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.
My essay on the film, Moonlight, has been published in CR: The New Centennial Review (volume 19, number 2, 2019).
This essay on the aesthetic sociality of black life as presented in the film Moonlight.
I theorize the momentariness of intimacy as opening up a space of affective relations that circulate around loss and blackness, distinct from prevailing conceptualizations of mourning and melancholia. This is about a film and the principal character in that film (Chiron), that do not fit easily into established categories, and are not so easily inscribed within psychological profiles, performative selves, repudiating egos or sociological identities.
Counter to Munoz’s positing that the occlusion of temporal and affective investments in futurity and hope is “the gay white man’s last stand,” I argue that such non-developmental movements can be keyed to the racial, yet precisely to the extent that the racial is not defined in terms of identity, but instead would retain that which is more singular: not the nominal, but the adjectival. In which, following Barthes, the adjectival configures the moment (kairos), here on the scale of the eco-aesthetic (e.g. “moonlight”) and its colours (e.g. “blue” as in the central words of the film: “in the moonlight, black boys are blue”).
This is similar to what Candace Vogler argued at the end of her essay, “Sex and Talk,” when she wrote: “By cultivating not just the pleasures of self-expression, self-abolition, or self-disavowal [i.e. self-repudiation as in melancholy], a space might open up for a reading of a larger world writ into an intimate scene, and perhaps, from there, for imagining a kind of intimate engagement with a larger world as something neither hostile to nor affirming of one’s own most sense of self” (365).
I believe this space is where the (non-psychological, non-sociological) aesthetic imagination lies, and toward which it is directed. I argue that its time is the temporality of the moment, and its linguistic tense is the adjective: a description of a pre-linguistic cosmic-ascetic corporeality and retreat—something like Chiron’s “sovereignty of quiet” (Quasha).
I am grateful to David Clark for his support of this work and his reading of a draft of the essay, and Tom Roach for his feedback on a much earlier version. For their invitations to present this work, I want to thank Pascal Michelucci for his invitation to speak at the Queer Feeling/Feeling Queer conference at the University of Toronto; Peter Rehberg for his invitation to the ICI-Berlin; Bobby Benedicto for his invitation to speak at the annual Queer Theory colloquium at McGill University in Montreal; and to Andrew Finegold and Hannah Higgins for their invitation to speak at the University of Illinois-Chicago. A special note of gratitude goes to Kerry James Marshall and the folks at Jack Shainman, his gallery in NYC, for their generosity in extending the reproduction rights for Marshall’s stunning portraits from the early-1990s. It was right around that time that I first met Kerry in Chicago, and while we don’t get to see or speak to each other very often these days, I will always remember the gentleness, humour and deep history that he brought to all our conversations, including the work we did together as members of the Board of the legendary Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago, in the mid-1990s.
Finally I want to thank David Johnson and Scott Michaelson, Editors of The New Centennial Review, for their interest in my work; as well as Lance Conley and Arvind Singh for all of their assistance and patience in handling the illustrations, image reproduction rights, and page layout. The electronic version of the article features full-colour illustrations, bringing the vividness of Barry Jenkins’ filming and Kerry James Marshall’s painting to the fore.
Write to me and I will send you a copy.
I just read the news of the death of Toni Morrison, and as on other occasions when I have thought of her—or when her work was brought to mind, or while I was about to read her or had just finished something that she had written—I immediately remember that unforgettable afternoon when I sat at the same seminar table (at Princeton) with her and Cornel West. She never would have asked me (or anyone else there), to justify our presence there. She surely trusted that each of us was there in good faith. The depth of her humanity was such that she measured—in her work, her public speaking, her interviews, and her critiques—the immeasurable (unjustifiable) humanity of others. This is a great gift and legacy that we must try to honour in our encounters, unintentional gatherings, and anonymous assemblies.
“We die,” Morrison said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Below are my opening remarks (slightly revised) for a panel on “Queer Artists of Colour in NYC during the AIDS Epidemic,” at the College Art Association (CAA) conference, held in NYC on February 13th, 2019.
Two years ago, when the CAA conference was last held here in New York, I dedicated my paper presentation to Jann Marson and Amy Bingaman. Two friends: one a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Toronto where I teach, the other a grad school classmate while we were at the University of Chicago. Both had died in the past year: so young and smart and full of warmth, humor, and generosity. On that occasion I was part of a panel on Queer Art History, chaired by my friend, the young art historian and curator, Robert Summers. This past summer, Robert suddenly passed away. I received word just days after we had exchanged emails, in which we celebrated the acceptance of our respective CAA panel proposals for this year’s conference. In his email and in his customary way, Robert said: “we fucking better have drinks in NYC!” Well here’s to you Robert! I raise a glass in honour of your memory, and on the panel that you had envisioned.
When I heard of Robert’s death, I immediately knew that this panel must be convened. I wrote to Hunter O’Hanlan [Executive Director of CAA], who unhesitatingly supported the idea and made the necessary arrangements so that we could go forward. Robert was a dear friend and I will always admire his curating and writing, most especially in foregrounding the sex and sexiness, and the unapologetic in-your-face protest of contemporary queer and feminist art. This work included Robert’s founding of the not-for-profit Queer Art Network, in 2016, along with a particularly longstanding and special devotion to the work of Vaginal Davis. To all of his work in queer art history, Robert brought a degree of irreverence, wit, passion and fearlessness that will be missed by so many of us, including each time we gather at the CAA conference. I wish he were still here. I wish I didn’t have to serve as Chair Designate. I just wanted to see him up here, once again. Let’s give him the session that he wanted.
