The Sight of Global Politics: Aesthetics after the Arab Spring (2011)

Dakin McDonald

 

Graduate Student in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory
Department of English and Cultural Studies
McMaster University
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

 

This experimental paper is a deliberate provocation that seeks not to establish truth but to incite further thought regarding the mediated mutation whereby the Arab Spring uprisings were succeeded by a humanitarian war in Libya. The collective attempt to imagine new lives after decades of totalitarian emergency throughout many Arab and African countries represents an eruption of politics that has been met, ultimately, by a militarised humanitarian response. This political moment is grasped as an opportunity to glimpse the mechanics of global governance and, in particular, its peculiar aesthetic. While understanding the Arab Spring as an attempt to disrupt existing ‘communities of sense,’ the ensuing humanitarian intervention is itself an aesthetic practice that visualises suffering in a particular way but also makes visible, in part, the overarching aesthetic of contemporary global politics. Political action in a mediated age necessarily concerns aesthetics, especially if the eyes of observers are ever to be able to see differently.

KEYWORDS:

Aesthetics; Arab Spring; Art; Humanitarian War; Ontology; Politics

N.B.: Please note that this essay was written and submitted in Summer 2011 prior to the fall of the Gaddafi regime. As such, the essay comments upon the situation at that time.

INTRODUCTION

Political theory after Michel Foucault’s biopolitics and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s complicated assemblages cannot remain unchallenged or unchanged.  In a context where power relations govern the most minute individual difference at the same time as populations are administered and managed—and where the machines of power are “at work everywhere” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p. 1), always already interpenetrating one another through the constitution of abstract machines (Massumi, 1992, p. 17)—the continuing relevance and ability of critical political thought demands a reassessment of methods sufficient to the task at hand: an inventory of strategy.  Brian Massumi promises that “[t]he strands of the web can be unwound” (1992, p. 13), although one speculates how and to what extent.  The attraction of Roland Barthes’s, and now Kathleen Stewart’s (2007), fragmentary method of thinking and writing in detail, intended not to ignore the infinite panorama of the age but to catch an elusive and temporary glimpse all the more clearly, is powerful and perhaps convincing.  The practice should be particularly commended for its subtle and nuanced intensity, its ability to set alight the petty, banal, and mundane anti-events of the modern everyday, and thus deserving of more thorough attention as a strategy for the imaginative apprehension of power’s dynamic, extensive, and invasive functionality.

The danger of writing fragments is indulgence and theoretical slack but the simultaneous advantage is the adventure of new perspectives on global politics: glimpses amidst a ceaseless safari in search of the elusive beast that—horrors of horrors—always rides with us, in us, through us.  In this paper I do not attempt to follow Barthes and Stewart by replicating their writing style so much as I endeavour, naively and without the pretence of a false guarantee, to extrapolate the intensity of their fragmentation, to yank their potential implications so as to reconsider from new angles that impossible, perennially broken machine that has been termed ‘global governance.’1  Thinking with the contemporaneous political moment that is the Arab Spring, I consider how the application of aesthetic frames, particularly the idea of humanitarian intervention, serves to reveal the operations of a specific aesthetic of global politics.  The humanitarian intervention in Libya, which can be described colourfully as an ‘interception,’ demonstrates the extent to which the leading actors of global governance work to violently reproduce this aesthetic while delimiting artistic-political tactics and foreclosing the emergent and unexplored avenues of ontological freedom.  Yet questions persist, as always, like the memory, the residue, of excluded difference, provoking simultaneous critique and productive re-imagining—practices that can, arguably, enable multiple unfoldings and divergent transformations of the very aesthetic framework by which life and politics are understood and wherein truth remains stubbornly privileged as the absolute standard of knowledge.

AESTHETICS AND THE ARAB SPRING

The attempts by millions of people across the Middle East and the Maghreb to overthrow the illegitimate authorities that suffocate their collective dreams can be productively, if only ever partially, understood as a collective ontopolitical desire to experience a different way of being human together.  Not surprisingly, this desire for existential freedom has been met with the full force of the international security apparatus, namely the authorisation of a humanitarian war—a war that kills human beings in their defence—that is waged in Libya’s skies, upon Libyan bodies, across every screen, in all of our minds.  I am not suggesting that this relationship is intentional, only that it is somewhat causal: predictable, expected, almost scripted because political outburst perversely necessitates containment according to the fatal logic of this apparatus.  After all, the flowing spectacle of people demanding different lives was staunched, in the perception of those who have experienced the Arab Spring as a media event, by the redirection of cameras away from the coursing streets and towards the irresistible carnage accompanying the deployment of a humanitarian intervention that functions, ever ironically, via “strike sorties” and “humanitarian assistance movements.”2  The Arab Spring emerges, then, as a revelatory moment when the aesthetic mechanics of contemporary global governance are revealed.

