Adam Barbu and John Paul Ricco in Conversation

Instagram Live, August 7, 2020

Adam Barbu: Empty History invites us to think through the idea of curating “queer” beyond teleology. Following my time as Vtape’s 2019 Researcher-in-Residence, I presented a selection of works that document various individuals engaging in solitary, indeterminate, and workless gestures and activities. The artists included in this program, namely, Dierdre Logue, Paul Wong, and Lucas Michael, do not seek to repair the unjust and the uncertain by constructing new queer utopias. Instead, they pursue pleasure in pursuit of the broken, the unchanging, and the everyday. Part of what John and I wanted to discuss today is precisely what is at stake in this care for the irreparable, as well as the aesthetics and ethics of queer solitude so elegantly explored in these works. 

I can think of several conversations we have shared, each staked at key moments in the project’s development. Today, more than six months after the close of the exhibition, we find ourselves set against the backdrop of a world in transition that neither of us could have predicted. To begin, I thought we might consider the idea of queer solitude and the various works in the exhibition in relation to the COVID pandemic. 

John Paul Ricco: Over the last couple of months, as I’ve been asked to make comments on the relationship between art and the pandemic, I found myself returning to Empty History. Thinking about the idea of solitude as something distinct from loneliness and isolation, it struck me that your exhibition could become a key reference point. What we’re seeing in each of the works included in the show, presents another way of thinking about solitude—a particularly queer solitude.

Recently, I read an article reporting on a study documenting the effects of the pandemic on members of the LGBTQ population. Researchers found that the effects were incredibly pernicious and negative. The majority of respondents had suffered depression and no less than 90% had experienced some kind of homophobia or transphobia. This was particularly acute amongst young queers who suddenly found themselves back at home, feeling completely isolated, untethered from their support networks, their friends, their allies, and so forth. As we begin this conversation about queer solitude, here is an opportunity to make clear what we’re not talking about. We are beginning to see the emergence of the neologism “queerantine,” or, queering the quarantine. It seems that there are both positive and negative valences of that term. Within the context of this study, it can signal the particular negative effects of quarantine, especially on young queers. There is also another, more positive way in which we can think about putting the “queer” in quarantine, which is what we’re interested in—a certain kind of queer solitude and perversity that would demonstrate that one could still be queer even in the quarantine, against the isolating effects of homophobia or transphobia that so many queers in the pandemic find themselves experiencing.

AB: Speaking of solitude and perversity, perhaps you can briefly introduce Gilles Deleuze’s essay Michel Tournier and The World Without Others.

JPR: This text has become another important reference point as I continue to think about the question of solitude. In the appendix of his 1969 book The Logic of Sense, Deleuze writes an essay on Michel Tournier’s novel Vendredi, or, in the English translation, Friday or The Other Island. In Vendredi, Tournier attempts to rewrite the Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe story, and part of that rewriting involves foregrounding Crusoe’s companion Vendredi. Deleuze considers the way in which the other operates here different from what he calls the structure Other—the kind of general way in which all perceptual fields and all senses of possibility are delimited and constrained. He is also interested in life on a desert island, as living in a world without Others, in which solitude is that other island—the other side of which would be loneliness or isolation. In this sense, the essay examines the way in which Tournier’s novel offers a story of escape from an enclosed, organized, workable, and merely possible world of Others.

AB: It will be useful to introduce another text that has become an important reference for us both, namely Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading (2003). Empty History does not attempt to reclaim truths about identity, community, or shared history by exposing the effects of homophobic discourse—a position that Sedgwick would describe as paranoid. Paranoid reading practices are rooted in the assumption that we can only begin to dismantle systemic oppression once such historical truths are uncovered. Reparative reading, on the other hand, is a matter of using “one’s own resources to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole.”1

Sedgwick is also attentive to the transitions that take place across and between these positions. This simultaneously paranoid and reparative reading seems to lie at the heart of exhibitions that have worked to reconstruct fragmented queer histories in the name of inclusion, representation, and recognition. Empty History offers us the chance to think beyond paranoia and reparation. In the curatorial essay, I wrote: “Logue, Wong, and Michael refuse resolution and finality, opening up a space of perpetually unfinished business in which action always already fails to result in change. And this is not for lack of care.” At stake here is a certain lateral intensity, one that encourages a shift in thinking from the visibility of queer actors and performances of queer actions towards a non-productive, non-teleological queer worklessness as that which operates outside the logic of queer progress or so-called progressive queer curating. 

