Aesthetics Equals Politics throws out the first ball in what could have been a provocative, stimulating discussion.
For academic readers, edited volumes are almost always a mixed bag. Some of the chapters and contributions are bound to be groundbreaking and energizing for the field, while others are just rambling re-hashes of old ideas. Most such volumes lack cohesion and bounce from topic to topic, and this unevenness is only exacerbated when straddling multiple academic disciplines, as the disjointedness in style and approach becomes even more dramatic. This is the case with the big mixed bag of Aesthetics Equals Politics.
Edited by Mark Foster Gage, the book hits all the pros and cons of the academic edited volume. On the positive side, it features the transcript of an interview between Gage and the French theoretician Jacques Rancière, who describes his idea that aesthetics is politics—which gives the book its title and thesis. He argues that aesthetics is about the way people experience a shared world; this is a much more salient conception than the notion that aesthetics is about what is pretty. He digs deeper: if we can agree that something is pretty, than we are sharing an experience. But who is saying it is pretty; or, more fundamentally, who gets to share the experience of prettiness? This is a political question, and for Rancière, whose philosophy is centered on the concepts of equality and inclusion, it is the political question: politics determines who gets to share the experience of a common world and who gets excluded, about who gets to say that something is pretty and who is not asked to weigh in on the prettiness of that something.
Any new writing produced by Rancière is a treasure, as he is one of the pre-eminent thinkers of the past 40 years, and his work and ideas offer up one of the more crucial critiques of 21st century politics, economics and daily life. Pushing 80 years of age, it has become quite rare for him to produce new work. It’s only in the context of an edited volume, where Rancière can get away with writing only a few thousand words (or in this case, simply sitting down for an expository interview) is it practical to expect new writing from the French master. For this chapter alone, Aesthetics Equals Politics is worth any reader’s attention.
The rest of the book pales in comparison, but that does not mean that it’s not worth the reader’s time. Subsequent chapters are simply more niche-oriented, perhaps of interest to a more limited audience. Most focus on architecture, particularly the cutting edge of design in a world plagued by climate change and massive political and economic inequality. Few, however–and this is where the seams of the edited volume as a form begin to show–address any of Rancière’s ideas. Aesthetics equals politics makes a bold thesis (and an attention-grabbing title to boot), and it would have been useful to see some of the leading minds in the field of aesthetic theories of architecture engage with Rancière’s vivid claims about shared experience and the sensible world as the root of politics. But instead, the other contributions exist separately from Rancière and the interview that opens the book.
Thus, Aesthetics Equals Politics throws out the first ball in what could have been a provocative, stimulating discussion. Unfortunately, the volume fails to do anything with the veteran Rancière’s intriguing pitch.