Radical Imagination vs Austerity

“According to Alex Khasnabish, we’re in the midst of a double crisis, one hammering the general population and the other affecting the work of radical activists. Khasnabish believes that the radical imagination, a collective process that animates social movements, must be nurtured and prioritized. He counterposes the radical imagination to capitalist imaginaries that are foisted on people desperately seeking economic security.”

8 responses to “Radical Imagination vs Austerity

  1. Inasmuch as this post stimulated my interest in the book, I feel somehow obliged to comment on The Radical Imagination here before returning it to the library. I found the book to be informative particularly in its brief historical summary of radical North American movements, its characterization of some contemporary tendencies; and some summary abstractions about factors inhibiting radical thought/action. Despite the title, the authors don’t do much with the imagination idea. Khasnabish acknowledges as much in the interview at around the 20 minute mark: “The radical imagination, I think for some people a disappointment, for us is largely a placeholder term; we don’t actually fill it with tons of significant content.” I

    In Chapter 7 the book draws intriguing parallels between social science and social movements:

    “We suggest that, in the same way that the methodological imagination is shaped by questions of the relationship between ontology, epistemology and methodology, so too can social movement thinkers (both researchers and participants) reimagine the links between the imagination, strategies and tactics and the tensions between them.”

    Though illustrated by circular diagrams linking the terms together, the authors present a more hierarchical arrangement. So, for research:

    “Research inherently begins with a notion of ‘ontology.’… One’s ontological approach will, in turn, help determine one’s ‘epistemology.’… We teach social science students that, once they have determined their ontological and epistemological orientation, they can then build a method to fit, one that will accurately ‘measure’ some ontological fact and which will be acceptable within a given epistemological framework.”

    …and then for social movements:

    “In our new triad, the imagination parallels the category of ontology… Like ontology, the imagination is a way of interpreting and understanding social reality… In this sense, imaginaries are the grounds for understanding social transformation… Imagination informs and guides strategy in much the same way that ontological assumptions inform epistemological approaches… How we imagine social relations and the possibilities for change will shape what sorts of broad strategies we believe might be effective… Tactics are the specific actions movements take to achieve their strategic objectives.”

    Is this a radical approach after all, or a reformulation of the traditional top-down schema in which abstract thought shapes and directs concrete action? The authors observe that in many radical movements the imaginary is ill-formulated, with no clear vision of what success would look like, what different world they’re trying to bring about. The authors don’t want to offer answers to these questions. They believe that, by making time for structured conversations and interviews, the imaginary will take shape within the collectives. I’m not sure if, like Brandom, they believe that the shared imaginary visions are already present but tacit and ill-formulated, so that the task is to make them explicit. Or do they believe that the imaginary emerges from conversation and interview? Some of both, I presume.

    I would like to have seen the authors elaborate on the parallel between ontology and the imagination. If ontology is the study of what is, then is imagination the study of what is not? If so, then imagination would apply up and down the line: strategies that don’t currently exist, tactics that have never been deployed…

  2. Yes: imagination as “the capacity to see the actual in light of the possible.” It’s a useful reminder that instrumental pragmatism isn’t strictly an after-the-fact discrimination of what works from what doesn’t, repeating the former action while abandoning the latter. One can be imaginatively tactical, trying something new because one hopes or expects that it will bring about some desired result. Imagination bridges the gap between the actual present situation, some possible future action to be undertaken, and the anticipated consequence caused by that action.

    Here’s the author of your link, incorporating quotes from Dewey:

    Whether in art, industry, or moral conduct, imagination reaches deep into the “hard stuff of the world of physical and social experience” and seizes upon possible new relations for thought and action. New aims and ideals emerge to guide behavior, “generated through imagination. But they are not made out of imaginary stuff.” …Dewey’s theory of deliberation as “dramatic rehearsal” is his most protracted attempt to highlight this function of imagination as a “vicarious, anticipatory way of acting.” …[T]his is not yet another “method” or “procedure” — differentiated by being a “scientific” and thus more trustworthy procedure — competing with other procedures to prescribe how we should deliberate. It is instead an experimentally testable theory about the psychology of deliberation. In deliberation (moral, scientific, artistic, etc.), we hunt for ways to settle difficulties by scoping out alternatives and picturing ourselves taking part in them. In a complete deliberation, we forecast altered conditions that would ensue if we opted for this or that route, until we hit upon an option that appears to integrate conflicting factors and restore equilibrium.

