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On 31 May 2019, I participated in a roundtable discussion, structured around the question, “Why Does Art History Matter?” The panel was part of a day-long event organized by several doctoral students in the PhD program in Art History at the University of Toronto (where I hold a graduate faculty appointment). I want to thank Samantha Chang and Brittany Myburgh for the invitation, and for all of their efforts in their organization of a truly impressive, lively, and informative series of discussions.

Below are the comments that I prepared and delivered.

In my brief response to the question that has been posed to us, I will say a few things about why art history matters politically. Today, for obvious and ample reasons, there are calls for a renewal of political imagination. Such a reviving entails not only re-imagining the political, but also understanding the ways in which the imagination itself can be political. This is where art history can play a role and matter, given its commitment to images, the source of which obviously lie—at least to a large extent—in the imagination (i.e. the pure potential to see, to envision, to visually speculate, to invent and to create). But the question then arises: what is the source of the imagination? Answer: the unimaginable (the imagination’s potential to be and not to-be) or: “the imagination with no more images” (as Giorgio Agamben has phrased it in his book Nymphs).

It might sound strange to argue, given its study of images, that art history can matter, and matter politically, to the extent that it attends to the imagination absent (or we might say, “free”) of images. Yet this is exactly the argument I would want to make. I say “would want to” because the time that we’ve been allotted, while justifiably brief, does not allow me to fully elaborate. Nonetheless, allow me to make the following points in summary:
  1. It is difficult to see the world today, not because we are not seeing things, but because we are seeing (or merely “looking at”) too much.
  2. This inundation of images has curtailed the possibility, the capacity, and the reach of the imagination—political, artistic and other wise.
  3. Just as much as the imagination itself cannot be seen, but is instead the source of imaginative vision, it needs to retain its potential to not-see/not-image, as much as its potential to see and to render images.
  4. In other words, the imagination must retain its source in the unimaginable, which is its power to operate free from prescribed or pre-given images. Therein lies what is not yet imagined, and the possibility of imagining things differently.
  5. But that not-yet and that possibility only remain viable to the extent that the seeable—the capacity or potential to see—does not only move in the direction of the seen (including in the form of visible images—art history’s ostensible domain), but also when the seeable can shift to the unseeable.
  6. The power of the imagination lies in that slide from the seeable to the unseeable, as much as in the move from the seeable to the seen.
  7. For art history to matter, it cannot devote itself only to the visible and the image, but must also preserve (returning now to Agamben) the non-reified and in-appropriable space of the imagination. A space that is only imaginable as being without images, thanks to the seemingly endless proliferation of works of art, each of which in its singularity exemplifies the lack of art historical closure, and thereby testifies to the sense that not everything has been seen, imaged or imagined.
  8. Just as much as there is no universal principle according to which art history does its work, and just as much as no one particular work is essentially of greater art historical value than any other, there is also no final art historical example. Art history matters—including politically—in its understanding of this lack of universality, sovereign exceptionality, and determined finality.

For the annual conference of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (SLSA), held in Toronto in November 2018, art historian Hannah Higgins organized a two-panel session, titled “Fluxed Body Parts in 5’40”.

Each of us 21 panelists were asked to prepare a presentation on a particular body part of our choosing. However, we were all limited to twenty slides, and our accompanying comments were limited to twenty seconds. 20 slides @ 20 seconds each = a five minute and 40 second presentation.

Inspired by the practices of Fluxus, but extending to a wide variety of other performative and conceptual models and modes, the presentations were some of the most animated that I have ever encountered at an academic conference. Participants and audience members agreed that the session was one of the most exciting, generative and memorable they had ever experienced.

Below is my presentation on “Anus.” It consists of 20 images, with each image accompanied by a short text that I read in 20 seconds, before the next slide image was automatically advanced. I had never used this format before, but I am now convinced that it deserves to be transported into any number of other settings, including the classroom, perhaps as a way for students to structure their in-class art history or visual culture presentations.

