Collective Afterlife of Things
[Long Read] Full Transcript of Interview on “The Collective Afterlife of Things”
Interview with John Paul Ricco on The Collective Afterlife of Things
In July 2019, Sarah Pereux, an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, interviewed me about one of my current research projects and advanced undergraduate seminars: “the collective afterlife of things.” Below is a slightly edited version of the transcript of our conversation, in which we discuss art, extinction, capitalism, and ecology. The published version appears in FORGING, the sixth and final broadsheet by Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK)—Issue 06: FORGING available in print and online.
We need to understand global financial capitalism as an ecological force of extinction.
What began and continues to fuel your interest in this topic?
JPR: There are a number of things that motivated this interest and they are of a variety that corresponds with the diverse and multifaceted nature of the problem that I am trying to address. It’s not one single thing that brings me to this project, and this is because what I refer to as “The Collective Afterlife of Things” is, itself, not one dimensional but concerns a complex configuration of issues pertaining exactly to those points where art, aesthetics and eco-ethics; and the inanimate and extinction, might converge. One source has been my ongoing interest in the relationship between art and finitude; art and ends; finality, disappearance, withdrawal, and absence. This is sometimes thought to be a negative aesthetics, although I don’t think about it as negative in any conventional or definitive sense. Rather, my work over the last 30 years has been dedicated to thinking about the relationship between art and loss, and how art can be a means of contending with that loss, but in ways that are not redemptive or mitigating, or part of some sort of reclamation project. Meaning, a conception of art as that which is not trying to preserve and retain what has been lost, but instead is a means of staging, affirming and underlining the fact that something has been lost.
SP: So, it’s not about fixing it, but about recognizing that loss.
JPR: That’s right. And how does art, film, literature, poetry, etc. understand and present loss as precisely that which cannot be presented? In a sense, it’s about how art can be faithful to loss by allowing loss to be lost and not regained or recuperated.
For instance, in the mid-90s, I did a curatorial project called Disappeared, that was about art and AIDS. It was an exhibition that brought together eight (or maybe more) contemporary artists whose work, each in its own way, was attesting to death and disappearance caused by AIDS, yet in ways that weren’t recuperative. The art wasn’t representational, and it wasn’t memorializing in the conventional ways in which memorial happens. Instead, the art in the exhibition was confronting us with the physical, visual, perceptual, and architectural materiality of that disappearance.
So, I developed this notion of disappeared aesthetics, as a way in which art and aesthetics can speak to this fact. But this is not necessarily unique, it is something that I am also learning from 20th-century continental philosophy and 20th-century art history, in which a number of different thinkers and artists have themselves— even prior to this history that I am engaging with—tried to think about writing absence, writing what cannot be written. In the work of Maurice Blanchot for instance, it’s what he calls “the writing of the disaster.” So, you can see how, in a way, one can update the work of my predecessors and my own work from over 20 years ago, and connect it to our current context and issues of climate change, global warming, environmental devastation and the kind of disasters we are contending with today. And yet still ask the question of what is the place of art in that context, what does it enable us to do? So, part of the answer to the question of what began and continues to fuel my interest in this project, is this longstanding question about the relationship between art and death, art and finitude.
The seminar course is not an introduction to art, art history, and ecology. It is not an introduction to eco-aesthetics or anything like that. It works across those fields and domains but in a very specific way. The course is putting forth an argument about art and extinction. It’s my argument, it represents my particular theoretical and critical take on the relation between art and extinction. You might say that the course is biased because it is so particular in its focus and argument. The course introduces you not to these broad fields, but over the course of twelve weeks it introduces you to the major points of the argument. In a way, the argument is divided into twelve parts, and it doesn’t come together till the end. This is how I often teach advanced-level seminars. The course then, is putting forth an argument and it takes you through that argument step by step. Yet it still keeps open the opportunity for everyone involved to critically question and grapple with the argument and to find their own path.
SP: Well that’s great for your own research as well.
JPR: Yes, exactly. My intention is that over the twelve weeks of the course this fall term, I can write the first draft of the book on The Collective Afterlife of Things. This is the third time I am teaching the course.
SP: Does it change every time you teach it?
JPR: Oh yes. It is constantly being revised and adjusted. Things drop and other things are added based on new work that has been coming out and new turns of events. It’s surprising the number of great changes that have happened since the first time I taught the course two years ago in terms of ecology and the environment. And the course tries to respond to those things.
Your research uses the term “things” in a very broad sense. Can you define what you mean by “things”? And, why is thinking through these “things” useful for analyzing our current issues?
JPR: Within this context, the term “things,” is deliberately being used in place of image, object, even subject. I would say in its definitional and referential sense, “things” encompass material and physical objects, but subjects can also be things when they are seen or used or cared for in certain ways. In this regard bodies are things, they are corporeal things, but there are also incorporeal things. These incorporeals are no less real or affective than corporeal things.
SP: Can you define incorporeal?
JPR: Incorporeal is that which does not pertain exactly to the corporeal, that is, to the physical or bodily, but still has an intimate and inextricable relationship to the corporeal and the bodily. This could be something like a sense or sensation where it’s not so easy to locate it in the physical corporal body, yet it is something that the body has a relationship to, can be affected by it, and so forth. There are other ways of thinking about incorporeals, such as concepts or even words. “Things” that don’t take on a physical corporeal body, but still exist in a relationship to such things. Thinking in this way is just an attempt to open up to a more expansive notion of things, that is not necessarily simply reducible to objects.
Objects are a particular kind of thing, but I am trying to say that there are many different kinds of things. Descartes famously divided things into things that are thinking, he called them in the Latin phrase, res cogitans—things that think. And things that are extended spatially, he called them res-extensa. So, the thinking thing and the extended thing. And since then, continental philosophy has been interested in complicating this distinction and rendering a less definitive and stable relation between thinking things and extended things, and part of that has to do with an attention to the way in which the thinking thing is also an extended thing. The famous Cartesian mind-body split has been problematized, in which thinking things are understood to be extended things. And maybe extended things, even if they are or aren’t thinking things (a stone or tree) might still have other means of communicating or having a rapport with the world. These are age-old philosophical questions about what is living and what is not, what has a world and what doesn’t, and what is the difference between the animate and the inanimate.
