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DemPrac2016 — THE POLITICS: The Aesthetical and the Political of Unequal Geographies

Cape Town train, 2015.

Participants feedback from 2016

This course fundamentally challenged my definition of politics… This expanded and more radical view of politics will help me as I work on the proposal for my thesis.

I enjoyed the fact that we went beyond the texts as points of discussion through the use of other media (audio and video).

The questions provided in the course outline were particularly useful for me when dealing with the more difficult texts as they provided a guide for working through the texts.

Including texts on the Black Radical Tradition later on in the week was relieving considering that Ranciere’s work does not really address the issue of race (although one could argue that he does indirectly through his thinking about the part that has no part).

Ranciere was interesting for thinking about what kind of work needs to be done for something to be considered political – something only becomes political through troubling/rupturing.

Discussions on memory, mourning, burial and monuments – thinking about narratives of the city that challenge normative conceptions of being in and thinking about the city… Interesting to think about what is the urban alive from? From memory and death?

Together, Andrés and Henrik make a formidable teaching duo and greatly complement each other’s strengths. While Andrés’ supreme knowledge of political philosophy has been pivotal in order to unpack and chart the various connections between the different schools of thought, their metaphors, ontologies and epistemologies, Henrik played an equally important role as a continuous ‘agent provocateur’, asking important questions as to how we can or cannot use certain approaches to better understand Southern urbanism and the making of African cities.

Andrés was great in providing the larger context from which the texts come from. Henrik was great at helping us direct our thoughts and larger discussions towards the question of the urban. Always able to provide concrete examples of how the theory can be applied to or is seen in the work that he does. Both Henrik and Andrés were able to help us interpret the texts and encouraged us to think about how they can help us think through our own projects.

Course Description

The 2016 Annual ACC Seminar/PhD Course on Democratic Practices in Cape Town with a explicit focus on Reading across Political Philosophy and Global South Urbanism

July 4-8, 2016, Seminar Room 1, EGS Building, Upper Campus, University of Cape Town.

Organised by Henrik Ernstson and Andrés Henao Castro.

The seminar is given by the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town. To apply, please send  your letter of interest no later than 6 May 2016 toHenrik Ernstson (henrikDOTernstsonATuctDOTacDOTza). We hope the seminar with its readings and discussions can contribute new angles and perspectives to your research. More information on the 2016 theme, reading and seminar methodology is given below.

Rationale for 2016: Aesthetics and politics!

The task is urgent and profound: How to make sense of rapid urbanization across Africa and the global South, while (re)turning to explicitly think about emancipatory politics? What does the political mean in these contexts? What constitutes properly democratic practices of equality and freedom? What can we learn by rubbing political theory against urban studies of ‘the South’?

This annual seminar series emerges out of an interest to put into conversation political philosophy and global south urbanism. Importantly, our objective is not that of supplementing a theoretical abstraction (e.g. ‘the political’) with some kind of concrete spatiality. Rather, we are interested in the global south as an epistemological position and a field of experience that has specific contemporary sociomaterial realities that we hope can trouble and re-new both radical urban theory and political theory. Following last year’s seminar, in which we related our readings of Plato to Rancière with critical urban studies of the South, this year we gather a seminar that problematizes the relationship between the political and the aesthetic. This puts more focus on artists and activists that intervene materially and socially in the fabric of urban spaces, and it brings us towards the political in a quite specific way.

More concretely we aim to relate questions around what Jacques Rancière calls the distribution of the sensible with interventions in urban spaces. We aim to push the seminar to think about the representation and troubling of an aesthetic regime from the perspective of how it has become embedded in urban and non-urban settings. We will exploit texts that have linked theoretically the political with aesthetic regimes and how this translates troubles and can be re-thought in the context of the global south. We want to ask, for example:

  • How does the symbolic remaking of a space through an artistic intervention trouble the otherwise naturalization of that space as reducible to its presumable functions (i.e., market values)?
  • What is the relationship between this interruption of the function of a space and that of politics?
  • How can artistic interventions force the community to confront that which it disavows?
  • What kind of conflict do such forms of expressing the senses create within urban spaces?
  • How are those urban spaces transgressed, circumvented, rearranged, reimagined, etc., so as to trouble the very limits of what can be perceived and sensed in the city?
  • How do these spatial contestations take place today, under what kind of aesthetic practices?
  • And how could this possibly lead to processes of political subjectivization, a politicization of collectivities, bodies, and spaces in the name of equality?

