Top: Warsan Shire (Photograph by Amaal Said). Bottom: Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk, Out on the Street (still), 2015, HD video with sound, 78 minutes.

Maj Ørskov & Mikkel N. Jørgensen

Connections of Difference: A Dialogue on the Complex Relations and the Transformative Spaces In-between Aesthetics and the Political


A great number of scholarly and literary works that focus on the apparently problematic relation between aesthetics and the political are concerned with the idea that an inherent difference exists between these two spheres. As philosopher and art historian Juliane Rebentisch notes, the very fact that politics can be––and continuously is–– aestheticized also suggests that an inherent connection exists between the two. The desired aim of this creative investigation is to approach the relational space between aesthetics and politics as a radical friendship: a relation characterized by difference and connection and by its potential to radically change both entities involved. Through a dialogical analysis of two different works of art ––the poem “Home” (2015) by Somali-Kenyan-British writer Warsan Shire and the film Out on the Street (2015) by the Cairo-based artists Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk­­­––the investigation is further preoccupied with how to translate this conceptual approach into a concrete analysis of how literature and other aesthetic practices instigate processes of radical transformation. This article ultimately seeks to perform a small-scale version of a possibly radical and academic friendship between the two authors. Through text we share analytical challenges and insights from our work with aesthetic practices that are constituted in the space between the aesthetic and the political.

Keywords: Aesthetics, politics migration literature, borders, power relations, poetry, cinema.

A Radical Friendship

Mikkel N. Jørgensen

How do we invite an audience into a conversation when this conversation actually began months prior? Maybe we should continue from common ground, or what do you think, Maj? I suggest that we begin by opening our conversation anew and by revisiting some of the shared knowledge and genealogy we have established in our discussions face to face to better allow for outside readers to enter into the conversation. To begin, one might point to how Plato’s expulsion of “colourful” and supposedly deceitful poets from his republic is at the heart of the long history of theory-and-practice-oriented inquiries that concern the conflicted nature of the unfolding relationship between aesthetics and the political. In his expulsion, Plato invented a philosophical critique of the process, which is called aestheticization. Writing in the discipline of practical philosophy, Juliane Rebentisch argues that aestheticization is commonly understood as a problematic process (2016, 1). Critics fear that throughout this process, ethics and the common “good” are replaced by an individualistic idea of the “good” and that the political community consequently will disintegrate into a spectacle or audience (Rebentisch 2016, 1). Aestheticization, Rebentisch unfolds, becomes the boogeyman to the true idea of politics or ethics as it was understood in the Republic by Plato; aesthetics is recognized as the spectacle of political life, but not as something that gives any relevant contribution to the structuring and bettering of society. 

Hence, a great number of scholarly and literary works that focus on the apparently problematic relation between aesthetics and the political are concerned with the idea that inherent difference exists between these two spheres. These works point to the superficial nature of aesthetics in contrast to the more or less imagined and substantial truth of politics and ethics. However, as Rebentisch also notes, the very fact that politics can be ­­––and continuously is–– aestheticized in different outputs suggests that an inherent connection exists between the two as well. Thus, the critique of aestheticization affirms both the internal difference and internal connection, therefore defining the relational space in-between aesthetics and the political in which this creative investigation is interested. The desired aim of our dialogical investigation is to approach the relational space between aesthetics and the political as a radical friendship: a relation characterized by difference and connection and by its potential to change both entities involved. We are further preoccupied with how we can translate this conceptual approach into a concrete analysis of how literature and other aesthetic practices instigate processes of radical transformation. It is our belief that any similar complex, relational issue is curiously explored through relational research practices––in concrete sessions of open and collective analysis and discussion. Therefore, this article aims to shape an open discussion in which through textual analysis we share challenges and insights from our individual work with aesthetic practices with a focus on how these practices constitute themselves in the relational space between the aesthetic and the political.

