Varieties of Aesthetic Politic


Giuseppe Ballacci, CEHUM, University of Minho (

Matteo Giglioli. CEVIPOF, Sciences Po Paris

The positing of a link between aesthetics and politics is a recurrent idea in Western intellectual history, but its various instantiations have not been compared in a broad and systematic debate. In the past, aesthetic politics has for instance been conceived of as a type of political action that morphs into an art form, hence as politics transformed into performance, to be read (and valued) aesthetically, as a text. Other thinkers have theorized aesthetic politics under the guise of aesthetic judgment, to be employed analogically in order to understand political judgment. In a further formulation, the way in which we comprehend artistic representation has been thought to influence political representation. At a more basic level, ‘aesthetic’ has also been used to signify the realm of the sensory, as opposed to the ideal or normative, so that aesthetic politics is seen to concern itself with the materiality of human experience, against utopia. Finally, the notions of style and taste have been considered fundamental in the development of collective preferences and the formation of empathy and enmity groups, and thus for the understanding of the politics of the spectacular. What do all these ways of thinking about aesthetic politics have in common? Are they compatible? Are they bound by the type of political phenomena in whose context they arose, or do they have broader interpretive validity? And how do they relate to the aesthetic domain proper, that is to say to the processes through which art is produced, distributed, and received, especially given the contemporary revolution in the social function of art? The present panel intends to confront these questions. The methodological approach will be broadly pluralist, tackling aesthetic politics analytically, through development of reflection in the history of political thought, and/or by considering specifically relevant case studies. Particular interest will be focused on the seeming commonality between different varieties of aesthetic politics in representing themselves as an alternative to rational, means-ends utilitarian politics. In this way, thinking of politics through aesthetics appears to offer the chance to conceptualize political phenomena outside both the deliberative and the rational choice paradigms. Faced with current political crises, both cognitive and all-too-concrete, what would the advantages and disadvantages be of an ‘aesthetic turn’ for political theory?

Panel Paper Abstracts

“Aestheticization of Politics and Politicization of Art”
Elise Derroitte (Catholic University of Leuven)

The relationships between art and public institutions are inhabited by an ongoing debate.
Between the supporters of subversion and the beneficiaries of the subventions, it seems
often difficult to integrate the specificity of an artistic production in the economic program
of a cultural policy. Frequently, the desire for aesthetic education of the masses becomes a
commonplace not interrogated in cultural policies and operating a form of politicization of
art that questions the idea of autonomy of creation. This confusion between aesthetic and
educational values of a work produces a transformation in the artistic production itself.
In our presentation we want to reconstruct the various categories of relationship between art
and politics from Walter Benjamin’s terminology of aestheticization of politics and
politicization of art. As a result of the reconstruction of these two tendencies, we will expose
a third mode of the relationship between art and institutions based on creativity itself.

“Uneasy Affinities: Walter Benjamin and the Status of Aesthetics in Political Theory”
Annika Thiem (Villanova University)

The status of aesthetics in political theory is a contested or neglected one at best and a
maligned one at worst. In order to develop how aesthetics can and should function both as
critical heuristic and as framework for progressive educative and participatory strategies, I
will return to the work of Walter Benjamin. I will argue that Benjamin assesses emerging
aesthetic practices as key because political habits are formed through distraction, pleasure,
and enjoyment. Second I will argue that such a formal insight is not sufficient to guide a
progressive politics and show how the formation of the political mass subject has to include
the collective labor on the modes of aesthetic production as a means of participating in the
analysis of the occluded material conditions of social life.

“Aesthetics Politics as a Methodological Challenge: Ideology, Strategy, and the History of
Political Thought”
Matteo Giglioli (CEVIPOF, Sciences Po Paris)

The contribution takes as its starting point a conception of aesthetic politics as a mode of
formulating political discourse, shaping preferences, and accounting for collective decisions
that depends on aesthetic judgments as opposed to ethical, self-interested, or identity-based
considerations. Aesthetic politics is understood as a form of persuasion, or an illocutionary
speech act, initiated by an authoritative speaker, whose felicitousness depends on the
creation of social distance through the juxtaposition of in-groups and out-groups defined by
taste (i.e. the creation of aesthetic complicity). This definition is in turn an inductive
generalization from the results of previous research on the arguments buttressing reactionary
and revolutionary politics in the European fin de siècle. The paper seeks to explore the
methodological implications of conceiving of political activity and discourse in this guise,
specifically by comparison with the study of ideologies (as pioneered by Michael Freeden)
and with the Cambridge school of contextualist historiography.

