Archive

Sex & Sexuality

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?

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?

I will be in conversation with Samantha Rose Hill and Christopher Law. You can register via the Eventbrite link below.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mahité Breton and I have proposed a seminar for the upcoming American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA conference), Chicago, March 2020.

Women and Sex and Talk

Over 20 years since Candace Vogler’s important essay “Sex and Talk” (Critical Inquiry, Winter 1998), and in the midst of the #MeToo movement and what has been referred to as the “#MeToo novel,” this seminar focuses on what women talk about when they talk about the pleasures, risks, inconsistencies and incoherencies of sex, desire, and intimacy, by looking at recent work by female fiction writers.

While mainstream discussions and debates on these issues often operate based on the premise of self-expression as the enunciative modality leading to self-mastery, writers such as Miriam Toews (Women Talking), Dana Spiotta (Friends and Innocents), Sally Rooney (Conversations with Friends), Jamie Quatro (I Want to Show You More), and Eimear McBride (A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing), have crafted narratives that affirm Vogler’s claim that “not all intimacies are affairs of the self,” and that the stories one tells about sex are not always speech acts in search of one’s sovereign subjectivity.

In light of this, what can the contemporary sex novel teach us—precisely through the de-personalizing virtues of fiction—about how women might talk about intimacy, sex, desire and pleasure in ways that make room for the unbearableness—indeed the near-unspeakableness—of sex. How might these so-called #MeToo novels, operate in distinction to the discursive self-assertion and “self-conscious rational agency” and “stable system[s] of sexual self-representation” (Vogler, 344) that are hallmarks of sex talk in the #MeToo movement?

The novels referenced above are stories of non-sovereign resilience “liberated from the fetters of selfhood” (Baumeister, Escaping the Self, 1991), and portray sex beyond romance and the sentimental romantic novel; a liberal egalitarian model of intimacy and love; and the imperative that sex be morally redemptive, psychically and emotionally fulfilling—and indeed, at times, the source of a secure sense of self. As Vogler argues: “at least some kinds of sex (I want to say, goodsex) can’t happen unless people stop worrying about who they are, and what the activity means to them, for them, and about them” (358). To talk about sex without these worries, might be a way to open both sex and talk to the political. Perhaps in terms of configurations of readerships of these contemporary novels, and the public conversations and differently structured intimacies that might ensue, in which the personal is not premised to be the only space of the political (or the sexual). We welcome papers on the novels and authors listed above, as well as other literary and theoretical works on women, sex, and talk, from a range of national and social-cultural contexts.

My essay on the film, Moonlight, has been published in CR: The New Centennial Review (volume 19, number 2, 2019).

IMG_2980

This essay on the aesthetic sociality of black life as presented in the film Moonlight.

I theorize the momentariness of intimacy as opening up a space of affective relations that circulate around loss and blackness, distinct from prevailing conceptualizations of mourning and melancholia. This is about a film and the principal character in that film (Chiron), that do not fit easily into established categories, and are not so easily inscribed within psychological profiles, performative selves, repudiating egos or sociological identities.

Counter to Munoz’s positing that the occlusion of temporal and affective investments in futurity and hope is “the gay white man’s last stand,” I argue that such non-developmental movements can be keyed to the racial, yet precisely to the extent that the racial is not defined in terms of identity, but instead would retain that which is more singular: not the nominal, but the adjectival. In which, following Barthes, the adjectival configures the moment (kairos), here on the scale of the eco-aesthetic (e.g. “moonlight”) and its colours (e.g. “blue” as in the central words of the film: “in the moonlight, black boys are blue”).

This is similar to what Candace Vogler argued at the end of her essay, “Sex and Talk,” when she wrote: “By cultivating not just the pleasures of self-expression, self-abolition, or self-disavowal [i.e. self-repudiation as in melancholy], a space might open up for a reading of a larger world writ into an intimate scene, and perhaps, from there, for imagining a kind of intimate engagement with a larger world as something neither hostile to nor affirming of one’s own most sense of self” (365).

