Aesthetic Acts

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.

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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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