In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Aesthetic Turn in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • Overviews of Aesthetic Theories and Their Relevance to International Relations
  • Sensibility, Emotions, and Affect
  • Language, Literature, Poetics
  • Art and World Politics
  • The Politics of Still Images
  • The Politics of Moving Images
  • Sound and Performative Politics
  • Popular Culture and Social Media

International Relations Aesthetic Turn in International Relations
Roland Bleiker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0236


Scholarship on aesthetics and world politics has grown in volume, sophistication, and influence over the past two decades. At first sight, this phenomenon seems curious. The study of aesthetics is the study of taste and beauty and how they awaken in us certain affective sensibilities. The world of global politics is, by contrast, a hard-nosed world of power and might, of conflict and struggle, an all-too-real world that is far removed from the seemingly trivial realm of aesthetics. Not so, argue an increasing number of scholars. They have done so for many years now and compellingly. They have revealed how aesthetic sensibilities can help us rethink some of the most serious problems in global politics. An entire new generation of interdisciplinary academics has arisen, pushing the boundaries of how we can understand world politics. They explore different forms of insights, including those that emerge from images, narratives, and sounds, such as literature, visual art, music, cinema, and other aspects of popular culture. These scholars also show that aesthetics is about far more than art: it is about rethinking the fundamental issues that drive global politics. The key task for aesthetically oriented scholars consists of legitimizing broader engagements with the political. This approach is about validating the whole register of human perceptions and sensations: not only practices of reason and logos that prevail in conventional scholarship, but also a range of other, more creative and open-ended, yet equally important, forms of insights. In this sense, aesthetic politics is intertwined with but also goes further than a range of other post-positivist theories, including post-structuralism, critical theory, constructivism, and aspects of feminism and postcolonialism. Aesthetic politics is not limited to a theory or paradigm. Rather, it is about cultivating a critical attitude to how we understand and engage the political world around us. An appreciation of aesthetics offers us possibilities to rethink, review, rehear and refeel the political world we live in. Scholarship in aesthetics politics is interdisciplinary by nature. But given the limited space available here the focus is primarily on contributions made by international relations scholars, thereby forgoing important insights from disciplines as diverse as communication and media studies, journalism, anthropology, geography, sociology, art history, neuroscience, and philosophy.

Overviews of Aesthetic Theories and Their Relevance to International Relations

Two theorists have advanced particularly influential ways of articulating the political dimensions of aesthetics. The first theorist is Franklin R. Ankersmit, who makes a distinction between mimetic and aesthetic approaches (Ankersmit 1996). The former, which prevail in much of the social sciences, depicts politics as realistically and authentically as possible, whereas the latter acknowledges that there is always a gap between a representation and what it represents. This gap is not only inevitable, but also of key political importance for it has to do with collective conventions that determine which one of numerous plausible explanations are considered legitimate and which ones are deemed unreasonable or illegitimate. A political event, for instance, cannot determine from what perspective and in what context it is seen. Our effort to make sense of this event can thus never be reduced to the event itself. Rather, depicting this limit as a threat to knowledge, as mimetic theories tend to do or imply, aesthetic approaches recognize that the difference between represented and representation is the very location of politics. They engage it head-on in a creative manner. The second theorist is Jacques Rancière, who expands on the significance of these links between aesthetics and politics (Rancière 2004). He explores how we negotiate the sensible world and how an epoch’s “distribution of the sensible” determines what is arbitrarily but self-evidently accepted as thinkable, reasonable, and doable. The content and contours of politics are inevitably linked to how we—as political and cultural collectives—speak, hear, visualize, and feel about ourselves and others. Because these aesthetic practices frame what is thinkable and doable they are political at their very core. Existing distributions of the sensible might be practices of exclusion but they are never fixed. Indeed, Rancière stresses that aesthetic engagements with the political offer particularly powerful ways to reconfigure our sensory experience of the world. Drawing on these and other insights from aesthetic theory, numerous international relations scholars have thought to challenge the boundaries of what is visible and invisible, thinkable and unthinkable, and, thus, of what can and cannot be debated in politics. Broad overviews of this body of literature are offered by Bleiker 2001, Bleiker 2009, and Shapiro 2013. A survey of the role that images and visuality in international relations can be found in Bleiker 2018. A particularly influential role has been played by the journal Millennium: Journal of International Studies, which has published three special issues on the topic of aesthetics since 2000: Special Issue: Images and Narratives in World Politics (in 2001), Special Issue: Between Fear and Wonder: International Politics, Representation and the Sublime (Bolton, et al. 2006), and Special Issue: The Aesthetic Turn at 15 (Hozić 2017). They were supplemented by special issues in the journals Global Society (Moore and Shepherd 2010) and Global Discourse (Schlag and Geis 2017).

