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Emmet Gowin, Mariposas Nocturnas (book cover)

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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.

With the academic year winding down and the transition to a summer mode of writing and travel, I thought I would mention a few new publications, upcoming talks, and some news on the professional front.

WJT Mitchell Image Theory Book Cover

I recently received my author’s copy of W.J.T. Mitchell’s Image Theory: Living Pictures, edited by Kresimir Purgar, Routledge, 2017. The volume is a wonderful collection of essays on Mitchell’s role in the formation of the field of visual culture, and the ways in which his work over the past 30 years+ has crafted a unique take on the question of images. From his book early book Iconology, to Picture Theory, What Do Pictures Want?, and his most recent Image Science, Mitchell’s thinking on the “lives and wants of images,” has evolved in exciting and infinitely fascinating ways. The essays in this book go some way towards re-tracing and elucidating this trajectory. My essay, “Showing Showing: Reading Mitchell’s ‘Queer’ Metapictures,” draws out from his well-known essay, what I have always seen to be an essential perversity of images, especially those “metapictures” that Mitchell has returned to again and again in order to craft this arguments over the years.

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Out of this derives my premise that before there is either “seeing” or “saying” there is “showing,” or better yet, “exposing.” Meaning that images and texts mutually share in an exposure to that which exceeds any seeing or saying. So in addition to the visual culture project of “showing seeing,” I am interested in the ways in which images—including metapictures—and the field of visual studies, involve “showing showing.” So for instance, the recommendation to “expose yourself to art,” is itself based upon art’s prior mode of exposing itself to the world—us included. That’s what I like about the meta-picture photograph above: not only is the stereotypical figure of the flasher exposing himself to art, but art is also flashing back. In fact, I might go so far as to say that art, in its presentation and exposition, flashes us first.

MAD magazine front cover

In my contribution to the new collection of essays on Mitchell and his work, I was interested in this kind of metapicture, one that not only “shows seeing,” but goes further by “showing showing.” If the exhibitionist stunt of flashing is one version of showing, then the image of Alfred E. Neuman shown flashing on a fence bordering a nude beach—the picture with which Mitchell ended his famous essay on metapicture—might be regarded as a scene of showing showing. There is often humour—even a certain punchline—in any metapicture, and that is especially the case here. But metapictures are also puzzles, and here not simply in making us wonder and guess at what the nudists on the beach are reacting to as Neuman opens his trench coat, but what it means for him to be wearing a t-shirt that advertises, like some sort of perverse slogan “Flashers Against Nudity.”

MAD magazine back cover

It is through this mad and perverse double-image that I think of the metapicture in terms of its exhibitionism (or “expositionism,” if you will), and argue that the “image science” Mitchell has so beautifully articulated (especially in his most recent eponymous book) is also a “naked science” or science of exposure—of showing. Such a science cannot be contained within the discourses of seeing and saying, or even in their dialectical synthesis even though—as the metapicture attests—it is through such modalities of knowledge that this inescapable exposure to non-knowledge occurs.

Within the next month, two more essays of mine are scheduled to be published. The first, “Intimacy: Inseparable from Separation,” in a special issue on “labour,” of Open Set, an online journal publishing some of the most interesting work on art and the critical humanities. This essay is an expansion of the paper that I presented in early November at Brown University’s Pembroke Centre, in a symposium organized by Jacques Khalip titled, “Unmade Bed: In the Midst of Intimacy.” The symposium used my book, The Decision Between Us, and fellow participant Stacey D’Erasmo’s, The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between, as jumping off points, from which each speaker (David Clark, Ralph Rodriguez and Leticia Alvarado—in addition to Khalip, D’Erasmo and myself) drew from, as they worked through materials and questions that in one way or another involved the image, scene or object of an “unmade bed,” broadly conceptualized, and variously materialized in art, politics, medicine, kinship, museology, and forms of sexual and erotic intimacy.

