John Paul Ricco, On Queer Forgiveness [2017 C4eJ 4] (Symposium)

[☛ watch the video | read the rest of the symposium on The Ethics of Apology: Interdisciplinary & International Perspectives]

John Paul Ricco*

In her book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt points out that the origin of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs lies with Jesus, for whom forgiveness is a human power and earth-bound act between people, on the basis of which God likewise will bestow his own forgiveness on the one who has forgiven others.[1] This may be an odd place to open a paper on queer forgiveness, specifically in relation to the public apology made by the Toronto Police Department in June 2016, for its raiding of gay bathhouses in the late-1970s and early-1980s. However I cite Arendt here not only because—as she and Jacques Derrida and others have affirmed—apology and forgiveness always bear some relation to this religious heritage (whether Abrahamic, Christian or Islamic), but also because I want to draw on the very terms inherited from the Gospel. To recall, in Matthew 6:14-15, we read: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

It is this language of “trespass” that I want to focus on, given its resonance with the promiscuous and itinerant movement of queer sexual-spatial ethos, one example of which is cruising. For cruising is not only a clandestine form of trespass dedicated to pleasure and the intimacy that strangers can have in public, it also operates “internally” if you will, through an economy of trespass and forgiveness. As in the scene in which, no matter how many times you pass by me (pass me by; trespass against me), if at some point you re-trace your steps and this time come over to me, I will overlook (forgive) your previous trespasses. It is all the more striking that the description of such a scenario is essentially a re-phrasing of the Gospel of Luke 17:3-4, that in part reads: “And if he trespass against you … and … turn again to you, saying, I changed my mind; you shall release [i.e., forgive] him.”

Like the hook-up in cruising, forgiveness derives its power and effect from being entirely unpredictable and unexpected. In this way, forgiving is similar to promising, in that both involve a lack of mastery, control and security over the essential uncertainty of the future, and of what might come to pass. Forgiving and promising interrupt ordinary historical temporality, and both are sustained by being without determined finality. Their time is the time of passing, opening up a space that is less a place than a passage where there is a rapport with coming and going—something like a cruising ground. It is in this way that as a “receptivity, an affectability, a passibility”[2]—and we might say, a “trespassibility” by which sense passes between, amongst, and around—that cruising is an ethos. The question of the ethical and of ethics arises when this ethos of trespass is trespassed against. That is, when passing becomes trespassing, the latter now inscribed within the legal-juridical meaning of a misdeed or crime. When the police infiltrate a cruising ground in order to entrap and impose citations, as the Toronto Police Department did just months after issuing its official, public apology for the bathhouse raids of 30+ years earlier, they not only ensnare individuals, they also destroy an ethos. So when it comes to this policing of sex, an ethics of apology would need to answer to, by measuring itself against, the ethos of queer erotic passing and trespassing; in other words to forms of forgiveness that are heterogeneous to juridical-political, judicial and penal orders.

If we understand apology to sit somewhere between law and the extra-judicial, then forgiveness sits somewhere between the extra-judicial and justice (where in both cases, the “extra-judicial” stands in for “judgment”). Apology, while more closely tied to misdeeds than to crimes, nonetheless circulates within the orbit of penal law, in the sense that, as Arendt argued, the forgivable is that which can be punished. So forgiveness and punishment are not opposites, but instead are two attempts to, in Arendt’s words, “put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly.”[3] Yet this is exactly what pulls forgiveness back into the realm of legal-juridical meaning, in other words: the forgivable and its relation to finality. For as Derrida argues at the opening of his interview/essay “On Forgiveness,” “In principle, there is no limit to forgiveness, no measure, no moderation, no ‘to what point?’”[4] Forgiveness is in excess of every measure of forgiveness, and hence it stands in an immeasurable relation to apology—especially an apology for the destruction of forms of relation and ways of being-together that exist without proper measure, in their shared sustaining of the sense of separation and departure—by which ethos and the ethical as such, remain possible.

Therefore forgiving the police apology for its trespass must remain an impossibility (unforgivable), or if you wish, without finality, lest our trespasses be forgiven in turn. “For what they know not what they did” (i.e., going astray)—that irreversible act—is what traditional apology and forgiveness respond to. However here, as I have argued, such going astray/trespassing is the act/action/praxis of queer sexual-social ethos. Thus such an ethos must remain unforgivable to any apology if it is to go on passing (endlessly, one hopes) as before. That is, as the very “ground” or rapport of being-with separation and departure—which is to say in its infinitely orgasmic sense.

