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Scenes

On March 19th, I presented a talk titled, “Edging the Common” at the conference “Aisthesis and the Common: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere,” that was organized by the research group Media@McGill, and held at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, March 18th and 19th. Other speakers included: Jean-Luc Nancy, Santiago Zabala, Pierre Dardot, amongst others. Videos of all of the presentations are available at: http://www.aisthesis.ca/videos/

 

 

I was invited to deliver one of the Keynote Lectures at the 26th Annual International Comparative Literature conference, by the graduate students in Comp Lit at the University of Toronto. The other Keynote speakers were Linda and Michael Hutcheon, and W.J.T. Mitchell. My talk, “Edging, Drawing, the Common,” took place on March 5th, 2016.

John Paul Ricco, “Edging, Drawing, the Common,” Keynote Address at the 26th Annual International Comparative Literature conference, University of Toronto, March 5, 2016.

I am so pleased that my essay, “The Art of the Consummate Cruise and the Essential Risk of the Common” has now been published (in two parts) by Feedback, a truly excellent online, open-access critical theory weblog/journal. Part I: The Ethics of the Pleasure. Part II: Cruising as Aesthetic Intuition of the Common.

Gay Cruising Pair Bathroom Stall

The essay originated as a paper that I presented at last year’s American Studies Association conference (Toronto, October 2015) on a panel organized by Ricky Varghese titled, “Sex, Misère, and the Redemptive: Barebacking and Historicity.” I want to thank Ricky for the invitation to participate in what was a very thoughtful, insightful and provocative discussion.

In the essay, I argue that we need to shift from a language of self and other towards one of co-exposed singularities, in order to think further about an ethics of pleasure that is not predicated upon sacrifice—either of the other or of the self. In addition, I call for the need to think sexual and other forms of risk and pleasure in terms of the common. Based upon recent work by Bill Haver, the common here is understood as always a sense of the common—including the aesthetic intuition of, and erotic inclination towards, the impossibility of the common.

I also want to thank “Joe,” the photographer of the image that I have reproduced here and that accompanies both parts of the essay, for kindly granting me the permission to reproduce his strikingly beautiful, evocative and downright sexy photograph.

 

The other day I read Michael Wood’s review of Caroline Levine’s new book, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, 2015) in the London Review of Books (27 August 2015), and now I am curious to read Levine. Not because the four principal forms that she focuses on (listed as the book’s subtitle), are the kind of forms that I am interested in, but primarily for two other reasons.

The first, as Wood describes it, is Levine’s “suggestion that forms are never alone, that they get in each other’s way.” To think about forms as non-autonomous, is of course to completely re-define what we mean when we speak of forms. Here, forms are less stable, self-contained, and isolated entities, than they are understood to be  mobile, touching, overlapping, colliding and contaminating formative and “de-formative” forces. Their boundaries and limits are permeable or fluid, extending and overflowing. Contrary to conventional meaning and understanding, forms are not closed, but open. In a sense, we might say that it is at the place, zone, line or contour of the formative force of collision (for instance), that form is formed—as always singular plural. This leads me to want to make the claim not that there is (or are) a form of co-existence or being-with (formalism of the social and of form), but that the spacing of the “with” is what form means—both form’s source and sense.

Which leads to the second, equally if not more so, provocative and enticing theoretical approach of Levine’s, the one that Wood thinks “it’s worth pausing over…since it’s quite rare, and very promising.” At which point he hands the floor over to the author, who he quotes as stating:

The point here is less to use formalist methods to read Dickens than to use Dickens to throw light on the operations of social form. If this seems like literary criticism turned upside down, that is certainly part of my purpose. I have not understood literary texts in this book as reflections or expressions of prior social forms, but rather as sites, like social situations, where multiple forms cross and collide.

