The work of the imagination

Last week I re-read two texts for my class From Subjects to Cyborgs, Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large and Jean-Francois Bayart’s Global Subjects. Both may be read as attempts at grasping the ways in which the production of subjectivity takes place in the global age. Bayart talks about the practices of appropriation (p. 209) at work. They are a paradox, in that they affirm and deny the techniques of domination. These practices often find, according

to Bayart, a realization in objects, i.e. merchandise, or spaces such as malls. Appadurai is quoted by Bayart as an example of an inherently optimistic view of the ways subjectivity is produced under conditions of globalization (p. 215). Modernity at Large is part of a debate that, indeed, was not primarily concerned with the darker aspects of globalization, made an effort to rehabilitate the concept of globalization as something that was more than mere increase of global commodity flows and financial interdependence. In chapter 9 of this essay collection Appadurai focuses on the ways in which local subjects are produced and produce locality, i.e. neighbourhoods. This production of locality underlies a similar paradox as Bayart’s practices of appropriation – neighbourhoods are context-providing as well as context-generative. They are produced by the practices of the subject.

Life in the minds of children by archanN CC-BY from Wikimedia Commons

Life in the minds of children by archanN CC-BY from Wikimedia Commons

A key role – and this goes for both texts – is played by something that Appadurai calls the “work of the imagination” (198). Appadurai details this further in an earlier chapter of his book. He introduces the work of the imagination as “a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity” (3) which in the past decades has become “a collective, social fact” (5). What does he mean by that? The ability to imagine is no longer just present in arts and myths, imagining is not merely a solitary and extraordinary activity but a prevalent and essential social skill. The modern world relies on imagination to reproduce itself – as the reality of the world is socially constructed. At the same time the relationship between ritualized and imaginative activities has become much more dynamic. The projective nature of imagination introduces a plurality of imagined worlds into the everyday life of ordinary people. The parallel existence of these multiple worlds is amplified by mass media and provokes resistance, irony, selectivity, and, in general, agency (7).

“The imagination is today a staging ground for action and not only escape.” (7)

Applying this argument to Bayart’s analysis provides an interesting perspective. Appropriation than appears as a creative activity in which the techniques of domination are translated into local and individual techniques of the body. Merchandise acquires meaning, places are created and maintained. In all these cases imagination is a collective, sometimes even social activity (211). This is why I have argued, imagination as a social skill has some stabilizing and some dynamic potential. In the end, the active, conscious use of the imagination may infer radical change while the passive and uncreative use of it serves to reproduce the existing. Imagination is more than mere fantasy, it is the ability to rearrange the elements of the world in novel and ingenious ways. Transcending the world not by denying it, but by re-interpreting it. this is why Appadurai is quite right in observing, that the escape of the imagination from the realm of arts to everyday life is quite significant.

As Bayart shows, however, there is no telling if imagination is used in ways which encourage critical engagement with what Bayart calls merchandise. A lot of the work of the imagination is about keeping the Global Subject coherent in a complex world. Maybe we could say, that as the traditional means of maintaining as sense of self, such as culture and tradition, come under pressure, imagination is employed in order to fill this gap. In a way, the imagination works for the social. However, maybe we could argue with Heidegger, that even if the imagination employed in order to maintain just one pattern of order – the social -, its existence will be known and that may, in th eend, be good for employing imagination in power as well.

Story telling as political theory

Political theory comes in many forms and variations. Currently it follows academic modes of speech, which focus on the analytical distinctions and a language which connects to academic discourses. But we don’t have to go far to see how it could be different. The writings of Foucault would hardly pass the hard muster of academic peer review as they often lack the clarity and structure expected of academic papers. So would Hannah Arendt’s and those of many others, who reference discourses with great knowledge yet not necessarily systematically. Political theory comes in many shapes and forms and always has.

Le Soldat en Semestre, by Sigmund Freudenberger, Public Domain

Le Soldat en Semestre, by Sigmund Freudenberger, Public Domain

Story telling has been one of the more prominent modes in which political theory was presented. It is easy to think of obvious examples such as Thomas More’s Utopia – which lead to the naming of a whole genre of political theory. At the juncture of theory and literature a number of author’s have used stories to reflect upon societal and political conditions. Remember Lilliput? Gulliver’s Travels may well be read as critique his contemporary society.

But fictional accounts are not the only way in which story telling matters in political theory. Drawing historical analogies may also be understood as a form of story telling. Machiavelli uses history in his arguments on good governing quite excessively. He tells stories of failed wars and titles won, of great strategies and bad luck. I believe, anyone who argues from historical experience in political theory, in a way, chooses to tell a certain story.