This becomes really important in the context of my project and our discussion, because we are needing to think beyond the nature-culture divide and to think ecologically about relations between the organic and the inorganic, the animate and the inanimate, the human and the animal, the geologic and the fleshy. In my work, and in the work of so many others, the thinking thing is always an extended thing, and our attention to extended things liberates us from an overly anthropocentric or anthropomorphic perspective.
There are natural things, there are artificial things, there are technological things and technological things often make it difficult to distinguish between the natural and the artificial. Sometimes that’s what the technological thing is meant to do: to blur that distinction between the natural and the artificial. There are conceptual things, there are linguistic things, visual and invisible things. And as contemporary physics tells us, there are things that we can see but do not know, and there are things that we know but have not yet acquired the means to see. I’m thinking about, for instance, in astrophysics, the understanding of dark matter as that which probably constitutes the majority of the universe. We are able to name it, but we haven’t been able to see it, it may not even be matter, but it’s something with which the universe is largely constituted. But we do know of it based on what does exist, in the way that we know that there is a lot other stuff beyond what we do know and can measure, and physicists call this other stuff dark matter. I’m interested in this.
SP: This idea of expansion is an interesting way of thinking. And thinking through these things and changing our way of just limiting what we think they are, you are learning to think about things differently and to see the world differently.
JPR: That’s right. If you are saying that there is an interest in working at the limits of knowledge and vision. Working at the limits of definitions and concepts, that’s certainly what we are talking about here. That’s what it means to advance knowledge and understanding. That’s what I think it means for thinking to operate at the limits of intelligibility. This is not easy, it’s its own kind of rigorous exercise. And so as students being called upon to do that—which I think is absolutely the project, the purpose of being a student—you are being pushed to really think beyond the conventional or typical ways of framing things, and to think about things maybe even beyond a certain problematizing, a certain familiar problematizing of those things. It’s even further than that, it’s really pushing at the limits.
So the point here is that if we are taking what we call an expanded perspective—which is not as Donna Haraway (an important theorist in the field of science studies and feminist ecology), will say, definitely not the god trick, the omniscient transcendent point of view—when we are talking about an expansive field of perception, we are talking about a more eco-cosmological approach. In that sense, in such an eco-cosmological approach, the human, life, and bios are only a tiny fraction of what constitutes the eco-cosmos. Therefore, these things should not be able to determine our thinking and engagement with the world. This is always a humbling affect when it comes to the eco-cosmological. A perspective that says, first, “it’s not all about you,” and second “get over yourself because there’s a lot more going on out there” and third, “you will never really know or be able to grasp it all, and yet you still have to contend with that realization as a person and as a thinker.”
The concept of legacy can influence how we act and think about the future, in order to feel like we are marking our presence within this world. When discussing topics of extinction and “endings,” what role does legacy play within your course? How do you approach thinking about individual or personal histories?
JPR: This is really important. I take legacy to mean the ongoing effects, values, and importance accorded to one’s words and deeds by others and for others in the future. Beyond one’s own life and death. That’s legacy. But with the notion of legacy may also come the notion of immortality. That is, of the ways those same words and deeds that we are talking about, can survive our mortal selves and thereby transcend our existential finitude, the fact that as beings we have an end. Which we refer to as death. Beyond that it’s hard to say.
In fact, thus far we know of no existent that in its being exists eternality; that is not finite but infinite and not just infinite, but eternal. In this exercise of conjuring up what such a thing could be, civilizations have come up with figures and names such as “god” as that something or someone that transcends finitude, time, and space. But everything else that (really) exists has such an intimate, irreducible, irretractable, and unavoidable tie or relation to finitude, and to an end. This is why when we are thinking politically, ethically and aesthetically, some of us might want (and this returns to the opening of our conversation) to think about that relationship to ends and disappearances. Because if finitude is what defines being, then it’s fundamental—we say it is ontological. In that regard, finitude is not something we can avoid or think we can overcome.
We can then take this further and talk about extinction, and the way in which, ultimately, those existents can then be grouped collectively. Whether we are talking about bacteria, dinosaurs, or the human, all will eventually become extinct. We know of those existents that have, and we can assume that every other thing that exists will become extinct at some point. What I’m interested in exploring in my work, is the fundamental connection between extinction and existing. To tie those together, because I believe they are inextricably—ontologically—tied together.
SP: I guess that brings up a different feeling of loss. A loss of the idea of leaving a personal history behind or somehow accepting that once you’re gone your gone.
JPR: Yes, there is a sense of your own mortality. And out of that comes an interest in one’s legacy, in that which transcends one’s mortality and might render one immortal. In that way, art has been thought of as being a means in which the subject, the artist, can render him or herself immortal. That is, by artists making things that will transcend their death and that might continue to be considered valued, that will be preserved, collected, looked at, and thought about, far beyond the artists’ lifetimes and their deaths.
On top of that, we might introduce the moral philosopher Samuel Scheffler’s thesis about the collective afterlife, and this is what first inspired my notion about the collective afterlife of things. Scheffler a few years ago gave a series of honorary lectures that he titled “Death and the Afterlife.” It seems today that there is a lack of confidence or a lack of assurance, on the part of many people about the long-term survival of humanity. One might argue that this is an historically unprecedented phenomenon. Even if we can think back historically to various other apocalyptic visions, there is something unique about this one, because it is not just anthropocentric, it is ecological. It pertains to the relationship between the human and the environment. This relates to Scheffler’s interest in the moral and ethical stakes that would accompany the absence of this lack of confidence in the long-term future of humanity. His proposition is that human beings act in moral and ethical ways and pursue many projects that are tied to and emerge from this shared commitment to each other, based on a deep and unquestioned sense or belief in the long-term existence and survival of humanity for millennia to come. What he is saying is that even though conventionally we think we are much more concerned with the afterlife of ourselves and our friends and family, what actually guides our ethical and moral actions is some implicit sense that we carry with us: that there will be humans for a very long time. He says, take that away, and moral purpose might go with it.
SP: Well that changes how you will live your life.
JPR. Yes. and there’s a distinct possibility that we will also be without one of the principle perspectives that informs and shapes and guides our ethical commitments. He will ask, for instance, if you are an artist and you know that in 30 years there will be no more humans would you continue making art?
SP: I would.