Maj Ørskov

Without going too far into the enormous (and for a great number, slightly canonical) body of scholarly works concerning aesthetics and politics, it might be useful to establish a shared understanding of what we talk about when we talk about aesthetics, politics, and the implied relation between the two. Although he is definitely canonical by now, I find Jacques Rancière’s writings on the subject highly useful. In his seminal work The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (2004), Rancière elaborates on interactions between politics, aesthetics, and what he refers to as the distribution of the sensible. The distribution of the sensible is understood as the presumably self-evident system operating within democratic communities and societies by producing certain modes of perception and ways of being. These modes of sensing and experiencing the surrounding world––termed the sensible, or simply aesthetics, by Rancière (Rancière 2004, 13)–– further regulates whose experiences can be perceived and thereby made visible to the community. Rancière questions the argument made by Aristotle that “a speaking being is a political being,” by pointing towards the fact that “a slave understands the language of [their] ruler, however, [they do] not ´possess´ it” (Rancière 2004, 12). This implies that before a citizen can partake in the act of governing her own life by entering the realm of the political community, she must firstly actualize herself and her experiences as visible and relevant to the rest of the community. The distribution of the sensible is therefore to be understood as the ruling visual order within any political community working to define which citizens have the ability––and eventually the citizens who do not possess this ability–– to participate in the community by making themselves visible within it. Following the logic of Rancière, there is an aesthetics at the backbone of all political processes since politics center around this visuality, or—in reference to Kant—“the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience.” (Rancière 2004, 13)

According to Rancière, any community strives toward unification through its specific aesthetic ordering. Those subjects or groups living under any such order whose experiences are not made visible or sayable within it may at any certain point demand a redistribution of the sensible. These processes of unification through aesthetic ordering and subsequent challenge are termed dissensus, and they are understood as moments when certain subjects challenge the natural order of sensible experience, thereby somehow separating themselves from society (Rancière 2004, 60). Taking this into account, Rancière’s work on the relations unfolding between aesthetics and the political is marked by an understanding of an inherent connection and inherent difference existing between the two. It is the ambiguous, relational space constantly producing discrepancy unfolding between the two spheres which leads to a potential change within any given community by a redistribution of its existing, sensible order.

Laura U. Marks points out that such relational spaces centered around a notion of ambiguity or discrepancy can be understood as friendships:

The most radical understanding of friendship cast it as a corrosive force... The best friendships do not confirm what we already are but make us better, that is, they bring out our potentials. Sometimes this feels painful, because it breaks the shell of our current being to bring out something inside us in contact with something outside. (Marks 2015, 24)

Marks cites the influential French philosopher Gilbert Simondon and emphasizes how his theories of individuation designate friendship as something that “perturbs our systems and catalyzes potentials” (2015, 24). She states, “this means that you help others grow by helping them actualize their potentials in widening circuits of relations” (Marks 2015, 24). So, my initial question is, what happens if we approach the relational space between aesthetics and politics as one characterized by such corrosive forces–– as a processual space composed by interdependent elements with the power to bring forward unrealized potentials within each other? Can we suggest that aesthetic practices possess the ability to radically influence political practices by widening their circuits of relations, thus creating the potential for a redistribution of the sensible order of things? Can we also suggest that political practices actualize aesthetic practices by forcing them into contact with something outside of themselves?

Mikkel N. Jørgensen

I see your point. I would certainly agree that these two spheres tend to be drawn together, to interrupt, and to expand the logics of each other and that their relation subsequently can be phrased as a friendship. I like this idea, in particular, because it casts a form of relationship that is not transactional––as a professional transaction––which would allude to something very clear and organized. Rather, the relationship we are trying to untangle is based on an affective and––in the lack of a better word–– messy connection. It is never settled in a fixed nature; as Marks puts it in the quote, it is always emerging with a potential for new understandings. Let’s stay on this more-than-transaction nature of the relationship for a bit to lay ground for further discussion. If I may, I would like to add the concept of elective affinity as put forward by Michael Löwy in Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe (1992/2017) as a way of narrowing down how the relationship between aesthetics and politics can be conceptualized as a friendship. Löwy views elective affinity to be a constructive analytical and methodological tool to investigate certain relationships between different instances––be it social or conceptual. As he states:

