The Imagination of Politics and the Politics of Imagination

Sonntag, 22. – Freitag, 27. Februar 2009
Joint conference of the Einstein Forum and the University of Hyderabad
Ort: University of Hyderabad, India

Conference program

In Rabindranath Tagore's The Home and the World, Sandip, a fiery nationalist with a fervid and inflamed imagination of the nation and nationalist politics, says to his moderate and less extreme friend: `Nikhil, don't you agree that there is space for the imagination in the act of serving the country?' Nikhil replies: "I agree there is a space, but it isn't all of it. I intend to know that thing called `my country' in a more heartfelt, genuine fashion, and that's how I'd like to have others know it. I feel quite nervous and ashamed to use some kind of hocus-pocus mantra in relation to such a profound concept."

Tagore was here firmly within a Western empiricist model of the world: historians have charted the devaluation of imagination as a consequential aspect of social and political order in Western European thought from the seventeenth century onwards. Yet perhaps even more than in other cultural domains, the political is clearly an arena for imaginative experimentation. No political system rests on brute factuality, if such a thing exists-though many systems depend on the cultivation of powerful illusions, or delusions, of factuality. All the great theoreticians of the political-Aristotle, Kautalya, Machiavelli, Vico, Tolstoy, Canetti, and others-have, in one way or another, recognized this imaginative aspect of politics, although it is perhaps only in our time that a full-fledged theory of political life as a culturally fashioned, context-sensitive set of necessary fictions has become possible. We would like to pursue such a theory in our conference, in which comparative considerations will have a certain salience. We are, that is, eager to flesh out and explore the "hocus-pocus mantra" that Nikhil's hero set out to mock.

A more radical formulation might go like this: power, a nebulous notion at best, becomes consequential and thus "real" if enough collective, systemic imaginings collude in enabling it to be so. In itself, this perception is hardly new. We have exemplary case-studies in masterpieces of political drama such as the Antigone, Richard II, and Visakhadatta's Mudra-Rakshasa, to name but three. Still, it seems the time has come to attempt a cross-cultural thematics, poetics, and dynamics of the imagination as the generative ground for particular political forms.

At the start of the Western tradition, the pre-Socratics and, later, the much-maligned Sophists of the fifth century B.C. tried to to cut through the mythos-logos dichotomy by offering a tripartite schema of mythos-nomos-logos. This alternative was this-worldly, non-teleological, and, most importantly, recognized the centrality of power in human affairs. The metaphysical systems of Plato and Aristotle later concretized the distinction between categories such as politics, philosophy, poetry and art. They also made subsequent generations believe that it was possible to reach definitive conclusions about the ways in which humans relate to each other and the ways in which they relate to the universe.

Nonetheless, the very idea of politics, or its imaginings, has remained elusive, ambiguous, and slippery. This is surprising because since 1789 there is hardly any word that has had greater currency than the "political." Three hundred years of living with the idea of the political, not to mention its practical manifestations, has yielded little consensus as to its scope, content and limits. Great ideologies have risen and fallen in the past three centuries. Their rise and fall have not brought us closer to any degree of clarity regarding what constitutes a political relationship. In spite of attempts to identify certain primary notions - power, authority, legitimacy, freedom, equality, justice - that seem to form the core of what one might call the political, fundamental questions remain: What is the best way of organizing human life? Why should anyone obey anyone? What are the limits of obedience? What generates power, or the belief that effective power exists?

The configurations are endless and amenable to comparative analysis. Geertz suggested, with reference to Bali, that the state is, before all else, a theatre, its processes and effects entirely derived from an ontology of imaginative production-at once true and false, true only if false and false only if true. Classic studies of Western European political thought, such as Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies, have revealed a very different pattern of intertwining imagined realities with embodied ones. By re-imagining himself as a latter-day Karma-Yogin, Gandhi was able to galvanize hundreds of millions in the struggle for India's independence. More devastating modern examples are readily at hand. The twentieth century has concocted the most artificial, brittle, and precarious of all imagined polities-the nation state; everyone now, irrationally, seems to want one, yet many communities have failed to successfully imagine one into existence. The limbo-zone of half-imagined political entities is a fruitful field for our analysis: what happens when the imagination fails, always in a manner related, in part, to some earlier fantasies of the political active beneath, or within, the nation-state?

Queens, kings, princes, Prime Ministers, and their like may be said to embody a certain imaginative excess (or, to borrow the terms of Ortega y Gasset, a volatile combination of imaginative exuberance and deficiency). This very volatility has been thematized in all the great civilizations, in varying contexts and forms (philosophical, epic, normative, visual, ritual, etc.). We intend to explore such culture-specific expressions of the political in terms of comparative cultural grammars of the imagination, each with its proper syntax and morphology. What are the constraints imposed on a political imagination? What happens when two imaginative polities collide on a battlefield of differential axiologies? Can we articulate the mechanics of state-formation and state-deformation in terms of crystallizing imaginative process?

In our century, and in the century preceding it, the debate about the idea of the political can be seen to fall between two distinct polarities. There are those who argue in favour of the ubiquitous nature of politics. Those opposed to this notion of total politics wish to contain it within boundaries. Both these positions run the risk of falling into the trap of one kind or the other of extremism, reductionism and utopianism. It may be more fruitful to combine idea and imagination of the political as active aspects of a single model.

Plato's banishing of the poets from the ideal state inaugurated a disdain for poetry and literature among philosophers and political theorists that only now seems grudgingly to be on the wane. Thus one of the most telling comments about Marxism and its manifestations in the Stalinist state comes from the poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky, who says this of his experience of living during those fraught years in the Soviet Union:

I remember, for instance, that when I was about ten or eleven it occurred to me that Marx's dictum that `existence conditions consciousness' was true only for as long as it takes consciousness to acquire the art of estrangement; thereafter, consciousness is on its own and can both condition and ignore existence.

An estranged, that is a mature, relatively autonomous consciousness, collectively at work in some historical context, may thus condition the domain of the political-and of the range of possible responses to political forms. Such a consciousness may be organized around imaginative acts of projection and perception which, as Vico argued, usually precede the objects of our experience. Such imaginative acts can be studied in a comparative analytic format, philosophically informed and imaginatively applied to distinct political cultures. We intend to work out the implications of such a format in our discussions in Hyderabad.

Conference papers:

Imagining and Unimagining the Political in Bilhaṇa’s Vikramāṅkadevacarita
by Yigal Bronner, University of Chicago

Pregnant with the Future: Science and the Political Imagination
by Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

by Ganesh. N. Devy, Director, Bhasha Research Institute, Vadodara

Imagining the Metropolis on the Islamic Periphery: Commerce, Scholarship, and Architecture in 15th c. Bidar and Timbuktu
by Richard M. Eaton, University of Arizona

The imaginary side of Kau¥ilya’s Arthaçåstra
by Charles Malamoud, Professor at the Centre d'études de l'inde et de l'asie du sud, Ècole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris