Law, politics and emptiness

This is my presentation for the Law, Space, Matter online seminar that took place all over the globe on 9 September 2021. Our session was called ‘Law, Politics and Emptiness’, and it was organised and chaired by Dorota Gozdecka. This was developed from material that you may have seen elsewhere.

‘Femicidio es genocidio’ protest in Buenos Aires. Photo: Unknown.


My aim today is to try to think aloud about a few half-baked ideas concerning the political potential that spatial emptiness may represent. Think of a public square that you’ll find in practically every city or town. Surrounded by town halls or other public buildings, the square itself can be the site of both military parades and peace protests. Emptiness seems to lend itself to both uses. Or when we say that people ‘take to the streets’. Here we’re suggesting that these routes that usually usher everyday traffic have now been emptied of vehicles so that they are open and free for uses like demonstrations and marches. I wish to challenge – or try to challenge – this idea that spatial emptiness could be freely appropriated for political contestation. I wish to do so with a few notions borrowed from Jacques Rancière which is also my homage to Ari Hirvonen. Ari was deeply inspired by Rancière and also introduced me to his work.

One of Rancière’s key concepts is ‘le partage du sensible’, usually translated into the somewhat clumsy English expression ‘the partition of the sensible’. In a key passage from his seventh thesis on politics, Rancière develops the concept in the following way:

The partition of the sensible is the dividing-up of the world (de monde) and of people (du monde), the nemeïn upon which the nomoi of the community are founded. This partition should be understood in the double sense of the word: on the one hand, as that which separates and excludes; on the other, as that which allows participation. A partition of the sensible refers to the manner in which a relation between a shared common (un commun partagé) and the distribution of exclusive parts is determined in sensory experience. This latter form of distribution, which, by its sensory self-evidence, anticipates the distribution of part and shares (parties), itself presupposes a distribution of what is visible and what not, of what can be heard and what cannot. (Rancière 2010: 36).

So Rancière’s word ‘le partage’ brings together two related meanings: ‘parter’, i.e.  ‘to separate’ or ‘to set apart’, and ‘partager’, i.e. ‘to share’ or ‘to take part in’. ‘The sensible’, that is, that which appears to us in sensory perception, is shared in that we all ‘take part’ in it. But at the same time, sensory perception also somehow implies a separation into ‘parts’. All the same, this shared and separated sensory perception is a fundamental prerequisite of democracy. As Rancière notes seemingly in the passing, the partition of the sensible ‘founds’ every nomos of the community (also Zartaloudis 2019).

The idea behind Rancière’s seemingly complicated idea can be illustrated with a relatively accessible example. When we observe the world, things appear to us in sensory perception finding their places in mutual relations one to another. Even when these things are appearing to us for the first time, some have already in advance been valued as more significant or worthier than others. Worthier things stand out as meaningful and important, while others appear to be less so, or even meaningless in this respect. We all ‘take part’ and participate in sensing, but what is being sensed is in ‘parts’ of varying worth.

The democratic institutions that have a presence in the physical world through which public power is exercised usually come across as worthy in this way. So, for example, the new Central Government Complex buildings in Tamar, Hong Kong, as confusing as their mall-like aesthetics may be in relation to European neoclassical expectations, do not appear to be mere offices for politicians and civil servants, but also important symbols of Hong Kong’s unique historical and socio-political position (e.g. Xue 2016: 287-309) and, perhaps recently even more so, of China’s sense of its growing standing among world powers.

On the other hand, crowds and gatherings that occasionally fill the public squares and spaces in the affinities of these buildings seldom command the same significance. The Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers who gather together regularly for picnics on Sunday afternoons filling public spaces like Tamar Park (generally, see Law 2001; Law 2002) will usually be viewed as only guest workers spending their leisure time together in unusually large numbers. Perhaps for someone aware of local conditions, these (mostly) women occupying the public spaces in the hundreds can just about signify the harshness of their working conditions, their lack of opportunities for recreation, or even their inability to participate in the social and political life of their host country.

