Power to the Imagination


L’imagination au pouvoir: this was a slogan used in Paris during the May ‘68 revolts; one of my favorites, along with ‘Il est interdit d’interdire’. By a fortunate turn of events, I was there; it was the most formative experience of my life. A year later, the Maagdenhuis was occupied. I participated wholeheartedly, but was not there when the M.E. locked the doors and locked the students in, including the father of my child who was to pick my son up at the daycare center, but could not leave. And since this was before mobile phones, my little boy was picked up late. In the subsequent 27 years the building has been occupied ten more times, with each time the right of students to be full participants in the policy-making of higher education the primary motivation. And so, again, in 2015. Although I am supposedly in the de-briefing phase of my career, the excitement came back that change was in the air, along with discouragement (‘here we go again; nothing has happened’).

When students occupied the Bungehuis in February 2015, I felt this was both too late and targeting the wrong building, and I told them so. Occupying the Maagdenhuis would be an act of history in the form of a didactic masterstroke; for it would be reminding people of the lie implied in the idea of progress; since things have gotten worse since then. The Maagdenhuis stands for the political issue of ‘inspraak’, participation in determining programs. The dean and faculty members of the humanities cannot be particularly blamed for what in fact was decided in Bologna in 1999. That is when the uniform structure and business model of European universities became more important than content, in the vain hope it would increase efficiency and facilitate funding. The resulting diminution of student interest in language programs that had lost their academic attraction is now alleged as the cause of the financial crisis, but it was really the result of those policies.

The choice of the Bungehuis was also timely as well as right, however. Timely: the Bungehuis has just been sold, a monument of architecture belonging to the public, squandered for private use as a private club for elite members. Quick, but one-time-only money, not even that much; loss of history. Public treasures become private property. How dare they? Like the monumental building in The Hague sold to the Angolese consulate and now being irretrievably damaged. This is theft, namely of public property, for it belongs to us all. Between that selling-off of public monuments and the destruction of the cultural monuments of Ninive by IS there is, of course, a huge difference in scale and motivation, but let’s face it: not entirely in kind. To be clear: in my mind, it is a crime. Choosing the Bungehuis was timely, moreover, because what was just then squandered is, precisely, part of what we study in the humanities. History. Occupying it could be seen as a physical impediment to the sale.

Timely, then; and the occupation of the Bungehuis was also right, because it draws attention, not simply to the Humanities as a victim of budget cuts, but to the indispensible contribution of that field of study to the value, usefulness, and the social nature of knowledge as such – whether clearly ‘useful’ or not. Self-critique, as Robin Celikates has argued in his lecture, was and is necessary to make the case for what Kati Röttger called in her lecture, the usefulness of useless knowledge. We must be estranged from the exclusive interest in money, which is so un-strange that it is false, to recycle Hent de Vries’s key argument.[1]

The critique out of which this slogan, ‘power to the imagination’, emerged has nothing to do with facile, cheap revolts against knowledge. On the contrary: it is a revolt against unimaginative reiterations of certain intellectually lazy patterns of thought and related expression. These have lost self-critique (Celikates), a sense of the usefulness of thought (Röttger), and wonder, estrangement from clichés and the ideology that sustains them (de Vried). In my plea for a serious inclusion of the imagination in academic teaching, I will develop here one example only: what the imagination can do is counter the reduction of so-called knowledge and insight to binary oppositions. Such oppositions rule the world, politics, policy-making, and yes, higher education. The primacy of economic considerations is just one consequence of such thinking, where the ‘usefulness’ of fields of study is judged according to its opposition to moneymaking. As if the field of economy is more useful because it attracts many students, thus bringing in income. What is overlooked in such an assessment is that, according to economic thinking, economy as a professional field is, like the military and the spread of ‘consultancies’, a non-productive area and can only be sustained thanks to other areas that are productive. And mind the language, and what it contributes to a generalized lack of insight. For, as opposed to what increasing numbers of people think, language matters. Reducing ‘useful’ to economic yield is a good example of linguistic impoverishment and the blinding of insight in entails.

Thinking beyond economic considerations only requires that we see and cultivate the value of a more complex way of thinking, and for that we badly need Humanities. In this essay I develop one example. This is the possibility to let ourselves be guided by different disciplinary fields in relation to one another. I’ll start with linguistics – one of the more ‘scientific’ fields of the humanities. When we think of Greece we think of hopeless economic problems. But as Greek scholar Maria Boletsi, who teaches in the Humanities in Leiden, has foregrounded in a recent study of the linguistic structure, or non-structure, of the verb form of the middle voice, the middle voice allows us to imagine a position between, say, or beyond, victim and perpetrator. Boletsi studied street art where the slogan, or word, Βασανίζομαιoccurs with astonishing frequency. Boletsi writes early on in her article: ‘It could be (partially and inadequately) translated as “I suffer,” “I torture/torment myself,” “I am (being) tortured/tormented” or “I am in torment.”’