I believe this space is where the (non-psychological, non-sociological) aesthetic imagination lies, and toward which it is directed. I argue that its time is the temporality of the moment, and its linguistic tense is the adjective: a description of a pre-linguistic cosmic-ascetic corporeality and retreat—something like Chiron’s “sovereignty of quiet” (Quasha).


I am grateful to David Clark for his support of this work and his reading of a draft of the essay, and Tom Roach for his feedback on a much earlier version. For their invitations to present this work, I want to thank Pascal Michelucci for his invitation to speak at the Queer Feeling/Feeling Queer conference at the University of Toronto; Peter Rehberg for his invitation to the ICI-Berlin; Bobby Benedicto for his invitation to speak at the annual Queer Theory colloquium at McGill University in Montreal; and to Andrew Finegold and Hannah Higgins for their invitation to speak at the University of Illinois-Chicago. A special note of gratitude goes to Kerry James Marshall and the folks at Jack Shainman, his gallery in NYC, for their generosity in extending the reproduction rights for Marshall’s stunning portraits from the early-1990s. It was right around that time that I first met Kerry in Chicago, and while we don’t get to see or speak to each other very often these days, I will always remember the gentleness, humour and deep history that he brought to all our conversations, including the work we did together as members of the Board of the legendary Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago, in the mid-1990s.

Finally I want to thank David Johnson and Scott Michaelson, Editors of The New Centennial Review, for their interest in my work; as well as Lance Conley and Arvind Singh for all of their assistance and patience in handling the illustrations, image reproduction rights, and page layout. The electronic version of the article features full-colour illustrations, bringing the vividness of Barry Jenkins’ filming and Kerry James Marshall’s painting to the fore.

Write to me and I will send you a copy. 

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For the annual conference of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (SLSA), held in Toronto in November 2018, art historian Hannah Higgins organized a two-panel session, titled “Fluxed Body Parts in 6’40”.

Each of us 21 panelists were asked to prepare a presentation on a particular body part of our choosing. However, we were all limited to twenty slides, and our accompanying comments were limited to twenty seconds. 20 slides @ 20 seconds each = a six-minute and 40-second presentation.

Inspired by the practices of Fluxus, but extending to a wide variety of other performative and conceptual models and modes, the presentations were some of the most animated that I have ever encountered at an academic conference. Participants and audience members agreed that the session was one of the most exciting, generative and memorable they had ever experienced.

Below is my presentation on “Anus.” It consists of 20 images, with each image accompanied by a short text that I read in 20 seconds, before the next slide image was automatically advanced. I had never used this format before, but I am now convinced that it deserves to be transported into any number of other settings, including the classroom, perhaps as a way for students to structure their in-class art history or visual culture presentations.

Bataille, L'Anus Solaire (book cover)

1. The anus is the most sovereign part of the body. The conviction of this insight belongs—first and foremost—to Georges Bataille who, in various publications from the late-1920s and early-1930s, including “The Solar Anus”of 1927, defined the butthole’s sovereignty in terms of it being a site of erotic, excessive, and useless expenditure. In other words, for Bataille, it was part of a general, as opposed to a restricted, economy.

Etymology of SOVEREIGN 
Adjective
*superānus (feminine *superāna, neuter *superānum); first/second declension (Vulgar Latin) sovereign, chief
2. Etymologically, anus as the Latin word for “ring” is present in the word sovereign, as the latter word also traces the resonance of ring and reign, such that, that which is sovereign is that which bears the ring or crown—the one who therefore reigns supreme. By the way, it is from super-anus that we also derive the word “soprano.”

Volaire, Vesuvius
3. Bataille is widely known as the philosopher of hyperbolic transgression, and in the context of my presentation, of an especially flaming excremental explosiveness, in which the volcano-ass/ass-volcano, that is: the volcanus, is one vision of excess that at this time, he names the Jesuve (a portmanteau that has been understood to be a combination of Je + Jesus + Vesuvius).

