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Mustafa Dikec’s new book, Space, Politics and Aesthetics, makes an important contribution to Edinburgh University Press's excellent Taking on the Political series, and to broader debates on the nature of politics and the political. Focusing on the relation between space, politics, and aesthetics in the work of Arendt, Nancy, and Ranciere, Dikec argues that politics is a form of spatial rupture in the organization of perception. Chapter 1 sets out this central argument, noting the connections and tensions between these thinkers. All three are united by their appropriation of Kantian categories and their problematization of established understandings of politics—both the liberal reduction of politics to the institutionalized rituals of representative democracy, and the radical assertion that “everything is political.” Through their distinctive iterations of the division between politics (as institutional mechanisms) and the political (as ruptures in the established order of things), Arendt, Nancy and Ranciere open the possibility of anything becoming political, while simultaneously denying that anything is political by nature. Dikec follows these thinkers in understands both space and aesthetics in Kantian terms: aesthetics does not exclusively concern question of art and beauty, but is defined as “perception by the senses”, while space is defined as an a priori form of apperception that we project onto the world, rather than an immutable, external given. Space is therefore open to radical transformations via ruptures in our established forms of (aesthetic) perception. It is in this sense, Dikec argues, that space is political.
The relationship between aesthetics and politics is the focus of Chapter 2, in which Dikec explores Kant’s understanding of aesthetics, and its differing appropriations in the work of Arendt, Nancy and Ranciere. For Kant, aesthetic judgement is ontologically prior to knowledge. As such it transcends established rules and hierarchies, and is something of which all human beings are capable, regardless of education or social status. Arendt, Nancy and Ranciere are all interested in this understanding of aesthetics, not for what it has to tell us about artistic judgement, but for the political space that it reveals. For Arendt, because aesthetic judgement is prior the rule-bound world of social order it opens the possibility for a transformation of this order. Nancy similarly argues that the aesthetic moment offers the opportunity for “the creation and disclosure of a “common” world in freedom” (page 28). For Ranciere, Kant’s claim that aesthetic judgement occurs independently of socio-economic structures is a claim to a radical political equality preceding these structures. If aesthetics is ontologically egalitarian and equivalent to perception, and politics is fundamentally concerned with “the distribution of the sensible”—i.e. with the organization of perception—then politics “can be thought of as an ‘aesthetic activity’” (page 33).
Chapters 3, 4 and 5 provide detailed treatments of the relationship between politics and space in the work of Arendt, Nancy and Ranciere respectively. For Arendt, “political action inaugurates space” (page 42), in the sense that politics is the realm of freedom through which political actors insert themselves into a pre-existing world, which necessarily occurs through the creation of a “space of appearance.” This relational understanding of space, however, is in tension with Arendt’s absolute spatial division between the social and political worlds. In Nancy’s recent work this division is seemingly reproduced, with the existential space of “being-in-common” defined as “metaphysically” distinct from the political, understood again as a moment of rupture:
“the introduction of a non-equivalence in the established order of sense” (page 80).
Dikec, however, is more concerned here with Nancy’s influential earlier work on the division between politics and the political, in which the space of being-in-common is precisely the anti-foundational space of political possibility. This division is reproduced by Ranciere using different terminology, with the police as institutionalized order and politics as the disruption of this order in the name of an (anti-foundational) equality. The police order is defined by the “partition of the sensible”—the organization and distribution of our experience of the world, and politics is defined by actions that reconfigure this order by making visible and audible those elements to which representation has been denied. For Ranciere, “everything in politics turns on the distribution of spaces” (page 88).
In the final chapter of the book, Dikec turns his attention to the assertion of the disruptive nature of the political shared by Arendt, Nancy and Ranciere, for whom politics “implies some form of generative rupture in the established order of things” (page 106). Here the focus of the book returns to aesthetics, with Dikec theorizing the eruption of the political moment in relation to Kant’s understanding of the sublime as the aesthetic experience in which our established modes of perceiving the world and organizing our experience break down. Such experiences can be terrifying, as Dikec acknowledges, yet are defined not by fear of an overwhelming power (nature, in both Kant and Burke’s respective usages of the term) but rather by the experience of freedom entailed by the disruption of the existing distribution of the sensible. Dikec therefore relates the sublime to Ranciere’s understanding of politics as dissensus, which is similarly defined by its “disruption of ‘routinized perception and response’” (page 110).