Bataille, L'Anus Solaire (book cover)

1. The anus is the most sovereign part of the body. The conviction of this insight belongs—first and foremost—to Georges Bataille who, in various publications from the late-1920s and early-1930s, including “The Solar Anus”of 1927, defined the butthole’s sovereignty in terms of it being a site of erotic, excessive, and useless expenditure. In other words, for Bataille, it was part of a general, as opposed to a restricted, economy.
Etymology of SOVEREIGN 
Adjective
*superānus (feminine *superāna, neuter *superānum); first/second declension (Vulgar Latin) sovereign, chief
2. Etymologically, anus as the Latin word for “ring” is present in the word sovereign, as the latter word also traces the resonance of ring and reign, such that, that which is sovereign is that which bears the ring or crown—the one who therefore reigns supreme. By the way, it is from super-anus that we also derive the word “soprano.”
Volaire, Vesuvius
3. Bataille is widely known as the philosopher of hyperbolic transgression, and in the context of my presentation, of an especially flaming excremental explosiveness, in which the volcano-ass/ass-volcano, that is: the volcanus, is one vision of excess that at this time, he names the Jesuve (a portmanteau that has been understood to be a combination of Je + Jesus + Vesuvius).
Hamilton, Slip It To Me
4. But I am interested in a quieter, slower and more subtle Bataille, while still remaining right at and around the ring or rim of the anus. This is the Bataille who regularly resorts to the language of slippage (glissement), and thus suggests the movement of an inadvertent sliding or slipping in, as opposed to a violent penetrating or thrusting.
Macaquinhos (color)
5. This is what the ring of bodies perform in Veloso, Caio and Dallas’ Macaquinhos (little monkeys). Their asses? Yes, but this word is also the slang for a woman who prefers anal over vaginal sex. For the Brazilian artists, the anus is the southern hemisphere of the body, and has the potential to function as its own democratic and collectivizing site, and as the opening of de-colonizing explorations of bodies, desires, anxieties, privacy and exposure.
glisser
glissant
glissement 
glissade 
glissando 
glisten 
6. Glisser (French: to slip) is one of a number of gl- words: glissant (French: slippery), glissement (slippage), glissade (a joining step in ballet), glissando (slide upwards or downward between musical notes), glisten (wet shine).
Derrida, GLAS (book cover)
7. Such glottal resonances were mined by Jacques Derrida in his book, Glas: the title of which refers to the knell or ring of the bell. As Naomi Waltham-Smith has recently theorized, this might be heard as the rhythmic sounds of the bio-political, and its own sovereign exceptions over bodies and pleasures; over the decision as to who lives and who dies.
Higgins, Glass Lass
8. Gl- is also the sound that we repeatedly hear and utter in Dick Higgins’ poem, Glass Lass, in which, in the iterative enunciation of those two words, we continuously hear and speak, as though from the depths of the text, the echo of ass—its own anal glossolalia.
Photo of Freud (gold eyeglasses)
9. Of course, it was Freud, in “Character and Anal Eroticism,” who drew a distinction between “anal” as character trait and what we can understand as the regimented ordering of obsessive-compulsive anality, as opposed to the de-sublimating libidinal energy of anal eroticism.
Fluxus Year Box 2 1967
10. What I want to suggest is that in the particular ordering produced by its partitioned (Year= Annus) boxes, and in the de-limited uses of the objects contained therein, Fluxus uniquely combined these two seemingly opposed traits, so as to achieve an aesthetic that is structure and play, at once.
Miller, Orifice Flux Plugs (box)
11. For the topic of anus, Larry MIller’s Orifice Flux Plugs (from 1974) is a quintessential example of this remarkable tension, in which a variety of a body’s orifices are all understood to be anatomical structures of flux, and no one plug is necessarily prescribed to fit into only one corporeal opening. As Leo Bersani notes: Freud implicitly argues that anal eroticism is indifferent to objects and the activities by which it is satisfied. Fluxus provides us with an artistic corollary of this object-based indifference, yet one that does not necessarily result in aesthetic—or erotic—dissatisfaction with non-completion.