But even so, a certain partition of the sensible guides our sensory perception so that the domestic workers will not able to attain the same socio-political significance as the Tamar Complex around them.

For Rancière, politics will always have an ‘aesthetic’ quality, a word that in Greek has a shared etymology with sensory perception (aisthētikós). At times, something seemingly insignificant interferes with the world that we sense and demands to be valued. This type of ‘aesthetic politics’ (Rancière 2011) challenges the prevailing partition of the sensible. The challenge may occur as political art as in, for example, the performance art of the Russian ensemble Pussy Riot (Currie 2017). But it can also be something more mundane, perhaps like the domestic workers in Hong Kong whose sheer volume confuses the expectations that guide our sensory perception and calls on us to re-evaluate our first impression. Perhaps these are not just women coming together in public spaces because they have nowhere else to go. Perhaps this is not their way of saying how powerless they are. Quite the contrary, perhaps this is the very way in which those that society’s partition of the sensible has denied all other ‘worthy’ opportunities of participation, those that have ‘no part’ (see Derickson 2017), are political.

Different ways of governing all have their characteristic partitions of the sensible. So what appears as valuable and worthy in one environment is not necessarily so in another. Rancière famously uses the term ‘police’ to denote the most common way of governing in neoliberal democracies, a word which translates rather clumsily into other languages. Basically Rancière’s police just means governing through the use of public power. Police can, of course, be used in order to achieve many beneficial and useful goals which betrays certain similarities with Foucault’s idea of ‘governmentality’ (e.g. Foucault 2007). So in the regime of police, educational policy can allocate resources to schools, and social policy can invest in people’s health and well-being. But Rancière’s point is that there is nothing particularly political about police as everyday government, at least not in the ‘dissensual’ sense that, for Rancière, is the prerequisite of all democratic politics. Rancière describes the difference between police and politics in the following way:

I now propose to reserve the term politics for an extremely determined activity antagonistic to policing: whatever breaks with the tangible configuration whereby parties and parts or lack of them are defined by a presupposition that, by definition, has no place in that configuration — that of the part of those who have no part. This break is manifest in a series of actions that reconfigure the space where parties, parts, or lack of parts have been defined. (Rancière 2004: 29-30)

This well-known passage is worth situating within our current focus. Only action that can break the ‘tangible configuration’ — or the partition of the sensible — of police, and that can carve out a part for those that have ‘no part’, would be regarded as politics. So the Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers gathered in the streets and parks of Hong Kong claim their rights politically precisely because they violate the logic of police by intervening in the aesthetic code that determines how empty public spaces should be used. Further, in police, the spatial dimension of sensory perception unfolds in a very particular way:

The essence of the police lies in a partition of the sensible that is characterized by the absence of void and of supplement: society here is made up of groups tied to specific modes of doing, to places in which these occupations are exercised, and to modes of being corresponding to these occupations and these places. In this matching of functions, places and ways of being, there is no place for any void. It is this exclusion of what ‘is not’ that constitutes the police-principle at the core of statist practices. The essence of politics consists in disturbing this arrangement by supplementing it with a part of those without part, identified with the whole of the community. (Rancière 2010: 36)

When Rancière speaks of ‘statist practices’, he is referring to the use of public power that takes place within the perimeters of a particular space hosting actors, roles, places, and modes of being. Because in neoliberalism the use of public power as government is defined in constitutions and constitutional practices, the contours of that space can be described as what I’ve elsewhere called constituted space. Branches of government, public authorities and state administrators all exercise the power that a constitutional framework has granted them within that space, that is, the space that a constitution has created for the state’s use of public power. That space can be physical as in the outcomes of town planning and architecture, or less tangible as in constitutional design – think of organisational charts depicting government authorities and their interrelations – or a public service design intentionally developed to create and maintain a ‘hostile environment’ that allows public authorities to comply with their budgets – such as a Kafkaesque procedure for social benefits that is meant to discourage from applying. The state’s use of public power — that is, Rancière’s ‘statist practices’ — is equivalent to police.

