Fire-411_0This course emerges out of a research project that I began a few years ago as a Faculty Research Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute (University of Toronto) in 2015-16. One of the terms of the fellowship, was that upon my return to undergraduate teaching, I would offer an advanced undergraduate seminar based upon my research project.

Like that project, also titled “The Collective Afterlife of Things,” this course is about aesthetic and philosophical responses to a collectively shared lack of confidence today in the long-term futures of three ecologies: intellectual, social, and environmental. Specifically, it is about the various possible roles that aesthetics and works of art, film, literature and poetry have in enabling us to envision and reckon with the forces of environmental devastation and extinction that we are confronted with today.

It addresses such topics, issues and questions as: the Anthropocene thesis; apocalypse; the post-human; futurity; and the very concept or reality of “ends.” It also asks about what we mean by “life,” “afterlife,” and “things” and how these relate to our sense of being-together and in-common. It is interested in those “things” that we collectively share in common: things that most of us partake of, yet none of us own or singularly possess. It seeks to consider how aesthetics and art might be principal forms of such collective things, and how a certain notion of aesthetics and artistic practices (e.g. “unfinished”, “workless”) might provide us with some of the best ways of thinking not only about the “afterlives” of people and things, but also about what might exist after life and after the human.

Simply put, this course asks about the relation between art, visual culture and extinction. In attempting to address this question, we will read, view and engage with a number of recent books, films, works of art, exhibitions and actual practitioners that—each in their own way—offer some of the most rigorous, challenging, inventive, critical and thought-provoking materializations and conceptualizations on art and (as) the possible and impossible ends of extinction. 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? In this course, we will engage with work in the theoretical humanities in which the human is defined as being always-already posthumous.

Core Readings, Films and Artists

P.D. James, Children of Men.
Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men (film).
Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.
Art and the Anthropocene, edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin.
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Catastrophe of Equivalence: After Fukushima.
Baum, Bayer, and Wagstaff, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, exhibition catalogue, Met Breuer.
Lars von Trier, Melancholia (film).
Works by: Roni Horn, Joan Jonas, Armin Linke, Pierre Huyghe, and others.

Course Topics

Visual Culture and the Extinction of Ends
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
Reproductive Futurity
The Collective Afterlife of Humanity
Romantic Images and Archeologies of the Future
Unfinished Art History
Art and the Ends of Extinction
Art and the Anthropocene
The Last Political (& Art) Scene
After Melancholia, After Fukushima

Last week, as I was preparing a public lecture on “The Commerce of Anonymity,” I began to think more about the conceptual relations between anonymity and the neutral, and in particular the ways in which together they might bear upon acts of mourning.

At once drawing me back to ideas that I recently presented in chapter 5 of my book, The Decision Between Us, on Roland Barthes’ neutral mourning, and also closer to more recent events in which many of us find ourselves mourning the deaths of largely unknown or anonymous others, I returned not only to Barthes’ work, but also to Maurice Blanchot’s, in order to try to think about how a politics and ethics of the anonymous and neutral might disrupt or refuse some of the more dominant and prevailing responses to such violent atrocities and mass deaths.

In his book, The Step Not Beyond, Blanchot writes that,

The anonymous after the name is not the nameless anonymous. The anonymous does not consist in refusing the name in withdrawing from it. [Thus we might say that the anonymous is the withdrawal of the name through (as) the name of the nameless]. The anonymous puts the name in place, leaves it empty, as if the name were there only to let itself be passed through because the name does not name, but is the non-unity and non-presence of the nameless (34-35).

The name is the passage through which the anonymous passes. And in its passing/withdrawing through the name, the anonymous leaves the place of the name empty, as if the anonymous were the place-name (if not place-holder) for the name.