JPR. The question would become what kindof art would you make and what would motivateyou? If you know that no one would be around to see it, thirty or more years from now. These then become questions that inform the seminar and the courses’ interest in art and artistic practice in the midst of what is called the sixth extinction. So how would art respond to this “no future” thesis? What would it do if there is no longer a sense of the long-term future of humanity—and I think this is less of an ifthese days, and more of a question of when. What role will art play? That is, of course, if you say “yes” to the prospect of still doing something, and do not throw your hands up in the air and give up. This is what the course and this project is asking. How can art contend with that lack or absence of confidence in the long-term future of humanity and many other species, when it seems as though the history of art has been predicated upon that very sense of futurity?
How can art contend with that lack or absence of confidence in the long-term future of humanity and many other species, when it seems as though the history of art has been predicated upon that very sense of futurity?
SP: I think there wouldbe an interesting shift from making art for others to making art for yourself. You would be left with confronting yourself.
JPR: The answer that many people will have is that “I will continue to do things, but they will be for my own sake”. The question then becomes: does this lead to a notion of art for art’s sake? Or art that is very personal. Maybe. I’m not going to advocate for that, but that could be one possible response.
SP: Well it will shift the role of art as a way of thinking about the world and responding to social and political events. And its role of sending a message. Art has an active part in the community.
JPR. That’s what we are asking, what role will it have in these circumstances.
SP: It can be anything.
JPR: One of the frames we will use to think about this, is in terms of terminality—the condition in which something is understood to be terminal. In the seminar, we will read a wonderful essay by Sarah Ensor on terminality, which we take terminality to mean the prognosis (we can use medical language here), the prognosis of an end or of impending death. But there is almost always no way to go any further or to be more definitive as to when that end is going to come. We know that when it comes to certain forms of terminal cancer and so forth, someone is given a diagnosis, “the cancer is terminal you are not going to survive this”—now maybe medicine is advancing and maybe it can predict such things a little more accurately—but there are always cases where someone says “wow I was only given three months to live but I’m still alive a year and a half later.” That’s the terminal phase, that’s the temporality of an existence that occupies the end in an open-ended way, and in a way that is not definitive.
That’s the kind of temporal zone in which we might be inhabiting as a species right now: we don’t know how long this terminal phase is, or what is going to survive it. It’s not a definitive end, as though it is already all over, nor is it a prediction of when the end will actually happen. Instead it is the sense of an ending without anything more definitive than that very sense. Just as in that medical case, the patient does not give up on living, since there is still living to be had, to be done. The same question arises: what does one continue to do with one’s time? Maybe it’s something like the cliché of “live everyday like it’s the last day of your life.” What would be (will be) the legacy of humanity? What would we leave to the world? Do we need to leave works of art? What kind of works of art should those be? That’s what we are asking. We are asking, collectively, how we think about the afterlife. And how do we think about things. Art is a thing. What form of a thing should it take? Does art have to be a material, physical thing? Should we be leaving more stuff around, or what might those remains look like?
How does art, film and literature function as a tool for thinking about the realities of climate shifts, the afterlife, and the apocalypse? Why do unfinished works play an important role in this analysis?
JPR: The unfinished is a key example of this modality of the terminal in which the work itself and one’s engagement with it, one’s partaking in it, is about acknowledging and affirming that terminality. The sense that the work is on the verge of disappearing, unless there is an ongoing engagement for generations. That has always been the case. In fact, one way to define the work of art is as that thing that has been made, and has been considered valuable, and that we want to preserve for generations to come. This distinguishes a work of art from any other thing that we don’t keep or that we throw away. Again, what I am interested in, is how a work of art is operating through the logic of the unfinished. If the work of art has extinction “built into it,” disappearing and thereby operating through withdrawal and retreat and erasure, and the work is calling upon us to keep that it alive, to keep it dying (so to speak), to keep it withdrawing. Perpetually to keep it on the verge of its disappearance.
Here is the perfect example—and again I will refer back to earlier work that informs my current project. Even though his work wasn’t in the Disappearedshow, the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres is a key example of exactly this kind of unfinished and inoperative art. His art operates through an aesthetic logic of withdrawal, that I argue ethically calls for us to decide to participate in that withdrawing. If you know his work, especially the paper stacks and the candy piles, there are a number of sheets of paper or pieces of candy presented in the gallery setting, and someone engaging with the work is given an invitation to take a sheet or a piece. In that participation, the work is disappearing. It is a process of loss. The work stages and enables the performance that an innumerable number of people can participate by taking a piece. One might say, to un-make the work.
We typically understand artists as makers, but through the history of conceptualism there has been the notion that the artist need not be a maker, and this goes back to Duchamp and the ready-made. He didn’t have to make those things, he found them already made, he just had to appropriate them and place them into a different context. So that completely changed the concept of artistic practice. No longer was the artist necessarily a maker of things, but instead could have a conceptual relationship to things, or the work could consist of an encounter to something, a thing, a ready-made.
It was Duchamp who said, “the audience completes the work,” he as the artist does not complete it. What I argue in regard to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work, is that he takes this Duchampian paradigm a bit further, and in a sense says: the audience incompletes the work, they un-finish it, and render it unfinished. That stack of paper and that pile of candy are unfinished, meaning they are not a whole single or permanent thing, these works literally are coming undone. I argue that the finishing of the work lies— in its un-finishing—that we, collectively, are invited to partake in.
This is one way in which I’m thinking about or understanding what it might mean to talk about the work as having extinction built into it. Basically, the work puts you in relationship to the collective afterlife of the work, and the things that constitute it, and in a way that opens itself up to its un-finishing. The fact that it could disappear and the ways in which you’re being put into a relation with that disappearance, here in terms of ordinary things. It makes us think about those everyday mass-produced products that we rely on day to day.
SP: It makes me question what happens to the art when we are extinct, and we cannot participate in either role.
JPR: Exactly. It is asking about what we collectively and individually are leaving behind. Thinking ethically, politically, and ecologically, we should be thinking beyond our individual selves. We should be thinking about the impact we have on others, and that we are always in relationship to others.
SP: It also makes you think about roles. Who gets to fill these roles? Who gets to be the ones who takes the candy and who replenishes it?
JPR: Yes, and I think the hope that through these artistic or aesthetic practices we can become attuned to how these things should not be exclusive to one person or group or type of work. That they call our attention to the very basic and fundamental relationship that we have collectively to things and their afterlives.
SP: It’s kind of interesting how the artist kind of disappears from this relationship altogether.
