I want to pick up on a question that I posed at the end of my last post, in which I asked, “How might the humanities, precisely in terms of some of its principal objects (art, poetry, literature, film), equip us with the means to contend, not only with the limits of humanism, but also with the end of the human?”


This summer I have been reading and gaining a tremendous amount from Claire Colebrook’s two volumes of essays on extinction: Death of the PostHuman, and Sex After Life. At the same time, I have been crafting the course syllabi for the two seminars that I am teaching this fall term (2016).

Upon first glance, it may appear that the two seminars, “Queer Ethics & Aesthetics of Existence,” and “The Collective Afterlife of Things,” are at odds with each other. With their respective focus on questions of existence and extinction, it might seem as though the first course seeks to affirm the value of a certain form of human life, while the other seeks to consider the post-human and that which is not defined in terms of “life.” However they are in fact two major parts of a single ongoing theoretical endeavour to think what a thought and ethical-aesthetic praxis might be, in the absence or extinction of the human, life and, the living on or long-term survival of a collective “we.” Colebrook’s work has proven to be an indispensable companion as I think about these two courses in relation to each other.

Rooted as it is in the Foucault of finitude and the image of the erasure of the image of the human, “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea,” the queer theory seminar takes Foucault’s aesthetics of existence to be not an ethics of being or becoming, but of unbecoming. An unbecoming ethics is the partaking-together in the inoperative/workless praxis of sustaining the spacing of separation—irreducible to no-thing or substance (i.e. nothing, res/rien)—that exists (exposed) just between us. An “us” that only exists from out of this shared-exposure to the outside, or what Foucault referred to as “madness, the absence of work.” Therefore, this queer aesthetics of existence is an art not of the finished work (oeuvre) but of the un-finished as that which is not given or even readymade, but already-unmade (désoeuvrement).

Further to the point, “whereas [as Claire Colebrook explains] Husserl and Bergson thought that the task that would save thought and philosophy would be the annihilation or acceleration of the natural world, and the destruction of man as a natural body within the world, today it is the possible extinction of the man of ethics and philosophy [and aesthetics] that may allow us to consider the survival of the cosmos” (Sex After Life, 148).

If we take “the man of ethics and philosophy [and aesthetics]” to be the “man of the humanities,” then in a certain very real sense, it is this equation of the end of the humanities with the afterlife of the cosmos that both seminars are dedicated to thinking. Ethics after community, collectivity and life is an ethics of the “collective afterlife of things,” in which, following Colebrook, it is not assumed that there is a “we” (“collective”) worthy of living on (“afterlife”). Which is to begin to think an ethics of inorganic and un-livable existence. In other words, a (queer) ethics and aesthetics of extinction.

Through these seminars and in our reading of Foucault, Colebrook, but also Haver, Genet, Benderson, and Bersani, we come to the realization—without any sense of mitigating irony—that perhaps only the end of the humanities can save the cosmos now.


Fall 2016

Instructor: John Paul Ricco
Time: Thursdays, 2-4PM
Location: Centre for Comparative Literature, 3rd floor of Isabel Bader Theatre, Victoria University

Working out from Michel Foucault’s focus on the question of ethics in his philosophical articulation of an aesthetics of existence, in this course we will read contemporary theorists whose work has been dedicated to thinking ethics and aesthetics together. Not only wholly tied to the experiences of sex and pleasure, here thinking itself is erotic. Such thought in turn provokes us to think in new ways about intimacy, friendship, betrayal, the pornographic, publics and commons, anonymity, the inorganic and the inhuman. And to trace the place of thought in each, beyond notions of the subject, identity, interiority, community, the human and life.

Authors include: Leo Bersani, William Haver, Samuel Delany, Tim Dean, Sarah Schulman, Claire Colebrook, Lauren Berlant, amongst others. In addition, we will discuss works of contemporary art, film, photography and fiction, by Hervé Guibert, Garth Greenwell, Dean Sameshima, Todd Haynes, Thomas Roma, and others.

Discussion Topics
1. Foucault’s Aesthetics of Existence
2. Infamous Men
3. Why Sex?
4. Unlimited Intimacy
5. Unbearable
6. Really Bad Infinities
7. Edge-pleasure and the Sense of the Common
8. Friendship
9. Traitorous Collaboration
10. Queer City
11. The Commerce of Anonymity
12. The Unlivable

U of T’s John Ricco is an associate professor of contemporary art, media theory, and criticism. His work focuses on Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophies of politics, among other things, as discussed in his latest monograph, The Decision Between Us. His latest work is billed as an “exploration of the spaces between us”, including “scenes of passionate, erotic pleasure as well as deep loss and mourning”. Ricco took some time to talk to The Medium about his new monograph and his inspiration to write it, and provided a preview of his current project.