To simplify a complex argument, she concludes that ‘the middle voice here probes the very premises of agency and responsibility in current discourses and negotiates alternative frameworks for their understanding, beyond clear-cut binaries between passive/active, guilty/innocent, victim/perpetrator, powerful/powerless.’ In addition to offering an in-depth analysis of an artistic expression that avoids the elitism of an exclusively ‘high-art’-based art history, and a rethinking of a linguistic form we know from Homer and Herodotus, but is alive today, this study also comes up with a philosophical revision of the victim-guilty opposition, and in that sense, with a critique of opposition as a way of thinking and ordering the world in itself. Boletsi’s study is profoundly interdisciplinary, not in the administrative sense but in a sense that matters when we rethink our curricula.

I adduce this example from street art for many reasons, one of which is the undeniable social relevance of both the analysis and the object of study, which is itself a product of the imagination. Another is the clear plea it makes for a content-driven interdisciplinary methodology. But the principal reason is that it decisively undermines binary thinking. Such case-studies could be put on a program of the New Humanities as an innovative and relevant alternative to the severely reduced standardized programs.

Why is binary thinking so destructive? Binary opposition performs the following moves, all damaging to understanding:

it reduces complexity to simplicity, helping us to grasp what is difficult but also making us forget the complexity    
it further reduces the smaller amount of possibilities to two single poles, in opposition to each other
it orders the two poles hierarchically, so that one pole is valued and the other is not.

From this structure come racism, sexism, ageism, rich-poor divisions, and other forms of discounting groups who don’t have the power to claim their participation – such as the young, or, it seems, students.[2]

Whether the negatively-valued pole is made invisible, hated, despised, violated, not taken seriously, or administratively disempowered doesn’t even matter for the logic. The structure of thought is the same. And that structure, totally pervasive in all areas of society, generates the conflicts it then blames on those who attempt to restore the complexity, and thus take responsibility instead of remaining in the victim position. For the most powerful of all binaries is that between subject and object, in other words, powerful and powerless, perpetrator and victim. Should I add: policy-maker and student? Language, with its binary structure, makes it nearly impossible to think beyond this binary, except in Greek. But it is possible to learn such thinking, and, through a short-term case-study-based course, the Humanities are ideally suited to help society develop such a skill.Now, speculating on alternative modes of teaching, let me explain the potential of the imaginative disentangling of the hidden complexities imprisoned by binary thought a bit further with an example from my own work. Inspired by the concept developed by Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, emotional capitalism, and congenial with the lesson from Βασανίζομαι and Boletsi’s analysis of the middle voice, in our audio-visual exploration of Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, Michelle Williams Gamaker and I have staged emotional capitalism as the key to the ongoing relevance of that novel from the past. Understanding that relevance is the indispensible insight that makes cultural history a key field in the Humanities (Illouz 2007; 2012).

Madame Bovary is a work of fiction – useless! – and belonging to the past, an object of history – yet, acutely relevant for today. However, it doesn’t quite fit the standard view that the usefulness of history is the need to understand the past so that we don’t repeat it. This is how literary scholar Susan Suleiman phrased it:

‘How does one create a future that will acknowledge the past […] without repeating it? How does one look at the past with understanding, yet critically, in the etymological sense of ‘critical’ (from Greek krinein, to separate, choose), which has to do with discrimination and choice in the present?’ (1990: xv)

The world has not been too successful in achieving this, so perhaps some more thinking is needed.

By crossing the last frontier of disciplinarity, I have found the integration of studying and making, through the intense dialectic of making what I study and studying what I make, an extremely productive way of gaining insights not so easily available otherwise. I found in Flaubert an illuminating guide. As an artist, in other words, an artisan of the imagination, he imagined and proceeded to show us what Freud and Marx later theorized on the basis of historical and literary sources. But Flaubert was able to overcome the disciplinary boundaries that separated Marx from Freud, and, as if thinking in the Greek middle voice, invented emotional capitalism.[3]

 [image 1] Madame B, directed by Bal & Williams Gamaker, 2013

[image 1] Madame B, directed by Bal & Williams Gamaker, 2013

The skilled salesman in the film surrounds the insecure and unhappy woman with affect. [image 1] He shows through care as a commercial tooland the promise of illusory beauty that will bring happiness, how the economic system we must call capitalism, thinly disguised as neoliberalism, cannot be understood on economic premises alone; nor is, indeed, personal happiness without a social and psychological price-tag. This man is both a brilliant professional, hence, some would say in a binary interpretation, guilty of economic exploitation; and a man doing his job with pleasure because he loves to see the result: beautiful women. The woman buying the over-prized designer clothes feels victimized by a society where women have an unhappy destiny, but when she steals her husband’s credit card to pay for it, she undeniably embarks on a criminal path. To grasp that complicity, think of that middle voice again.

