latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
s the lagging contributor to this collection of responses to Space, Politics and Aesthetics, it is in large part my fault that events have now overtaken us. My initial response to the tragedy of Paris—and as Mustafa Dikeç would surely add, Beirut—was to stop what I was writing and to flail in the direction of some timely and appropriate words. Words, of course, failed. Knowing that Mustafa has been touched personally by Paris’s dark night has not helped, nor has the sense that he is burdened by the prescience and pressing relevance of his own previous writing to what has and is taking place. So I came back to the fact that between the Badlands of the Republic (2007) and his current work on “urban rage,” Dikeç has gifted us with this searching, eloquent and above all, hopeful, work. And with is mind, I’ve stuck with the themes of new beginnings, the art of the everyday, the irrepressible desire to craft spaces of sharing and hope.
As Dikeç noted back in 2005, there was then already a good decade’s worth of literature “seeking to think space politically, and to think politics spatially” (page 171). So what might it mean to bring art, and especially Jacques Rancière’s political aesthetics into this busy and sustained discourse around the collective shaping of space? And what manner of Rancière are we being offered?
The odd thing about Rancière, to whom Dikeç introduced so many of us a decade ago, is his claim that politics is not primarily about struggles between existing identities or interests, or even about power itself. “Politics,” that is, “is not made up of power relationships; it is made up of relationships between worlds” (Rancière cited in Dikeç 2015, page 101). For Rancière, politics is about the way that the sensory experience and intelligibility of the world is framed by taken for granted assumption about who and what belongs where, a partitioning that determines what is sayable and visible—and about how certain expressive acts can disrupt this arrangement. And as Dikeç explains, this makes the political inherently about placement and spacing (2005; 2015, ch. 5).
It is important to note how Dikeç distinguishes this from the ontological take on politics and space that prevails in some styles of critical geography. In these approaches, social worlds and the subjects who compose them are seen to be constitutively rifted by antagonisms that are expressed spatially in the form of relations of inclusion and exclusion. Space, by this logic, is inevitably a manifestation of conflictual differences, and is thus always already political. In short, the very plurality or multiplicity of spatial forms is taken to be an occasion and an expression of interminable struggle (Dikeç, 2013: 79-80).
By contrast, Dikeç, reads the three theorists he assembles in Space, Politics and Aesthetics—Hannah Arendt, Jean-Luc Nancy and Rancière—as each offering an alternative to more univocal and less specified assertions that “space is political” (page 2-3). For Rancière, as Dikeç affirms, collective action is only properly political when there is some interruption of the established distributions of the sensible that compose social space: that is, when people insist on having a presence and making themselves felt in situations where they are conventionally excluded from being meaningful actors.
But such a conception of politics both gives and takes away. What it allows—and this is the key to Dikeç’s uptake of Rancière—is the generous admission of all kinds of often quotidian space-invading interventions to be counted as properly political. What is excluded from genuine politics are all the practices deemed to occur within the framework of existing sensibility—even those that are set on shifting the balance of power or levering open processes of governance. In this way, a whole range of actions conventionally categorized as political—parliamentary and party politics, administration and law-enforcement, and even demands for rights and recognition made within these structures—fail to make the grade (see Dikeç, 2005: 173-4).
One of the corollaries of Rancière’s distinction between properly transformative political acts and merely administrative, law-abiding politics is that much recent history seems to bear witness to the advance of the latter at the expense of the former. This predicament, recently shorthanded by Rancière as “the vanishing of the public stage” (in Papastergiadis and Esche, 2014: 32), allies him with such contemporary political philosophers as Badiou, Žižek and Mouffe for whom the consensual thrust of the current liberal democratic conjuncture is characterized as a pervasive retreat of the authentically political. Taken up by critical social and political thinkers, claims that we live under “post-political” conditions can make for gloomy reading, especially when they are compounded by the ontologization of adversarial subject formation.