What I want to suggest is that as the neutral name (neuter) of the name, the anonymous, when mourned, calls for an equally neutral mourning. For Barthes, there is indeed a form of mourning that is without codification and assimilation, and without any one proper place. Hence, it is not only without memorial or monument, it is, Barthes argues, therefore also socially untenable. Moving away from the will-to-possess toward the will-to-love, this neutral mourning represents the second type of “neutral” that Barthes is (more) interested in. It is differentiated from the first-degree neutral (i.e. the suspension of conflicts), while at the same time being distinct from the “desperate vitality” (a phrase that he derives from Pasolini), that he takes to be equivalent to a hatred of death. Thus while Barthes does not use the phrase, I think we find here what amounts to a conception of neutral mourning. Within the context of my current thinking and writing, I want to suggest that such neutral mourning is at the same time, anonymous mourning, specifically the mourning of those who go by anonymous names (in the departure of the departed, in passing).

For just as for Blanchot, “the anonymous puts the name in place” yet only to be the place of passage for the name and its emptying out of nomination, so with Barthes, the temporality of the neutral is nothing more than a moment or instant, specifically an opportune opening—what we might think of as the kairos to Blanchot’s anonymous topos.

This itinerancy of the anonymous and the neutral is what makes them both operate as lures, yet not in terms of a name, but as predicates or adjectives. Which is to say, as a certain kind of aesthetic provocation and attraction, and an opening of the ethical. For what Barthes more fully says about the kairos of the neutral is that “perhaps the Neutral is that: to accept the predicate as nothing more than a moment: a time” (Neutral, 61). The kairos (or opportune moment) of the neutral, is the non-nominalizable singularity (of space and of time) that is anonymity (as in the German neuter form Das Moment: cause, force, momentum).

Neutral mourning is the will-to-love that moment of departure that passes between the anonymous and the predicate—between any one name and passing quality. The neutral and the anonymous are thus not the names (or not only the names) but the adjectives or predicates of an originary movement, force and temporality of the momentums and moments of being together (i.e. the commerce of anonymity).

In light of recent events, this is what we must respond to, counter-sign (“not in our names”), and thus begin to take responsibility for—prior to and in excess of political and theological sovereignty. It is in this way that we might affirm, as Michael Naas has argued, “that there can be no sovereign last word [or name] to put an end to the violence or the endless discussion” (The End of the World and Other Teachable Moments, 167).



The imagination is the realm of the aesthetic, and it is a middle ground or zone of passage connecting material reality (the political realm) and the rational soul and its relations with others (the ethical realm). The imagination is just as “real” as the other two realms, and divides into two principle versions, based upon the kind of action, creation, making and inventing that it pursues. One version of the imagination is poiesis or production, as in the architect’s practice of drawing up a plan that serves as the ground upon which to build a structure (utopianism). The other version is praxis or performance, as in the revolutionary or proletariat’s collaborative partaking in the opening up and staging of the otherwise not pre-given/outlined space of the social—“be realistic, demand the impossible” (communism). Arendt will define the former as “work,” and the latter as “action,” all the while stressing that it is critical for us to think about what we are doing, and not to do things mindlessly or stupidly, which is to say in a bureaucratic manner.

The latter is what Arendt famously described Adolf Eichmann as perpetrating. He was the quintessential bureaucratic, “just doing his job,” in a dead zone of imagination (David Graeber), obsessed with the measure and evaluation of everything, and where structural violence, and hence stupidity (and banality) reign supreme. As Graeber argues in his recent book on bureaucracy, the Left has always been anti-bureaucratic because while it does not ignore any form of violence, it does not give violence a fundamental status. “Instead,” he writes, “I would argue that Leftist thought is founded on what I will call a ‘political ontology of the imagination’” [or creativity, making, invention], in which the “real”is not the reality of the royal (real in Spanish) sovereign, but the “res” of the Latin for thing, from which the French “rein” or “nothing” as in no one thing, is derived. Which returns us to the two versions of the imagination that I outlined above: one which is committed to the real of real property and real estate, and the other to the real of no one thing (res). These point to two different ways of making or inventing a world. The political question is: who gets to partake in this aesthetic education and ongoing configuration of the imagination and its capacities of creativity and invention (as Spivak, Ranciere, Nancy and other contemporary thinkers have asked)? Which amounts to asking: who is kept in a state of stupidity, and who is liberated from such idiocy? Inequality, alienation, segregation and other forms of structural violence occur based upon the specific answers to this question, in each situation and context.


