Intimacy: inseparable from separation

John Paul Ricco

What do we mean when we say that we “make the bed?” Is the making involved here the same making as when we talk about “making love?” Exactly what kind of “making” are we talking about, and what is it that is being made by these forms of poiesis? “Making” (poiesis) would here seem to refer to a kind of doing (praxis), yet a doing such that in nothing being “made” or produced—neither the bed nor love—we might say that the making of love and the making of the bed are the inoperative praxis of poiesis. They are workless forms of making, and thus affirm—through love or the bed—that that love and that bed are always already unmade.

As Jean-Luc Nancy explains, the most important sin that Augustine accuses himself of “is that of having loved love instead of loving God.” As Nancy reads this, “’To love love’ signifies that it’s not a person one loves, but love itself, which comes down to saying that one loves making love…or that love pleases itself in making love [l’amour se plait à se faire] (“Sexistence,” 67).[1]  So to “make love” is to make nothing other than loving—loving that is the making of its very own pleasure. In this sense, making love is not making but loving—it is loving love, or the loving that is love’s making. Therefore we might say that in “making love” one loves making unmaking—i.e. that specific unmaking that is loving. Loving is unmaking, and the inoperability of its praxis is also the source of its sensuous pleasure and enjoyment.

In turn, if making the bed implies that the bed has been previously unmade, we might say that the already-unmade bed presents itself as a scene where sex has always-already happened. Making love is then not only a matter of affirming the extent to which the bed is already-unmade, but also of affirming the immeasurable extent to which the making of making love is prior to any production. Sex is the name for this making prior to production—including prior to the making of love. In other words, sex is our first intimation of love as already-unmade, and the relation between having sex and making love traces the intimate rapport between the made and the unmade.

The operative poietic production implied in “making love” is never anything other than the unavoidable slippage toward the inoperative praxis of having sex, and the unmade bed—its rustled sheets, indented pillows and castoff blankets—is the scene of this slippage.[2] As we know, love and sex are hardly opposites and therefore I should not be taken to be arguing that one is more (or less) inoperative (or operative) than the other. As Jean-Luc Nancy has put it: “To make love is to undo my being, my possession, and my work; it is to make an absolute nonwork” (“Sexistence,” 111). Instead, I am interested in thinking about the intimate rapport between sex and love and, further, in thinking this rapport not in terms of sameness but as a relation to the same (i.e. the undecidable and unmade) and how this might be a way of theorizing the rapport that goes by the name of “intimacy.” I want to suggest that intimacy is a relation to this intimate rapport between sex and love, between the made and the unmade (a relation that is never anything but asymmetrical and non-bilateral).

Intimacy is our first intimation of our rapport with the undecidable and hence with the unfinished or unmade. But also and at the same time (or place), intimacy is itself unfinished and unmade. Intimacy is the same that remains undecidable in the separation that we share between us.[3] It is difficult to know where sex begins and ends, and where the relation between sex and love begins and ends. Obviously there can be sex without love and love without sex, but when it comes to having sex and making love, the latter is not simply or only a euphemism for the former. Intimacy is our attempt to take the measure of these limits and distinctions, and it is intimacy that names our sense that such limits ultimately remain immeasurable and indistinct. In that immeasurability lies the pleasure and the risk of intimacy, including the intimate rapport between pleasure and risk.

It is in this way that we can understand how in the midst of intimacy—a “midst” that as we’ll see is a between-spacing, separation, and edging-extremity—is always an unmade bed (whether literally or metaphorically).[4] Which is also to suggest that at the heart of intimacy there is sexual relation or sexuation (following Nancy following Lacan). Not only an aroused relation, but, as Nancy argues, the arousal that relation is—relation’s aroused a-reality. A-reality in the double sense articulated by Nancy: 1) neither real nor unreal nor ideal; and 2) area: spaced-out; extension, peri-space, spread out, ecstatic; “the quality of space and extension prior to any spatiality” (Ego, 19). A-reality then is an opening that is not empty but overflowing in the excess of its actuality, a spillage over the edge that exceeds the end and any sense of reserve. Intimacy might then be understood not as an absorption by and interiorization of relation, but a surplus that while shared at the same time exceeds relation—including any form of attachment. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that intimacy is not relational if, that is, relation implies the immanence of between-ness as shared enclosure. Instead, intimacy is relation’s pure leaving or, more precisely, it is the force or touch of the outside as the rapport and sense of between as shared-exposure.

