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Being Ontologically Spooked
esthetics seems increasingly popular amongst critical geographers. Everywhere, that is, where geography seeks to interrogate its generative and political conditions. The reason is simple. Critique must seek, relentlessly so; critique demands unyielding attention to the reflexive conditions for making claims upon each other and the world. Aesthetics is the means whereby the excessive irruption of the unthinkable and the experience of the unrepresentable require us, ever anew, to think again. Aesthetic experience—unsettling, overwhelming, joyful—is the experience of freedom. It opens us as critical possibilities for being otherwise. By being open to the excessive, aesthetic demand, we also keep ourselves honest to the freedom to be other oriented. Such, as Mustafa Dikeç argues in his new book, Space, Politics and Aesthetics, is the critical and political lesson learned from the legacy of Kant’s aesthetics. If we further recognize the role space plays in constituting the sensible root of aesthesis, we may even have, he suggests, a relational grammar for critical politics.
But, questions concerning “the political” also seem, increasingly, to divide critical geography. What counts as political, and thus, for some, as valid for geography encamps self-described radicals, theoreticians, and empiricists at conferences, fuels social media comments, blogs, and special issues about what we should or should not be doing, and intellectually entrenches the parry and thrust of influence. At the heart of these debates, of course, are competing definitions of what counts as being political. And, while we might agree that much about the contemporary world over needs to change, we also can’t invoke change without interpretation; the what, how, and who of interpretation remain perennial problems.
If one approaches—as I did—Dikeç’s new book, with the expectation that suggestions for addressing or deconstructing emerging polarities around “the political” might be proffered, then one will leave disappointed. Instead, the reader will encounter a lucid exegesis of Kant’s aesthetics in shaping the political theory of, in specific, the work of Hannah Arendt, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jacques Rancière. Indeed, despite beginning to be seriously questioned in critical circles (more on this later), Kant’s grand narrative of inescapable, demanding critique, and its limits, remains dominant in critical discourse. Dikeç’s book is no exception. Foucault might have historicized critique, and Ranciere further politicized it, but Dikeç’s book does not shake, let alone question that legacy; if anything it re-enforces it. This is both the book’s strength and its chief weakness. It is the broader and only slightly more radical legacy of this generative, reflexive spiral, first set in motion by Kant that Dikeç explores.
Dikeç’s book is an exposition, through the work of four important theorists—Kant, Arendt, Rancière, and Nancy—of how aesthetic experience spatiality constitutes, and variously performs, political possibility. But for brief mentions of sans papiers and a scenario derived from the film Les Goût des autres (dir. A. Jaoui, 2000), Space, Politics and Aesthetics is exclusively theoretical. (The book would have benefited from a richer empirical engagement, something for which Dikeç’s urban work is well known.) Aesthesis, for Dikeç, lies at the heart of thinking about, and sensing, space, politics and the possibilities for social change. He defines aesthesis as less the matter, simply, of art and beauty. Rather, he understands aesthetics in its more radical or original sense: aesthesis is concerned with “perception by the senses”, of “how the world is constructed, disclosed, and disrupted”; “…politics is about forms of perceiving the world and modes of relating to it” (page 1). The book is an expository argument for why and how aesthetics as spatial sensibility, inaugurated for a critical tradition by Kant, and read through three important interlocutors within the Kantian tradition, is central to thinking about “the political.”
Only, for Dikeç, politics and the political are not aesthetics alone; what he terms “space” performatively constitutes it. Space is the relational anchor or glue – the aesthesis—that materializes politics:
“…without a form of presentation and a domain of relationality…politics would not work. Space performs this aesthetic function…” (page 14).
Politics, he continues, “depends on the construction and apprehension of worlds through spatial forms and distributions. Having a form, exhibiting relations of simultaneity and order are essential for their politics to work. Space performs this aesthetic function by giving form and order to objects of perception” (pages 4-5). Importantly, spatial aesthesis, for those familiar with Rancière’s argument, also disrupts our habits of sensibility. How we imagine and respond to these disruptions in new and vital ways is the question of the political. The very possibility of politics (“the political”) emerges from the demands disturbance inaugurates; Rancière famously termed this “dissensus.” Dikeç traces the recognition of aesthetic dissensus as a common resonance, if variously struck, in each of Arendt, Nancy, and Rancière’s political theories:
“Their conceptualization of politics relies on the apprehension of the world through aesthetic forms and the construction of a shared and relational domain of experience, where space as a form of appearance and mode of actuality becomes central, though in different ways” (page 9).