JPR: That’s right. That has been an interest and a guiding motivation of aesthetic practice since Duchamp, and what Roland Barthes called “the death of the author.” This, against the modern notion of art, in which artistic subjectivity has been treated as the means to understand a work as where the work gets its meaning, its source and its importance. Including the valorisation of the artist and the artistic genius and so forth. But this is also putting into question the notion of the autonomy of the work of art. As that thing that can exist independently, as something that is self-sufficient and self-explanatory, and that finds its meaning in itself. Instead, we are interested in the dismantling of modern aesthetics and the notion of the artist, in order to move toward a notion of something that is not individual—either in terms of the artist or the work—but is collective and that needs constant caretaking and decision-making as to what to do with this thing (this work), and why it continues to matter, and what role it plays in our shared lives going forward.
When confronting the Anthropocene and the effects of climate change, the process of decolonization becomes a large factor when addressing our future. How does your background in queer theory influence how you think about decolonization and the topics of this course?
JPR: Where my work in queer theory meets up with this question of decolonization is in terms of non-appropriating relations to things. If we understand colonization as a process of appropriation in which what is being appropriated is not always territory and land, but often language and mind and hearts, then we have to think about how decolonizing or non-colonizing relations to things are ones that are committed to or that operate through non-appropriation. And what my work in queer theory has been almost entirely interested in, are these non-appropriating relations to people, places, and things—forms or modes of rapport that are not about having, claiming or occupying in any extended or permanent way. With this comes an argument about the pleasure of sustaining the inappropriable. So much of capitalist and consumer society is about finding pleasure in satisfying one’s desire in things that one can own or possess. And I am interested in making a counter argument about how one can derive tremendous pleasure from a relationship to things that cannot be appropriated or that you do not appropriate. That you do not colonize or claim as your own.
Something like cruising for sex and other such hookups—which is much of what my first book Logic of the Lure is about—is an example of how one can be out in the world in such a way that you can have meaningful relations with people, places, and things that do not require laying claim to them permanently. Sometimes what follows from that, is the sense that two or more people can come together and have a meaningful relationship, and yet at the same time that relationship does not have to be sustained indefinitely and can be such an encounter that it doesn’t leave a trace.
We know from an ecological view that the saying “leave no trace” is a guiding principle of being outdoors, but it can also be a way of thinking ethically and politically in everyday practices in which you can move through a space, connect with others, without leaving a trace. Thinking about this in terms of art, art is one practice that relies on making traces. Is there a way that art can also participate in this meaningful collective rapport with people, places and things, yet in ways that it does not claim permeance? Performance art has been committed to this, as well as other art forms that are not about materiality but the immaterial. Conceptual art has bestowed to us some understanding of this.
Further for me, intimacy (my current book project is called “The Intimacy of the Outside”), intimacy is the name for this rapport with the world that does not operate via the will-to-possess. Intimacy is not possession, it is not claiming the other, nor is it even a joint claiming of each other. Intimacy is this rapport with a lack of will-to-possess. This would be a rapport with the world, and with the Outside as something that is inappropriable, something that cannot be appropriated by oneself, or by the other, or by any group.
Intimacy is not possession, it is not claiming the other, nor is it even a joint claiming of each other. Intimacy is this rapport with a lack of will-to-possess. This would be a rapport with the world, and with the Outside as something that is inappropriable, something that cannot be appropriated by oneself, or by the other, or by any group.
SP: I’m trying to tie this to thinking about the future. And how we cannot possess things but that we can no longer possess the future.
JPR: Well I think that ties into your next question.
Using the word “collective” suggests a shared understanding of the future, or a shared future reality. But when we talk about “our” future, who are we talking about? How can we account for difference and experiences of oppression or marginalization in imagining a collective future?
JPR: One way of thinking about this collective sense of futurity would be based upon a collective and fundamental sense of uncertainty and inappropriability of the future. That is not exactly how things work or are thought about these days, but that doesn’t mean that that sense of uncertainty and inappropriability doesn’t exist.
This sense is there, but it is suppressed because people might otherwise be frightful or fearful of that uncertainty. This is where faith or belief or a religious type of afterlife might come into play. That you even need to appropriate that which has yet to come. It doesn’t even exist yet, and you are already laying claim to it. That’s the appropriation of the future. What that means is the seizure of what has yet to happen, so you are already closing down the possibility of it happening otherwise, and you are foreclosing the possibility for other life-worlds to be created. This is what capitalism does, it appropriates the future. It’s always ahead, it creates a desire for a certain kind of future, it creates images of that future that motivate people to want that future, and to work towards that. It is happening at a very accelerated rate, and this is sometimes called progress even when it is not.
If there is a shared sense or understanding of the future that is experienced on a collective level it is something like a profound and undeniable sense of uncertainty. I think this is undeniable, even though many people try to deny it. Here I think we return to Samuel Scheffler and his thesis on the collective afterlife. About the confidence that humanity shares in its long-term future. Except that at the moment, and thanks to a number of major shifts that are political, geo-political, ideological and ecological, that sense of confidence has been compromised and sometimes feels like it is entirely absent. In other words: that there is no future. But this doesn’t mean that nothing no longer matters, and that we can resign ourselves to some sort of nihilistic attitude. What I think it means instead is that without such implicit or unquestioned assurance about the future—if we don’t have this—we cannot take the future for granted as though it is pregiven. But instead we need to create it. What I am interested in, is how art, literature, poetry and film can be part of this creation, while not operating with the usual desire for longevity and immortality but instead in terms of its own sense of terminality. Terminality is its own sense of an ending.
We are asking about that zone or space between a future for millennia-to-come and absolute doom. Why are those the only options when thinking about the future? Could there be a more realistic and different way of thinking about futurity? Neither as infinite nor as absolute ending, but as open-ended. Opening the end as the work that we are responsible for. The ethical and political responsibility comes from never losing site of terminality, of that finitude, and that sense that things do disappear and die. How do we contend with that, and how does art respond to that fact? Nothing lasts forever. Extinction is a force that moves through existence.
In terms of the second part of your question, “when we talk about our future, who are we talking about?” this is exactly what I was speaking to a moment ago in terms of an impossible totalization. This is also about a claim of the future. The inappropriable is a way to claim in a way that does not claim. That does not possess or operate with the will to possess the future. Just as the future does not belong to any one person or group, it also cannot be claimed in any imagined collective totality. Both of those are extremely destructive moves. In the name of one or in the name of all, both are exclusionary. Even though the name of all seems to suggest otherwise.
