I have been reading, loving and learning a great deal from The Order of Time, the latest book from the brilliant Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli. Below are some notes on some of the ways in which I have found his discussion of time resonant with my own work and thinking.
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.
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.
The text below was written to accompany, “2016, 1996,” an online exhibition of 21 works by 17 artists included in the Artist Registry of Visual AIDS, and was also published in an issue of Drain magazine on “AIDS and Memory” (vol. 13:2, 2016). The essay responds to the journal’s theme, as I think back to an earlier historical moment in the history of AIDS, including the year 1996 when I curated “disappeared” (Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago). At the same time, the online exhibition was an opportunity to imagine how that earlier exhibition might be “doubled” today, twenty years later.
The Go-Go Boys were the first to go. After that, we were afraid that the rest of us would disappear too. We did. But then again, we didn’t. Not exactly. Or at least not then, or not yet.
The story of AIDS has been a lesson of the double.
Not of absence/presence, visibility/invisibility, or memory/forgetting, but the double of living on, of becoming-imperceptible, of forgetting that we forget. Not the unifying space of coupling, but the separated spacing of sharing in that which cannot be shared. Not the chronological time of history, but the a-temporal disjunct simultaneity  of time’s temporal dilation. Which is also to say: time’s irreparable disjuncture and thus its perfection. Time and the untimely timing of time. The encounter of proximity as the sense of the same time, just a little bit different. Too soon and too late, at once. Not the chronos of alterity but the kairos of the opportune moment—if not of opportunity or the opportunistic.
Traversing and yet other than—or irreducible to—bodies, the human, friendship, community, and life. Instead, it is the “absolute luminescence”  of the empty readymade; of “the sex appeal of the inorganic” , but also of a certain “disenchanted fetishism”  that is as much attracted as it is repulsed by the essentially “entropic solitude of things” . A colour, a line, a knot, a last address, a hieroglyphic abstraction, glitter, rubber, a frayed edge, the impasse and its slender opening—all of these and other lures.
1981 Bio-Political Oblivion – 1987 ACT UP Fight Back Fight AIDS – 1988 Pictures of People with AIDS – 1996 The End of AIDS – 1996 Disappeared – 2002 SARS – 2009 H1N1 – 2014 PREP – 2016 Undetectable –
“AIDS and Memory”—that double—is the provocation to return to “disappeared,” the art exhibition that I curated twenty years ago, in 1996, that was about the refusal to represent and the persistence of appearance in the midst of incalculable loss and death. 1996: when someone audaciously declared the “end of AIDS,” and the time just before I read Haver’s The Body of This Death (1997) for the first time, and realized that I would forever remain beholden to—yet would never come close to doubling—the singular and uncompromising rigor of his thinking on the inconsolable perversity of existence. Meaning: what remains unimaginable and unknowable, unforgettable and un-rememberable. What queer theory remains largely unable to comprehend, and what dominant AIDS discourse will never allow.
This is about absolute memory. Absolute memory is the memory of the outside: beyond the archive, the clinic, the march, the oeuvre, the grave. We might say that absolute memory is at one with forgetting. For as Deleuze said, “Only forgetting recovers what is folded in memory” . Which also means that the forgetting of forgetting is at once the source and sense of memory, and the impossible memory (i.e. the forgetting that cannot be remembered).
“2016-1996” is the double of “disappeared,” and thus its own preservation of the infinity of the aesthetic task. As Ann Smock once wrote: “To see something disappear: again, this is an experience which cannot actually start. Nor, therefore, can it ever come to an end” . In their tracing of time and its erasure, the images and scenes assembled here belong neither to memory nor to forgetting per se, but to the disappearance of the present.
“It’s not over” is what the double tells us.
 Haver, William. “The Art of Dirty Old Men: Rembrandt, Giacometti, Genet,” Parallax, volume 11:2, 2005, 25-35.
 Perniola, Mario. The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic, translated by Massimo Verrdicchio, (New York: Continuum, 2004).
 Haver, William.
 Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault, translated by Seán Hand (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
 Smock, Ann. ‘Translator’s Introduction’,” in Blanchot, Maurice, The Space of Literature (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982).
With this quotation from Georges Bataille’s text “Torture” (from his book Inner Experience, 1943), Jean-Luc Nancy opened his keynote address (via Skype) to the international colloquium on “Aisthesis and the Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere,” organized by Media@McGill and held at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, on March 18-19, 2016.
