Differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies

On 31 May 2023, a special issue of the journal differences, will be published, that I co-edited with Jacques Khalip, titled: “Syntax of Thought: Reading Leo Bersani.”

The volume brings together 35 scholars from a wide-range of disciplines and fields, each of whom has written a short essay based upon a sentence or two that they have selected from Bersani’s work. The volume covers the span of Bersani’s career, from his early work on Proust, Balzac, Baudelaire and other authors in the French modern canon; to his many collaborations with Ulysse Dutoit; to his work on sex and sexuality; and his late work on aesthetic subjectivity.

My own essay, “Incongruity,” considers the central role that this concept plays in Bersani’s radical rethinking of sociality in terms of sameness. I find inspiration and a jumping off point, in this sentence from Bersani’s essay, “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” originally published in Critical Inquiry and later in his book, Thoughts and Things:

“Incongruity institutes virtualities that have no intrinsic reason to be actualized. This retreat from the actual creates a freedom that might be defined as a kind of being to which no predicate can be attached.” (Bersani, Thoughts and Things 66)

Postmodern Culture (journal)

Austin Svedjan (PhD student, University of Pennsylvania) and I are co-editing a special issue of the journal Postmodern Culture, titled, “Afterlives of the Anti-Social.” It will feature essays by Grace Lavery, Mikko Tuhkanen, Tom Roach, Bobby Benedicto, Robyn Weigman, and me, plus an interview with Lee Edelman. Expected date of publication: 2024.

My essay, “Unlovable Oneness,” is structured by the “incongruous coupling” of Eimear McBride’s masterpiece debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and Ellsworth Kelly’s painted aluminum panels for the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, in St. Louis, Blue Black. In the essay, and my reading of Leo Bersani and Ulysses Dutoit’s work (from their early writing on Pasolini’s film, Salò, to their later work on Kelly), I consider the ethical virtue of going along with the unlovable and how literature and art provide us with an aesthetic training as to how to do so, and in ways that avoid reproducing the world’s violence in which we are all implicated.

Through Kelly’s monochromes, the essay also thinks about Bersani’s notion of “oneness,” in terms of chromatics, and how such incongruous oneness as Blue Black enables us to move out of a racial/racist chromatics and toward a different sense of being together. Something that artist Glenn Ligon explored in his curating of “Blue Black,” an exhibition in 2017 at the Pulitzer, that took Kelly’s work as inspiration and jumping off point.

New Formations (journal)

For a special issue of the journal New Formations, edited by Jessica Cotton on the topic of “Loneliness,” I have written an essay titled, “Solitude and the Time that Remains in Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail.” The essay is an extended close reading of Shibli’s remarkable novel. It considers the ways in which the book works with solitude and minor details as two key modalities in which the time that remains—as a non-enclosed temporality, not entirely circumscribed by the historical past, present, or future—opens for the anonymous Palestinian female narrator in the second part of the novel, as she travels through the contemporary Israeli apartheid state, in search of information about a young anonymous Bedouin girl who was brutally raped and murdered by Israeli soldiers decades earlier in the Negev desert. Expected date of publication: 2024.

Sex and the Pandemic

“Sex and Exclusion” is my essay for this collection of essays edited by Ricky Varghese, to be published by University of Regina Press. In it, I theorize the relation between sex and exclusion, partly in dialogue with recent work by Adam Phillips and also Maurice Blanchot, and in relation to artist Dean Sameshima’s photographic series, being alone, which he shot in sex clubs and bathhouses in Berlin during the pandemic. This essays continues writing that I have done on Dean’s work, that has recently been published in the journals, A/R and The Large Glass, both in 2021 (see related posts on this web site).

I am excited to announce that Corpus III, the third volume in Jean-Luc Nancy’s writing on the body, has just been published by Fordham University Press. The book features an eleven-part poem by Nancy, titled, “Stoma: A Hymn.”

It is a poem that he wrote in response to an inquiry that I and Andrea Gyenge made to him, regarding a comment that he had made in his Preface to the English edition of his early book on Descartes, Ego Sum. There he said that he has always wanted to write an “epic of the mouth.”

In a series of email exchanges back in late-autumn 2020, we asked him what such an “epic” would look like. Just a few weeks later, we received the poem, the hymn to stoma (small corporeal opening such as a mouth).