Miller, Orifice Flux Plugs (label)
12. The label for Miller’s box features an illustration of a forefinger slipping into an anus, and thereby might be understood as the provided instructions for how to use the box, in which one slips a finger or two into any one of its compartments, as though each were its own anal cavity, and there find a plug and a means to play.
Maciunas (name)
13. As a portrait of George Maciunas, Miller’s box seems more than an appropriate object, not only because it is meant to correspond to Maciunas’ obsessions with the body’s erotogenic zones, but also because, on second glance (another gl- word), one notices that the last four letters of Maciunas’ last name, anagrammatically read as “anus.”
Maciunas Drawing for Miller's Orifice Flux Plugs
14. Maciunas drew this chart or table for Miller’s Orifice Flux Plugs, and in the three-columned row at the bottom labelled “ass,” listed: tampons, syringe, candle (repeated twice), rubber tube, suppository (mis-spelled) and condom. I have yet to decipher the logic that underlies this three-part division of the table.
Vautier, Flux Holes, 1964
15. With Ben Vautier’s Flux Holes, we are led to understand that flux equates with holes and holes with flux. Hence if any anus hole can be the site of flux, then there is an inextricable between flux and anus, and hence between anus and Fluxus. For Fluxus, the anus is sovereign, because the sovereignty of the anal drive lies in its mobility, its instability, its promiscuity—including its deviation from this drive as source and anus as site.
Leiderstam, Shepherds (first name vases)
16. This is even the case for gay men, yet importantly in ways that, as Leo Bersani argued in his classic essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” the anus is the site of a divestment of self and the burial of ego-investments. Those investments include identity, yet perhaps not necessarily naming, as evidenced in Matts Leiderstam’s series of ceramic vases with anal puckers where there otherwise would be openings. A range of colours indexing different skin tones, the vases, in their respective titles, bear the first-name anonymity of cruising.
ButtBlanc (anal bleaching cream)
17. This, opposite the recent trend in porno-cosmetic-aesthetics of anal bleaching, in which the skin around the ring of the anus is lightened in colour. How racist are you, when even your butthole must be white?
Larry Johnson, Donkey (2007)
18. With Larry Johnson’s Donkey, we have an image of how the anus can be the site of pleasurable erasure or, returning to Bataille, of useless erotic expenditure and the sovereign dissolution and passionate abandonment of self, subject, and the more familiar sovereignty of his majesty the ego. Of course with that, I arrive at the issue of our current political Annus Mirabilis—actually the past two years—and that relentlessly inescapable image of autocratic sovereignty. Not the sweet little pucker that I have been toying with, but the lips of this big asshole motherfucker.
Trump's Mouth
19. The ironic twist: Trump is the incarnation of anality that, in its combination of unrestrained sexuality and its brutal repression, operates as the mythical promotion (i.e. sublimation in the form of populist nationalism) of a fantasy of massive destruction in the form of radical reparation (“make America great again”). As Bersani concludes: “The anal character trait is anal sexuality negativized, a negativizing that—as in the case of individual and social compulsions of order—can present itself as a reparation, indeed almost as an atonement for a defiling explosiveness” (“Erotic Assumptions,” in Culture of Redemption, 46).
Delvoye, Anal Kiss
20. With his series of Anal Kiss prints from 2011, it is as though artist Wim Delvoye, had a premonition of the rise of these lipstick traces smacked in hotel rooms across the country as this asshole goes from rally and rally, and around the world as he kisses the asses of tyrants and dictators. It is our own Rorschach, testing our ability to perceive the subtle as well as the more bombastic forms and forces of sovereignty. For as Bataille noted immediately after WWII: “From the outset, the sovereign operation presents a difficulty so great, that one has to look for it in a slipping” (“Method of Meditation,” 1947).

