In order to understand how popular culture can contribute to the construction and maintenance of a political order. I would like to consider the role of aesthetics by exploring the political “work” that the aesthetics of Jamaican popular culture do through both the body and urban space. Indeed, as street (2004:311) notes, “any account of the politics of popular culture must address the way that culture works on those who hear or see it.” I am especially interested in the recent work of Jacques Rancière (2006), who uses the concept of the “distribution of the sensible” to indicate the ways in which art organizes what is visible, audible, conceivable, and speakable. the “sensible” here can the Popular culture of Illegality: crime and the Politics of Aesthetics in Urban Jamaica be understood both as “what makes sense” and “what can be sensed” (Panagia 2009:3).
These distributions of the sensible “structure the manner in which the arts can be perceived and thought of as forms of art and as forms that inscribe a sense of community” (Rancière 2006:14, emphasis in original). The political character of art, according to Rancière, lies in its centrality to processes of subjectification: it delineates how people perceive and understand what they have in common and what their role is within these communities.
Davide Panagia (2006, 2009) also examines this idea of aesthetically shaped “common sense” (akin to Kant’s sensus communis) within the context of democratic political life. He contends that while existing regimes of perception may support the status quo, sensation can be an interruptive force, “invit[ing] occasions and actions for reconfiguring our associational lives” (Panagia 2009:3). Focusing on what he terms the “poetics of political thinking,” Panagia (2006) urges us to attend to the coincidence of aesthetic and moral conceptions of value, to acknowledge that political strategies of persuasion appeal as much to sense experience as to processes of logical reason. the extent to which political claims are understood as legitimate relies significantly on the modes through which such claims are expressed. These modes of expression are not just subject to aesthetic evaluation, but are crafted with such judgment in mind. The academic analysis of these modes of persuasive expression has tended to focus on texts, but other modes of sensation may be equally important. Panagia (2009) argues that political subjectivity and agency have long been understood as driven by narratives, to the extent that a focus on texts precluded the study of how other sensory experiences—including vision, taste, and smell—contribute to the preservation or disruption of political orders.
Working similarly from Rancière’s approach to the politics of aesthetics, birgit Meyer (2010) examines what she has termed the “aesthetics of persuasion”: sensory experiences, often mass mediated, that produce and reproduce shared emotions and a sense of collective belonging. In studying the way religion and the political intersect in Pentecostalism, Meyer (2010:751) looks at what she calls “sensational forms,” defined as “authorized modes for invoking and organizing access to the transcendental that shape both religious content…and norms…[t]hese forms play a central role in modulating practitioners as religious subjects.” sensational forms—from icon worship and hymns to speaking in tongues—are experienced personally but produced socially: shared meaning is constructed as the senses and bodies of adherents are shaped collectively. the aesthetics of persuasion refers to “the interface of religion, sensation and politics” (Meyer 2010:743), in which these sensational forms are mobilized to enable an embodied experience of the transcendental as real and powerful. Meyer’s more explicit focus on the body as the locus of politico-aesthetic “work” grounds rancière’s rather abstract notions in the lived experience of Pentecostal believers, and unlike Panagia, extends the politics of aesthetics to the Global south and beyond democratic politics.
Where Panagia emphasizes the democratic potential of sensation, sensational forms are equally capable of fortifying an undemocratic religious order, or, as I will argue, criminal power structures. Jamaica’s dons occupy a specific position in urban power structures, their status sustained by a mix of political and religious symbols. the most powerful of these men have become icons, underworld heroes who at times achieve superstar status (Hope 2010). they have become politico-religious figures who are both revered and feared as individuals, and who symbolize the authority of the larger system of criminal governance.
Dons are quasicelebrities, embodying what Gray (2004:123) calls “badness-honor”: “a stylized outlawry…affirming a racially charged defiance as a new basis for social identity and honour.” they can be understood as part of a longer historical tradition of anti-establishment “badmen,” including the 1940s outlaw-hero Ivanhoe “rhygin” Martin (immortalized in the Jamaican film
The Harder They Come, 1972). In addition, dons share resemblances with charismatic and authoritarian “big men,” including politicians, union leaders, and preachers. The processes of criminal iconization and the naturalization of a criminal governance structure rely on material means, including the use of violence as well as the extraction and redistribution of money and jobs.
While these are discussed in more detail below, this article, however, focuses on those specific aesthetics that contribute to political subject formation in the context of donmanship. I concentrate on the forms of popular culture that are prevalent in inner-city Jamaica and approach these as modalities that mediate between residents and the larger system of don-led rule. In a manner somewhat similar to that described by Meyer in the case of Pentecostal churches, these different popular culture expressions can be understood as sensational forms, with important embodied effects on what is visible, audible, and perceptible in marginalized urban areas.
They are authorized modes of constructing shared meaning through the Popular culture of Illegality: crime and the Politics of Aesthetics in Urban Jamaica bodies and senses of inner-city residents, enabling access and belonging to a larger symbolic order, and rendering that order both real and powerful.
Before analyzing these popular culture expressions, however, I historicize and contextualize the system of donmanship, illustrating how the dons’ authority developed from their position as brokers between formal political actors and inner-city residents.