Such a glimpse has been enabled by those bodies—to whom we owe not only debt but gratitude—which are actively transforming the possibilities of collective life by demanding to be seen and attempting to be heard.3  To begin to think with the Arab Spring invites one to repose Jacques Ranciere’s originally unrelated question, “what did the demonstration demonstrate, exactly?” (2009, p. 34) and ask, firstly, how did these demonstrations demonstrate?  From Mohamed Bouazizi’s burning flesh to the living streets of Tunis, Cairo, Manama, and Homs, millions of people abandoned the (in)security of everyday routine and their apolitical “private” lives to reassert “public” spaces and voice their unquenched desire for political change.  The willingness of those who had previously been unwilling to make their voices heard and to display their bodies publicly through acts of opposition impregnated the uprisings in the sense that Alexander Potts defines as the “unfolding of an event rather than its completion” (2009, p. 61).

This episode is not disdainful anarchy but, rather, the enabling of possible actualisations of previously unimaginable potential.  Ranciere’s work obviously allows us to emphasize the aesthetic implications of this politics, where perception and visuality are paramount.4  “A community of sense,” he writes, “is a certain cutting out of space and time that binds together practices, forms of visibility, and patterns of intelligibility” (2009, p. 31).  Of course, the essential outsides of such a community are the excluded margins, the realm of invisibility upon which any ‘distribution of the sensible’ seems to depend.  The Arab Spring signifies a radical attempt to repartition the sensible so as to disrupt a community based upon terror, repression, and exclusion.  Ranciere would enjoy the overt democratic pleas of the marching citizens because he theorizes an original link between politics and democracy (2007, p. 97) based on ‘dissensus.’  Indeed, politics, for Ranciere, is the rare but immanent disruption of an existing community of sense.  David Joselit explains it as an eruption “from outside normative distributions, launched by those who are (as of yet) unauthorised to speak, who have no standing or visibility” (2009, pp. 157-8).  In this reading, politics is that most uncommon cry for justice (or something far greater) that expresses a desire for freedom and demands that one’s existence be recognised.  The effect of such action is nothing less than the “redistribution of objects and subjects, places and identities, spaces and times, visibilities and meanings,” which allows Ranciere to term politics “an ‘aesthetic activity'” (2009, p. 32).

The Arab Spring uprisings were political, then, to the extent that they were surprising.  Suddenly, millions of human beings who have not been seen and have not been heard are making themselves seen and heard.  They have broken routine, stepped outside of selves constituted by habitual fear, and demanded the necessities of a new life.  Michael Taussig has a word for this kind of “total bodily activity” (2009, p. 6) which we can consider in the collective sense; he calls it ‘colour.’  Colour is nothing less than an eruption of existence (Taussig, 2009, p. 66) and the exciting confusion of a confrontation with the possibilities enabled by difference.  In effect, Taussig argues that the modern West is built on the colonisation of colour (2009, p. 159).  With an explosion of colour on the transnational scale of the Arab Spring, Taussig might even compliment the demonstrators by deeming their actions ‘obscene’; certainly the Mubaraks, Gaddafis, and Assads would agree, although on an altogether different plane of understanding.  Taussig’s obscenity is ontological, it is an “obscenity which radically changes the register of being” (2009, p. 157).  There can be no doubt that the potential of the uprisings has always been ontopolitical because political activity that redistributes the sensible fundamentally calls into question those naturalised ontological assumptions that become untenable when their foundation of fear has been destroyed by the sudden emergence of Others into the frame of the visible.

THE AESTHETIC OF GLOBAL GOVERNANCE

Obscenity, colour, politics.  These momentary practices are never tolerated for long, however.  In fact, it is the forced demise of the Arab Spring that serves as an illustrative site from which to probe contemporary global governance and its totalitarian complicities.  Through the mobilisation of a discourse of militarised humanitarianism, the aesthetics of the Arab Spring were transformed from one of emancipatory joy (expansive smiles could not be suppressed) to that of an intervention-turned-war that can more accurately be termed a humanitarian ‘interception’ in favour of the existing aesthetic of world politics.  We know this aesthetic well.  Roland Bleiker points out that it is the disciplinary paradigm taught and reproduced within international relations (2009, p. 27).  For Taussig, the aesthetic is one of darkness: “the darkness of war, the darkness of night, and the darkness of those dark overcoats, coats, trousers, socks, and shoes that men [wear]to the present day” (2009, p. 16).  Indeed, this particular aesthetic of global politics is precisely what the actions of Arab citizens managed to oppose, in its localised manifestation, when they became visible and, in so doing, exposed the very foundations of global governance.

