Monthly Archives: December 2015



Throughout my childhood growing up in Utica, NY, I was very close with my paternal grandmother and we spent a tremendous amount of time together. One of our regular afternoon rituals was to go to any one of her three preferred grocery stores: Grand Union, A&P and Chanatry’s. While the first two were part of a national chain, the last was a smaller, locally-owned store. Chanatry’s may have had more than one location, but back then my grandmother preferred the one on Culver Avenue in East Utica, next to the castle-like turreted Armoury, and across the street from the WPA-era Buckingham (public) Pool. In many respects I think it was my grandmother’s favourite of the three, and without question, it was mine.


Armoury, Utica, NY


Municipal Swimming Pool, Culver Avenue Utica

Municipal Swimming Pool, Culver Avenue Utica, NY

Back then, in the late-1960s and early-’70s, years before UPC scanners were introduced, grocery store cashiers manually entered into the cash register each price that was written on or, in the form of a small sticker, affixed to each item. Of course, due to simple human error, every once in awhile a cashier, in the process of punching those only somewhat forgiving raised buttons on the register, would “ring up” the wrong price.

Out of this developed a sense that certain cashiers were more careful and accurate than others. Or at least this was my grandmother’s view of things. So at some point early on in her patronage of Chanatry’s, she evidently identified one of the cashiers as the most reliable, and would actually schedule her shopping trips to coincide with this woman’s shift (in those days, pretty much every cashier was a woman, and in Utica, usually middle-aged and white).

Terry. That was her name; the cashier whom my grandmother nearly swore by, and into whose “line” she would always go, regardless of how long that line was. But Terry was not only my grandmother’s preferred or favourite cashier, she was for me the only cashier in the world. There’s no doubt that my grandmother was largely responsible, at least initially, for the affection that I felt for Terry, but I also think that something else was at play, and that is what I want to write about here.

Besides the oil-cured black olives stored in big plastic bins at the deli counter in the back of the store—which I would beg my grandmother to buy for me—the other big attraction, the one thing that I eagerly anticipated more than anything, was to see Terry. After winding our way through the few narrow aisles of the store, finally we would be ready to approach her cashier’s station. “Her’s” in the sense that, if I remember correctly, she was always working at the same number/line.

Once we got up to the front of the line, both Terry and my grandmother would make a big deal out of the fact that I was there. My grandmother saying something like: “Look who I brought with me today!” and Terry responding with: “It’s my little boyfriend John.” One year, for I think Valentine’s Day or perhaps it was for Terry’s birthday, I wanted to give her a gift. It was either my mother or my grandmother who found a small box of embroidered handkerchiefs for me to present to Terry the next time we went to the store. That pretty much solidified our relationship, and many many years later, after I had moved away from home to attend university in New York City, my mom or grandmother would tell me that Terry would continue to ask about me and remind them of the handkerchiefs that I gave her.

The point that I want to make by telling this story, is that separate and apart from fulfilling the job description or being (my grandmother’s) personal ideal type of “grocery store cashier,” Terry, that actual person, was for me in those early years of my childhood, one of my first experiences of what in my current work I am theorizing as “the commerce of anonymity.”

“Commerce” obviously based upon the commercial context of the situation, but also in terms of a certain reciprocal exchange between us that stood to the side of the mercantile, and yet did not either rely upon life-biographical details nor was directed toward the goal of developing into some sort of personal friendship beyond the context of the store. It is in the absence of the latter two aspects that this everyday rapport between Terry and I can be understood as anonymous.

Anonymous in the sense of “pre-predicative,” to the precise extent that I did not relate to Terry based upon her job description (how strange that would have been for a 5-year old to do), nor based upon her being a personal ideal type of cashier, as she was for my grandmother. Instead, the picture that I have of her, and that I would argue was the picture that I had of her back then as a little boy, is/was not a portrait of identity, but of anonymity. Which is to say: neither the genre of the type, nor the generic genre of the general, but an anonymity that was named Terry, and that for me—precisely in its anonymity—was an early source and sense of the social.



Since the 12th-century, there has been in Christian moral theology a notion of taking pleasure in “expectantly waiting (Lat. moratur) in the desire for an object that remains absent because it is inaccessible or prohibited” (Dictionary of Untranslatables, 792). It is not a delay of pleasure, but rather of pleasure in the delay of satisfied desire, that is enjoyed by and in the imagination. In other words, it is the pleasure that one derives from desiring, and it is this pleasure-in-desiring that affirms that there is pleasure inherent in desire itself—and thus not only in desire’s fulfillment (a point that was clear to Lacan in his reading of the “paradox of fore-pleasures” in Freud).

It is important to underline that this “morose delectation” is not the postponement or infinite deferral of pleasure, nor is it entirely divorced from desire. Rather, it is the pleasure that is enjoyed in the very relation to desire. Neither the negation nor the positive presence of the object of desire, delectatio morosa is what we might describe as a neutral yet wholly pleasurable relation to desire.

I am interested in this Scholastic notion because it strikes me that it provides us with a way to think about the “neutral mourning” that I have theorized in my recent reading of Roland Barthes as its own form of pleasure. What I suggested in that chapter of The Decision Between Us dedicated to Barthes, is that in the midst and in the wake of mourning the recent death of his mother, Barthes sought what he had described as “a desire for the neutral,” and that this desire was, at the same time, a desire for a vita nova (“new life”—the eponymous name for the “novel” that he had begun to outline just before he died).

Drawing from his knowledge of Zen Buddhism, his fascination with Rousseau’s far niente (doing nothing), and his memory of a young Moroccan boy sitting on a low wall, I argued that Barthes imagined the neutral (and mourning) as a scene of just sitting, doing nothing. “To be idle, without master, and yes, perhaps even to be without guide (mother), and finally to be able to just sit without equivocation, without profit or debt, sin, prostration, or will-to-possess…something like the neutral sitting of a neutral mourning.”  Drawing further upon the etymology of the Latin word morosus, we can now understand this scene of neutral mourning as a scene of pleasure—of delectatio morosa. “In Italian…morosita means ‘delay’ (particularly in acquitting oneself of a debt or an obligation)…and where the English “moroseness” is rendered by malinconia [“melancholy”]…and in Spanish, where…moroso means ‘lazy'” (Untranslatables, 792).

When mourning is the act of the imagination enjoying its waiting in desire, it is neutral. It is in this way that neutral mourning is neither morbidly morose mourning nor melancholia, but instead is a desire for the neutral and its own form of neutral pleasure.







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]

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