Visual Culture

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?

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.


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.


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.


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.
  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:
  10. John Paul Ricco, “Jacking-off a Minor Architecture” (with new extended preface, 2016), Keep It Dirty
  11. John Paul Ricco, “The Commerce of Anonymity,” Qui Parle, forthcoming, 2016.
  12. Thomas Roma, In the Vale of Cashmere, Powerhouse Books, 2015.

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.


Chuck Ramirez, Candy Tray Series: Godiva 4 & 5, 2002. Photograph pigment ink print, 24″ x 36″ Edition of 6 originally commissioned by Artpace San Antonio.

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 [1] 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” [2] of the empty readymade; of “the sex appeal of the inorganic” [3], but also of a certain “disenchanted fetishism” [4] that is as much attracted as it is repulsed by the essentially “entropic solitude of things” [5]. 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.

AIDS Doubles

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” [6]. 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” [7]. 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.


Brian Carpenter, [reenactment, infection 1], 2012. Archival inkjet print, 24″ x 36″


[1] Haver, William. “The Art of Dirty Old Men: Rembrandt, Giacometti, Genet,” Parallax, volume 11:2, 2005, 25-35.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Perniola, Mario. The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic, translated by Massimo Verrdicchio, (New York: Continuum, 2004).

[4] Haver, William.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault, translated by Seán Hand (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

[7] Smock, Ann. ‘Translator’s Introduction’,” in Blanchot, Maurice, The Space of Literature (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982).

I was invited to deliver one of the Keynote Lectures at the 26th Annual International Comparative Literature conference, by the graduate students in Comp Lit at the University of Toronto. The other Keynote speakers were Linda and Michael Hutcheon, and W.J.T. Mitchell. My talk, “Edging, Drawing, the Common,” took place on March 5th, 2016.

John Paul Ricco, “Edging, Drawing, the Common,” Keynote Address at the 26th Annual International Comparative Literature conference, University of Toronto, March 5, 2016.



In a column today for, “Who’s Really Getting Naked at the Gym,” Paula Young Lee responds to a recent New York Times article about the re-design of gyms, and how millennial men evidently want more privacy in the locker room.

Working within a 30-minute deadline, Paula contacted me to get my response to the Times article (which I had just read early that morning) and my observations and opinion on the situation, as I see it, in gym locker rooms today. Like all of Paula’s articles for Salon, this one is super-smart, bitingly funny and thus a great read.

Paula is the author of the best-selling, award-winning, Deer Hunting in Paris (2013). Here’s her take on the naked millennial male body:

The naked body is vulnerable because it’s stripped of culture. Abject and ashamed, it is reduced to the visible signs of health, musculature, fitness, thinness, and other markers that determine hierarchy inside a group. It is the condition of being stripped of status that is unbearable, prompting the young to reassert the armor of their street clothing as quickly as possible. Their insecurity isn’t lodged in their bodies but in their unstable social positions, which is why more powerful men– the “old guys” who, in theory, ought to be embarrassed by the grizzle and the hoar–don’t care two figs what you think of their butt cracks or belly buttons.

And as she quotes me as saying:

“Old guys have been parading around locker rooms for decades, and younger guys have been less prone to let it all hang out,” Ricco explains. “So this homosocial dynamic of nudity isn’t anything particularly new. But I would argue that there has never been more voyeurism and exhibitionism in the locker room than there is now.” Indeed, he affirms, “I would say that male bodies—and especially young muscular male bodies—are putting themselves on display more than ever.”

Lots more in the article, including where I talk about “halls of narcissistic indulgence.” Enjoy! And see you at the gym.

Here is the link to the audio file on YouTube of my Lecture, On the Commerce of Anonymity, that I presented on November 20, 2015, as part of the Emerging Research in Comparative Literature Series, at the University Toronto.

I want to thank Fan Wu and Jesscia Copley for the invitation to present some of my current work, and to all those in attendance that evening for their engaging questions and responses. I also want to thank Bao Nguyen for his editing of this audio recording. Finally, my thanks to Shaan Syed, whose work—the focus of this talk—continues to be such an important provocation and inspiration for my own.

For the final section of the paper that I did not have the time to present, see my earlier post on “anonymous and neutral mourning.”


A blue delphinium on World AIDS Day.

I have walked behind the sky.

For what are you seeking?

The fathomless blue of Bliss.

To be an astronaut of the void, leave the comfortable house that imprisons you with reassurance.

Suffering from CMV, a virus that among other things causes a retinal infection, and without the sort of treatments developed in the past decade or so, can lead to blindness, Derek Jarman persisted in his work as an artist and in his film Blue (1993), created one of the most uncompromising visualizations of blindness and the limits of visual representation in the time of AIDS.

As an “empty sky-blue afterimage,” Blue exposes us to the empty afterimage that is the blue of the sky. Sky-blue is the nominative-adjective pairing that describes and names an emptiness and an afterimage. But only in the sense that one speaks of the city being empty, or has the undeniable sense that the blue of the sky is the ground that remains after every image.

In the middle of his book, Derek Jarman’s Garden, there is a poem, the first line of which locates the poem, the book, the garden and the gardener “under this blue sky.” Jarman’s stony Dungeness garden became a blind man’s world, as blind as “the stone in the air” in Paul Celan’s poem, “Flower.”

The stone.

The stone in the air, which I followed.

Your eye, as blind as the stone.

Flower—a blind man’s word.

To stare at the sky, as a gardener might do, is to be caught up in the visual enthrallment of staring at nothing, and to find this blindness of sorts to be irreparable—simply enough. Or, if not to stare at the sky, then to stare at what the sky makes possible: “I can look at one plant for an hour” as Jarman writes, “this brings me great peace. I stand motionless and stare.” This is also the stance and regard that Blue solicits from us and asks us to endure, to sustain.

Like the flowers that close Jarman’s garden book, and the delphinium that is placed at the end of Blue, perhaps these are the few words that remain after unsparing loss, the words that are more persistent than any final word could ever be. These would be the words dedicated to the friend who did not save my life, voiced by the body of this death. These are the words that continue “to go without saying,” by a perceiving that continues to go without seeing. Blind man’s words: Flower. Blue. Adieu.

[Adapted from my book, The Logic of the Lure, 2003]

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.

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

Tom McDonough review in Critical Inquiry

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