In light of 2015 and the student movement of South Africa, questions of democracy, decolonization and profound emancipatory change have brought these questions into even sharper focus. And this does not mean to forget other recent women, workers and community rebellions, nor the slow-grinding and incremental institutional changes of empowerment that is also ongoing. Indeed, we hope this seminar/course will provide a chance for all participants to think about these recent events and processes. We hope it will contribute material and discussions through which you can re-think and sharpen your own research projects.

Seminar Methodology

Our seminar focuses on readings of political theory that interrogate the relationship between the aesthetical and the political, across a variety of philosophical approaches. Yet it explores such relationship with a particular and rather unusual emphasis on urban and non-urban geographies of the global south. We want to discuss questions about representation, intervention, performativity, sensuousness, visibility, audibility, occupation, inscription, by placing these theories within uneven geographies that should trouble existing theoretical findings and help us to reformulate our research questions, methodologies approaches and theoretical assumptions. In the readings we have chosen to place more emphasis on political philosophy as these are less known to most of us, and since this makes best use of Dr. Andrés Heano Castro’s visit here at ACC in Cape Town. The texts on global south urbanism will bring in contextual and theoretical aspects into the seminar, but we also rely on participants’ wider readings and their own research on urbanization, global south and decolonization. Below you will find the current list of readings, which will be updated.

Schedule and Readings

We will meet for 3 hours every day. Andrés will talk for the first 30 minutes, in order to provide context for the theoretical discussion: what is at stake in the texts, where does the text stand in relation to intellectual debates, and summarize main points, etc. Then we open the floor for discussion in which the global south urbanism literature will enter as ways to unpack and think about the seminar questions, how our empirical work are helped by these texts, while challenging them and ‘speaking back’. Through this we will have a chance to re-think our own research and case studies. For each day we will provide questions to orient your reading, and serve as starting point for our discussions. Based on this you can write down and raise your own questions to further give direction to the seminar. We will have a short 10 minute break two hours into the seminar and then we will return for another 45 minutes of discussion. Coffee and tea will be served during the seminar. (NB: Global south urbanism reading and questions will be complemented later alongside points 1-3 in the list below.)

How to Apply

The seminar/course is organized by Dr. Henrik Ernstson and Dr. Andrés Henao Castro. It forms part of the ACC’s new project NOTRUC, Notations on Theories of Radical Urban Change, which is lead by Dr. Henrik Ernstson and Professor Edgar Pieterse and it provides a terrain towards critical and radical (re)thinking on global south urbanism at ACC and beyond.

Application—Letter of interest. The seminar/course is open to PhD students and scholars. Please send an e-mail to Henrik Ernstson no later than 6 May 2016 including a 500 word motivation letter (why you would like to take this course) and a 2-page CV (not longer please). We will have between 12-18 seats available. You will know if you have been accepted a week after.

No course fee. There are no course fees. During the seminar there we will arrange coffee and tea every day, and one dinner. The rest of food items and other costs will be on your own account.

Readings 2016

In total there are less than 400 pages of required reading for five days of discussion. We have also listed some recommended reading to expand on themes and provide further reading suggestions. In the course folder you will find further readings that we used in preparing the seminar and that you might find interesting.