JPR: Some of the writing that I have published during the pandemic has focused on worklessness and impotentiality. With this recession and reduction in workplace work comes an opportunity to think about ways of living and doing that aren’t entirely beholden to productivist logics. Certain effects of the pandemic allow us the think about life in terms of the sabbatical or the day off. The works in the exhibition, in their own simple, one might say, minor, vernacular way, allow us to think through these ideas further. Perhaps we should briefly describe them for the audience.

AB: Upon entering the gallery space, one encounters a large video projection of Lucas Michael Fixed Kilometer (2018), in which the artist records himself dragging his index finger approximately one meter in length across 1,000 different surfaces in various private and public spaces—a reference to conceptual process and the work of Walter de Maria, more specifically. Located nearby is Paul Wong’s Perfect Day (2007), a video that documents the artist as he attempts create the perfect day to himself in the midst of a drug-induced hallucination. The exhibition also includes an installation of Dierdre Logue’s Home Office (2017)in which the artist attempts to balance standing on top of the pullout partition of her writing desk. Finally, in the middle of the exhibition space sits a sculptural work by Michael titled Audentes Fortuna Iuvat (2011), which roughly translates from Latin to “fortune favors the bold.” The work is a crushed, warped silver trophy that rests on a mirror placed directly on the gallery floor. As such, it no longer symbolizes progress or victory and is thus rendered a useless object. Each of the works refuse narratives of transformation, self-realization, or overcoming.

JPR: All of these works were created well before the pandemic. They would be interesting at any moment, but it is rather uncanny that your exhibition took place in November and December of 2019, and within a month or two, the world was, in various stages, going into lockdown with many people finding themselves at home. Today, we can imagine ourselves engaging in any one of the activities seen in the works. They are records of a certain kind of ordinary worklessness that suggests a different rapport with oneself, with other things, and with day-to-day life. 

Like the Tournier novel, these works operate without a thesis. And they do not really feature any characters. We are simply seeing individuals whose bodies happen to belong to the artists themselves. Further, they cannot be described as scenes of interiority, since the solitude of the singular bodies function without the structure Other—the structure that would mark social difference and that would provide, as Deleuze writes, the margins and the transitions that structurally divide inside from outside, and organize the perceptual field in terms of what can be seen, what can be done, and so forth. These works, largely free of that structuring of the perceptual field, including the paranoid and reparative positions that Sedgwick describes, seem to be pursuing a kind of mundane adventure involving experiments in the body and experiments in bodily perception. They attempt to find out what might happen to a body and its perceptions if that body and its perceptions were not limited to what was merely possible. It is this reading of worklessness, as that which is outside the merely possible, that connects these works with Deleuze. What we see are individuals operating in a perceptual field that hasn’t been completely structured or determined in advance. 

AB: For viewers who haven’t yet read the essay, it is important to note that, for Deleuze, being in a world without Others is not guaranteed by solitude alone. It entails an entire rethinking and de-structuring of one’s way of thinking and being that cannot be defined as anything like productive. Here, I would like to highlight Deleuze’s description of Tournier’s Crusoe as he begins to face the crumbling of the structure-Other during his time on the island. He writes, “Pulling himself from a wallowing-place, Robinson seeks a substitute for Others, something capable of maintaining, in spite of everything, the fold that Others granted to things – namely, order and work.”2 (314) He then throws himself into a world of “frenetic” production, but, as Deleuze adds, “in line with this work activity, and as a necessary correlate to it, a strange passion for relaxation and sexuality is developed.”3 Finally, as Crusoe inches closer to a workless existence, he enters into a state of “regression much more fantastic than the regression of neurosis […] Whereas work used to conserve the form of objects as so many accumulated vestiges, involution gives up every formed object for the sake of an inside of the Earth and a principle of burying things in it.”4

I am tempted to describe this fantastic regression as the scene of Logue, Wong, and Michael’s, worklessness. As Deleuze writes, being in a world without Others is not simply a question of space but also of time. Worklessness can be figured in terms of a salvation from, or, an unlearning of, the oftentimes comforting yet ultimately brutal logic of capitalist temporality. 

JPR: Why is it that Deleuze describes Tournier’s Crusoe as perverse? Because he is, in a way, wholly oriented towards ends but only to the extent that they provide the means to deviate from those ends. The story is not occupied by questions of origin but instead of deviation. For Deleuze, it is this deviance from that productive end, that objective, that sense of fulfillment or completion that makes the character particularly perverse.

