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The Decision Between Us

Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes

The Decision Between Us combines an inventive reading of Jean-Luc Nancy with queer theoretical concerns to argue that while scenes of intimacy are spaces of sharing, they are also spaces of separation. John Paul Ricco shows that this tension informs our efforts to coexist ethically and politically, an experience of sharing and separation that informs any decision. Using this incongruous relation of intimate separation, Ricco goes on to propose that “decision” is as much an aesthetic as it is an ethical construct, and one that is always defined in terms of our relations to loss, absence, departure, and death.
Laying out this theory of “unbecoming community” in modern and contemporary art, literature, and philosophy, and calling our attention to such things as blank sheets of paper, images of unmade beds, and the spaces around bodies, The Decision Between Us opens in 1953, when Robert Rauschenberg famously erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning, and Roland Barthes published Writing Degree Zero, then moves to 1980 and the “neutral mourning” of Barthes’ Camera Lucida, and ends in the early 1990s with installations by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Offering surprising new considerations of these and other seminal works of art and theory by Jean Genet, Marguerite Duras, and Catherine Breillat, The Decision Between Us is a highly original and unusually imaginative exploration of the spaces between us, arousing and evoking an infinite and profound sense of sharing in scenes of passionate, erotic pleasure as well as deep loss and mourning.

View a roundtable discussion of the book held at the Jackman Humanities Institute. 

264 pages | 6 color plates, 9 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Art: Art Criticism

Gay and Lesbian Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Media Studies

Philosophy: Aesthetics


“Ricco's close investigation of the non-relation aspects of relationality—the manner in which we do not come together—is . . . a crucial intervention into the aesthetic and ethical impasse that is ever-present in discussions of art after the participatory turn. . . . Ricco shows that the promise of a truly relational practice lies in maintaining a shared space that we do not stand apart from or in judgment of, but that we enter into separately with each and every encounter.”

Art in America

“Ricco’s book offers an insightful, at times brilliant, interpretive framework that challenges many of contemporary art’s current orthodoxies.”

Critical Inquiry

“Ricco’s engagement with Nancy’s writings on art and the body is detailed and wide-ranging. . . . Ricco’s overwhelming concern is to develop, through works of art, another thinking of relation beyond sameness and difference, to trace another space of sharing, and as such is of real value to the thinking of queer sociality to come.”


“Extraordinary and beautifully composed. . . . 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. . . . 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.”

New Formations

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

Philip Armstrong, Ohio State University

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

Lauren Berlant, University of Chicago

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

Tim Dean, author of Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking

Table of Contents



Part I. Name No One

1: Name No One Man

2: Name No One Name

Part II. Naked

3: Naked Sharing

4: Naked Image

Part III. Neutral and Unbecoming

5: Neutral Mourning

6: Unbecoming Community




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