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.
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.