The Medium: What inspired this desire to conceptualize the staging of the space of decision in 20th-century art?

John Ricco: I have always been interested in thinking about social relations, and the spaces and forms of being together. In my first book, The Logic of the Lure, I focused on scenes of social sexual attraction. In the new book, I was interested in moving from questions of attraction and what lures one out toward other places and people, to the spaces that are shared between us in our social relations and encounters—spaces that are ones of separation. I argue that the extent to which we partake in the social pleasures is the extent to which we sustain this separated spacing. “Decision” is one name for how we participate in this space of shared separation. In the six chapters of my book, I look at works by various late-20th-century artists, writers, and theorists as examples of such scenes of decision in drawing, photography, and installation art, amongst other art forms and genres. One might argue that such staging of the scene of decision is present in art across the centuries, but my study is limited to examples from 1953 to the present, in part because this is the art historical period that I specialize in, but also because many of the works from this period foreground the participatory role of the audience or reader in his or her encounter with works of art, texts, etc. To decide to partake in the work, and thus immediately to be confronted with questions as to how and why to partake, is another way in which I think of these as scenes of aesthetic and ethical decisions.

TM: What was it about Jean-Luc Nancy’s theories specifically that drew you to his works more than anyone else’s?

JR: There are so many things about Nancy’s work that I find compelling and useful for my own. First and foremost is the way in which he is committed to conceiving such essential philosophical questions of existence and being, not in terms of the individual subject or ego, but as always shared. For Nancy, being is always “being with”. If that is so—and I completely think it is—then obviously the ethical is inseparable from the ontological because the ethical is the question of how to be and coexist with others.

TM: How long did this book take to complete considering your busy academic schedule?

JR: A book like this is almost always a long time in the making. It requires several years of reading, research, and conceptualization, along with many stages of writing and rewriting. Along the way, I presented parts of it at academic conferences, workshops, and public lectures, and/or as articles in journals. I finished the first draft of the complete manuscript and submitted it to the press right around the end of 2011. It then took a little more than two years for it to be proofread and edited, and for it to go from manuscript to a fully designed, formatted, indexed, and printed book. This entire process from conception to publication took about five years to complete and many hands were involved in addition to my own.

In terms of my academic work, essentially whatever time is not allocated for my teaching or administrative duties is devoted to my research and writing. I try to strike a balance between all three aspects of my job, and to set aside time nearly every day to work on whatever research or writing projects I am currently engaged in. It is easier during the summer, when I am not teaching, to make significant progress on my own work—and, of course, sabbaticals, such as the one I am on right now, provide incredibly valuable uninterrupted time to focus on a long-term project.

TM: Tim Dean called you “one of our most brilliant philosophers of visuality”. Does praise like that influence how you write?

JR: Well, I can easily return the compliment and say, unequivocally, that Tim Dean is one of our most brilliant philosophers of sexuality. Everyone should read his book Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, which is hands-down the best book on sex and sexuality out there. So when someone whose work you admire and have learned so much from says something like that about you, you cannot help but be completely honored and deeply humbled at once. As far as influencing the way I write… well, it certainly raises the stakes, doesn’t it!

TM: Can you tell me a little more about Non-Consensual Futures? How do you feel the use of violence has altered neo-liberalism?

JR: You are referring to my current research and book project, which I had been calling Non-Consensual Futures, but which now carries the title The Outside Not Beyond: Pornographic Faith and the Economy of the Eve. It is the third book in a trilogy, following upon The Logic of the Lure and The Decision Between Us. As I mentioned earlier, the first book was about attraction and the second was about decision, and now the third is about departure and abandonment. It grows out of two areas of research: one on the images of bodies falling from the World Trade Centre towers on 9/11, and the other on various instances of excess and the overflowing of corporeal limits. What ties them together are the ways in which bodies come to be defined in terms of their exposure to the outside, a spacing that does not lie in some abstract or transcendent realm “beyond”, but rather is right there in such ordinary and everyday instances as the step of a foot, or the partial opening of the mouth. “Pornographic faith” is my way of naming the thoroughly corporeal comportment and exposure to this radical uncertainty, the pleasure, and of abandoning the sense of one possessing a secure ground from which to act, or a definite end toward which one will eventually reach. I argue that another name for this is “freedom”.