More than one
As one of the defining principles of Nancy’s philosophy, meaning (or sense) means “more than one.” More than one person, thing, body (i.e singularity) that, each in their multiplicity, is always in rapport with other singularities: sending out and sending back differential gestures, voices, perceptions and (hence) senses. In turn, the notion that there exists something (or someone) that is absolutely unique, is—accordingly so—meaningless. This even applies to that purportedly unique and one-of-a-kind entity named “God.” There is no such thing as “only one being,” and if there were such a thing, it would be, as Nancy put it, “dissolved in its singleness.” So, for there to be some thing, there must be more than one thing, given that being means rapport and thus being is always and only ever being-with. The question is not why is there something rather than nothing, but more precisely, why are there somethings (in the plural), such that there is no one thing.
Implicitly drawing from Maurice Blanchot, Nancy pointed out that even the notions of being alone and of solitude precisely entail being without someone else; and that it is this being-with as being-with-out, that comes to define the singularity of each existing thing. When one feels oneself to be alone, one senses that solitude as distinct from others (and thus in rapport with others), and thus also in rapport with one’s own singularity defined as always in rapport with. God is not alone, and he created the world because of his insufficiency that exceeded himself.
Meaning or sense is always in rapport or relation to itself, because sense itself is always self-separated (i.e. divided and hence never a single whole entity or substance). It is from out of this separation that sense makes sense 0r meaning, when sense—now in terms of feeling or sensation— feels or senses itself. A feeling or sense that is possible, precisely because separation is the condition in which such a rapport between can happen. Yet this feeling of sense feeling itself, is not an infinite and closed relation to itself, but in its separation, remains open and exposed to the outside. It is in this way, that Nancy speaks of a certain auto-affection and auto-mimesis of sense. Yet that is, nonetheless, never the fact or production of a sameness of meaning, simply because sense is always divided and shared, amongst and between multiple singularities.
Here is where Nancy’s deconstruction of the autonomous self or subject, as that which is always self-affected in its exposure with the other—with the outside—lines up with my own argument regarding auto-eroticism as its own pleasurable and desirous rapport with the outside and with others. Relation with the outside, as the relation that defines existence as always being-with (and with-out) is the relation to self that comes to define that self as not even a self (in the sense of a coherent, stable entity) but as a singularity.
As Nancy then went on to say, “singularity is the unity of a separation.” It is a unity that derives its sense (meaning) of self from its self-separation and division. Here he turned to the example of unicellular reproduction or scissiparity, in which it is out of originary separation that a “self” is born.
When it comes to the notion and the expression common sense, Nancy argued that this has been, in part, a matter of philosophy’s pushback against what it has deemed and denigrated as ordinary and banal and hence not worthy of philosophical reflection. In this way, common sense has been a negative for philosophy. At the same time, that which does not simply reproduce common sense, in the forms that have caused philosophy so much anxiety and fear, is art and aesthetics. Meaning that art is the re-directing of the ordinary, the banal, or the given. It is the praxis of finding that which is distinct in the common and ordinary—at the outer edge, and along its opening to the outside.
Nancy then turned to Aristotle, for whom common sense was not a vague sensibility but consisted of common sensibles: movement, rest, figure, size, number, and unity. These are those sensible qualities that are common to each and every thing, in its singularity as that thing there (i.e. in the specificity of its presence). Along with the common sensibles, there are the five senses of perception, that are non-continuous and always fleeting, as they incessantly move to- and towards things. Opposite this, as Nancy emphasized, a constant continuous sensation is the very definition of torture.
If what is common are the common sensibles of things, then we access the commons and have a sense (aisthesis) of the common through our sensible access and relations to the common sensibilities of things. This sense of the common is shared with, at, and in proximity to things, the latter of which come to function as rendezvous or meeting points. In order to articulate the connections between these (often readymade) things, aisthesis and aesthetics, Nancy drew upon the example of Duchamp’s readymade, and the latter’s own designation of such things as more encounters and points of rendezvous, than as autonomous works of art.
Impressions on the Edges
Like the Duchampian readymade, art is the possibility of distinction that is drawn out from out of a continuum, and this is precisely what is meant by art’s ex-pression. Literally taken to mean: the outside (ex) pressing on and up against or alongside. Art’s expression is the impression of the outside that it temporarily impresses upon us and other things in the world, in the form of sense and meaning.
It is this that is common to us in our shared exposure to the outside; and it is art that offers us a sense of this rapport, sense and meaning as that which is without definitive end, completion, resolution, or satisfaction. Meaning that art offers us the pleasure of being-with and in rapport, that does not demand or seek or establish an end, but instead affirms that right on the immeasurable edge of things, is the opening to the outside, not beyond. It is along these edges, that, I argue, a sense of the common happens.