By “elective affinity” I mean a very special kind of dialectical relationship that develops between two social or cultural configurations, one that cannot be reduced to direct causality or to “influences” in the traditional sense. Starting from a certain structural analogy, the relationship consists of a convergence, a mutual attraction, an active confluence, a combination that can go as far as a fusion. (Löwy 1992/2017, 6)

The concept of elective affinity springs from chemistry and alchemy and has since moved into romance literature and philosophical thought. The concept was made especially popular by the novel Elective Affinity (1809) by Johan Wolfgang Goethe. I don’t want to go deeper into the etymology of this word, rather I want to speak on the initial recognition that the two spheres in question––the political and the aesthetic–– might have what one could call elective affinity; they are separate spheres with a tendency to find relation with each other. This can be described as a deep friendship, or a transgression of individual lives, as Goethe exactly states in his novel. Here, the protagonists build deep bonds even though this goes against the rationale of their surrounding society, the story’s depiction of adultery, and the love connection between the young Ottilie and the elder Eduard. These connections make scratches to the facade of bourgeois life because the attraction between the novel’s four main characters is too strong––like the chemical attraction between elements and particles–– even though it is a direct provocation to the institution of marriage. Löwy writes:

For Goethe there was elective affinity when two beings or elements “seek each other out, attract each other and seize … each other, and then suddenly reappear again out of this intimate union, and come forward in fresh, unexpected form (Gestalt).” (Löwy 1992/2017, 8)

As you propose, the social bonding of people and a deep (maybe more than) friendship is highlighted here; therefore, I agree that this is a productive way to put it. The concept of elective affinity might add to our current understanding of friendship by articulating how this relationship, like much else, depends on, and forms, its surroundings. In one last quote, I’ll highlight this aspect of elective affinity as a descriptive concept for the relationship we are trying to untangle here:

Of course, elective affinity occurs neither in a vacuum nor in the azure of pure spirituality; it is encouraged (or discouraged) by historical and social conditions. Whereas the analogy or likeness as such derives only from the spiritual content of the relevant structures of meaning, their contact and active interaction depend on specific socio-economic, political and cultural circumstances. (Löwy 1992/2017, 12)

With this conceptual framing of a relationship based on mutual attraction through likeness that comes into connection in specific scenes of “socio-economic, political, and cultural circumstances”, might we find a fruitful room of operation for our further dialogue? It seems like we are both trying to grasp analytical perspectives that adequately measure up to the political and aesthetic contexts of the objects of analysis we each work with, right?

Maj Ørskov

Right. I think it is an important point that every relation (whether conceptualized as a friendship or as elective affinity) is encouraged or discouraged by its surrounding conditions while at the same time continuously affecting these very same conditions. This is one of the basic realizations defining all process-oriented thinking and doing, I guess. So, for now, we have sketched a relational space or room of operation, as you put it, concerning interactions between aesthetics and the political. The next challenge––and the real work––is to bring these considerations into contact with aesthetic practices existing in the somewhat “real” world, where things tend to get even more messy and where relations are never as schematic as we would like them to be. I work with contemporary, experimental cinema from Egypt produced in the aftermath of the massive, popular uprising, which throughout the last ten years has reorganized the political, social, economic, cultural, and aesthetic space within the country over and over again. This means that the ways in which aesthetics and the political interfere, mutually attract, and possibly initiate processes of radical transformation is a central concern in my work both theoretically, practically, and analytically. I am interested in how works of experimental cinema both take part in but also constitute processes of transformation in themselves–– for the subjects, communities, and societies they interact with.