Below are my opening remarks (slightly revised) to a day-long series of conversations with four of our most interesting novelists writing on sex today: Justin Torres, Jamie Quatro, Eimear McBride, and Garth Greenwell. The event took place at the University of Toronto, on September 22, 2018.

 

In Jamie Quatro’s novel, Fire Sermon, the main character and narrator Maggie, writes and sends an email to the poet James K. Abbott. Provoked by her admiration of his new collection of poems, she takes it upon herself to write to Abbott, even though they don’t know each other personally. She has however, come to know him, we might say, impersonally, that is, as a reader. This relation between the personal and the impersonal, the autobiographical and the fictional will be one of the topics of discussion today. But the other reason why I make mention of Maggie’s email, is because I wrote and sent out similar emails several months ago (in one case, a couple of years ago), to four authors, and like Maggie, I was provoked by the simple fact that I admire their work so much and wanted them to know that.

In writing to them, as a fan, I also was inviting each of them to come to Toronto, with the idea that not only would they read and discuss their work individually and separately, but that they would also have a conversation together, one that would focus on sex and sexuality, desire and intimacy, kinship, violence, writing and storytelling. While they are fully aware of each other’s work, in some cases having endorsed each other’s books—and at least on one or two occasions that I am aware of, were paired together at a public literary event—Toronto is the first time that all four appear together on the same stage at the same time.

I cannot convey how grateful I am that Justin Torres, Eimear McBride, Jamie Quatro and Garth Greenwell, were interested in such an event, and indeed that all of them unhesitatingly responded positively and enthusiastically to my invitation. It is, at the same time, nothing short of a miracle, I think, that all four of them were available on the same weekend. It is an absolute pleasure, distinct honour and personal thrill to have them here today, for what promises to be a unique and memorable series of conversations on sex and the contemporary novel.

In retrospect, thinking back to the genesis of this event, one of the things that I find most telling, is a complete inability to recall exactly which of the four authors I discovered first. Which book did I encounter first, and in what order did I then go about reading the others. The sheer force of their impression on me has been so great, that I can only describe it as something of a concentrated burst or unabated flood that occurred sometime in the past two or three years. This sense of an acute chronology of reading has not left me, even though I am well aware, based upon publication dates and the good fortune of being able to read these novels almost immediately after they came out, that Justin Torres’  We the Animals, is the earliest to have appeared (in 2011) and Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, is the most recent (it came out at the beginning of this year).

At the same time, in describing them as a group of authors that I cannot think apart from each other, I am not suggesting that their work has in any way lost its singular distinctiveness for me, or that I am in any way interested in christening a new school or literary sub-genre, under which the four authors would be branded, as though circumscribed by some sheer legibility of a certain marketability.

In addition to inviting four of my most favourite contemporary literary authors, I have also used this event as an occasion to pair each of these authors with a reader (each of whom is also a writer), all of whom I also greatly admire.  Precisely for the ways in which they move through texts, and the insights that I have gained from their singular reading practices. So, this afternoon, I also welcome Luis Jacob, Fan Wu, Mahité Breton and Chaya Litvack, each of whom shares a set of affinities with the author with whom they are paired.

In the overall spirit of wanting to keep this afternoon’s conversations as open, un-scripted and expansive as possible, I have invited each of the interlocutors to pursue their own path, and to allow the conversation to reflect their own particular engagement with the books, based not only upon the thematic of today’s event, but their own inclinations, proclivities, and commitments. All of the conversations that will unfold today will be the result of nearly first-time in-person encounters. Some based upon a extended familiarity with the author and their work, while in other cases, occasioned by the invitation to participate here today.

Here is how the day’s program will run. There will be four consecutive conversations between invited writer and reader, during which the authors might read from their works, and at the end of which there will be an opportunity for you, members of the audience, to ask questions. Ushers will have microphones, which we ask you to use so that everyone in the theatre can hear your question, and so that we can capture your voice on the video recording. We ask that you keep your questions as brief as possible, and that they take the form of an actual question. We have reserved close to an hour for each session, and between each conversation there will be a very short break, in order to facilitate set-up of microphones, switch out water glasses, and take a quick bathroom break. Washrooms are located downstairs, and we remind you that drinking and eating in the theatre proper are not allowed.

At 5:00PM, following the fourth and last one-on-one conversation, all four authors will gather together on stage for a final 1-hour conversation that I will moderate.  This will be an opportunity to discuss issues and to ask questions that in various ways extend across their respective works. After that, at 6PM, there will be a modest reception in the lobby, right outside the theatre, where the authors will be signing books—copies of which are available for purchase in the lobby.