Day 1 [Monday]: The Aesthetic Turn on the Political

  • Formulation of the problem:
    • During our first day we will explore the general aspects of the relationship between the political and the aesthetic by means of Jacques Rancière’s innovative philosophical contributions to radicalize such relationship. By submitting his concepts to close scrutiny, we will explore how politics might be (better) understood by means of aesthetic categories or whether the aesthetic turn is insufficient to give an account of the political? The global South urbanism literature assists us here to trouble and possibly expand Rancière’s thinking through putting this philosophy in communication with other thinkers and realities. It also provides material to investigate what needs to happen for an aesthetic intervention to become political. Finally, we are interested in exploring what is the role of power in the relationship between the political and the aesthetic.
  • Guiding questions for the reading:
    • How are we to understand different distributions of the sensible (or different regimes of the sensible)?
    • In what ways do aesthetics trouble a distribution of the sensible, in what ways does it not?
    • How do dissensual ways of being, seeing, and acting interact with each other, or supplement/juxtapose each other?
    • What is politically relevant, yet missing from an aesthetic framework?
    • What is the ‘intellectual work’ (i.e. the ability to move our thinking from one point to another) that the global South literature/context seems to be doing here?
  • Key concepts: Aesthetics, Political, Distribution of the Sensible, Dissensus.

— Readings Day 1 — (94 pages)

  • Required:
    • Jaques Rancière. 2013. The Politics of Aesthetics. London & New York: Bloomsbury. (72 pages; NB! The actual text to read is from page 9-79, the rest is a foreword and a useful glossary of technical terms)
    • Asef Bayat. 2015. “Plebeians of the Arab Spring.” Current Anthropology 56 (11): S33–S43. (10 pages) Comment: Bayat introduces and discusses (urban) political theory and sociology ‘from the South’ with Bayat (Egypt, Iran), Holston (Brazil) and Chatterjee (India). It’s good for us surface at least some aspects of these thinkers on the first day of the seminar and together with Rancière. [1]
    • Filip De Boeck. 2015. “Poverty’ and the Politics of Syncopation: Urban Examples from Congo.” Current Anthropology 56 (S11): S146–S158. (12 pages) (UPLOADED) Comment: De Boek helps to ground thinking in the thick of things of Kinshasa. Provides texture and context to think through what ‘the distribution of the sensible’ might mean in Kinshasa. And how can the conecpt of ‘police order’ make sense in Kinshasa and ‘the building’, which is governed/ruled by so called informal processes.
  • Recommended:
    • Jacques Rancière. 2011. The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics. In: Reading Rancière. Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp (eds) Continuum: London and New York, pp 1-17 (17 pages)
    • Jacques Rancière. 2010. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London & New York: Bloomsbury. Read in particular Chapters 9 and 10. (no pdf available)
    • Jacques Rancière. 2014. Moments Politiques Comment: Shorter essays in a straightforward language for a wider audience; most published in French and Brazilian newspapers commenting on contemporary politics, but from his particular notion of the political.
    • Fiona C.Ross. 2015. “Raw Life and Respectability.” Current Anthropology 56 (S11): S97–S107. (10 pages) Comment: Ross discusses Cape Town everyday realities of the urban poor in close connection with political theory, in particular Agamdens’ notion of ‘bare life’, which she critiques for being insuffcient.

Day 2 [Tuesday]: Critical Theory and Ideology

  • Formulation of the problem:
    • During our second day we delve into some foundational texts of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, in order to investigate primarily the relationship between aesthetics and ideology. Given our interest on critical geographies, Elias Canetti’s analysis of the architectural projects that Hitler commissioned to Speer are interesting as it establishes a clear relationship between the political and the configuration of space, and questions of functionality, and control. We rub this against a reflection on postcolonial monumentalism and artistic interventions into urban planning that undermines linear space and control.
  • Guiding questions for the reading:
    • How are we to understand the concept of “aura” today?
    • What happens to the work of art under today’s dominant modes of “technical reproduction”?
    • How are we to understand the relationship between aesthetics and ideology today and through the realities, practices and theories from/of the global South?
    • Is ideology the political kernel of aesthetics? What is the function of the critique of ideology in the analysis of the work of art?
    • Under what kind of conceptual vocabulary can we make legible what we could loosely defined as authoritarian/totalitarian aesthetics?
    • When read with and rubbed against postcolonial urbanism literature, what happens? How does the nature of our responses change to the above-stated questions, how are in that sense the postcolonial/urban South realities/experiences active in shaping how we think?
  • Key concepts: Ideology, Aesthetics, Aura, Monumental, Aestheticize Politics, Politicize Art, Critique.