Hamilton, Slip It To Me
4. But I am interested in a quieter, slower and more subtle Bataille, while still remaining right at and around the ring or rim of the anus. This is the Bataille who regularly resorts to the language of slippage (glissement), and thus suggests the movement of an inadvertent sliding or slipping in, as opposed to a violent penetrating or thrusting.

Macaquinhos (color)
5. This is what the ring of bodies perform in Veloso, Caio and Dallas’ Macaquinhos (little monkeys). Their asses? Yes, but this word is also the slang for a woman who prefers anal over vaginal sex. For the Brazilian artists, the anus is the southern hemisphere of the body, and has the potential to function as its own democratic and collectivizing site, and as the opening of de-colonizing explorations of bodies, desires, anxieties, privacy and exposure.

glisser
glissant
glissement 
glissade 
glissando 
glisten 
6. Glisser (French: to slip) is one of a number of gl- words: glissant (French: slippery), glissement (slippage), glissade (a joining step in ballet), glissando (slide upwards or downward between musical notes), glisten (wet shine).

Derrida, GLAS (book cover)
7. Such glottal resonances were mined by Jacques Derrida in his book, Glas: the title of which refers to the knell or ring of the bell. As Naomi Waltham-Smith has recently theorized, this might be heard as the rhythmic sounds of the bio-political, and its own sovereign exceptions over bodies and pleasures; over the decision as to who lives and who dies.

Higgins, Glass Lass
8. Gl- is also the sound that we repeatedly hear and utter in Dick Higgins’ poem, Glass Lass, in which, in the iterative enunciation of those two words, we continuously hear and speak, as though from the depths of the text, the echo of ass—its own anal glossolalia.

Photo of Freud (gold eyeglasses)
9. Of course, it was Freud, in “Character and Anal Eroticism,” who drew a distinction between “anal” as character trait and what we can understand as the regimented ordering of obsessive-compulsive anality, as opposed to the de-sublimating libidinal energy of anal eroticism.

Fluxus Year Box 2 1967
10. What I want to suggest is that in the particular ordering produced by its partitioned (Year= Annus) boxes, and in the de-limited uses of the objects contained therein, Fluxus uniquely combined these two seemingly opposed traits, so as to achieve an aesthetic that is structure and play, at once.

Miller, Orifice Flux Plugs (box)
11. For the topic of anus, Larry MIller’s Orifice Flux Plugs (from 1974) is a quintessential example of this remarkable tension, in which a variety of a body’s orifices are all understood to be anatomical structures of flux, and no one plug is necessarily prescribed to fit into only one corporeal opening. As Leo Bersani notes: Freud implicitly argues that anal eroticism is indifferent to objects and the activities by which it is satisfied. Fluxus provides us with an artistic corollary of this object-based indifference, yet one that does not necessarily result in aesthetic—or erotic—dissatisfaction with non-completion.

Miller, Orifice Flux Plugs (label)
12. The label for Miller’s box features an illustration of a forefinger slipping into an anus, and thereby might be understood as the provided instructions for how to use the box, in which one slips a finger or two into any one of its compartments, as though each were its own anal cavity, and there find a plug and a means to play.

Maciunas (name)
13. As a portrait of George Maciunas, Miller’s box seems more than an appropriate object, not only because it is meant to correspond to Maciunas’ obsessions with the body’s erotogenic zones, but also because, on second glance (another gl- word), one notices that the last four letters of Maciunas’ last name, anagrammatically read as “anus.”

Maciunas Drawing for Miller's Orifice Flux Plugs
14. Maciunas drew this chart or table for Miller’s Orifice Flux Plugs, and in the three-columned row at the bottom labelled “ass,” listed: tampons, syringe, candle (repeated twice), rubber tube, suppository (mis-spelled) and condom. I have yet to decipher the logic that underlies this three-part division of the table.