The structure Other, or, Other structuring, doesn’t allow for that deviation from the end. To the extent that that end has already been preordained, what is available to us is simply a matter of the possible. The preordained end constrains, delimits, and defines what is possible. It seems that the least interesting curatorial projects will set up that sort of thematic structure and simply work to fill it with recognizable content. The Vtape residency became a means for you to research works that would not necessarily add up to anything—although, in fact, they do.

AB: The residency calls to mind the idea of a non-reparative curatorial practice that concerns neither ends nor means-to-ends. On the one hand, it is worth highlighting that Empty History is an ongoing project. This particular exhibition does not signal an end. My research continues. Yet, approaching the question from a different angle, we might begin to consider how the works themselves reveal minor curatorial practices. Each individual is seen organizing the world in pursuit of pleasure for its own sake—a pursuit that remains indeterminate and illegible, that cannot be named or revealed as anything in particular. Recently, I have been thinking about workless pleasure as an empty, open, frameless time that cannot be appropriated by the logic of the structure Other.

JPR: Within the installation, the works reinforce, and, in a certain sense, replicate one another. Insofar as each documents an individual subject engaging in this workless work, there is a kind of relentlessness that is accumulated, suggesting that one can never quite find that sense of resolve or finality. The works both support each other and amount to nothing in particular. Turning to Lucas Michael’s deflated trophy cup placed in the middle of the gallery, it is as if this is the kind of award you receive for doing workless work. This may be the one object that ties the works together without really being bestowed upon any of them. Everyone’s a winner and no one’s a winner.

AB: I want to underline your comment about the work of worklessness. Worklessness is, despite what the term may suggest, real work. We are speaking about worklessness as a form of de-instrumentalized resistance that is expressed, for example, in the restless continuity of the performed action—whether that is Logue’s desk balancing act, Wong’s search for the perfect day, or Michael’s invisible line drawing.

What motivates the work of worklessness, then, is a realization that the world is not easily repaired. Non-reparative curating would be a matter of a radical embrace of the irreparable as such. It seems that this embrace should be figured as a discipline of the mind and body—a discipline that is perverse insofar as it cannot be assimilated into the logic of capitalist temporality, the timeline of so-called progress, the world of the structure Other, and so on. Here, we begin to arrive at a particular reading of non-reparative queer curating that is based upon a taking care of indeterminate, illegible, and “empty” history.

JPR: What do we mean when we speak of the politics and ethics of the irreparable? And how should that not be confused with other things with which it is often easily confused? In the literal sense, the irreparable refers to that which either cannot be repaired or need not be repaired. It is in the sense of the latter that one often runs into trouble with those who think of this work as an apology for the status quo, or, a complicity with the way things are. In our view, this is certainly not what the politics and ethics of the irreparable is about—quite the contrary. Returning to Sedgwick’s essay, our interpretation of the irreparable does not reside in either the paranoid or reparative reading position. The perversity of queer solitude, and the way in which that perversity relates to the irreparable, opens up a space between these two, prevailing means of reading, or, to put it differently, ways of relating to others in the world. 

Paranoia, following Sedgwick, is an aversion to surprise. It is a very rigid temporality, at once retroactive and anticipatory. One is paranoid about that which is about to happen based upon some sense of the past. One is, in other words, in the future that is always already in the past. While it is perhaps more palatable, the reparative reading position is based upon the contingency of desire—that is, it still involves the various relations between subjects and objects. In this commitment to the irreparable as a form of non-reparative curating, we are attempting to move beyond paranoia and reparation. 

Instead of the structure Other we are speaking about a perverse structure. This does not mean living in a world with Others but rather with otherwise Others—as Deleuze says, truly concrete Others, not phantasmatic meta-Others. These otherwise Others will always be anonymous, promiscuous, and clandestine. In fact, Deleuze writes that these otherwise Others would be so perverse that they are beyond voyeurism and exhibitionism. This completely bears upon the world of art and visuality and visibility in curating. As Sedgwick herself says, being made visible is its own form of violence, just as much as being made invisible can be.

AB: I have been thinking about the irreparable in terms of a retreat from the traditional model of queer curating—one that is firmly rooted in the logic of art historical inclusion and reparative visibility. How might we figure these ideas of worklessness and de-instrumentalized resistance within the contemporary political context?