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The other essay, “The Commerce of Anonymity,” will appear in the June 2017 issue of the journal Qui Parle (Duke University Press). Centred on “The Andrew Project” (2010-13) by artist Shaan Syed, the essay is a theoretical meditation on the politics and ethics of the name, drawing, the portrait, anonymity and the signature, as these bear on a shared sense of loss and its impossible commemoration. I invoke the figure of the urban stranger and passerby to argue for an aesthetics and ethics of social anonymity that does not rely on or demand identification and that thereby remains open to the risk, surprise and pleasure of shared existence. In doing so, I theorize intimacy as that which remains unnameable in the “commerce” of our everyday lives. If you’ve been following this blog (or my work more generally), you know that I have been developing this essay for some time, having presented versions of it at various conferences and workshops over the past couple of years. I am so pleased that it will appear in Qui Parle, a journal that I have admired and relied upon since I was a graduate student in the early-’90s. These days its editing is in excellent hands, and consistently features work by leading theorists and philosophers. I am proud and honoured to be featured in this next issue, alongside Jean-Luc Nancy, Bernard Stiegler, Chris Kraus, and Christopher Fynsk.

I am currently preparing three upcoming lectures. The first, “Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight,” is a keynote for the “Feeling Queer/Queer Feeling” conference, to held at the University of Toronto, May 24-26, 2017. The second is a paper that I will discuss as part of a symposium on “pornographic and the pornographic” at the ICI Berlin (Institute of Cultural Inquiry) on June 22nd. Thirdly, I will participate in a 3-day seminar “Unworking, Dèsoeuvrement, Inoperositá,” as part of the ACLA conference (American Comparative Literature Association) that will take place at Utrecht University, July 6-9, 2017. My paper is titled, “Using as Not Using: Inoperative Aesthetics and Ethics after Agamben.”

Finally, I am very happy report that I have recently been promoted to Full Professor at the University of Toronto.

Markus D. Dubber, Professor of Law and Director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto, has invited me to participate in a workshop on “apologies” that he is organizing to be held in fall 2017. He tells me that it is “partly inspired by a recent report in which EGALE [Canadian Human Rights Trust] called on the Canadian government to apologize for ‘Canada’s History of LGBTQ2SI Persecution.'”

Here is the abstract of the paper that I have proposed to present at the workshop.

“On Queer Forgiveness”

John Paul Ricco

Following “On Forgiveness,” the translated and edited version of Jacques Derrida’s response to a series of questions put to him by the French intellectual journal Le Monde des débats in 1999, my paper argues that the concept and act of forgiveness is essentially queer. Derrida persuasively argued that true forgiveness consists in forgiving the unforgivable. Which means that the logic of forgiveness is structured as a relation to the impossible, to that which is without code, norm or end. It is in excess of any measure or finality. An ethics of apology, in which the State seeks forgiveness for its violence and persecution of its lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, transgendered, two-spirited and questioning citizens, therefore requires forms of queer forgiveness that exceed the judicial logic of reconciliation. For if queers forgive the State of its violence and negligence, do they not also and at the same time abdicate the future possibility of acting in ways that the State would deem unforgivable? Say in the face of future injustice and in the name of justice yet to be had? Or perhaps in terms of erotic and indeed unconditional pornographic excess that re-conceptualizes sovereignty as unmistakably queer. In both cases: as that which transcends norm and law through a notion of sovereignty that we inherit from Georges Bataille. In other words: is the queer acceptance of the State’s confessed guilt also a normalizing of the queer within a stated-based juridical-theological discourse of rights? Must we not remain vigilant in our attention to the ways in which reconciliation is its own form of normalization? In doing so, we need to affirm the limits of the common, and of the ways in which while language itself is shared it is so, only as the very enunciation of separation. Alterity, non-identification, the unintelligible—in a word: queer—restlessly resides at the heart of apology and forgiveness. By returning to my theory of a disappeared aesthetics of erasure and the ways in which such aesthetics attests to the indelible absence of those who—unforgivably—have been disappeared and are no longer here to receive an apology and to forgive, I argue that this is one way to conceive the ethical scene of forgiveness.