As an astute and incensed diagnostician of the exclusionary spatial politics of the French republican tradition, Dikeç is about as from being an apologist for reigning political orders as you can get. But while a conception of spatialization as the very source of wrongs (page 158) derived in good measure from Rancière is one of the keys to Badlands of Republic and much of his subsequent work, Dikeç has gently signaled an intention not to invest too deeply in “the idea of the suppression of politics . . . by established orders of governance.” “This paper,” he wrote in a 2013 text that introduced significant themes of Space, Politics and Aesthetics, “shifts the emphasis from this aspect of Rancière’s work, and focuses on the idea of political subjectification” (2013: 79). Coupled with his refusal to afford ontological primacy to social or inter-subjective antagonisms, it is this shift for me that opens the door to the originality – and the hopefulness – of the variations Dikeç plays on the theme of Rancière’s political aesthetics. To put it another way, it is what makes for a decidedly “hospitable” rendering of Rancière.
Art of the Ordinary
And so to the heart of Space, Politics and Aesthetics. What Dikeç conjures from his conjoined conversation with Rancière, Arendt, and Nancy is a faith that ordinary people, acting in concert, have an on-going and ultimately irrepressible ability to perturb the spatial orderings through which they are positioned and constrained. Not so much a matter of empirical verifiability, this foregrounding of a capacity to remake social space, following Rancière, is more of a wager. It hinges on a commitment to the idea that all of us share an aptitude to make sense of the world, to render it intelligible. And this means affirming the potential of ordinary people to join forces in doing previously unimagined things in unexpected places and in this way to break with the partitions of the sensible that once kept then quiet, invisible and apart.
His insistence that the fabric of the social is woven out sensory experience, and thus that any disruptive intervention in this order must have a pronounced aesthetic dimension, has cast Rancière as something of a savior in sectors of the art world. Successive avant garde movements of the 20thCentury fell short of their ambitions to lead aesthetic-political awakenings, got appropriated into State spectacle or capitalist consumer culture, or succumbed to market forces – leaving radical cultural practitioners to endure ongoing crises of political relevance. For such artists, cultural theorist Nikos Papastergiadis observes, “Rancière’s writing on contemporary art is refreshing because of its robust affirmation of aesthetic value and the significance that he gives to its link to politics”(2014: 7).
But Dikeç is not overly concerned with the radical potential of specialists in aesthetic production or with any Rancerian rebooting of the role of fine art in sensory emancipation. His take on political aesthetics fast forwards to the ordinary and the everyday, to the aesthetic qualities that inhere in popular assertions of the right to appear, in any reclaiming or fashioning of a space for self-expression. Such actions are “aesthetic” for Dikeç—and here he finds common ground between Arendt and Rancière—because they are inventive, generative and inaugural, because they bring a voice and a “common scene” into existence that did not exist before. The novelty of any such intervention—its emergence in situations in which it previously had no right to exist—render its ultimate effects open-ended, unpredictable, indeterminate. And in this way, Dikeç insists, even simple assertions of a desire for self-expression introduce a “sublime” element into ordinary, ordered social existence (2015, ch. 6).
How does this “art” of collective place-claiming and space-making play out in practice? How do political-aesthetic subjects actually emerge and forge themselves? As Dikeç interprets Arendt, politics needs a stage; “a space of appearance” in and through which actors come together and present themselves to others (2015: 43). Read together with Rancière, the implication of Arendt’s insight is that processes of shaping the stage—the collective space of expression, whatever its medium—are even more important than the actual content articulated from this platform. More than a matter of convening like-minded people, any “staging” also calls forth an audience: it involves an implicit or explicit appeal to others who are, as yet, strangers. The very act of addressing others, in this way, rests on a wager on a shared sensory apparatus and on mutual intelligibility. At the same time, the aim of catching the eye or ear of strangers and holding their attention requires an act of imagination, a wilful and creative projecting outwards. And in this sense, political subject formation is an inventive process, a sequence of expressive and imaginative gestures—overtures that reach across any assumed or pre-established partitioning of self and other.
