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Mourning

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.

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: http://www.aisthesis.ca/videos/

 

 

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.

My research and writing this year has been primarily focused on completing a draft manuscript of my book, The Outside Not Beyond. This work has been aided tremendously by a 12-month research and study leave, of which I was at the midway point at the beginning of the year, and by a 12-month faculty research fellowship at the Jackman Humanities Institute (University of Toronto) that began this past July. The project also received very generous support beginning this year from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC, the national granting agency in Canada), which will provide funding over the next four years for research, assistants, travel, symposia, etc.

So over the past year I have had the time, solitude and resources to read and write and make significant progress on my projects. I have found my office at the JHI to be a particularly conducive place to work, and I really value the time I have had over the past 18 months, un-interrupted from teaching and university service duties, to focus on my own work and to remain with questions for extended periods of time.

Having submitted a book proposal to the University of Chicago Press in December of last year, by June of this year I finally received two Readers’ Reports, both of which very much endorsed the project and provided valuable feedback. I then turned my official response to these reports into an occasion to write what amounted to a second proposal: 11-pages that further expanded on the first, and represented the project in its current state of development. I found this to be an extremely productive task, one that really enabled me to flesh out both the major and minor scales and dimensions of the project. I walked away from the experience even more an advocate of “the second project outline.”

Topics and themes that have been pursuing in my research this past year include: the relation between poetry and prayer; anonymity and the neutral; edging and drawing; collective afterlives; ethics, politics and aesthetics of the common; drive, pleasure, and slippage; and measure and measurelessness.

The course of my research and reading this year, began with Georges Bataille’s major writings and publications, and then moved to Foucault’s lectures on governmentality and biopolitics; Dardot and Laval’s extension and elaboration of Foucault’s project, in their indispensable book, The New World Order: On Neoliberal Society; Derrida’s final seminar on the beast and the sovereign and his reading of Robinson Crusoe alongside Heidegger’s seminar The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics; and Michael Naas’s beautiful reading of Derrida’s seminar in his book,  The End of the World and Other Teachable Moments. I’ve also returned to the political writings of Maurice Blanchot, as well as some of his late-work, in particular The Step Not Beyond, along with Christopher Fynsk’s fantastic book, Last Steps: Maurice Blanchot’s Exilic Writing.

Other books that came out this year that I very much enjoyed, and that have remained with me, include: David Graeber’s book on bureaucracy, The Utopia of Rules; Kristin Ross’s Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune; Elizabeth Kolbert’s, The Sixth Extinction; and McFadden and Al-Khalili’s Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology. This last title is its own frontline education on one of the most exciting new fields of scientific research.

While writing, “The Art of the Consummate Cruise and the Essential Risk of the Common,” a paper for a panel on sexual risk and barebacking for the American Studies Association conference (Toronto, October 2015), I also returned to the work of William Haver—which remains the most inexhaustible source of inspiration and insight—as well that of Leo Bersani, Tim Dean. I have been in conversation with editors of an online journal, and hope that this paper will be published very soon.

I also continue to try to make fiction and poetry a regular part of my reading list. Books that particularly stood out this year are: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life; Nell Zink’s Mislaid; Michel Houellebecq’s Submission; and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

Publications this year included: “The Separated Gesture: Partaking in the Inoperative Praxis of the Already-Unmade,” in the collection Nancy and the Political (Edinburgh University Press); my conversation with Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Existence of the World is Always Unexpected,” in Art and the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press); my essay, “Drool: liquid fore-speech of the fore-scene,” in the online journal World Picture; and my essay, “Parasol, Setas, Parasite, Peasant,” in, Could, Should, Would, a monograph on architect J. Mayer H. (Hatje Cantz).

The first review of my book, The Decision Between Us, appeared in the January issue of Art in America (by Christa Noel Robbins); and that has since been followed by equally sympathetic, insightful and enthusiastic reviews in Critical Inquiry (by Tom McDonough), New Formations (by Jacques Khalip), and in Parallax (by Matthew Ellison and Tom Hastings).

As part of a conference seminar on Bataille that I co-organized with Etienne Turpin for the American Comparative Literature Association conference (Seattle), I presented a new paper titled, “A solvent for ‘poetry’s sticky temptation.'” It was a first attempt to consider the relation between poetry and prayer as it can be fashioned through a reading of Bataille’s A-Theological Summa. A keynote lecture at a conference on aesthetics and ethics at The Royal College of Art in London, gave me an opportunity to return to and to expand upon my paper, “The Commerce of Anonymity” which is on the art of mourning, and artist Shaan Syed’s “The Andrew Project.” An invitation to present some of the my current research at the Comparative Literature Emerging Research Lecture Series, here at the U of T this past fall, was yet another opportunity to further expand and develop the “Anonymity” paper into what I now feel is pretty much a completed chapter for the new book. Finally, last spring at Poetic Research Bureau in L.A. I read from and discussed my book, The Decision Between Us, along with readings by Etienne Turpin and Nadrin Hemada from collections that they have recently edited on the library and the prison, respectively.