Exposure, Separation, Outside: this is what is most intimate. This is what the word “intimacy” as superlative of intus, means: the most intus, the most interior, the innermost. It is in this way, that we can read Augustine’s well-known formulation interior intimo meo on an atheological register, as that which describes the outside as more intimate than my (or “our,” nos) innermost interiority.  As Marie-Eve Morin has recently suggested: “Rather than speaking of an outside of me, we should speak of a ‘me-outside,’ of me as outside” (“Abyss,” 114). So too of “us:” when we speak of intimacy, we should speak of an “us-outside.” Of all the things that are most interior, the “thing” (precisely not a thing; no-thing) that is farthest out is intimacy. Intimacy offers us and is the access to one of the greatest (most innermost) extremities. Intimacy is one name for the rapport of shared-separation, a separation that is the between-spacing opened up by the force of the outside that we are exposed to, in the finitude that holds us together-apart—which is to say: in common.[5]

As a shared exposure to the outside, intimacy is what it might mean, following Lauren Berlant, “to write relationality into the unconditional” (Sex, 49). But it is also what it means to write the unconditional into relationality, and even further, to think the non-relational relation that is intimacy as that which is without condition—including either in terms of attachment or negation.

Separated from and without conditions, we might say that intimacy’s only condition is separation—as opposed to say, attachment. Yet at the same time, separation (or division or some other form of partitioning) is not to be conceived solely in negative terms, including as a source of negativity, as Lee Edelman has argued. In his dialogue with Lauren Berlant in their book Sex, or the Unbearable, Edelman goes further than I think he has ever gone in positing negativity as primal, radical and ontological, and, at times, as metaphysical in its persistence and absoluteness. As when he writes: “Negativity is unchanging as structure because negativity structures change” (Sex, 121). According to Edelman, it is this persistence of the negative that will always make our various forms of encounter with its “unchanging structure” unbearable. Indeed! Edelman thinks that each and every space of division and separation—as the spacing of encounter between us—is always negatively charged. He makes this clear earlier on in the book, when he writes: “If I call that space between us, that gap of our want, the place of the no, it’s not just to make another pitch for the primacy of negativity but also to attend to the space in which such negativity always takes place” (Berlant & Edelman, Sex, 36-37, emphasis added).

Opposite Edelman, in my work I have argued that separation is not negative (nor positive), but instead is ontologically patent: inseparable from the facticity or a-reality of existence, and therefore perhaps closer to the “neutral.” Descartes knew this yet he did not begin with separation (as I have), even though, as Claire Colebrook has recently pointed out, “that is exactly what the Cartesian project promises” (Sex, 59). In that promise lies the intuition that the sense of existence is the decision of existence neither in advance, nor once and for all, nor as the transcendental speculation of some universal common sense.  Instead, the sense of existence is each time the decision to sustain the separation between us and things and the world.

Philosophically this can be tracked as the move from Descartes’ doubt to Nancy’s decision, beginning with Nancy’s early book on Descartes: Ego Sum. For at the originary separation of Cartesian sense, Nancy has located sharing or partaking. If for Nancy, existence is always co-existence, separation remains inseparable from any sense of existence. This separated spacing is the unconditional condition of co-existence, including that form of rapport that goes by the name of intimacy. Intimacy is not the overcoming of this structuring (or spacing) separation, but is the shared sustaining of the separation between: a “between” that is not always dualistic and, in the multiplicity of its being-with, extends out to- and toward. Such that being-with is being-to, and being-to is the exposure and abandonment to the outside, not beyond. Thus intimacy exceeds any relational sense of “between-ness,” and, as the pleasure and risk of bodily abandonment, intimacy is not the negative or repudiating movement of abandonment “from,” but is abandonment “to,” without any given sense exactly as to or toward what. Thus intimacy is without aim, goal, telos, or end. Instead, intimacy is that sense and rapport—indeed that sensuous rapport—that enjoyment, jouissance, and feeling of one’s existence as (following Kant, but only up to a certain point) “nothing more than to feel oneself continuously driven to leave the present state.”[6] While Kant posited pain as the originating motivating force for this movement outward, I assert that separation is the onto-condition of existence—existence’s source and sense—from out of which both pleasure and pain can arise. Impossible to negate, or to overcome while still continuing to exist, separation can only be experienced, though never alone, but always together apart with others.[7]

In the abandonment of being-toward no-thing (nothing), intimacy is untoward (inconvenant, malséance, unseemly, unbecoming). In the midst of untoward intimacy (a pleonasm), the bed remains an equally unseemly scene; and like the bed, intimacy is not really ever empty, but instead is already-unmade. The already-unmade bed is not the scene of negation, nor is it the negation of the scene, but as the deposition, departure and abandonment of subjects is precisely what we mean by scene—including that scene called intimacy.