— Readings Day 2 — (97 pages)

  • Required:
    • Walter Benjamin. 1970. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In: Illluminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 219–253. (34 pages)
    • Martin Jay. 1992. “‘The Aesthetic Ideology’ as Ideology; Or, What Does It Mean to Aestheticize Politics?” Cultural Critique 21 (21): 41–61. (20 pages)
    • Elias Canetti. 1971. “Hitler, According to Speer: Grandeur and Permance.” In: The Concsience of Words. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux (25 pages)
    • Andries Oliphant. 2013. “Freedom Park and Postcolonial Monumentality (Special Issue).” Third Text 27 (3): 299–437. (8 pages of text, 3 pages of images)
    • Dominique Malaquais. 2011. “Anti-Teleology: Re-Mapping the Imag(in)ed City.” In African Cities Reader II: Mobilities and Fixtures, edited by Ntone Edjabe and Edgar Pieterse, 7–23. Vlaeberg: Chimurenga and African Centre for Cities. (11 pages of text, 6 pages of images)
  • Recommended:
    • T.W. Adorno. 1974. “Commitment.” In: Aesthetics and Politics. Verso: London and New York (17 pages)
    • Fredric Jameson. 1990. “Postmodernism and The Market.” The Socialist Register 27: 95–110. (15 pages)

Day 3 [Wednesday]: Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition and Afro-Pessimism.

  • Formulation of the problem:
    • During our third day we will investigate a debate between Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten on the decision of Hartman not to reproduce the scene of torture of Aunt Hester in Frederick Douglass’ memoires. Moten challenges Hartman’s analysis of different “scenes of subjection,” by claiming that such refusal to reproduce is not only inevitably bound to fail but could better be addressed by focusing on the “terrible beauty” of the sound that articulates resistance of the object to the violence that it suffers. Hartman, cautious about the risks involved in the iteration of that representation, takes Moten’s challenge elsewhere, towards a different critical attitude vis-à-vis the engagement of the interpreter with the archive. We would, in light of the global South urbanism literature, analyze, clarify, question, and explore the different aspects of such a debate.
  • Guiding questions for the reading:
    • What is the relationship between production, re-production, and performativity that the Black radical tradition proposes? Is this an ontological relationship, i.e. a relationship based on (new/othered) modes of being in the world? How are we to understand this apparent linkage between ontology and performativity?
    • What kind of political relationship is established vis-à-vis the reproduction of representations of violence when violence already saturates the archive?
    • What is the role of ethics in the politics of representation?
    • How are we to understand, interrogate, and make legible what remains unlived in the archive?
    • What is the role of the reader/interpreter/critic in face of an archive whose very protocols of recording make failure into an inescapable reality of the interpretative process?
  • Key concepts: Performance, Archive, Black Radical Tradition, Afro-pessimism, Failure.

— Readings Day 3 — (81 pages)

  • Required:
    • Saidiya Hartman. 1997. “Introduction.” In: Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (10 pages)
    • Fred Moten. 2003. “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream.” In: In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, 192-211. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (19 pages)
    • Saidiya Hartman. 2008. “Venus in Two Acts.” In Small Axe 26: 1-14. (14 pages)
    • Dominique Malaquais. 2006. “Quelle Liberté: Art, Beauty and the Grammars of Resistance in Douala.” In Beautiful Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics, edited by Sarah Nuttall, 122–63. Durham and London: Duke University Press. (16 pages of text, 23 pages of images) (large file 11MB)
    • Achille Mbembe. 2005. “Variations on the Beautiful in the Congolese World of Sounds.” Politique Africaine 4: 69–91. (22 pages)
  • Recommended:
    • Fred Moten. 2003. “Black Mo’nin’ in the Sound of the Photograph.” In In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, xx-yy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (18 pages)
    • Premesh Lalu. 2009. “Introduction: thinking ahead.” In: The Deaths of Hintsa. (30 pages)

Day 4 [Thursday]: Queering the Visual and the Critique of Empire

  • Formulation of the problem:
    • This fourth session explores different analysis of historical and current imperialism through different aesthetic practices that share a common post-colonial intersectional analysis. Although such a critique of imperialism through homo-nationalism and domesticity interests us the most, we will also interrogate linkages between race, gender, class and sexuality in aesthetic practices.
  • Guiding questions for the reading:
    • How to interrogate the relationship between the photograph and the caption in the politics of reception and circulation of images?
    • How do sexuality, race, class, and gender intersect/interrupt/juxtapose across specific social practices that reproduce exceptionalism or domesticate subjectivity?
    • In what ways do the concept of assemblage differs from that of intersectionality?
    • How to rethink agency in conditions of severe inequality?
  • Key concepts: Imperialism, Biopolitics, Queerness, Critical Race Theory.

