Monthly Archives: February 2014

University of Chicago Press, March 2014.

University of Chicago Press, March 2014.

The Decision Between Us combines an inventive reading of Jean-Luc Nancy with queer theoretical concerns to argue that while scenes of intimacy are spaces of sharing, they are also spaces of separation. John Paul Ricco shows that this tension informs our efforts to coexist ethically and politically, an experience of sharing and separation that informs any decision. Using this incongruous relation of intimate separation, Ricco goes on to propose that “decision” is as much an aesthetic as it is an ethical construct, and one that is always defined in terms of our relations to loss, absence, departure, and death.

Laying out this theory of “unbecoming community” in modern and contemporary art, literature, and philosophy, and calling our attention to such things as blank sheets of paper, images of unmade beds, and the spaces around bodies, The Decision Between Us opens in 1953, when Robert Rauschenberg famously erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning, and Roland Barthes published Writing Degree Zero, then moves to 1980 and the “neutral mourning” of Barthes’ Camera Lucida, and ends in the early 1990s with installations by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Offering surprising new considerations of these and other seminal works of art and theory by Jean Genet, Marguerite Duras, and Catherine Breillat, The Decision Between Us is a highly original and unusually imaginative exploration of the spaces between us, arousing and evoking an infinite and profound sense of sharing in scenes of passionate, erotic pleasure, as well as deep loss and mourning.

“Through a compelling, lucid, and wonderfully suggestive reading of Nancy’s writings, we are exposed throughout The Decision Between Us to numerous scenes of seduction and abandoned existence, scenes at once erotic and funerary, intimate and desolate. An incisive contribution to the ways in which Nancy’s writings might be read today, the sense of sharing at the heart of the argument is both transformative and intensely ethical.”

Philip Armstrong, Ohio State University

“Ricco’s The Decision Between Us is a beautifully executed book on the execution and extension of being-in-relation. Its articulation of sexuality theory, deconstructive philosophy, and queer art opens up different idioms to each other the way lovers open to each other—excitedly, productively, and yet always enigmatically, pointing beyond what seems present. Ricco is also a brilliant close reader. An enrapturing read.”

Lauren Berlant, University of Chicago

“Reopening ground broken by Jean-Luc Nancy, The Decision Between Us traces the paradoxes of relational being across a range of artistic, literary, and philosophical ‘scenes.’ Through a series of startling juxtapositions, Ricco weaves together scenes of exposure, erasure, and unmaking to reveal the inseparability of aesthetics from ethics.  This is an original and challenging work by one of our most brilliant philosophers of visuality.”

Tim Dean, State University of New York at Buffalo



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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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