Vautier, Flux Holes, 1964
15. With Ben Vautier’s Flux Holes, we are led to understand that flux equates with holes and holes with flux. Hence if any anus hole can be the site of flux, then there is an inextricable between flux and anus, and hence between anus and Fluxus. For Fluxus, the anus is sovereign, because the sovereignty of the anal drive lies in its mobility, its instability, its promiscuity—including its deviation from this drive as source and anus as site.

Leiderstam, Shepherds (first name vases)
16. This is even the case for gay men, yet importantly in ways that, as Leo Bersani argued in his classic essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” the anus is the site of a divestment of self and the burial of ego-investments. Those investments include identity, yet perhaps not necessarily naming, as evidenced in Matts Leiderstam’s series of ceramic vases with anal puckers where there otherwise would be openings. A range of colours indexing different skin tones, the vases, in their respective titles, bear the first-name anonymity of cruising.

ButtBlanc (anal bleaching cream)
17. This, opposite the recent trend in porno-cosmetic-aesthetics of anal bleaching, in which the skin around the ring of the anus is lightened in colour. How racist are you, when even your butthole must be white?

Larry Johnson, Donkey (2007)
18. With Larry Johnson’s Donkey, we have an image of how the anus can be the site of pleasurable erasure or, returning to Bataille, of useless erotic expenditure and the sovereign dissolution and passionate abandonment of self, subject, and the more familiar sovereignty of his majesty the ego. Of course with that, I arrive at the issue of our current political Annus Mirabilis—actually the past two years—and that relentlessly inescapable image of autocratic sovereignty. Not the sweet little pucker that I have been toying with, but the lips of this big asshole motherfucker.

Trump's Mouth
19. The ironic twist: Trump is the incarnation of anality that, in its combination of unrestrained sexuality and its brutal repression, operates as the mythical promotion (i.e. sublimation in the form of populist nationalism) of a fantasy of massive destruction in the form of radical reparation (“make America great again”). As Bersani concludes: “The anal character trait is anal sexuality negativized, a negativizing that—as in the case of individual and social compulsions of order—can present itself as a reparation, indeed almost as an atonement for a defiling explosiveness” (“Erotic Assumptions,” in Culture of Redemption, 46).

Delvoye, Anal Kiss
20. With his series of Anal Kiss prints from 2011, it is as though artist Wim Delvoye, had a premonition of the rise of these lipstick traces smacked in hotel rooms across the country as this asshole goes from rally and rally, and around the world as he kisses the asses of tyrants and dictators. It is our own Rorschach, testing our ability to perceive the subtle as well as the more bombastic forms and forces of sovereignty. For as Bataille noted immediately after WWII: “From the outset, the sovereign operation presents a difficulty so great, that one has to look for it in a slipping” (“Method of Meditation,” 1947).

Below are my opening remarks (slightly revised) to a day-long series of conversations with four of our most interesting novelists writing on sex today: Justin Torres, Jamie Quatro, Eimear McBride, and Garth Greenwell. The event took place at the University of Toronto, on September 22, 2018.

 

In Jamie Quatro’s novel, Fire Sermon, the main character and narrator Maggie, writes and sends an email to the poet James K. Abbott. Provoked by her admiration of his new collection of poems, she takes it upon herself to write to Abbott, even though they don’t know each other personally. She has however, come to know him, we might say, impersonally, that is, as a reader. This relation between the personal and the impersonal, the autobiographical and the fictional will be one of the topics of discussion today. But the other reason why I make mention of Maggie’s email, is because I wrote and sent out similar emails several months ago (in one case, a couple of years ago), to four authors, and like Maggie, I was provoked by the simple fact that I admire their work so much and wanted them to know that.