In “‘We Will Exchange Your Likeness and Recreate You in What You Will Not Know’: Transcultural Process Philosophy and the Moving Image” (2018), Laura U. Marks rightfully proposes that it can be analytically productive to consider most aesthetic practices in terms of process. Yet cinema, understood as all recorded and time-based media in Marks’ definition, offers itself as a: “vocabulary to trace the processual lives of things” (Marks 2018, 120). Marks writes against what she terms the nonhuman or object-oriented turn in process philosophy within humanities. This is done by re-orienting herself towards critical race theory in order to demonstrate how every object must also be considered a subject and how every subject is never a fixed entity but rather exists in a dynamic space of relationality (Marks 2018, 126). Since time-based media is essentially preoccupied with conveying and portraying how entities change over time––and how this change can be transmitted through images and sounds––cinema can help us realize the fundamental relationality of the world we inhabit; it helps us realize how every object, subject, collective, space, or episode is constituted by relational processes that can subsequently, and perpetually, be transformed and re-organized.

This analytical approach resonates aptly with the aesthetic practices that I experience being put to work within contemporary, experimental cinema in Egypt. Let me introduce an example from one of the films that I am currently preoccupied with. The film Out on the Street (2015) by the artists Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk revolves around ten male participants in an acting workshop that takes place at a rooftop studio in the working-class neighborhood of Helwan in Cairo. All ten participants used to work side by side at a cement factory. Throughout the years leading up to the workshop, the factory was privatized and later shut down following the monumental, public uprising in Egypt in 2011 that demanded the fall of the country’s authoritarian-state-system and also caused massive strikes and workers' riots. The acting workshop is led and documented by Metwaly and Rizk and the participating workers––who alternately act as themselves, offensive police officers, employees with every level positions in the factory hierarchy, or representatives of the Egyptian Armed Forces–– are asked to re-enact episodes and restage scenarios from their time at the factory. This includes episodes of corruption, humiliation, police brutality, exploitation of the workers by their employees, and the constant threat of being put out on the street if the workers don’t play along.

One of the film's central concerns deals with how to visually recreate a space that is strictly organized with more or less invisible hierarchical power-relations in order to draw attention towards how these relations are maintained through an excessive use of physical and structural violence. A defining scene in the beginning of the film (10:05) starts by presenting the viewer to an empty room. Brown and peach paint is peeling off the walls, the tile-floor is uneven, and large pieces of dirty cloth hang from one of the ceiling’s corners. The room is bathed in soft, yellow light radiating from a spot outside the frame. The light recasts the seemingly abandoned space as scenery, or simply, as a scene. The participants of the workshop enter the scene, carrying boards, buckboards, masking tape, a big piece of paper, and buckets of paint. A table is improvised using some of the buckboards and the board around which the participants gather. They start to sketch out the factory space that they are to reconstruct in the room they have just entered. They map out the office of the manager, the secretary, and the supervisor (who has private entry), the security office, the administration building, and finally the warehouse where the cement and fiber production takes place. Some minor discussions occur during the sketching. “No, you can’t place the accountant’s office next to the supervisor’s office, that’s where the legal department is,” one man exclaims in a friendly tone. “This office is way too big, let’s place the secretary here instead,” another one argues.

After somewhat agreeing on the choreography of the factory space, the actual reconstruction of it begins. The participants draw white lines between the different rooms indicating that walls and chairs are to be moved around, tables are to be put up, and telephones are to be connected. A newspaper is carefully placed at the manager’s desk, and a couple of ashtrays are left at the supervisor’s office. Almost without notice, the participants start to inhabit the space that they have just created, smoothly getting into character. One of the participants, a young man with illuminating eyes and a playful smile around his mouth, places himself in the supervisor’s chair. He lights a cigarette, looks around, and then yells: “bring me some tea, Uncle Saeed,” to one of the other participants. After an awkward moment of silence caused by Uncle Saeed’s hesitation to follow order from someone who was his equal a few seconds ago, he falls into character and brings the supervisor an imaginary cup of tea. Shortly after, the supervisor decides to go check on the workers. “If I don’t check on them, they don’t work,” as he says.

