Brexit: How Do We Reimagine?

Image: Rowan Heuvel

Thursday 7th July, 2016

David Beer

In a recent piece in OpenDemocracy, Mary Fitzgerald suggested that in the wake of the EU referendum it is time to reimagine Europe. This, she argues, requires us to be open in drawing upon a range of perspectives. The current malaise would certainly lend itself to such a rethink. Yet there is an implicit challenge in her article that we could easily overlook: the challenge to our imaginations. Reimagining Europe will require flights of the imagination that can deal with social complexity and which are capable of envisioning a future in which the raft of current problems is overhauled. That is a tough prospect.

Following Mary Fitzgerald’s contribution and the broader calls for us to face up to the prospects of a future in which the lines of political and social life need to be redrawn, we might reflect on how to provoke our imagination and what resources we might use. We cannot, I’d suggest, manage such a task without drawing upon some resources to help us to think creatively and to enable us to engage with a diverse sense of the possibilities. My suggestion is that we need to look widely, very widely, for sources of inspiration. This is the only way we will be able to get close to achieving the ambition and multiple-perspectives that Fitzgerald outlines. We will need to look beyond the obvious sources and to fuel our imaginations in ways that might allow us to be surprised, to defy the limits of conventional wisdom and to see things in alternative ways. In short then, the imagination cannot work in isolation, it needs to be provoked. The sources we use to provoke our imaginative encounters with the future are crucial in this moment, especially as our choice of resources will shape what we are able to conjure.

Of course, social and cultural theory is one obvious source for thinking. A number of recent popular books might let us both see and reimagine our social conditions and how they might be reworked in different ways (the recent futures book series is one such example). Social theory is always, a least in part, an attempt to be imaginative about the state of things. This would be an obvious place to start in looking for ways to reimagine. As would the many studies of contemporary social divisions and inequalities – Arundhati Roy’s brilliantly evocative Capitalism: A Ghost Story comes immediately to mind. Then, of course, we need historical resources to enable context to be applied. Indeed, such resources will be crucial. But where else might we look? I’ve already mentioned photography. We often see how the power of images can force a rethink on many social issues and set news agendas. Images might provide the basis for providing the type of perspectives to which Fitzgerald refers, a literal seeing of things from different angles. This then starts to suggest a number of other possibilities. Paul Mason has recently suggested that we might even use software based analytics to produce viable models of the future, from which we might learn. And perhaps there are numerous options here for expressing and exploring imagined futures through data and software visualisations – although we might proceed with caution about how such approaches may simply trap us into coded and established models of the social order.

The patterns of thinking might even be further extended or disrupted if we were to explore fictional resources. Perhaps here the vitality of the fictional imagination may rub off on the project of reimaging politics and society. Indeed, social thinking has long drawn upon fictional sources of different types – with social theorists, like Jacques Derrida or Walter Benjamin, occasionally entertaining ideas of being fiction writers and many others drawing upon fictional examples to illustrate or develop their concepts and ideas. Narrowing the focus a little, science-fiction provides another potential resource for seeing into potential futures. Donna Haraway’s famous cyborg manifesto was perhaps so prophetic because of its alignment with ideas from science fiction, especially in the way that such ideas could be used to see the future for our interfaced bodies. William J Mitchell and Katherine Hayles had similar success in thinking about posthuman lives in their deployment of science-fiction ideas to understand the technological reshaping of life. More recently Ha-Joon Chang has spoken of what it is that economics can learn from science fiction. Other types of fiction provide other possibilities. What Katy Shaw has called Crunch Lit may afford angles upon reimagining the political economy. Similarly, we might draw upon film, TV drama and theatre as thinking tools. A recent event that I organised with Gareth Millington explored the relationship between fiction and the social imaginary. We found at that event how fiction could be used to reimagine anything from money, to environmental change, or from urban spaces to the body. At that event, to pick an illustration, Daniel Smith looked at how the British countryside is reimagined in the TV drama Broadchurch. These are visions of the world that may be learnt from or, crucially, that need to be questioned and challenged. Even where we find the visions disagreeable or unpalatable, we can use them to think otherwise.

Such sources are likely to breed creativity and to enable a more thoughtful exploration of what might be. As might art, poetry and music – all of which think beyond conventions and provide audio, visual and sensory encounters with actual and possible worlds. One of my students at York is currently exploring how big data is reimagined in art. That project focuses on the recent Big Bang Data exhibition and is using this art to explore alternative perspectives on the role of data in everyday life. It is not impossible that other art forms contain possibilities. Comedy and satire might provide further insights and platforms for rethinking the world. Stand-up comedy has been described before as a kind of critical anthropological form of knowledge. And then the EU referendum itself was reimagined through the satire of the TV show Power Monkeys. Mocking politics or ridiculing conventional approaches may provide rich insights and perspectives on the limitations that may need to be breached.

In a short piece like this it is not possible to lay out all of the possibilities. Rather this is a call for us to draw upon a wide pallet of possible resources when attempting to reimagine the social and political landscape post-brexit. Imagining things in new ways or from different perspectives needs some assistance. If we do not open-up the net to encounter and draw upon a creative range of resources then we are much more likely to reimagine the landscape in ways that adhere to established patterns and models of the world as it is. Fitzgerald’s call for us to use this moment to reimagine is likely to resonate, so we will need to think about what has been described as the ‘politics of imagination’ and to reflect on how we intend to provoke and shape this imaginative recrafting process – Owen Hatherley’s recent discussion of the use of the imagination in ‘austerity nostalgia’ is one illustrative instance of this politics of imagination. We will need to choose our resources carefully. The resources we choose will inevitably shape the outcomes of our thinking. We will need find things that genuinely fire our individual and collective imaginations. Let’s not just treat our imaginations as isolated things that we trust to produce visions of promising alternatives, let’s see them instead as being in need of guidance and stimulation. The imagination needed is collective and will need such shared points of reference and provocation. It is through such resources that we might come to see the possibilities and through we might then stand a chance of bringing into existence something that is worthwhile and which might address at least some of the tensions and difficulties that we now face. We will undoubtedly need an eclectic range of resources to achieve such a difficult flight of the imagination.

David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York. He tweets at @davidgbeer.

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