Published in the recently released book, Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. Edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (Open Humanities Press, Critical Climate Change Series, 2015).

You can read and download the entire 400+ page volume here:

Art in the Anthropocene

A seminar (panel) for the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference. Seattle, Washington, March 26-29, 2015.

Co-organized with Etienne Turpin

After Acéphale: Politics & Poetics of Assemblage in the Decapitated Economy

             Human life is exhausted from serving as the head of, or the reason for,

            the universe. To the extent that it becomes this head and this reason,

            to the extent that it becomes necessary to the universe, it accepts servitude.

— Georges Bataille

With Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s book The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, the early-21st-century species of “indebted man” as outlined by Maurizio Lazzarato, and the severed heads that are the iconic and accursed remnants in Julia Kirsteva’s meditation on “capital visions,” leading theorists of political economy have articulated the inextricable relations between language and capital, sovereignty and guilt, representation and instrumental reason, insurrection and occupation.

In light of these developments, and in the city where the anti-globalization movement was launched into public consciousness fifteen years ago, this seminar seeks to draw upon lessons that we might still take from one of the major philosophical and literary precursors: Georges Bataille’s general economy of excess expenditure and waste, and his phantasmology of sovereignty without debt or servitude, as presented in La Part Maudite (1967, The Accursed Share), and in such literary works as Madame Edwarda (1956), Le Coupable (1944; Guilty), and La Tombe de Louis XXX (various dates).

In doing so, this panel explores the links that Bataille made between non-knowledge and rebellion (as in his eponymous lecture from 1952), and draws out from close readings of Bataille, the image of an acéphalic body of the general intellect, and its political and poetic assemblage. To acquit ourselves of the rational servitude that Bataille correctly identified as endemic to capitalist economies, we may need, finally, to lose our heads and pursue what might be properly called “acephalic reason” in pleasure, literature, philosophy, and politics.

The Boys of Collodion

The young bare-chested men in this series of portraits, with their free flowng dark hair and their wide-opened stares, seem to harken back to the first decades of photography, as much as having been pulled from the local skateboard park. Glued to whatever it is that is confronting them head-on, their fixated gazes might betray the name of the place that they mythically hail from: Collodion, from the Greek kollōdēs, meaning “gluelike.” Looking as though they have become suddenly entranced by the song of the sirens, or nearly petrified by the head of the gorgon, the boys of collodion are our modern day kouroi. Stripped of colour except for a single red badge—medal and scar—they are glued and unglued at once.

Christa Blackwood, Sam from the Boys of Collodion series, hand pulled duo mono print, 2014.
Christa Blackwood, Sam from the Boys of Collodion series, hand pulled duo mono print, 2014.

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“The Separated Gesture: Partaking in the Inoperative Praxis of the Already-Unmade” an essay to be published in: Jean-Luc Nancy and the Political. Edited by Sanja Dejanovic, Critical Connections Series, Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming, 2014.

My essay is about the ways in which Jean-Luc Nancy has conceived of the relation between the political and the aesthetic. It is in large part based upon my reading of his essay important recent essay, “The Truth of Democracy,” in order first to underline that the aesthetic, art and the artistic are not political as such, meaning that they are neither the ground upon which a “politics” can be articulated, nor are they the materialized product and result of some political determination. Instead, I am guided by what Nancy argues to be a political necessity, namely: “to think the manner in which these spheres [art, friendship, knowledge, etc.] are heterogeneous to the properly political sphere” and yet, without which, the space opened up by the political would not be affirmed.

To do so, I turn to the work of the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and argue that his work (quoting from my essay) “enables the affirmation of the political as a spacing that is not a pre-given readymade ground, but instead is always the taking place—or better, a partaking place—that is already-unmade.” Meaning: kept open and sustained as an exposure to the infinite, which is the space formed by the political.

