Two Versions of the Imagination

The imagination is the realm of the aesthetic, and it is a middle ground or zone of passage connecting material reality (the political realm) and the rational soul and its relations with others (the ethical realm). The imagination is just as “real” as the other two realms, and divides into two principle versions, based upon the kind of action, creation, making and inventing that it pursues. One version of the imagination is poiesis or production, as in the architect’s practice of drawing up a plan that serves as the ground upon which to build a structure (utopianism). The other version is praxis or performance, as in the revolutionary or proletariat’s collaborative partaking in the opening up and staging of the otherwise not pre-given/outlined space of the social—“be realistic, demand the impossible” (communism). Arendt will define the former as “work,” and the latter as “action,” all the while stressing that it is critical for us to think about what we are doing, and not to do things mindlessly or stupidly, which is to say in a bureaucratic manner.

The latter is what Arendt famously described Adolf Eichmann as perpetrating. He was the quintessential bureaucratic, “just doing his job,” in a dead zone of imagination (David Graeber), obsessed with the measure and evaluation of everything, and where structural violence, and hence stupidity (and banality) reign supreme. As Graeber argues in his recent book on bureaucracy, the Left has always been anti-bureaucratic because while it does not ignore any form of violence, it does not give violence a fundamental status. “Instead,” he writes, “I would argue that Leftist thought is founded on what I will call a ‘political ontology of the imagination’” [or creativity, making, invention], in which the “real”is not the reality of the royal (real in Spanish) sovereign, but the “res” of the Latin for thing, from which the French “rein” or “nothing” as in no one thing, is derived. Which returns us to the two versions of the imagination that I outlined above: one which is committed to the real of real property and real estate, and the other to the real of no one thing (res). These point to two different ways of making or inventing a world. The political question is: who gets to partake in this aesthetic education and ongoing configuration of the imagination and its capacities of creativity and invention (as Spivak, Ranciere, Nancy and other contemporary thinkers have asked)? Which amounts to asking: who is kept in a state of stupidity, and who is liberated from such idiocy? Inequality, alienation, segregation and other forms of structural violence occur based upon the specific answers to this question, in each situation and context.

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