Chiara Bottici: Imaginal Politics

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Imaginal Politics


Chiara Bottici


We often hear people saying that our politicians lack imagination. In the epoch of the global governance, when politics is reduced to mere administration, there seems to be little space for the free development of imagination. Yet, if we consider the spectacularisation of politics that appears on our screens everyday, we cannot but perceive an excess of imagination. How can we explain the paradox of an eclipse of imagination that goes hand in hand with its hypertrophy? In order to come to terms with such a paradox we need to rethink the link between politics and our capacity to imagine.

If one looks at the meaning of the concept of imagination, it is not difficult to perceive two quite different usages. In our everyday language, we tend to associate imagination with what is not there, with the unreal, as in common expressions such as this is “purely the fruit of your imagination”. However, along with this usage of the term, there is another one, which goes back to the ancient Greek term phantasia and which is associated with the production of images. In this view, imagination is the faculty to produce images in the most general sense, that is, images of both what is there and what cannot be there. As a consequence, imagination is no longer associated with a lack, but rather with the abundance of human creativity, the unabated capacity to produce images understood as (re)presentations. The latter term is not meant to be just a play with words but rather an expression to underline the fact that images can re-present something, that is make present what is absent, but they are also presences in themselves. It is in order to convey this idea that I have recently proposed to use the notion of the imaginal.(1)

The imaginal, in this sense, plays an important role in all aspect of social life, because images are what enable us to orient ourselves in the world, to disclose both what is already there and what is yet to come. As such, the imaginal is crucial for politics, too. In particular, if we understand by “politics” whatever pertains to the decisions concerning the fate of a community, it is patent that it depends on the imaginal because it depends on the possibility to make the public exist in the first place. This holds for large communities such as the modern states, but also for small ones: even in small communities, based on face-to face relationships, you need to imagine a community in order to make it exist out of a simple collection of individuals. Communities exist because we imagine they exist. In sum, politics depends on the imaginal because it depends on the possibility to depict commonalities and thus on the possibility to free oneself of ones own particularities by imagining what we might have in common with others.

If there is therefore a strict link between politics and the imaginal, what are the contemporary implications of such a link? On the one hand, contemporary politics is overwhelmed by the imaginal. Politics today depends on our capacity to create images, not only because images mediate our being in the world and are therefore crucial for any sort of communication – political communication being no exception. There seems to be something more, a sort of hypertrophy of the imaginal, in the first place due to the massive diffusion of the media. If one thinks of what politics used to be before streams of images started to enter our homes through television, it is clear that there is a huge change in the nature of politics itself. Our political experience has become unconceivable outside of the continual flows of images that appear on our screens (where it was the case only a few centuries ago). Images are no longer only what mediates our doing politics, but have become an end in themselves, what risk to be doing politics at our place.

On the other hand, politics seems to lack in imaginal inventiveness, understood in the sense of the capacity to question what is given. In an epoch when politics is reduced to governance, to simple administration, there is no space to imagine things differently. This apparent paradox is in fact the result of a hypertrophy of the more passive side of imaginal, which happened at the expenses of the more active side of it. We are so image-saturated by the media (both mass media and individual media) that it becomes increasingly more difficult to create new ones. This is the consequence of a change in the quantity and the quality of the images produced in our global epoch. With regard to the first, we cannot but notice a decisive increase in the quantity of images that enter our life. In particular, the quantity of images produced by the media has reached such a proportion as to determine also a qualitative leap: images have become an end in themselves. Many authors for instance have noticed the ritual function of elections. In virtue of their mere repetitions, elections reinforce a certain model of society by providing it with visible continuity. But today the quantity of images that accompanies elections in most Western countries has become such that the spectacle completely prevails over the content. Images are too many and they need to be selected in some way. It is the golden rule of audience that does the job: only those images that can capture people’s attention are selected. Hence, the prevalence of the register of the spectacle. However, the battle that is put on the stage of our screens in occasion of elections occults that, in fact, no real battle is taking place, because the real clash is not among the official candidates (who most often have very similar programmes), but outside of the screens. The real fight is between the political options that are admitted and those that are left out. The decisive distance is not that between candidates to elections, but between those who get a role in the spectacle and those who are left out of it.

In the second place, there has also been an intrinsic qualitative change in the nature of images, a change that is likely to deeply affect the link between politics and the imagination. Behind the virtual revolution there is indeed a deep change in the nature of images: not only images have become commodities, which are therefore subjected to the laws and treatment of all other commodities, but they are now also malleable in a way that it has never been the case. Images are not only reproducible in series, but they are also modifiable up to a point where they can be completely falsified. In other words, images have completely lost their link with the “here” and “now”. Whereas with celluloid photography, images still had a connection with their original creation (a picture needed to be taken before being reproduced), all this is overcome by virtuality and Photoshop There is no “here” and “now” of the original creation in a virtual image, and therefore also no authenticity to be preserved. Virtual images are not objects that can be created at once, but on-going processes.

Although this transformation presents a great democratic potential, because everybody can intervene into virtual images, it also opens new terrifying possible scenarios, because we have no secure criteria to determine the authenticity of such images. All this explains also the paradox from which we started, that of a political world full of images, but deprived of imagination: it is because we are saturated by the number of images and rendered even more sceptical by their virtualisation, that we have more difficulties in creating radically alternative images of our present, and future, political life. Yet, if it is true that the human capacity to produce images is inexhaustible and renewed at each birth, then we have to agree with German poet J.C.F. Hoelderlin when he states that, where there is danger, a rescue comes as well (Patmos, verses 3-4).


(1) Chiara Bottici (2014) Imaginal Politics: Images beyond the Imagination and the Imaginary. New York: Columbia University Press.


Bottici_Chiara - portraitChiara Bottici obtained her PhD from the European University Institute (Florence, Italy) and taught at the University of Frankfurt before joining the New School for Social Research’s Philosophy Department. She has written on myth, imagination, ancient and early modern philosophy, Frankfurt School, psychoanalysis, contemporary social and political philosophy. Among her books are: Imaginal Politics (Columbia University Press, 2014), A Philosophy of Political Myth (Cambridge University Press 2007), Imagining Europe: Myth, Memory, and Identity (with Benoit Challand, Cambridge University Press, 2013), and The Myth of the Clash of Civilizations (with Benoit Challand, Routledge, 2010).



Banner Image: Artistically rendered image based on detail from an iconic black-white photograph taken 1952 by J. R. Eyerman for Life magazine of an audience with 3-D glasses during the Hollywood premiere of Bwana Devil, the first American feature-length 3-D film in color (Editor).



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