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Aquifer,2009

In an interview with Gabriel Rockhill that was published in The Politics of Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière says: “I always try to think in terms of horizontal distributions, combinations between systems of possibilities, not in terms of surface and substratum. Where one searches for the hidden beneath the apparent, a position of mastery is established. I have tried to conceive of a topography that does not presuppose this position of mastery.” Rancière’s use of the term mastery reveals that this methodological statement is also a political one; and, given the title of the book, one gathers that the politics expressed here is somehow also the politics of aesthetics. How so?

To establish this connection between politics and aesthetics would mean to consider the aesthetic as a realm in which no position of mastery is established, a realm in which it’s not about surface/substratum, in which nothing is hiding beneath the apparent. In the aesthetic, presentation has the final word; it’s not about re-presentation. Perhaps because of the political systems in which we live, we tend to think of politics as the realm of re-presentation. But it may be that such a move is not really political, or that it is political in the wrong way. A politics of re-presentation always establishes a logic of mastery: the people depend on whoever re-presents them; a person is only recognized as what he or she re-presents. This is, one could argue, the logic of identity: you are recognized as a political subject because of something else you re-present (contrary to what the term suggests, we never coincide with our “identity”).

But what if we were to rethink politics as presentation, in other words: as aesthetics? As Giorgio Agamben argues in his work on language and linguistics, this would amount to something like appreciating language as such—not as something that always refers to something else (for that would be the logic of re-presentation). To rethink politics as presentation would mean to recognize someone as a political subject by virtue of their mere being. They wouldn’t need to be African-American, or female, or communist, or even human to qualify. “Just being” would be enough to belong. Such is, one could argue, the logic of aesthetics. As long as politics operates within the logic of re-presentation, it has a lot to learn from it.

The insight also applies to the practice of reading. We tend to read re-presentationally, by looking for the hidden beneath the apparent. But the challenge might be to read presentationally, by focusing on the aesthetic operation of the text. Although the re-presentational mode may work with certain types of texts (newspaper articles, for example), it fails spectacularly with literature, which—like all works of art—operates in the presentational mode. To enter the literary text is like entering an art gallery, in which everything that needs to be said is included in the artwork’s presentation.

References: Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004). Image: Andrew Palmer, Aquifer, 2009, Varnish oil and acrylic gesso on linen, 46 x 39 cm.

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Image 1. Speaking about the 'Aerial Ocean.' History of Climate Change

In a conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak about Hannah Arendt’s work on rights, Judith Butler mentions the street demonstrations by illegal residents in various Californian cities in the Spring of 2006. She points out that during these demonstrations, “the US national anthem was sung in Spanish as was the Mexican anthem.” “The emergence of ‘nuestro hymno’,” she observes, “introduced the interesting problem of the plurality of the nation, of the ‘we’ and the ‘our’: to whom does the anthem belong?” For Butler, “it’s not just that many people sang together … but also that singing is a plural act, an articulation of plurality. If, as Bush claimed at the time, the national anthem can only be sung in English, then the nation is clearly restricted to a linguistic majority, and language becomes one way of asserting criterial control over who belongs and who does not.” The illegal residents singing the US national anthem in Spanish thus become an example of what Jacques Rancière calls a political subject, challenging the overall distribution of the sensible that he calls the police. It is the aesthetic act of their singing that for Butler comes to mark a politics.

Butler’s discussion of the illegal residents singing the US national anthem in Spanish arguably originates in her earlier discussion of Antigone. The closing paragraph of Butler’s book on Antigone reads like a summary of Rancière’s definition of a political subject: “Who then is Antigone within such a scene, and what are we to make of her words, words that become dramatic events, performative acts? She is not of the human but speaks in its language. Prohibited from action, she nevertheless acts, and her act is hardly a simple assimilation to an existing norm. And in acting, as one who has no right to act, she upsets the vocabulary of kinship that is a precondition for the human, implicitly raising the question for us of what those preconditions really must be. She speaks within the language of entitlement from which she is excluded, particularly in the language of the claim with which no final identification is possible. If she is human, then the human has entered into catachresis: we no longer know its proper usage. And to the extent that she occupies the language that can never belong to her, she functions as a chiasm within the vocabulary of political norms” (emphases mine).

In this passage, Antigone becomes Rancière’s political subject: a woman who, from the position of being a woman, challenges the distribution of the sensible and “puts two worlds in one and the same world” (note the number of rhetorical constructions that mark this politics of dissensus: “not … but”; “prohibited … nevertheless”; “acting, as one who has not right to act”; “within … excluded”; “occupies … never belong”). Butler tropes such a politics as a politics of “catachresis” and of the “chiasm,” thus making it clear that the particular politics she is interested in is a politics of aesthetics. The element that is added to this in the discussion about the Spring 2006 demonstrations is “plurality.” The speech act has become a performative act has become an aesthetic act.

Flyer announcing the performance:

History of Climate Change

References: Butler, Judith and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Who Sings the Nation-State? Language, Politics, Belonging. London: Seagull, 2007; Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. Image: Amy Howden-Chapman, talking to the “Aerial Ocean.” Elysian Park Museum of Art’s History of Climate Change, A Guided Tour of the Collection, performance, 2010.

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When Aristotle writes early on in his Politics that human beings are “by nature” political animals, he can do so because he has stated, earlier on, that “those who cannot exist without each other necessarily form a couple, as [1] female and male do for the sake of procreation (they do so not from deliberate choice, but, like other animals and plants, because the urge to leave behind something of the same kind as themselves is natural), and [2] as a natural ruler and what is naturally ruled.” The couple thus becomes the smallest possible unit of politics. Politics finds its origin in the procreative union of the active, “ruling” male and the passive, “ruled” female. No comment.

If the way in which we view politics is indeed linked, as Aristotle suggests, to the way in which we view the family, then the intimate, private sphere of the family suddenly takes on tremendous political importance—not so much as something that needs to be overcome, as some have argued, but as one realm in which political experimentation is possible. (Another one that should be mentioned is the realm of teaching, which Walter Benjamin offers in his essay “Critique of Violence” as one example of the violence that he calls “divine.”) In her work on Antigone, Judith Butler has observed that today, perhaps more than ever, the model of the nuclear family has entered into disintegration and new (and political) forms of family living and loving are coming into being.

This raises the stakes for those “writing” the family today. In Malene Dam’s film Faroe Islands, Jamaica, Denmark, family weighs. To say that it weighs down on us would somehow be to miss its specificity. The family weighs down in us, it weighs us down. It’s in the sarcastic–from the verb “sarkazein,” “to strip off the flesh”–representation of the half-sister; it’s in the daughter’s love for a father whom she does not know–they call him “Chuck,” after “Chuck Norris,” whom we all know without knowing. Most of all, it’s in the artist’s self-representations that recur throughout the film: when she films her own reflection in the window of her father’s truck, a mirror-image that contrasts starkly with her father’s presence behind the wheel; when she films herself on the phone with her mother, crying about how difficult it is to be “related” to someone one doesn’t really know; when she films herself and her half-sister, drunk, faces pressed together, but strangers to each other (and painfully so). The film’s opening shot, which is split between the artist and her mirror image, undermines even the nuclear family of the self: it writes its unity, but only across the multiplicity of its divisions. Its weight is the weight of politics.

References: Aristotle, Politics, trans. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998). Image: Malene Dam, Faroe Islands, Jamaica, Denmark, video, 16 min., 2008.