Along thee lines, we can see why for Dikeç space is shaped politically without always already being political. Just as we can see why he would resist any imputation that the originary mode of human relating entails projection of negative and abjected differences onto others. The idea that “identities are always created negatively,” Dikeç has made clear, “leaves no room for thinking forms of politics based on cooperation, friendship and solidarity” (2013: 79-80). And although in the current volume he fleshes out this diagramming of a receptive and non-allergic relation to others in terms adapted from Arendt, Nancy and Rancière, there are surely resonances here of Dikeç’s earlier engagements with Jacques Derrida, and in particular with the idea of hospitality as a constitutive opening to strangers and to the otherness of futurity (see Dikeç, 2002).
In other words, while he has drawn Rancière explicitly into conversation Nancy and Arendt, Dikeç also seems to have assembled a stage upon which Derrida and Rancière might enjoy more convivial relations that has usually been the case. And so, from here on in, when we hear Derrida announcing:
“An invention always presupposes some illegality, the breaking of an implicit contract; it inserts a disorder into the peaceful ordering of things, it disregards the proprieties” (2007: 1),
we might also hear the rumbling of a Rancierian aesthetic-political rupture.
Spontaneity and Duration
I want to raise a few more-or-less related questions and issues. The first concerns the relationship between affective dispositions and more deliberative processes. If a political aesthetic performance is a risky, indeterminate overture to strangers as well as co-conspirators that requires a certain expressive artistry, we might note, so too is it generally an articulation of concerns. If “performers” need to lure and hold an audience so too do they need to do some convincing—in Dikeç’s words, to “lay a claim on the agreement of others” (2015: 18).
And this means that, however tremulous and impromptu their opening gambits may be, political actors will sooner or later be called upon to offer justification for their actions. Or at least, this is the point Clive Barnett (2008) has made in response to certain uses made of affect in recent critical social thought, which he suggests display a less-than-desirable tendency to prioritize preconscious corporeal modes of experience while devaluing the importance of processes of deliberation, reflection and rational debate. My sense, however is that Dikeç’s claim on the affective, with its wager not only on common capacities for sensory experience but on the ability to make aesthetic judgements “so that we can lay a claim on the agreement of others” (2015: 18) serves to lift affective dispositions out the depths of the precognitive and into the light of day.
However this still raises questions about how and when deliberation kicks in, about how the move between aesthetic valuation and the giving of reasons for choices and actions might take place. As Rancière has noted:
“There is no straightforward road from the fact of looking at a spectacle to the fact of understanding the state of the world; no direct road from intellectual awareness to political action” (2009: 75).
Nevertheless, the issues of how to negotiate these tortuous paths would seem to accompany any establishment of shared space.
Leading on from this, my second point is about how and when the irruption of unbidden associations might evolve into more durable forms of social organization. For all that we might wish to affirm “a contingent and ephemeral domain of experience” in which novel political spaces “are created each time individuals act together in the presence of others” (Dikeç 2015: 46) the question arises as to how political-aesthetic achievements are to be extended temporally: how the scaffolding of spatial presencing might, under certain conditions, grow into load-bearing structures. Or as Dikeç himself opens this question “(t)he new and temporary spaces opened up by action transcend existing orders, but also work to secure then in as much as they provide a tangible and durable world (2015, page 55, my italics)
As Rancière ponders:
“I think there are two points that are difficult to link: the emergence of spontaneous forms and the acknowledgement of a proper temporality to those movements” (in Papastergiadis and Esche, 2014: 41).
Here again, Dikeç’s own Derrida-inspired musings on the temporalities of hospitality, and on the mutual implication of its conditional and unconditional moments, anticipates my question (see Dikeç, 2002). For as Derrida has observed of creative or generative gestures, to make any real difference to their world—to have a future—any invention must also entail a certain conventionality, it must abide by at least some of the rules or habits by which new things get admitted into their social context, are passed on and disseminated:
It will only receive its status of invention … to the extent that th(e) socialization of the invented thing is protected by a system of conventions that will at the same time ensure its inscription in a common history, its belonging to a culture: to a heritage, a patrimony, a pedagogical tradition, a discipline, a chain of generations. Invention begins by being susceptible to repetition, exploitation, reinscription (Derrida, 2007: 6).
Or as Dikeç cites Arendt, action always “acts into a medium” (2015: 59). In this this regard, we might see the nascent space of shared and creative subjectification as—in some way—twinned with the potential for durability and temporal transmission, perhaps with a similar logic to the way that Derrida’s unconditional and the conditional moments of hospitality play through and imply each other. None of which needs to imply relinquishing emergent spacings to a restrictively administrative rationality or a re-entrenched partitioning order.
Materiality of Sense
Finally, riffing off the durability theme, is the question of the materiality of these imaginative and sensory spaces—the stuff of which they composed. “Wordly artefacts are relevant to action,” writes in Dikeç conversation with Arendt, “not merely because they provide a stable and durable `context’, but also because it is from within this context that action emerges” (2015: 56). But Arendt, though she has given more attention to material production than the great majority of philosophers, still falls back on a distinction between practical, fabricating work that knows its ends in advance and the open-endedness of truly imaginative acts which she usually depicts in terms of communication and speech (1958: 236). Even Rancière, ever-attuned to the creativity of workers, when asking “how word and images, stories and performances, can change something of the world we live in” seems to be putting the stress on meaning-making that is largely disencumbered by matter (2009: 23).
But lately I have been finding that the historians of artisanal production who I’ve been reading keep chiming with Dikec’s depiction of the collective remaking of the social fabric, especially when they speak of the long history of open-ended experiments with materials at hand and of the “creative participatory joy” in coming together to produce novel objects, compositions, assemblages (Clark, forthcoming; see Smith, 1981: 355). These authors tell of great chains of shared sensory practice that span continents and millennia—extended platforms of knowhow and componentry that were often in defiance of state authorities who sought to spatially circumscribe and monopolize their creativity. Casting his eye across this wide and ancient creative terrain, materials scientist Cyril Smith responds in much the same hospitable spirit that Dikeç brings to the spatial arts of the present. “All big things grow from little things,” he muses, “but new little things will be destroyed by their environment unless they are cherished for reasons more like love than purpose” (1981: 331).
As Smith goes on to say, much of the physical fabric of our social existence has ultimately arisen out of “a rich and varied sensual experience of the kind that comes directly from play with minerals, fire, and colors” (1981: 203). Having just been reminded that such ingredients can also, in the hands of the angry and the dispossessed, tear gaping holes in the social fabric, we can predict that what is coming is a still greater intensification of spatial closure and the policing of the right to appear. But what if, instead, we wagered on another disruption, one whose worldly sublimity was generative rather destructive, inaugural rather than annihilating? One in which, in Dikeç’s words, “(t)he miracle of action interrupts the routine of necessity and consumption, allowing individuals to disclose their distinctiveness—`who’ they are” (2015: 44).
Arendt H (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Barnett C (2008) Political affects in public space: normative blind-spots in non-representational ontologies. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33(2): 186–200.
Clark N (forthcoming) Fiery arts: Pyrotechnology and the political aesthetics of the Anthropocene. GeoHumanities.
Derrida J (2007) Psyche: Inventions of the Other. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Dikeç M (2002) Pera peras poros: Longings for spaces of hospitality. Theory, Culture & Society 19(1–2): 227–247.
Dikeç M (2005) Space, politics, and the political. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23(2): 171–88.
Dikeç M (2007) Badlands of the Republic: Space, Politics and Urban Policy. London: Blackwell.
Dikeç M (2013) Beginners and equals: political subjectivity in Arendt and Rancière. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38(1): 78–90.
Dikeç M (2015) Space, Politics and Aesthetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Papastergiadis N (2014) A Breathing space for aesthetics and politics: An introduction to Jacques Rancière. Theory, Culture & Society 31(7/8): 5–26.
Papastergiadis N and C Esche (2014) Assemblies in art and politics: An interview with Jacques Rancière. Theory, Culture & Society 31(7/8): 27–41.
Rancière J (2009) The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso.
Smith C (1981) A Search for Structure: Selected Essays on Science, Art, and History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.