I too regard this as an extremely promising critical/theoretical approach to works of art, in no small part because in Levine’s self-description of it, I see something that closely resembles the approach that I have taken in my writing on contemporary art, literature and theory, most recently in my book, The Decision Between Us: art and ethics in the time of scenes. Whether this makes Wood’s sense of its rarity any more or less the case, I am heartened to encounter his estimation of it, and what appears to be a very compelling deployment. One that does not read the social back into the work of literature or art, or even reads the work outward onto the social, but that understands works of art—their forms—as social sites, or what, in my book, I mean by “scenes.”

In their attempts to think the relation of art and the social, aesthetics and the ethical, formalist methods operate with the assumption that one or the other exists prior to the other, and as a form separate from the other holds the potential to shape or inform the other. Whereas a non-formalist approach distinguishes itself by asserting that any notion of literary, artistic or social form is only possible to the extent that one attends to the scene where as Levine writes: “forms cross and collide.” To which I would go on to argue that it is “in” or “at” the coming-together and apart where forms are formed—where and how form happens—and neither before nor after.

Forms are thus re-conceived as needing to be sustained as the open and extended spaces that they are, in order to “remain” or persist as forms. Forms are incredibly fragile things, if not always, then often. Such that we might conclude that it is precisely such impermanent scenes that are the most worth trying to sustain, in and as the impossibility of their obdurate formal permanence. Therein lies the inseparability of aesthetics and ethics.

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

Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the latest issue of the online, open-access journal World Picture, on the theme of abandon. You can read and download my essay and the others in the volume, here: World Picture 10: Abandon

THESE SCENES OF UNBECOMING

A conversation with John Paul Ricco, Nasrin Himada and Etienne Turpin

Tuesday, the 31st of March 2015

6-8PM

Poetic Research Bureau

951 Chung King Road

Los Angeles, CA 90012

To celebrate the release of our recent respective publications, I will join Nasrin Himada and Etienne Turpin in a discussion of the ethics and politics of unbecoming. Within this theoretical framework, and in relation to various scenes, topics for engagement will include: violence, sex, death, brutality, sharing, extinction, pleasure, animality, mourning, confinement, and bodies. Copies of the publications will be available for purchase.

Nasrin Himada currently holds a post-doctoral research fellowship in Communications at the Université de Montréal, and is a visiting scholar in the Aesthetics and Politics program at Cal Arts. She is co-editor (with Chris Lee) of issue number 7 (Fall/Winter 2014 of the journal Scapegoat: Architecture/Landscape/Political Economy, on the theme of “Incarceration.”

Etienne Turpin is a philosopher living and working in Jakarta, Indonesia, where is the director of anexact office. He is the co-editor (with Anna-Sophie Springer) of the two-volume Intercalations: Volume 1 Fantasies of the Library; and Volume 2 Land & Animal & Nonanimal; both published by K. Verlag and Haus der Kulturen Welt, 2015.

U of T’s John Ricco is an associate professor of contemporary art, media theory, and criticism. His work focuses on Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophies of politics, among other things, as discussed in his latest monograph, The Decision Between Us. His latest work is billed as an “exploration of the spaces between us”, including “scenes of passionate, erotic pleasure as well as deep loss and mourning”. Ricco took some time to talk to The Medium about his new monograph and his inspiration to write it, and provided a preview of his current project.

The Medium: What inspired this desire to conceptualize the staging of the space of decision in 20th-century art?

John Ricco: I have always been interested in thinking about social relations, and the spaces and forms of being together. In my first book, The Logic of the Lure, I focused on scenes of social sexual attraction. In the new book, I was interested in moving from questions of attraction and what lures one out toward other places and people, to the spaces that are shared between us in our social relations and encounters—spaces that are ones of separation. I argue that the extent to which we partake in the social pleasures is the extent to which we sustain this separated spacing. “Decision” is one name for how we participate in this space of shared separation. In the six chapters of my book, I look at works by various late-20th-century artists, writers, and theorists as examples of such scenes of decision in drawing, photography, and installation art, amongst other art forms and genres. One might argue that such staging of the scene of decision is present in art across the centuries, but my study is limited to examples from 1953 to the present, in part because this is the art historical period that I specialize in, but also because many of the works from this period foreground the participatory role of the audience or reader in his or her encounter with works of art, texts, etc. To decide to partake in the work, and thus immediately to be confronted with questions as to how and why to partake, is another way in which I think of these as scenes of aesthetic and ethical decisions.

