- Politics and Aesthetics
A picture, we are given to believe, paints a thousand words. Davide Panagia’s short book (124 pages of text) also achieves much with a few well-chosen - even masterful - brush strokes. The poetics in the title refers to the “coincidence” of aesthetic and moral conceptions of value that characterize politics and political thought (5). Forms of representation, Panagia assumes with some plausibility, constitute the core of political life. Forms of aesthetic representation, he claims, give life to their political counterparts. Ever since Plato, philosophers and theorists have displayed an abiding distrust of aesthetics, owing to the chasm that ostensibly separates imagery from truth. Panagia’s claim is that political and philosophical representations (of truth) are implicitly if not explicitly parasitic upon aesthetic imagery. Political theorists and philosophers often reap the benefits of this relationship while denying its impact. The aesthetic properties of language are at once embraced (in practice) and ignored or rejected (in theory). Of course, one need go no further than Plato’s excoriation of the poets - written in dialogue form, with all its aesthetic tropes - to bring the point home. Panagia extends this sort of critique with insightful and creative readings of such canonical figures as Hobbes, Rawls, and Habermas.
The Poetics of Political Thinking whets the appetite, but does not leave one wholly satisfied. The work might be likened to an intriguing set of hors d’œuvres. Its great merit is that the reader is stimulated and provoked by the range and diversity of offerings. Still, having come to the table, one might expect full delivery on the promise of an auspicious start. Readers with hearty appetites, I expect, will not be sated, as the book does not offer a broad and thorough reading of related and relevant texts. For example, Panagia’s work is largely directed to the task of exploring the role of mimesis - understood as “the ability to accurately portray a reality through an act of representation” (121). Yet he does not avail himself of the rich literature that has illuminated this terrain, such as Stephen Halliwell’s brilliant The Aesthetics of Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
Panagia opens his critical engagements with an examination of Hobbes’s language of representation in the Leviathan. Of particular interest is the discussion of Hobbes’s use of theatrical tropes and devices, including those employed in the famous frontispiece that he designed for Leviathan. Here the citizens literally comprising the body of the Leviathan stand before their sovereign with heads uncovered. In this historical period, such a self-presentation of a bareheaded public to a sovereign would be considered insolent. But it would be expected of an audience sitting in the theater, before an actor playing the role of sovereign on stage. Panagia plays out the meaning of Hobbes’s gesture. He argues that Hobbes promotes a science of politics as a form of con-science, a knowing with that is grounded in shared opinions and judgments. These common opinions and judgments are created by a theatrical Leviathan who effectively educates citizens in the language of politics from the stage of government. Hobbes’s polity – like his world in general - is in constant flux. Nonetheless, a common sense of discrimination is honed by the sovereign who provides his audience with the correct language of representation.
In another fine chapter, Panagia outlines the “aesthetic preconditions” of value in the political arguments of John Rawls. Attending to Rawls’s writing style over his conceptual argument, Panagia observes how the success of Rawls’s theory rests upon his narrative account of public reason and its reliance on mimesis. Panagia aptly summarizes the Kantian position that aesthetic judgments are neither objective nor purely subjective but rather disinterested and, at the same time, fundamentally social (i.e., intersubjective). Rawls’s notion of public reason, wherein citizens work through inevitable differences in a plural society, is modeled on the Kantian aesthetics of disinterested (i.e., impartial) intersubjectivity. The subterranean aesthetics of Rawls, then, emerge as his political argument makes...