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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.

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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!

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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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