    Returning to the admittedly less pragmatic project of imagining an ontology of the non-existent: It might make sense (or nonsense) to distinguish practical tactics from impractical ones, based on whether the expected results of such actions are possible or impossible. You know that popular test of divergent thinking — what can you do with a brick? Probably most responses are possible, pragmatic: use it in building a wall, throw it through a window, prop up half a bookcase with it, engrave it with half of the Ten Commandments, mount it in an art gallery with a sign under it saying “This Is Not a Brick,” etc. Then there could also be impossible uses for a brick: breed it with another brick to start a brood of brick offspring, pour lemon juice on it to turn it into gold, listen carefully to it for instructions, etc. I suspect that, in those management workshops you mentioned, participants get kudos for veering from the practical toward the impractical, but if they move too far toward the impossible end of the spectrum their fellow workshoppers start leaning away in their chairs.

  3. For me the Rabinow article has stimulated a whole range of responses: possible solutions to as-yet unsolved problems, suggestions of new problems I’d not entertained previously, explorations of whether the ideas extend or disrupt what I’ve already been thinking. Backing up a step: in clicking onto the article, was I motivated by problem-solving, by curiosity, by the wish to continue a stimulating conversation? In the context of our prior discussions here at Synthetic Zero, I find myself exploring praxes and habits in light of problem-solving.

    Per Dewey, I am motivated to think when confronted with a problem. After some cogitation and experimentation and trial-and-error I arrive at a workable solution. A similar problem comes up again: this time I’m a lot quicker at solving it, since I remember how I solved it before. After some number of iterations my problem-solving tactic becomes a compiled subroutine — a habit. I don’t even have to think about it any more; I just do it, letting my unconscious do the work. I get through my day largely by running those habits that work in the particular situations I encounter, continually solving problems without having to think much about it, without even regarding what I’m doing as problem-solving.

    But now I become aware that I have a problem, a situation in which my unconsciously-triggered habitual actions prove ineffective. Now my habit, which has served me well in the past, exacerbates the problem. Through repetition my tactics have become automatic, unconscious, second nature. It’s hard to break the link between stimulus and response, between the environmental affordances of the problem space and the behavioral parameters of the solution space. Now I have to work extra-hard, not just coming up with a new solution to the new problem but overcoming my spontaneous but unsuccessful habit-driven reaction to the problem.

    Extending this pragmatic exploration, it’s worth noting that many, perhaps most, problems are caused by other people’s habitual solutions to their problems. Somebody’s dog shits in my yard, commuters jam up my route home from the liquor store. Many habitual solutions-cum-problems get institutionalized: toxic stinky landfills, highway systems, on-the-job production schedules. A lot of the human ecosystem is comprised of these institutionalized habits. In the short run it’s easier to adapt, developing habits that go along with the flow of affordances. It’s harder to come up with effective work-arounds. It’s harder still to disrupt the institutionalized habits, especially if those habits still serve as solutions for people with more lawyers, guns and money than my friends and I have at our disposal.

    • glad it was a spur and not a snag for you I wish there was more of his work to share with the public as his later books are some of the best I’ve read in years. The question of hacking habits/cog-biases/etc is a central one for me and I think that Rabinow’s ethos of not-knowing helps us to profit from thinking of Dewey (on habits/problem-solving) in relation to folks like Heidegger on tools (broken and working) without reducing us to machines (not gadgets) and without dismissing anthropo-logoi as “mere” or lack-ing and such. My own focus has been to try and think in terms of fashioning proto-types rather than arche-types.

      Click to access YouAreNotAGadget-A_Manifesto.pdf

    • From the Chuck Close interview: “See, I think our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation’.” Though I don’t claim to be able to read my cat’s mind, I’m pretty sure he gets an instinctive kick out of stalking and pouncing on things (like me) that he’s never going to eat. Presumably adaptive advantages accrue to creatures that enjoy enacting the behaviors that enhance their likelihood of surviving and thriving. It’s where the distinction between work and play gets fuzzy. At this stage in the game I’m feeling that, while I’ve still got the skills, I lack the energy and enthusiasm required to create new problems. Maybe it’s my age, or a phase, or the apocalypse…

      • well in my case all those factors have considerably narrowed the scale/ambition of my efforts but as we noted above with habits and all we are always already doing such work just a matter of how consciously/deliberately we go about it, really in some sense just by engaging as we are here we are practicing a bit of arte-factum.

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