TM: What was it about Jean-Luc Nancy’s theories specifically that drew you to his works more than anyone else’s?

JR: There are so many things about Nancy’s work that I find compelling and useful for my own. First and foremost is the way in which he is committed to conceiving such essential philosophical questions of existence and being, not in terms of the individual subject or ego, but as always shared. For Nancy, being is always “being with”. If that is so—and I completely think it is—then obviously the ethical is inseparable from the ontological because the ethical is the question of how to be and coexist with others.

TM: How long did this book take to complete considering your busy academic schedule?

JR: A book like this is almost always a long time in the making. It requires several years of reading, research, and conceptualization, along with many stages of writing and rewriting. Along the way, I presented parts of it at academic conferences, workshops, and public lectures, and/or as articles in journals. I finished the first draft of the complete manuscript and submitted it to the press right around the end of 2011. It then took a little more than two years for it to be proofread and edited, and for it to go from manuscript to a fully designed, formatted, indexed, and printed book. This entire process from conception to publication took about five years to complete and many hands were involved in addition to my own.

In terms of my academic work, essentially whatever time is not allocated for my teaching or administrative duties is devoted to my research and writing. I try to strike a balance between all three aspects of my job, and to set aside time nearly every day to work on whatever research or writing projects I am currently engaged in. It is easier during the summer, when I am not teaching, to make significant progress on my own work—and, of course, sabbaticals, such as the one I am on right now, provide incredibly valuable uninterrupted time to focus on a long-term project.

TM: Tim Dean called you “one of our most brilliant philosophers of visuality”. Does praise like that influence how you write?

JR: Well, I can easily return the compliment and say, unequivocally, that Tim Dean is one of our most brilliant philosophers of sexuality. Everyone should read his book Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, which is hands-down the best book on sex and sexuality out there. So when someone whose work you admire and have learned so much from says something like that about you, you cannot help but be completely honored and deeply humbled at once. As far as influencing the way I write… well, it certainly raises the stakes, doesn’t it!

TM: Can you tell me a little more about Non-Consensual Futures? How do you feel the use of violence has altered neo-liberalism?

JR: You are referring to my current research and book project, which I had been calling Non-Consensual Futures, but which now carries the title The Outside Not Beyond: Pornographic Faith and the Economy of the Eve. It is the third book in a trilogy, following upon The Logic of the Lure and The Decision Between Us. As I mentioned earlier, the first book was about attraction and the second was about decision, and now the third is about departure and abandonment. It grows out of two areas of research: one on the images of bodies falling from the World Trade Centre towers on 9/11, and the other on various instances of excess and the overflowing of corporeal limits. What ties them together are the ways in which bodies come to be defined in terms of their exposure to the outside, a spacing that does not lie in some abstract or transcendent realm “beyond”, but rather is right there in such ordinary and everyday instances as the step of a foot, or the partial opening of the mouth. “Pornographic faith” is my way of naming the thoroughly corporeal comportment and exposure to this radical uncertainty, the pleasure, and of abandoning the sense of one possessing a secure ground from which to act, or a definite end toward which one will eventually reach. I argue that another name for this is “freedom”.

Much of my work on neo-liberalism’s use of violence originally emerged from two undergraduate visual culture seminars that I regularly teach in the Department of Visual Studies at UTM, one called “Capital, Spectacle, War” and the other “Architectures of Vision”. In my classes, we are interested in the ways in which images and visual spectacle are deployed by the militarized neo-liberal state to shock its subjects into states of fear and anxiety, as evidenced, for example, in the Bush administration’s use of such images of violence as part of its “war on terror”.

This interview has been edited for length.

Published: Monday, September 29th, 2014

University of Chicago Press, March 2014.

University of Chicago Press, March 2014.

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

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

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

Philip Armstrong, Ohio State University

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

Lauren Berlant, University of Chicago

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

Tim Dean, State University of New York at Buffalo

 

 

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