For instance, in thinking about art and even in thinking of one of Felix’s paper stacks or candy piles, I am interested in the way in which the innumerable or that which cannot be counted—the fact that those things characterise the multiplicity of things in the world. I’m interested in the way that they do not add up to some kind of single whole. This is very much a philosophy or politics that is sometimes referred to as the philosophy or politics of difference, but whether or not we use that language, it is certainly about the parts that only exist has parts, that are not part of some greater whole. It severs that relationship between the part and the whole.
The world is made up of parts and there’s no way of bringing all of that together into a single whole. Instead, this is about a parceling of the world, which is not the partitioning of the world, but the affirmation that the world only exists in its parts and singularities. The political question arises as to how this parceling takes place, how are things distributed, and how one can or cannot be allowed to partake in this.We are back to Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his work, which in a way is an allegory of who gets to participate, to take a piece of candy, and who doesn’t. What does it mean to take that candy? What does it mean to appropriate that piece of candy? What does it mean to lay claim to it? What do you do with it once you have it? Why would you take it? Would you take more than one? How does all that taking amongst others…does it ever become something singular or unified? It is an allegory for all the things in the world that people are partaking in and laying claim to.
How then to think collectively about the afterlife of those things and to allow these questions about the afterlife and finitude to inform your very decision to take? What does it mean to participate and how would you do it differently than simply in terms of the will to possess and your will to secure your future? Could there be a way in which you could do things differently, such that the practice of politics and ethics would be one of un-finishing the future?
Could there be a way in which you could do things differently, such that the practice of politics and ethics would be one of un-finishing the future?
SP: If the world is made out of parts, and there is a consciousness of being one of those parts, such that you are thrown into certain political and social parts when thinking about the future, is there a way that you can move parts or exist within multiple parts?
JPR: That’s a real question and it is about movement. For instance, if we start with the premise again of the eco-cosmological and the idea that everything is moving, there is also a natural and a deliberate slowing down or accelerating of things. And with that, comes the stilling, stabilizing and rendering more secure and permanent of things, a real slowing down that’s another way of thinking about appropriation. You appropriate a piece of territory and you now make it difficult for it to continue to be a space of movement, of traffic. That’s what property means, that’s why you build a fence and you say keep out, no trespassing and so forth. But we are all fundamentally trespassers. Systems have been created, such as property relations, in order to negate that fundamental trespassing or intrusion that is in fact, the very movement of existence.
Certainly, at this point in time, we live in a world that is remarkably partitioned and divided. The point has been made by a certain political theorist [Wendy Brown] that, ironically, with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, in the 30 years since, walls have gone up all over the world. And it’s probably no coincidence that at the same time that the world is facing serious issues having to do with the environment thanks to global warming, it is also wrecking itself through the enforcement of borders and the building of walls.I think these things go hand-in-hand and are not a mere historical coincidence. It is a xenophobic, nationalistic response to that uncertainty, to that force of finitude and possible extinction, to the fact that the prospect of the future is not promising. Yet there are ways to respond to that, ethically and politically, that would be about collectively thinking about this afterlife, but that’s not happening right now. What’s happening instead is the proliferation of an attitude in which every person in every country is only out for themselves, and they are going to fight this out. And so, the 1% are doing everything they possibly can to survive this, and they might, but lots of other people will not, and they already are not. As you know, the global migrant and refugee crisis is completely tied to the climate change crisis which is completely tied to the fossil fuel crisis and global war. Therefore, someone like Eyal Weitzman—and we will look at this in the seminar—with his project in forensic architecture, he can map drought, migration, oil and war, globally, and it’s the same line that runs around the globe. It’s a single zone of conflict, displacement, misery and devastation.
SP: It feels as though any of the people who want to live through this new theoretical way of thinking including this idea of non-possession, are surrounded by this way of life that makes it incredibly difficult to do so. And that if you don’t have a great enough of a collective body of people who are willing to live according to this new theoretical practice, change is not going to happen. How do you feel about that and how do you go about living this way because these are your theories?
JPR: There have been really smart, engaged and careful readers of my work who have done me the honor of responding to it, and in ways that certainly and unquestionably align themselves with it, maybe even embrace it, but who also see how, if not entirely insurmountable, nonetheless how difficult (given the current conditions and circumstances), how difficult it is to maintain this position, this stance, this commitment to things like intimacy as a relationship to the inappropriable and so forth.
I recognize that difficulty, and that’s why I do the work that I do, because the conditions today are incredibly trying and difficult, they are deeply dispiriting, depressing, and demoralizing. Yet this is all the more reason to find a source that is counter to that, that is an alternative, that is another way, because surely there are alternatives, or we would otherwise just give up. Political thinking is about thinking against the prevailing dominant order of things. And then it’s about how you’re identifying with that or not, and at what level, and in terms of what practice and form. And I believe this movement in a different direction may have begun, and while it doesn’t always end with, it does begin with the ethical—with an understanding of the close rapport we have with each other.If we can’t even begin to fathom and think about how to coexist in a way that doesn’t demand either unification, sameness, or homogenization, but at the same time doesn’t simply resort to a radical disconnect of difference, or that there’s no contact between us, then any other forthcoming political projects are impossible.
If we can’t even begin to fathom and think about how to coexist in a way that doesn’t demand either unification, sameness, or homogenization, but at the same time doesn’t simply resort to a radical disconnect of difference, or that there’s no contact between us, then any other forthcoming political projects are impossible.
First, we need to come together, and we need to be able to coexist to beareach other. And that is an ethical move. I do believe that the political begins in intimacy—and we’re not talking about sentimental love, but intimacy in proximity and closeness—that is, at the same time not a fusion but instead recognizes that intimacy as separation and distance from the other. It’s not a distance that is unbridgeable but becomes a means in which together we can understand how we share in the space that is not mine and not yours and should never be anyone’s, because it actually isn’t.
We could teach ourselves this lesson as a species; the fact that the world is not ours and do so by rendering ourselves extinct, and then we really would have proved to ourselves—too late (!)—that the world wasn’t ours, and it never was ours. Or, we can do it some other way, and we can understand that this world is not ours, that we are just trespassers passing through. Passing temporarily through this existence in this huge eco-cosmological configuration. And not be deluded into thinking that somehow, we can claim this eco-cosmos as our own.