Although quite harmless, this sequence offers an example of how effectively Out on the Street stages both the participant’s effort to rightfully reconstruct the factory space and their effort to play their part in the sensible ordering that structures every encounter within the space. The strictly hierarchical mechanisms of these power structures are replicated and reproduced by the workers onto other workers in the workshop. The mise-en-scène of the relational abuse, which the participants re-enact in numerous scenes throughout the film, develops into a very tangible kind of abuse in itself. The processes of physical and structural violence that take place at the factory, which are caused by the particular distribution of the sensible within this community, thus become the actual subject of the film. These violating processes are brought into visibility through the performance of the participants; not as something that exists outside the workers, but inside them, in-between them, and in relation to the choreography of the factory space. In this visibility, it becomes clear how a violating system cannot be reduced to a violent leader who can be removed. The system cannot, subsequently, be made non-violent with the blink of an eye. A violating system is constituted by relationality, through exhaustive repetitions of certain performative behavior acted and reacted in relations, in-between individuals, institutional apparatuses, and institutional spaces.

In this way, Out on the Street offers a rather advanced visual vocabulary to trace the processual lives of things, to reuse Marks' phrase. Staging the extreme relationality of the violating system that the film portrays not only dissects the existing system but also suggests how this relationality creates potential for individuals to demand a redistribution of the sensible order. The aesthetic staging of the politically informed issues regards the relations that unfold between a violating system and the individuals involved in the system and allows for an intense experience of connection and difference both for the participants of the film and for the audience. Each participant is at the same time reproducing and opposing the institutional structures of violence, since the audience experiences how they, throughout the film, are both committed to and repulsed by playing their part in the workshop and the violence taking place. This leaves both the participant and the audience in a constant state of uncertainty as they try to discern between reality and fiction as well as between the status quo of reproducing certain violating behaviors and the potential to change these violating behaviors that are acted out by the participants in every scene. Subsequently, Out on the Street cannot be understood as either an aesthetic or political action. It is both at the same time. It is a corrosive force that draws the logics of both spheres into a relational space where a radical transformation or redistribution of the visible order, inhabited by the participants and the system that they are re-enacting, can occur. The performative, aesthetic space that is offered to the workers in order for them to recall and recreate their daily struggles thus turns into a real space; a space that I suggest can be seen as an entry point for a wider negotiation of how other institutional systems and structures in Egypt can be radically changed.  

Mikkel N. Jørgensen

Thank you, Maj, for this insightful analysis of Out on the Street and for taking the lead in plotting out some ways of operationalizing the concepts we have discussed. I will move on from your clarification and turn to my example of analysis, the poem “Home” (2015) by the Somali-Kenyan-British poet Warsan Shire. Firstly, I would like to introduce my field of study. I study how contemporary fiction writing, mainly poetry, plays a role in contesting contemporary borders. In a broader sense, I’m investigating how poetry takes the role as a tool for political discussion and an entry point for social transformation. Rancière does play a role in my work by being very present in the border aesthetics field––borders in themselves are a very real example of the distribution of the sensible (Schimanski et. al. 2018). However, I will follow you Maj and make my analysis focused around aesthetics and politics as a room of operation characterized by the connection, we have already laid out above.

