Of queer neutrality.
In what way does the concept of 'decision' invariably involve space and being-together? How can it be at once a relational term and a mark of apartness that structures being? To decide something means to already come belatedly to a scene of decisions that has preceded us without our knowing. Perhaps the simplest and yet most complex artifact that radiates these questions, taken from John Paul Ricco's extraordinary and beautifully composed new book, is the blank sheet of paper: on the one hand, as a medium of inscription, representation, and communication, it subtends and actualizes the decision to commit word and image to the page; on the other, it is the inert blankness that overrides any inscribed decisions in the first place, undoing and admonishing forms as the paper's whiteout points to what is always already there--the vacancy of the emptied and erased page that endlessly separates meaning from matter, sense from sensuality, subject from object. Like the bounding lines of an Agnes Martin drawing, where ink seems to cut into a background that very soon pulses to the fore at closer view, the blank sheet is the aesthetic event, collecting us together to decide while also dispersing us of judgment by way of its residual and persistent nothingness. In The Creation of the World or Globalization, Jean-Luc Nancy notes that 'separation, the stepping-out-of-one-another, is at the same time, Ent.scheidung, decision: it is the decision of Being, the decision of nothing into being or to being ... the whole of existence as an ensemble or partition of singular decisions'. (1) Citing this passage in his introduction, Ricco draws us towards queerly intimate scenes of separation, differentiation, anonymity, or together-in-aloneness, scenes that appear just as soon as they disappear into several contemporary visual, theoretical and literary objects that wrestle with the impersonality of sociability and sexuality. In the second term that guides the book, 'scene', Ricco again turns to Nancy, in order to consider how being-together, if thought performatively, exceeds figuralization: 'scene' describes the 'spacing and transitivity' that at once establishes the mobile mise-en-scene of exposed being. In other words, 'scenes' describe 'the name for the spacing and transitivity of being-together (the to or toward of shared exposure), which perhaps even does without a figure and identification' (p8). The scenic is the space of decisions, and throughout his book, Ricco's arguments pay strong tribute to a mise-en-scene set by Nancy, Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot. His readers are led along pages of deft analyses that are concise and tightly woven, if at times allusive and uncompromising in their unwavering attention to an archive of anti-identitarian and anti-relational thought.
And in a similar way as in his first book, The Logic of the Lure, Ricco pursues a series of'scenes' that primarily engage Nancy's theoretical opus as an impetus for aesthetic elaboration, particularly the recurring notion of a queerly 'inoperative community' that balks at economization, membership, or identification. It is to this precise point that Ricco consistently returns in his writing: the anonymity of relationality itself, the sheer impersonal demands of shared, common, life-in-retreat. As a reminder of the failures of expectation and awareness that sear the social, Ricco tarries with the ethical, political and aesthetic practices through which an 'unbecoming community' might be thought.
In this way, The Decision Between Us argues for an inoperative aesthetics, or a perversely Kantian purposive purposelessness that endlessly performs this negative strain, cutting through the liberal norms of co-existence, belonging and commonality. If the book's analytic language often seems to ward off any positive declarations, it is because the scene of the decision, for Ricco, is aligned not with autonomous agreement or consensus, but with forces of thought that are external to or outside of decisions themselves. We are thus quite far away from conventional reductions of decision to mere 'decisionism', or the self-authorising and arbitrary acts of the empowered sovereign.
For Ricco, decision involves spatial cuts and arrangements that art effects and in whose wake further decisions follow. Separation is existence itself; it occurs without our doing and yet it is necessarily productive of our coexistence in a world that must separate just as much as it is shared. For Ricco, 'the aesthetic is the technique and the praxis of standing in this groundless ground, or as Nancy has put it: "the art of standing, what permits in general having or maintaining a standing in, including and especially, where there is no longer any support or firm basis for whatever stance there is'" (p4). Art and art's ethical deliberation are thus of a piece in this study: ranging in examples from Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Breillat, to Nancy, Jacques Derrida, Jean Genet, Marguerite Duras and (most magnificently) Roland Barthes, Ricco carefully traces the various performances of unbecoming through which existence occurs in the interstices of (in)decisions. Aesthetic work, Ricco reminds us, happens; it describes, shares in, and performs the very spacings of decisions that cannot ever substantialise in the 'groundless ground' of the aesthetic. And, as a consequence, art measures (even if it is measureless) the infinite demands of an ethos that appears and disappears under our feet.
