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Imaginal Politics

“All power to the imagination!” Or so they said in the sixties. Now, the slogan might be: “All imagination to the power!” For imagination is everywhere these days but nobody knows how we might get any power. Now that there’s a tv show based on Philip K Dick’s alternative history where the Nazis and the Japanese won the war, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for documentary. It seems all we can imagine is the same or worse than what is.

To any follower of the news, it may seem these days harder than ever to figure out what is real and what is delusional, and whether the delusional is an individual psychopathology or perhaps something more general. As Chiara Bottici puts it: “We live in a society of spectacles that rests on the commodification of the imaginal, within which we are all socialized.” (192)

Her new book Imaginal Politics: Images Beyond Imagination and the Imaginary (Columbia University Press, 2014) is in part aimed at addressing such a question. As the title suggests, its topic is not quite imagination or the imaginary, but what she calls the imaginal. The theme of imagination is a little too caught up in thinking the properties of an individual subject, and the theme of the imaginary is a bit too tied to an opposition with the real. The term imaginal opens the prospect of thinking about something that precedes the division between real and unreal as well as that between the individual and the social.

As such, the imaginal overlaps with, and partially remaps a range of themes in critical theory. It is a bit like what culture means to Raymond Williams, or what ideology means to Louis Althusser or what spectacle means in Guy Debord. It overlaps in a more problematic way with what reproducibility means in Walter Benjamin and Pier Paolo Pasolini. It’s a more neutral version of what Paolo Virno means by the virtual. Like any such concept, it has its affordances, its things it highlights and things it forecloses. Bottici has offered a timely mediation for an age that appears to lack imagination yet is full of images.

Bottici’s point of departure is the work of Cornelius Castoriadis, for whom the imagination was the condition of possibility of reality. Castoriadis came out of a revolutionary Marxist tradition, but like many felt a tension between its commitment to the capacity for human collective self-making and the doctrine of economic determinism. He broke with the latter by turning the former into a theory of the imaginary institution, via which the social becomes self-making.

This is a rather different path to take to either the Freudian or Lacanian approach to imagination and the imaginary. The Frankfurt school were still tied to the concept of the imagination as fantasy, as unreal. Even in Marcuse, imagination is tied to the capacity to represent what does not exist. For Lacanians such as Slavoj Zizek, the Imaginary is a space of alienation, in contrast to the Real. One might add that it also appears as part of a somewhat ahistorical diagram of the conditions of possibility of subject formation.

Bottici: “A new direction is needed in critical theory, one that focuses more systematically on the relationship between politics and our capacity to imagine as well as the contemporary transformation of that nexus.” (10) The imaginal precedes any possible politics, in part because it also precedes the formation of distinctions between what is real and unreal, and what pertains to an individual and what does not. It may also be a zone that harbors both promises and dangers. The specific way in which politics is imaginal is that one cannot think the political without imagining a public and a claim to legitimately represent it.

One of the pleasures of this book is the philological precision with which Bottici traces its key terms. This allows her to reclaim some lost semantic territory. For instance the Greek phantasia was already a mix of sensation (aisthesis) and opinion (doxa) that can be both true and false. Here she follows Adorno and Horkhiemer, for whom the Englightenment’s rejection of imagination leads to a hardening of the boundaries of object and subject (which must then in some way ‘correlate’). The Enlightenment made reason its own myth, even while affirming a view in which imagination is unreal and relegated to the aesthetic.

The Greeks did not have a word for what we call reality (from the Latin res), whereas we descendants of the Enlightenment think that reality is that which is not imaginary or ideal. “This is a fact that we tend to forget: the definition of what is ‘real’ is not an a priori of human understanding (pace Kant), but rather something that has proved particularly variable in different contexts and epochs.” (27) Thus making it rather hard to mount a realism independent of the practices of its own making.

In Castoriadis, the imaginary is social, and is a capacity, a practice. It is rather different to Lacan, for whom the imaginary is a spectacle of something, arrived at in the alienating mirror phase in which the boundaries of the self are formed through its misrecognition of its own capacities. In Castoriadis, the imaginary is a field of the undetermined creation of figures, which create the possibility of there being things.