I recently led a discussion amongst all of the Fellows at the Jackman Humanities Institute (University of Toronto) of William Haver’s essay, “The Art of Dirty Old Men: Rembrandt, Giacometti, Genet,” published in Parallax, in a special issue that I edited on “unbecoming,” (vol. 11, no. 2, 2005). Here are my introductory remarks.
One of the principal assertions in the study of Visual Culture, including what WJT Mitchell, one of the founders of the field has elaborated as “picture theory,” entails the philosophical reclamation of “picture thinking”—the kind of thinking that Hegel had attempted to thoroughly denigrate. At the same time, such methods that for awhile comprised what was referred to as the “visual turn,” entails an embrace of Kant’s notion of the schema, precisely in order to think in non-symbolic and non-representational ways not only whatever the word “culture,” designates in “visual culture,” but also “visuality,” of which “images” are just one of the many “things” in question. But as these names imply, “picture thinking” or “picture theory” are also ways to engage in thinking and the practice of thought, and not only through pictures (as though images were merely forms of mediation between the mind and the world), but more deeply and perhaps more philosophically, about thought “itself:” its source, its practice, its durations and its interruptions. In the wake of our reading of Deleuze, we can speak of “the image of thought,” in which that image might be a thing in addition to possibly being a conceptual personae or an affective perception or intuition. This is of serious consequence, since there is an inextricable relation between thought and things (to quote the title of Leo Bersani’s most recent book), and needless to say, it this relation that resides at the heart of our theme at the Jackman Humanities Institute this year, and our common theme of “things that matter.”
As we begin to parse the relation between thought and things, we might turn to Jean-Luc Nancy, who states—in one of his books on Hegel, in fact—that “thought sinks into things only to the extent that it sinks into itself—which is its own act of thought” (Restlessness, 15). Thus the ways in which thought sinks or penetrates into things, or simply acts in the vicinity of things, is the way in which thought thinks. This image of thought is the intuition of sense—its literality and visuality—in which the Kantian schema proves to be nothing other than an image. As Fredric Jameson has recently pointed out, this is what Einstein’s thought experiments consisted of, and, we might add, how quantum theory thinks about things. Namely: through non-representational yet still referential pictures, including diagrams. As Jameson explains, in all of these instances, it is the signifier that determines the signified, and the effect determines the cause. These are formulas that we are utterly familiar with, in our various engagements with post-structuralism and deconstruction.
This is also the inverse temporality that I am interested in, and that motivates the research project that I am pursuing here at the JHI on the collective afterlife of things. It is a temporality that does not only track the effects of the present on the past, but of the future on the present. This temporality is rendered literary and is visualized in the science fiction sub-genre of the time-travel narrative; and in fact it is in a recent review of a new theoretical study of this genre, where Jameson, in the very last sentence of his article, draws the stunning conclusion that “temporality is then nothing but a time-travel narrative.” (“In Hyperspace,” review of Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative, by David Wittenberg, Fordham; London Review of Books, 10 September 2015).
This is where I think William Haver’s essay on “The Art of Dirty Old Men,” enters the discussion, and its provocation not about the history but about the historicity of thought, which is to say, thought’s sinking into things/into itself, which in turn is to speak of thought’s image. For whereas in these sci-fi time-travel narratives there is, as Jameson explains, “the transcendental necessity of superspace in any narrative rendering of time,” Haver argues that due to the force of finitude, meaning “non-transcedence,” such narrative renderings of time are interrupted (including in the disciplinary discourses of “history” or “art history” and their own aspirations toward a transcendental perspective in the form of explanation, interpretation and understanding). Further, it is not so much that time-travel becomes impossible, but more precisely that it now must be thought as generating not temporality, but what Haver describes as “a-temporal disjunct simultaneity,” or more simply: the sense of finitude—finitude’s historicity. Yet to all of this we must ask: why is this case?
Haver’s answer is that it is because of the material impasse of existence, the fact that existence, or what he describes as the “identity and equality of sentient being” is abject in its non-transcendence. Meaning, the finitude of bodies, thoughts and things, in their incommensurable singularity and sheer exteriority: things that is, other than in terms of the instrumental, meaning or significance, the calculable or the numerable. In other words: the dirty old man whose look butted against Genet’s own non-contemplative and impersonal seeing. “Material impasse” describes the impasse or essential insufficiency of thought to its objects (in a word: materiality) and that which in its materiality is irreducible to a thing.
In “On the Solitude of Things,” a chapter of an unpublished book on Genet and the political, Haver at one point makes clear that “it is not…simply a matter of resigning or refusing one’s transcendence, of abandoning the distance of perspective. Rather it is a matter of sustaining the syncopations every historicization elides, of inhabiting the infinite yet absolutely proximate distance between evidence and experience, between interpretation and evidence, between transcendence and finitude” (Solitude, 10).
