U of T’s John Ricco is an associate professor of contemporary art, media theory, and criticism. His work focuses on Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophies of politics, among other things, as discussed in his latest monograph, The Decision Between Us. His latest work is billed as an “exploration of the spaces between us”, including “scenes of passionate, erotic pleasure as well as deep loss and mourning”. Ricco took some time to talk to The Medium about his new monograph and his inspiration to write it, and provided a preview of his current project.
The Medium: What inspired this desire to conceptualize the staging of the space of decision in 20th-century art?
John Ricco: I have always been interested in thinking about social relations, and the spaces and forms of being together. In my first book, The Logic of the Lure, I focused on scenes of social sexual attraction. In the new book, I was interested in moving from questions of attraction and what lures one out toward other places and people, to the spaces that are shared between us in our social relations and encounters—spaces that are ones of separation. I argue that the extent to which we partake in the social pleasures is the extent to which we sustain this separated spacing. “Decision” is one name for how we participate in this space of shared separation. In the six chapters of my book, I look at works by various late-20th-century artists, writers, and theorists as examples of such scenes of decision in drawing, photography, and installation art, amongst other art forms and genres. One might argue that such staging of the scene of decision is present in art across the centuries, but my study is limited to examples from 1953 to the present, in part because this is the art historical period that I specialize in, but also because many of the works from this period foreground the participatory role of the audience or reader in his or her encounter with works of art, texts, etc. To decide to partake in the work, and thus immediately to be confronted with questions as to how and why to partake, is another way in which I think of these as scenes of aesthetic and ethical decisions.
TM: What was it about Jean-Luc Nancy’s theories specifically that drew you to his works more than anyone else’s?
JR: There are so many things about Nancy’s work that I find compelling and useful for my own. First and foremost is the way in which he is committed to conceiving such essential philosophical questions of existence and being, not in terms of the individual subject or ego, but as always shared. For Nancy, being is always “being with”. If that is so—and I completely think it is—then obviously the ethical is inseparable from the ontological because the ethical is the question of how to be and coexist with others.
TM: How long did this book take to complete considering your busy academic schedule?
JR: A book like this is almost always a long time in the making. It requires several years of reading, research, and conceptualization, along with many stages of writing and rewriting. Along the way, I presented parts of it at academic conferences, workshops, and public lectures, and/or as articles in journals. I finished the first draft of the complete manuscript and submitted it to the press right around the end of 2011. It then took a little more than two years for it to be proofread and edited, and for it to go from manuscript to a fully designed, formatted, indexed, and printed book. This entire process from conception to publication took about five years to complete and many hands were involved in addition to my own.
In terms of my academic work, essentially whatever time is not allocated for my teaching or administrative duties is devoted to my research and writing. I try to strike a balance between all three aspects of my job, and to set aside time nearly every day to work on whatever research or writing projects I am currently engaged in. It is easier during the summer, when I am not teaching, to make significant progress on my own work—and, of course, sabbaticals, such as the one I am on right now, provide incredibly valuable uninterrupted time to focus on a long-term project.
TM: Tim Dean called you “one of our most brilliant philosophers of visuality”. Does praise like that influence how you write?
JR: Well, I can easily return the compliment and say, unequivocally, that Tim Dean is one of our most brilliant philosophers of sexuality. Everyone should read his book Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, which is hands-down the best book on sex and sexuality out there. So when someone whose work you admire and have learned so much from says something like that about you, you cannot help but be completely honored and deeply humbled at once. As far as influencing the way I write… well, it certainly raises the stakes, doesn’t it!
TM: Can you tell me a little more about Non-Consensual Futures? How do you feel the use of violence has altered neo-liberalism?
JR: You are referring to my current research and book project, which I had been calling Non-Consensual Futures, but which now carries the title The Outside Not Beyond: Pornographic Faith and the Economy of the Eve. It is the third book in a trilogy, following upon The Logic of the Lure and The Decision Between Us. As I mentioned earlier, the first book was about attraction and the second was about decision, and now the third is about departure and abandonment. It grows out of two areas of research: one on the images of bodies falling from the World Trade Centre towers on 9/11, and the other on various instances of excess and the overflowing of corporeal limits. What ties them together are the ways in which bodies come to be defined in terms of their exposure to the outside, a spacing that does not lie in some abstract or transcendent realm “beyond”, but rather is right there in such ordinary and everyday instances as the step of a foot, or the partial opening of the mouth. “Pornographic faith” is my way of naming the thoroughly corporeal comportment and exposure to this radical uncertainty, the pleasure, and of abandoning the sense of one possessing a secure ground from which to act, or a definite end toward which one will eventually reach. I argue that another name for this is “freedom”.
Much of my work on neo-liberalism’s use of violence originally emerged from two undergraduate visual culture seminars that I regularly teach in the Department of Visual Studies at UTM, one called “Capital, Spectacle, War” and the other “Architectures of Vision”. In my classes, we are interested in the ways in which images and visual spectacle are deployed by the militarized neo-liberal state to shock its subjects into states of fear and anxiety, as evidenced, for example, in the Bush administration’s use of such images of violence as part of its “war on terror”.
This interview has been edited for length.