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Roland Barthes

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)

 

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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.

 

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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

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

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

Feeling Queer poster

“Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight” 

John Paul Ricco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the 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.”

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

I am very pleased to receive this review of my book by art historian Tom McDonough, that was recently published in the journal Critical Inquiry. Click on the link below to access the complete review.

Tom McDonough review in Critical Inquiry

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