Imaginaries and Social Change

The world’s manifold problems, from ecological crises like climate change, to deep social inequalities and injustices, to the plight of billions of non-human animals, and geo-political instabilities, exacerbated in the time of Trump, are often thought to be discreet issues.

However, there are very compelling reasons to view them as interconnected. For example, the economic concept of ‘externalities’, which refers to unintended impacts of certain projects as lying somehow beyond the realm of concern, can perhaps be understood as a cultural attitude that also explains global inequalities, the devastation of the biosphere, the refugee crisis, and the prolific cruelty visited on so-called ‘farm’ animals, for example.

The tendency to view other beings as fundamentally separate from ourselves, and the natural world as fundamentally removed — as merely our ‘environs’ ­– is a key characteristic (sometimes called ‘atomism’) of our current ‘imaginary’, the encompassing paradigm of ideas, beliefs and practices that makes society possible.

As philosopher Donna Haraway has observed, “it matters what worlds world worlds”. In other words, given that we constantly contribute to and shape the world, or imaginary, within which we exist, through the kinds of the stories we tell, it matters which ideas, frames and language we use to tell those stories, and in turn shape our world. Or to put it another way, how we collectively imagine the world determines the imaginary we inhabit.

I believe that the world’s manifold problems are inherent to the current imaginary itself, and not simply unfortunate glitches in an otherwise sound imaginary. From this perspective, it is clear that if we truly seek viable, equitable and sustainable solutions to these problems, they will have to be conceived and designed within a radical new imaginary. We need a new imaginary because the one we have at the moment, what I call the liberal imaginary, is inadequate, and it needs to be radical, not in any ideologically loaded sense, but in the literal sense of starting from first principles.

It is important to make a clear distinction between imaginary in the sense of a noun and its more common adjectival meaning of ‘not real’. Although certain parts of a given imaginary do not have ‘objective’ reality (like the tooth fairy or the divinity of kings), the effects of these beliefs and institutions are real enough to be taken seriously.

But what exactly is an imaginary? This is an extremely pertinent question for three reasons: 1) it is a term that has gained traction in the world of environmental philosophy/politics, 2) it is almost impossible to find a definition for this nounal usage and, most importantly 3) it is perhaps the crucial concept for unblocking the stalemate in our collective imagination that is rapidly stymying humanity’s chances of averting unmitigated catastrophes. And yet the would-be student of imaginaries swiftly discovers that the term is used to denote a variety of different ideas, often with little explanation or justifications, apparently at the authors’ whims.

Thus ‘imaginary’ has been used, inter alia, to refer to: the cultural world of a particular actual society; the internal dynamics of particular systems within certain societies; projected future scenarios; and the comprehensive nexus of beliefs, practices and institutions that collectively comprise the entire web of society per se. It is this last meaning that I am working on, and which I think can help us remedy society’s many ills. This conception has the richest pedigree, owing to the extensive attention paid to it by the late Greco-French thinker, Cornelius Castoriadis (1922–1997).

Castoriadis posited that there are two complementary realms of imaginary: the first is the ‘Radical Imagination’, that resides in individual subjects and is capable of creating radically new ideas, and the second is the ‘Social Instituting Imaginary’, which refers to the common beliefs, ideas and institutions that together shape public life.

Despite Castoriadis’ rich insights, he did not formulate a coherent schema of imaginaries. It is my view, however, that in order to take an imaginaries-level approach to rethinking social modi operandi — that is, in order to articulate a vision of a radical new imaginary — it is first necessary to develop a coherent schema of an imaginary per se that can then be employed as a heuristic device around which to organise such a vision. Thus a significant part of my PhD research attempts to do just this.

Drawing from and expanding on the work of Castoriadis, I suggest that an imaginary can be understood as comprising three distinct, though not entirely separate domains: the attitudinal; the moral; and the public.

The attitudinal domain is that in which an individual’s attitudes about the world are formed. As psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist points out, “we bring about a world in consciousness that is partly what is given and partly what we bring…and the key to this is the kind of attention we pay to the world”. There is a primary attitude that is the foundational ontological view upon which secondary attitudes about ‘how to be’ are built. For imaginaries to be flexible and adaptable they must have mechanisms for reflexivity — which means that maximal consciousness of the attitudinal process is desirable. An imaginary without consciousness lacks much awareness of its own world-making attitudes. Such an imaginary easily gives rise to a reified status-quo that resists any form of self-criticism and believes its way of seeing the world is the right way.

The second domain, the moral, is that in which a society comes together to decide collectively on 1) the moral community of that society and 2) its normative agenda. The attitudes engendered in the attitudinal domain are pivotal factors in the outcomes of the moral domain. The moral community decides who — or even what — is deemed morally considerable or not. This is one of the most significant stages of an imaginary — for it determines who will be entitled to proper consideration in the public domain, the domain of politics. Those not deemed morally considerable are relegated to what I call the shadow community, insofar as they still affect and are affected by the machinations of society yet are not fully factored in decision-making. The normative agenda refers to the limits of concern of the public domain that are developed in the moral domain, and are primarily determined by values.

The third domain, the public, is the domain of politics. It is the space in which institutions, culture and policy configurations are forged. As such, the outcomes of this domain have the most real-world significance, which is why the foregoing attitudes and moral considerations are so important. For in an imaginary that sees other beings fundamentally as competitors, the logical — if Orwellian — conclusion is that even the most vulnerable people in the world, child refugees perhaps, are treated with hostility and contempt, or that the sick and disabled are punished by hunger. Both of which staggeringly appalling outcomes have been witnessed in the UK in recent times.

In valuing each individual as an independent and sovereign being in its own right, the liberal imaginary has produced some laudable outcomes, most notably human rights, and the emancipation of women and the abolition of slavery for example. And yet it has also led unavoidably to competitiveness, a lack of understanding of ecological and social dependence, and instrumental attitudes towards the shadow community, nature and non-human animals.

An alternative imaginary, based on ecological insights, might imagine people to be, in the words of lichenologist Scott Gilbert, “obligate associates” whose very ontology is entirely dependent on the health of the whole. Such an outlook would involve a shift of focus in which the individual is de-emphasised, and the dynamic relationships that comprise the whole are emphasised instead, and may engender secondary attitudes of precaution and responsibility, compassion and care. This might engender values of flourishing, well-being, strong relationships, localism, resilience and mindfulness, for example.

The above sketch of an alternative imaginary is intended only as an example of what a radical new imaginary might look like. But imaginaries are created through the act of collective imagining, and as such the task of creating a new imaginary is necessarily a democratic one. Imagining of course involves conjuring new ideas, and finding innovative and inspiring ways of animating them through story-telling, which can be through literature, music, art, comedy or politics, for example.

But collective imagining is also what we do every time we come together — to catch up with friends, go to the supermarket, use social media, go to work, catch the bus, engage in rituals and traditions, and so on. In other words, we have the power to create the kind of world we wish to inhabit through the ways in which we interact with each other. It is up to us whether we imagine these interactions in the mould of the status quo, or as opportunities for re-worlding, for re-writing the script. And each time we choose the latter, we are laying a brick in the foundations of the radical new imaginary we want to build for ourselves and for future generations.

This is only the beginnings of an extended social project that Charles Taylor has called “the long march”. My hope here is to indicate the structure of imaginaries to help guide us in methodically re-imagining the world.

PhD candidate in philosophy at UEA researching imaginaries, imagination and social change. Vegan, environmentalist, writer.