Much of my work on neo-liberalism’s use of violence originally emerged from two undergraduate visual culture seminars that I regularly teach in the Department of Visual Studies at UTM, one called “Capital, Spectacle, War” and the other “Architectures of Vision”. In my classes, we are interested in the ways in which images and visual spectacle are deployed by the militarized neo-liberal state to shock its subjects into states of fear and anxiety, as evidenced, for example, in the Bush administration’s use of such images of violence as part of its “war on terror”.

This interview has been edited for length.

Published: Monday, September 29th, 2014

5 January 2011

Lecture: Hides, Knots & Other Frayed Edges: Sex & Ethics in the Classroom

12 January

Philosophy on the Scene I

  • Aristotle, Poetics, in, The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon, The Modern Library, 2001, pp. 1454-1487.
  • Jean-Luc Nancy & Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “Scene: an exchange of letters” in Beyond Representation: philosophy and poetic imagination, edited by Richard Elridge, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 273-301.
  • Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “Stagings of Mimesis: an interview,” Angelaki, volume 8, number 2, August 2003, pp. 55-72.
  • Jacques Derrida, “The Theorem and the Theater,” and “The Supplement of (at) The Origin“ in Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins, (1967/1976), pp. 302-316.
  • Additional Reading: Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “The Scene is Primal” in The Subject of Philosophy, pp. 99-115.

19 January

Theatrum Philosophicum

  • Walter Benjamin, “The Right to Use Force” (1921), and “Critique of Violence” (1921) in Selected Writings, volume 1, Harvard, 1996, pp. 231-234 and 236-252.
  • Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’” in Acts of Religion, Routledge, 2002, pp. 230-298.
  • Nancy, “L’Intrus,” CR: The New Centennial Review, volume 2, number 3, pp. 1-14.
  • Additional Readings:
  • Antonin Artaud, “Theater of Cruelty.” and “Here-lies,” in Selected Writings, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976, pp. 242-239, and 540-551.
  • Jacques Derrida, “La parole soufflé,” and “Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation” in Writing and Difference, University of Chicago, 1978, pp. 169-195, and 232-250.

26 January

Camp/Ground (cruising, intrusion) (Bio-political)

  • Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, University of Chicago, 2009.
  • Guy Hocquenghem, The Screwball Asses, Semiotext(e), 2010.
  • Michel Foucault, “Lives of Infamous Men” in Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984, volume 3, Power, The New Press, 2000, pp. 157-175.
  • Additional Readings:
  • Dorian Stuber, “Patient Zero? Illness and Vulnerability in Todd Haynes’ [Safe],” Parallax, volume 11, number 2, April-June 2005, pp. 81-92.
  • Ricco, The Logic of the Lure, University of Chicago, 2002.

2 February

Primal (drive, pleasure, death, bed, bedroom) (Psychological)

  • Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905).
  • Jean-Luc Nancy, “In Statu Nascendi” in The Birth to Presence, Stanford University, 1993, pp. 211-233.
  • Maurice Blanchot (A primal scene?) in The Writing of the Disaster, University of Nebraska, (1980/1986), p. 72.
  • Lee Edelman, “The Future is Kid Stuff” in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Duke University, 2004, pp. 1-31.
  • Tim Dean, “An Impossible Embrace: Queerness, Futurity, and the Death Drive” in A Time for the Humanities: Futurity and the Limits of Autonomy, edited by Bono, Dean and Ziarek, Fordham University, 2008, pp. 122-140.


16 February

Things (commodity, fetish, exchange, offering, sharing) (Political Economy)

  • Mario Perniola, The Sex Appeal of Inorganic, Continuum, (2000/2004).
  • Karl Marx, Collected Works, volume 1 (and 36).
  • Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Insufficiency of ‘Values’ and Necessity of ‘Sense’” in Journal for Cultural Research, volume 9, number 4, October 2005. Pp. 437-441.
  • Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Two Secrets of the Fetish” in Diacritics, volume 31, number 2, Summer 2001, pp. 3-8.
  • Additional Reading: William Haver, “Really Bad Infinites: Queer’s Honour and the Pornographic Life” in Parallax, volume 5, number 4, 1999, pp. 9-21.


