See Angharad Closs Stephens's most recent Society & Space contributions here: Beyond Imaginative Geographies? Critique, Co-Optation, and Imagination in the Aftermath of the War on Terror, Politics through a Web: Citizenship and Community Unbound, and Politics through a Web: Citizenship and Community Unbound

One of the prevailing images in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks is that of people spontaneously taking to the streets holding pencils in the air. This was an act that resonated with arguments about ‘free speech’ but it also raised broader questions of the relationship between arts and politics, and what aesthetic responses to ‘terrorist’ events might offer. Whilst artistic interventions can operate in the service of power, and become co-opted by the state (as with the French government funding a special print run of Charlie Hebdo), they can also invite us to look at and feel the world differently (Lisle and Danchev 2009).

Novels form one aesthetic genre that offers ways of re-thinking world politics and geographies in response to the War on Terror. Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) asks us to look at ‘the West’ from another part of the world, and juxtaposes Lahore and New York to raise questions about scales of violence. Such a response resonates with the claim that there is ‘a consensus about mournable bodies’, which often keeps us from paying attention to other, ongoing, instances of killing and carnage around the world. This comparative gesture is important politically and pedagogically, but it also feels insufficient. This may be because it does not adequately attend to the specificities of a particular moment and context, as it quickly takes us elsewhere. And it may also be because it ultimately appeals to the intellect – it assumes that if only we knew about other deaths, destruction and violence in other parts of the world, that we would show more compassion.

But what is at stake when, as Hari Kunzru claims, we can’t bear to read or hear any more about the War on Terror? And what is at stake when hearing and seeing more scenes of violence, such as we witnessed in Paris, no longer moves us – perhaps because the ‘genre’ (Anderson) is so familiar? In considering the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, Jane Bennett (2001) turns to Friedrich Schiller’s letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man (first published 1794). Following the French Revolution, he reflected on how an age of rational enlightenment could simultaneously form an age of barbarism, and concluded that we expect too much of the intellect. Even if we know certain truths and agree on certain ethical principles, he argues, that doesn’t make us any more likely to act on them. An aesthetic education will instead need to involve cultivating sensuous experience and ‘the capacity for feeling’.

Teju Cole’s novel, Open City (2011), offers another kind of comparative geography in response to the War on Terror and another way of thinking and feeling world politics. Through the main character Julius, a postcolonial Nigerian flaneur walking the streets of New York City and Brussels, we come across layers of histories and geographies and violence, taking us from the World Financial Center and the events of 9/11 to the free and enslaved Africans buried between the 1690s and 1794 in a large burial ground in Lower Manhattan, to the terror of Idi Amin’s reign of Uganda in the 1970s, and the contemporary urbicide of Basra and Baghdad. This montage of moments is not presented by a subject that stands outside of the world and takes us from ‘here’ to ‘there’. Neither are these presented as cases that we need to learn from in order to become better citizens. Rather, these significant moments of terror and suffering are only partially encountered, and by a distracted urban walker. As the main character asks after viewing The Last King of Scotland (a film about Idi Amin Dada) in a theatre in New York: ‘Why show torture? Was it not enough to be told, in imprecise detail, that bad things happened?’ This novel addresses scenes of violence in passing, and does so deliberately, to invite an alternative encounter.

Comparison, in this novel, forms the placing together of dissimilars in a way that ‘allows multiple resonances and interconnections to emerge’ (Vermeulen 2014). Julius’s travails through the atmospheres of the city present us with what are indeed very different forms of violence, but the point is not to compare according to a common scale of suffering but rather to provoke a new awareness. Experiences of pain, feeling and empathy in this case arrive not be extending our field of vision but through the affective shocks enabled by unexpected encounters and juxtapositions. In reflecting back on those pencils held in the air in Paris, the point is not to valorise the importance of free speech or artistic interventions as such, but to consider how an ethical response that cultivates feeling may require another form of writing. 


Bennett J (2001) The Enchantment of Modern Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Cole T (2011) Open City. London: Faber and Faber.
Danchev A and D Lisle (2009) Introduction: Art, Politics, Purpose. Review of International Studies35(4): 775-80.
Vermeulen P (2014) Flights of Memory: Teju Cole’s Open City and the Limits of Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism. Journal of Modern Literature 37(1): 40-57.