I will keep my remaining comments brief but allow me to say just a few things—axiomatic, no doubt—by way of introduction. AIDS cannot be thought outside of racism, and racism cannot be thought separate and apart from AIDS and all other manifestations of the biopolitical and necropolitical. The ways in which AIDS was racialized in New York City during the AIDS epidemic (and continues to be, right up to the present moment), is different from the ways in which it has been racialized say, in South Africa or other parts of the world. Indeed, between Manhattan and the Bronx, or even between upper and lower Manhattan, East Side or West Side, one must realize and contend with the essential multiplicity and heterogeneity that is the convergence of race, ethnicity, geography, art and AIDS. Which is also to say that it is impossible to designate and to know where each term in the title of our session begins and ends as a topic and object of inquiry (as well as a lived reality). Whether this be in terms of queer (vis-à-vis the history of LGBTQ politics), artists and art (the “who” and “what”), race and ethnicity (“of colour”), New York (i.e. the city); AIDS, and Epidemic.
In turn, if we do not attend to the irrecuperable losses, and the very real disappearances in the history of AIDS—the inescapability of these losses and disappearances—then our stories, and any possible understanding that they might lead to, will be compromised. To the precise extent that they will be limited to what has been preserved and remembered, or that goes without saying—business as usual. To learn how to die collectively: this is one of the lessons that AIDS, and most importantly the artistic and activist work that has occurred in response, bestows to us. Memories and histories that always will be incomplete in the midst of a pandemic that is far from over. This is about an essential inconsolability, but also of what William Haver has described as “the ultimately unspeakable radical historicity and sociality of erotic existentiality” (Foreword to Ricco, The Logic of the Lure, xi).
We are honoured today to have three speakers, each of whom brings to the discussion a unique perspective: historical and poetic, artistic and critical, autobiographical and impersonal. Yet no less embodied, and no less a part of a history that we share, even as we continue to figure out how that sharing might happen. Something like what Robert Reid-Pharr has simply and aptly described as the ethics of our remembrance.
On Friday, March 16th I will be the Keynote speaker at the 2018 Queer Research Colloquium, organized and hosted by Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, at McGill University in Montreal.
The entire program can be found here: McGill Queer Research Colloquium 2018
The colloquium runs from 9:30AM to 8:00PM (followed by a reception) and features talks on image, performance, and identity; bodies, space, and movement; media, technology and violence; freedom and subjugation.
My talk is a version of my paper, “Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight,” which will be a chapter in a book that I am completing titled, The Intimacy of the Outside.
I am honoured to be invited, grateful to Prof. Bobby Benedicto for the invitation, and very much look forward to becoming better acquainted with the exciting research that is being done at McGill in queer theory, and gender, sexuality and feminist studies.
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.
Intimacy, Loss, Anonymity
Toward a Theory of Queer Neutrality
For the past 20 years, after having curated the Chicago exhibition ‘Disappeared’ on AIDS and an aesthetics of disappearance, John Paul Ricco has theorized erotic and aesthetic relations to loss and withdrawal tied to specific junctures of late-20th-century gay male culture and contemporary art and film. He has shown anonymity to be an irreducible relational form of the ethical – in particular in terms of social and sexual intimacy.
The workshop discussed Ricco’s paper ‘Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight’, a work-in-progress on ‘neutral affect’ that is part of his ongoing conceptualization of queer neutrality. The essay draws on Roland Barthes’s conception of neutral mourning and relates it to Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight (2016) and its presentation of an affective relation to loss that is distinct in its temporality from Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’.
By attending to the empirical contingency of the extemporaneous and erotic/aesthetic moment as the scene of feeling queer, Ricco is interested in thinking a time of affects that disrupts neo-liberal scripts of self-becoming and what is commonly referred to as an ‘event’. In addition, Ricco attends to the nuanced images of black masculinity that – he argues – are not adequately rendered by prevailing gender performative readings of the film.
Apart from ‘Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight’, two additional essays of Ricco were circulated in advance: ‘Intimacy: Inseparable from Separation’ (Open Set, May 2017) and ‘The Commerce of Anonymity’ (Qui Parle, June 2017).
Click here to go to the ICI-Berlin event page to access the videos: Intimacy, Loss, Anonymity: Toward a Theory of Queer Neutrality
Below is the abstract for the keynote talk that I will give in two weeks at the “Feeling Queer/Queer Feeling” international conference to be held at the University of Toronto, May 24-26, 2017.
For complete details go here: http://versus.recherche.usherbrooke.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Queer-Feeling-2017.pdf
“Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight”
John Paul Ricco
This talk is part of my ongoing conceptualization of “queer neutrality.” In my recent book, The Decision Between Us, I read the late Roland Barthes as someone engaged—in his “mourning diary,” his lectures on the neutral, and in his last book Camera Lucida—in “neutral mourning,” as distinct from Freud’s mourning and melancholia. In this paper, I am interested in theorizing an accompanying notion of “neutral affect.” By attending to the empirical contingency of the extemporaneous and erotic moment as the scene of queer feeling, I am interested in what interrupts neoliberal scripts of self-becoming and what is referred to as an “event.” More specifically, today, in the midst of hipster capitalism’s appropriation of cool from post-World War II black culture (see Shannon Winnubst’s new book, Way Too Cool), there is the need to re-conceptualize in order to reclaim what I am theorizing as black neutral affect. My primary focus here is Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight, and its remarkable representation of the aesthetic, ecological and potentially cosmological dimensions of this affective ethics of the neutral.
On March 19th, I presented a talk titled, “Edging the Common” at the conference “Aisthesis and the Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere,” that was organized by the research group Media@McGill, and held at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, March 18th and 19th. Other speakers included: Jean-Luc Nancy, Santiago Zabala, Pierre Dardot, amongst others. Videos of all of the presentations are available at: http://www.aisthesis.ca/videos/