All functions within the social are functions of something, a goal has to be imagined for the act. What Bottici will call the imaginal is the liminal space where figures of the possible might emerge. In Castoriadis, this is not quite the field of free association celebrated by the Surrealists, and still present in Marcuse. There’s limits to the social functioning of the imaginary coming from the directions of nature, history and its own symbolic resources. Since it is not quite as wild as Freud ‘imagines’ it, Castoriadis does not feel the need to tame it.

The real is in Castoriadis something that emerges out of the tension between the instituting and the instituted. One could think this along the lines of Sartre’s tension between praxis and the practico-inert. There’s both an openness and an inertia. And as in Henri Lefebvre, it’s a praxis-oriented way of thinking about the Real, which does not erupt in formless horror, but rather reveals itself as form out of the tension between the act of shaping it and its recalcitrant pre-existence. Bottici: “because imagination exists, reality itself exists, and not the other way around.” (52) The figure precedes the act, and thought decides after the fact on its reality-content.

The unconscious produces images, but in Bottici the unconscious could mean something like what culture means in Raymond Williams, a structure of feeling. Unlike Freud, she does not want to reduce the proliferation of images to just one cause. Freud’s was a monotheistic approach. The signs produced by the unconscious have to be interpreted, reasoned-with and made to reveal a hidden truth beneath them.

Bottici does not discuss Deleuze and Guattari, but she comes close to their image of the unconscious as a factory rather than a stage, which calls for a practice of stopping, starting, diverting or connecting its various imagistic flows. She draws instead on Fromm’s idea of a social unconscious producing the imaginal as a field of possibilities.

In Castoriadis, there’s a sharp break between the individual and the social, and hence a certain inconsistency in his theory of the the imaginary. Like so many others, Castoriadis took being to mean being toward death, that ultimate solitary act. He joins a long line of philosopher-dudes who seem always to be dying and never to have been born. Bottici wants to think species-being as that which is born as well as that which dies, and hence to acknowledge the labor that brought us all into the world. “Yet birth, and thus company, is our primordial experience.” (69) There is no need to postulate a monadic core to explain how imagination and autonomy is possible.

Contra Castoriadis, the capacity to produce new images is rooted in natality and being-together, not death and solitude. Bottici: “If the notion of the imaginary can therefore explain how the social context can shape our beings up to the point of possessing us, that of the imaginal, as the production of images rooted in natality, can equally explain how freedom can always unexpectedly break through. And this essentially undecided nature of images, which can be either alienating or liberating according to the different contexts, impels us to leave the question of their status of reality open.” (70)

Can there be politics without the imaginal? As Bottici has framed the question, the answer is no. One might, however, wonder a bit more than she does whether the political is itself a figure of the imaginal, or even an imaginary figure that is less real than it seems. The term politics is a modern invention. For the Greeks the polis was the same as the whole of public life, everything but the oikos or the household. Bottici: “it is not an exaggeration to say that the Greeks, to which so many philosophers attributed the invention of politics itself, did not have a word to designate it.” (76)

Nor did the Romans, who used the terms civilis, socialis and the res publica, the public thing, or public reality. They did not think of politics as a separate field. A thirteenth century translation into Latin of Aristotle called it his Politics. The book had its uses in supporting the idea of a temporal power separate from religious authority, but its title may have been something of a mistranslation.

The meaning of politics changed a bit in discourses on the art of the state. It no longer meant civil philosophy and meant rather the techniques of enlarging the state. However, Machiavelli does not much use the word politics, nor did Spinoza or Hobbes, who translated res publica as commonwealth. One starts to wonder if the whole tradition of political philosophy is a modern projection back onto a past which knows little of it.

Max Weber finally gives us a recognizably modern way to think politics as distinct from the whole of public life. It pertains to the modern state and the struggle for legitimate power. Here one might interject a vulgar-Marxist note to the effect that the oikos ends up excluded here once again, whether in the modern form of economics, or the expanded form Jason Moore would give it, as the historical appropriation of nature.