Appropriating claims on the world have not been equivalent. Instead, the claims are of various kinds, and in their scales and intensities, some people, places, and things (and not just human but animal etc.) are suffering more than others. There is such a thing as environmental racism, and there is such a thing as climate injustice, and such things raise the question of what would be a just relationship to the world and its climate? This is why capitalism is often understood as a principal culprit, and why the thesis that has gone by the name Anthropocene has been modified so we can talk about the Capitalocene.
Capitalism is the strongest, global appropriation of the hearts, minds, species and territories. It is what believes in eternity and infinity. It fights against finitude and scarcity and the fact that things will run out. It believes that there will always be a future for it, and that it will claim that future and it’ll claim it ahead of that future, and appropriate the future and in doing so, appropriate the future for others, in the name of itself. The point is: we need to understand extinction as a force that runs through existence and understand capital as the virulent denial of that force. Capital becomes the agent for the extinction of existence because it believes that it, capital itself, can continue forever. So “the collective afterlife of things” is just as much about capitalism as it is about ecology, and that’s because capitalism has been proven to be as much a force of ecological devastation as one of financial economic destruction. Maybe those are final words?
SP: I think one of the first steps is to undo so much of how we think and how we operate.
JPR: That is always the case and you are absolutely right that has always been the case and I don’t think that’s ever not been the case. So much of it is about un-doing and un-making and un-finishing our standard ways of doing things.
SP: It’s hard because the ones that almost have to start the process or will have the biggest impact are the ones in the highest positions of power who will not surrender and make a change because that would jeopardize their positions of power.
JPR: They’re not going to do it and that’s why we have to think of another level and at a different scale. That’s what we’re talking about. We are asking about the politics of ecology and art and that relationship, and so we are talking about scale.
SP: And it feels like such a small scale that is tied to everything.
JPR: That’s it. You have to be able to diagram that scaling up, that isn’t from the small to the large but is a scaling up that is there already in what we’re calling the small or the singular. It is entirely a matter of understanding the ways in which each singularity, each thing is only a singular thing in its relationship to a multiplicity of which it is part. That relationship between the singular and the multiple is a relationship we can talk about in terms of intimacy, and one that has been perverted via a logic of unity, universality and so forth, where the one is the many, but the many is the one (like a nation). Instead, what we want to do is to keep that sense of a collective impossible in its totality—as that which cannot be totalized or generalized.
This is why in our class we read Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Equivalence of Catastrophes: After Fukushima, in which he discusses this collective or shared sense, that directly speaks to things and capitalism. Nancy argues that what we share is nothing but a common inequivalence. Or he sometimes uses the language of incommensurability, which is by definition, that which is without common measure. There must not be one single measure by which we accord value to anything. What capitalism —and now Nancy is drawing from Marx—has done is to institute a logic of general equivalence and the instrument of that general equivalence is measured and instituted as money. That’s the common denominator. That’s how we know if something is valuable, and also how to treat it, and how it is able to circulate and be in the world. But, of course, that logic of general equivalence, which is the logic of capitalism, has become a mentality and rationality by which everything is measured. And what Nancy is saying is that now we are at the point that we can (unfortunately) talk about the equivalence of catastrophes, such that no matter what the problem might be, it seems as though all catastrophes are either reduced to the same level, or measured according to a scale that is in no way ever going to get at the pain and suffering experienced in those particular singular catastrophes. Instead, this calculative logic will chalk it up to some kind of table of costs, such that there’s a leveling. If we return to the earlier part of our conversation on disaster, how is it that art can present the catastrophe in such a way that it doesn’t operate with a sense that it has a single general principle in which to measure that disaster?
Nancy says we need to think and act in terms of an equality, if we’re going to talk about equality what we have and are striving for is an equality of inequivalence. That’s what makes us equal. What makes us equal to each other is that we are inequivalent to each other. There is equivalence, and he is trying to separate out and distinguish equality from equivalence. We sometimes think these terms are interchangeable, but Nancy is pointing out that equivalence pertains to a measure, including a general measure of value, whereas equality, the only real equality in which we can think of as a shared collective equality, lies in a common inequivalence. That is: the lack of common measure. To bring it back to your question, I would say that oppression and marginalization are the means by which that inequivalence is no longer taken to be the only source or condition of equality. When that inequivalence is no longer considered the only thing by which we can think about equality, but instead is used to institute and perpetuate all kinds of inequity.
We need to understand global financial capitalism as an ecological force of extinction. One that has produced an equivalence of catastrophes through the illogic of general equivalence. The latter is opposite to a deeply ethical insight, the one that affirms that our equality lies in our inequivalence to each other and to the world.
NEW: Interview on the Collective Afterlife of Things
In July 2019, Sarah Pereux, an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, interviewed me about one of my current research projects and advanced undergraduate seminars: “the collective afterlife of things.” A short edited version has just been published in FORGING, the sixth and final issue of a broadsheet series by Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). Free copies are available for download at the link below.
In a separate blog post, I will publish the longer, less-edited transcript of my conversation with Sarah.
Issue 06: FORGING
Published by Blackwood Gallery. September 2019.
Eds. D.T. Cochrane, Alison Cooley, Fraser McCallum, Christine Shaw
and Joy Xiang
Issue 06: FORGING is now available in print and online.
Loss, Adjectives, Aftertime in Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End
In Yiyun Li’s autobiographical novel, Where Reasons End (Penguin Random House, 2019), a mother has conversations with her recently deceased son—a sixteen-year-old who has committed suicide. In many of their conversations, they debate the virtues and value of nouns versus adjectives, in which the boy always argues in favour of the latter (his “guilty pleasure” as he says). He lives in that space between somewhere and nowhere, and in that time that he refers to as aftertime.
Since, in my recently published essay on the film Moonlight (“Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight,” CR: New Centennial Review, volume 2, number 2, 2019), I too have argued in favour of the adjective when it comes to the language of affective relations to loss and death, I was struck by the presence of these very same questions in Li’s novel, and its own meditation on an adjectival sense of things, including the time of those affective relations, keyed to the temporality of the moment.
Like afternoon, afterword, aftermath, and afterlife, in which the prefix “after” does not negate the continuance of what it precedes and modifies (noon, word, mowing [etymologically], life), aftertime at once marks the finitude of time, and an a-temporal zone that follows time.