JPR: Today, there is a paranoid consensus in which the left and the right find themselves strangely proximate to each other. This has led to a certain kind of political stasis or “civil war”—for instance, mutual accusations on both sides about the deep state, terrorism, and so forth. From the perspective of the left, elections are either about disenfranchised voters or foreign meddling, and on the right, they are about voter fraud and rigging. We find ourselves in this incredible moment of paranoid politics. The paranoid and the reparative work hand in hand. And it is in the oscillation back and forth from the paranoid and reparative positions that the status quo is maintained. A commitment to the irreparable involves a refusal of this rhythm, which is the structure and the motor of the status quo and a certain kind of political gridlock. There is all the more need for an alternative to these two positions. This is what Deleuze offers us in his essay, as well other authors, including, in particular, Giorgio Agamben, who has been hovering in the back of our minds. A more detailed examination of his work on the irreparable and impotentiality would have to be part of a longer conversation, which we hope to have in the future.


1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003) 128.

2. Gilles Deleuze, “Michel Tournier and The World Without Others” in The Logic of Sense (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1993) 314.

3. Deleuze, The World Without Others, 314.

4. Ibid.

Jean-Luc Nancy: Poetics, Politics & Erotics of Exscription

Parallax, volume 27, issue 1 (February-March 2021)

Editors: John Paul Ricco, Stefanie Heine, Philippe P. Haensler

This special issue gathers the work of seven scholars writing on Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of exscription. The essays demonstrate the centrality of this concept in Nancy’s thinking, and its specific relevance to poetics, politics, and erotics—historically and in terms of the contemporary moment. By pursuing various permutations of this concept in Nancy’s work over the past thirty years, the authors move the discussion in exciting new directions and underline the concept’s applicability to questions of community and the commons; sex and sexuality; art and aesthetics; and the human and the animal.

In his essay, “Buccal Intimacies,” Philip Armstrong rethinks the photograph in terms of touch and the pre-orality of the mouth, by looking at Ann Hamilton’s series of “Face to Face” photographs in which the open mouth coincides with the aperture of the camera to become the space of photographic enunciation, exposure and exscription. In her essay on “Beastly Writing” Naomi Waltham-Smith pursues a trail of footprints in the work of Nancy, Jacques Derrida, and Hélène Cixous, and tracks down the animal voice in the vestigial sonorousness of the animal’s retreat. 

Erotic pleasure, sexual desire, and carnal sex are just a few of the more familiar ways in which corporeal existence is exscribed—an irreducible ontological condition of ecstatic exposure that Nancy most recently has named “sexistence.” John Paul Ricco’s essay, “Drawing the Edge of the Commons,” explores these themes in Nancy’s work, in terms of the relations between the sex practice of edging and the aesthetic practice of drawing in the work of Francisco-Fernando Granados, Sarah Kabot, and Shaan Syed—three contemporary artists that in various respects articulate what Ricco theorizes as an “erotic aesthesis” and edge of the common.

In his essay, “The Dis-Appearance of Desire,” Philippe P. Haensler reads Nancy’s writing alongside Jacques Lacan’s seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, charting remarkable affinities between the two thinkers and their respective notions of exscription and sublimation. 

The poetics of exscription is the focus of Charles de Roche’s essay on fragmentary writing and the moment when Friedrich Hölderlin scratches a manuscript page with a pen devoid of ink. And Michael Krimper aligns Nancy’s notion of literary communism with the thinking of Maurice Blanchot, Marguerite Duras, and Achille Mbembe, all within sight of current political concerns regarding plural configurations of assembly, the people, and the commons. 

Ginette Michaud provides the “Afterword” to the journal issue, as she reads each of the essays in terms of Nancy’s overall philosophical project, and alongside of and against other recent engagements with his work. 

Published in the latest issue of the online journal Alienocene (journal of the first outernational), edited by Frédéric Neyrat.

Ca’ Rezzonico – Camerino del falchetto – Giandomenico Tiepolo

This issue or more properly, Stratum 7, also features essays by Alain Baidou, Bruce Clarke, Priscilla Wald, and many others. It also includes fiction, music, and sound works.

Through a reading of Agamben, Foucault, Heidegger, and Marcus Aurelius, I argue for the virtue and value of disappearance, and the ways in which the force of extinction is the provocation for thought, itself. Taking disappearance as other than negative, and finding its ecological correlate in extinction, I am interested in instances of being attuned to, and inspired by, the sonorous sound of the invisible flight of the birds, as moments when ecology becomes muse-ecology.

I am so pleased to have my essay “The Commerce of Anonymity,” published in the latest issue of Qui Parle. Here’s the abstract, followed below by a short excerpt. You can access and download a copy of the entire article here: Ricco, “The Commerce of Anonymity” (Qui Parle, June 2017)




Always “within distance of” oneself and others: this is our place,

and to write or to draw is to discover and sustain (to varying degrees

of duration) that distance. In its proximity this distance is the source

of pleasure and the mark of intimacy—but it is also the measure of

the exact equality between one passerby and another. No longer

even in terms of the being-other of the stranger, this is more a matter

of the spacing of passage in its passing, the place that is abandoned

by and that abandons the passerby, in his or her passing, to the outside,

including the outside of identity.