Hannah Arendt ‘restored’ a broader sense of politics to that found in Weber. This she based on a notion of a Greek public life that concerns itself with everything except necessity – as base needs are a mere matter of oikos. This might be one of a number of moves in which the category of politics itself undergoes a kind of imaginal inflation, becoming even a kind of ontological category. Here I think we need a reminder that this was among other things a way to avoid Marxism and its claim to ground the practice of thought in the practice of the social satisfaction of needs.

Foucault expands politics in a different way, as biopolitics, bringing together power, knowledge and life. Biopolitics is the power to make live or let die. For Foucault it’s a modern kind of power, caught up in new disciplines such as demography and public health. Here I wonder whether the modern state has really been consistent in making bios its concern, or if it has only appeared when it has needed a mass army or mass labor force. The connection between politics and war is as neglected in theorists whose obsession is its modern form as in those who maintain the myth of ancient democracy – sans hoplites.

In Giorgio Agamben, the paradox of sovereignty is that it is both inside and outside the law. (One wonders to whom this is supposed to be any kind of discovery). Contra Foucault, all power is biopolitical for Agamben. It is the sovereign power to kill. We can all become bare life, stripped of rights, of political being. Robert Esposito has a more affirmative approach to the biopolitical as the munis, or communal gift of obligation. But for him it is connected to the theme of fragility, and hence still to the possibility of death.

But what if one takes away the sovereign’s sword for a moment? What if one thinks with Bottici of political life as that which is born? “Life has always been at the center of politics, not only because life and its needs are crucial political issues, but also because, as Arendt reminds us, birth is the political moment par excellence.” (87) In the modern world, no birth without a certificate. But in a more imaginal vein: “politics depends on birth because it depends on the possibility of action understood as the capacity to bring about the new… Politics is biopolitical because it is genopolitics before being thanatopolitics.” (88, 89)

But then Bottici brings in capitalism and its tendency to transform the technical relation to life. This appears as something external, a deus ex machina. But surely if a properly imaginal politics is our goal, it ought to be an autonomous theory, one that does not depend on explanations from without. Bottici: “’bare life’ never existed for us.” (89) This seems to me a good critical point to maintain contra Agamben. But one might then need to add techne to the list of conceptual fields, alongside bios, polis and oikos. (As in its own way Preciado’s book Testo Junkie does.)

But Bottici goes in another direction: “’life’, let alone the place it occupies in politics, is inseparable from the image that we have of it. Here we begin to see why biopolitics is also imaginal: our being-in-common is mediated by images well before being mediated by words.” But perhaps it’s a prior restriction on the imaginal to want an image of the political, rather than images that might surpass it as an instituted form.

But to stay with Bottici: “Politics thus understood depends on the imaginal because it is only by imagining it that a public comes into being.” (91) The community comes together only via the image. “Without representation there cannot be sovereignty as such because it is only through representation that a multitude of scattered bodies becomes a people and thus, properly speaking, comes into being.” (92) But might we inquire as to what scatters them? Might it be the alienating form of commodity labor?

One class of images on which the state depends is the map. One might think this on at least two different scales. One is micro: the property lines that define modern capitalist space. Indeed, one might think the state’s role in deciding the boundaries of property a more fundamental, if banal property of its everyday functioning.

The other is more expansive, the ability to map the world. I think here of Bernard Smith’s classic European Vision and the South Pacific and Imagining the Pacific, where he shows the kind of cartographic, ethnographic and biological knowledge Captain Cook brought back for the British Empire. The chronometer made accurate measurements of longitude possible, and with it quite literally a world of knowledge. Bottici: “The emergence of the modern organization of power thus implied a process of conquest and definition of space that would not have been possible without this revolution in perception.” (94)

Bottici actually quotes me on this point: “The politics of representation is always the politics of the state. The state is nothing but the policing of representation’s adequacy to the body of what it represents.” But this is not the state as biopower. This is the state as infopower, of which knowledge and power over living things is just a subset. Perhaps it is because I am from the south, but I always thought the state had more interest in minerals than in anything alive.

