Works Reviewed: Chiara Bottici Imaginal Politics: Images Beyond Imagination and the Imaginary. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
Nevertheless human life was thus image-graced and image-cursed; it could comprehend itself only through images, the images were not to be banished, they had been with us since the herd-beginning, they were anterior to and mightier than our thinking, they were timeless, containing past and future, they were a twofold dream-memory and they were more powerful than we. – Herman Broch, The Death of Virgil.
We live in an age where images permeate our awareness and practice of politics. At the same time the comment is often made that our politicians lack imagination, there is little capacity to imagine a world of new possibilities, a world that is not reduced to the governance of the neoliberal consensus. Those who do operate under the slogan of “another world is possible” are typically dismissed as fanatics well outside the viable political spectrum.
Chiara Bottici’s Imaginal Politics: Images Beyond Imagination and the Imaginary is therefore a timely book. Bottici begins with the hypothesis that `there is a link between the indiscriminate proliferation of images and the crisis of political imagination understood as the capacity to start something new.`(3) She critiques the notion that the imagination is simply the faculty to represent what does not exist, and goes on to show that this conception of the imagination began in the eighteenth-century, and has had some debilitating consequences in terms of our ability to navigate the use and presence of images as they shape our thought and society. The definition of reality, she argues, changes from one context to another, and along with our changing definition of reality we find ourselves in need of new conceptual apparatuses to allow us to speak and act meaningfully into those contexts.
Bottici proposes the imaginal as a conceptual apparatus to overcome our own impasse with regard to the faculty of the imagination, as the exercise of the singular mind, and the social imaginary. Her books proceeds along three broad strokes. First she develops the etymological and philosophical concept of the imagination beginning with Plato and Aristotle and moving up into the Enlightenment and beyond into psychoanalysis and critical theory. She identifies key moments of opposition, or ruptures, which affect and change the way the concept of imagination is used. She then traces the concept of the social imaginary, as a further rupture in the fate of the image, and the determination of its coordinates as more contextually based. This follows her argument that change in usage of language depicts a deeper change at the conceptual level of understanding. Finally she turns to the concept of the imaginal, as a way to focus on images themselves and not merely their production. Bottici is concerned that the typical focus on the imaginary/imagination as a source of alienation does not give sufficient attention to the way our thought is formed through images.
The second section offers an etymology of politics, from Aristotle’s political animal up to present-day biopolitics. Bottici argues for a more positive reading of biopolitics which takes into account Hannah Arendt’s work on natality. We are, she maintains, not only beings-toward-death, but beings-after-birth, and it is the event of birth, rather than death, that is more fundamentally political because it is in birth that we become, biologically, a part of a common world. This recasting of the political tradition, with a keen eye to its historical male-blindness allows Bottici to bring together the imaginal, as an ambivalent presence and use of images, and the political, as a sphere which entails much more than governance.
In the final chapter Bottici offers a keen analysis of the ways images are used in shaping current political mythology. Following Guy Debord she makes the case that the society of the spectacle has become even more entrenched than Debord foresaw. Their is no escape, and yet the commodification of the spectacle and its integration into global capitalist society as a constant relation between persons calls for the need to envision new conceptual breaks.
She calls for a re-orientation of our image-making in way that positions the modern concern for freedom within an already socially defined space. Freedom is the freedom of equals. Bottici’s book is a worthwhile and excellent read.