As police, public power is characterised by a partition of the sensible, by an ‘aesthetics’, that is marked by the absence or lack of void. The partition covers the space completely leaving no room. The space is ‘full’ or, to be more exact, it is ‘complete’ in the sense that even any existing emptiness is already accounted for. A complete space, even if it is empty, cannot become a ‘place’, to use geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s vocabulary (Tuan 2001). As an empty ‘greenspace’, Tamar Park merely accentuates the powers of the Central Government Complex and the Legislative Council Complex that surround it. The aesthetic function of the park is to remain empty like the frames of an image, and so it is not available for other uses. This completeness of space, together with whatever emptiness it may include, represents the totalitarian nature of police, or, in other words, of statist government that is, in Rancière’s terms, neither political nor democratic.

Politics, on the other hand, would be action that succeeds to intervene and to oppose this ‘completeness’ clearing space into place for ‘those who have no space’ even when it is empty. So perhaps not quite like the Umbrella Movement sit-ins that took place in Tamar Park in 2014 (e.g. Chung 2015) which ran the risk of simply highlighting the park’s possible role as a ‘deliberative’ Civic Square and consequently legitimising the police partition to which it belongs. But maybe, nearly 13,000 kilometres away, a ‘Ni una menos’ demonstration in June 2018 where over 100 women demonstrated naked in central Buenos Aires on the Plaza de Mayo square screaming in front of the presidential Casa Rosada palace to oppose violence against women (e.g. Rovetto 2015). To oppose violence against women with public nudity and screaming in a constituted space that is thick with nationalist symbolism is an exceptional aesthetic intervention and an appropriation of empty space making it a ‘place’.

So in conclusion, we can pick up a few signposts here: aesthetics, sensory perception, partition of the sensible, the ‘complete’ empty space of police, and a place for politics. This is the direction into which I’d like to develop my aesthetics of empty places.


Chung, Ho Fung (2015) ‘A Tale of Two Societies: Fragments of an Ethnography on Umbrella Revolution’, Hong Kong Anthropologist, Vol. 7. Available at (accessed 7 September 2021).

Currie, Janus C. (2017) ‘Like a Prayer: The Dissensual Aesthetics of Pussy Riot’, Rock Music Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2: 89-101.

Derickson, Kate Driscoll (2017) ‘Taking Account of the “Part of Those that Have no Part”’, Urban Studies, Vol. 54, No. 1: 44-48.

Foucault, Michel (2007) Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Trans. Graham Burchell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Law, Lisa (2001) ‘Home Cooking: Filipino Women and Geographies of the Senses in Hong Kong’, Ecumene, Vol. 8, No. 3: 264-283.

Law, Lisa (2002) ‘Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan Public Spaces in Hong Kong’, Urban Studies, Vol. 39, No. 9: 1625-1645.

Rancière, Jacques (2004) Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy. Trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Rancière, Jacques (2010) ‘Ten Theses on Politics’, p. 27-44, in Jacques Rancière, Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics. Trans. Steven Corcoran. London: Continuum.

Rancière, Jacques (2011) ‘The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics’, p. 1-17, in Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp (eds), Reading Rancière. London: Continuum.

Rovetto, Florencia Laura (2015) ‘Violencia contra las mujeres: comunicación visual y acción política en ”Ni Una Menos” y ”Vivas Nos Queremos”’, Contratexto, No. 024: 13-34.

Tuan, Yi-Fu (2001) Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience [orig. 1977]. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Xue, Charlie Q. L. (2016) Hong Kong Architecture 1945-2015: From Colonial to Global. Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Zartaloudis, Thanos (2019) The Birth of Nomos. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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