A reflection on the radical imagination: From finance to social movements to games (Junkyard)

This piece was first published on April 27, 2022 by The Junkyard: A scholarly blog devoted to the study of imagination.

As a child, I was slow to learn, not because of any specific diagnosable developmental delay but because of some deep, abiding and often angry skepticism towards anything that seems to me to be an arbitrary social convention that was presented as an unquestionable truth. For example, I remember being called before the class for some task in school at the age of 7 or 8, only to inadvertently reveal I could not tell my right from my left. Red-faced, I threw a tantrum before my shocked and bemused classmates, explaining that the distinction was purely conventional, calibrated solely by, so far as I could tell, the doctrines of our forebears. Such orientation was a form of guided narcissism, rather than a material point of reference: My left, I ranted from in front of the room, was my classmates’ right, after all. Why do we even use these words? Wasn’t it a matter of arbitrary perception being passed off as an iron law of nature. How many other things had we been taught as truth that were, in fact, habits of collective thought? What made North up and South down? Why did certain letters have to make the sounds we associated with them when they were all funny symbols that exist nowhere in nature?

I relate this anecdote not to impress or terrify the reader with my childish precociousness: credit here really ought to go to my parents and teachers who humored and tolerated this stormy little self-styled philosopher; it can’t have been easy. Rather, I think it’s a revealing place to start an account of what has been a life-long interest–perhaps an obsession–with the power of the imagination to shape our collective life. Just because the distinction between right and left is, ultimately, a figment of the collective imagination, that doesn’t make it any less real. Money is equally an invention of the imagination, but try to survive in a capitalist society without it and you run into very real difficulties. The way the imaginary becomes real, and the way reality shapes the imagination, is a riddle that has sustained my curiosity.

Growing up in a household of activists must have made its contribution to my skpeticial disposition, and it would later lead me, as a young adult around the turn of the millennia, to become an organizer in Canada in what was then called the alter-globalization movement, then, quickly following that, the anti-war and anti-racism struggles surrounding the advent of the War on Terror. I witnessed the power over the imagination of the neoliberal discourse of the End of History, what Mark Fisher would later call “capitalist realism.” In spite of the manifold injustices in the global capitalist order, the abiding belief that this was the best of all possible systems, or that in any case it was impossible to change matters, was profoundly demobilizing. I sensed, in the course of my activism, that, while not without some success, my comrades and I were only ever reaching about 5% of the population with our impassioned calls for global solidarity. Part of the problem, I realized at the time, is that most people had convinced themselves that the reigning order was natural, normal or inevitable. But many more simply had no time, or were denied the opportunity, to imagine the world broadly, and to recognize that much of how the world works is an arbitrary human construction, held in place by convention and unquestioned belief in the status quo. Worse still, capitalism increasingly seemed to find ways to seduce and co-opt the imagination, a trend that has reached a fevered pitch in the gig economy and in influencer culture, where we are told that expressions of our creative imagination can be our ticket to fame, riches or even simply a modicum of material stability in an otherwise unstable world.

This led me to enroll in graduate school, in a then-new program in the then-topical Globalization Studies. It was here that I came first into contact with the theories of Cornelius Castoriadis, the Greek-French philosopher of the radical imagination. Castoriadis, who was a core protagonist in the influential French journal Socialisme ou Barbarie in the late 1950s and early 1960s, sought to merge the insights of Marxism and psychoanalysis while, at the same time, discarding the more conservative dimensions of both traditions. His work would become highly influential on a generation of students and workers who, in 1968, almost brought down the French government through militant protests and strikes. For Castoriadis, the radical imagination was not the property of this or that ideological position but a fundamental force in all human affairs, active underneath society and within each and every social subject. Castoriadis’s ontological claim was that the imagination is the protean stuff out of which both subjects and institutions are made, a magma-like, flowing substance, between liquid and solid, that flows beneath the surface. Like magma, when it erupts it soon solidifies, and we take these solidifications as hard, fast and eternal, forgetting their tectonic origins. But both on the level of the subject and society at large, another eruption awaits, which will either be channeled by the existing crystallizations to reproduce their order or sweep them away to make room for new institutions.

Like Castoriadis, I became fascinated by the way the unique socioeconomic system of capitalism both relied on and shaped the imagination. The highly mediated capitalism of early 21st century Canada was, of course, quite different than 1950s France, and my interest increasingly gravitated towards the way the imagined systems of human categorization organized around the idea of “race” (a pure fiction invented to justify imperialism, but which became and remains deadly real) continued to have such sway and to be one of the key ways that exploitation and inequality was reproduced in the interests of corporations and the extremely wealthy. But I also, starting in 2005, became fixated on another intersection of capitalism and the imagination that was to captivate everyone’s attention a few years later: the financial sector.