It is in the chapter of Where Reasons End, titled, “Inertia,” where Yiyun Li creates an opening in the story in which her son can make clear that in his suicide, that is, in his decision to unfollow, he has neither unfollowed life nor death, but instead has unfollowed time. It is in this way that he exists aftertime, as that zone in which he is no longer behind time, following it (but he also cannot be said to be ahead of time either), but instead exists after the temporality of corporeal existence in his unfollowing of time.
It is life and death that can only be followed, but never unfollowed. As the son suggests, aftertime is the only time that can be unfollowed, as it slips away, in time, from life and from death. The temporality of the moment, in its temporal passing—in its slipping away—is intimately related to the temporal unfollowing that is aftertime. It is the time and place where reasons end. This time and place of aftertime and after life and death, cannot be cohabited by mother and son: he in his death, and she is in her life and her mourning, writing, and sadness.
She tells us that hers is not the “sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano” but the kind of “sadness that stays inside one, still as a stillborn baby.” Here we note that the stillborn birth is not not a birth—but is still (a) birth. It is a birth into death; that moment when birth and death coincide. Such that birth is not the burst into existence but rather a loss that is still affectively borne (carried) in its very momentariness by the mother. Here in the novel, for the mother, it is a sadness that cannot be brought to term (in the sense both of born or ended), yet is not interminable either (as in melancholia) since it has been born (as still). It is in this way that one might argue that the moment is the birth of stillborn temporality.
Stillborn is an adjective of time and specifically of momentary temporality: the aftertime of afterbirth that is afterlife. Such an adjectival existence might be what the son has in mind when he says, “There are ways to live not as a noun, or inside a noun, or among other nouns” (67). That is: ways of living separate and apart from identity, interiority, or community, but instead as exposed to the intimacy of the Outside, not beyond. At one point the mother asks: “How long does it take for the frozen [adjective] to become fossil [noun]?” (83).
There is here an ethical rapport to loss that pertains neither to mourning nor melancholia, in that it allows the fadable to fade and the erasable to be erased (74). It is about allowing things in their singular passage to pass, rather than to try to contain or enclose these inevitable passages (these fade outs and die-offs). As the son points out to his mother: “A noun is a wall, an adjective is a window” (66).
Could it be that nouns are the ways in language in which we try to hold on to things, whereas adjectives allow us to let those same things go?
And does this amount to some sort of proof of what the son realizes and comes to argue: that it is adjectives that are indispensable, and not nouns? Such that qualities might be the things-themselves (the unspeakable), and not merely the modifier of things? And that the adjectival can be a source and sense of freedom—including the ability to live free of things (of nouns). “The world would be a wilder place for imagination if you let adjectives go free without having to modify something, he said” (84)—something such as a life.
Later in the novel, we encounter the question of naming those someones who have lost someone, and the absence of any such names. “What do you call a parent who’s lost a child, a sibling who’s lost a sibling, a friend who’s lost a friend?” (114). As Yiyun Li points out, we are without names for those who have suffered the loss of someone. Except for orphan, widow and widower, there are no nouns to name the one’s who have lost—thereby pointing to the limits and sheer absence of nouns (but perhaps of all words, all language) when it comes to existential loss.
It is loss that cannot be followed or unfollowed by words—it is unspeakable. It is the place where reasons (and nouns) end. Loss’ time is always aftertime.
Moths to the Flame: Photography and the Capitalocene
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.
Only the end of the Humanities can save us now
I want to pick up on a question that I posed at the end of my last post, in which I asked, “How might the humanities, precisely in terms of some of its principal objects (art, poetry, literature, film), equip us with the means to contend, not only with the limits of humanism, but also with the end of the human?”
This summer I have been reading and gaining a tremendous amount from Claire Colebrook’s two volumes of essays on extinction: Death of the PostHuman, and Sex After Life. At the same time, I have been crafting the course syllabi for the two seminars that I am teaching this fall term (2016).
Upon first glance, it may appear that the two seminars, “Queer Ethics & Aesthetics of Existence,” and “The Collective Afterlife of Things,” are at odds with each other. With their respective focus on questions of existence and extinction, it might seem as though the first course seeks to affirm the value of a certain form of human life, while the other seeks to consider the post-human and that which is not defined in terms of “life.” However they are in fact two major parts of a single ongoing theoretical endeavour to think what a thought and ethical-aesthetic praxis might be, in the absence or extinction of the human, life and, the living on or long-term survival of a collective “we.” Colebrook’s work has proven to be an indispensable companion as I think about these two courses in relation to each other.
Rooted as it is in the Foucault of finitude and the image of the erasure of the image of the human, “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea,” the queer theory seminar takes Foucault’s aesthetics of existence to be not an ethics of being or becoming, but of unbecoming. An unbecoming ethics is the partaking-together in the inoperative/workless praxis of sustaining the spacing of separation—irreducible to no-thing or substance (i.e. nothing, res/rien)—that exists (exposed) just between us. An “us” that only exists from out of this shared-exposure to the outside, or what Foucault referred to as “madness, the absence of work.” Therefore, this queer aesthetics of existence is an art not of the finished work (oeuvre) but of the un-finished as that which is not given or even readymade, but already-unmade (désoeuvrement).
Further to the point, “whereas [as Claire Colebrook explains] Husserl and Bergson thought that the task that would save thought and philosophy would be the annihilation or acceleration of the natural world, and the destruction of man as a natural body within the world, today it is the possible extinction of the man of ethics and philosophy [and aesthetics] that may allow us to consider the survival of the cosmos” (Sex After Life, 148).
If we take “the man of ethics and philosophy [and aesthetics]” to be the “man of the humanities,” then in a certain very real sense, it is this equation of the end of the humanities with the afterlife of the cosmos that both seminars are dedicated to thinking. Ethics after community, collectivity and life is an ethics of the “collective afterlife of things,” in which, following Colebrook, it is not assumed that there is a “we” (“collective”) worthy of living on (“afterlife”). Which is to begin to think an ethics of inorganic and un-livable existence. In other words, a (queer) ethics and aesthetics of extinction.
Through these seminars and in our reading of Foucault, Colebrook, but also Haver, Genet, Benderson, and Bersani, we come to the realization—without any sense of mitigating irony—that perhaps only the end of the humanities can save the cosmos now.