I have organized this event as part of my SSHRC-funded 4-year research project on “The Risks and Pleasures of Bodily Abandonment and Freedom,” of which one component is a working group on “Sex, Ethics and Publics.” With this project, now in its fourth year, I have sought to bring together academics and non-academics in order to think about the relations between sex, ethics and publics, including in public forums such as today’s event. The conviction upon which the research project and the working group are based, is that the political begins in intimacy, and that the aesthetic (i.e. art, literature, etc.) plays a vital role in the conceptualization and imagination of this inauguration. Indeed, I argue that the aesthetic is a principal staging of the scene of intimacy, of which sex is one principal manifestation.

This afternoon is an opportunity to delve deep into the work of four of the most exciting authors writing in remarkably original, provocative, moving, and challenging ways about sex. As such, it is also an opportunity to think and talk about ways in which the contemporary novel is a critical component in the ongoing grappling with such questions as: “how do we talk about sex?” How do we tell stories about the sex that we have, want to have, wish we didn’t have, and, at times, wish we didn’t have to talk about?

Given recent events, it is undeniable that at this particular moment, the need and desire to put sex into words has proven to be as difficult as it has ever been. While sex talk need not always take a narrative form, literary narration—as in the form of the novel and the short story (but not limited to those genres)—can function not only as a zone of translation between sex and language, but more importantly, it can tell stories about the limits of sex, the limits of language, and the limits of their mutual rapport. The latter of which is its own form of intimacy, often structured as an impasse. Yet at times that impasse can prove to be its own form of passage, and even something of a way out.

One of the things that drew me into the work of each of our authors, and has kept me tethered to them, is the way in which each affirms the degree to which intimacy is inseparable from separation. That is, the way in which erotic and sexual—but also social, literary—forms of intimacy are not the overcoming of prior relational separation, but instead is the sustaining of that very space of separation. Each of these authors reminds us that intimacy is an intimate rapport with separation, and thus with that which exceeds the couple or even the group-form, the inter-subjective, the private, the domestic and the personal. Which also means that in intimacy, one is in rapport with what of the other remains impersonal and anonymous. It is here that we can begin to outline an ethical sense of intimacy, one that was aptly phrased by Tim Dean as the final sentence of book, Unlimited Intimacy, when he asked, “Why should strangers not be lovers and yet [still] remain strangers?”

At this particular historical moment, and in light of the social-media saturated environments that we are bound to inhabit, it is increasingly important to resist the data-colonization of the deepest recesses, but also the most exposed surfaces, that constitute the intimate dimensions of our lives.

When the anonymous stranger that I am invoking here has been reduced to an utterly formulaic identity and the algorithmic profile, and when the clandestine is on the verge of extinction through various processes of gentrification, and social-sexual imperceptibilities are rendered as marketable data, we desperately need fiction, poetry and art, precisely because they are places where we can continue to imagine the pleasurable mis-alignment of social subjects and encounters in passing, as scenes of intimacy.

As recently pointed out by Amia Srinivasan (“Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” London Review of Books, 22 March 2018)—and similar to the point I made earlier about the untranslatability of sex and the erotic pleasure—the care and use of bodies is not a transactional affair, as though following in the norms of capitalist free exchange (the less queer meaning of “trade”). For that way goes a contractual and liberal consensual model of intimacy (and sociality more broadly), that does not pay attention to the conditions that give rise to desires, attractions, impulses, aversions and yearnings. What Justin Torres, Eimear McBride, Jamie Quatro and Garth Greenwell all attend to in their own entirely distinct and unforgettable novels, is the very formation of sexual desire—the social and ethical, economic, spatial and aesthetic forces that shape their protagonists as the sexual subjects that they are.

