Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Review: The Radical Imagination

[Max Haiven and Alex Khasnabish. The Radical Imagination. Black Point NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2014.]

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing the authors of this book at the Peoples' Social Forum that happened this past August in Ottawa. I had already read and thought highly of some of their earlier work in this area, and obviously I was interested enough to take the time required to turn
their words into a radio show. Nonetheless, I wasn't certain at that point that this book would make it from the very large pool that is "great-sounding books of political nonfiction that I'd really like to read" into the inevitably much more limited pool labelled "political nonfiction that I've actually read." Recently, though, I've been casting about for as broad a range of sources as I can find that analyze or model the knowing of the world through encounter and relation -- see the first few paragraphs of this for more explanation -- and it occurred to me that this might be a good fit. As with any book, it has areas where it is stronger and areas where it is less strong, but overall it was a very useful thing to include in my reading list. It helped to nudge forward the evolution of my thinking about my Next Big Project, and to crystalize my recognition that the regular in-depth interviews I do for Talking Radical Radio are not just media work, not just a useful resource for future writing, but are in fact a form of grassroots, movement-based social research.

I think perhaps what I appreciated the most about this book is that it is an instance of activists thinking through their capacities and the opportunities and limitations of their circumstances, and acting accordingly -- and not only doing that, but showing the doing of it. Too many of us who have a bit of space in our lives to choose how we engage politically end up doing so by latching onto something cool or important or sexy and going over there to do things, rather than thinking carefully about how we are already part of the world and what that means about how we can and should act. And the particular landscape that Haiven and Khasnabish think through so carefully is quite directly relevant to me: we situate ourselves in similar political traditions; we are in the same political generation; we exist in similar social locations; and while I do it in a community context with a presenting face of "media work" and they do it in a university context under the banner "scholarly work," our efforts to do intellectual work that is grounded in and responsive to movements and that pushes against how such things have often been done in the past are certainly not unrelated.

In doing this, they present a sharp critical assessment of the neoliberal university, and the larger social role of the university today, as well as a look at the most common tendencies within the academic study of social movements. Though there are exceptions, I'm inclined to agree with them that social movement studies as conventionally conceived is at best irrelevant to movements, and at times works in ways that are actively harmful. From this unhappy picture of the place of the academy in the broader social world, and of the ways the academy usually relates to movements, they begin to sort out what they, as scholars working within said academy, can bring to movements. I think their rundown of possible approaches is useful: 'invocation', which uses conventional disciplinary approaches in ways that capitalize on that prestige to produce mainstream-legitimate knowledge that supports the work of movements; 'avocation', which immerses researchers entirely within movements and has the application of their skills guided thereby; and 'convocation', a new approach that they ultimately settle on as the one they wish to develop and explore. In doing this, they say some quite useful things about knowledge production in and through movements, particularly about the role stories and ethnography can play in that work, which is quite relevant to my own current preoccupations. And when they combined all of this with a rather bleak assessment of the state of movements at the start of their project in the small city in which they were working -- Halifax, Nova Scotia -- they decided that the best thing they could do was create spaces of encounter and dialogue among disparate movement actors in hopes of catalyzing, or convoking, the radical imagination.

To do this, they engaged in a multi-stage project. First, they did in-depth research interviews with a wide range of radicals in Halifax. Beyond just being a way to learn about organizing and about movement dynamics in the city, they envisioned this is an opportunity for those radicals to reflect on their work in ways they seldom have had opportunities to do. The second stage was a series of facilitated community discussions on issues that emerged as key concerns during the interview. It brought activists together across key points of difference, not to resolve difference or to polarize it further, but to understand its shape and to allow it to be the basis of sparking new ideas, new possibilities, new developments in the local radical imagination in the city. And, finally, they have been working on an ongoing basis to bring in notable thinkers, writers, and organizers from elsewhere to continue to stimulate conversation and imagination among movements in the city. In all of this, they retained their place in the academy, separate from movements, but they leveraged the resources and privilege of that location to try and create spaces and opportunities that were useful to movements but that movements in that time and place would not otherwise have been able to create themselves.

Their understanding of the radical imagination is, I think, important. They don't so much mean the genius born in the individual mind, though that can certainly be one part of the whole, but rather something that is produced and circulates socially. It is distinct from the idea of "ideology," in the sense of a coherent set of politics that is or strives to become hegemonic, i.e. that our political sensibilities get organized towards. Rather, it is a recognition of the actually existing, complex, contradictory, and often just as much affective and desirous as intellectual sense of the world as it is and the world as it might be that we all have, and that is shaped in and by our encounters and our relations with the world.

Some of the other key ideas they advance in the book are also useful. Their emphasis on reproduction is absolutely essential, I think. They talk about how movements must engage with broader questions of social reproduction -- something many feminists have argued for a long time, but that movements still do far too seldom -- but also about how movements themselves are sites of social reproduction, and people within movements need to think about how that happens, the often troubling ways it replicates features of the broader society, and the opportunities it creates for doing things differently as we push for broader radical change. The chapter presenting a new framework for thinking differently about success and failure also really engaged me. I worry that it might be a bit too abstract to get much uptake outside of the academy, but nonetheless it offers a way to shift our often stale and simplistic thinking on that question sideways, and we desperately need to do that.

My biggest concern with the book was the two chapters on anti-oppression politics, which cover a range of questions but seem particularly keen to explore how to relate anti-capitalist and anti-oppression politics. I could write a lot about my take on both the value of some of the ideas presented, as well as my significant questions, concerns, and objections, but I don't think I will. Perhaps one underlying factor that may be at play is that there is an immense amount of really good work out there on anti-oppression politics and on seeing the ways in which axes of social relations that we often reify as separate and distinct are in fact deeply intertwined and interlocking -- including both scholarly and non-scholarly, including material focused on knowing the world and material focused on the nuts and bolts of organizing -- and I think these chapters could have been grounded much more effectively in that landscape. As it is, I think they largely miss the mark.

The final section of the book returns to its strengths, with an interesting interweaving discussion of movements and methodology. It draws parallels among the relationships between imagination, strategy, and tactics for movements, and ontology, epistemology, and methodology for research, and concludes with a brief chapter outlining the broad strokes of how researchers might learn from the prefigurative politics of many radical movements today and apply that towards the development of prefigurative methodologies.

I look forward to continuing to benefit from this book, both in seeking to learn from the way it models an answer to the question "What can I do?" from both a movement and a movement-based-research perspective, and in continuing to think about some of its key ideas about knowledge production in and through encounter, relation, and movement. If grassroots media production is also grassroots research, what can I do with what I've found, what I've made? What do I want to do? What is useful? What will support movements and communities-in-struggle?

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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