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Radical Democracies: The Politics of the Aesthetic in the Southern Cone



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Critchfield, Katherine 


The transitions to democracy in Argentina and Chile have been critiqued by numerous artists and analysts alike, both because of the social and economic continuity from dictatorship to democracy, and because of the democratic states’ occlusion of the violence of the preceding dictatorships. Yet while this compromised democracy has been subject to numerous artistic critiques, this does not necessitate an aesthetic abandonment of democracy as an ideal, but rather a challenge to its consensual nature. This study identifies a specific set of texts – by the art collective CADA, by writers Pedro Lemebel and Néstor Perlongher, and by poets Juan Gelman and Raúl Zurita – and locates within them a desire to radicalise the democratisation processes that were only superficially carried out in the 1990s. And as this work describes, this is a uniquely aesthetic project. In its association of the aesthetic and the political domains, this work draws substantially on the theoretical work of Jacques Rancière. Yet the juxtapositions of the artworks with the theoretical perspective is aimed not only at elucidating the particular nature of the relationship between aesthetics and politics to be found in these works, but also at productively complicating or expanding upon certain aspects of Rancière’s theoretical framework.

The artists and authors discussed here call for a new understanding of the aesthetic as an intrinsically political category, seeking at once to revolutionise both politics and aesthetics. The texts analysed as part of this work all appear at a time when the political aesthetic functions primarily according to a revelatory paradigm, as exemplified by the testimonial genre. At the same time, the category of the aesthetic is treated with scepticism in the light of the apparent ability of the marketplace to assimilate even the most radically oppositional text into its hegemonic narrative. The notions of both political and aesthetic dissensus, therefore, find themselves under threat at this particular historico-political juncture. In contrast, the texts I examine in this work undertake an aesthetic investment in alternative significatory sensibilities in order to counter political consensus. In other words, they locate the political in a different aesthetic sensorium: that of the human body, of emotions, and of the affective connections between subjects. In so doing, they move beyond the denunciatory text as the political aesthetic par excellence, pointing instead to aesthetic distributions that remain excessive, or that overspill any effort to order the sensus communis.




O'bryan, Rory


Democracy, Aesthetics, Politics, Rancière, Argentina, Chile, Dictatorship, Transition, CADA, Gelman, Zurita, Perlongher, Lemebel


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
This project was funded as a result of a generous grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.