So, the sovereign state is an imaginal being, both real and unreal. To be an actor within it might take some imagination. Bottici: “Politics, understood as whatever pertains to the polis, to the life in common, is imaginal because we need an image of the public to make it exist, but also because because politics presupposes the capacity to consider the point of view of others and thus to form images of what it must be like to find oneself in their shoes.” (100) To be perceived as legitimate, power has to think, feel and act within an imaginal space.

Thus the types of legitimacy that, according to Weber, political power can have, are things that work in an imaginal register: tradition, faith, rational enactment. “The imaginal is radical because it can make present what is absent in the double sense of creating something new as well as the denying of the facts.” (103) But when is the imaginal a critique and when a prop for oppression? For Castoriadis, the radical capacity here is the capacity to question one’s own images. But the imaginal can also be about the closure of meaning and an appeal to an extra-social source of legitimacy.

Following Castoriadis, one might then argue that “there cannot be true politics without autonomy.” (104) That is, without a grasp of the social as self-making. But even in Castoriadis I don’t think this is the case. His own philosophical mythology requires an origin-story where autonomous politics begins with the Greeks. In any case, it seems dangerous to me even as a myth. This self-making polis excludes the question of oikos, which in the Greek case is a world of slavery, and in our times a world of paid and unpaid labor.

Still, even as myth, ‘the Greeks’ performs a certain critical function as a polis whose standards we don’t meet. Contemporary politics appears as “a sort of hypertrophy of the imaginal” (106) But not in a good way. “This political world that is full of images seems to lack imagination.” (108) On the one hand, too many images, on the other, it isn’t even called government any more, but governance, as if it were a mere technical matter.

I would be a bit wary of assigning the present a unique status as a politics of images. Over the course of a lifetime’s work, T. J. Clark has shown in some detail how French political culture depended on the image, from the French revolution, through the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and the Paris Commune. As I argued in The Spectacle of Disintegration, Debord dated the spectacle from the failure of the proletarian revolution circa 1921, but Clark provides a prehistory to it right through the era of bourgeois revolutions.

I would also want to distinguish between two arguments that Bottici makes. One is that the imaginal as space of possibility went into decline. The other is that it is alive and well, but takes the form of visions of financialization. Here Anna Tsing’s work in Friction about the role of spectacle in Indonesia’s gold mining boom comes to mind. The great visionary works of art of our time are the finely printed prospectuses and Powerpoint decks used to flog some investment scheme or other.

Still, it is remarkable how the transnational imaginal of so-called neoliberal governance seems to not even bother any more with engaging a public in an imaginal project. Those prospectus documents are not for us. Here one might want to expand the parameters of the ‘political’ somewhat, and think about, say, the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy as caught up in the imaginal, in an image-world of real and unreal things that bespeak a world of post-political actions and desires.

Certainly, actual electoral politics often seems devoid of any such dimension. The difference that matters is not between candidates any more, but between inclusion in and exclusion from the spectacle. Bottici notes a curious parallel between Rousseau and Debord on the spectacle. For both, it cannot be a true representation of things, it fosters inaction and propagates a taste for simulation over lived experience.

However, I don’t read Debord as juxtaposing the real that is life directly lived against the unreal of the spectacle. Rather, I think he contrasts two kinds of real-unreal relation, or two kinds of imaginal. One is spectacle, which extrudes images out of alienated labor which are themselves alienated, alienating and separating. The other is détournement, which refuses property relations in the world of information, which makes all of past cultural labor into a commons, and can at least socialize the means of producing the image as a prefiguration of the socialization of all labor. Détournement is the undoing of spectacle from within.

Thus, as Bottici writes, “There is no more ‘outside’ to the spectacle.” (118) But Debord already knew this. Much of his famous Society of the Spectacle text consists of détournements of Hegel, Marx and Lukacs. Here one should pay more attention to his method than the mere source materials. He was not one of those who, like Franco Berardi, hoped to revive the dada and surrealist tactics of empowering the imagination. He had moved on to a critique not of the image but to the property relations underlying the image.