Currently, I am preparing two keynote lectures in March 2016, one for the annual Comparative Literature conference, here at the University of Toronto, and the other for “Aisthesis & The Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere,” at McGill University. Also in March, I have been invited to speak at the Society for Philosophy and Culture at McMaster University.

Research travel this year included time in NYC in February in order to visit the National 9-11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero; and to Sicily in late-August to attend a week-long seminar on “sex and philosophy” taught by Jean-Luc Nancy.

This was also the year when I revived my performance art practice. It had been close to 7 years since I last presented my work and I have been wanting to return to performance for some time now. Since the late-summer I have been in conversation with Johannes Zits, and along with him and three other artists we have been developing a new work together. Many details will be posted here in the months to come, but for now I can say that at the end of January 2016 I will be part of a five-person, 6-hour durational performance at Katzman Contemporary, here in Toronto; and in February, I will be participating in a five-day workshop with artist Doris Uhlich, on dance, sound, and the naked body. All of this work is deeply connected to my thinking and writing on the peri-performative; naked image and naked sharing; exposure, risk, touch and trust. I am really excited to be able to translate this work into various forms of performance.

I will end this post by saying how grateful I am for those of you who have subscribed to this blog, and who take the time to be its readers. Happy New Year 2016!

Since the 12th-century, there has been in Christian moral theology a notion of taking pleasure in “expectantly waiting (Lat. moratur) in the desire for an object that remains absent because it is inaccessible or prohibited” (Dictionary of Untranslatables, 792). It is not a delay of pleasure, but rather of pleasure in the delay of satisfied desire, that is enjoyed by and in the imagination. In other words, it is the pleasure that one derives from desiring, and it is this pleasure-in-desiring that affirms that there is pleasure inherent in desire itself—and thus not only in desire’s fulfillment (a point that was clear to Lacan in his reading of the “paradox of fore-pleasures” in Freud).

It is important to underline that this “morose delectation” is not the postponement or infinite deferral of pleasure, nor is it entirely divorced from desire. Rather, it is the pleasure that is enjoyed in the very relation to desire. Neither the negation nor the positive presence of the object of desire, delectatio morosa is what we might describe as a neutral yet wholly pleasurable relation to desire.

I am interested in this Scholastic notion because it strikes me that it provides us with a way to think about the “neutral mourning” that I have theorized in my recent reading of Roland Barthes as its own form of pleasure. What I suggested in that chapter of The Decision Between Us dedicated to Barthes, is that in the midst and in the wake of mourning the recent death of his mother, Barthes sought what he had described as “a desire for the neutral,” and that this desire was, at the same time, a desire for a vita nova (“new life”—the eponymous name for the “novel” that he had begun to outline just before he died).

Drawing from his knowledge of Zen Buddhism, his fascination with Rousseau’s far niente (doing nothing), and his memory of a young Moroccan boy sitting on a low wall, I argued that Barthes imagined the neutral (and mourning) as a scene of just sitting, doing nothing. “To be idle, without master, and yes, perhaps even to be without guide (mother), and finally to be able to just sit without equivocation, without profit or debt, sin, prostration, or will-to-possess…something like the neutral sitting of a neutral mourning.”  Drawing further upon the etymology of the Latin word morosus, we can now understand this scene of neutral mourning as a scene of pleasure—of delectatio morosa. “In Italian…morosita means ‘delay’ (particularly in acquitting oneself of a debt or an obligation)…and where the English “moroseness” is rendered by malinconia [“melancholy”]…and in Spanish, where…moroso means ‘lazy'” (Untranslatables, 792).

When mourning is the act of the imagination enjoying its waiting in desire, it is neutral. It is in this way that neutral mourning is neither morbidly morose mourning nor melancholia, but instead is a desire for the neutral and its own form of neutral pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Here is the link to the audio file on YouTube of my Lecture, On the Commerce of Anonymity, that I presented on November 20, 2015, as part of the Emerging Research in Comparative Literature Series, at the University Toronto.

I want to thank Fan Wu and Jesscia Copley for the invitation to present some of my current work, and to all those in attendance that evening for their engaging questions and responses. I also want to thank Bao Nguyen for his editing of this audio recording. Finally, my thanks to Shaan Syed, whose work—the focus of this talk—continues to be such an important provocation and inspiration for my own.

For the final section of the paper that I did not have the time to present, see my earlier post on “anonymous and neutral mourning.”

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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]

Last week, as I was preparing a public lecture on “The Commerce of Anonymity,” I began to think more about the conceptual relations between anonymity and the neutral, and in particular the ways in which together they might bear upon acts of mourning.

At once drawing me back to ideas that I recently presented in chapter 5 of my book, The Decision Between Us, on Roland Barthes’ neutral mourning, and also closer to more recent events in which many of us find ourselves mourning the deaths of largely unknown or anonymous others, I returned not only to Barthes’ work, but also to Maurice Blanchot’s, in order to try to think about how a politics and ethics of the anonymous and neutral might disrupt or refuse some of the more dominant and prevailing responses to such violent atrocities and mass deaths.