As such, the book’s strength lies in its narrow and quite specific focus on the political aesthetics of Arendt, Nancy, and Rancière, and their Kantian legacies. If you are interested to learn more about the role of aesthetics in shaping the political theory of these important thinkers, then, in it you will find clear explanations, a direct and accessible structure, and a useful argument linking the three through a claim about the centrality of spatio-aesthetic dissensus to the question of political difference and change. How can we account for newness in political thought? Where does it come from? Why is it important to listen to our experiences of disruption and unease? Dikeç argues that we should not forget the centrality of aesthetic sensibility in responding to such questions. Politics does not reside in reactively re-sedimenting life, nor in renewing the resilience of reliable forms in the face of difference. Politics demands—and indeed emerges from!—imagination, creativity, openness and indeterminacy. As Dikeç shows to good effect, for each of his three interlocutors, an important distinction is made between “politics” and “the political.” For Arendt and Nancy, and as is well known with Ranciere, “politics” refers to matters of social order, policing, and government. “The political” refers instead to opening new ways of thinking plurality, communicability, and the possibility of creating “common worlds by opening up spaces of relationality” (page 20). Dikeç thus distinguishes himself from the positions of the post-political authors. Politics is not something to be re-asserted, he argues, but recognized as always already creating itself. “[A]n excess keeps erupting”, he writes early on (page 4). In the conclusion, he affirms the operability of the excess:
“I endorse…an understanding of politics animated not by a categorical resistance to all possible representation, but by an openness to unrepresentability in so far as it implies there are no given, “‘natural’ political subjects” (page 116-17).
In between these introductory and concluding claims, we find the book—drawn in part from previously published essays in places like Antipode and Environment and Planning D—structured around four operational chapters. It is bookended by an introduction that usefully lays out the main argument, and a too short conclusion that explains the significance of “the sublime element in politics,” which, as we now know, is the disruption of “our ordinary forms of perceiving the world and modes relating to it” (page 116). The first substantive chapter sets out the significance of Kant’s aesthetics for, and so the commonalities between, the political theories of Arendt, Nancy, and Rancière. Each of the three subsequent chapters then focuses on an exposition of political aesthetics in each of these theorists’ work.
Throughout, it is clear that Dikeç is most influenced by Rancière, to the point that it became less and less clear how his position is different, if at all, from that of Rancière. It is not appear appreciably distinct. Which is fine. But it did beg the question, for me, of what the chapter on Nancy is doing in the overall argument. Indeed, it sits somewhat uncomfortably within the whole, and indicates towards a deeper problematic.
As an exposition of Nancy’s political aesthetics as ontology, the chapter is especially clear, and one to which I will return, and to which I will refer others. But Nancy’s ontology of “being-with” and the “in-common” is quickly dropped, and makes no appearance in the book’s conclusion, unlike Kant and Arendt who return to be re-iterated again through a Rancièrean lens. The reason, I think, for the absence points to a fundamental fault line running through the book. Ontology haunts this book, as it does contemporary critical geography. One could personify this ghost with the textual spectre of Deleuze, but to limit it to one, perhaps particularly divisive, spook would be overly reductive. Let me explain.
Nancy’s politics demands, as Dikeç notes, an ontological recognition: “…the condition of existence: beings are not simply with others, beings are with others” (page 67, emphasis in original). Nancy, he continues, “…starts from the relation and not from the solitary subject or individual” (page 69, emphasis in original). Thus, sense, or being-in-common, literally, “allows the possibility of opening up new spaces, which is what the political implies…[F]reedom…presents itself as an unfolding of space”(page 72). Freedom, space, politics, sensibility, subjectivity, relation: these are, ontologically, the condition for “the place of a specific existence, the existence of being-in-common, which gives rise to the existence of being-self” (Nancy, 1991: page xxxvii, as quoted in Dikeç, page 72). Space is a material unfolding that performs politics as disruptive and de-totalising. Throughout the book, Dikeç is clear on several occasions to define space not as an abstract container within which events happen. “Space…does not refer to an obvious, fixed, and unproblematic ‘over there’, but to the unfolding of politics, as a form of appearance and a mode of actuality” (page 88). Or, “…space as relationality and co-existence, as openness and emergence rather than mere demarcation and compartmentalization” (page 89). But what these and numerous other references to “space” do throughout is simply to beg the question of what is meant by “space.” “Space,” strangely, remains unsatisfyingly theorized or explained empirically. What is space, for Dikeç, if it is a “being-with” and an “are” of relation? Does an ontology of relational sensibility—”space”—commit us to the critical reflexivity of epistemic constructivism? That is, does it require of critique and politics that we re-iterate the limits of our thought, and act justly only by approximating accordance with those limits (as is captured by the term “aporetics”)? Or, does relational sensibility, rather, open up, as an aesthetics of thought, the question of needing to re-think distinctions between thought and sensibility? What’s the difference any more if we are relational and co-existent? Doesn’t relational sensibility (aesthesis) precisely undo critique as insurmountable difference? Here the book would have benefited much more from an empirical engagement with the contextual situations of political knowledge formation and its ontological sensibilities. Importantly, if space is the complex, heterogeneous relationality of sensibility within which politics unfolds as one amongst other topologically connected material conditions, then Dikeç needs to commit his argument to a thorough going “ontology of sensation” (Panagia, 2009: 32-33), or address why “being-with” remains epistemological.
