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Space, Politics and Aesthetics is a slim volume, tightly focused on the relationship between politics and spatiality in the work of Hannah Arendt, Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Rancière. Dikeç connects the work of all three thinkers to aspects of Kant’s Critique of Judgement; beyond passing comments on their affiliations to phenomenological, post-structural and marxist traditions respectively, there is little discussion of the wider theoretical debates and trends of which these three are a part. The book is not, then, a primer on the full bodies of work created by these theorists. Nor is it a full-on engagement with theorizations of the political. As Dikeç acknowledges, it focuses on a particular approach to the “political”: “politics” with a small p, filtered through four or more decades of poststructural theorizing which understands “politics” as “rupture.” The book only glances towards more normative understandings of the political, and then very briefly, nodding towards Rancière’s insistence that rupture emerges from “equality” but not addressing how “equality” might be theorized. So if claims that politics is “the specific site of the articulation of a non-unity,” to quote Nancy (page 75), are not your cup of tea, then this book is probably not for you either. What Dikec’s account does do, however, and rather wonderfully, is offer a sustained meditation on space, spaciosity, spatiality—that is, on forms of distribution and organization—and why they matter.
Dikeç approaches thinking about space via the Kantian notion of aesthesis, or sensory perception. Sensory perception, he argues, is organized through specific spatial forms. What can be seen and heard (and presumably what is smell-able, tast-able and touchable too) is so because it is organized in particular ways, and “space” is the category that allows us to describe that organization. This is what Rancière calls “the organization of the sensible.” Certain things are given particular forms, some become not visible or audible, while others are; only some things are in the perceptual frame, and they are there in particular ways. Dikeç argues that for Arendt, Nancy and Rancière, “their politics is based on the apprehension of phenomenon that are spatially formed and ordered” (page 106). And for all of them, the political challenges dominant, taken-for-granted orderings of what is perceptible. This account of the spatial organization of the perceptual means that any disruption of an established order of things—that is, a political action, on the small p post-structuralist definition of politics—is therefore always also a spatial disruption. Dikeç thus emphasizes that the spatial is crucial to the conceptualization of politics in the work of all three.
The book devotes a chapter each to Arendt, Nancy and Rancière, but it is clear that for Dikeç, Rancière offers the richest account of the relation between aesthetics, space and politics because he keeps the question of spatial form resolutely open, which allows Dikeç to ask the crucial question, “how does space give form?” What are its distributions, its folds and cuts? What do those geometries make visible, audible, apprehensible, tactile? This has always been the question that’s kept me coming back to geography and I’m grateful to Dikeç for phrasing it so clearly. In some ways it’s a highly abstract question, and not a useful one to use when you’re asked at parties what you do (“I think about what space gives form to”). Nonetheless, and as this book shows, it’s a highly generative question, which raises many other questions in its wake.
So, Rancière gets gold in this book for keeping the question of spatial form open. Rancière’s work insists that any kind of spatial form—a territory, a space dividing into public and private, a mobius strip, a topological matrix, a paradoxical space—any and all of these, can be articulations of power if they ossify into habitual, taken-for-granted frames for organizing the perceptual field. I do think that there are moments in Dikeç’s book at which the radicality of this position wasn’t quite grasped. Certainly in the opening chapters, Dikeç often seems to be thinking of space as always-already relational in some way, which seems to me to echo human geography’s current ossification when it comes to thinking about space. Why the assumption that space is relational must always be made is a mystery to me–surely the spatial can take an infinite number of forms, including the bounded, the sliced, the torn, the parallel, and so on, which are not necessarily “relational”—and for me, Rancière is a useful antidote to this assumption. Both Arendt and Nancy, in their emphasis on mutual appearing and being-in-common, could reinforce an understanding of space as always relational, and Dikeç emphasizes Rancière’s emphasis on distribution which might do the same thing. But the crucial point to take from Rancière, I think, is that he resists any taken-for-granted spatiality; and this is his strength as a critical theorist of spatializations.
Another generative aspect of Rancière’s work, and where Dikec’s exposition makes a another significant contribution, is his separation of the visible from the spatial, as part of his argument that the spatial organizes the perceptual. It has always struck me that in much cultural criticism, the spatial and the visual are often conflated. If you can see an entity, you can also see its location apparently, and so the spatial becomes the visible in some way. But as this book makes clear, the spatial and the visual are not the same thing. The spatial is the organizational form taken by visualities. (And of course, as Lacan pointed out, people who cannot see still have a sense of space.) This separation of the visual from the spatial should enable a much richer vocabulary of the visual, not just whether something is visible or invisible. It should help us to think about how things are visible, what they are visible in relation to and what is never seen with them, if they are shadowed or doubled, hazy or crystal clear. This is an important contribution, I think, for those of us interested in the articulation of visualities as a form of contemporary power.
Also useful for those of us interested in the articulation of visualities as a form of contemporary power is the fact that, thankfully, Dikeç never conflates the “aesthetic” with “art practice,” the radical possibilities of which always seem to me to be vastly exaggerated. He quotes a commentator on Arendt who claims that artworks exemplify a distinctively human creativity to be disruptive (page 110), but other than that, his aesthetic is rigorously sensibilist. This is the case even in the final chapter, which turns again to Kant, and works with his notion of the sublime in order to understand the disruptiveness of the political. The sublime becomes something new that works to generate disagreement, discussion, debate—though at this point I was puzzled not to see a fuller discussion of Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator (2009). Such a discussion might have refined the notion of the aesthetic further, such that it is not purely perceptual but also has room for interpretation by thoughtful as well as feelingful humans. It is not only the sublime that prompts multiple interpretation, I think.
Space, Politics and Aesthetics is a short volume, beautifully written, with, for me, two significant achievements. One is to think about space in a way that shows why it matters in relation to the sensible (and indeed to the non-sensible). The second is to distinguish between the spatial and the visual. The clarity of these achievements will ensure, I hope, that their implications will travel far.