“Radical Imagination” in the Context of Global Protests

The development of digital communication has allowed the voice of the people to be carried further, whilst at the same time liberating words, images, ideas and actions that were previously restricted to specific areas. The virtual world is ultra-connected, full of ideas and teeming with innovative entrepreneurial initiatives. People in the real world then use this digital interconnection to protest, organise and express dissident ideas.

David Graeber, an American anthropologist, wrote an article on the Guardian website in September, 2011, regarding the protests of the Occupy Wall Street movement rising from the rubble of the financial crisis of the last few years:

Is it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?

Just as in Europe, we are seeing the results of colossal social failure. The occupiers are the very sort of people, brimming with ideas, whose energies a healthy society would be marshaling to improve life for everyone. Instead, they are using it to envision ways to bring the whole system down.

But the ultimate failure here is of imagination. What we are witnessing can also be seen as a demand to finally have a conversation we were all supposed to have back in 2008. There was a moment, after the near-collapse of the world's financial architecture, when anything seemed possible.


Radical imagination on Wikia. License CC-BY-SA

Radical imagination on Wikia. License CC-BY-SA

Imagination, a word we seem to be rediscovering today, refers to the human ability to represent things or events perceived by the senses. A link between the world and the individual, the mental image built by this faculty journeys from one mind to another through different modes of transmission (written, oral or visual in the form of books, speech or films, for example).

The economic and the cultural fields are not the only areas that have recently suffered from this failure of imagination. A quick look at mass western productions in cinema, music and literature makes the incessant repetition of old school, vintage or retro (if not cheesy) tunes apparent: they are remixed, remade and rebooted into the cultural sphere of the twentieth century.

The official imagination, authorised and largely disseminated by media institutions, is being challenged by the emergence of another type of imagination on the global scene: an imagination that is spontaneous, more intimate and often unauthorised.

This so-called radical imagination refers to the emotional, visceral and impulsive roots that link humans to the world. Rather than order, morality and conscience, radical imagination draws its forms from the rapport between the body and the environment. It is a raw, emotional and fundamentally creative perception that affects the human spirit.

At its root, or in its more radical form, imagination- to borrow Nietzsche's expression about art- challenges and overcomes chaos. Radical imagination is not about bringing chaos nor losing oneself in it, rather it is about the human spirit confronting and challenging chaos. Basically, the act of imagining is to deal with disorder and give it one's desired shape.

Since 2007-08, the international scene has seen many uprisings that could fit this very definition of radical imagination. People faced with increasingly harsh environments raised their voices against an apparently endless crisis: austerity measures to combat the debt crisis in Europe have led to protests in Iceland, England, Spain, Portugal, Greece and many others; the precarious living conditions are also at the root of uprisings that culminated with the Arab Spring in 2011 in North Africa; the anti-corruption protests worldwide (2011) and more recently the anti-rape rally that shook India (January, 2013);self-immolations in Tibet, or the Jasmine protests; and the village riots resounding in China. The roots of the Indignant Movement in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in North America also took hold in 2011.

Not all these movements are the same, and no two movements are exactly alike; however, to borrow the term used by Umair Haque, the existence of a so-called Metamovement is very real:

The Metamovement is a movement of movements (…) The Metamovement isn't just a faint, transient echo, but the increasingly resonant reverberation of people challenging this brutal state of malfunction, this Great Splintering of institutions and social contracts. Their truth, I suspect, might be this: there's no one left to turn to — and so the Metamovement has turned to each other.

These forms of popular and radical expression are highlighting a widening gap between the institutions and the people. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, is particularly significant. His action, as a response to precarious living conditions and widespread state persecution, has triggered reactions of Internet users and netizens worldwide. They condemn the lack of jobs, corruption and the deterioration of human rights in their countries, leading revolts until the fall of the oppressive regime.

This mode of radical expression is still found today among Tibetan people who, at the beginning of 2013, had already seen up to 96 self-immolations. A detailed study says:

The Tibetans have framed the recent wave of self-immolations not only as acts of sacrifice but as acts with religious meaning, as in the tradition of offering one’s body for the benefit of others. A number of testimonies state […] that they were motivated by the wish to preserve Tibetan religion and culture.

The expression of radical imagination clearly takes place in a context of tenuous social conditions. Its ever-evolving principle is most evident with the fluctuation between oppressive actions (austerity measures, repressed identities and denied rights, etc.) and counter-reactions (uprisings, revolts, protests, sacrifices, etc.). Acting as a form of outlet, radical imagination fills an important prophylactic role for society and allows people to fight back against a harrowing and chaotic future. It provides people with a prism to consider the nature of the existing order and to sow the seeds of an alternative social structure.


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