In thinking about separated and untoward intimacy not in terms of the negative but of the neutral, the latter for me is not an anesthetizing neutralization. The neutral here is abstract in a pornographically perverse way, not unlike the way in which Andy Warhol claimed that, “sex is so abstract.” I have always heard this phrase as entirely resonant with the erasure of futurity, the anonymity of the impersonal encounter, and the abasement of the ordinary that punctuate the here-now-this of what Bill Haver has theorized as queer’s honour and the pornographic life. In his essay, “Really Bad Infinities,” Haver queers the Hegelian dialectic not by absolutizing negation but by drawing out the ways in which separation is the overflowing source and sense of what in the context of this essay I am calling intimacy.

One figure for this infinite sense of intimacy—a sense that is at once erotic and aesthetic—is the image from Miranda July’s film Me, You, and Everyone We Know (2005) that Berlant turns to, in her discussion with Edelman, as her example of a scene of sex without optimism.[8] Specifically, I am referring to the ideogram that one of two young brothers creates during an online sex chat session. If you’ve seen the film you will no doubt recall that the two brothers, Peter (age 14) and Robby (age 6)—joined together and hidden behind the name “Nightwarrior”—are chatting with someone, a curator of contemporary art no less, who goes by the handle “Untitled.” Untitled is something of a sexual pervert, turned on as she is by Robby’s scatological fantasy of intimacy, that reads: “I’ll poop in your butt hole and then you will poop it back into my butt and we will keep doing it back and forth with the same poop. Forever.” Unbeknownst to Nancy Herrington, aka Untitled, she is chatting with two young boys and eventually arranges to meet with Robby in a park. I am interested in the emoticon that Peter creates in order to graphically translate the scene of infinite exchange that Robby has just uttered: )) < > ((. Two sets of open parentheses, with two arrow-shaped openings facing each other, meant to signify two rounded butts each pooping back and forth between each other, “forever.” If it is said to signify, the graphic does so not as a labor of meaning but more so as a gesture toward the shared-separated and thus intimate sense of existence. I am focusing on this because in its porno-graphology, this emoticon, like all emoticons, inscribes affects, including in this case those bearing upon sex and intimacy—especially in their abject perversion—as abstract. In doing so, we note that “forever” is here symbolized not by the infinity sign, but by two “greater than” signs that, with their open-sides facing each other yet not touching, and in the pair of open parentheses turned outward and away from each other, draws an abstract erotic hieroglyphics that inscribes sexual-erotic intimacy as a mutually shared exposure to excess. That is, of intimacy as that which exceeds any fusion, common measure, general equivalence and which, in intimacy’s mutually-shared greater-than-ness, is not reducible to any negation in the infinite sustaining of its separation. Here, the abstract and the abject are brought together as two versions of perversion: literally as the rejection of any path, track, trait or –ject of bodies and pleasures that would be relegated to the intelligibility and desirability of a sexual subject or object. Here, the “forever” or really bad infinity of erotic-aesthetic intimacy lies in being inseparable from separation.

It is the impossibility of separating separation from our shared existence that is the very possibility of intimacy and that will always make intimacy untoward. In being-untoward intimacy remains abysmal in the sense of “appalling,” but as such only because it is (in terms of the other meaning of the word abyssal) “bottomless.” That which is bottomless might be depthless, but in this way it is also just as much wholly on the surface. Intimacy, then, is an abyssal losing of oneself in surface and its temperatures, degrees, planes and edges shape the contours of place and appearance as always on the verge of disappearance. So not the frame, the mattress, the pillows, the sheets or the blankets of the unmade bed but in between “the covers” (as we say)—there where in the midst of intimacy, separation is exposed as inseparable.

[1] The essay “Sexistence” is a translation of a talk that Jean-Luc Nancy gave at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg (HFBK) in May 2015. This essay has greatly informed my thinking on the question of intimacy, including in terms of its inoperativity and its ontological relation to existence. Nancy’s “Sexistence,” is one of the latest in a recent series of texts by Nancy on sex and sexuality, bodies and pleasures, aesthetics and erotics. Some of the these other texts translated into English include: Adele Van Reeth and Jean-Luc Nancy, Coming, translated by Charlotte Mandell (Fordham University Press, 2017); Corpus, translated by Richard A. Rand (Fordham University Press, 2008); Corpus II: Writings on Sexuality, translated by Anne O’Byrne (Fordham University Press, 2013); and The Pleasure in Drawing, translated by Philip Armstrong (Fordham University Press, 2013).

[2] In my book, The Decision Between Us: art and ethics in the time of scenes, I return again and again to unmade beds (in works by Marguerite Duras, Catherine Breillat, Daniel Boudinet, Bernard Faucon, and most notably Felix Gonzalez-Torres), as scenes of shared exposure to an overflowing excess and exteriority that, in this essay, I am theorizing as the scene of intimacy.