Rereading Flaubert’s novel, I began to vaguely sense the importance for present-day society of this complex but muddled idea. To see this, something crucial happened, that put me in a place beyond interdisciplinarity. To put it briefly: it was necessary to make what I studied. This, I realised retrospectively, is the doing of the imagination. But to know I had to do that I had to study it first. This is why my experience is relevant for the search for alternatives to a reduced and stultified program of study in the Humanities. That ‘studying’ entailed a few tasks. As the novel in question is an object of history, I had to understand, first, that history is not linear. For that, I had to delve into history in the first place, going back to TS Eliot, who wrote this almost a century ago:

‘Whoever has approved this idea of order […] will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.’ (Elliot 1975: 39)

Preposterous indeed, this came from a poet and critic who deeply influenced literary criticism, but also, cannot be taken as radically progressive either. I had to learn to discern, in order to move beyond the binary that rules our view of anachronism as the opposite of linear history. I had to learn, that is, that not all anachronisms are ‘good’, productive because conducive to deep-thought, as well as not all are ‘bad’, flattening time and colonizing the past. Thanks to well-meaning but binary-infected colleagues, the opposition between historical and a-historical thinking has terrorized me for a long time, and it took a lot of imagination to distinguish those flattening, a-historical platitudes from the productive power of a considered anachronism as a figure of thought where, to abduct and distort a term coined by historiographer Hayden White (1973) and put to fantastic use by art historian Michael Ann Holly, ‘the historical imagination’ can be deployed to nuance and deepen our understanding of the relationship between present and past (1996).

In addition to the need to revise my sense of history, there was the need to understand the nuances of the French language, and specifically, the way Flaubert played with the language, adjusting it to his needs when it failed to comply – where linguistics meets literature. Luckily, when I was a student at the University of Amsterdam, this issue came my way through some brilliant teachers, leading scholars with lasting world-wide reputations – I can only mention just some influential publications of the three who inspired me most – and a flexible curriculum, that made room for special case-studies; the presence in Amsterdam of a French cultural center, theater productions that inspired me to see the relevance for the present of the historical objects, and more things which are now considered ‘just fun’ and not economically productive. This is simply false – in Hent de Vries’s sense.[4]

When culture is diminished or disappears, put under threat by binary thought, we all know what happens, because it is happening today. Such destruction is not only culturally, but also economically a terrible and irreversible waste. In this context, it strikes me as deeply ironic that the French program is, today, advertised, in English, as being taught in Dutch. In the ad, not a word of French appears. The loss implied is tremendous. Today, a student would not be able to understand how Flaubert used that venerable language to subvert it from within. Later, following Derrida, we would call this move, deconstruction. In order to understand a cultural artifact, I discovered (without using the terminology) it is necessary to espouse it, enter it, and deconstruct it, all at once.

Not that all was brilliant then. The Maagdenhuis needed to be occupied for students to get a say in the academic programs. That was a tremendous help to get rid of obsolete teaching methods and to nuance elitist reading lists. For a while, all seemed excitingly on the move. But soon enough, at least after 1999 (Bologna), the student participation and the in-depth knowledge were ‘streamlined’ away, as were the possibilities to make special programs, conduct experiments, and develop forms of teaching where learning to think goes both ways because learning is dialogic, and where complexity is seen and valued. A teaching where the lesson from linguistics that the essence of language is an exchange between the positions of ‘I’ and ‘you’, first and second person, is consistently put in practice.