“The Forgotten Rituals of Order: Remembering the First Aesthetic Technologies of Politics”
James Garrison (University of Vienna)

In Bernard Stiegler’s view, the proliferation of “technization” leads humanity to a profound
forgetfulness, where access to origins is lost and remembering “originary temporality” occurs
through attention not to organic or inorganic matter, but to how we organize matter, i.e.
how technics aesthetically temporalize existence. Contemporary Chinese philosopher Li
Zehou provides a case in point with the shamanic sage’s deployment of art, ritual, and music,
as Confucianism describes, and how this works in the early proliferation of what Marx calls
the humanization of nature and the naturalization of humanity. Forgetfulness then sets in as
habits sediment in the most basic use of religious-aesthetic-normative technologies, forming
something akin to a Jungian collective unconsciousness, much like Stiegler’s view. Thus,
Stiegler and Li together show how the human, political animal has always had an aesthetic
bearing rooted in the ritualized organization of labor and material and why we ceaselessly
work to forget this.


“Bodies Made and Unmade, and the Time After: Aesthetics and Politics in Our Colony”

Asma Abbas, Associate Professor of Politics and Philosophy, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington, Massachusetts,

The shared provenance of post/enlightenment aesthetics and the concept of the political can be gleaned from the understandings of bodies, boundaries, topography, sensuality, that are continuous between the two. The paper revisits these, and connects them to the sensorial, political, and economic enterprises of colonialism and imperialism, suggesting that any contemporary turn to aesthetics (and for that matter, materialisms) that normalizes, naturalizes, and deploys these understandings instead of challenging, displacing, and reshaping them affirms the systems that these notions have served historically. Following Jacques Ranciere’s critique of consensus, the paper diagnoses a more basic consensuality underpinning neoliberal notions of politics that either forget that we all exist in the postcolony, or choose to arbitrarily disconnect the (unfinished) history of the colony from the (unfinished) history of capital.  How might the search for givenness and immediacy in “times of crisis” driving such well-meaning turns to the aesthetic be disrupted and unpacked to reveal its anti-liberatory content? What, then, might a commitment to decolonization of politics and aesthetics in our shared postcolonial present look like?


“Symbolicity and Performativity of Political Representation”

Paula Diehl, Humboldt University of Berlin/University of Pennsylvania (PENN),

Research on representation has become a central issue of political science. However, key aspects of political representation such as symbolicity and performativity rarely play a role in political theory. My paper addresses the functioning of democratic representation and focuses on these two neglect aspects of political representation. I’ll propose a political reading of the sociology of knowledge (Berger/Luckmann) and combine it with the democracy theory of Lefort. According to Berger and Luckmann, society is based not only on procedures and institutions but also on the production of symbolic meanings. Lefort too is convinced that the Political is symbolically shaped. But, in order to be effective, representation needs to be performative. In doing so, it shapes the concepts and the imagination of the Political. The paper will analyze the symbolic and performative mechanisms of representation and how they give democracy meaning and legitimacy.


The Aesthetic Politics of Democratic Representation

Alessandro Mulieri  (KU Leuven University)

It is the complex relation between the two worlds of aesthetics and politics that defines the notion of the ‘political’ related to representation. In the recent debate on representation, there have been several attempts to conceptualize the aesthetics- politics relation in new and original ways. Scholars such as Frank Ankersmit, Michael Saward and Jeffrey E. Green look at representation as a constructivist theory in which the represented does not pre-exists the representative but comes into existence through the act of representation. This view argues that the aesthetic component of representation is a poietic act of creation based on a never-ending complex interaction between two contingent and dynamic notions, a representative and a represented. As such, this view broadens our understanding of democratic politics. However this reformulation of the aesthetics-politics relation theorizes representation as related to a broad idea of popular sovereignty, which can encompass plebiscitarian, authoritarian or elitist components. Then the question that needs to be asked is: how to distinguish representative claims that are only generically related to popular sovereignty from genuine democratic forms of representation? The paper focuses on the methodological and political implications of this distinction in Ankersmit, Saward and Green and attempts to answer to this question by proposing an aesthetic reading of the concept of ‘responsiveness’.


“The Concept of Genius in Victorian Political Thought / John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle”

Yoel Mitrani. CEVIPOF, Sciences Po Paris

Extensive research has been devoted for understanding the concept of genius in the context of aesthetics, yet its use in the political context of the nineteenth century was usually neglected. Close reading of Victorian texts reveals however that the genius was never regarded as merely a literary figure. This paper will examine the political role assigned to the genius in the writings of two prominent Victorian thinkers: Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill. Although the two differed in their attitudes towards politics and the basic principles that should direct it, each allocated an important place for the genius in their political theory. For both, the genius was regarded as the most suitable candidate for political leadership. The difference in their political and metaphysical stance created however two different (even contradicting) types of genius: a ‘mystical genius’ who is very romantic in character, and what I will name ‘liberal genius’.

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