— Readings Day 5 — (70 pages)

  • Required:
    • Jasbir Puar. 2007. “Abu Ghraib: Arguing Against Exceptionalism.” In Terrorist Assemblages. Durham: Duke UP. (32 pages)
    • Pumla Dineo Gqola. 2005. “Memory, Diaspora and Spiced Bodies in Motion: Berni Searle’s Art.” African Identities 3 (2): 123–38. (12 pages of text)
    • Zethu Matebeni. 2013. “Intimacy, Queerness, Race.” Cultural Studies 27 (3): 404–17. (12 pages)
    • Alexandra Dodd and Terry Kurgan. 2013. “Checking in to Hotel Yeoville.” Third Text 27 (3): 343–54. (10 pages) Comment: Provides examples of contemporary SA artist responses after the 2008 xenophbia attacks with themes of nation-hood, aliens, migration and residence.
  • Recommended:
    • Ann McClintock. 1995. “Race, Cross-Dressing and the Cult of Domesticity.” In Imperial Leather. (34 pages)
    • Marlon Ross. 2005. “Beyond the Closet as Raceless Paradigm.” In Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. Duke University Press.
    • Pumla Dineo Gqola. 2001. “Ufanele Feminisms and in Postcoloniality Africa.” Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, no. 50: 11–22. (9 pages)
    • Raél Jero Salley. 2013. “The Changing Now of Things.” Third Text 27 (3): 355–66. Comment: Provides examples of contemporary SA artists and their responses to post-1994 situation.
    • Rike Sitas and Edgar Pieterse. 2013. “Democratic Renovations and Affective Political Imaginaries.” Third Text 27 (3): 327–42. Comment: Explicit discussion of democratic practices and how contemporary artistic interventions in SA could enrol people into democtratic practitices in various ways.
    • Achille Mbembe. 2015. Africa in the New Century. CityScapes. Comment: Shorter text based on a talk in New York.

Day 5 [Friday]: Animism, Materialism, and the Pre/Post Colonial

  • Formulation of the problem:
    • During the last day of our seminar we would investigate the relationship between animism and materialism and put it in conversation with post-colonial/de-colonial aesthetics. We will explore questions of subject-positionality, understandings of temporality, the question of history and the ways of confronting loss: What remains? How to activate the traces of that which is no longer there, in order to animate another story?
  • Guiding questions for the reading:
    • What kind of relationship exists between animism and materialism?
    • What happens to time and perhaps to the politics of time after the post-colonial critique of linear Eurocentric time? What happens to death and to our ability to confront critically the massive fact of loss?
    • How are we to understand death within post/de-colonial aesthetics?
    • What is the relationship between aesthetics and loss, aesthetics and death, and aesthetics and the unthinkable?
  • Key concepts: Animism, Materialism, Pre/Post/De-colonial, Time, Death.

— Readings Day 5 — (54 pages )

  • Required:
    • Harry Garuba. 2003. “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society.” (25 pages)
    • Tina Chanter. 2011. “The Performative Politics and Rebirth of Antigone in Ancient Greece and Modern South Africa: The Island.” In: Whose Antigone? The Tragic Marginalization of Slavery. (30 pages)
  • Recommended:
    • Caroline Rooney. 2000. “Clandestine Antigones and the pre-post-colonial.” In African Literature, Animism and Politics. (123 pages)
    • Harry Garuba. 2012. “On Animism, Modernity/Colonialism, and the African Order of Knowledge: Provisional Reflections.” (5 pages)
[1] Only some references have comments to them. These were added while preparing the seminar and simply kept.