The queer account of non-relationality has had powerful critics in recent scholarship (Berlant, Bersani, Dean, Edelman, Halberstam, Haver, Hocquenghem), and like these interlocutors Ricco works to excavate the alternate relational modes that art affords us in the absence of belonging. For Ricco, however, the contours of negative sociality open onto more affirmative judgments: his vocabulary of apartness, intimacy, erasure and spatiality energises a kind of errant critical writing that erotically wanders around these discursive sites, mapping or testing out the spaces around concepts even as they recede from view. Take his two opening essays from Part I, 'Name No One', which circle around various pairings: Freud with/out Derrida, de Kooning with/out Rauschenberg, Rauschenberg's erasure of a de Kooning drawing, and Genet's reflections on Rembrandt. In each of these couplings, Ricco comes back to the blank or torn sheet of paper as both object and praxis through which erasure and self-deletion perform 'the abandonment of its site, the path or trail that drawing accedes to in its retracing of erasure's withdrawal and retreat' (p28). Unbecoming alliances or connections occur in works that insist on their self-abandoning efforts: in Rauschenberg's erasure of a de Kooning drawing, modes of impersonal attraction occur alongside, athwart, or adjacent to erasing/drawing. All operate with and against each other, utterly incommensurable and still productive in their negativity. Similarly, in Ricco's breath-taking rereading of Barthes's own reading of one of Robert Mapplethorpe's self-portraits that depicts the photographer with an outstretched arm against a white background, Ricco perceives Mapplethorpe as 'literally gesturing, if not exactly pointing, to the space just beyond the frame, the space off-camera as though offstage' that surrounds the body as the blankness pulverizing our desire to find recognition in the subject's gaze (p143). Ricco's chapter on Barthes, 'Neutral Mourning', constitutes the most powerful pages in the book, and it deserves to be emphasised that he brilliantly brings us toward a stranger, more captivating Barthes of the (Blanchotian) neutral--the critic obsessed with neither loss nor mourning, but with an emergent, non-developmental, zero-degree formalism, a structure of absence that is effective in its latency and self-abdication. This Barthes is the critic of withdrawal, emptied reserve, and affectlessness, all obliquely quickening notions that Ricco interprets throughout Barthes's writings, but especially in Camera Lucida's own mixture of sexuality and aesthetics. Ricco's reinterpretation of this masterpiece and its familiar repertoire of punctum and stadium is nothing short of extraordinary; along with Geoffrey Batchen's edited volume, Photography Degree Zero, it would not be overstating things to say that The Decision Between Us reinvigorates Barthes for photography studies in a way that remains unmatched in most of the field's scholarship.
Ricco is equally impressive in his concluding thoughts on the scenes of withdrawn decisions in Felix Gonzalez-Torres's art installations, the temporality of HIV/AIDS, and queer ethics. Commenting on Torres's famous heap of candy wrappers memorializing his lover and titled 'Untitled' (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), Ricco theorizes how Torres's invitation to gallery goers to take bits of wrappers becomes part of the work's 'scene of retreat ... those who encounter the work are invited, or at least offered the decision, to partake in its infinite withdrawal' (p173). The pile of wrappers is a site of decisions as well as (in its seeming inertness) a catalyst for decisive movement through each spectator's anonymous placement vis-a-vis the work. That everything has already been decided between us--that the pile is there as an object to be perceived--also means that nothing at all has been decided in advance since every judgment is multiple, potential and indecisive. Both before and after Torres's installation, we find ourselves in a space that 'leaves', as Simon Critchley says in another context, 'decision open for invention while acknowledging that the decision comes from the other'. (2) In this way, the decision does not occur as a reflective resolution to a present context, but rather irrupts as the suspension of the context itself--for example, a memorial to a lover becomes the event of an infinite coming and going exacted by the finite thingliness of the candy wrappers. The singularity of the decision occurs between persons and things; it always bears the future anterior of exclusions that define us even as we strive to bind what is seared by the logic of separation.
If The Decision Between Us impresses upon us an ethics that is not coterminous with the self-possessed subject, the galvanising effect of this reasoning is to bring into view an awareness that art is the intensification of an ethics-beyond-ethics, a kind of thinking that occurs beyond mere identity, narration or historical contextualization. Among the various illuminating moves in Ricco's book is its immersion in the various environments it evokes and theorises, at once setting up scenes while at the same time distancing the reader from them, page after page. As readers, we cannot help but waver between decision and indecision with each of Ricco's arguments--every movement forward compels a further critique and judgment. Indeed, the book is buoyed by the anonymous, aesthetic power between decision and indecision, not as a choice between positions but as a contamination in the very space of the two that propels unending, queer deliberations.
Jacques Khalip is associate professor of English at Brown University. He is the author oiAnonymous Life: Roman ticism and Dispossession (Stanford 2009) and the co-editor of Releasing The Image: From Literature to New Media (Stanford 2011).
(1.) Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization, trans. Francois RafFoul and David Pettigrew, State University of New York Press, Albany 2007, p74.
(2.) Simon Critchley, 'Five Problems in Levinas's View of Politics and The Sketch of a Solution to Them', in Radicalizing Levinas, Peter Atterton and Matthew Calarco eds., State University of New York Press, Albany 2010, p49. My thanks to David L. Clark for bringing this passage to my attention.
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|Title Annotation:||John Paul Ricco, 'The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes'|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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