For this, a return to linguistics, now ‘general linguistics’ is useful. This is how I imagine supplementing the course in the middle voice, as sketched out above. Compared to Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze, to evoke a sequence of knowledgeable men, French linguist Emile Benveniste is probably the least recognised of those French ‘masters of thought’ who had such a lasting impact on the humanities during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Acknowledging this influence is a matter of intellectual force and consistency – not to speak of ethics and historical awareness. His work is crucial not only to understanding what Lacan did with Freud’s legacy, to appreciating Derrida’s deconstruction of logocentrism (the content bias), and to seeing the point of Foucault’s definitions of episteme and power/knowledge. His work is also key to understanding developments in analytical philosophy, as they have filtered through into the study of literature and the arts in the concept of performance.[5]

Benveniste came up with this. Reference – both a verb and a noun – is secondary to deixis, the ‘I-you’ interaction that constitutes a referential merry-go-round.[6] Yet, it has not been one of Benveniste’s concepts that has had the decisive influence. Rather, it is one of his basic ideas: the idea that subjectivity, produced through the exchange between the ‘I’ and the ‘you,’ not reference, is the essence of language. The implications of the primacy of the ‘I’/’you’ interaction for theorising through concepts becomes clear when I bring this Benvenistian idea to bear on the two key concepts for visual analysis (including of literature). In the case of the concept of focalisation, I have proposed a way of reconfiguring it based on the Benvenistian idea, and that deviates from the use Gérard Genette put it to (1972).

Focalisation is the relation between the subject and object of perception. The importance of the concept for me was that in it I found a tool to connect content – visual and narrative, such as images in movement – with communication. It enabled me to account for the subject-constituting element in discourse to which Benveniste’s language theory had pointed me. It was when writing a critical assessment of their differences and their respective methodological and political frames that I understood for the first time the formidable implications of what my seemingly slight amendments had entailed. They appear to be just fussing in the margins about a term, a piece of jargon. But the tiny (in the formal sense) diffe­rences were related to such issues as the blind acceptance of ideological power structures versus the critical analysis of them. For Genette, a narrative can be unfocalised, thus ‘neutral.’ For me, this is not possible, and pretending that it is only mystifies the inevitable ideological thrust of the text. It seems worth noting that this difference, even within a single literary text, already indicates a fundamental difference of disciplinarity between Genette’s literary interest and my own interest in cultural analysis.

Undermining the subject/object opposition promoted by reference, Benveniste, in the same sweep, undermines individual authority, as well as its many models in cultural texts. To examine the inequities and authorities that undeniably structure these texts, the basis of those positions and that distribution is to be sought neither in meaning as the product of reference nor in authorial intention. Instead, meaning is produced by the pressures of the ‘I’ and the ‘you,’ which keep changing places with regard to the meanings that are liable to emerge. These pressures, far from emanating from the subjects whose linguistic position posits them as, precisely, void of meaning, outside of the situation of communication, come to them, fill them with meaning. This filling comes to them from the outside, from the cultural frame the pressure of which enables them to interact in the first place.

But no; the Bologna-based curriculum does not have a place for such a course in the BA program. What we lost with that streamlining was the participation of the imagination. And that is an awful, and, I am afraid, irreversible loss, because, as 17th century Spanish-Dutch-Jewish migratory philosopher and hard-working craftsman Baruch Spinoza already argued, the imagination is of vital importance, indeed, a condition for survival, for thought, which is bound to neither idealize nor forget the past but to live with its consequences. So, let me add a bit of philosophy to the linguistic, street-art, general linguistic and literary course that is my alternative proposal for an impoverished curriculum.

Spinozist responsibility implies this: we are not guilty of the crimes our ancestors committed, but we are nevertheless responsible for their consequences, for we live with and in them, and benefit from them. This has consequences for how we live in the aftermath of colonisation, exploitation, even slavery.  The same holds for present administrators, or managers. They are not guilty – although, like all of us, complicit – in the fatal turn academic education has taken since 1999. But they are responsible for the consequences. Not taking that responsibility is a new crime. If our policy-makers were to just read, perhaps not Spinoza himself, but a small, concise and convincing book that lays out his relevance for today, they wouldn’t dream of clinging to that most damaging ideology of all, the binary opposition between economically productive and ‘just fun’ fields of study – as if the one were even thinkable without the other. Because all those fields of study hang together; they constitute culture; and without culture… well, see what happens. The deep cause: binary thinking. True believers versus pagan dogs.[7]

‘Spinozistic responsibility,’ instead, is derived from the philosopher’s concept of self as social, and consists of projecting presently felt responsibilities ‘back into a past which itself becomes determinate only from the perspective of what lies in the future of that past – in our present.’ Taking seriously the ‘temporal dimensions of human consciousness’ includes endorsing the ‘multiple forming and reforming of identities over time and within the deliverances of memory and imagination at any one time’ (Gatens and Lloyd 81). This pre-posterous responsibility based on memory and imagination makes selfhood not only stable but also instable (82). This instability is a form of empowerment, of agency within a collectivity-based individual consciousness. In Deleuze’s work, this becomes the key concept of becoming. Becoming is a form of movement. And its lack of stability precludes any division in ‘self’ and ‘other,’ hence, the ostracism that otherness and othering entail.

