Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Aesthetics and Politics

The aestheticisation of culture and society is now a familiar theme in social and cultural philosophy. It refers to cultural transformations - associated with the idea of post-modernism - brought about the encroachment of market dynamics onto the terrain of everyday life. However, much of the literature in this area has eschewed any direct questioning of the nature of politics: preferring to interrogate the nature of identity in the media age, the ethics of consumerism and the metaphysics of technological change.

In contrast, the study of aesthetics and politics - or the aesthetics of politics - addresses questions of the nature of the political more directly. The idea here, is that there is an aesthetic dimension to all forms of politics. While the case of fascism is conspicuous and addressed in an extensive literature, basic aesthetic principles can be seen to hold across many forms of power. This is because politics is necessarily ‘artful’ - and manipulative - presupposing regularities in aesthetic techniques and repertoires. If we consider that power is the capacity to organise collective action, aesthetics can be seen as one decisive way in which that capacity in brought into play.

This may require an inquiry into the subliminal and unconscious dimensions of politics; into the power of images. `Images are vectors of communion’ (Maffesoli 1993); and it is through the aesthetic dimensions that politics becomes affective. Thus understanding politics aesthetically can be taken as an inquiry into the power of representation (except that this concerns not just visual but also tactile and auditory expressions). It concerns the libidinal dimension of politics including the sensory and sensual, imaginary and symbolic dimensions. This dimension is rarely discussed in political science and sociology because of the predilection for emphasising the rational self-interested element in political behaviour (as in rational choice theory). Furthermore, the conventional analytics of persuasion are also inadequate. They attempt to understand politics at the level of the cognitive and the conscious (as in brainwashing, propaganda, common sense, discourse or the construction of social reality through language and as text). This misses or underrates the kind of persuasion that is directly aimed at the emotions, the heart, the subconscious.

By framing questions of the political aesthetically allows the role of both art and artfulness to be explored in relation to contemporary political phenomena. Key questions here are: ‘ which aesthetic techniques are used for popular mobilisation?’: ‘How does politics operate through the organisation of space, both geographic and symbolic and imaginary space, through architecture, as and ritual and theatre?’: What forms and designs of popular culture motivate, influence and enthuse people?’

Is politics today an 'art form'?

1 comment:

  1. Certainly aesthetics has increasingly become a vehicle for politics, a medium whereby political ideas can be communicated. One only has to consider the upcoming political debates between the three main parties on tv to realise this. Woe betide any politican who is unable to perform as a media personality. Is this really the sort of politician we want, however, someone who, irrespective of political integrity, is a consummate media performer? Again, the spectre of style over substance raises its ugly head.
    As to whether politics is in fact an instrinsically aesthetic form, this is an interesting question. Certainly, as suggested, it needs to be affective to reach people, and frequently becomes a battle of hearts as well as minds, to adopt a cliche. A politician who has the affective capacity of a Princess Diana would have it made on this understanding, regardless of policy, though for me, this would be a very disturbing political development indeed.
    When party political broadcasts misfire, it tends to be because they misdirect their affective devices. The oft played Kinnock footage whereby he behaves as if he has already won the election is a prime example of this, and may have contributed to his demise. So perhaps it is the case that politics and aesthethics are intertwined forms...