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.
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.” A short edited version has just been published in FORGING, the sixth and final issue of a broadsheet series by Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). Free copies are available for download at the link below.
In a separate blog post, I will publish the longer, less-edited transcript of my conversation with Sarah.
Issue 06: FORGING
Published by Blackwood Gallery. September 2019.
Eds. D.T. Cochrane, Alison Cooley, Fraser McCallum, Christine Shaw
and Joy Xiang
Issue 06: FORGING is now available in print and online.
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.
In Yiyun Li’s autobiographical novel, Where Reasons End (Penguin Random House, 2019), a mother has conversations with her recently deceased son—a sixteen-year-old who has committed suicide. In many of their conversations, they debate the virtues and value of nouns versus adjectives, in which the boy always argues in favour of the latter (his “guilty pleasure” as he says). He lives in that space between somewhere and nowhere, and in that time that he refers to as aftertime.
Since, in my recently published essay on the film Moonlight (“Mourning, Melancholia, Moonlight,” CR: New Centennial Review, volume 2, number 2, 2019), I too have argued in favour of the adjective when it comes to the language of affective relations to loss and death, I was struck by the presence of these very same questions in Li’s novel, and its own meditation on an adjectival sense of things, including the time of those affective relations, keyed to the temporality of the moment.
Like afternoon, afterword, aftermath, and afterlife, in which the prefix “after” does not negate the continuance of what it precedes and modifies (noon, word, mowing [etymologically], life), aftertime at once marks the finitude of time, and an a-temporal zone that follows time.
It is in the chapter of Where Reasons End, titled, “Inertia,” where Yiyun Li creates an opening in the story in which her son can make clear that in his suicide, that is, in his decision to unfollow, he has neither unfollowed life nor death, but instead has unfollowed time. It is in this way that he exists aftertime, as that zone in which he is no longer behind time, following it (but he also cannot be said to be ahead of time either), but instead exists after the temporality of corporeal existence in his unfollowing of time.
It is life and death that can only be followed, but never unfollowed. As the son suggests, aftertime is the only time that can be unfollowed, as it slips away, in time, from life and from death. The temporality of the moment, in its temporal passing—in its slipping away—is intimately related to the temporal unfollowing that is aftertime. It is the time and place where reasons end. This time and place of aftertime and after life and death, cannot be cohabited by mother and son: he in his death, and she is in her life and her mourning, writing, and sadness.
She tells us that hers is not the “sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano” but the kind of “sadness that stays inside one, still as a stillborn baby.” Here we note that the stillborn birth is not not a birth—but is still (a) birth. It is a birth into death; that moment when birth and death coincide. Such that birth is not the burst into existence but rather a loss that is still affectively borne (carried) in its very momentariness by the mother. Here in the novel, for the mother, it is a sadness that cannot be brought to term (in the sense both of born or ended), yet is not interminable either (as in melancholia) since it has been born (as still). It is in this way that one might argue that the moment is the birth of stillborn temporality.
Stillborn is an adjective of time and specifically of momentary temporality: the aftertime of afterbirth that is afterlife. Such an adjectival existence might be what the son has in mind when he says, “There are ways to live not as a noun, or inside a noun, or among other nouns” (67). That is: ways of living separate and apart from identity, interiority, or community, but instead as exposed to the intimacy of the Outside, not beyond. At one point the mother asks: “How long does it take for the frozen [adjective] to become fossil [noun]?” (83).
There is here an ethical rapport to loss that pertains neither to mourning nor melancholia, in that it allows the fadable to fade and the erasable to be erased (74). It is about allowing things in their singular passage to pass, rather than to try to contain or enclose these inevitable passages (these fade outs and die-offs). As the son points out to his mother: “A noun is a wall, an adjective is a window” (66).
Could it be that nouns are the ways in language in which we try to hold on to things, whereas adjectives allow us to let those same things go?
And does this amount to some sort of proof of what the son realizes and comes to argue: that it is adjectives that are indispensable, and not nouns? Such that qualities might be the things-themselves (the unspeakable), and not merely the modifier of things? And that the adjectival can be a source and sense of freedom—including the ability to live free of things (of nouns). “The world would be a wilder place for imagination if you let adjectives go free without having to modify something, he said” (84)—something such as a life.
