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Religion

…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?

 

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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!

   

 

  1. “The Inoperative Praxis of the Already-Unmade,” in Labour, Work, Action, edited by Michael Corris, Jaspar Joseph-Lester, and Sharon Kivland, Artwords Press, 2013. 
  2. John Paul Ricco, The Decision Between Us: art and ethics in the time of scenes, University of Chicago Press, 2014. 
  3. “Pornographic Faith: Two Sources of Naked Sense at the Limits of Belief and Humiliation,” in Porn Archives, edited by Tim Dean, Steven Ruszczycky, and David Squires, Duke University Press, 2014. 
  4. “The Existence of the World is Always Unexpected: Jean-Luc Nancy in conversation with John Paul Ricco,” in Art and the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, Open Humanities Press, 2015.
  5. “The Separated Gesture: Partaking in the Inoperative Praxis of the Already-Unmade,” in Nancy and the Political, edited by Sanja Dejanovic, Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
  6. “Parasol, Setas, Parasite, Peasant,” in J. Mayer H.: Could Should Would, Hatje Cantz, 2015. 
  7. PLUS: “Drool: liquid fore-speech of the fore-scene,” in World Picture, issue on “Abandon,” summer 2015 ( available online). 

When it comes to theory, friendship, and the conversation that can ensue between and through the two, the question(s) of what we wish to hold on to (terms, words, concepts), which we want to abandon, is always fundamental to their shared sustaining. In particular, words of and from the other, including and perhaps especially when that other is for you, someone like a brother. This is what we might refer to as a “fraternization (or not) of terms.”

These thoughts occurred to me recently, as I was reading a draft of a current essay by my friend Philip Armstrong, on fraternity and friendship in the work of (and between) Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy. (Philip’s piece is forthcoming in an issue of the journal Diacritics; it is outstanding, so be sure to track it down).

As a partial response to the question as to which words or terms we wish to hold on to, to retain, to willingly inherit, or to distinguish oneself from, we might say that it is always a matter of “more than one” and “less than one” which, as Derrida curiously suggests, at the opening of his lecture and what was to become the first part of his important late book Rogues, is a relation that is more elliptical than aporetic. For Derrida, the ellipsis is a figure for “minus one” and “more than one”—excess and withdrawal, at once.

This is something like the rhythm of originary abandonment and perhaps also of friendship, fraternity, or love. Not only an abandonment “from” identity, the proper, and self-same (or, conversely, abandonment by or of the other, in alterity), but as Philip so strongly argues, an abandonment “to”…the elliptical sense of shared existence in its sustaining (e.g. decision) of the spacing of separation (e.g. decision).

“Love” would be one of those “technical measures of equality” that Nancy speaks of in The Experience of Freedom, and that leaves Derrida—in the text cited above—so perplexed. Such measures are, for Nancy, forms of praxis that are “affirmations of the political.” Meaning, affirmations of the spacing of incommensurable sharing and sharing of the incommensurable, that is opened up and given access to, by the political. Each time, measured against nothing (this is “freedom” as Nancy defines it). It is this freedom, measured against nothing and not returning to itself, that renders this rhythm syncopated and overflowing (and hence perhaps something other than “aporetic”).

In Rogues, what Derrida says he cannot understand, is the way in which the incommensurable can be thought of as a measure, and a common measure at that. This also means that he cannot understand why Nancy would want to have retained the notion of fraternity, in his thinking of freedom, and as the name for partaking in this measure. Which is to say that for Nancy, what commonly goes by the name of “common measure” is the incommensurable, to the extent that sharing or being-in-common is always a sharing in that which is in excess of any general measure or equivalence (again, this, for Nancy, is “freedom”). It is as though the measure is not, nor can never be shared in common, since as measurable it will deny or appropriate the separated spacing that must remain incommensurable in order to be shared in its sense, and not say, simply exchanged in its value (according to a measure of general equivalence). Therefore, being-in-common is sharing, and sharing is partaking in the incommensurable, which is, in turn, the only measure of being-in-common.

Nancy gives the name “fraternity” to the gathering of those who partake in common in this incommensurable measure, as in the Christian and Freudian figures of brothers without fathers. Hence this emptying out (or dismembering) of the Father into the body, is part of what Nancy has called the deconstruction of Christianity. Yet we might ask whether this fraternity is a partaking/sharing in deconstruction, as well. That is, to the extent that the latter may be understood as a partaking in the dismembered body of the father, the law, the logos, and any other common substance and measure. It is in this regard that Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity may also be a way of thinking about partaking in (by deconstructing) deconstruction. If Derrida was the first (and last?) deconstructionist, is Nancy the first to deconstruct deconstruction?

On March 7 & 8, 2013 I will give a lecture and lead a seminar based upon my current book project: Non-consensual futures: pornographic faith and the economy of the eve. I am honored by the invitation extended by Professor Deborah Harter and her graduate students in the Mellon Seminar:

Frames of the Beautiful, the Criminal, and the Mad: The Art and the Science of Excess

Faculty leader: Deborah Harter, associate professor of French studies

Student participants: Sarah Seewoester Cain (linguistics), Linda Ceriello (religious studies), Kristen Ray (English), Nathaniel Vlachos (anthropology), and Rachel Schneider Vlachos (religious studies).

