Articulating Dissensus

Daria Kirsanova

As Zizek puts it, a ‘moment of suspension when the bright future seems to have already happened.’[1] This euphoric moment ended unhappily.

Dissensual Subjectivation and Artistic Practice

In order to unfold the meaning of the political subject and examine the relationship between the political and the artistic within a theoretical context, Jacques Rancière’s writings provide arguably the most relevant and timely grounding for debate. Rancière introduced the concept of ‘dissensual subjectivation’, initially in relation to the genesis of a political action, in his Ten Theses on Politics; it refers to the moment when a generalised feeling of discontent in society coalesces into a conceptual subject, which then flows into shaping an event of oppositional action. He defines the process thus: ‘Dissensus is not a confrontation between interests or opinions. It is the demonstration (manifestation) of a gap in the sensible itself’. A key focus of this argument is on how this political (or dissensual) subjectivation is interpreted in the artworks used here as a case study, and what impact this particular subjectivity has on artistic practice. In other words, the essence of my research topic is a study of the long-standing concerns of art and activism, and the cause-effect dynamic between the two. What also interests me is how political subjectivity affects the way that art is produced. 

The rhetoric on the relationship between object and subject in an artwork is an ongoing debate, descending from Kantian-Hegelian dialectic. In his essay ‘Subject-Object’, Adorno defines it as an intertwined interaction of equal components: ‘the reciprocity of subject and object in the work, which cannot be that of identity, maintains a precarious balance. It must be the artwork’s ineluctable ambition to achieve balance without ever being quite able to do so’.

[2] Here, Adorno is writing of the ‘perfect’, ‘ideal’ artwork that carries within itself this formal balance between materiality and content. If the production of an object, image and, finally, artwork is a relatively straightforward process, at least on the surface, the question of subjectivation and its translation into an artwork remains open. At the same time, dissensual subjectivity, formed by a political process through objectivation in an artwork, becomes its aesthetic quality. This raises an interesting aspect of the subject-object interrelation: does the subject matter influence the materiality of an object, or, more precisely, does the subject dictate the choice of medium – or vice versa? 

In the Iranian context, the moment that could be seen as the incorporation of the meaning of dissensual subjectivation into the political context occurred most recently in 2009, with the emergence of the political opposition and the people onto the streets. This transformation didn’t happen overnight, and the process of formation of this social situation went hand in hand with the new artistic practices coming to prominence, such as performance, happenings and participatory works.

But when we talk about re-assigning the events and the relation between the socio-political acts and art, one work has particular importance: the performance Come Caress Me, by Amir Mobed (b. 1974), shown at the Azad gallery in Tehran on 10 September 2010. It was inspired by Chris Burden’s work Shoot (1971), depicting a moment when his assistant (accidently) shot the artist in the left arm.

In 1971, in the context of the war in Vietnam, Burden’s gesture was interpreted as critical denunciation of the violence conducted by US troops against local civilians. Burden himself claimed that the actual shooting was an accident, that no damage was intended, and that his main artistic concern was to attract attention to the noyion of personal danger in artistic practice. [3]

However, Mobed’s re-enactment of the performance was much more extreme and provocative. He asked the gallery visitors to take a pneumatic rifle and intentionally shoot him from three suggested firing lines drawn on the floor, labelled: Hate you, Like you and love you, respectively, where hatred was the furthest from and love was the closest to the target. The performance was expressly conceived to create a certain degree of

controversy, starting with the name on the invitation: Chris Burden, instead of Amir Mobed. On the one hand, it was a hommage to the American artist whose work was re-interpreted. At the same time, by putting Burden’s name on the invitation, Mobed attempted not only to conceal his own identity, but also to play with an aura of mystery and deception that often surrounds performances.

[4] Yet, despite such a clear inter-textual reference, Mobed’s work raises a very different set of issues. It was not about the danger of being an artist, unlike Burden’s work; this time it was about the complexity and multidimensionality of violence in politics. The work was performed a year after the presidential election of Iran, which means there had been time to detach from, reflect on and re-assess what happened. This consequently placed the work within a wider ontological context.