Later in the novel, we encounter the question of naming those someones who have lost someone, and the absence of any such names. “What do you call a parent who’s lost a child, a sibling who’s lost a sibling, a friend who’s lost a friend?” (114). As Yiyun Li points out, we are without names for those who have suffered the loss of someone. Except for orphan, widow and widower, there are no nouns to name the one’s who have lost—thereby pointing to the limits and sheer absence of nouns (but perhaps of all words, all language) when it comes to existential loss.
It is loss that cannot be followed or unfollowed by words—it is unspeakable. It is the place where reasons (and nouns) end. Loss’ time is always aftertime.
My essay on the film, Moonlight, has been published in CR: The New Centennial Review (volume 19, number 2, 2019).
This essay on the aesthetic sociality of black life as presented in the film Moonlight.
I theorize the momentariness of intimacy as opening up a space of affective relations that circulate around loss and blackness, distinct from prevailing conceptualizations of mourning and melancholia. This is about a film and the principal character in that film (Chiron), that do not fit easily into established categories, and are not so easily inscribed within psychological profiles, performative selves, repudiating egos or sociological identities.
Counter to Munoz’s positing that the occlusion of temporal and affective investments in futurity and hope is “the gay white man’s last stand,” I argue that such non-developmental movements can be keyed to the racial, yet precisely to the extent that the racial is not defined in terms of identity, but instead would retain that which is more singular: not the nominal, but the adjectival. In which, following Barthes, the adjectival configures the moment (kairos), here on the scale of the eco-aesthetic (e.g. “moonlight”) and its colours (e.g. “blue” as in the central words of the film: “in the moonlight, black boys are blue”).
This is similar to what Candace Vogler argued at the end of her essay, “Sex and Talk,” when she wrote: “By cultivating not just the pleasures of self-expression, self-abolition, or self-disavowal [i.e. self-repudiation as in melancholy], a space might open up for a reading of a larger world writ into an intimate scene, and perhaps, from there, for imagining a kind of intimate engagement with a larger world as something neither hostile to nor affirming of one’s own most sense of self” (365).
I believe this space is where the (non-psychological, non-sociological) aesthetic imagination lies, and toward which it is directed. I argue that its time is the temporality of the moment, and its linguistic tense is the adjective: a description of a pre-linguistic cosmic-ascetic corporeality and retreat—something like Chiron’s “sovereignty of quiet” (Quasha).
I am grateful to David Clark for his support of this work and his reading of a draft of the essay, and Tom Roach for his feedback on a much earlier version. For their invitations to present this work, I want to thank Pascal Michelucci for his invitation to speak at the Queer Feeling/Feeling Queer conference at the University of Toronto; Peter Rehberg for his invitation to the ICI-Berlin; Bobby Benedicto for his invitation to speak at the annual Queer Theory colloquium at McGill University in Montreal; and to Andrew Finegold and Hannah Higgins for their invitation to speak at the University of Illinois-Chicago. A special note of gratitude goes to Kerry James Marshall and the folks at Jack Shainman, his gallery in NYC, for their generosity in extending the reproduction rights for Marshall’s stunning portraits from the early-1990s. It was right around that time that I first met Kerry in Chicago, and while we don’t get to see or speak to each other very often these days, I will always remember the gentleness, humour and deep history that he brought to all our conversations, including the work we did together as members of the Board of the legendary Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago, in the mid-1990s.
Finally I want to thank David Johnson and Scott Michaelson, Editors of The New Centennial Review, for their interest in my work; as well as Lance Conley and Arvind Singh for all of their assistance and patience in handling the illustrations, image reproduction rights, and page layout. The electronic version of the article features full-colour illustrations, bringing the vividness of Barry Jenkins’ filming and Kerry James Marshall’s painting to the fore.
Write to me and I will send you a copy.