There, where the studio meets the street and the street meets

the study, and the desk meets the drawing table and the drawing table

meets the urban signboard, “each face has value and refers—or

leads—to one human identity that is equal to another” (Genet). To which

we might add: each face leads toward an exact and absolute equality

that renders each of us not identical but incommensurable. Each

time with each other, it is an experience that affirms the essential anonymity

of being-together and the risks and pleasures of our ethical

and aesthetic commerce.


Markus D. Dubber, Professor of Law and Director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto, has invited me to participate in a workshop on “apologies” that he is organizing to be held in fall 2017. He tells me that it is “partly inspired by a recent report in which EGALE [Canadian Human Rights Trust] called on the Canadian government to apologize for ‘Canada’s History of LGBTQ2SI Persecution.'”

Here is the abstract of the paper that I have proposed to present at the workshop.

“On Queer Forgiveness”

John Paul Ricco

Following “On Forgiveness,” the translated and edited version of Jacques Derrida’s response to a series of questions put to him by the French intellectual journal Le Monde des débats in 1999, my paper argues that the concept and act of forgiveness is essentially queer. Derrida persuasively argued that true forgiveness consists in forgiving the unforgivable. Which means that the logic of forgiveness is structured as a relation to the impossible, to that which is without code, norm or end. It is in excess of any measure or finality. An ethics of apology, in which the State seeks forgiveness for its violence and persecution of its lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, transgendered, two-spirited and questioning citizens, therefore requires forms of queer forgiveness that exceed the judicial logic of reconciliation. For if queers forgive the State of its violence and negligence, do they not also and at the same time abdicate the future possibility of acting in ways that the State would deem unforgivable? Say in the face of future injustice and in the name of justice yet to be had? Or perhaps in terms of erotic and indeed unconditional pornographic excess that re-conceptualizes sovereignty as unmistakably queer. In both cases: as that which transcends norm and law through a notion of sovereignty that we inherit from Georges Bataille. In other words: is the queer acceptance of the State’s confessed guilt also a normalizing of the queer within a stated-based juridical-theological discourse of rights? Must we not remain vigilant in our attention to the ways in which reconciliation is its own form of normalization? In doing so, we need to affirm the limits of the common, and of the ways in which while language itself is shared it is so, only as the very enunciation of separation. Alterity, non-identification, the unintelligible—in a word: queer—restlessly resides at the heart of apology and forgiveness. By returning to my theory of a disappeared aesthetics of erasure and the ways in which such aesthetics attests to the indelible absence of those who—unforgivably—have been disappeared and are no longer here to receive an apology and to forgive, I argue that this is one way to conceive the ethical scene of forgiveness.

…in a forthcoming issue of the journal L’Esprit Createur.

Irving Goh. The Reject: Community, Politics, and Religion after the Subject. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2015.

There is no better indication of the failure of the actual practice of critical theory in the academy today than the extent to which those who claim to be theorists remain wholly attached to “the subject” and “subjectivity.” Regardless of the ways and the extent to which poststructuralism and deconstruction have fundamentally put into question its ontological, political, and ethical status over the past fifty years, the subject remains incredibly resilient to critique; it is central to queer and affect theory; to disability, gender, and race studies, and it is undeniably present in the work of the most revered and cited of contemporary thinkers.

In The Reject: Community, Politics, and Religion after the Subject, Irving Goh not only traces the persistent presence of the subject in the work of Badiou (“the faithful subject of the event”), Rancière (“the uncounted subject”), Étienne Balibar (“the citizen-subject”), Rosi Braidotti (“the critical post-human subject”), and Katherine Hayles (“the flickering post-human subject”), he also provides clear and reasonable arguments as to why, in each case, this presence poses serious problems for their respective attempts to think community, democracy, religion, love, friendship, the post-secular, and the post-human in wholly new ways. More important, through his brilliant theoretical conceptualization of “the reject,” Goh offers one of the most rigorous and carefully articulated responses to the question “who comes after the subject.” Jean-Luc Nancy posed that question thirty years ago in a letter to fellow continental philosophers. Their responses were published two years later in the journal Topoi, and subsequently in Who Comes After the Subject (1991). Reading this book during my first year of graduate study, I distinctly remember the excitement I felt by the gauntlet thrown down by Nancy’s question. Over the past 25 years, I have consistently recommended the book, always a bit surprised to realize how little known it has become. Goh is thus owed a debt of gratitude for returning us to this groundbreaking volume and the seismic critical theoretical question it inaugurated.