Nonetheless, it does not tone down the work’s acute political message. Reference to human emotions reflects a certain degree of sentimentality, but it also puts a spotlight on a whole new aspect – of human emotions – as a motivator of radical action. Following the political occurrences in 2009, much intellectual critique was focused on this unprecedented and unexpected violence. In his work, Mobed reflected the critical voices back at their speakers and pointed out that ‘society’ – in this case the same intellectuals and people, close to artistic circles, who participate in the performance – is itself profoundly violent, and that there is a rupture in its integrity.

The work also made one reflect on the meaning of revolutionary violence, something largely unavoidable in a struggle against oppression. From this viewpoint, performance actually becomes critical in respect to the opposition. What is also interesting in this particular work in relation to dissensual subjectivation is that it was the subjectivity of the work that was allowed to determine its formal execution of objectivation.


In one of his lectures, Boris Groys defined an artwork as the documentation of an artistic process, of a stream of ideas.

[5] Groys pursued the notion that a representation of an object is not an object, but a work of art; [6] he went a step further by claiming that it is simply a documentation of the creative artistic process. Following this idea, an artwork can also be seen as the documentation of a political action/event. This theoretical perspective imbues artworks with a historical quality. From this standpoint, critical art might be seen as the documentation of the process of formation of dissensual subjectivation. This ‘documentation’ makes visible the social situation of discontent, in turn raising awareness that is essential for the framing of dissensus.

The notion of historical reassessment of political events brings up the further question of the possibility of representing terror – something that becomes an ethical question within aesthetics. In his essay ‘The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics’, Rancière defines terror as a trauma: ‘Terror is precisely the name that trauma takes in political matters’.[7] If, according to this definition, terror is a trauma in politics, then how is it possible to deal with the burden of moral issues that make it unrepresentable in artistic terms? Rancière argues that the unrepresentable, which is the central category of the ethical turn in aesthetic reflection, is also a category that produces an indistinction between right and fact, occupying the same place in aesthetic reflection that terror does on the political plane. The idea of the unrepresentable in fact conflates two distinct notions: impossibility and interdiction.

This declaration of impossibility in fact conceals a prohibition. The prohibition, however, also conflates two things: a proscription that bears on the event and a proscription that bears on art. [8]

Faced by this ethical and theoretical dilemma, Rancière sees a solution in fictional inquiry. He argues that artistic narration places the ethical question of the unrepresentability of terror within the domain of art, where it can be dealt with through artistic agency: 

To invoke an art of the unrepresentable, it is therefore necessary to pull this unrepresentable from a realm other than that of art itself. The surplus of representation inherent in the ruin of the representative order must be transformed into its opposite: a lack or an impossibility of representation. [9] 

With respect to this line of thinking, Amir Mobed’s performance inevitably comes to mind as an example of dealing with the ethical issues of representation through enactment and performative play. The direction that we should undoubtedly steer away from in this debate is one that reduces art to the ethical witnessing of unrepresentable catastrophe;[10] art should not be divorced either from its aesthetic component or from its proactive position because, according to Rancière, ‘artworks can produce effect of dissensus precisely because they neither give lessons nor have any destinations’.[11]


 [1] Revolution we love you (2009) Tate Modern (Internet) Available online: (Accessed 5 April 2011).

[2] Ibid., pp. 218-219.

[3] Schjeldah, P. (2007) Chris Burden and the limits of art. The New Yorker, 14 May. Available online:

artworld (accessed on 5 July 2011).

[4] I had an extensive conversation with Amir Mobed about his praxis in general, and in particular about Come Caress Me, and therefore my analysis of this performance is highly influenced by this conversation and my awareness of the artist’s intention. 

[5] Groys, B. (2005) Spheres of Action: Art and Politics. Panel discussion at Tate Britain, 10 December. Available online: popular.

[6] Magritte, R. (1928-1929) La Trahison des Images (“The Treachery of Images”) or Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”). Los Angeles, LACMA.

[7] Ranciere, J. (2010) Dissensus, on politics and aesthetics. London: Continuum International Publishing Group p. 18 

[8] Ibid., p.195.

[9] Ibid p. 197-198.

[10] Ibid p.201. 

[11] Ibid p.140.

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