We do not share the same media in our analytical practices: you work with time-based, visual media, and I work with written texts. Making things visible through affirmative aestheticization is very limited when analyzing texts, but hopefully we will nonetheless see some similarities between the aesthetic practices. I frame the aestheticization at play in Out on the Streets, as you have put it, as affirmative, since the video, at least to me, offers a vision of how aesthetics can deal with building new structures of society in a positive and affirmative manner––aestheticization as world-building, one could say. In cinema, the function of narrative and staging is important and speaks directly to the audience through the visual. Written texts can act in the same vein; however, the visual aspects of your work connect with the idea of making the invisible somewhat visible. In my present analysis, I approach the functional space between the political and the aesthetic in poems with the idea of complexity as I find this word precisely explains how texts engage an audience in actual social transformation. With this approach, I hope to show how poetry, especially poetry with political content, deals with and inspires societal change, but maybe in a slightly different way than by proposing a redistribution of the existing sensible order. I take the idea of complexity from Karen McCarthy Woolf, editor of the anthology Ten: Poets of the New Generation (2017). Her idea of complexity tries to narrow down the political alertness inherent in the poems included in the anthology, but I see a possibility of expanding this idea. She sees the young poets as moving beyond the pitfalls and stereotypes of classic political poetry and: “creating poems with a reach and ambition that stretches outwards to the reader, with the skill and dexterity required to embrace the pressing complexities that this second decade of the 21st century presents.” (Woolf 2017, 10)

The notion of complexity allows for an encounter with a work of art, Woolf argues, that both registers the societal critiques and nuanced political statements of the work. In addition, complexity encourages a viewer to keep an open mind in regards to the phrasing of these thoughts in a poem–– whether it be “pop” language in the form of hip-hop lyrics or language in more traditional forms. In this quote, Woolf finds common ground in the poetry of these new British voices as they seek to reflect the complex flows of contemporary society with a nuanced complexity in their own work, which in many ways becomes an aesthetic formed by a political attunement. This focus on “being of their time,” poses a fruitful vantage point for my analysis, since, as Löwy points to, this relationship between politics and aesthetics is always of “its time.” The poets in question write with an audience in mind without necessarily wanting to educate the audience. They write with an intentionality and without limiting the reception of their intention.

So, in going along with this idea of the space––where aesthetics and politics reside as a space emerging through complexity in my concrete example–– I’ll turn to the poem “Home.” Interestingly, this poem also addresses the repressive powers of state systems and apparatuses. However, “Home” takes the point of the refugee in order to confront state power. The poem was written after the author visited refugees squatting in the abandoned Somalian embassy in Rome in 2009.Warsan Shire wrote her experiences from that visit first in a short prose poem called “Conversations about Home'' which was later turned into the longer, versified poem called “Home”. Since its publication, this version of the poem has played a role as a rallying call at different global demonstrations. It has had a particular impact on protesters fighting against different governmental policies aimed at refugees world-wide. The line that has been seen and shared most frequently from the poem is, “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.” With this line Shire captures both the individual feeling of despair facing people that have to flee their beloved homes, but it also addresses the common anti-refugee and immigration rhetoric of immigrants and refugees coming to wealthier parts of the world to grab their “piece of the cake.” Shire confronts this rhetoric later on in the poem when she writes:

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off.” (Shire 2015)

It may not be a surprise that Shire’s poem has gained interest from individuals who are implicated by and advocate for the rights of global refugees and migrants. With that being said, how can this poem help us understand the relationship between aesthetics and politics? Relating back to the idea of complexity, Shire’s poem is clearly addressed to an audience. It tries to capture the entangled and complex feelings and thoughts, taken from lived experience, around refugeehood by making the poem a vessel for these experiences to transfer and gain reciprocity within a broader public.

