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Reflections on Space, Politics, and the Conjuncture
n the penultimate chapter of Space, Politics and Aesthetics, “Politics for Equals,” Mustafa Dikeç contends that Jacques Rancière’s account of the police has a strong resonance with Laclau and Mouffe’s account of hegemony. Dikeç argues that in Laclau and Mouffe’s terms hegemony is “always incomplete, and achieved in a context of antagonism.” He notes that for Rancière, in similar terms, what he refers to as “the police” is “never a finished and immutable order, and the very lack or surplus in the police order is the constituting moment of politics.” He continues that this “makes politics a permanent possibility, since the givens of a police order, from the viewpoint of politics are never objective, but always polemical” (page 92). This comparison raises important issues about the relations between different ways of conceptualizing space, the political and aesthetics, and their implications for political strategies. My contribution here takes as its focus Dikeç’s engagements with space and politics, drawing out links to work on conjunctural analyses as way of developing the political implications of this discussion.
Dikeç’s core project in Space, Politics and Aesthetics is to explore how space and politics are articulated in different relation to acts of perception and imagination. The book is composed of a detailed and ambitious engagement with the ways in which space, politics and aesthetics function in the in the work of Immanuel Kant, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Rancière. This approach is animated by a concern with the permanent possibility of politics, a concern which is shaped by a distinctive and productive mobilisation of the distinction between “politics” and “the political.” Indeed Dikeç astutely notes that he sees the “aim of this distinction” as “less to distinguish the ‘purely’ or ‘properly’ political (however defined) from the non-political than to keep the possibility for politics open by insisting that anything can become a matter of official approval or even recognition” (page 7).
Dikeç’s engagements with political theory in this regard gain from this openness and generous approach to the emergence of the political. One of the key strengths of the book is an important contribution to reading the way space functions in political texts. In this regard Dikeç presents a key break with one significant way that geographers have read and engaged with political theorists. Geographical work has often been structured by a tendency to critique political theorists for not engaging sufficiently with questions of space/place and then to try and spatialize their concepts and imaginaries. Such critiques have been leveled at political theorists in particular for treating space in a metaphorical fashion. Dikeç’s approach is certainly not uncritical of the ways in which his chosen theorists approach space; there are some particularly critical points raised in terms of Arendt’s use of space here, for example. What is significant, however, is that Dikeç prioritizes an engagement with the work that thinking about space does for their thinking about politics. This approach marks a subtle but significant challenge to the terms on which geographical work and political theory are articulated. This stages a generative engagement with political theorists which opens up productive dialogues and conversations, and is helpfully open to the insights of political theorists about the relations between space and the political, rather than performing a disciplinary policing of ways of understanding and mobilizing space.
While Dikeç is very attentive to the terms on which different theorists mobilize articulations of space, politics and aesthetics his text is structured by something of a refusal to locate the work of such theorists in particular space-time contexts. Accounts of theorists which reduce their theoretical contributions by their biographies and/or political interventions can clearly be problematic, but Dikeç’s approach often means that the particular political problematics which frame theorists work are rather absent. An implication of this is that the readings here are often rather abstracted from their own political contexts. We hear little about how Arendt’s anti-communism or Ranciere’s particular positionality in, and engagement with the post-1968 conjuncture in France, shape their particular takes on the relations between space, politics and aesthetics.
Dikeç does, however, develop the important engagement with Rancièrian accounts of the political that he has articulated elsewhere, most notably in his influential book Badlands of the Republic. He pushes this theoretical problematic further, but in ways which raise important and significant questions, particularly in relation Rancière’s concerns with critique of the “givenness” of place and space. This critique offers important resources and possibilities for ways of thinking about the relations between space and politics and for foregrounding different forms of political agency. In summarising key contributions of Rancière, however, Dikeç notes that a key implication of this approach is that “there is no way to be able to say where politics might emerge from. Since political subjects are not already given, they cannot be identified before they disrupt the police order.” As a result politics becomes positioned as “an emergence and a permanent possibility” (page 96).
Such an approach offers both possibilities and tensions in terms of its resources for understanding the space/time articulation of politics. In analytic terms its predominant focus on the political as a ruptural event risks leaving little scope for understanding the dynamic fashioning of political trajectories and engaging with the geographical construction of political action. This is significant in terms of thinking about the diverse articulation of political trajectories through which politicization is shaped, e.g. through solidarities and the formation of alliances. It is also important as so much political activity can be iterative, both in terms of the way it reproduces existing political configurations, but also crucially in terms of how it dislocates them. The terms on which such relations are articulated, and the political practices and contexts shaped through doing so, raise the importance of taking stock of their location within and in relation to conjunctural relations and forces.
To do so necessitates an analysis where the conjunctual articulation of political practices and activity are given more weight than in Dikeç’s account. This speaks to a certain “ineradicability” about the relations between space, politics and the conjuncture. In this regard there is a productive dialogue to be had between the kind of analysis of space and politics advocated by Dikeç and the style of Gramscian and Althusserian-inflected conjunctural analysis pioneered by Stuart Hall. For Hall, as John Clarke usefully summarises, the “concept of conjuncture highlights the ways in which moments of transformation, break and the possibility of new ‘settlements’ come into being.” Further conjunctures “have no necessary duration” but rather “their time is determined by the capacity of political forces—the leading bloc—to shape new alignments or to overcome (or at least stabilize) existing antagonisms and contradictions” (Clarke, 2014: 115).
In this sense Hall’s work shaped an approach where engaging with the formation of political antagonisms was enabled, not limited, by attending to the different articulations which shaped their emergence and condition. Thus in Policing the Crisis, together with co-authors, he demonstrates how antagonisms over blackness came to be articulated around “mugging” and were linked to a whole set of other factors such as industrial unrest, politics around sexuality and gender and the emergence of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland to become crystallized as a “conspiracy against ‘the British way of life’” (Hall et al, 1978: 309). The terms on which such antagonisms are articulated in conjunctural terms can be enriched, however, by drawing on the challenge to givenness of accounts of space and place advocated by Dikeç.
Such a move can also help to hone understandings of the terms on which politicization happens and the political practices that are envisioned through particular processes of politicization. For Rancière, as Ernesto Laclau argues, “identities the possibility of politics too much” “with the possibility of an emancipatory politics, without taking into account other alternatives, for example, that the uncounted might construct their uncountability in ways that are ideologically incompatible” with what either he or Laclau would “advocate politically” (Laclau, 2005: 246). To grapple with the terms on which such politicization is crafted and produced necessitates an engaging with how specific geographies of power are shaped and re articulated through particular conjunctures. Scrutinizing the practices by which particular conjunctures are brought into contestation is thus necessary for intervening in the terms on which they become politicized.
Dikeç’s book offers powerful resources for ways of reading the work that space does in relation to political theory and is shaped by an important commitment to the way that engaging with different ways of envisioning space can shape different articulations of politics. The larger question his intervention raises for me is what might it mean to combine an approach which rejects a sense of the givenness of the spaces of the political while retaining a deeper attentiveness to the diverse articulations which are shaped and negotiated through political activity.
Thanks to Ozan Karaman and Lazaros Karaliotas for helpful comments on an earlier version of this review. Thanks also to Mustafa Dikeç for discussion of some of the arguments of the book both during and after a seminar at the University of Glasgow.
Clarke J (2014) Conjunctures, crises, and cultures: Valuing Stuart Hall. Focaal 70: 113-122.
Hall S, Critcher C, Jefferson T, Clarke J, and Roberts B (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging the State and Law and Order. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Laclau E (2005) On Populist Reason. London: Verso.