Goh structures his discussion according to three distinct valences (or “turns” as he calls them) of the reject, which can be defined as follows: “passive rejects” are those who are rejected (e.g. refugees, sex workers, black bodies, the indigenous, et al.); “active rejects” are those who reject others; and “auto-rejects” are those who ‘self-reject,’ by rejecting the a priori subjective autonomous self and its hypostatization. While the first two rejects will be familiar to any reader, the originality of Goh’s argument – and hence the potential un-familiarity of its figure or image – lies in his conceptualization of the auto-reject. Not to be confused with any form of auto-critique, de-subjectivation or the nihilism of the abject, the auto-reject is predicated upon the a priori abandonment that is the originary force of existence. Singularities are born out of this abandonment of being to existence, thereby becoming the rejects that they are in relation to others. In its rejection of self, the auto-reject sustains this infinite abandonment, perhaps right up to the point at which neither the auto- nor the reject can be sustained, where they are abandoned and rejected, and some other unforeseeable form of being-in-common is generated.

Without being immune to being a passive or active reject, according to Goh, the auto-reject breaks their dialectical cycle of rejection by “keeping in mind that there is always the possibility that one is a reject in the eyes of others” (8), and thus in doing so, at times “sidestep[s] to an adjacent space” as a way to abandon any asserted self-positioning and effectively ‘getting over itself.’ However, lest this be confused with some liberal acquiescence toward the other, Goh further specifies that this “shift or sidestepping to an adjacent space further requires that the auto-reject respect the other’s desire to not fill the space left by the auto-reject.” In that respect, “the auto-reject rejects in itself the demand for the other to arrive. It recognizes that it is always possible that the other rejects coming to presence, that is to say, rejecting appearing in the presence of the auto-reject” (8). The auto-reject is the one that abandons itself to the possibility of the other’s non-response; of the other departing and walking away, and without explanation, rapprochement, reproach or even resentment. Indeed, the auto-reject is the rejection of these very responses and imperatives. Thus Goh has outlined what might be described as a non-imperative ethics, one that is without demand (or obligation, responsibility, mutuality), or even an ethics conceived as infinitely demanding.

For one of his scenes, Goh turns to contemporary digital-network technologies and social media platforms in order to underline the extent to which the reject is the exact opposite of the subjective self or “selfie” produced by Instagram, Facebook, and the like. As he notes, the selfie subject as inward-solipsistic-me is the subject that is in constant need of approval, exposure, notoriety, trackability, and the immediacy of connection, gratification and addictive ‘updating.’ In terms of queer theory, it is interesting to note how Goh’s conception of the ethics of the reject resembles the rejection at play in the impersonal erotics of cruising and anonymous sex spaces, where it is not assumed that others will always respond or be attracted, and where the art of the consummate cruise partly lies in the subtle and at times seductive techniques of the auto-reject.

Based upon his close reading of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, along with Catherine Clément and Luce Irigaray, Goh identifies the friend who leaves town, the syncopic lover, the nomadic war machine, the animal-messiah, and the becoming-animal as various figures and trajectories that traverse the inoperative community of the reject. In our reading of Goh, we might not only begin to acknowledge ourselves to be the rejects that we are, but, in doing so, share in the impossibility of a single totalizing social unity or community ever being possible – or desirable. It is this shared impossibility (or “incompossible” as he terms it, drawing from Deleuze) of any common measure or commensurability of incommensurables, that distinguishes Goh’s uncommonly ethical and political sense of community, friendship, and the post-human. At which point we are left to ask: what comes after the reject?


I recently got around to reading the conversation between Tim Dean and Robyn Wiegman on the question of “critique.” It was published in a special issue of English Language Notes (51.2, Fall/Winter 2013) under the title, “What Does Critique Want? A Critical Exchange.”
Based upon their dialogue, and in light of a few other things that I have read this summer, I’ve put together the following notes on theory, queer theory, subjects/objects, reading, Foucault, aesthetics/ethics, and extinction.