In writing to them, as a fan, I also was inviting each of them to come to Toronto, with the idea that not only would they read and discuss their work individually and separately, but that they would also have a conversation together, one that would focus on sex and sexuality, desire and intimacy, kinship, violence, writing and storytelling. While they are fully aware of each other’s work, in some cases having endorsed each other’s books—and at least on one or two occasions that I am aware of, were paired together at a public literary event—Toronto is the first time that all four appear together on the same stage at the same time.

I cannot convey how grateful I am that Justin Torres, Eimear McBride, Jamie Quatro and Garth Greenwell, were interested in such an event, and indeed that all of them unhesitatingly responded positively and enthusiastically to my invitation. It is, at the same time, nothing short of a miracle, I think, that all four of them were available on the same weekend. It is an absolute pleasure, distinct honour and personal thrill to have them here today, for what promises to be a unique and memorable series of conversations on sex and the contemporary novel.

In retrospect, thinking back to the genesis of this event, one of the things that I find most telling, is a complete inability to recall exactly which of the four authors I discovered first. Which book did I encounter first, and in what order did I then go about reading the others. The sheer force of their impression on me has been so great, that I can only describe it as something of a concentrated burst or unabated flood that occurred sometime in the past two or three years. This sense of an acute chronology of reading has not left me, even though I am well aware, based upon publication dates and the good fortune of being able to read these novels almost immediately after they came out, that Justin Torres’  We the Animals, is the earliest to have appeared (in 2011) and Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, is the most recent (it came out at the beginning of this year).

At the same time, in describing them as a group of authors that I cannot think apart from each other, I am not suggesting that their work has in any way lost its singular distinctiveness for me, or that I am in any way interested in christening a new school or literary sub-genre, under which the four authors would be branded, as though circumscribed by some sheer legibility of a certain marketability.

In addition to inviting four of my most favourite contemporary literary authors, I have also used this event as an occasion to pair each of these authors with a reader (each of whom is also a writer), all of whom I also greatly admire.  Precisely for the ways in which they move through texts, and the insights that I have gained from their singular reading practices. So, this afternoon, I also welcome Luis Jacob, Fan Wu, Mahité Breton and Chaya Litvack, each of whom shares a set of affinities with the author with whom they are paired.

In the overall spirit of wanting to keep this afternoon’s conversations as open, un-scripted and expansive as possible, I have invited each of the interlocutors to pursue their own path, and to allow the conversation to reflect their own particular engagement with the books, based not only upon the thematic of today’s event, but their own inclinations, proclivities, and commitments. All of the conversations that will unfold today will be the result of nearly first-time in-person encounters. Some based upon a extended familiarity with the author and their work, while in other cases, occasioned by the invitation to participate here today.

Here is how the day’s program will run. There will be four consecutive conversations between invited writer and reader, during which the authors might read from their works, and at the end of which there will be an opportunity for you, members of the audience, to ask questions. Ushers will have microphones, which we ask you to use so that everyone in the theatre can hear your question, and so that we can capture your voice on the video recording. We ask that you keep your questions as brief as possible, and that they take the form of an actual question. We have reserved close to an hour for each session, and between each conversation there will be a very short break, in order to facilitate set-up of microphones, switch out water glasses, and take a quick bathroom break. Washrooms are located downstairs, and we remind you that drinking and eating in the theatre proper are not allowed.

At 5:00PM, following the fourth and last one-on-one conversation, all four authors will gather together on stage for a final 1-hour conversation that I will moderate.  This will be an opportunity to discuss issues and to ask questions that in various ways extend across their respective works. After that, at 6PM, there will be a modest reception in the lobby, right outside the theatre, where the authors will be signing books—copies of which are available for purchase in the lobby.


I have organized this event as part of my SSHRC-funded 4-year research project on “The Risks and Pleasures of Bodily Abandonment and Freedom,” of which one component is a working group on “Sex, Ethics and Publics.” With this project, now in its fourth year, I have sought to bring together academics and non-academics in order to think about the relations between sex, ethics and publics, including in public forums such as today’s event. The conviction upon which the research project and the working group are based, is that the political begins in intimacy, and that the aesthetic (i.e. art, literature, etc.) plays a vital role in the conceptualization and imagination of this inauguration. Indeed, I argue that the aesthetic is a principal staging of the scene of intimacy, of which sex is one principal manifestation.