To be clear, the problem is not with aesthetics in general.  In fact the constitution of sights, representations, illusions, dreams, and visions is always potentially political; Stewart makes her book political precisely through the articulation of “a series of little somethings dreamed up in the course of things” (2007, p. 9).  Indeed, ‘communities of sense’ are “no more than a fiction or a potentiality” (Hinderliter et al., 2009, p. 2) because, as Ranciere writes, “[t]he real as such simply does not exist.  What does exist is a framing or a fiction of reality.  Art does [politics]by inventing fictions that challenge the existing distribution of the real and the fictional” (2009, p. 49).  Politics is, hence, always the destruction, contestation, and construction of aesthetics—a refusal to see this way and a demand to be seen differently.  Thus, the aesthetic of world politics, as it is currently configured and practiced, is not problematic because it is a fiction; rather, it is a problematic fiction-made-real.  World politics constitutes a securitising aesthetic bent on limiting “the political imaginary as much asfacing threats” (Bleiker, 2009, p. 66) while attempting to gain mastery over the contingencies of life that have always eluded human control (Taussig, 2009, p. 16).  The danger of this aesthetic of world politics rests precisely in its definition and containment of what is possible, which includes both the possibilities of legitimate politics and legitimate life.

There is, however, nothing natural about world politics other than its second nature claim to the real.  It is this “blindness of habit,” according to Taussig, “that allows society to function” (2009, p. 243) and enables the perpetuation of the aesthetic of world politics.  At this point, and with regards to what I have called the humanitarian interception in Libya, it is possible to rephrase Ranciere’s question: what did the interception intercept, exactly?  According to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, the establishment of a no-fly zone, arms embargo, flight ban, and asset freeze targets the Libyan authorities so as to respond “to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people” (UN, 2011, p. 2).  Yet action is not directed at Colonel Gaddafi’s regime alone; such claims are rhetorical devices turned distractions.  Instead, this is an interception against what Taussig calls “the south” (2009, p. 15)—which, following his lead, we might redefine as ‘no definite place but where people walk to demonstrate their disagreement’—with the effect of militarising and, hence, extinguishing colour.  It is an interception against the uncertain freedom celebrated by millions of Arab citizens who have broken the habits of world politics—which are, after all, the habits of complicitousness with a totalitarianism so often disguised behind the ruse of emergency—while NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces attempt to enforce a community of sense based upon a global hierarchy that continues to practice the darkness of colonial thought and ontological capture.  I am most certainly not advancing an argument in favour of the Gaddafi regime or in denial of Libyan suffering; I am attempting, rather, to visualise the very colour of the Arab Spring uprisings and to question the implications of a strange humanitarian interception that has cast a pall over emancipatory desire, transforming a Spring’s existential demonstrations into a summer’s bombing campaign.

In short, the UN authorised interception in Libya amounts to a global effort to secure the aesthetic of world politics by containing the very possibilities of art as a political tactic.  In this instance, I understand politics according to Ranciere’s definition; art, however, must be regarded as far broader than the confines of literature, music, and popular and visual cultures to which Bleiker attends (2009, p. 35).  The Arab Spring was, itself, something of “a stage” upon which unseen people began to appear (Hinderliter et al., 2009, p. 11) in wonderfully provocative transnational exclamations of political artistry—”the encounter,” that is, “and possibly the clash, of heterogeneous elements” (Ranciere, 2009, p. 41).  Most importantly, Taussig further accentuates our understanding of art-as-political by emphasising how genuine art must attempt “to undo the grip that habit exerts in constraining our view of ourselves and the world” (2009, p. 183).  As T.J. Demos explains, then, the potential of art is both a new world and a new life (2009, p. 140), which participants in the Arab Spring have demanded by breaking the routinised habits of quiescence upon which their old selves were based.  The crime in this instance is the defence of a certain complicity—not only complicity with totalitarians but also complicity within the more abstract totalitarianism of an aesthetic that sees live potential in only one way—when confronted by the joy of colour, the joy of the Arab Spring that is now trampled by the global humanitarian-military apparatus and its stampede of urgency.5  The shouts for ontopolitical freedom that rang forth from across the region are now muffled, and an eerie silence, punctuated by the whistling-then-exploding of bombs somewhere, is restored to the gallery of world politics.