Theory after Queer Theory and the Subject (and Objects)
Looking back on 2015
My research and writing this year has been primarily focused on completing a draft manuscript of my book, The Outside Not Beyond. This work has been aided tremendously by a 12-month research and study leave, of which I was at the midway point at the beginning of the year, and by a 12-month faculty research fellowship at the Jackman Humanities Institute (University of Toronto) that began this past July. The project also received very generous support beginning this year from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC, the national granting agency in Canada), which will provide funding over the next four years for research, assistants, travel, symposia, etc.
So over the past year I have had the time, solitude and resources to read and write and make significant progress on my projects. I have found my office at the JHI to be a particularly conducive place to work, and I really value the time I have had over the past 18 months, un-interrupted from teaching and university service duties, to focus on my own work and to remain with questions for extended periods of time.
Having submitted a book proposal to the University of Chicago Press in December of last year, by June of this year I finally received two Readers’ Reports, both of which very much endorsed the project and provided valuable feedback. I then turned my official response to these reports into an occasion to write what amounted to a second proposal: 11-pages that further expanded on the first, and represented the project in its current state of development. I found this to be an extremely productive task, one that really enabled me to flesh out both the major and minor scales and dimensions of the project. I walked away from the experience even more an advocate of “the second project outline.”
Topics and themes that have been pursuing in my research this past year include: the relation between poetry and prayer; anonymity and the neutral; edging and drawing; collective afterlives; ethics, politics and aesthetics of the common; drive, pleasure, and slippage; and measure and measurelessness.
The course of my research and reading this year, began with Georges Bataille’s major writings and publications, and then moved to Foucault’s lectures on governmentality and biopolitics; Dardot and Laval’s extension and elaboration of Foucault’s project, in their indispensable book, The New World Order: On Neoliberal Society; Derrida’s final seminar on the beast and the sovereign and his reading of Robinson Crusoe alongside Heidegger’s seminar The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics; and Michael Naas’s beautiful reading of Derrida’s seminar in his book, The End of the World and Other Teachable Moments. I’ve also returned to the political writings of Maurice Blanchot, as well as some of his late-work, in particular The Step Not Beyond, along with Christopher Fynsk’s fantastic book, Last Steps: Maurice Blanchot’s Exilic Writing.
Other books that came out this year that I very much enjoyed, and that have remained with me, include: David Graeber’s book on bureaucracy, The Utopia of Rules; Kristin Ross’s Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune; Elizabeth Kolbert’s, The Sixth Extinction; and McFadden and Al-Khalili’s Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology. This last title is its own frontline education on one of the most exciting new fields of scientific research.
While writing, “The Art of the Consummate Cruise and the Essential Risk of the Common,” a paper for a panel on sexual risk and barebacking for the American Studies Association conference (Toronto, October 2015), I also returned to the work of William Haver—which remains the most inexhaustible source of inspiration and insight—as well that of Leo Bersani, Tim Dean. I have been in conversation with editors of an online journal, and hope that this paper will be published very soon.
I also continue to try to make fiction and poetry a regular part of my reading list. Books that particularly stood out this year are: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life; Nell Zink’s Mislaid; Michel Houellebecq’s Submission; and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
Publications this year included: “The Separated Gesture: Partaking in the Inoperative Praxis of the Already-Unmade,” in the collection Nancy and the Political (Edinburgh University Press); my conversation with Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Existence of the World is Always Unexpected,” in Art and the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press); my essay, “Drool: liquid fore-speech of the fore-scene,” in the online journal World Picture; and my essay, “Parasol, Setas, Parasite, Peasant,” in, Could, Should, Would, a monograph on architect J. Mayer H. (Hatje Cantz).
The first review of my book, The Decision Between Us, appeared in the January issue of Art in America (by Christa Noel Robbins); and that has since been followed by equally sympathetic, insightful and enthusiastic reviews in Critical Inquiry (by Tom McDonough), New Formations (by Jacques Khalip), and in Parallax (by Matthew Ellison and Tom Hastings).
As part of a conference seminar on Bataille that I co-organized with Etienne Turpin for the American Comparative Literature Association conference (Seattle), I presented a new paper titled, “A solvent for ‘poetry’s sticky temptation.'” It was a first attempt to consider the relation between poetry and prayer as it can be fashioned through a reading of Bataille’s A-Theological Summa. A keynote lecture at a conference on aesthetics and ethics at The Royal College of Art in London, gave me an opportunity to return to and to expand upon my paper, “The Commerce of Anonymity” which is on the art of mourning, and artist Shaan Syed’s “The Andrew Project.” An invitation to present some of the my current research at the Comparative Literature Emerging Research Lecture Series, here at the U of T this past fall, was yet another opportunity to further expand and develop the “Anonymity” paper into what I now feel is pretty much a completed chapter for the new book. Finally, last spring at Poetic Research Bureau in L.A. I read from and discussed my book, The Decision Between Us, along with readings by Etienne Turpin and Nadrin Hemada from collections that they have recently edited on the library and the prison, respectively.
Currently, I am preparing two keynote lectures in March 2016, one for the annual Comparative Literature conference, here at the University of Toronto, and the other for “Aisthesis & The Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere,” at McGill University. Also in March, I have been invited to speak at the Society for Philosophy and Culture at McMaster University.
Research travel this year included time in NYC in February in order to visit the National 9-11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero; and to Sicily in late-August to attend a week-long seminar on “sex and philosophy” taught by Jean-Luc Nancy.
This was also the year when I revived my performance art practice. It had been close to 7 years since I last presented my work and I have been wanting to return to performance for some time now. Since the late-summer I have been in conversation with Johannes Zits, and along with him and three other artists we have been developing a new work together. Many details will be posted here in the months to come, but for now I can say that at the end of January 2016 I will be part of a five-person, 6-hour durational performance at Katzman Contemporary, here in Toronto; and in February, I will be participating in a five-day workshop with artist Doris Uhlich, on dance, sound, and the naked body. All of this work is deeply connected to my thinking and writing on the peri-performative; naked image and naked sharing; exposure, risk, touch and trust. I am really excited to be able to translate this work into various forms of performance.
I will end this post by saying how grateful I am for those of you who have subscribed to this blog, and who take the time to be its readers. Happy New Year 2016!
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.
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.
To do justice to things and each other
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.
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