In other words, for all of the many ways in which one’s sexual taste is utterly unique, it is also political. In reading them, I find sex de-personalized all the while the specificity of taste is not lost. Where the political conditions of sex and how it tastes are implicit, yet without ever falling into either a naive notion of liberal equality or authoritarian moralism. In these stories, the dynamics of sex (power, decision, attraction, repulsion) are rarely anything other than asymmetrical and opaque, and yet this is also precisely where not knowing the limits of the object of pleasure is accompanied by an unparalleled enjoying in the very non-knowledge of this pleasure.

Below are my opening remarks (slightly revised) for a panel on “Queer Artists of Colour in NYC during the AIDS Epidemic,” at the College Art Association (CAA) conference, held in NYC on February 13th, 2019.

Two years ago, when the CAA conference was last held here in New York, I dedicated my paper presentation to Jann Marson and Amy Bingaman. Two friends: one a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Toronto where I teach, the other a grad school classmate while we were at the University of Chicago. Both had died in the past year: so young and smart and full of warmth, humor, and generosity. On that occasion I was part of a panel on Queer Art History, chaired by my friend, the young art historian and curator, Robert Summers. This past summer, Robert suddenly passed away. I received word just days after we had exchanged emails, in which we celebrated the acceptance of our respective CAA panel proposals for this year’s conference. In his email and in his customary way, Robert said: “we fucking better have drinks in NYC!” Well here’s to you Robert! I raise a glass in honour of your memory, and on the panel that you had envisioned.

When I heard of Robert’s death, I immediately knew that this panel must be convened. I wrote to Hunter O’Hanlan [Executive Director of CAA], who unhesitatingly supported the idea and made the necessary arrangements so that we could go forward. Robert was a dear friend and I will always admire his curating and writing, most especially in foregrounding the sex and sexiness, and the unapologetic in-your-face protest of contemporary queer and feminist art. This work included Robert’s founding of the not-for-profit Queer Art Network, in 2016, along with a particularly longstanding and special devotion to the work of Vaginal Davis. To all of his work in queer art history, Robert brought a degree of irreverence, wit, passion and fearlessness that will be missed by so many of us, including each time we gather at the CAA conference. I wish he were still here. I wish I didn’t have to serve as Chair Designate. I just wanted to see him up here, once again. Let’s give him the session that he wanted.

I will keep my remaining comments brief but allow me to say just a few things—axiomatic, no doubt—by way of introduction. AIDS cannot be thought outside of racism, and racism cannot be thought separate and apart from AIDS and all other manifestations of the biopolitical and necropolitical. The ways in which AIDS was racialized in New York City during the AIDS epidemic (and continues to be, right up to the present moment), is different from the ways in which it has been racialized say, in South Africa or other parts of the world. Indeed, between Manhattan and the Bronx, or even between upper and lower Manhattan, East Side or West Side, one must realize and contend with the essential multiplicity and heterogeneity that is the convergence of race, ethnicity, geography, art and AIDS. Which is also to say that it is impossible to designate and to know where each term in the title of our session begins and ends as a topic and object of inquiry (as well as a lived reality). Whether this be in terms of queer (vis-à-vis the history of LGBTQ politics), artists and art (the “who” and “what”), race and ethnicity (“of colour”), New York (i.e. the city); AIDS, and Epidemic.

In turn, if we do not attend to the irrecuperable losses, and the very real disappearances in the history of AIDS—the inescapability of these losses and disappearances—then our stories, and any possible understanding that they might lead to, will be compromised. To the precise extent that they will be limited to what has been preserved and remembered, or that goes without saying—business as usual. To learn how to die collectively: this is one of the lessons that AIDS, and most importantly the artistic and activist work that has occurred in response, bestows to us. Memories and histories that always will be incomplete in the midst of a pandemic that is far from over. This is about an essential inconsolability, but also of what William Haver has described as “the ultimately unspeakable radical historicity and sociality of erotic existentiality” (Foreword to Ricco, The Logic of the Lure, xi).

We are honoured today to have three speakers, each of whom brings to the discussion a unique perspective: historical and poetic, artistic and critical, autobiographical and impersonal. Yet no less embodied, and no less a part of a history that we share, even as we continue to figure out how that sharing might happen. Something like what Robert Reid-Pharr has simply and aptly described as the ethics of our remembrance.

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