Public imagination

A week on from the keynote lecture Lawrence Grossberg delivered at the Creating Publics project launch, I’m only just beginning to work through some of the ideas, arguments and images that were offered at this event. The event hinged around the question of what might be needed from publicly engaged social science work in the contemporary conjuncture. It’d be interesting to hear from any of you who were there or have watched his lecture online. Here and for now, I wanted to have a go at opening out a line of conversation about the role/place of imagination in publicly engaged social science research work.

At the very end of his wide-ranging, multi-dimensional and – for me – very insightful and inspiring lecture, Lawrence Grossberg said:

“…it seems to me, imagination is the only starting point that allows us to hold onto optimism of the will.”

One part of why imagination seems important to invoke in this context is because it is by no means clear that a project that calls for the collective re-thinking and reconfiguration of prevailing processes of knowledge production and university-society relations is in any way ‘realistic’. Especially in the current context of institutional change, privatization, financial crisis and ‘austerity’. Some of ‘us’ may nevertheless agree with Professor Grossberg that it is precisely what is needed at this time.

Therefore building the argument publicly and working through – in collaboration with others – what such a project might mean in different contexts; and, finding ways of testing out how it might be made to happen may, after all, perhaps be a ‘strangely realist’ thing to be trying to do. Not just to somehow preserve what ‘we’ have, but to re-invent and perform a certain kind of public work in the contemporary. There are already many, many others around the world who are investing in elements of this kind of work – whether this is through conversations, extra-institutional experimental projects, or through the ‘everyday making’ of collaborative forms of institutional practice.

Janet Newman, in her response to the lecture last week, underscored both how much this work matters, but also quite how difficult this work can be. It’s a kind of ‘labour’ she said. In the words of her new book – it’s the labour of ‘working the spaces of power’; and, also the labour of performing (sometimes in public) something more than criticality (difficult enough as this is). This, something more, is perhaps the labour of creatively, but also contextually (and critically… and materially… and socially) grounding, the process of generating ‘the new’. It’s also the work of holding in tension – perhaps through the mediums of conversation and publicity – different possible ideas and pictures of what the new could be.

I recognise this is all very vague! And, I of course also recognise that imaginations of ‘the new’ can be provoked into being solely by reading and acting upon critical work. I also recognise that most pre-existing forms of social research I’ve encountered entail forms of imaginative labour. There’s nevertheless something in the idea of public imagination, like the idea of public creativity, which, for me at least, is important to hang on to and think more about – at least for now in the context of the Creating Publics project.

Especially, that is, if this project is going to keep trying to translate, iterate and collaboratively test out ways of working (and thinking) between different registers of ‘the real’.

All this is nothing more perhaps than one more way of saying that the work of summoning publics involves forms of imaginative mediation, as well as lots of other work. And, just as research and forms of publicness are always-already distributed, maybe public imagination is also perhaps something that is already-always distributed too. This all seems to raise yet more questions. Questions, for example, about how, when and where and under what conditions forms of public imagination are enacted and with what effects; questions about the forms of public and less public support these processes require; questions about what, in different contexts of public practice, is considered to be ‘imaginative’ and what’s not; and, questions about how forms of public imagination might be marshalled in different contexts to develop and sustain forms of public creativity, ‘progressive’ politics and publicness.

Public imagination emerges here as a rather ambivalent idea. As much about marshalling as it is about sharing; as much about leading as it is about co-operating; as much about creating persuasive stories and deploying convincing (expert?) knowledge claims as it is about being open to different views and negotiating. A kind of playful, interactive, publicly-spirited, processually indeterminate vanguardism perhaps? Not at all sure! [3 April 2012: for more ‘Notes on the Public Imagination’, this time from Yale’s Law and Technology website see here]

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