Rhys Aesthetics

States of Exception, Aesthetic Responses

Posted on October 21, 2013

This article was originally published at criticalsecurities.com

In response to the recent al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, COBRA, the UK’s Cabinet Office briefing room A, met for the third time this year. At the same time an alternative COBRA met in a small pub in Whitehall.

This alternative COBRA “was born out of a desire to engage critically and creatively with the increased use of aesthetics and performance by the UK government to promote, explain and justify its labelling of an event as ‘an emergency’”. COBRA: A Critical Response was set up in early 2013 and as a group of artists they respond to official COBRA meetings with a critical aesthetic that challenges political performance in times of emergency.

This political performance plays out through press conferences, news interviews and increasingly through social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. The state use of media and information is not a new thing, but contemporary technologies are enabling actors to utilise aesthetic mediums at an unprecedented level. Through the use of social media, organisations and individuals need not rely on the media to get across their message, they simply become the media themselves.

As David Cameron tweets, the British Army posts on Facebook and the Home Office drives around in a ‘racist’ van with a big ‘go home’ advertisement on it, it becomes increasingly clear that “this image-based politics is a politics of presentation, of appearance and constructed images that tell a certain story, often a moral story of good v evil, of citizen v terrorist”. A story of false dichotomies and difference.

This use of images and digital mediums by state actors shows a realisation that aesthetics are important. Unfortunately the discipline of International Relations is seemingly struggling to keep on top of these technological and aesthetic developments that the state is embracing and utilising with success. This is worrying when one takes into account how these aesthetic and technological practices are tied in to the state of exception that has arguably become the paradigm through which governments operate in light of the ‘War on Terror’.

It is in this state of exception where exceptional means such as extraordinary rendition, torture, indefinite detention, foreign invasions and increasingly pervasive domestic laws become the norm: legitimised as normal ways to deal with an exceptional threat such as terrorism.

As COBRA: A Critical Response highlight themselves, one of the ways to engage and challenge this state of affairs is to use art and aesthetics to open up a space for discussion, create different interpretations and new imaginations of global politics. Art can exist as a medium to challenge the orthodoxies of politics that lead to violence. This is something that IR and security scholars from critical approaches have recognised for several years.

However, as politicians and state actors draw ever more on aesthetic mediums to promote their message it is important that aesthetic approaches to IR and security keep up with these fast paced developments, not only to understand and explain them but to also provide an academic platform upon which they can be challenged, critiqued and changed.

Perhaps as scholars we need to eschew the values of science and draw upon the critical insights of artists. Maybe we need to stop doing ‘social science’ and do art. Could alternative forms of scholarship such as blogs, videos, social networks and even more radical aesthetic forms have more impact on the ‘real world’? Wouldn’t these aesthetic mediums engage more people than monographs and articles written in outdated journals that sit behind paywalls and gather dust on the shelves of stuffy libraries in ivory towers?

The debates posed by these question are of too much depth to engage with in this short blog post, but it is worth considering that as states and other actors in the realm of global politics utilise aesthetic mediums to a great extent, maybe we should too.

Rhys Crilley is a doctoral researcher within POLSIS at the University of Birmingham

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