Genet speaks to this interruption of the time-travel narrative and thus of temporality, in a way that underlines how this experience—which Haver will go on to theorize as not only the conviction of the aesthetic, but also the experience of the ethical and the political—when he (Genet) writes (first block quote on page 29) about the sensuous pleasure of his hand in a boy’s hair, and how even though he (Genet) “shall die, nothing else will.”
A little while ago I wrote that though I shall die, nothing else will. And I must make my meaning clear. Wonder at the sight of a cornflower, at a rock, at the touch of a rough hand –all the millions of emotions of which I’m made –they won’t disappear even though I shall. Other men will experience them, and they’ll still be there because of them. More and more I believe I exist in order to be the terrain and proof which show other men that life consists in the uninterrupted emotions flowing through all creation. The happiness my hand knows in a boy’s hair will be known by another hand, is already known. And although I shall die, this happiness will live on. ‘I’ may die, but what made that ‘I’ possible, what made possible the joy of being, will make the joy of being live on without me.
(Genet, The Prisoner of Love, NYRB, 2003 translated by Barbara Bray, 361)
This is not a transcendental time-travel narrative, in which one travels back to (or from) the future, but is instead what I wish to theorize as the collective afterlife of things, in which the abject non-transcendence of our finitude is what we share between us (the fact and condition of “social ontology”), and not in some future end of times, but here, now when we see a clothespin left behind on a line, or look at a Rembrandt, a Giacometti, or in our encounters with any number of other things. As Haver argues, the “thing” of painting or of seeing provokes an accidental intuition of the identity and equality of sentient being as that which is predicated upon nothing (no sufficient principle or reason) and thus is absolutely unjustifiable. To give ourselves over to this unjustifiable existence, would be to begin to do justice to things and each other.
In 2015-16 I will be a Faculty Research Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute, University of Toronto. Released from all teaching and administrative duties, I will have the opportunity to devote the year to further research for one of my two current research projects on “the collective afterlife of things.” Here’s a brief description of the project.
Based upon the conjecture of the “collective afterlife” recently put forth by the philosopher Samuel Scheffler (Death and the Afterlife), in which he argues that our ability to lead value-laden lives is more dependent upon our confidence in the long-term survival or afterlife of humanity, than our concern with our own survival of death or that of our friends and loved ones, my project asks: what do things tell us about societies and the social dimension of valuing things as mattering, not only based upon their histories, but upon their futures? In other words, their collective afterlives. Based upon this “futurity thesis” of ethical decision, action and responsibility, my project is further motivated by the following question: in what ways are aesthetic forms and experiences, including art as a thing that matters, both in terms of artistic practice and as artistic object/work/thing dependent upon a shared confidence in the future survival of humanity? I explore these questions, by extending and developing upon work that I have recently published in my book The Decision Between Us, on forms of inoperative aesthetic praxis that consist in collectively partaking in the decision to participate in the withdrawal, retreat, and disappearance of the work of art, including in the work’s material manifestation and configuration of things. Out of this I have developed the notion of the already-unmade, as the deconstruction of Duchamp’s readymade work of art. With this current project, I want to identify and examine a number of artistic, literary, and filmic examples, beyond those that I focused on in my recently published work.
Transmission Annual (2013)
LABOUR, WORK, ACTION
Edited by Michael Corris, Jaspar Joseph-Lester, Sharon Kivland
With guest editors Maureen Connor and Elizabeth Legge
Taking up Hannah Arendt’s reflections on three important human activities – labour, work, action – this book addresses the role that might be played by artist or work of art, and how this makes for agents and agency.
Contributors: Ivana Bago, Jordan Bear, Pascal Beausse, Bernard Brunon, Pavel Büchler, Armin Chodzinski, Annie Coll, Michael Corris, Janeil Engelstad, Francesco Finizio, Charlie Gere, Jerome Harrington, David Hopkins, Shannon Jackson, Vincent Victor Jouffe, the Pedagogy Group, Elizabeth Legge, Dale MacFarlane, Roberto Martinez, Mary-Lou Lobsinger, Hester Reeve, Oliver Ressler, John Paul Ricco, Abigail Satinsky, Juliet Steyn.
Transmission is a project that has encompassed an annual journal, a series of related publications, a lecture series, symposia and other events. Transmission Annual is a yearly publication, now in four volumes, edited by Jaspar Joseph-Lester (Royal College of Art, London), Sharon Kivland (Sheffield Hallam University), Michael Corris (The Meadows School of the Arts, SMU, Dallas, Texas), who were joined for 2012 by Noah Simblist (The Meadows School of the Arts, SMU, Dallas, Texas).