Debord also pointed out a path through which to avoid the faulty concepts of the Italian and French thinkers who brought idealist categories back into Marxism by talking about cognitive capitalism, immaterial labor and the general intellect. So much of this was based on obsolete ways of thinking about what it is intellectuals are and do. But such was the impoverished state of the imaginal space in which Marxists thought in the late twentieth century that this was the most advanced school in terms of actually trying to deal with the symptoms of the present.

It was all thought through binaries, as if we had failed to pay attention during structuralism 101: if the old labor was material labor then the new labor is immaterial labor; if the old capitalism was industrial then the new one is cognitive; if the old one ran on abstract labor then the new one runs on the general intellect – the latter legitimized by a passing remark by Marx himself. Truly was there poverty in philosophy! Nowhere was there much attention to the strange materiality of information technologies. But still, it has to be said that Hardt and Negri, Moulier Boutang, Lazzarato, Berardi and company were at least asking the right questions and trying to think the right objects.

Here I think we need turn to other research, by Wendy Chun, Alex Galloway, Tiziana Terranova, Matteo Pasquinelli or Lev Manovich that pays much closer attention to the materiality of the infrastructure of so-called post-Fordist technologies and labor practices. Then novelty need not arrive as a deux ex machina out of the blue but can be accounted for as arising out of struggles internal to the technical organization of labor. Then we might think of strategies of reinvigorating the imaginal that take account of the material form, the ensemble of social labor and technical apparatus that actually compose it. Then specific tactics, from Debord’s détournement to Hito Steyerl’s poor image might recommend themselves.

Hence I am a little wary of Bottici’s desire for homeopathic forms of spectacle. “So the spectacular garlands of the fine arts are in certain contexts particularly welcomed because, despite the fact that they may have fostered vices, they are helpful in keeping them from turning into crimes.” (122) In Rousseau, the arts destroy virtue but at least preserve its public semblance, and he is probably the origin of that great 1960s aesthetic impulse towards festival. Little did he know it would end up as Burning Man.

Nor can I agree that “Politics is not (or no longer) a struggle for the distribution of power and the use of legitimate coercion, but has become increasingly a struggle for people’s imagination.” (125) Surely what we learned from Black Lives Matter is that this state rests on daily violence, and that this violence was until #BLM largely excluded from view. On a global scale, the drone wars and the bombing free-for-all in Syria are surely signs that today’s ruling class, as Debord so sagely put it, has given up on being loved and merely wants to be feared.

The media sphere might best be imagined as the turbulent stew of bubbling information that Terranova pictures. There might yet be tactics for intervening in it, and such interventions might be necessary, particularly given the neo-fascist turn in popular sentiment. Bottici gives the example of the myth of the ‘clash of civilizations’ and tries to recover some form of historical story-telling from the clingy embrace of myth. Here one might suggest that the problem is not civilization but clash. In, for example, Joseph Needham, civilization is an important concept, as a way of thinking large historical and geographic continuities of social organization. But in Needham these rarely have neat boundaries. There are wars but there are also extensive borrowings and mutual influences.

The cold war did a lot of damage to that way of thinking. Here I think one could usefully import Raymond Williams’ concept of selective tradition. I can’t see how any polity could imagine itself to be autonomous and self-founding. But one might ask rather about the material practices via which pasts are constructed for presents. Here Williams adds something missing in Castoriadis.

Selective tradition is partly an active agency, but partly not. Here I would draw on the way Henri Lefebvre thinks about symbol. Contra structuralism, for Lefebvre it’s the symbol that determines its own combinatory matrix, not the other way around. They are not like other kinds of signs. Thus drawing on Williams and Lefebvre one might think of myth as a space of variants from which selective tradition can draw, made up of powerful symbols which determine their own fields of meaning.

Bottici: “political myths do not need footnotes.” (132) They are not the same thing as histories. But its an open question of whether one can fight myths with histories, or whether part of the popular struggle of the present is to select different versions of the myths. As I argued in Virtual Geography, the globalization of media only exacerbates the tensions and conflicts within the mythic space of the world, as each political and cultural power might choose to map it.