In today’s urban political climate in which the stranger, the foreigner, the one who lingers or “loiters,” the solitary walker, the workless or out-of-work someone, and not least of all, the one who is simply curious, when each of these anonymous someones in their itinerancy, promiscuity, and clandestinity—and thus in their essential illegitimacy—are increasingly targets of suspicion and surveillance, bodies to be taunted, beaten and entrapped, and at times permanently marked as illegal, the cruising ground remains more necessary than ever, given that it is an ethical training ground.

A cruising ground is an ethical ground in the precise sense that it is a place where being together with others does not rely upon the law of identity and the logic of the name. Instead, it is a place consecrated to the joys and pleasures of the passing encounter, and the liberating fact that, as Tim Dean has intimated: strangers can be lovers and yet remain strangers.[5] Meaning: sharing an erotic and perhaps sexual bond that is less structured in terms of attachment than separation, and that thus affirms that a mutual intimate experience can be had that does not require or ask for the assimilation of the self into an other, but instead remains open to the outside. Meaning: other bodies, in passing, amidst and amongst other bodies, places, and things.

The logic of the lure is not only driven by the need to escape the normalizing and criminalizing logic of the law, but it is also an attraction to that which is imperceptible, un-nameable, transitory, and at times unconsummated.[6] This also means that cruising offers a sense of the ways in which erotic pleasure is not only sexual but also spatial, and that for some of us, where we do it, is just as important as what we do, or with whom we do it with. Cruising eroticizes the essential anonymity of the common and of urban intimacy.[7] To the extent that there are cities, there will be cruising, because in the cruising ground persist some of the essential truths of a city. Today, in the midst of the concerted gentrification of bodies, minds, neighborhoods and queer sexual-social ethos, we are faced with nothing less than the question of how to ethically create a city.

Counter to Arendt, who argued that “the power engendered when people gather together and ‘act in concert’…disappears the moment they depart,”[8] part of the sovereign power of queer erotic ethos is derived precisely from what I call the faculty of departure—an art of living as art of leaving. It is this that renders ethos—queer or otherwise[9]—an ethics beyond ethics, that is, following Derrida, “perhaps the undiscoverable place of forgiveness.”[10] This is the sense of forgiveness exempt from meaning, from normality, from finality (i.e., salvation, redemption, reconciliation, rehabilitation). It is what renders forgiveness essentially mad. Such radical, mad, queer forgiveness renders inoperative, not apology per se, but any ethics upon which it might be based, including any notion of an “ethics of apology.”

For if queers forgive the State of its violence and negligence, is this not at the same time the abdication of the future possibility of acting in ways that are unforgivable? Including in the face of future forms of injustice and in the name of justice yet to be had? Or in turn, as I have been arguing, in terms of unconditional pornographic excess that re-conceptualizes sovereignty in its excess erotic expenditures as unmistakably queer. In both cases (justice and erotic excess): as that which transcends norm and law through a notion of sovereignty that we inherit from Georges Bataille.

An ethics of apology then will always remain the liberal ethics of a restricted economy of exchange and reciprocity, of means and ends—including the normative and normalizing desire for closure, for finality, that is believed to come from forgiveness in the wake of apology. Opposite this, is a queer ethos of excess without end, including without the last word. For that which goes without being the last word is justice (absolutely, unforgivably), and not the absolution that binds forgiveness to apology.

* Department of Visual Studies and Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto.


[1] Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1958: see especially, section 33, “Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive,” in Chapter V, “Action,” 236-243.

[2] Nancy, Jean-Luc. Dis-Enclosure : The Deconstruction of Christianity. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008: 127.

[3] Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1958: 241, emphasis added.

[4] Derrida, Jacques. Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Translated by Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. Thinking in Action. London and New York: Routledge, 2001: 27.

[5] Dean, Tim. Unlimited Intimacy : Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

[6] Ricco, John Paul. The Logic of the Lure. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

[7] Ricco, John Paul. “The Art of the Consummate Cruise and the Essential Risk of the Common.” Feedback, February 4, 2016.

[8] Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1958: 244.

[9] Of course ethos is that which is without claims of identity, attuned as it is to the anonymity of the stranger and the passerby.

[10] Derrida, Jacques. Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Translated by Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. Thinking in Action. London and New York: Routledge, 2001: 36.