For the political theorist Davide Panagia, whose 2009 book, The Politics of Sensation, and wider work, is referred to several times in the Dikeç’s conclusion, Deleuze provided the model for a political ontology capable of “grappl[ing] with the relationship between thinking and sensation without having to revert to a synthesis of…the cognitive and the experiential” implied by Kant (2009: 33). Instead, Dikeç attempts to walk an epistemic tightrope between, on the one hand, wanting a material ontology of becoming-political, while at the same time trying to prevent a plunge into a post-phenomenological account where thinking and sensation are ontologically the same. In the end, Dikeç’s book ends up reinforcing Kant’s familiar epistemic commitment to a divide between word and world, culture and nature, noumena and phenomena, while at the same time attempting to invoke a political aesthetics that seeks, quite reasonably, to over-come these binaries in a material account of spatial possibility and relationality. The relationality remains marginal, however. If we accept the latter, then we need also to accept the limitations of beginning with and reinforcing Kant’s legacy. We need, as Panagia argues, to take the step from nomos to nomad and truly “descend into the domain of sensation” (2009: 39). Perhaps we, as zoon politikon, don’t so much think about the world; perhaps the world thinks through us! And the dog. And the plant. And the chemical reaction. They too, in their agential and spatial capacities are also being-in-common and so political. Dikeç hints in this direction with his chapter on Nancy, but shrinks back from what it entails, quite self-consciously. Perhaps he does so for good reasons, but these are never explained.
Which is why I have diagnosed his book with a case of being ontologically spooked. The book seeks to explain a spatial ontology for political aesthetics in the form of aisthesis or disruptive sensibility. But it does not then take up the consequences of what it implies out of anxiety for what such a commitment demands: the need to re-appraise the status of critique as a subjective, phenomenological self-awareness. As such, Space, Politics and Aesthetics feels either unfinished, or on the way to something else, or both. Perhaps this is unfair; all books are unfinished and on the way to being something else. Nor is it meant as a criticism of the expositions given of Kant, Arendt, Nancy, and Ranciere; as expositions of their political aesthetics, I can recommend the book. But Space, Politics and Aestheticsalso needs a chapter on why the missing ontological implications, or political ontology more generally, especially given the fact that several of its references do engage this work as well. Indeed, the absence of such a discussion becomes increasingly conspicuous throughout Space, Politics and Aesthetics. The conclusion feels truncated by a seeming unwillingness to address the ontological and political implications thrown up by the arguments Nancy, Deleuze, and Panagia (all cited) insist are necessary. The book could have included a defense of critical theory, or indeed, critique, from that small, but growing, voice amongst geographers and theorists for whom “the political” is becoming material, affective, transversal, and micro-logical; in other words, ontological and political, but in new, transformative, and perhaps unsettling—even aesthetic—ways. Instead it reads as an advanced seminar course on the political aesthetics of Kant, Arendt, Nancy, and Rancière. Which is not a bad thing. But why is such a course necessary? Why now? And why again? Can we not think politics and aesthetics otherwise than through the phenomenologically delimited lens of Kant? This is, after all, what the main argument of the book opens up for us.
One potential consequence is that aesthetics risks becoming reduced to the service of politics. Dikeç does a good job of showing how aesthesis is important for theorising political imagination, but little is said in the book about the need to recognize, let alone cultivate, aesthesis and aesthetics as the play of life! What’s important about aesthetics qua aesthesis is precisely that it is not only in service to the political. Laughter, tears and the tremulous thrill of joy matter because they can’t be subsumed in what’s right to think. Which is Dikeç’s point. But art and beauty are explicitly exempted on page one and not returned to again. The risk is the argument becomes reduced to negotiating the politics of “the political”, as it often does in the need to judge the validity of intellectual engagement today. Kant, let’s not forget, had a considerable Calvinist temper. An over-dependence on Kant as the final arbiter for thinking about aesthetics as such limits us in crucial political ways. What of the many approaches to aesthetics and sensibility not couched in continuing a Kantian Eurocentric lens? Numerous indigenous aesthetics? Buddhist aesthetics? South Asian rasa? Etc. They too listen and speak the experiential sensibility of relational co-existence. And they demand of being-with new ideas and political possibilities. Can these be understood politically if we begin again with Kant’s commitment to a transcendental phenomenology and derive politics from epistemological critique? It is an interesting question.
I put down Space, Politics and Aesthetics with the distinct feeling that critical geography is increasingly placing itself is at an unwarranted political crossroads. In one direction stretches a familiar path where a politics bequeathed by phenomenological limits negotiates, in ever-finer detail, its reflexive capacities for generating the new. This path is seen as “political.” In the other direction, another path has opened up, a rockier, more uncertain, but increasingly taken path, but one often labelled “apolitical.” There performative space and materiality are understood, after the likes of Deleuze and Nancy, not to be products of negotiating experiential impossibility, but of trying to embrace a form of thinking for whom the authority of the word and the authority of the world are not separated by an unbridgeable and reflexively negotiated chasm. Dikeç chooses the former path, while also seeking to incorporate aspects of the latter. Yet, as I’ve indicated, the decision for the choice is not explained. Given the somewhat narrow exegetical scope of the book, perhaps it doesn’t need to be explained. But, a significant challenge remains: how to see the perceived choice of paths, not as divisive of a critical community, but as an opportunity to think and practice the relational polysemy and sensible pluriversality of political, intellectual, and geographical life.
Panagia D (2009) The Political Life of Sensation. Durham and London: Duke University Press.