It turned out that Walter Benjamin was quite wrong to think that reproduction would interrupt tradition. Nor does tradition rest on anything authentic, as Hobesbawn so neatly showed. Perhaps the mark of an autonomous social agent is its capacity to decide on its own heteronymous myth of origin. Really all that endures from Benjamin’s musings on this topic is his tentative grasp on the relation between reproduction, provenance and property.

As it turned out, religion and media go together quite nicely. Religion, like myth, or like the imaginal, is something of a space of possibilities. And it has always had an intimate relation to media. Its not accident that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have extensive and subtle things to say about which media are to be used in what contexts, and in particular which things can be pictured. A religion is a media theory that includes a theory of that which exists beyond the senses. Bottici: “There seems to be something intrinsic to religion that makes it easily subsumable to mass-media logic.” (158) Well, for Christians, the mass is already a form of media, as McLuhan well knew.

Bottici seems hesitant to view religions as spaces for politics and more as rivals to politics. Perhaps because they are always pointing to models of the social that are heteronomous rather than autonomous. But I am skeptical of Castoriadis’ claims for his autonomous, self-making Greeks. This seems like a myth to me – and perhaps even a religion. Given the positive role of the Black church in the Civil Rights movement and the tendency of today’s atheists to become ideologues of the bourgeois commonplace, I might want to pause over the question of the religious version of the imaginal.

The possibilities for progressive social action grounded in a religious imaginary seem to me no better or worse than one grounded in the universalizing imaginal of human rights. Bottici neatly shows how all version of this depend on the imaginal, whether it is that of natural law, legal positivism, or the myth of the veil of ignorance in John Rawls.

Bottici thinks it is time for a reorientation of the priorities of critical theory, away from the figure of rational deliberation and towards the problem of the imaginal. Not being from political theory but from media theory, I find this welcome. Oddly enough, the imaginal seems to me more clearly to exist in the real world that the rational deliberation of the political philosophers. In any case, as Hiroki Azuma might inform us, there’s a whole information infrastructure that has bypassed the space where rational deliberation, if it was ever to be build, might have been.

In a concluding coda, Bottici sketches what she might want to see added to an imaginal politics of a progressive kind, and it’s the radical freedom of classical anarchism. If we are all in the same – now rather leaky – boat, then each one’s freedom depends on the freedom of all.

I think there’s a slippage between the freedom of all and the equality of all, however. The idea of a formal equality of all seems to me to have at least two problems. Firstly, it rather makes a fetish of the human, severing us from our implications in multi-species being, as Donna Haraway might put it. Secondly, it necessarily turns on a theological conception of the human as equal relative to some point external to the human itself. (Perhaps the point of view of the third as it appears in Sartre). How can humans be equal without erasing their differences, not least their differences to each other?

Here I prefer Charles Fourier’s elegant solution. He acknowledges human difference, and even the desire for that difference, but his imaginal world is one in which differences and even rank can exist, but they don’t really matter. They are severed from the provision of the means to the good life. And even while Marx (but not Engels) was rather stern about Fourier’s utopian socialism, I think it is one of the sources of his affirmative model of freedom as freedom to develop all human capacities. And in any case, one can take a quite different view of the utopians, as having nothing to do with the imaginary, but as radical pragmatists. Only Fourier ever bothered to think about who would take out the trash.

One thing we might retain from Freud is the unconscious as a space of non-contradiction. The imaginal might similarly be a space in which images might co-exist and be drawn upon in ever-varying combinations, even if powerful myths and symbols might act like black holes, centers of gravity from which it is hard to pull away. In that spirit, I have written about Bottici mostly in the mode of mapping where the way she imagines the space of theory and action may overlap with my own where one might make additional connections. In that sense, this is no critique, and couldn’t be, as Bottici is a friend and colleague.

Certainly we agree on the essential, which she formulates thus: “The technical transformations of contemporary capitalism have tightened the link between politics and the imaginal to such a degree that we can no longer ignore this fact. We have reached a critical threshold: the quantitative and qualitative changes to the imaginal are such that images are no longer what mediate our doing politics, but that which risks doing politics in our stead.” (178) This is perhaps the inverse of what Jodi Dean calls the decline in symbolic efficiency. The imaginal engine is running hot, but the other systems are not.







McKenzie Wark

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