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24 MAY - 10 JUNE 2017

In March, we started reading and reading made us vulnerable. Reading together always involves becoming suspicious of one’s interpretative habits, methods, and capabilities. Reading together involves making arguments for or about a text knowing that texts, even if they are cogent and robust, tend to be fickle things. This vulnerability, though, can be transformative. Acknowledging that what we bring to reading is the weight of our own experiences, orientations, affinities, and predilections, and acknowledging that reading together is never an exercise in scratching at the truth of the text, but in sensing out and staying with the tensions produced by our different priorities might, if we let it, enable us to imagine different, exciting modes of being together.


The prompt for our reading was recent writing by Lauren Berlant, Lee Edelman, Michael Hardt, and others around nonsoveriengty. Nonsovereignty provides a way of thinking through subjectivity as, first and foremost, relational. If liberalism structures itself around the fantasy, or aspiration, of the autonomous, sovereign individual, then nonsovereignty is an attempt to attend to the ways subjects are acted upon as much as, or more than, they find themselves acting. Thinking of ourselves as nonsovereign foregrounds what is unbearable, overwhelming, and estranging about being around other people, or, as Lee Edelman writes, ‘to encounter another is to have to confront our otherness to ourselves.’ (1) I would argue that nonsovereignty can make itself most palpably known when some scene of relation goes awry. Here, I am referring both to the ordinary violence of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, but also to small acts of tenderness, cruelty, or misrecognition that throw conversation sideways, that force an averting of gazes, a momentary pause as people try to pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and regain a handle on the situation.


None of the works in this project would make claims to illustrating the nonsovereign. Rather, the strangeness, and estrangement, of relation becomes something of a foundation upon which we might try to reckon with the world’s grip on us. Robbie Handcock’s paintings draw upon a lively archive of queer eroticism. These images are ecstatic, even utopian, gesturing towards a time before marriage equality, before the decriminalisation of sodomy in Aotearoa and beyond, before AIDS in order to make contact with the altered, and altering, forms of intimacy that find themselves able to flourish in hostile circumstances.


Laura Duffy’s work engages with intimate archives of a very different kind. In Laura’s work, one’s return to a lost love object appears as thoroughly mediated, whether through family documents, obsolete technologies, or the failures of memory. In Laura’s work, though, the failure of memory to bring about a satisfying return is not necessarily something to be disavowed. It’s an obstacle, but one that must be dealt with as a precondition for loving at all.


Ruby Joy Eade engages playfully with a psychodrama exercise called concretisation. Concretisation gives form to moods, traumas, messy relations. The object becomes a problem; something to be moulded, hidden, incorporated, or abjured. Here, emotional objects are rendered in the language of platitudes and cliches. They speak, though, to a failure of language itself rather than a failure of sincerity. Repetition and vagueness seem to make evident that locating oneself in a mood, in a scene of action, in a field of relation, all depend upon rubbing up against the limits of what words can do.


Aliyah Winter’s work is a meditation on the break down of a relationship from a queer perspective. Aliyah writes, ‘The artist documents their movements through their bedroom; their intimate domestic space. Through ritual actions they explore the nonsovereignty and nature of attachments to lovers through objects, sexuality and power.’


Michael Hardt, in his introduction to the term, calls nonsovereignty ‘a gauge of your capacity to really be in the world.’ (2) In this project, being in the world amounts to a continual undoing of oneself. Being in the world here requires remaining attuned to surprise, miscalculation, and misrepresentation, as well as remaining open to the possibilities contained within being undone for new forms of living together to make themselves known.


(1) Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable, Durham: Duke University Press, 2014, p. 68

(2) Michael Hardt, ‘The Power to be Affected,’ International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 28:215, 2015, pp. 215-216

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