In order to show how I view the formation of politics and aesthetics within “Home,” I turn to two scholars who have written about the poem. One is the migrant literary scholar Kevin Potter and the other is post-colonial literary scholar Elleke Boehmer. Each author frames the text by Shire within an idea of the poem’s radical potential for instigating change––even “real life” change. Potter approaches the poem through the concept kinopoetics (Potter 2019, 62). In his analysis of the poem, Potter points to the ways in which “Home” is shaped through the idea of the centrifugal force, a force that pushes away from a center––in this case individuals are pushed away from their homes by forces that are not in their control and become refugees. This kinetic force is inherent to the refugee experience that Shire has built her poem around. Shire, Potter argues, puts the kinetic forces of refugeehood at the front of “Home” by highlighting how migratory formations is embedded in the global political landscape and not a “unique” situation. People become refugees because of global structures and histories citizens of a country do not control. Potter points to that the switching between voices and audiences addressed in the poem consequently creates an affective expression that draws the reader into the poem and makes them a part of the struggle that the poem narrates. The kinopoetic quality, then, is that as readers we become part of the pain that migrants experience in different ways. This exchange can spur political change. For Potter, the political potential in a migrant aesthetic is the potential of being drawn into the story of migrants and creating an affective bond (Potter 2019, 72); therefore, the readers, depending of course on the readers background, are handed an opportunity to be in the shoes of refugees being verbally abused in their new “homes” just for being there. The poem opens for the potential of relating to this affective situation of being blamed for inhabiting a certain part of the world because of global forces not in the refugee’s control. Shire utilizes the subjectivation of refugees as others in the poem to make the reader a part of this experience and feel the absurdness if this situation.

In Boehmer’s book Postcolonial Poetics (2018), she analyzes different postcolonial strategies in contemporary literature. She also points to a potential resistance of contemporary migration policies in Shire’s poem. Boehmer approaches “Home” by considering how the poem deals with the contemporary political violence of postcolonial conditions (Boehmer 2018, 78), in this case, migration. Boehme writes that since Shire uses a hectic and fast-paced style, she not only confronts the reader with a necessity of defiance but “also dramatizes how it might be enacted, how endurance is done” (Boehmer 2018, 80). The power of “Home,” for Boehmer, lies in how it teaches the reader to endure imposed terror on a very intimate level––not only as representation but on an instructional level. From these two perspectives the political potential for change in “Home” lies in challenging hegemonic discourses that create prejudices and biases by making the reader one with the experience in the text and by forcing this reader, on a bodily level, to cope with the terror imposed by power structures on humans. Both positions emphasize how the poem aspires to direct action. I argue that this openness in Shire’s poem that is found in shifting points of enunciations–– the we, you, us, and I–– is telling of the goal of complexity and attunement to an audience that drives the political aspects of contemporary poetry. The openness of the words and addresses in the poem leads to an audience’s affective change of mind towards fleeing refugees. Therefore, the poem can be a tool for direct action against the structures that violently limit their free movement. The poem can be viewed as a vessel for change.       

By this reading, I am not suggesting that the poem should be understood as a return to the “open” artwork. The theme of the poem is not to be mistaken, and the content is built from real life experiences of individuals fleeing violence. Shire writes about issues that are shaping the political agenda of today but with an aesthetic that allows for an audience to be engaged in this political agenda in an open way. The openness of enunciation allows for a complexity that does not propose a specific politics or adhere to an aesthetic supposedly more political than others. “Home” has been my example of analysis in our investigation because this poem shows a contemporary way of formulating social engagement in poetry that allows for, and explores, the relational space of aesthetics and the political that is characterized here as a relation of elective affinity or radical friendship. “Home” does not engage in social transformation through visualization and affirmative world-building but the effect might be the same.  Rather, “Home” seeks political change by engaging with an important subject matter––migration and refugeehood. In turn, the poem creates a poetic openness that widens the political with aesthetics to pull the reader in to a set of problematics that is urgent in the contemporary political agenda. Shire shows that texts can be spaces for learning about the historical moments that founded them. “Home” does not call for a prior aesthetic or political attitude but for an engagement with the moment, and it becomes political because it relates to this moment together with its readers.