This afternoon is an opportunity to delve deep into the work of four of the most exciting authors writing in remarkably original, provocative, moving, and challenging ways about sex. As such, it is also an opportunity to think and talk about ways in which the contemporary novel is a critical component in the ongoing grappling with such questions as: “how do we talk about sex?” How do we tell stories about the sex that we have, want to have, wish we didn’t have, and, at times, wish we didn’t have to talk about?

Given recent events, it is undeniable that at this particular moment, the need and desire to put sex into words has proven to be as difficult as it has ever been. While sex talk need not always take a narrative form, literary narration—as in the form of the novel and the short story (but not limited to those genres)—can function not only as a zone of translation between sex and language, but more importantly, it can tell stories about the limits of sex, the limits of language, and the limits of their mutual rapport. The latter of which is its own form of intimacy, often structured as an impasse. Yet at times that impasse can prove to be its own form of passage, and even something of a way out.

One of the things that drew me into the work of each of our authors, and has kept me tethered to them, is the way in which each affirms the degree to which intimacy is inseparable from separation. That is, the way in which erotic and sexual—but also social, literary—forms of intimacy are not the overcoming of prior relational separation, but instead is the sustaining of that very space of separation. Each of these authors reminds us that intimacy is an intimate rapport with separation, and thus with that which exceeds the couple or even the group-form, the inter-subjective, the private, the domestic and the personal. Which also means that in intimacy, one is in rapport with what of the other remains impersonal and anonymous. It is here that we can begin to outline an ethical sense of intimacy, one that was aptly phrased by Tim Dean as the final sentence of book, Unlimited Intimacy, when he asked, “Why should strangers not be lovers and yet [still] remain strangers?”

At this particular historical moment, and in light of the social-media saturated environments that we are bound to inhabit, it is increasingly important to resist the data-colonization of the deepest recesses, but also the most exposed surfaces, that constitute the intimate dimensions of our lives.

When the anonymous stranger that I am invoking here has been reduced to an utterly formulaic identity and the algorithmic profile, and when the clandestine is on the verge of extinction through various processes of gentrification, and social-sexual imperceptibilities are rendered as marketable data, we desperately need fiction, poetry and art, precisely because they are places where we can continue to imagine the pleasurable mis-alignment of social subjects and encounters in passing, as scenes of intimacy.

As recently pointed out by Amia Srinivasan (“Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” London Review of Books, 22 March 2018)—and similar to the point I made earlier about the untranslatability of sex and the erotic pleasure—the care and use of bodies is not a transactional affair, as though following in the norms of capitalist free exchange (the less queer meaning of “trade”). For that way goes a contractual and liberal consensual model of intimacy (and sociality more broadly), that does not pay attention to the conditions that give rise to desires, attractions, impulses, aversions and yearnings. What Justin Torres, Eimear McBride, Jamie Quatro and Garth Greenwell all attend to in their own entirely distinct and unforgettable novels, is the very formation of sexual desire—the social and ethical, economic, spatial and aesthetic forces that shape their protagonists as the sexual subjects that they are.

In other words, for all of the many ways in which one’s sexual taste is utterly unique, it is also political. In reading them, I find sex de-personalized all the while the specificity of taste is not lost. Where the political conditions of sex and how it tastes are implicit, yet without ever falling into either a naive notion of liberal equality or authoritarian moralism. In these stories, the dynamics of sex (power, decision, attraction, repulsion) are rarely anything other than asymmetrical and opaque, and yet this is also precisely where not knowing the limits of the object of pleasure is accompanied by an unparalleled enjoying in the very non-knowledge of this pleasure.

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