A third way of using stories turns out to be common: that of allegory or parable. This is a technique that tells neither a fictional story nor refers to historical arguments in a strict sense. Instead it constructs an artificial setting in order to make a certain point. Plato’s Cave Allegory is an example. But one could think of the use of parables in the bible in a similar manner. By telling a story such as that of the Good Samaritan certain moral and ethical values are illustrated and put in an easy to understand context (admittedly, doesn’t seem to have worked too well, but that’s true for Machiavelli too…).

In so far as political theory analyses and criticizes existing conditions and suggests how thinks might be differently, story telling can be a central tool. And there is some very obvious reasons why:

  • stories are easy to understand and to remember
  • good stories are interesting – people want to hear them
  • complex problems, when explained in form of a story, may be more easily seen in their complexity, because the also communicate an affective, emotional dimension that academic papers do not/ should not

Of course, there are also limitations – stories lack conceptual clarity and leave much to interpretation. But when it comes to political theory problems which touch upon people’s identities, fears, hopes or values, a good story may well help to navigate the complexities of the issue. That is one of the reasons why story telling of sorts has some repute even in contemporary academia. In particular sociology has recovered the art of story telling to play out the future effects of contemporary trends. Anthropology uses it to describe complex social interactions for example when retelling the way rituals are lived. In political science scenario development is used to explain how various changes today may impact the future.  All these attempts may be pursued as a subversive activity of developing a new narrative, a new way to see that which is there. When Foucault talks about the ways in which discourse may be subverted, he remains vague. I believe, that story telling – which allows the breaking of certain rules of truth and adequacy – may work as one way of subverting dominant discourse. This happens – for example  in this video:

Clearly, story telling is no cure all. But if it helped Thomas More condemn land crabbing and displacement of the poor as thievery, maybe it is a good tool today, too.

The proliferation of discourse

Clearly Foucault’s later writings, such as “The subject and power” and the “Technologies of the self” lend themselves more easily to an interpretation of Foucault as by no means opposed to the idea of an acting subject.* His earlier writings, which focused more on language and discourse, at first glance seem to negate such acting capacity for subjects. This aspect of Foucault’s thought may well be the most contested and has been the origin of such vibrant debate**, that it cannot be repeated here. I would like, however, to point out some of the elements of Foucault’s understanding of discourse which fuel, I believe, his later focus on the technologies of the subjects.

"Blühende Landschaften" by Thomas Kohler on Flickr (CC-BY)

“Blühende Landschaften” by Thomas Kohler on Flickr (CC-BY)

“The Order of Discourse” is the title of his inaugural lecture at the College de France held in December 1970.  In it he lays out concisely (for a postmodernist, that is) the concept of discourse, which is derived from his works on the order of things and the archeaology of knowledge.  Discourse therein is language, struggle and sometimes even equated to power itself. I find it easiest to imagine this discourse as a fragile network of related (speech) acts which follow and transgress rules and restrictions, somethings which changes slowly, sometimes catastrophically but never entirely. Subjects participate in discourse, reproduce it and are produced by it.

You are wondering how a discourse can even do that? Create a real living breathing thing? Aren’t we there, even if we have no name, no colour, no shape? Maybe. But we can only be who we are – living, breathing, things – in relation and through discourse. There is an episode of Star Trek, in which the Picard’s Enterprise encounters an strange alien species (ok, that’s all of them but wait for it!). This species apparently has no concept of “living” and “breathing” so that the universal translator translates their understanding of human beings as “bulky bags mostly filled with water”. While this description is technically correct, it defies the way we see ourselves. It references an entirely different discourse, hence causing irritation.

Discourse (or power) can only be noticed as the restraining, limiting and enabling phenomenon as which Foucault describes it when such irritation occurs. As discourse works through the creation of truth, which relies on differentiations, exclusions and the permanent reproduction of its own rules. Discourse hence implies an outside, a wild external to the truth discourse. This external wild side is at the same time the greatest danger to discourse. Its mere existence is proof, that the truth of the discourse is fragile. Exclusion and differentiation are the origin of dissonances. Or, as I think of it, reality is always messier than any of the ways in which we make sense of it. At the same time, if we do not make sense of it, reality has no inherent structure of its own, it cannot be perceived as reality.

What we have here, is a circular argument: Discourse produces reality (and in it subjects) and those are the source of discourse itself. None exist without the other. Many people struggle with the idea, that everything should be so fragile, preliminary and most importantly without inherent meaning or value. It is, for example, diametrically opposed to a simplified reading of Marx’s concept of history where material (!) changes and conditions drive historical change.

