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Aesthetics in International Relations: Reportage, Colonialism, and Modernity

Nachiket Midha

The term ‘aesthetics’ is found predominantly in philosophy. It concerns inquiring about the beauty (or lack thereof) of something. Aesthetics define the way we perceive and consequently define something. Even the most mundane and quotidian objects or things are subject to this aesthetic analysis in some ways. This article aims to analyze the role of aesthetics in International Relations (IR) through daily reportage and how it emerges from the whole ‘colonialism-orientalism’ trope.

“Worldviewing as Worldmaking”

The way we view the world tends to shape the world. This idea, expressed by Cara Daggett, in the book  Science, Technology, and Art in International Relations, is significant for two reasons. To begin with, such aesthetic “turn” in everyday IR tends to break away from hegemonic schools like realism that is preoccupied with war. In turn, this leads to a more comprehensive analysis of global politics, not just at an academic level but also at a more common public level through contemporary discourses. Further, developing on the first point, the aesthetic turn also, contrarily, issues a caveat that “Relying too heavily on vision (our “view”) imports a problematic Western tradition…” 

Reportage signifies a significant element of how we view the world. International reportage evokes the power of aesthetics heavily. In reportage, once such emotions are evoked aesthetically—apart from viewing that particular object, entity, or thing singularly—that very aesthetic analysis inherently possesses the power to subsequently shape that object, entity, or thing, in a particular manner. One most crucial way this comes to the fore is the evident North-South divide. 

There is an evident tendency in international media  to portray specific nations in specific contexts. This trend was impeccably highlighted in the pandemic coverage. One must stop here to think specifically what brand of images has emerged out of the global South vis-a-vis the North. The problem is not the deniability of the fact that such conditions, and consequently images, do not exist in the South, but rather the ubiquitousness of the gory representation in the images appearing from the South is problematic. The  image below appeared for the first time in The New York Times, and the headline read “As Covid-19 Devastates India, Deaths Go Undercounted.” The problem itself is not with what it reports but rather how it reports the situation. With some Western nations as ravaged in the first wave as India in the second wave, one could rarely find images of the sort in everyday reportage.

Figure: COVID-19 Cremation Photo from East Delhi
Source: NYT Photograph by Atul Loke

Another notable aspect of this paradigm is the monopolization of this sort of ‘investigative’ journalism by the North. It is undeniable that “…globalization has intensified the volume of information,” however it must also be noted, as Katrina Oh highlights, that “many [scholars] question…the flow…[of] information [as] directed from the global North to the global South.” Can we think of a reverse trend where the flow is from the South to the North? It is hard to think of such a contrarian trend. Nevertheless, it is explicitly visible that international reportage advances a deeply discriminatory view of the South. And, it is not that our thought gets colored, but the process of singular aesthetic attribution makes everyday globalized interactions biased and thus shapes how nations and people interact in the larger scheme of things.

The Origins

Probing into the idea of aesthetics a little further, one cannot overlook the origins of this North-South divide build upon the original East-West divide that shaped the world for centuries, most notably through colonialism. Colonialism as a project itself is not only rooted in materiality but also aims at colonization of thought and imagination. The Empire project comes to mind. The British colonized the native thought through the initiation of a singular modernity, i.e., Western modernity. What this modernity did, in turn, was that it froze the East in time. What comes to mind, in this regard, is the idea of Orientalism. One can crudely define this idea as the process of how the West perceives (perceived) the East or the Orient. In other words, the Western process of “coming to terms” with the East. As Edward Said notes in his seminal work Orientalism that the West “…views the Orient as something whose existence is not only displayed but has remained fixed in time and place for the West.” One can go a step further to say that it is not only for the West but even for the rest that place has remained fixed. The Oriental aesthetics remain fixed in time because for the Occident (the West), the Orient has been (and remains) a savage and backward place. 

Furthermore, the very conceptualization of an Orient involves the denial that contesting ideas of modernity can exist. Partha Chatterjee astutely observes in his book, Nationalist Thought And The Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, that even though the colonial project’s “political domination was challenged,” there still remains the acceptance of “the very intellectual premises of ‘modernity’ on which colonial domination was based.” This, in part, also explains the preoccupation with Western aesthetics in non-western contexts. In other words, even after the demise of the colonial project, one of the greatest legacies of colonialism endures—the non-western populace still strives to achieve a ‘Western’ standard. 

So, in actuality, the Western aesthetics are so deeply assimilated by non-western minds that they face what W.E.B Du Bois calls a double consciousness. In Du Boisian terms, one can articulate this double-consciousness as “…a peculiar sensation… [as] a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Put simply, the colonized person lives a double life—one that is their own, and the other defined by the colonizer (the Western eye or the colonial gaze) for them.

Locating Western Aesthetics in the ‘Everyday’

Having dealt with the origins of this omnipresent Western aesthetic and the role of this aesthetic in contemporary reportage, we must now locate Western aesthetics in an everyday context. The most pervasive of these is its presence in education itself. The idea of education in post-colonial nations has been deeply affected by colonial processes. To take one instance, in India—where intellectual traditions date back to several millennia—one finds no more than a tokenistic representation of indigenous philosophers and thinkers in school-level textbooks. What these do, in turn, is make the education less relevant and relatable in these nations birthed after deeply colonial processes. To put it succinctly, a decolonized education model is still in waiting.

Segueing further to broaden our idea of Western aesthetics, the internet becomes an indispensable reference point. Even google searches are deeply problematic in their portrayal of the West and the East (or the North and the South). If one were to search through google images, things like, poverty, slums, pollution, and human rights violation, almost all responses will have pictures from the Global South (or the Orient). Donald Trump’s labeling of India being a “filthy” place is the manifestation of such an idea in contemporary times. It raises some questions. Is the West too clean to have poverty, pollution, or human rights violations? Do slums only exist in the third world (a term that itself carries colonial connotations)? Of course not, rather, it is not the presence of the thing itself but how that thing (say, poverty) fits in certain specific contexts and does not fit in others purely due to cognitive biases. Hence, the problem lies in this palpable irritation that an individual (whether western or non-western) has in associating poverty with Western nations because the Western aesthetic is anything but poor. Consequently, this predicament further exacerbates when it enters a digital space like the internet. 

In Conclusion 

Western aesthetics are both pervasive and persuasive. Even in the most trivial matters, one can find a hierarchy of things that eventually ends with a clear East-West distinction. Even if things remain the same, the power that aesthetics hold changes the way things are perceived in different contexts. What kind of IR are we then situated in? A White Man’s IR, perhaps. The singularity of this White Man’s IR is a threat to different narratives and stories that exist elsewhere. Chimamanda Adichie calls this The Danger of a Single Story. A single story is dangerous simply because it is exclusive yet prevailing. Humanity is not about singularity in diversity but diversity in its singularity as Homo sapiens.

Nachiket is a second-year undergraduate at Ashoka University studying Political Science and International Relations.

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