Dikec is on strong ground in his discussion of Arendt, Nancy and Ranciere’s respective understandings of the political. This, after all, is the focus of their philosophies, and the tensions and complementarities between them in this regard are treated here with exceptional clarity. I remain to be convinced, however, of the significance of space for any of these thinkers. In all three cases, I would argue, space is primarily used in an unproblematic and common-sense way, or as a convenient metaphor for other things. Of the three, it is Ranciere who makes the greatest use of spatial categories in his discussion of the “partition of the sensible.” But despite Dikec’s assertions to the contrary (page 85, 89), Ranciere’s understanding of space seems to me to be functionalist and static–a rigid organisation of spaces of experience, which is occasionally shocked into a new configuration by a political event. Meanwhile, as Dikec himself notes, both Arendt and Nancy “tend to take space as an unproblematic category when they use it merely as a tool of demarcation . . . [and] their conceptualization of politics does not problematize the production of space in the inauguration of politics” (page 6). It is not clear to me, therefore, why these writers should be the focus of a book about the relationship between politics and space. Arendt, for example, speaks of “spaces of appearance”, but what is important here is not space itself but the staging of the presence of an excluded group within the symbolic coordinates of the society that excludes them. Equally, according to Dikec’s reading of Nancy, “without spatialization and presentation, it would be impossible to create a world in common” (page 66). But as Dikec acknowledges, “this is a notion of spatiality that comes ‘before’ any space is established” (page 74). What do these claims really amount to in spatial terms? Yes, actions occur in space, and the world is necessarily structured by spatial coordinates. Indeed, it would be perverse to suggest otherwise. But this does not in itself provide sufficient grounds for asserting the political significance of space as such, and I am not convinced that Arendt & Co. are making this claim.
I also wonder what is lost when space is reduced to the organization of perception and appearance, in contrast to the work of someone like Lefebvre, who focused on the complex intertwining of materiality and representation in the production of space, and who, as Dikec observes, pioneered the now standard critical axiom that “As a product of social relations, rather than an inert background for them, space is contested and imbued with tension” (page 3). While the sophisticated understandings of politics developed by Arendt, Nancy and Ranciere undoubtedly offer vital tools for a reinvigorated critical geography, it is not clear to me why these ideas should be combined with their own relatively unreflexive understandings of space, instead of being brought into dialogue with the far more sophisticated understandings of space being developed by critical geographers themselves, in which space is rigorously theorized an integral dimension of political-economic processes, rather than merely providing the existential coordinates in which actions necessarily take place. Dikec briefly addresses this literature at one point, when he draws on Harvey’s concept of the spatial fix in order to emphasize the processual nature of Ranciere’s understanding of space (page 85). But as I have already argued, for me Ranciere’s understanding of space is structural-functionalist rather than processual, and what is lacking here is precisely a historical-geographical materialist attention to dialectical processes.
I am also unsure of the significance of aesthetics for the overall argument being made here. As already mentioned, Dikec understands “aesthetics”, not in the common-sense use of the term, but rather to mean “perception by the senses” (page 1). In arguing for the importance of aesthetics in politics, Dikec is therefore able to distance his position from the aestheticization of politics that has long been associated with fascism (page 33). But in doing so he threatens to empty the term of meaningful content. In his exploration of the aesthetic commonalities between Arendt, Nancy and Ranciere, Dikec argues that “without apprehension and revelation, without a form of presentation and a domain of relationality, their politics would not work” (page 14). But it is unclear how anypolitics would work without these basic ontological building blocks.
Dikec is undoubtedly following a rich tradition of radical thought in using the Kantian understanding of aesthetics to open up a political space prior to and outside of established orders and thus to reveal the possibility of the political itself. But I still don’t see how this understanding of aesthetics adds anything substantive to the distinction between politics and the political. Indeed, it is notable that for long periods of the book the concept of aesthetics disappears from view, despite perception and relationality being consistent themes throughout. As we have seen, Dikec begins with a chapter on aesthetics, and returns to the topic of aesthetics at the end of the book, with his discussion of the Kantian sublime as a means of theorizing the eruption of the political within a given partition of the sensible. But here the use of aesthetic categories is particularly problematic, in my opinion. The sublime, after all, concerns experience rather than action, and it is action that defines the political. Here Zizek’s concept of the Act, or Badiou’s concept of the Event, would seem to be more useful in drawing together the thinking of Arendt, Nancy and Ranciere in relation to politics-as-rupture. But these are explicitly temporal concepts, raising the uncomfortable question of whether these three thinkers are not in fact united by conceptualizing the political in temporal rather than spatial terms. This question is avoided by the appeal to the aesthetic category of the sublime.
Finally it is worth calling into question the actual existence of aesthetic judgement as defined by Kant—that is, of a form of judgement independent of established social orders. Is there really a common space outside of power relations? For an avowedly radical approach to the political, the scenario is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” so central to liberal political theory. This is one of several points in the book in which the distance between Dikec and mainstream liberalism would appear to become worryingly narrow. Dikec raises Eagleton’s Marxian critique of “the aesthetic illusion” at this point, but only to dismiss it out of hand (page 33). In my opinion a more direct engagement with Eagleton could have proved fruitful here, and a reluctance to engage with Marxism is also evident at other points in the book. In his discussion of Arendt, for example, Dikec notes the problematic nature of her distinction between labor, work and the political, without problematizing the abstraction from class on which this distinction is necessarily based. This is of course a very predictable argument for a Marxist to make! But I understand Dikec’s project to be concerned with the relationship between space and the political, not only as an academic exercise, but as a contribution to thinking the possibilities of radical political transformation. If this is indeed the case, then a convincing treatment of the relationship of Arendt, Nancy and Ranciere to the material and political-economic dimensions of space and the political would have further strengthened this lucid, incisive, and thought-provoking book.