Even more pertinent to the question of the subject is the resulting question of how – if discourse really simply reproduces its distinctions and rules, which produce subjects which are conditioned by these restrictions and rules – discourse could ever change. Wouldn’t everything converge and remain bound by its discourse for all time, only reproducing the ever same patterns? Clearly, even this ‘early’ Foucault does not believe so. In fact, he describes the “proliferation of discourse” (in German usually translated as the ‘mushrooming’ of discourse) as a wild and chaotic process (p. 66). Yes, discourse seeks to eliminate that which does not fit, to bring order and clarity, but it fails to ever achieve this. There is an undeniable wildness about discourse over time which continuously threatens its stable continuation. And then, there is the outside, which stabilizes and threatens truth claimed by discourse.

It amazes me time and time again, how similar Arendt and Foucault argue, albeit coming from such very different places. But that is another story and must remain for another time.

*Mark Bevir has written a very thoughtful essay on the subject of agency and autonomy in Foucault’s thought.

** For first insights into the Foucault Habermas debate consider Nancy Love (1989)

From subjects to cyborgs

By Copy of Lysippus - Jastrow (2006), Public Domain

By Copy of Lysippus – Jastrow (2006), Public Domain

One of the key questions to answer when doing political theory is the question of what or who these humans are whose political world shall be described. And that is not an easy feat. In Classical Aristotelian philosophy, humans – like the other objects of nature – are defined by an innate purpose, a telos. Political life, hence, is essentially about realizing that purpose in living together with others – being social animals. Conceptions of the self drawing on this idea can be found, for example in Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Hannah Arendt as well as some communitarian positions. One could further argue, that political theories of human progress towards as specific goal, such as for example Karl Marx‘s philosophy of history, pick up that idea of a human purpose to be realized.
A lot of modern political thought, however, has rejected the presumption that humans are social by nature. In contrast to pure classical ideas much of modern political thought focused on negative aspects of human nature. Niccolo Machiavelli describes human beings as unreliable, untrustworthy and prone to fail to do the right thing. Thomas Hobbes goes so far as to call man man’s wolf – its own worst enemy. Consequently, political institutions are designed around the idea that this dangerous nature must be controlled. Human nature as purpose makes way for human nature as somewhat of a natural force too be reckoned with. Later modern philosophers, such as for example John Locke, diversify this idea by complementing human nature with natural rights. Liberal positions acknowledge human nature as not necessarily good, but build their political theories based on the idea that innate rights must be realized by any system.
The twentieth century has brought about another, quite distinct idea. Thereby human nature is not something natural that must simply be known, brought about or realized. Instead, who we are is socially constructed and not fixed. This is not at all unrelated to the previous strands of modern thought, on the contrary. Machiavelli is the first famous proponent of the idea that the individual does not in fact live in a natural order, but that order itself is man-made and can be changed and re-arranged to suit man’s purposes. If our social order is not natural and we are influenced by this order that we ourselves created, it is not so far out there that the way this order is arranged makes us who we are. Michel Foucault’s big feat was to trace the ways in which modern systems of government shaped individuals themselves and how, in fact, the individual was unthinkable without the discursive order that presupposed it. Foucault focuses on some very specific institutions to show the pattern – hospitals and prisons in particular. In his studies on govermentality he exemplifies the modern system of government as one producing a particular kind of self – the liberal self.

Michel Focault Mural, photo by thierry ehrmann [CC BY 2.0 ]

Michel Focault Mural, photo by thierry ehrmann [CC BY 2.0 ]

At work are mechanisms of subjectivation, mechanisms of making subjects. I myself have never quite understood how this works until I became a mother. As a pregnant woman in Germany you are inserted into an elaborate machine which monitors any aspect of your pregnancy. At your first doctor’s visit you receive a “Mutterpass” (Mother-Passport). This document essentially transforms you into a mother. Your medical data is inserted and always marked in relation to the normal (i.e. averaged) development of mother and child. You progress along this expected “normal progression” of the pregnancy is measured and any deviance raises flags. Surely, no-one forces any exams and a wide variety of deviations may be perfectly normal. But the “mother” is created in a permanent struggle between the woman, the child, the data, the law, the doctor, the midwife and the statistic – as well as any other persons or institutions voicing an interest such as employers, insurances or social welfare actors. Between natural events, rules, discourses and normalization pressures one is turned into a mother. No two mothers are alike, but they all share that struggle for who they are. This, to me, illustrates vividly how subjects emerge.
Michel Foucault calls these relations power relations. He is known as the theorist of power who lays out the horizontal workings of power and proposes to think of power as something dispersed in the capillaries of society rather than centralized in few places. He insists, however, that his main interest has always been the subject, or rather the way we are made into subjects. “The subject and power” was written to illuminate what this means. It talks about the subject, the relationship between power and freedom and the struggles of the subjects. It is one of the texts that merit re-reading every once in a while, even as they fail to tell the whole story.
This text was written for my current seminar blog. This semester I am teaching a course on conceptions of the self and I will be writing (and cross-posting here) a post each week to reflect on the context of our readings.