I just read the news of the death of Toni Morrison, and as on other occasions when I have thought of her—or when her work was brought to mind, or while I was about to read her or had just finished something that she had written—I immediately remember that unforgettable afternoon when I sat at the same seminar table (at Princeton) with her and Cornel West. She never would have asked me (or anyone else there), to justify our presence there. She surely trusted that each of us was there in good faith. The depth of her humanity was such that she measured—in her work, her public speaking, her interviews, and her critiques—the immeasurable (unjustifiable) humanity of others. This is a great gift and legacy that we must try to honour in our encounters, unintentional gatherings, and anonymous assemblies.
“We die,” Morrison said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
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.
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.
Below are my opening remarks (slightly revised) for a panel on “Queer Artists of Colour in NYC during the AIDS Epidemic,” at the College Art Association (CAA) conference, held in NYC on February 13th, 2019.
Two years ago, when the CAA conference was last held here in New York, I dedicated my paper presentation to Jann Marson and Amy Bingaman. Two friends: one a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Toronto where I teach, the other a grad school classmate while we were at the University of Chicago. Both had died in the past year: so young and smart and full of warmth, humor, and generosity. On that occasion I was part of a panel on Queer Art History, chaired by my friend, the young art historian and curator, Robert Summers. This past summer, Robert suddenly passed away. I received word just days after we had exchanged emails, in which we celebrated the acceptance of our respective CAA panel proposals for this year’s conference. In his email and in his customary way, Robert said: “we fucking better have drinks in NYC!” Well here’s to you Robert! I raise a glass in honour of your memory, and on the panel that you had envisioned.
When I heard of Robert’s death, I immediately knew that this panel must be convened. I wrote to Hunter O’Hanlan [Executive Director of CAA], who unhesitatingly supported the idea and made the necessary arrangements so that we could go forward. Robert was a dear friend and I will always admire his curating and writing, most especially in foregrounding the sex and sexiness, and the unapologetic in-your-face protest of contemporary queer and feminist art. This work included Robert’s founding of the not-for-profit Queer Art Network, in 2016, along with a particularly longstanding and special devotion to the work of Vaginal Davis. To all of his work in queer art history, Robert brought a degree of irreverence, wit, passion and fearlessness that will be missed by so many of us, including each time we gather at the CAA conference. I wish he were still here. I wish I didn’t have to serve as Chair Designate. I just wanted to see him up here, once again. Let’s give him the session that he wanted.
I will keep my remaining comments brief but allow me to say just a few things—axiomatic, no doubt—by way of introduction. AIDS cannot be thought outside of racism, and racism cannot be thought separate and apart from AIDS and all other manifestations of the biopolitical and necropolitical. The ways in which AIDS was racialized in New York City during the AIDS epidemic (and continues to be, right up to the present moment), is different from the ways in which it has been racialized say, in South Africa or other parts of the world. Indeed, between Manhattan and the Bronx, or even between upper and lower Manhattan, East Side or West Side, one must realize and contend with the essential multiplicity and heterogeneity that is the convergence of race, ethnicity, geography, art and AIDS. Which is also to say that it is impossible to designate and to know where each term in the title of our session begins and ends as a topic and object of inquiry (as well as a lived reality). Whether this be in terms of queer (vis-à-vis the history of LGBTQ politics), artists and art (the “who” and “what”), race and ethnicity (“of colour”), New York (i.e. the city); AIDS, and Epidemic.
In turn, if we do not attend to the irrecuperable losses, and the very real disappearances in the history of AIDS—the inescapability of these losses and disappearances—then our stories, and any possible understanding that they might lead to, will be compromised. To the precise extent that they will be limited to what has been preserved and remembered, or that goes without saying—business as usual. To learn how to die collectively: this is one of the lessons that AIDS, and most importantly the artistic and activist work that has occurred in response, bestows to us. Memories and histories that always will be incomplete in the midst of a pandemic that is far from over. This is about an essential inconsolability, but also of what William Haver has described as “the ultimately unspeakable radical historicity and sociality of erotic existentiality” (Foreword to Ricco, The Logic of the Lure, xi).
We are honoured today to have three speakers, each of whom brings to the discussion a unique perspective: historical and poetic, artistic and critical, autobiographical and impersonal. Yet no less embodied, and no less a part of a history that we share, even as we continue to figure out how that sharing might happen. Something like what Robert Reid-Pharr has simply and aptly described as the ethics of our remembrance.