Seminar Description
Reflecting on representations of the “excessive” in science and in art of the modern period – madness, genius, criminal, eccentric, beautiful, and pathological – this seminar welcomes students from all fields in the humanities and social sciences. We will consider the aesthetic with scientific, the ethical with the historical, and play havoc with all usual boundaries of disciplines, period, and genre.

Abstract of a Paper in-progress

The first half of my paper is a reading of texts by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on religion, the divine and the sacred, art and aesthetics, and specifically on the attention that he has given to questions of place within philosophical and theological discourses. For as early as 1985 in his essay “Of Divine Places,” Nancy has argued that the question of God is not (or no longer) a question of being, essence, and presence (what is God?) nor of temporality, messianicity, and the infinite (when is God?), but a question of place and distinct location (where is God?), and what Nancy has more recently named “dis-enclosure.”

                  Given that in the philosophical and religious history of the West, the gods and God have always been departing, a divine place is not a taking place but a place of withdrawing and retreating (in absconditum). According to Nancy, if there is a divine place, it is at/from the step, less a footprint than a footfall or tread, where the latter is understood to be nothing other than the separated touching of sole and ground. As Nancy writes toward the end of “Divine Wink” (2003): “The step is the divine place, the only one, the place in which the power of the passing manifests and transcends itself” (119).  In addition to finding one of its homologies in “wink,” (based upon a reading of Heidegger on “the last god”), the step is, as Nancy explicates via a recourse to etymology, a vestige (vestigium) and as such is the remains of a step, not as image or perhaps even as indexical sign, but in terms of the touch of the step, its operation and its place. The latter used here by Nancy “in the strong sense of the word is always the vestige of a step” (“Vestige of Art,” 98), and hence a divine place.

                  In the second half of the paper, I turn to the recently opened National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, in order to ask whether its deep recesses—exactly coinciding topographically with the two so-called “footprints” of the World Trade Center towers, might not be understood as a monumental securitization of the site, a hollowing out of the ground to its purported zero degree and that, less as profanation than divinization, renders it as hallowed and perhaps sacred ground, distinct from Nancy’s conception of divine place.

                  Finally, by drawing together Nancy’s recent writing on the empty tomb as distinct from the temple/cave, and the question that Derrida posed at the end of his 1968 lecture “The Ends of Man:” “Is there an economy of the eve?” I speculate towards a sense of spacing, aesthetics and archi-ethics as the withdrawal and retreat of architectural limits or the eves of the temple and the oikos (perhaps neither to nor from the temple but at and on its eve, that is to say, its threshold, opening, offering and infinitely finite access). And of temporality less in its coming than its passing by, like the step of the Gods, the departed, and perhaps even the ones who, in stepping from the heights of the towers on that September morning, caused so many of us witnesses to exclaim “my god!”

                  Following Nancy, I contend that this is the utterance of freedom as freedom unto nothing—nothing but the withdrawal and retreat from absolute destination or resurrectional return. This is at once the freedom of those who stepped out from the precipitous edge of the towers, and the utterance of those looking up at the sky and at the instant of witnessing each body falling. This is what I take it to mean when Nancy writes of “an utterance, and as ‘my’ utterance to the precise degree that it comes to me from the other who, in passing, gives me a sign, and whose Wink I respond to with ‘my god!’—without my having actually to say this word, whose ‘sense’ is to name or rather to mark, to remark, and to exclaim the passing itself and the passing not as a state but as a passerby whom I call to address, having perceived his step and the signal of that step” (“Divine Wink,” 116, original emphasis).

                  The economy, archi-ethics and aesthetics of the eve that I wish to think and present here, is an attempt to understand how the National 9/11 memorial, rather than staging the “zero mystery” (“Divine Places,” 140) and zero plan at ground zero, is a securitizing of the footprint, which is also to say—with a view of the water that endlessly flows into the memorial’s seemingly bottomless depths: “the baptizing [of] our abysses” (“Divine Places,” 113). Not a temple per se, but like every temple, the memorial is an attempt to guard against the departing, desertion and destitution of this kenosis from being an absolute abandonment in the form of a bare and empty place. For the “temple,” whether Greek, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, monumentalizes destitution and desertion, and provides shelter and protection not from these forces, but for them, in the finite form of architectural enclosure and spatial detention. Indeed it is remarkable to realize that the memorial at Ground Zero can be understood as a condensation of the four figures of the temple, as outlined by Nancy in his essay “The Indestructible:” Greek (contemplation of ruinous destruction and artistic metamorphosis); Jewish (twice destroyed and source of diasporic meaning, the latter in this case perverted for the purposes of waging a global war on terror); Christian (infinite construction, dome and spire, technology contemplating itself); Islamic (heart as black rock, reserved space, impenetrable and indestructible thing).  Indeed, as Nancy states, this remains the current four-fold of the world, and with no small sense of regret we might agree with Martin Filler who, in his rave review of the memorial, bestows on Michael Arad, its designer, the status of “one of the signal placemakers of our time” (“A Masterpiece at Ground Zero,” New York Review of Books, October 27, 2011).

                  Throughout the paper, I will attend to many of the structuring tensions that Nancy’s work has focused on, including what he retains and refuses in notions of the sacred and divine (and how more recently he has thought this difference in terms of the image and the distinct); the difference in earlier work between bare place and bare thing (the latter of which will be theorized as “vestige”); tomb/grotto as opposed to temple/cave; resurrection versus the raising of the body; the ob-scene and the fore-scene; and the empty and what I have come to call the already un-made.

 

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