2 March

Primal (body, around) (Psyche)

  • Jean-Luc Nancy, “Psyche,” in The Birth to Presence, Stanford University, 1993, p. 393.
  • Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, Fordham University, (2006/2008).

9 March

Emptying (loss, withdrawal, finitude) (A-Theology)

  • Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981.
  • Jean-Luc Nancy, “An Exempting from Sense,” in Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, Fordham University, 2008.

16 March

Emptying (writing, erasing, arche-violence, shared finitude) (Aporetic Aesthetics)

  • Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” in Writing and Difference, University of Chicago, 1978, pp. 196-231.
  • Ricco, “Name No One Man,” in Parallax, volume 11, number 2, April-June 2005, pp. 93-103.

23 March

Preparation for the Colloquium

30 March

Graduate Student Colloquium on Queer Visuality, Sexuality and Theory

Department of Visual Studies, UTM

Keynote Speaker: Prof. Tim Dean, Humanities Institute and Department of English, University at Buffalo, NY.

Here’s a description of the graduate seminar that I will teach next term, Spring 2011, in the Department of Art, at the University of Toronto. Based upon a major aspect of my current research, it’s an attempt to create pedagogical conditions in which a performative rather than a representational logic becomes the principle operative for advanced and collaborative thinking and writing, in which “queer theory” is a discursive space existing without overly-defined foundation or horizon. The pretense, is that this stands the chance of functioning as a space of invention, at a time when I have never been less certain of the direction (and sense) of queer theory today. The conceit is to allow this very uncertainty to serve as a (blind) guide.

Queer Sexuality, Visuality, & Theory

Focus: “Scenes of Exposure”

The work of this course is neither a cataloging of various mise en scènes (e.g. the body, identity, shame), nor a questioning of fundamental concepts (e.g. trans-), nor even a critique of internecine discussions and debates (e.g. futurity), but a matter of bringing to the fore—through a certain performative thinking and writing—the fore-scene of language, pleasure, and finite existence.

Performative: including but far from being limited to queer theories of performativity (Butler, Phelan); so also the performative—and hence non-representational—staging of a scene of thought (related yet distinct from what goes by the name of “theory”) that might be queer—and hence non-identitarian.

Praxis: the workless work and inoperativity of aesthetics of finitude without end (non-redemptive); which is to stay that we will not only study but also give ourselves over to a form-of-work that is without guiding principle or theoretical concept, and free of the imperative to pursue a project and produce knowledge (as interpretation), or sensation (as poiesis), or mediation (as technocratic utility).

Technique and Ground: of aesthetics of finitude without end, is one of withdrawal, retreat, loss, vulnerability, and death. Forces of exposure (ontological, existential, but perhaps also epistemological yet perhaps not phenomenological), that open and call to be sustained as the political and ethical space of decision and freedom. This is the potential ground of our co-existence.

So not the archival, historicist, and empirical philosophical question of “what remains” of finitude, but the performative, inassimilable, and unavowable philosophical question of “what is happening” in the shared sense of finitude here, now?* We can advance Nancy’s claim that the time of modernity is followed by the time of things, and say that the time of things has now been eclipsed by the time of scenes.

Five “scenes of exposure”

Primal—drives, fore-pleasure, death, & empty beds (Psycho-corporeal)

Things—sharing, exchange, secret offerings, commodity & fetish (Political Economic)

Ground—cruising, desert, islands, cave, camp, intrusion (Bio-geo-political)

Around—performative, envelope, halo, cave (Architectural)

Emptying—kenosis, loss, withdrawal, erasure, winks & steps (A-Theological)

Authors: Sigmund Freud, Tim Dean, Jean-Luc Nancy, William Haver, Guy Hoquenghem, Samuel Delany, Eve Sedgwick, Lauren Berlant, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Roland Barthes, Jean Genet, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Mario Perniola, and, of course, Aristotle.

* For the original formulation of this methodological distinction, see Foucault, “The History of Sexuality: Interview,” (1977) in which he states: “To put it in a form as naïve as a children’s story, I’d say that for a long time the question of philosophy was: ‘In this world where everything dies, what remains? What are we, we who must die, with respect to what remains? It seems to me that since the nineteenth century, philosophy has moved steadily closer to the question: ‘What is happening now, and what are we, we who are perhaps nothing apart from what is happening now?’…That is why philosophy today is entirely political and entirely historical.”

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