Yesterday I was one of four invited speakers for a roundtable discussion on policing sexuality, cruising and anonymous public sex, and police entrapment.

This flash event,”Project Marie: Policing Sexuality in Law, Ethics, and Policy,” was organized and sponsored by the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto, moderated by Mariana Valverde (Criminology, U of T), and featuring comments by Patrick Keilty (iSchool U of T), Simon Starn (School of Law, U of T) and Kyle Kirkup (School of Law, U of Ottawa).

It was a public forum organized in response to a recent two-month operation by the Toronto Police Service, called “Project Marie,” in which undercover police officers charged 72 individuals with 89 separate infractions for indecent exposure and sexual solicitation, in Marie Curtis Park, in Etobicoke, Ontario. Approximately 40-50 people attended, and many voices and perspectives were heard. It was an extremely successful event; one of those rare occasions when the university community and the non-academic community meet in order to talk about the relations between sex, ethics and publics.

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Here are the remarks that I presented at the opening of the panel:

In today’s urban political climate, in which the stranger, the foreigner, the one who lingers, the solitary walker, the workless or out-of-work someone—and not least of all, the one who is simply curious—when each of these someones in the singularity of their anonymity, itinerancy, promiscuity, and clandestinity—and thus in their essential illegitimacy—are increasingly targets of suspicion and surveillance, bodies to be taunted, beaten, entrapped, and at times permanently marked as illegal, the cruising ground remains more necessary than ever, given that it is an ethical training ground. 

A cruising ground is an ethical ground in the precise sense that it is a place where being together with others does not rely upon the law of identity and the logic of the name. Instead, it is a place consecrated to the joys and pleasures of the passing encounter, and the liberating fact that, as Tim Dean has intimated: strangers can be lovers and yet remain strangers. Meaning: sharing an erotic and perhaps sexual bond that is less structured in terms of attachment than separation, and that thus affirms that a mutual intimate experience can be had that does not require or ask for the assimilation of oneself into an other, but instead remains open to the outside.

But of course the cruising ground is also where such pleasures find a place in the world that in so many ways and in so many instances have pushed them out of the sanctioned spaces of domesticity and the family; the school and the church. That have relegated them to zones of the unthinkable by normative relations of sexuality (including those which go by such names as sexual relationship, monogamy, and marriage), and that have been expropriated by the gentrification of minds and bodies, no less than the gentrification of city neighbourhoods (as Sarah Schulman has recently argued). It is precisely those spaces, those norms, and those processes of gentrification that create conditions that are unsafe for some of us: the adolescent queer, the closeted, the exhibitionist, the spouse, the homeless. As Samuel Delany has argued, “if every sexual encounter involves bringing someone back to your house, the general sexual activity in a city becomes anxiety-filled, class-bound, and choosy. This is precisely why public restrooms, peep shows, sex movies, bars with grope rooms, and parks with enough greenery are necessary for a relaxed and friendly sexual atmosphere in a democratic metropolis” (Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, 127).

Lest you think that I am only arguing for the more practical political importance of the cruising ground, allow me to close by noting that the logic of the lure is not only driven by the need to escape the normalizing and criminalizing logic of the law, but that it is also an attraction to that which is imperceptible, un-nameable, transitory, and even unconsummated. But all of this also means that cruising offers us a sense of the ways in which erotic pleasure is not only sexual, but spatial, and that for some of us, where we do it, is just as important as who or what we do. Cruising eroticizes the essential anonymity of the common and urban intimacy, and so, to the extent that there are cities, there will be cruising, because in the cruising ground persist some of the  essential truths of a city. Today we are faced with nothing less than the question of how to ethically create a city. In doing so, we must insist on the fact that “sex lives matter.”*

*Thanks to Etienne Turpin for this phrasing.