A Way Out

Maj Ørskov

Thank you, Mikkel, for opening up Shire’s poem and for pointing out different and equally important aspects of how poetry can make political issues crystallize as well as become bodily present for the reading audience. At the same time, thank you for showing how the complexity of issues such as refugeehood manifest in poetic language. The question of how to wrap up this dialogue is now emerging. As with the opening of this conversation, I believe it’s appropriate to look for a way out of the conversation rather than for an actual conclusion to the discussion we have instigated here. It seems like we can find some sort of common ground in the fact that both of our analytical examples engage in the space between aesthetics and politics with the intention of radically transforming subjects, relations, structures, or large violating systems. We can also agree that both works seek to open up this relational space not by simplifying or banalizing it but by continuously complicating it––by orienting their aesthetic work toward the complexity of how the aesthetic and the political interfere in real-world relations evolving around physical, mental, or structural violence within the postcolonial state and era. As I have argued, Out on the Street negotiates this complicatedness by enforcing the participants of the workshop to establish a performative space where apparently invisible power structures and inherent hierarchical systems become visible and tangible. This space provides the participants with the possibility of realizing the fragile relationality of these structures and systems, thereby initiating a possible redistribution or transformation of their real-world relations outside the acting workshop. In your reading of “Home,” you emphasized how the political attunement of the poem’s aesthetic form and its shifting points of enunciation allow for a potential transformation of the audience through their experience of complexity in both the aesthetic and political aspects of the poem. However, it is worth noting that the two works differ significantly in their form of inquiry. While Out on the Street is preoccupied with placing political agency on the participants of the workshop through their aesthetic staging and performance, “Home” does not demand a radical transformation inside the work itself, rather it addresses its readership by demanding a redistribution of the sensible that takes place within this audience. The difference in the works’ form of inquiry is important since we are arguing for an understanding of the space between the aesthetic and the political as something characterized by connection and difference, complexity, and elective affinity. This obliges us as scholars to look not only for similarities between aesthetic practices working within the political sphere but to look for and try to make sense of the differences between these practices. Perhaps one of the most important notes to take away from this creative investigation is that the space in-between aesthetics and politics is complicated. It is exactly in this complicatedness, this either-nor––the processual aspect of business-left-unfinished––that the real transformative potential lies within the aesthetic practices that we are interested in. So, let’s not figure it out, let’s keep on discussing artistic practices and their relation to political communities and realities over and over again. Not to judge whether they are “good,” “productive,” or “bad” but to better, more curiously, and more radically understand the processual lives and radical transformations that take place within the worlds we inhabit.

Works Cited

Bausells, Marta, and Maeve Shearlaw. “Poets Speak Out for Refugees: 'No One Leaves Home, Unless Home Is the Mouth of a Shark.” The Guardian. September 16, 2015.

Boehmer, Elleke. Postcolonial Poetics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Kuo, Lily. “This poem is now the rallying call for refugees: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark””, Quartz Africa, January 30, 2017,

Löwy, Michael. Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe. Verso Books, 1992/2017.

Marks, Laura U.. Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image. The MIT Press, 2015.

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About the Authors

Mikkel N. Jørgensen is a PhD fellow at the department of Aesthetics and Culture at Aarhus University in Denmark where he is currently working on the project: Contesting the Borderscape: Aesthetic Activisms and Utopian Hope in the Global Border Regime that focusses on current poetic responses to the global impact of borders. He co-coordinates the research unit Inquiries into the Political and the Aesthetic and the junior researcher network of Center for Migration and Integration research, both at Aarhus University. He has previously published in Studies of Arts and Humanities Journal and the Danish cultural journal Kulturo. He is an editorial member for the Nordic journal of literature and criticism Passage – Tidsskrift for litteratur og kritik and book review editor for the Nordic cultural journal K&K.

Maj Ørskov is a PhD fellow at the department of Aesthetics and Culture at Aarhus University in Denmark where she is currently working on the project: Afterimages of the Egyptian Uprising: Aesthetic Negotiations of Image- and Body Politics in Contemporary, Experimental Cinema from Egypt. She co-coordinates the research unit Inquiries into the Political and the Aesthetic and is an editorial assistant at The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics. She has previously published in Global Media Journal (German Edition) and the Danish cultural journal Kulturo.

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