A report by Amy Kind.
Last spring, in a video called “A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” a graying and much older AOC recounts how the country was finally able to achieve environmental reforms. As she rides the bullet train from NY to DC several decades from now, she recalls the diverse group of people who took congressional office in 2019. Young people of color across the country were finally able to see themselves reflected in their political leaders. This gave rise to new hopes and dreams for, as AOC notes, it’s often said that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” And this leads her to draw an analogy to the Green New Deal. The criticisms that arose when it was first proposed came from the fact that people just couldn’t picture it yet. After telling the story of how significant reforms were finally enacted, she notes that: “The first big step was just closing our eyes and imagining.”
This optimistic idea – the idea that imagination can play a key role in changing our future – is an intuitive one. We see it expressed elsewhere throughout popular culture – for example in a podcast conversation between Levar Burton and Walidah Imarisha about the power of science fiction to help shape the future. As they note, we can’t build what we can’t imagine. I saw it expressed in a seminar on imagination that I taught this July at the Summer Program for Women in Philosophy at UCSD, when one of the students reflected on a way that she uses imagination in her own life: “I imagine the future and imagine myself in it – it helps me color in the future that is otherwise blank.” I’ve seen it expressed by my own students at CMC, such as one who noted that imagination “has been important in mapping out how I would like my life to be, in envisioning what I’d like to do or where I’d like to be, and in trying to find real ways to manifest the goals that I’ve imagined.”
But as intuitive as these optimistic ideas are, they are tempered by a certain pessimistic strand of thought that is every bit as intuitive. Some remarks by the poet Claudia Rankine capture the core worry: “[O]ur imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are. They are not some special, uninfiltrated realm that transcends the messy realities of our lives and minds. To think of creativity in terms of transcendence is itself specific and partial—a lovely dream perhaps, but an inhuman one.”
Somewhere amidst this push-pull between optimism and pessimism, the idea for the conference on Imagination and Social Change was born, a conference that I organized with financial support from the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at Claremont McKenna College. Held from September 26 – 28, the conference featured keynote addresses from Michele Moody-Adams, Joseph Straus Professor of Political Philosophy and Legal Theory at Columbia University, and Juliet Hooker, Professor of Political Science at Brown University, plus twelve additional talks from thirteen scholars whose areas of expertise range across philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, ethics, social and political philosophy, political theory, Buddhism, neuroscience, and much more. The hope was to flesh out already existing connections between academic work on social justice and social change and academic work on the nature of imagination, as well as to forge new connections. I also expected that, in doing so, both the optimistic and the pessimistic ways of thinking about imagination would be put under theoretical scrutiny.
Perhaps some of the most optimistic notes were sounded in the keynote by Moody-Adams. Drawing on examples from history, art, and literature, she argued that imagination could be useful in combating an array of social problems. But how, specifically, can imagination help to drive social progress? Here Moody-Adams offered several concrete examples in answer. Acts of imagining can help us build consensus about the need for change, motivate us to seek that change, and help sustain our efforts in doing so. Granted, there are cases where people might have employed imagination to problematic ends, but we can’t reject the responsible use of imagination just because of the possibility that it can be used irresponsibly. (Also relevant here is the talk by Heidi Maibom, who discussed several different problematic uses of imagining but then offered concrete suggestions for “safeguards” we could employ to rein in our imagining and prevent it from getting out of control.)
In contrast to Moody-Adams’ optimism, pessimistic notes were sounded most significantly in the talk by Maria Jimena Clavel Vasquez, who argued that empathetic imagining is significantly constrained due to its embodied character. To use one of her examples, consider the app EverydayRacism, an immersive game which promises users an opportunity to challenge the way they think about racism: “Look at life through someone else’s eyes. Take the EverydayRacism challenge and experience what life can be like for ethnic and cultural minorities in Australia who face subtle forms of racism every day.” By enabling users to spend a week in the virtual shoes of a Muslim woman, an indigenous man, or an Indian student, the app offers the hope that by engaging in this kind of imaginative experience one will gain new insights via empathy and then be motivated to puruse racial justice. If Clavel is right about the nature of empathy, however, this hope seems to be deeply misguided. Additional cautionary notes were sounded in remarks by Sophie Grace Chappell, who pointed out that imagination can both “lead to but also retard social progress.” Though imagination may be the friend of the person who wants radical revolutionary change in society, “we can’t put imagination in a box.” As Chappell noted, imagination “is not the private property of people on just one side of a debate.”
The competing pressures of imaginative optimism and imaginative pessimism came out in an especially interesting way in Hooker’s keynote. As Hooker persuasively argued, racial politics in the 21th century have been problematically shaped by white political imaginaries. In brief, we’re now confronted with a paradox surrounding contemporary white racial resentment: There’s been a palpable rise of white grievance and sense of loss when in fact the non-white gains have largely been only symbolic and, in fact, have often been accompanied by erosion of the gains of the civil rights movement. That the white imaginary has led to these problems is cause for pessimism. But Hooker’s talk also hints at an additional moral, one that leaves room for optimism: If we were able to reshape the white political imaginary, and in particular, if we were able to take account of her important distinction between symbolic and material loss, the newfound imaginary could be transformed into a force that moves us forward socially rather than backward.
In addition to the push-pull between optimism and pessimism, another push-pull that recurred throughout the conference concerned the individualist vs. collectivist nature of imagining. Moody-Adams talked about the kind of imagining that brings about social change as a “fundamentally collective project.” Moreover, in addition to Hooker’s remarks about the collective white political imaginary, this theme also came out in Janine Jones’ talk about racial imaginaries and the need for radical entanglement. And we saw it yet again in Abe Roth’s invocation of imagination in his project of explaining certain kinds of collective action.
Other themes that arose concerned the connection between trust and imagination (especially in talks by Jason D’Cruz and Mavis Biss), the nature and role of political/social imagination (especially in talks by Avshalom Schwartz and Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa), specific examples of the use of imagination in the social and political sphere (especially in talks by TJ SKulstad-Brown, Ortiz-Hinojosa, and Jones), and the connection between empathy and imagination (especially in the talks by Clavel and Maibom).
Alas, I haven’t here been able to talk about every theme or even to mention every talk. Rather, my remarks are just meant to give a taste of the rich discussion that transpired over the three days of the conference. Some of the ideas presented at the conference have already been previewed on this blog (most notably in Shen-yi Liao’s terrific recent post on incrementalist imagination – hence my focus in this post on some of the other talks instead). Here’s hoping that many more of these ideas will show up here in future!