“A Space Formed for the Infinite” is the title of one of the chapters of Nancy’s text on democracy, and it opens with the following statement:

The condition of nonequivalent affirmation is political inasmuch as politics must prepare the space for it. But the affirmation itself is not political. It can be almost anything you like—existential, artistic, literary, dreamy, amorous, scientific, thoughtful, leisurely, playful, friendly, gastronomic, urban, and so on: politics subsumes none of these registers; it only gives them their space and possibility.

In stating that the condition of nonequivalent affirmation is not political, I understand Nancy to mean that it is not an archē/ground/origin and rule/law/principle, upon which any or all subsequent action (praxis) is determined and dictated.

For unlike the ancient Greek conception of the condition of the political (and the space of the polis), in which the architect and the legislator “make” (poietically) the walls and laws of the polis, by simply executing the model or blueprint created and provided by the “philosopher-king” (master planner), such that this poietic production is not political but is understood as prior to political praxis, for Nancy, the political is—as Nancy makes clear in this chapter—this very drawing and sketching of the outline and contour of space. A sketching that as drawing is poiesis that is also praxis, and a praxis that is also poietic.

In other words, the political for Nancy, as I understand him, is a praxis that is as much mise-en-scene as mise-en-acte, in which the political act is staging the scene of nonequivalence (the non-mimetic, non-productive fabrication of model) that is affirmed by art, friendship, knowledge, etc. as the sharing in this incommensurability.

Yet as I argue, to affirm this nonequivalence, and to sustain and stand in this (political) space formed for the infinite, calls for a non-poietic aesthetic praxis, the manner and technique of which is inoperative, and as such, affirms that that which is taken to be readymade, is already-unmade. It is the separated gesture (and gesture of separation) that is the gesture that affirms the political by underlining the patency of the political. Patency, which literally means: the condition of being open, expanded and unobstructed. A patency that we might further qualify, as infinitely open in its exposure as finite—right on the contour and outline that is the spacing of finitude.

I was recently asked for a list of five of the best books I read in 2013. I say “of the best” and not “the best” because of course I read many more than five truly excellent books last year. But these are some of the ones that made particular impressions, and that I thought were especially worthy of noting and sharing here.

  1. Jamie Quatro, I Want to Show You More (Grove, 2013). This debut collection of stories–mostly taking place on the border of Tennesee and Georgia–truly captures the rawness and realness of American culture—where and when experiences of Christianity, faith, adultery and sex are no longer distinguishable. In reading Quatro, I find narratives of what I have been theorizing in my own writing as “pornographic faith.”
  2. George Saunders, Tenth of December (Random House, 2013). Who hasn’t read Saunders’ latest collection of stories?! Like Quatro, he impeccably takes the beat of beaten-down and humiliated Americans. In most of these stories, the setting is central New York State—its own northern Appalachia. Having grown up in Utica, I know. So does Saunders; who teaches at Syracuse and who writes so tenderly about the absurd yet indefatigible dignity of life “upstate.”
  3. Hilton Als, White Girls (McSweeney’s, 2013). With beautifully and variously styled essays on Truman Capote, Michael Jackson, Eminem, Richard Pryor and Malcom X, Als completely gets us to detach racial and gender signifiers from their typical identities. Who’s a white girl? Who desires, idolizes, mimics, betrays and befriends white girls? See the list above.
  4. Kathleen Winter, Annabel (Anansi, 2010). Given to me as a gift this past Christmas, I finally got to read this celebrated novel. I most appreciated the simplicity of the story’s telling, and the remarkable ways in which trans-gender identity and the villages and forests of Labrador are made to resonate, in a mutual foregrounding of the other.
  5. Stacey D’Erasmo, The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between (Greywolf Press, 2013). Part of a series of short books on the art, craft and technique of writing, D’Erasmo writes beautifully, poetically and with tremendous theoretical insight about the distance that structures any sense intimacy and the spaces of shared encounter. Having just completed my own monograph on the space of ethical and aesthetic separation that is “the decision between us,” reading this book felt like it own rendezvous with intimacy in writing.
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