In the Theologico-Political Treatise from 1670, for instance, Spinoza argues – with the use of philosophy, biblical hermeneutics, cultural theory and historiography – that the Bible is not a divinely-derived text but a social construct. This not only allows for a comparison between different versions of the same story – for instance, Jewish and Islamic. It established multi-focality as the norm. The different choices and directions taken by an author record those different versions within a text. Thus, different versions have a normative significance and thereby disclose the imagination in Spinoza’s sense, that is, the culturally determined rules and regulations of a society. Therefore, they are indispensable for the construction of meaning (Bal and Vardoulakis 2011).

The inter-cultural significance of responsibility Spinoza attributes to the fact that people live in a shared, heterogeneous world can only be understood on condition that responsibility is not reducible to an individual, sovereign subject but rather dispersed in a collective imagining. Such a responsibility makes both past and future concerns relevant for the present (Gatens and Lloyd, 81-3). Imagination is Spinoza’s first kind of knowledge. As belonging to the imagination in this sense, beauty becomes imbued in the production of cultural norms that bind a society together. The total field covered by the imagination also includes the fantasies of the prophets that generated culturally cohesive myths. Cultural practice is neither subjective nor objective. Indeed, Spinoza does not seek to dispel the aporia between the subjective and the objective, but rather he further accentuates it: ‘So things regarded in themselves, or as related to God, are neither beautiful not ugly. Therefore he who says that God has created the world so as to be beautiful must necessarily affirm one of two alternatives: either that God made the world so as to suit the desire and the eyes of men, or the desire and the eyes of men to suit the world’ (2002: 54).

The regulative term of this aporia is God. The index of ontology – of the ‘things regarded in themselves’ – is the single immutable substance. But the ontology of humans and of things, or of everything created in nature, is different from God’s, who is, according to Spinoza, neither a creator nor a purposeful actor. In this sense, Spinoza’s substance has nothing do with the God of dogma and the Churches. Rather, Spinoza’s ‘god’ or substance is the regulative term, which guarantees the ontology of being and thought.

This leads us to assessing the ‘usefulness’ of the arts – the domain studied in the Humanities. If the arts have an ethical responsibility, it is to be discerned in their resistance to immediacy, in their affirmation of ‘versioning’ – the production of multiple visions. But this can only occur when artistic practice is understood as the enactment of the rupture of essence and existence. Precisely because the artist practices that rupture, Spinoza thinks that the artist is uniquely positioned to demonstrate it, even more than the philosopher who may be lost in intellectual meanderings:

Finally, if any philosopher still holds doubts whether essence is distinguished from existence in created things, he need not toil away over definitions of essence and existence in order to remove that doubt. For if he merely approaches a sculptor or a woodcarver, they will show him how they conceive in set order a nonexistent statue and thereafter bring it into existence for him.[8]

Art, as a praxis of this rupture, acquires a uniquely didactic and hence ethical significance. In its didactic mission, it will necessarily bridge the gap between young and older people – precariously struggling beginning scholars and their established, immutable colleagues.

It is amazing how relevant Spinoza still is. Our policy-makers will claim that they have no time to read all those texts and images that can inspire us. But they could have the imagination to realize that our students can do so, and take them seriously, outside of the binary between the establishment and the young. And, I am sure, those students would be happy to advise them on what a meaningful curriculum in the Humanities can be, today, even more or less within the economic constraints that the powers that be hold over us, with our complicity. Let me read these ideas, to end with words from the past for the present:

‘Understanding doesn’t happen in isolation. The complex interactions of imagination and affect […] yield this common space of intersubjectivity […] and the processes of imitation and identification between minds which make the fabric of social life. The awareness of actual bodily modification – the awareness of things as present – is fundamental to the affects; and this is what makes the definition of affect overlap with that of imagination. All this gives special priority to the present.’ (Gatens and Lloyd, emphasis added)

Ignoring this past wisdom is a new crime. With French writer Emile Zola, I’d like to end on the phrase j’accuse. I accuse the institution of the neoliberal university, worldwide, of criminal offenses. Selling of our property was one. Discarding, destroying the imagination, another crime. Making our young colleagues sick from overwork and stress, one after another suffering from nervous breakdowns, so that others must step in and get sick in their turn: damaging, physically and mentally hurting people is a crime. It’s called grievous bodily harm. J’accuse.[9]