  • Ankersmit, Franklin R. Aesthetic Politics: Political Philosophy beyond Fact and Value. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

    An important book in the realm of aesthetic theory. It draws a distinction between mimetic and aesthetic approaches. The latter, which recognize that there is a distinction between a representation and what it represents, are presented as particularly suitable to understand and engage practices of democracy.

  • Bleiker, Roland. “The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 30.3 (2001): 509–533.

    DOI: 10.1177/03058298010300031001

    One of the early texts that argues for an aesthetic turn in the study of international relations. Establishes a roadmap for aesthetic inquiries that draws on the full spectrum of human intelligence and sensibility to understand key issues in world politics.

  • Bleiker, Roland. Aesthetics and World Politics. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230244375

    Book-length study that advances detailed arguments for an aesthetic approach to world politics. Containing conceptual elaborations and case studies on the poetic imagination, it shows why aesthetics can offer important alternative insights that are of practical relevance to the study of politics.

  • Bleiker, Roland, ed. Visual Global Politics. London: Routledge, 2018.

    Surveys how images and visual artefacts play a key role in global politics. Numerous political topics, from war to diplomacy and from gender to colonialism, are analyzed through different aesthetic themes, such as photography, film, maps, monuments and video-games.

  • Bolton, Annika, Douglas Bulloch, and Mireille Thornton, eds. Special Issue: Between Fear and Wonder: International Politics, Representation and the Sublime. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 34.3 (2006).

    A special issue that focuses on a particular realm in the link between aesthetics and politics: the study of the sublime, which often emerges at moments when fear and awe blend in the context of violent political phenomena.

  • Hozić, Aida A., ed. Special Issue: Forum on “The Aesthetic Turn at 15.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 45.2 (2017).

    Assesses the scholarly and political relevance of the aesthetic turn in international relations fifteen years after the original set of essays in Millennium. Draws attention to the meanwhile burgeoning literature on the topic and highlights some of the challenges ahead, such as the need to address the Eurocentric origin of aesthetic theories.

  • Moore, Cerwyn, and Laura J. Shepherd, eds. Special Issue: Aesthetics and Global Politics. Global Society 24.3 (2010).

    Discusses the relevance of the aesthetic turn in bringing together a range of authors and perspectives that have so far existed in relative isolation. Highlights the need to explore affect, judgment, and sensibility in addition to prevailing forms of reasoning.

  • Schlag, Gabi, and Anna Geis, eds. Special Issue: Visualizing Violence: Aesthetics and Ethics in International Politics. Global Discourse 7.2–3 (2017).

    Focusing on rapidly changing digital and visual communication, this special issue discusses the broader aesthetic and ethical implication in the depiction of violence.

  • Special Issue: Images and Narratives in World Politics. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 30.3 (2001).

    The first special issue that advances aesthetics approaches to the study of international relations. Focuses on insights generated by images, literature and music as well as on the political role they play.

  • Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated by Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2004.

    Influential text in political philosophy that presents aesthetic politics as a way of organizing the so-called distribution of the sensible: partitions that, at a certain time and location, establish what is and is not visible, sensible and reasonable.

  • Shapiro, Michael J. Studies in Trans-disciplinary Method: After the Aesthetic Turn. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    A philosophical text that challenges prevailing positivist methods and explores alternative aesthetic approaches that range from art and cinema to literature and music.

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