene and getting more obscene by the minute. I accept, not without a certain amount of trepidation. I kept thinking about that queer slogan from the ‘80s, “An army of lovers cannot fail,” and how different it would sound to us today to say, “An army of exiles cannot fail,”—whoops—but then, of course, erase the army, erase the forward-moving syntax, erase the verb, erase the sense of failure of success, lift the sheet on the Mystic Writing Pad. All you’re left with are the exiles, and maybe even just the ex-. All lovers are ex-lovers. The term “queer neutrality,” socially, is an oxymoron if not an outrage. We are more wedded to identity now than we have ever been. Many of the people in their makeshift boats on the crossing die, because the space between is a perilous passage in which one cannot live. The prepositions to or from are mandated, and in very concrete terms. Indeed, the prepositions to and from have tremendous power at the moment. They are the prepositions du jour, if not de siècle. One can live and die of them.

Other prepositions—beyond, around, between, beside, before, after, behind—are powerless. They are the prepositions of the unmade bed. Scandalous prepositions, and propositions. To dwell in powerlessness, in between-ness, is a scandal as well, if not also high-risk behavior. To suggest that the phrase this place, as in John’s discussion of Gonzalez Torres’ two stacks of paper labeled “Somewhere Better Than This Place” and “Nowhere Better Than This Place,” refers not to one or the other places but to the place that is shared by both of them flies in the face not only of geopolitics but also of basic Western identity. Further, to posit that we already have the freedom to decide to partake in, to sustain, as John says, “the inappropriate space between us as no-thing and already unmade,” to take the candy and eat it, is increasingly unsayable. John seems to be suggesting that we take candy from strangers, indeed, that taking candy from strangers is a freedom we already possess. His book, itself, as much as the art works that are discussed there, offers us that invitation, that decision. It is an invitation to powerlessness, to traitorous collaboration, to unbecoming.

A novel that is an unmade bed, in these terms, is a novel that will not make up its mind, and, as a result, will not make up the reader’s mind. One can say that all writing, all novels, certainly, are already unmade beds, but that’s too facile. I can think of works that seem to me to be unmade beds—Gide’s The Immoralist, Duras’ The Lover, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, all of Jane Bowles, all of Genet, of course. These are works of unbecoming—they unbecome the reader, and the pun seems apt as well. They are unbecoming books; they don’t make anyone look good, or bad, for that matter. They deliver us into a freedom from interpretation and identity that is uncomfortable. We become quite naked as readers. As John says, “what turns us on turns us out,” and I think the puns are apt there as well, being turned out as being exiled and being turned out as being prostituted, offered up to strangers, possibly strangers with candy. We are given or shown our freedom, our responsibility, our nakedness, and, frankly, this isn’t why most people read novels, or write them. The marriage plot is more popular now than ever.

The ability to discern this freedom, to dwell in it or at it, to see it as a decision that is always on offer, to apprehend works of art from this free position—by which I mean the neutral, the powerless, the partes extra partes—is severely constricted at the present moment. If you are without a place, you are an exile or a terrorist or a traitor. If you wish to be without a place, or attempt to be without a place, you have lost your mind. This is the moment in which we find ourselves. What fascinates me about The Decision Between Us is that John is not sounding a cry for liberation. His exploration rests on a freedom that is already there. The book, in this regard, strikes me as a kind of diagnosis or perhaps a punctum, to use Barthes’ term. I don’t know where to go from here. What has occurred to me in the wake of reading this book is a state I might call noticing. It seems to me, to return to Stein, a kindly way to feel separating, to have a space between, to show a likeness.

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.”




On March 19th, I presented a talk titled, “Edging the Common” at the conference “Aisthesis and the Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere,” that was organized by the research group Media@McGill, and held at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, March 18th and 19th. Other speakers included: Jean-Luc Nancy, Santiago Zabala, Pierre Dardot, amongst others. Videos of all of the presentations are available at:



I was invited to deliver one of the Keynote Lectures at the 26th Annual International Comparative Literature conference, by the graduate students in Comp Lit at the University of Toronto. The other Keynote speakers were Linda and Michael Hutcheon, and W.J.T. Mitchell. My talk, “Edging, Drawing, the Common,” took place on March 5th, 2016.

John Paul Ricco, “Edging, Drawing, the Common,” Keynote Address at the 26th Annual International Comparative Literature conference, University of Toronto, March 5, 2016.

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