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Photo Credit: Thomas Roma, In the Vale of Cashmere, Powerhouse Books, 2015.

  1. Leo Bersani, “Sociability and Cruising” in Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave? and other essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010: 45-62.
  2. Tim Dean, “Cruising as a Way of Life,” in Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009: 176-212.
  3. Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  4. Garth Greenwell, “How I Fell In Love with The Beautiful Art of Cruising,” BuzzFeed, April 4, 2016. https://www.buzzfeed.com/garthgreenwell/how-i-fell-in-love-with-the-beautiful-art-of-cruising?utm_term=.nc2W7wrg3#.vgd37mO0B
  5. William Haver, The Body of this Death: Historicity and Sociality in the Time of AIDS. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.
  6. William Haver, “Really Bad Infinities: Queer’s Honour and the Pornographic Life,” Parallax, vol. 5, no. 4, 1999: 9-21.
  7. Timothy Morten, “Queer Ecology,” PLMA, vol. 125, no. 2, March 2010: 273-282.
  8. John Paul Ricco, The Logic of the Lure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  9. John Paul Ricco, “The Art of the Consummate Cruise and the Essential Risk of the Common,” Feedback, February 2016. In two parts: http://openhumanitiespress.org/feedback/sexualities/the-consummate-cruise-1/ http://openhumanitiespress.org/feedback/sexualities/the-consummate-cruise-2/
  10. John Paul Ricco, “Jacking-off a Minor Architecture” (with new extended preface, 2016), Keep It Dirtyhttp://keepitdirty.org/a/jacking-off-a-minor-architecture/
  11. John Paul Ricco, “The Commerce of Anonymity,” Qui Parle, forthcoming, 2016.
  12. Thomas Roma, In the Vale of Cashmere, Powerhouse Books, 2015.

I am preparing for the 10th meeting of the undergraduate seminar I am teaching this fall term on “The Collective Afterlife of Things,” in which we will discuss “The Last Political Scene,” an interview with Sylvère Lotringer, conducted by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin and published in their co-edited volume, Art in the Anthropocene.

At one point, Lotringer makes an argument that I find entirely relevant to our current situation, following the US Presidential election. A situation that includes the mass protests taking place in front of institutional architectures (Trump Towers, US embassies, etc.) and the reliance on Facebook (and all other social media platforms) to express discontent:

There is no civic mobilization possible because there are no civilians anymore; we have all been turned into warriors, part of a war because war and technology now mean the same thing. We are powerless because all the tools that we have—all the little trinkets given to us by the CIA and NASA, etc.—are there to turn us into the soldiers of the death of our civilization.

Earlier in the conversation, Lotringer makes the distinction between critique and collective action. Where critical counter-discourse is claimed to be that which “plays into the hands of the institution, of what it is supposed to criticize. Occupy Wall Street was an intimation of what could be done, but it didn’t go all the way. It stopped at the door of the institutions.” While in contrast, collective action experiments and creates unforeseen forms of being-with, together and in-common.

Yet as Lotringer goes on to argue, in the midst of anthropogenic species extinction, these forms of sociality must not lose sight of the fact that this very collectivity is living the last (political and critical) scene, and thus the collective task is to learn how to exit gracefully. Including in our relations with inorganic and inanimate things (as well as those organic lifeforms) that will survive us. In other words, today our ethical-ecological task concerns the afterlife of things, after “life.”

This calls for what Lotringer and I (and several others) see as an “art of disappearance:” of creatively engaging with and ethically exiting from this terminal scene. As Lotringer clarifies, this is something like non-art art. Meaning, art produced for reasons other than aesthetic (i.e. in terms of beauty, or perhaps even of the sublime). It is the art of the already-unmade and the anonymous. It is this kind of art, technique and praxis that we most need to partake in today; the kind that in its anonymity bears the signature of the common (of no one name), and as already-unmade affirms that existence is that which will forever remain un-finished. It is in this way that we might become something other than the soldiers of the death of our civilization.

 

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