In his book, The Step Not Beyond, Blanchot writes that,

The anonymous after the name is not the nameless anonymous. The anonymous does not consist in refusing the name in withdrawing from it. [Thus we might say that the anonymous is the withdrawal of the name through (as) the name of the nameless]. The anonymous puts the name in place, leaves it empty, as if the name were there only to let itself be passed through because the name does not name, but is the non-unity and non-presence of the nameless (34-35).

The name is the passage through which the anonymous passes. And in its passing/withdrawing through the name, the anonymous leaves the place of the name empty, as if the anonymous were the place-name (if not place-holder) for the name.

What I want to suggest is that as the neutral name (neuter) of the name, the anonymous, when mourned, calls for an equally neutral mourning. For Barthes, there is indeed a form of mourning that is without codification and assimilation, and without any one proper place. Hence, it is not only without memorial or monument, it is, Barthes argues, therefore also socially untenable. Moving away from the will-to-possess toward the will-to-love, this neutral mourning represents the second type of “neutral” that Barthes is (more) interested in. It is differentiated from the first-degree neutral (i.e. the suspension of conflicts), while at the same time being distinct from the “desperate vitality” (a phrase that he derives from Pasolini), that he takes to be equivalent to a hatred of death. Thus while Barthes does not use the phrase, I think we find here what amounts to a conception of neutral mourning. Within the context of my current thinking and writing, I want to suggest that such neutral mourning is at the same time, anonymous mourning, specifically the mourning of those who go by anonymous names (in the departure of the departed, in passing).

For just as for Blanchot, “the anonymous puts the name in place” yet only to be the place of passage for the name and its emptying out of nomination, so with Barthes, the temporality of the neutral is nothing more than a moment or instant, specifically an opportune opening—what we might think of as the kairos to Blanchot’s anonymous topos.

This itinerancy of the anonymous and the neutral is what makes them both operate as lures, yet not in terms of a name, but as predicates or adjectives. Which is to say, as a certain kind of aesthetic provocation and attraction, and an opening of the ethical. For what Barthes more fully says about the kairos of the neutral is that “perhaps the Neutral is that: to accept the predicate as nothing more than a moment: a time” (Neutral, 61). The kairos (or opportune moment) of the neutral, is the non-nominalizable singularity (of space and of time) that is anonymity (as in the German neuter form Das Moment: cause, force, momentum).

Neutral mourning is the will-to-love that moment of departure that passes between the anonymous and the predicate—between any one name and passing quality. The neutral and the anonymous are thus not the names (or not only the names) but the adjectives or predicates of an originary movement, force and temporality of the momentums and moments of being together (i.e. the commerce of anonymity).

In light of recent events, this is what we must respond to, counter-sign (“not in our names”), and thus begin to take responsibility for—prior to and in excess of political and theological sovereignty. It is in this way that we might affirm, as Michael Naas has argued, “that there can be no sovereign last word [or name] to put an end to the violence or the endless discussion” (The End of the World and Other Teachable Moments, 167).

 

 

In his remarkable review essay [PDF] of my book, The Decision Between Us, Jacques Khalip (Professor of English, Brown University) beautifully illuminates the ways in which something as ordinary as a blank sheet of paper is—for me, in my thinking and in this work—an aesthetic event and an ethical scene. Not a place or product in the service of judgment, but the spacing of decision. The measure of which lies in the separation or apartness that sustains the between-ness of our being-together.

With great care Khalip attends to the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of my argument, and makes evident how “art and art’s ethical deliberation are…of a piece in this study,” and how “art measures (even if it is measureless) the infinite demands of an ethos that appears and disappears under our feet.”

Of the many, many things that I appreciate about Khalip’s reading, I especially value his foregrounding of my chapter on Roland Barthes, “Neutral Mourning,” and its reading of Camera Lucida alongside Barthes’ lectures at the Collège de France and the mourning diary that Barthes kept immediately following his mother’s death. For here is where a Roland Barthes emerges whom I believe is so deeply informed by Maurice Blanchot and Blanchot’s own philosophy of the neutral. It is also here where we truly begin to gain a sense of what it means for Khalip to cast my work as its own form of “queer neutrality” and what import this might have, not only for queer theory, politics and ethics, but also for the study of the work of Barthes and Blanchot.

As the concluding paragraph, Khalip writes,

If The Decision Between Us impresses upon us an ethics that is not coterminous with the self-possessed subject, the galvanizing effect of this reasoning is to bring into view an awareness that art is the intensification of an ethics-beyond-ethics, a kind of thinking that occurs beyond mere identity, narration or historical contextualization. Among the various illuminating moves in Ricco’s book is its immersion in the various environments it evokes and theorizes, at once setting up scenes while at the same time distancing the reader from them, page after page. As readers, we cannot help but waver between decision and indecision with each of Ricco’s arguments—every movement forward compels a further critique and judgment. Indeed, the book is buoyed by the anonymous, aesthetic power between decision and indecision, not as a choice between positions but as a contamination in the very space of the two that propels unending, queer deliberations.

I am deeply and sincerely grateful for this review, and as my work continues to move on, I will remain indebted to Jacques Khalip’s reading.

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