Beauty is power

Davide Panagia’s The Political Life of Sensation asks whether there is an aesthetics in democracy.
Jessica Loudis
13 November 2009

In the spring of 1969, a group of artists from the Belangengroep Beeldende Kunstenaars (B.B.K.), a Dutch professional union advocating for artists’ rights, gathered in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum under one of the country’s most iconic paintings: De compagnie van Frans Banning Cocq en Willem van Ruytenburch; or as it’s more commonly known, Rembrant’s Night Watch. The artists were there to petition the government for a greater role in Dutch cultural policy, and they staged one of the summer’s many sit-ins underneath the canvas, capitalizing on the cognitive dissonance of artists demanding rights within a state-funded, world-renowned space for art. The protest was only one instance of a campaign to extend the political clout of artists, but the tactic gestured towards something larger: the ways in which new and unofficial actors were using aesthetics to transform conventional politics.

For Jacques Rancière, politics is not what we think of as politics. According to Rancière, an Emeritus professor of philosopher at the University of Paris, what we call politics is actually a form of policing – a system for keeping certain actors visible, audible and present; and more significantly, a means of keeping other actors out. Politics, in its true sense, is actually a rare and elusive event: it occurs only when those who do not have the right to speak or be seen do so, and in turn, disrupt and reconstitute the order of what we mistakenly call politics. Politics, in other words, only really occurs when what we call politics is stopped.

Over the past several years, Ranciere’s work has gained currency among philosophers and art theorists as a means of using aesthetics in the service of progressive politics. The two fields, Ranciere claims, are inextricably bound, for the question of what society can see and hear is a fundamentally political one. And that is not just a question of legislation–what is or is not allowed; but a sociological one also–what, in a given social context, can come into existence, what are the limits of the seeable. In making this argument, Ranciere shifts what we think of as politics from the event itself to the conditions that allow it to happen. “Power is not so much in the spectacle itself,” Ranciere says, “as in the racket that it authorizes.”

The relationship between politics and aesthetics is the point of departure for Davide Panagia’s second book, The Political Life of Sensation. In Political Life, Panagia, a professor at Trent University and a student of Ranciere’s, investigates the political import of sensation, arguing that certain aesthetic experiences can “break fresh ground” and alter how we perceive the world. He takes as his starting point “the radical democratic moment” in Kant’s Critique of Pure Judgment – the disarming aesthetic experience that estranges us from our ability to determine whether something is formally beautiful. According to Kant, this is the transcendental moment in which we are overcome by the immediacy of experience, and elevated to a plane of enjoyment beyond anything quantifiable. While these moments can take a variety of forms -- listening to a street performer rap or walking into a Romanesque cathedral are two examples -- the afterimages are always the same: a powerful sense of complete and unanticipated enjoyment. In these moments, in which art briefly transforms our relationship to the world, Panagia glimpses the possibility of democracy – the event that disrupts hierarchies of knowledge and reinstates the fact that before we are political animals, we are first sensory beings.

Regardless of form, the common quality within these moments is their capacity to short-circuit convention and overturn established regimes of perception. Panagia argues that sensory perception is organized by what he calls political narratocracy – master narratives that dictate the relationship between perception and political analysis. In short, narratocracy conditions how we read political events, and the things we are trained to see – and not to see – when we engage with the world. It is the political storytelling that quietly governs our regimes of perception, and ultimately delimits what does or doesn’t count as politics.

A general example of political narratocracy can be found in the conflicting storylines that emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the weeks after the storm, the official government explanation -- the hurricane was a failure of emergency preparedness -- collided with a different version of the story: that the storm simply aired the racial dynamics already at play in New Orleans. While the federal government maintained that the Katrina's disproportionate effect on low-income black citizens was an unfortunate result of bad planning, as Spike Lee and others have argued, the infrastructure and politics of the city determined long before the storm ever hit that poor black residents would be the lowest priority in the event of a disaster. As this alternate narrative -- the "President Bush doesn't care about black people" version -- gained visibility, it shifted (albeit on a small scale) what people were attuned to see in the disaster, and underlined the entanglement of race and poverty in national politics. In short, it shifted what Panagia calls the "posture of attention," and made race a readable factor in Katrina's wake.