In giving up on “critique,” one must also give up on all forms of the “subject” (beyond merely in terms of the critical mastery of the sovereign subject) and “objects” (including the notion that as thinkers/theorists, we have “objects” and hence that our thinking is always predicated upon, as the saying goes, “one’s relations to one’s objects”—which may or may not be distinct from “object-relations” [psychoanalysis] or “object lessons” [Wiegman]). Which would also mean re-thinking the political, outside the categories of subject and object, all the while retaining a commitment to thinking the relational (Foucault, Nancy) as the spacing of the political—irreducible to—and that which exceeds the domains of—subjects or objects, identities or things (and the “identity knowledges” that they produce). Hence the relational as always already non-relational. This entails radical re-definitions and conceptualizations of the “political” (spacing) as well as of the “ethical” (relational), in which neither would operate in the mode of being “critical.” In other words: can there be political and ethical thinking that is not, at the same time, critical—yet without being naive or without rigour?

In this regard, paranoid or reparative readings are not the only options or reading strategies available. There is also, for instance: deconstructive (inoperative, un-made) readings (which are not necessarily to be aligned with paranoid reading), and those aesthetic, literary or poetic modes of reading in which affect and sense (along with pleasure, desire, erotics) are central. Yet in ways that remain impersonal and transitive, rather than deriving from, or returning to, the individual subject who feels and becomes—the nexus of the critical and the personal (Sedgwick, that is its own form of “performative narcissism.”

It is this strand that makes so much queer theory today not only reparative but therapeutic in its form and implicit intent. Queer Theory today has all too often become a project of coping (with life, affects, feelings, others, etc.), which is its own compensatory move vis-a-vis resentiment. In fact, what is the relation between the latter and critique—especially in terms of the ways in which critique is deployed in the humanities today (and in particular in queer theory) in the name of the political? Examples of this resentment (and its implicitly accompanying misogyny) cited in this dialogue include: why doesn’t she love us (asked by feminists about Sedgwick); critical theory and its lack of commitment to women (Gender Trouble); academic feminism using theory in order to feel smart and sexy; the aggressivity of Women’s Studies.

So also then, there is (once again) a fundamental rethinking of gender and sexual differences, and the difference these make to thinking, doing, making, and being-together outside the dialectic of subject-object—which might also be outside of gender and sexuality. The fact of the matter is that what Irving Goh has done for dominant critical theory in his recent and brilliant book, The Reject, needs to be done for hegemonic queer theory. Namely: to elucidate the extent to which it remains utterly beholden to the concept of the subject, and the ways in which Butler most especially, but also Sedgwick and a whole second generation are responsible for this unrelenting hold that the concept of the “subject” has had on the field.

This also points to the extent to which Queer Theory has betrayed the work of Foucault, which not only was a genealogy of the modern subject, but also an attempt to think “who comes after the subject” (in various forms of an ethical self in relation with others). Indeed, Nancy’s question from the late-1980s—asked after Foucault would have had a chance personally to respond—equally could have been written: “who comes after Foucault?” This is where Tim Dean’s quotation of Paul Veyne on Foucault is so incredibly important and useful. Veyne writes: “Foucault’s philosophy is not a philosophy of ‘discourse’ but a philosophy of relation…Instead of a world made up of subjects, or objects, or the dialectic between them, a world in which consciousness knows its objects in advance, targets them, or is itself what the objects make of it, we have a world in which relation is primary.” Of course this is also where the work of Leo Bersani comes in, and its commitment to thinking about ethical-aesthetic relationality in neither paranoid (aggressive) nor reparative (redemptive) ways. Further: we need to imagine the inorganic as beyond the human, and to think art and aesthetics in the absence of, and after life and the human. So not the traditional notion of art and its relation to immortality and the future, but art in relation to extinction and the posthumous. What I have been calling “the collective afterlife of things.”

It is in this respect that we are also dealing with questions of discourse and knowledge, which is to say, the  limits of knowing, and that is the primary task of theory—properly speaking—to trace. Including  in terms of that which exceeds gender and sexual categories and identities, and that as an experience of non-knowledge exceeds the epistemological (including epistemological mastery and the production of knowledge).

Theory is one of our principle relations to not-knowing, to epistemological erasure, and to extinction (ontological erasure). It is committed to thinking praxis as always inoperative (post-Marx and Arendt) and is a valence onto that which is unbecoming, un-livable and unimaginable. Such that the aesthetics of existence is the art of becoming-imperceptible and disappearing—but never enough. And where ethics wholly entails attesting to the fact that we—together-apart—are already living the time of extinction.

This is the video of the symposium organized around the book launch of Nancy and the Political, edited by Sanja Dejanovic (Edinburgh University Press), held at Beit Zatoun, Toronto, on July 11, 2015. It features presentations by Dejanovic, Marie-Eve Morin, and me on our respective contributions to the volume, as well as a presentation by, and discussion with Jean-Luc Nancy, who was present via video link.

Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

Here are some prefatory remarks along with a schematic outline of the three-part configuration of the political, ethical and aesthetic that I think we derive from our reading of Nancy.

The work of Jean-Luc Nancy has always been driven by the question of community; that is, of the commune, the common and common things. Common things in the sense of res communes: precisely those things that are not “things” (res) in the reified sense, and thus things that cannot be appropriated, sacrificed, but that can only be either destroyed or shared. For example: atmosphere, the spacing of the “with,” friendship, and son. Each of these, along with language (logos) is a figure of the outside, and like the others, language is only ever the sharing of voices (of words, letters, speech). Nancy’s thinking, like that of other ethical philosophers, is driven by the question: what kind of life do we want to create and partake in together? In which partaking is understood as the praxis (doing, acting) of shared-separation (Fr. partager), such that the self-with-others exposed to the Outside, are transformed together in the mutual heterogeneity that is co-existence. Again, this praxis of partaking is the sharing not in things per se, but in separation “itself,” meaning, that spacing outside and between any two more more bodies, places, and things. In our invocation of the commune, the common and common things, we might hear the sense of res communes as being at once political, ethical and aesthetic. If so, the question then arises how, in our reading of Nancy, we can begin to outline a formulation for this tripartite configuration of the sense of co-existence.
Relatively recently in his book, The Truth of Democracy, Nancy theorizes the rapport between these three spheres or axises in terms of “the condition of nonequivalent affirmation.” Meaning, I think, that in their mutual affirmation of each, none of these is equivalent to any other, but instead remains incommensurable. So for instance in the opening lines of the chapter “A Space Formed for the Infinite,” he writes:
The condition of nonequivalent affirmation is political inasmuch as politics prepares the space for it. But the affirmation itself is not political. It can be almost anything you like—existential, artistic, literary, dreamy, amorous, scientific, thoughtful, leisurely, playful, friendly gastronomic, urban and so on: politics subsumes none of these registers; it only give them their space and possibility.

In my article for the recently published collection, Nancy and the Political (Edinburgh University Press, 2015), titled, “The Separated Gesture: Partaking in the Inoperative Praxis of the Already-Unmade,” I tried to outline the formulation of this configuration. In the most schematic of ways, but deliberately for the purposes of enabling an initial observation and understanding of their alignment, here is what I take to be Nancy’s thinking about the connections between the political, the ethical and the aesthetic.

Political: logos + polis (outside of politics in the conventional sense of the term) > space or better, form-of-place (locus) of the in-common, of being-together, and toward.
  • The political is access and opening, it is about making room.
  • The political is the retreating of signification, figuration, identification, substantiality, ground, and totality.
  • City/Polis/ res publica (public thing; republic).
Ethical: logos + ethos (outside of ethics) > form-of-life. Stance or disposition in relation to and in rapport with the decision to share in the praxis of sustaining this spacing of separation amongst and between bodies, things and places (that is, sense, of co-existence).
  • The ethical is a qualitative relational bond, non-codified and informal ties and decisions between us (actual proximities, friendship, rapport with the anonymous other,  the passerby, the stranger, the commerce of anonymity).
  • Peri-performative (i.e. dis-enclosed) scenes (not ethos as securitized oikos, dwelling or abode—as in the Heideggerean sense).
Aesthetic: logos + aisthesis (outside of aesthetics) > form-of-sense. Gestures and techniques, forces and forms, configurations of sense, and sensuous conjurations of partes extra partes (the part that is not part of the whole). In an upcoming post, I will provide further elaboration of this definition of aesthetic praxis.

  • I take these ways of thinking the political, ethical and aesthetic to be figures and affirmations of the Outside. There is no essential or necessary principle that joins and unites all three. Except perhaps the thought from the Outside.
  • No one sphere is more privileged or prioritized, supplementary to, determined by, or reducible to either of the other two. There is no unsurpassable political, ethical or aesthetic horizon, including one that would be the ultimate measure and limit for the others.
  • Politics does not provide signifiers for art, art does not provide a figure for the political, and operating without a given signification or figuration, the ethical is deprived of the pre-given foundation by which to prescribe a particular stance in relation to this political place and aesthetic gesture of shared-separation. Indeed, the ethical is the very space of separation, which we infinitely share as the decision just between us (some bodies with some other bodies and some things).

University of Chicago Press, March 2014.

University of Chicago Press, March 2014.

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

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

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

Philip Armstrong, Ohio State University

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

Lauren Berlant, University of Chicago

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

Tim Dean, State University of New York at Buffalo



%d bloggers like this: