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Queer Theory

I presented this talk on 15 April 2021, as part of “Thinking Loneliness” the sixth and last instalment in a series on “Loneliness and Technology,” organized by The English Association (UK).

Here is a description of the event:

What is the relationship between loneliness and the history of thought? How have thinkers thought about loneliness through time? The reinvention of aesthetics in eighteenth-century Europe saw an influential upheaval of the relation between solitude and sociality. Whereas aesthetic experience might remain a lonely state in practice, its ability to conjure the human faculties into a state of ‘free play’ was thought to register its inherently communal nature, which Hannah Arendt understood to form the core of an unwritten and arguably still unrealised political philosophy. Like solitude, loneliness has also been a site of philosophical fantasies: of self-presence and self-sufficiency, but also of the possibility of disposing with, or escaping from, markers of identity or difference, including race, class, gender and sexuality.

This event brings together scholars whose work has addressed loneliness at the intersection of philosophy, critical theory, aesthetics, and queer theory. We will be asking: what role has loneliness played in the history of philosophy? How has it structured philosophy’s attempts to establish the foundations, possibilities and limits of both subjectivity and community?

Part of The English Association’s series on “Loneliness and Technology” – 15 April 2021

Thinking Loneliness is the sixth event in our series of The English Association’s special interest group on Loneliness and Technology.

What is the relationship between loneliness and the history of thought? How have thinkers thought about loneliness through time? The reinvention of aesthetics in eighteenth-century Europe saw an influential upheaval of the relation between solitude and sociality. Whereas aesthetic experience might remain a lonely state in practice, its ability to conjure the human faculties into a state of ‘free play’ was thought to register its inherently communal nature, which Hannah Arendt understood to form the core of an unwritten and arguably still unrealised political philosophy. Like solitude, loneliness has also been a site of philosophical fantasies: of self-presence and self-sufficiency, but also of the possibility of disposing with, or escaping from, markers of identity or difference, including race, class, gender and sexuality.

This event brings together scholars whose work has addressed loneliness at the intersection of philosophy, critical theory, aesthetics, and queer theory. We will be asking: what role has loneliness played in the history of philosophy? How has it structured philosophy’s attempts to establish the foundations, possibilities and limits of both subjectivity and community?

John Paul Ricco outlines a queer ethos of finitude in which both solitude and things affirm time as only ever the time that remains

By looking at the ways in which Denise Riley’s essay, Time Lived, Without Its Flow, and Adania Shibli’s novel, Minor Detail, confront the singularity of death and what of life remains unlivable, and then turning to Dean Sameshima’s photo series, being alone, and zu verschenken(‘to give away’), Ricco begins to outline a queer ethos of finitude in which solitude and things are two principal existential and empirical affirmations of the sense of time as only ever the time that remains.

I will be in conversation with Jean-Paul Martinon (Goldsmiths). You can register via the Eventbrite link below.

Adam Barbu and John Paul Ricco in Conversation

Transcript of our conversation below.

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.

Notes:

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.

Adam Barbu and John Paul Ricco in conversation

Vtape, Toronto, 23 November 2019

Accompanying “Empty History,” the exhibition curated by Adam Barbu, Barbu and John Paul Ricco engaged in a public conversation about the works in the show and the curatorial premises that guided Barbu’s project.

Adam Barbu: Nearly four years following my participation in Vtape’s Curatorial Incubator program, I was given the opportunity to return as the 2019 Researcher-in-Residence. The residency took shape over the course of a year of self-guided research in which I explored various materials from the Vtape collection and engaged in a series of conversations with peers and mentors about possible new readings of queer curatorial ethics. Early on in the project’s development, I was encouraged by peers to think without direction, restriction or expectation, beyond productive curating, beyond the efficacy of art, beyond the institutional demands that are traditionally placed on curating as an instrumentalized pedagogical practice. As opposed to many of the recent exhibitions that have sought to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, for example, Empty History does not attempt to expose histories of homophobic violence or reconstruct fractured queer histories in the name of inclusion, representation, and recognition. Throughout the course of this residency, I have worked to think beyond the logic of reparative visibility, focusing instead on that which cannot be reduced to representations of identity, community, and shared history. Empty History does not engage with the term “queer” as a descriptor of a sexual identity category but rather as an interruptive force of abstraction and illegibility.

In this move away from traditional articulations of so-called “progress,” I have explored the ways in which artists use video to unwork the narrative conventions of queer history. Dierdre Logue, Paul Wong, and Lucas Michael do not seek to repair the unjust and the uncertain by fashioning new queer utopias. Instead, documenting performances of solitary, workless gestures and activities, their works pursue forms of pleasure in the broken, the unchanging, and the everyday. Life is presented in a fixed state. They appear as artifacts of impossible, empty histories without purpose or end, carried out at the limits of what is often deemed recognizable queer political content. The critique this type of research tends to attract is that it is too theoretical, too abstract, detached from the collective need to produce legible, explicit representations in the fight against social injustice. Yet Empty History examines how this idea of a non-productive, non-teleological, workless curatorial practice offers us a way outside the time of heteronormative capitalist temporality. If the very meaning of queerness is rooted in a foundational rejection of normativity, perhaps it is this commitment to non-teleological thought that renders the practice of queer curating queer. Empty History considers the unworking of the time of progress as the work of curating queer history. 

Through the frame of the residency and materials of my research, I have learned to embrace queerness as an intensified lateral movement. Early collaborators helped me think through the uncomfortable thought of an empty history, as well as my own anxious relation to progress. Having moved back to Ottawa from Toronto after finishing graduate school, I found myself emptying myself of an anxious attachment to productivity and success in the artworld. The structureless structure of The Researcher is Present program allowed me to slow down and let go of meaning. I have learned to embrace the false starts and the unresolved thought experiments—the wandering, the waiting, and the circling back that is queer curating.

Lisa Steele: I can’t help but recall the first wave of inclusive queer curating. From the 1980’s onward, we have seen so many exhibitions that adopt the belief that visibility equals progress—that if we can just be seen, then we are working against homophobia. Your show offers something like the opposite of that. I see works that are not simply identified as “queer.” They don’t reveal themselves. They do not present a story. And today, the story of queer progress has changed. There is gay marriage, there are conservative gay people—lots of them. There is something at stake in Empty History that is clearly different from that earlier notion of queering.

AB: Today, a number of influential curators remain interested in documenting queer progress by means of art historical inclusion. These exhibitions have become popular within major art institutions, functioning as evidence of a politically progressive programming agenda. With Empty History, on the other hand, I am simply interested in rethinking our relationship to the time of progress in ways that might be described as queer. 

John Paul Ricco: A liberal politics of inclusion can never attest to the exclusions that necessarily and inevitably follow this attempt to render the invisible visible. That which is excluded includes those things that don’t get recognized as political in the first place. Because they don’t gain legibility or recognition as markers of identity, they are discarded and considered minor or inconsequential. In the three videos on display, we see everyday, ordinary spaces and seemingly inconsequential gestures inhabiting the empty space that is created through this exclusion from the political. The works reveal the extent to which that empty space can actually become a site of potential that is not attached to any determinate end result. In this sense, they suggest a certain inoperativity. Part of the problem with the notion of political-historical progress is that it is absolutely operative, productivist, and goal oriented, when so much of our lives are, in fact, not lived in this way.

Here, we are seeing both an emptying out of progress, in the way that Adam is speaking about, but also a kind of temporary, inoperative occupation of that empty space that gets created through the necessary, inevitable exclusions that come with a politics of inclusion. Further, what we see is an attempt to occupy that empty space without claiming or appropriating it in the name of visibility or identity but instead keeping it precisely illegible. It is illegible as queer, it is illegible as politics, and it may even be illegible as art. This is, in fact, getting close to what we understand to be the act of artistic creation. We are describing a form of resistance that is, at the same time, de-instrumentalized. And that’s creation—creation as a form of resistance to the operative, productivist model. A politics of progress has kept us from a politics of creation.

LS: It seems to me that Empty History opposes the sort of productivity that is encouraged by most art institutions. I am fascinated by how Adam’s curatorial project has come to mirror the open-ended structure of The Researcher is Present residency program itself. 

JPR: There is a perfect pairing between the research practice, the thematic, and what we see in the gallery, which is somewhat unusual. There is, in other words, a real tightness in correspondence between the four works and the curatorial method. They are following the same kind of inoperative research creation model.

Kim Tomczak: These responses have led me to think about the economy and ideas of growth, perpetual momentum, forward movement, and so on. Today, there are radical economists proposing a non-growth slowness. Adam’s project helps me move into that space. I also think about the extraction economy. We assume that we will be extracting forever but this project invites us to consider how the economy doesn’t necessarily have to be productive in that kind of way. As John said earlier, life cannot simply be described as a progressive process. 

JPR: Researching within an archive is archaeological, and archaeological research is based upon an extraction of content and resources. This project is attempting to call that process into question. It tries to locate that which cannot be appropriated—that empty space that can still function without being extracted and claimed. I find it interesting that Adam spent a year in an archive and produced a show called “Empty History.” It goes to show us that one can, in fact, find that impossible, empty place within the archive. In this regard, the empty is the open. It does not signify a negation or the absence of content. The empty is that which is not appropriated, and each of the works are clearly open in some way. 

AB: Emptiness has taken on many different forms within the context of the residency. Earlier today, we spoke about the exhibition in relation to ideas of solitude and loneliness.

JPR: In each of the three videos, we face a solitary subject engaging in non-productive, workless activities. This inevitably begins to raise questions about whether that solitude is to be understood in terms of loneliness or as something other than deprivation. The works suggest a kind of aloneness that, in not wanting to produce a masterful subject, demonstrates the ways in which bodies can maintain both a sense of solitude and ways of being in a world that are not defined by isolation and loneliness. What we are seeing in these videos is not deprivation and a reduction of bodies but rather a kind of experimentation and openness. 

LS: These three individual figures are quite powerful. In thinking about solitude and worklessness, I find myself reflecting upon the past, returning to what we use to call “the collectivity of the movement.” That sense collectivity, of getting together, of building something, of doing this and that—it didn’t really go anywhere, it didn’t really work out for all of us. 

JPR: What is powerful about this project is that it does not seek to develop a new definition of progress. It simply asks, “Why progress?” At stake here is a certain self-divestiture of the subject, which, through a sense of anonymity, opens up the possibility of relations that are not predicated upon belonging or identity. In response to these works, we might want to think about collectivity or solidarity in ways that aren’t merely about individual expression, the expressive subject, and political polemics.

AB: Within this conversation about a retreat from the logic of political and economic progress, it seems that we are, at the same time, speaking about research and the values that become attributed to this work, both in the artworld and in academia. 

Lauren Fournier: Our generation lives in such a sped-up state—what is expected from a researcher in the artworld and academia is so extreme. The expectation that one can continue to produce at such a rate is ultimately destructive. I think about ways of pushing against this compulsion for speed and progress, which I too have been complicit in as a writer and curator. 

JPR: Those economies always operate based upon some sort of single general measure of significance. That’s capitalist logic, per se. In these works, there is an invitation for us to move away from the fetishization of work and labor and towards use and care. There is a wonderful moment in Paul Wong’s Perfect Day (2007), where he is searching within the archive of his CD collection desperate to find the Lou Reed record. We come to experience his frustration as he plays the CD only to find that it continuously stops and skips. From the point of view of use, what does he end up doing with the CD? He wants to take care of it. He washes the CD with soap and water in the hopes that it will begin to work again. Of course, it does not—but there is a way in which the work itself is still able to retain that notion of the perfect. There is something involved in the use and the care of things, like himself, his computer, his CD collection, and so forth, that this can still be a perfect day even though the scene doesn’t follow through to the end of the song.

Lucas Michael, Audentes Fortuna Iuvat (2001)

LS: Speaking of the individual works in the gallery, I am intrigued by the placement of Lucas Michael’s Audentes Fortuna Iuvat (2001) in relation to Dierdre Logue’s Home Office (2017). From a certain vantage point, it seems as though the crushed trophy sits underneath the scene of the balancing act. On the other hand, it appears that the prize that could be awarded to any of the artists—like it is up for grabs.

Dierdre Logue: When Adam and I unpacked the work together, I thought: There is a trophy I would like. We started talking about the notion of second place, which is my favorite place. The idea that we might reinterpret the value of these measures of success is key, with the added tension that, at any moment, I could fall and crush my own psychic trophy. 

I find it interesting that the sculpture shares a lot with video. It is placed on a mirror, which is reflecting light, and it is shiny and shaped but ultimately flat. It was chosen well, both because of its video-esque sculptural attributes and in its recognition that failure, or the lack of aspiring to the trophy, might be the prize. It is deflated. Its guts have been pushed out. But there were no guts to begin with, right?

KT: I am curious what to make of that term “failure” within the context of this exhibition.

AB: Dierdre, I am drawn to what you said about the symbolism of the trophy—that the so-called prize lies in not wanting it to begin with. Certainly, in recent years, there has been great deal of writing published on the relationship between queerness and failure. But this idea of failure would seem to suggest the opposite of success. And, as John has mentioned, this open-ended, empty space of self-exploration is not simply a matter of failure but inoperativity, impotentiality, and worklessness. In works like Perfect Day, what we see is a kind of lateral intensity that operates outside of the binary logic of wins and losses.

DL: The Queer Art of Failure (2011), along with various other texts in queer theory history, identify failure as a kind of departure from or resistance to traditional readings of success, especially in terms of cultural production. It is important to note that the works are not empty of other narratives, including moments of self-loathing, as in Perfect Day, or moments where the body is trying to work through something that in fact, lacks meaning, as in, Home Office. Failure has led us to think about our futures and how to navigate them as queer bodies. It has also given us certain permissions to begin thinking about ways in which artists might resist through the not doing of something—by means of negation. So, if we think about your thesis and the idea that these works might offer us the opportunity to reimagine history, then, in fact, they also offer us the opportunity to imagine not doing anything. That not doing anything could have enormously powerful implications on the future. In my work, failure has led to questions of future or futurity as opposed to the idea that failure has one necessary opposite or counterpoint.

JPR: I am hesitant about the language of failure simply because it retains so much of the subject and especially the psychological subject. Empty History doesn’t seem interested in documenting those kinds of struggles—of trying to be a subject or even failing to be one. Instead, drawing from the writings of Leo Bersani, what we are seeing is a move from the psychological subject to the aesthetic subject, and from the aesthetic subject to the ecological subject—that is, something beyond interiority or success or failure. It is, in other words, not about who I am but how am I the person that I am. In each of the works, there is an affirmation that, through these inoperative, workless activities, this is how I am who I am—this is my mode. These activities are not necessarily negative or positive but do seem to suggest the extent to which the “how” of how I am is so dependent upon objects, places, and things. In Fixed Kilometer (2018), for example, it is almost as if that is precisely what the artist is pointing out. It is that extension, which is, in passing, there, and there, and there. 

AB: Of course, the invisible distances Michael traces are anything but sequential. The video remains a fragmented portrait of the artist organizing his world at a critical distance. In certain instances, there are significant gaps in time that span between takes. Fixed Kilometer invites us to consider the absences that necessarily give shape to a work’s narrative structure. The video was not created quickly, and there is a great deal of living that is undocumented within the frame of the screen. I find myself returning to that which is not included in the final presentation of the work—namely, the countless surfaces that cannot but remain unscanned and untouched by the artist’s curious, wandering index finger. 

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. 

On Friday, August 7th, 2020 at 2PM (EDT) via Instagram Livestream, I’ll be in conversation with Adam Barbu, for a discussion of “queer solitude and non-reparative curating.”

Lucas Michael, Audiences Fortunas Iuvat, sculpture, 2011

We’ll return to Barbu’s recent exhibition Empty History (Vtape, 2019), now in the context of the COVID pandemic, and the current and ongoing degradation and dispossession of so many lives. Juxtaposing two theorists: Eve Sedgwick on “paranoid and reparative” reading, and Gilles Deleuze on “living in a world without others,” we’ll discuss an ethics and aesthetics of queer solitude as non-paranoid and non-reparative modes of being in the world. You can join the livestream here:

Instagram: @vtapevideoart

From the Vtape press release:

Late in 2019, Vtape presented the exhibition Empty History curated by Adam Barbu. This exhibition questioned histories of queer singularity and progress and was an elegant exploration of what he referred to as the “everyday”.

This conversation is a chance to revisit that exhibition and consider it in relation to the unprecedented conditions that surround us all. There is a short video currently available on the Vtape website that is a walk-through of the exhibition when it was installed in November-December 2019 in the Bachir/Yerex Presentation Space at Vtape. www.vtape.org

Works in the exhibition
DEIRDRE LOGUEHome Office, video, 2017, 03:33
LUCAS MICHAELFixed Kilometer, video, 2018, 46:35
LUCAS MICHAEL – Audiences Fortunas Iuvat, sculpture, 2011
PAUL WONG – Perfect Day, video, 2007, 7:30

Adam Barbu is an independent writer and curator based in Ottawa. He holds an MA in Art History from the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was the recipient of the Middlebrook Prize for Young Canadian Curators. Some of his past exhibitions include The queer feeling of tomorrow, Art Gallery of Guelph (2015-2016), A minimal doubt, Videofag, Toronto (2015), and The Circle Won’t Be Broken, Visual AIDS, New York City (2015). He has contributed to publications such as Canadian Art, Esse, Espace art actuel, Momius, and the Journal of Curatorial Studies.

Thanks to Christine Shaw for the screen capture!

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.

View to the U: An eye on UTM research · John Paul Ricco

I was recently interviewed by Carla DeMarco for “View to the U,” the podcast that she produces and hosts out of the Research Office at UTM. In our conversation, framed in terms of “the value of art in times of social upheaval,” we talked about my research, and “how past health crises have shaped art movements” and artistic practice. As Carla goes on to describe: “We also talk[ed] about some of the ways in which this current pandemic may influence artists now and in creations to come, and what kinds of things [I have been] doing in this time of solitude.”

If you are curious about social distancing as an aesthetic proposition, or how walking in the city today has taken on a whole new choreographic quality, have a listen.

Here is a link to The New Yorker article that I mention toward the end of the interview:

A New Doctor Faces the Coronavirus in Queens

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.

 

 

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