While Panagia’s project may not at first glance seem overtly political, by shifting focus away from politics as such, he introduces contexts not usually considered relevant into the political conversation. Like Ranciere, Panagia believes that the potential for politics is created when unrelated elements meet –when the construction of a piazza enables the unexpected encounter between different factions of Italian society, or when the publication of a cookbook alters how an entire culture considers its national identity. Through expanding the perceptual field, these acts create moments in which we suspend our ideas about authority, and ultimately, dismantle the system itself by impelling us to consider them anew. The idea that aesthetics can reform how we see the world is the gamble -- and also, the radicality -- of Panagia's project. While it's possible to dismiss his work as a starry-eyed ode to art, or worse still, a rehashing of modernism dating back to Panagia is staking his claim on something larger: that art (or film, architecture, etc.) doesn't simply make us look at something again, but at its best, forces us to reevaluate our assumptions when we engage with them in the first place. 

Perhaps because we all have a personal relationship to eating, many of Panagia's strongest examples involve food politics. In March 2000,  Panagia tells us, something strange happened on the way to the forum: thousands of European chocolatiers took to the piazzas of Italy to protest new EU chocolate standards. Under the new rules -- instituted by the draconian-sounding European Chocolate Directive -- anything with 5% vegetable fat in it could be labeled as chocolate, in spite of the fact that this would extend the definition to include chocolate-flavored snacks and lower quality goods. Aside from dealing a  major blow to cocoa-producing countries, this would also radically decrease the standards of all the chocolate produced in Europe. In protest, the chocolatiers staged a taste test. They sampled their products in the piazzas, and turned taste into a means of conveying political discontent.


By approaching politics from the arsenal of cultural studies, The Political Life of Sensation underscores – and manages to negotiate – the uneasy relationship between the two disciplines. From the vantage point of cultural studies, Panagia zeroes in on objects and social movements, teasing out the larger significance of phenomena as deceptively straightforward as a redesigned newspaper stand or a Slow Food protest. In the case of the newspaper stand, Panagia focuses on the Liberty Edicola in Casalmaggiore, Italy. During its heyday, the stand was the heart of the piazza -- it provided the town with its news, but moreover, it became a site of convergence; a place where people met, spoke, bartered and read. By serving as a news center, the edicola was politically charged in a classical sense, but by altering the course of the town's life around it, Panagia argues, the edicola overtly reorganized the political into everyday life. Through strategies such as this, Panagia highlights the latent politics in art and everyday activity, but also raises the question of whether or not this kind of inquiry could ever transition into a methodology for creating the radical conditions of democracy. Ultimately, Panagia demonstrates the paradox inherent in democracy’s relationship to aesthetics – the “aha!” moment of experience may eliminate hierarchies and preconceptions, but whether or not it can provide the foundation for a sustainable political or aesthetics movement is another question entirely.

Panagia takes the first steps in this direction through establishing a connection between perception and ethics. In the final chapter of the book, “The Photographs Tell It All,” Panagia turns his attention to photography, asking how we can relate to an image when it intensely affects us, such as the torture photos from Abu Ghraib. Images like these, Panagia argues, don’t simply warrant recognition, they demand a response, and in responding, we establish the groundwork of an ethical community.  If politics is the act of making what was previously unseeable visible, photography is political not because it shows what is happening, but because it presents "that which is not visible yet is palpable in an appearance." Photography cannot tell us the whole story, but it can induce visceral responses by providing us with traces of what was once there -- and in the case of the Abu Ghraib photos, the basic facts of torture and humiliation, independent of the military apparatus behind it. This reaction is a starting point for politics, and in the final punch of the book, Panagia argues that these reactions can be a tool for understanding the perceptual conditions that govern our realties and formulate our ethics. This is a step beyond the situational politics of the BBK and a gesture towards something larger – the suggestion that our senses don’t just help us negotiate the world, they shape us as citizens.

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