Let’s not let our own selves get away with murder.  Of course the beast is us, trained everyday in this aesthetic, our lives always already implicated and complicit because our consciousness is based (although never entirely) upon the conditions of our existence: this life benefits from those (and these) violences to the detriment of those other lives and ways of living.  To begin to undermine the North’s sincerity, its own righteous conviction, demands another panoramic shot of ourselves.  The stage is not only there, on those streets with those hoards of joyous people-being-public; the North is not only an audience.  Barthes can help us here because humanitarian interception, like the wrestling matches about which he wrote, is a spectacle where “what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees” (1972, p. 15).  And like the audiences at wrestling matches, too, the audiences of global politics are equally delighted by ‘real’ performances “in which what is at stake isthe formal concern with truth” (Barthes, 1972, p. 19).  This truth is nowhere more evident, nowhere more resident, than in the supposedly closed body of the human as dictated by humanitarian moralism.  New attempts to understand and encourage political action must not operate according to a will to return to the image of truth, to deny the new routes of comprehension, the new sites and sights that attention to the aesthetics of governance makes possible; rather, the task might be to create fictions that can challenge the existing fictions-made-real, if only to apply a “hold” that temporarily—like all political action—allows us to think about new connections that were previously unseen, unthought, and unimagined (Barthes, 1972, p. 20).

CONCLUSION

The aesthetic of world politics itself functions to prescribe an authorised range of possible engagements between people and between worlds while defining what constitutes both.  It is ironic, in the context of this paper, that Taussig describes “no-fly zones” (2009, p. 244) as precisely those spaces that are resistant to the possibilities of thought—that is, resistant to different ways of “sense-making” and distributing the sensible.  The Arab Spring began as a new, multi-nodal departure, a flight, millions of flights but it has been crashed by the imposition of precisely such a “no-fly zone” that precludes certain lines of thought through the mobilisation of militarised humanitarianism.  I have argued that the aesthetic of world politics, as enforced through this humanitarian interception, seeks to prevent the very possibility, nay imaginary, of ontopolitical freedom.  The Arab Spring was an inspirational opportunity to learn to be differently, and yet it has been staunched by the forces of a securitising aesthetic organised around the denial of this freedom and a prevention of political experimentation.  Recognising this situation demands consideration of how it might still be possible to disrupt this aesthetic of world politics so as to (1) demonstrate the possibilities of solidarity beyond humanitarian militarisation, (2) confront the still-pervasive colonial will to capture and (3) challenge our very ‘selves’ as defined through the exclusion of Others.  To begin by thinking in detail about the lies we are, the fictions we make possible, and the aesthetics that sustain us and which we practice is an extension of Barthes’s and Stewart’s fragmentary practice into a mediated age in which the little details are intimately connected to the logistics of a global aesthetic.  The Arab Spring constituted an exhilarating and necessary series of attempts on the part of invisible people to be seen, but this explosion of colour was preempted by a humanitarian-military performance that engineers a fatal interception.  The task that remains is, as usual, complex.  It is nothing less than beyond us.  At the very least, remembering our naïveté, it is possible to realise how the political beings of the future will necessarily attend to aesthetics so that an ocular revolution, perhaps even a new ontology of our own eyes, might also be imagined, actualised, and practiced.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thanks to Dr. Geoffrey Whitehall at Acadia University for helpful guidance and continual incitement to thought.

ENDNOTES

[1] I draw inspiration here from existing scholarship on the ethics of naïveté.  For instance, Jane Bennett’s work introduces a concept of naïveté that, alongside Adorno’s clownishness, constitutes her ethical stance towards conducting research (2010, p. xiii).  Specifically, she explores how it might be possible to develop such a “capacity for naïveté” by attending to those ideas and practices that have been delegitimized by mainstream philosophy and political theory (2010, p. 18).

[2] These activities are listed in NATO’s daily Operational Media Updates, which provide fascinating statistical declarations of combat activities within the past twenty-four hours.  See “NATO and Libya,” http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/71679.htm, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, retrieved 12 August 2011.

[3] This description relies upon Jacques Ranciere’s beautiful articulation of politics as that realm concerning “what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time” (2004, p. 13).

[4] All too often art and aesthetics are dismissed from matters of serious politics or hard power.  They are perceived as dissociated from survival.  Ranciere’s work helps those of us who have, for too long, apologized for caring about art and for feeling that an important connection exists between artistic practice, politics, and power.  An excellent articulation of art as primary and primal can also be found in Elizabeth Grosz’s Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (2008).  Grosz writes that “art is not frivolous, an indulgence or luxury, an embellishment of what is most central: it is the most vital and direct form of impact on and through the body, the generation of vibratory waves, rhythms, that traverse the body and make of the body a link with forces it cannot otherwise perceive and act upon Art is the opening up of the universe to becoming-other” (2008, p. 23).

[5] For a critique of the urgency that characterises contemporary humanitarian moralism, see “Introduction: The Tyrant’s Bloody Robe” in Slavoj Zizek’s Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (2008, pp. 1-8).

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