[3] In the Preamble to The Discourse of the Syncope: Logodaedalus, his early book on Kant and the discourse of the syncope, Jean-Luc Nancy makes the following observations: That the same produces and inscribes the undecidable, and that the undecidable is the very power of the same that, via discourse, withdraws discourse from any Absolute Knowledge and indeed from any root, foundation or support. As this insupportable support, the undecidable does not even find its foundation or principle in negativity, but instead is something like the non-dialectical—that is, syncopated—rhythmic rapport of consciousness and its blackout. As Nancy writes: “the same itself does insidious violence to the discourse of the same; it eats away at it and devastates it. The undecidable is the sameness of the same produced by the same as its alteration. This alteration does not possess the fertile negativity of the dialectical Other of the Same: it is the impossibility ‘itself’ of the same. Or, if you want, it is the dialectic of the Same, and therefore the dialectic itself, its own impossibility” (The Discourse of the Syncope, 9-10).

For the purposes of my discussion here, I want to say that intimacy is one of the names for the rhythmic rapport to the undecidable—a rapport that exists no place other than just between (syn-). As Nancy says, “the same undecides itself.” In other words, we might say that the same unmakes itself in its intimate relation with sameness.

For instance, the undecidabilty of the same is the rapport and traitorous collaboration between Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning, in the Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953), that I recently theorized in terms of their simultaneous attachment and detachment, sharing and separating (see chapter 1 of Ricco, The Decision Between Us). In the syncopation of their signatory traces, neither artistic subjects nor forms of praxis add up to anything nor do they cancel each other out, but instead remain in the syn-spacing of syncopation, and the sym-praxis of sympoiesis—and in both cases as their own perverse or queer modes of synthesis. Which is to say: as an abyssal intimacy and in the production of sense as separated, right there on the same sheet of paper—readymade and already-unmade.

This intimate rapport with the undecidability of the same, is also presented in the two wall clocks, one right next to and in fact touching the other, in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers). Here in the exposition/exhibition of their shared separation, we too are exposed to the undecidability of con-tact, including in terms of what William Haver has described as “a-temporal disjunct simultaneity” (Haver, “Really Bad Infinities”). In fact, “Untitled,” is one of the titles borne by the undecidable. In addition, in his candy piles and paper stack installations, Gonzalez-Torres presents and offers the same (i.e. readymade pieces of candy and sheets of paper), and thus offers any one who encounters the work, to partake in this undecidability as the very syncopated rhythmic each time of decision. Which is also to say: as the readymade (Same) un-deciding itself, and demonstrating that it (the readymade, the same, and decision) is already-unmade.

[4] In my phrasing of this sentence I am nodding to the title of the symposium that was the original context in which a first version of this paper was presented. With my book The Decision Between Us and Stacey D’Erasmo’s The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between, as jumping off points, the symposium, organized by Jacques Khalip, was titled, “Unmade Bed: In the Midst of Intimacy” (Pembroke Center at Brown University on November 11, 2016).

[5] As Nancy has written: “The ‘outside’ of the origin is ‘inside’—in an inside more interior than the extreme interior, that is, more interior than the intimacy of the world and the intimacy that belongs to each ‘me.’ If intimacy must be defined as the extremity of coincidence with oneself, then what exceeds intimacy in interiority is the distancing of coincidence itself.” (Being Singular Plural, 11-12).

[6] Immanuel Kant. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006: §61: 128.

[7] My current work on intimacy extends the work that I have done over the past 20 years to create concepts (e.g. “lure,” “decision,”) to name this impulse or drive to “go out” that is not predicated upon the will or intention of a subject or the pull of an object. But instead is a being-to or –toward the outside, not beyond, but instead here, now beside, between, around, and on the edge of shared-separated existence. For earlier formulations, see my books, The Logic of the Lure; and The Decision Between Us; and my essays, “The Art of the Consummate Cruise and the Essential Risk of the Common;” “The Commerce of Anonymity;” “Drool: Liquid Fore-Speech of the Fore-Scene;” and “Pornographic Faith: Two Sources of Naked Sense at the Limits of Belief and Humiliation.”

[8] Lauren Berlant, Lee Edelman. Sex, or the Unbearable. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.


John Paul Ricco is the author of The Logic of the Lure, and The Decision Between Us: art and ethics in the time of scenes. He is currently completing the third book in this trilogy, to be titled: The Intimacy of the Outside. He has also published essays in Parallax, Journal of Visual Culture, Qui Parle, and World Picture, and is a contributing author to Porn Archives, Nancy and the Political, and W.J.T. Mitchell’s Image Theory. He is Professor of Comparative Literature, Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Toronto.