It is an extraordinary work of poetic philosophy and philosophical poetics; a meditation on the origin of the mouth as the originary opening that is the origin of human being. There are three places in the poem where “the mouth responds” to the ode that is being sung to it in the other parts of the poem.

In the final words of the mouth’s third response—which are also the words with which the poem ends—the mouth says:

It is me who alternates you

Me who shakes you

Me who agitates you

Me who troubles you

Stirs you opens you and closes you

It is me who rocks you and cradles

It is me who rhythms you and who thinks you

As we write in our commentary: “the subject, ego, or I, does not preexist the mouth’s opening, including in the form of enunciation, constative or performative speech, or even breath, but instead is born from out of this abyss and its rhythmic gaping. Indeed by the eleventh and last song, which joyously opens: ‘Stoma, it is you who swallows us! Stoma, it is you who speaks us!’ we arrive at the insight that the mouth makes us, and realize that Nancy’s poem has been, all along, a hymn to stoma in praise of and gratitude for what of us is stomatic.”

A new article in The Brooklyn Rail

Appearing in the December 2021-January 2022 issue of The Brooklyn Rail, my article was commissioned by WJT Mitchell for the Critic’s Page that the magazine invited him to curate and edit. Tom’s chosen theme was “Sounding the Idols,” inspired by Nietzsche’s Preface to Twilight of the Idols where the philosopher advocates approaching the idols with a tuning-fork, thereby not smashing them with a hammer, but tapping them so that they are made to emit music.

My essay is part of my current book project on “extinction aesthetics” wherein ethical and aesthetic responses to species extinction—such as the ongoing loss of millions of birds and their birdsong—are argued to involve being attuned to these ensuing silences, to this mute music.

Featured in the new book, Pause.Fervour: Reflections on a Pandemic, jointly published by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institute, and edited by Manca Bajec, Tom Holert, and Marquard Smith. A free downloadable copy is available here.

Click on any of the images below to get a larger view.

It is a beautifully-designed publication, featuring short texts and artworks by over 50 writers and artists. The book is divided into four sections:

  • COVID-19, or the Pandemic Logic of Very Late Capitalism
  • Lockdown Life: Distance/Proximity
  • Biopolitics and Governmentality
  • New Ways of Caring

Click on the image of the article below, to open a larger view of the text.

New Article in Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies

Access a copy of the article here:

In this article, I attribute the isolation and loneliness that are central conditions experienced by many people in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic to a politics and law of movement, the ends of which are not simply political-economic or bio-political, but also ethical-existential, to the extent that the very space of separation is destroyed. Through a reading of Hannah Arendt on tyranny and totalitarian governance, I assert the importance of solitude as what needs to be reclaimed for there to be any ethical sense of the common and any political sense of solidarity.

Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Number 41. Fall 2020 Special Issue on “Our COVID Conjuncture: Critical Essays on the Pandemic.” Guest Editors: Penelope Ironstone and Greg Bird

Cover Image: Theatre sign: “Wash your hands love each other”, photographed by Joshua Reddekopp (@joshuaryanphoto; Unsplash:

Here is the complete text that originally appeared in a joint publishing venture between Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institute.

If there is any way to hold out hope today, it must not be the protracted optimism of liberalism and its implicitly theological promise of ultimate redemption: “one day, just you wait.” Instead, the kind of hope that I will speak of here is immanent, yet precisely as the immanent force of finitude.

One figure of it is found in Goethe’s Elective Affinities: “Hope shot across the sky above their heads like a falling star.” Following Calvin Warren’s philosophy of black nihilism and the latter’s absolute refusal of the politics of hope, we might refer to the falling star as an image of spiritual hope—its luminescence darkening the sky as it cosmologically burns bright. Unlike the politics of hope and its infinite deferral, the worthiness of such cosmo-spiritual hope lies in it standing apart from both the torment of expecting what cannot be had (ends), and of bestowing upon hope the power of a mitigating force (means). As the last gift of the gods, hope (Elpis) is what remains in Pandora’s jar, after her curiosity led her to open the container, thereby letting all of the other evil forces (except hope) out into the world. At the end of, The Adventure (2015), Giorgio Agamben writes: “The fact that hope, as the final gift, remains in the box means that it does not expect its factual accomplishment in the world—not because it postpones its fulfillment to an invisible beyond but because somehow it has always already been satisfied” (93). What might Agamben mean by this, and how is such a postulation not a capitulation to the status quo, and hence perhaps a fate even worse than the politics of hope?

I think one answer can be found in a text by Agamben published twenty years earlier, on the writer Elsa Morante. Toward the end of that essay, included in the collection The End of the Poem (1996), Agamben turns to Morante’s theoretical description of colour and light in paintings by Fra Angelico. As when she writes: “Colours, are a gift of light, which makes use of bodies…to transform its invisible celebration into an epiphany…It is well known that to the eyes of idiots (poor and rich alike) the hierarchy of splendours culminates in the sign of gold. For those who do not know the true, inner alchemy of light, earthly mines are the place of a hidden treasure” (Agamben, 106). As Agamben explains, “The ‘celebration of the hidden treasure’ is therefore the becoming visible, in bodies, of the alchemy of light. This alchemy is both a spiritualization of matter and a materialization of light”—something like a falling star.

Agamben then reminds his reader of one of Kafka’s aphorisms: “The fact that only the spiritual world exists deprives us of hope and gives us certainty,” and once again we are faced with what appears to be a counter intuitive. Yet only if we refuse to see spirituality as a materiality of its own, precisely as keyed to the glimmer of starlight, of moonlight. Such that, as he goes on to say, “the loss of hope (even of that retrospective hope, nostalgia for Eden [or that prospective hope, promise of emancipation] is the terrible price that the mind must pay when it reaches the incandescent point of certainty” (108).

It is that incandescence of which Goethe and Morante wrote, and that we might imagine remains contained in Pandora’s jar, now a symbol for the colonization of cosmo-spiritual hope. Hope is neither a hidden treasure nor a future salvation. Instead, its mystery is the secret held by Melville’s Bartleby, who we might imagine, in the near silence of his preference not to, holds out the hope that salvation (appropriation) and damnation (abandonment), will no longer be the extraneous forces that bear upon life, but that instead, he will be able to exist as the singular self that he is—irreparably unfinished in his finitude, and therefore to be loved.

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. 

My early work as a writer and curator in the mid-1990s, is taken up by Olivier Vallerand as part of his historical study of the emergence of queer theory and the work that was undertaken nearly 30 years ago, by various authors, artists, curators, and writers to bring this nascent theoretical discourse into conversation with architecture, and questions of sex and space (public, domestic, clandestine, etc.).

Unplanned Visitors: Queering Ethics and Aesthetics of Domestic Space (McGill University Press, 2020).

The book works its way right up to the present, in Vallerand’s discussion of recent projects by J Mayer H., Elmgreen & Dragset, and other architects and artists who have re-conceptualized domestic space from various queer ethical and aesthetic points of view and practices. The book is richly illustrated, and includes a comprehensive bibliography.

Vallerand is part of a new, younger generation of scholars who have revived the field in exciting new ways. It has been especially wonderful to see him and others coming out of the academy today, turn their attention to the genealogy of queer sex space theory.

This short article “Hope or, Pandora in the time of pandemic,” is a contribution to the online journal Rosa Mercedes, as part of a collaboration between the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institute (Berlin) that was initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call for contributions, read:

“There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.’”

My article originates from a workshop seminar that I taught on July 4th, for this year’s group of young curators who are taking part in the Curatorial Incubator program at Vtape in Toronto. The program’s call read as follows:

“We live in hope of deliverance from the darkness that surrounds us.” 

P. McCartney 

The darkness. We each have our own and then there’s the shared sense of despair that bubbles up when we consider the degradation of our Mother Earth through our own polluting ways, the never ending wars that sweep refugees towards borders that close in their faces, the stories that are told, the lies that circulate. There is no end.

And yet we move on. Not in the way the so-called Enlightenment projected – towards greater and more perfect perfection. But just moving: towards love, towards caring, towards hope. At Vtape, we felt that we needed some of this spirit, so we propose that the current Curatorial Incubator look through our holdings to find those works that best exemplify hope. Happy hunting!

Falling stars, black nihilism, Elsa Morante, Walter Benjamin, Bartleby, Giorgio Agamben, and Pandora are brought together in this brief meditation on what an image of hope might look like today.

%d bloggers like this: