THE FIRST DRAFT of these Ten Theses for an Aesthetics of Politics was written some years ago. The revisions took a while. And the willingness to consider publication was prolonged. All of this is to say that I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in such an exciting publishing venture as Forerunners that fosters the critical intensity of the transitory feuilleton in the digital age. What spurred my writing was a sense of dissatisfaction (palpable throughout this text) with a general contention of critical thinking: namely, that appearances are collusive to progressive politics. The reigning orthodoxy in the study of aesthetics and politics considers aesthetic objects as things about whose politics we must be skeptical. All forms of aesthetic pleasure are reducible to consumption, so it seems, and appearances seem more or less equivalent to the commercial products Madison Avenue wants us to want. One rarely speaks favorably of Hollywood filmmaking, or of pop music. And it is even more rare to find positive accounts of spectatorship. All of this is to say that studies in the aesthetics of politics are often—not always, but more often than not—presented in the negative, where aesthetic appreciation and distraction is something that our most heartened forms of political judgment and critical thinking must overcome. This is because, try as we might, we just can’t seem to shake the epistemic intuition of our modern modes of political thinking that say appearances are deceitful and all surfaces must be plumbed so as to get at the truth of the matter.
In short, what spurred this piece of writing was a dissatisfaction with a collective common sense that imbues much contemporary political criticism: namely, that aesthetic experiences demand epistemic critique, and that critique requires a denial of aesthetic appreciation. The world of appearances, in short, is delusion all the way down.
In part my dissatisfaction with this approach stems from what I take to be a demonization of the demos. For if it is true that instances of aesthetic appreciation are akin to intellectual stultification, and if spectatorship is characterized as a space of distraction from what is properly political, then the everyday moments we all have of looking, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling, and those minute instances whereby we derive an unverifiable sense of pleasure or disturbance from such moments of aesthetic appreciation, are simply bad. What’s worse, our willingness to entertain such moments means perpetuating a pervasive evil in the world—the evil of political seduction and moral distraction. If aesthetic appreciation is unpurposive, political life must be purposive—and the two trajectories shall never meet; or, better, must never meet.
The experiments of thinking, of engagement, and discussion that generated the Ten Theses for an Aesthetics of Politics took place in undergraduate and graduate classrooms at Trent University (Canada) where I had the privilege to teach for ten years, at the University of California, Los Angeles, where I currently teach, and at various conferences, workshops, bars, restaurants, living rooms, and other sundry places and spaces with generous people provoked by the idea that maybe, just maybe, our relation to the world of appearances isn’t as settled as we think it is, and that one of the ways in which we may think the aesthetics of politics is to consider not just the epistemic conditions for understanding works but the diverse forms of relations and solidarity that emerge when we attend to a world of advening appearances.
There was one other occurrence that spurred my sense of urgency about the importance of rethinking the relation of politics and aesthetics, and that is the proliferation of sites and sounds of peoples throughout the globe traversing invisible lines, seeking refuge and asylum. And it became somewhat perspicuous that the critical attitude taken toward aesthetic objects is akin to (maybe even the same as) the hesitance afforded stateless peoples who affront our visual field in the media, at airport border crossings, in everyday encounters. In all instances, the intuition is to turn away from the appearance by asking a version of the question “How do I know that she really is the way she appears to be?” How do I know that the refugee really needs asylum? Or, how do I know that the aesthetic object is what it seems to be? These two different but parallel questions offer the same hesitation: that is, a reluctance to give admittance to that which advenes; a reluctance that is buttressed by a set of demands and expectations for verification through reason-giving, for fear that without these the inherited ways of being in the world will be dislodged. Both scenarios beg a form of spectatorship and both take a knowing stance toward a perceptual field so as to stay the difficult work of be/holding.
I am taken by that moment in Stanley Cavell’s writings that ponders our need to verify the truth of a sensation that can’t be verified (a need he calls skepticism). Such a sensation can be a sense of beauty, or suffering, or happiness, or hunger. It describes a moment when we are captured by the appearance of something to which we can’t relate. A classic formulation, the one that captures me most, is when Cavell describes film actors on a screen not as humans but as human somethings, because what we see on those scrims are luminosities projected by a machine that animates light fragments at twenty-four frames per second. And yet, we experience sensations vis-à-vis those human somethings as if they were human somethings. All of this is to suggest that our senses of conviction of an appearance are palpable and the critical expectation that we deny such convictions on the grounds that the image is unreal, or collusive, or demagogic, seems to imply that we are willing to deny ourselves something about our own experiential lives.
The Ten Theses for an Aesthetics of Politics thus posits the relation of aesthetics and politics as unsettled and, worse, uncritical. That is, these Ten Theses consider the possibility of a pre-judgmental moment of experience where our most heartfelt critical intuitions about how worlds ought to be ordered become undone. Crucial to this thought experiment is the advenience of an appearance that generates our senses of aesthetic appreciation and engenders a becoming–undoing of critical criteria. Needless to say, the Ten Theses for an Aesthetics of Politics take their inspiration from Jacques Rancière’s own Ten Theses on Politics published in the virtual pages of Theory and Event as well as from Rancière’s work on aesthetics and politics in general. Other sources of inspiration include Hannah Arendt’s invocation of a politics of appearances, Stanley Cavell’s writings on film and aesthetic experience, Roland Barthes’s writings on photography that source the term “advenience” I pillage, as well as Michael Fried, Jean-Luc Nancy, and a host of other cited and uncited tongues. In short my loyalties will seem obvious to the reader, as will the various orthodoxies to which I’m responding. For further clarifications and elaborations, I have published essays and blog posts that elaborate on the abstractions in these pages. If the reader is interested, they may peruse those pieces listed under the “Further Writings” section at the end of this book.
One final note: I wish to express much gratitude to all those who shared their time and indulged my ruminations.