In the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown many commentators and theorists sought to understand how the arcana of finance caused such chaos: credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, structured investment vehicles and other derivatives seemed to be figments of the contorted imagination of Wall Street bankers calculated to clothe naked exploitation in the garb of scientific calculation. But I argued that is only part of the story, and the least interesting part at that. More broadly, a process that critics have called “financialization” has not only seen the growing wealth and power of the financial sector around the world, it was leading to profound social and cultural transformations. Here, I drew deeply on the work of New York University’s Randy Martin, who would later host me as a postdoctoral fellow in 2011, shortly before his tragic premature death four years later. For Martin, financialization also meant the way each and every social subject is encouraged to embrace and adopt the dispositions, ideas and value system of finance, even if they have nothing to do with the movement of stocks or bonds. In a neoiliberal age, where forms of public social security have been cut or privatized, we are all instructed, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly from a million cultural points, to see ourselves as savvy risk-managers, navigating a world of opportunities for personal enrichment and betterment. Education is recast as an investment in one’s human capital; housing is recast as a financial opportunity or liability; in an age of the gig-worker, one’s passions, hobbies, personal networks, friendships and dispositions all become assets to be put in play. The entrepreneurial self theorized by Michel Foucault and Nicholas Rose in the 1970s and 80s is accelerated into a financier of the self. 

We witness this imperative in, for instance, the enthusiasm for “financial literacy” education for children and adults which almost always obscures or mystifies the sociological sources of poverty, debt and economic precarity and, instead, instructs individual learners to embrace a world of risk. It can also be observed in the popularity of reality television where house-buyers, antique hunters or junk collectors are celebrated for their quotidian financial skills. In general, for Martin, financialization implies the “profaning” of the future, the narrowing of personal and collective horizons towards an endless “now.” To the extent we are each instructed to turn our imaginations towards mapping out the future as a grid of cost and benefit, risk and reward, any sense that the future of society might be different recedes from individual and collective view. 

My contribution to this debate was to draw on the work of Castoriadis, as well as David Graeber, to explicitly insist on the importance of the imagination to this process. Financialization doesn’t kill the imagination, it excites, conscripts and harnesses its power. And, in turn, financialization, as a social process, depends on the imagination. It not only depends on the imagination of financiers who invent highly creative, if diabolical, ways of making money out of money. It also depends on nearly everyone, even the world’s poorest people reimagining themselves as financialized subjects and reimagining their world as one of assets, risks and potential rewards. In later work, I theorized that it is, in fact, this financialized imagination that is fertile ground for the growth of the kinds of reactionary, far-right and (post-)fascist ideological ideology and activism that have recently proven themselves so profoundly dangerous to any truly democratic project.

At the same time as I was developing this theoretical work, I also began what would become a decade-long collaboration with my colleague Alex Khasnabish to mobilize insights from Castoriadis to develop a methodology for studying with social movements. We were also deeply inspired by Robin D.G. Kelley’s phenomenal work on the Black radical imagination. We identified two dominant strategic trends in scholars who seek to work in solidarity with movements: sometimes they simply seek to invoke those movements in their writing, dignifying them with attention and offering outside reflections; other times scholars embrace a strategy of avocation, putting their time, skills and resources at the disposal of those movements. There are merits to both, but we wanted to experiment with a strategy we came to call convocation. How might scholars be active in calling together social movement actors to have conversations or encounters they might not otherwise have, in the name of opening and holding a space for the radical imagination to spark and catch light? For the better part of a decade, we experimented with this approach in the conservative Canadian city of Halifax, where progressive movements were generally far from successful. How did they sustain hope and energy in the face of so little success? We theorized that most movements dwell in a space between success and failure, and that critical scholars, working in solidarity, have a role to play in fostering moments of critical reflection and communion that movements rarely create for themselves.

In 2017 I took up a new position as Canada Research Chair in Culture Media and Social Justice (later Canada Research Chair in the Radical Imagination) at Lakehead University in the small, very remote Canadian city of Thunder Bay, a place plagued by extremely violent anti-Inidgenous racism. There, I took the insights from the Radical Imagination Project to found RiVAL: The ReImagining Value Action Lab as a platform for fostering research and organizing public outreach on topics of social justice, decolonization and the radical imagination. With the support of the Canada Research Chairs program and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation we have, in the past 5 years, offered dozens of workshops, held film screenings and public talks and worked closely with grassroots anti-racist and anti-poverty movements on these themes. 

The lab has also been a platform for my international scholarly activities. In addition to fostering my further research into financialization we have been exploring new participatory methods for bringing academics, artists, activists and diverse publics together to “convoke” the radical imagination. For example, we have organized collectively-created walking tours of the financial districts of London and Toronto to explore financialization from new, embodied perspectives. We have begun to integrate podcasting into the way we explore issues and develop communities of common inquiry. And we are in the process of developing a board game lab to explore the way analogue game design can be a method for theorizing and catalyzing a discussion around difficult social issues. Our first game, Clue-Anon, explores why conspiracy theories are both so fun and so dangerous.