Thesis 8. On Luminosity

No object is political; no object is aesthetic. Objects are plurivalent permanences, luminous entities without cause or purpose. An aesthetics of politics thus does not refer to formulas for interpreting the political value of works of art; it addresses the modes in and through which the luminosity of an appearance is rendered available to perceptibility.

WE MIGHT SAY THAT OBJECTS (INCLUDING THOSE objects of analysis we call political subjectivities) have a life of their own, regardless of the intentional structures we deploy to make sense of them (see “Thesis 5: On Handling”). Our habits of political analysis operate in such a way as to establish the significance of things by integrating whatever object may seem relevant within a system of intentions that renders the object explicable and comprehensible. This is the great anthropomorphism of social science inquiry: that any object whatsoever—a state, a leader, an economy, an NGO, a party, an interest group, and so forth—has intentions and, as such, operates within a structure and akin to the human will. It is only in this way that we may then speak of an object’s usefulness to our political reflections and to our political ambitions. As an operandum in a preconceived intentional structure, an object is thus said to be predictable and accountable (i.e., meaningful). It is also only in this way that we are enabled to justify the value of aesthetic objects to political thought: aesthetic objects are valuable—that is, have an interest and a purpose—because their intention appeals to a structure of belief that we either endorse or condemn.

But as we have said, the domain of an aesthetics of politics is one of disinterest and unpurposiveness: aesthetic experience is an event of discontinuity where no structure of interest or criteria of belief suffices to explain the value of an object—or, for that matter, the intentional structure of the experience. What this suggests is that the kind of explanatory system that makes intention, causality, and predictability necessary to signification is insufficient for an aesthetics of politics. This is why we say that no object is political, and no object is aesthetic. Our concern is not with the classification of a domain of interest that will explain the value of things. Any object whatever may be experienced aesthetico-politically—whether brush stroke, pop song hook, oil spill, policy initiative, kernel of information, sexual orientation, economic standing, weather pattern, word, image, and so forth.

The relevant category of experience is not the purposiveness of an object but the intensity of luminosity that strikes at our sense of conviction. But aesthetic conviction is a force of intensity available for experience, and not simply a quality in the human experience of things. It is not synonymous with perspectivilism; it is not the result of an interpretation from “my perspective.” Aesthetic conviction arises at the interval of advenience and refers to the kind of luminous intensity that makes an object, or a detail, or a work, available for attention in a manner heretofore unremarked; this, despite the fact that the object in question may have always been apparent.

In this regard, and looking back to “Thesis 5: On Handling,” we say that a brush handles the canvas as the painter handles the brush, or that a worker handles the minimum wage as the borrowing limit handles the debt crisis. But we can also say that the state is a handler, as is an NGO or a religion. And to say this is to suggest that the experience of which we speak is not exclusive to human interference. Rather, aesthetic conviction results from the immediacy of interface that arises from the interval of advenience. Conviction is unexplainable and unjustifiable; there is no necessity to its emergence.

An aesthetic of politics is responsive to a sensation of conviction, despite the fact that there is no source or site of evidence that will count as necessary or sufficient to that sensation. This is why the sense of absoluteness that accompanies aesthetic experience is not universalizable. This is also why we address the luminosity of adveniences rather than the political effectivity of works of art. The distinction we want to retain is between an object’s luminosity and what it might illuminate. For an object to illuminate something, its shine must be indexical and directed at a referent: in this way, an object is imagined to operate like a spotlight that designates a marker on a stage. Illumination is entirely theatrical. An object’s luminosity, however, disavows the directionality of the spotlight. A luminosity radiates without referencing: it forgoes the ostension of the spotlight as the principal mode of relation.

The distinction between illumination and luminosity thus suggests two divergent forms of political realism: the former (illumination) demands that a perspective be shareable and hence available for comprehension. This order of political realism (PR1) requires the foundation of criteria for the identity of objects so that they may be said to refer to something real in the world. PR1 is a referential realism that endorses a substance ontology: static entities with identifiable properties. A citizen has these rights; a political actor has these physical and psychological capabilities; politics involves states and governments, policies and interests—and each of these is a qualifiable substance that is verifiable as a concrete substance.

But there is a second order of political realism (PR2) that is closer to the experience of aesthetic conviction spurred by luminosity. PR2 does not address or explain substances because its realism is not indexical—there is nothing to illumine in PR2, nothing to index. What kind of evidence could there be in order to verify the luminosity of an advenience? To say that an appearance advenes is thus not simply to define the properties of its motility, it is also to speculate on the processual forces that give it its ingressional properties. It is Alfred North Whitehead who first introduces the idea of ingression vis-à-vis objects in The Concept of Nature. For him, ingression refers to a mode of relation, and not simply the description of an action: it is the event of relation that arises from superimposition of objects whose contours remain unfinished. “The ingression of an object into an event,” Whitehead affirms, “is the way the character of the event shapes itself in virtue of the being of the object. Namely the event is what it is, because the object is what it is.”[1] Thus, object and event mutually inflect each other through a relational dynamic that sustains their fluid, rather than static, natures. In Process and Reality Whitehead calls this “a lure for feeling.”[2]

The political realism (PR2) proposed by an aesthetics of politics attends to the intensity of conviction that ingresses at the moment of advenience.

Ten Theses for an Aesthetics of Politics by Davide Panagia is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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