Swimming in Correspondence
Can We Imagine the Establishment of a Society Other Than the One Collapsing Now?
Galit Eilat | August 2023
The Cooper Union Archives & Special Collections, Cooper Union. 2018. Photo: Galit Eilat
What holds society together? Asks Cornelius Castoriadis in his book 'World in Fragments.' And he answers: its institutions - society as an institution, when the word "institution" is taken most broadly and radically - norms, values, language, tools, processes, and execution. The individual is also an institution among the institutions of society, and most radically, through the human raw material, they become an individual in society. And how do institutions maintain their validity? In general, through consensus, legitimacy, and trust. Only in extreme cases does the institution use coercion and sanctions. Severe cases occur when the institution changes the law, the law that organizes it. In 2023, Israeli society is undergoing radical attempts to change it through its foundational institutions.
For example, one can ask why members of Israeli society vote for certain parties, even after they have repeatedly deceived them. Castoriadis would answer that the institution produces, according to its regulations, people capable of and obliged to preserve it. "The law" contains elements that, when applied, reproduce and perpetuate it. Even in emergencies, in the most violent states of internal conflicts and wars, society is still the same. The incredibly complex web of meanings creates internal unity and cohesion. He calls this network of meanings "magma," which is the imaginary social meanings inherent in the institution of any society. Such imaginary social meanings may be spirits, gods, God, polis, citizen, nation, state, party, goods, money, capital, interest, taboos, virtue, sin, and so on.
Much has been written about the aestheticization of the political aspect of fascism, but what do we know about the new role of images in the era of neoliberalism? The philosopher Chiara Bottici explores in her book "Imaginal Politics" the relationship between imagination, the ability to imagine things differently and build alternative political projects, and the crisis of political imagination we are currently witnessing. Her attempt to perceive politics as a "struggle for people's imagination" begins with the work of the philosopher Cornelius Casturadis, for whom imagination was the condition for reality.
Castoriadis's terms include 'imagination' as an individual faculty and the 'imaginary' as the social context in which it occurs. Bottici adds the third term: 'imaginal.' In her analysis, the imaginary emphasizes the centrality of images regardless of their realness or whether they genuinely hold visual representations. The imaginary is what individuals produce, but also what shapes their imaginations, and therein lies its power to affect social and political life, especially considering the current virtualization and spectacular vision of contemporary politics, where images construct versions of reality that increasingly shape politics.
It is often said that our political leaders lack imagination. Indeed, in global governance, politics has been reduced to power accumulation within the neoliberal consensus. Again, there is no space for imagination in such a world, understood as the radical ability to envisage things differently and construct alternative political projects. As the seductive motto suggests, 'to imagine the world otherwise.' To build a new world from the ashes of the old one, we need to imagine and organize otherwise in the most expansive and inclusive ways. The leftist habit of ignoring those on the manufactured political, social, or cultural margins blocks the way to making something new, something worth living for–for all of us.
In Castoriadis's foundational work, "The Imaginary Institution of Society," he argues that societies are not a product of historical necessity but the result of a new and radical idea of the world. All cultural frameworks (laws, nations, institutions, rituals, arts, and gods) stem from this similarity and should not be explained only as a product of constraints or evolution. For example, he explains that the ancient Greeks believed that the world stemmed from chaos, whereas in Judaism, the world stemmed from the will of a rational entity, God. The Greeks, therefore, had developed a system of direct democracy in which the laws were changed at times according to the people's will. Whereas monotheism is built on a theocratic system, Man is in an eternal search for God's will.
Castoriadis argues that most thinkers before him have ignored the importance of human imagination in the creation of a new society and regime, and this human ability is the one that distinguishes us from other species on earth. The radical imagination is the basis of different cultures and what characterizes their differences. Kant's "Critique of the Power of Judgment" contributed to recognizing the vital role of the imagination. In the "Critique of Pure Reason," the imagination is called upon to mediate between the empirical content of the sensual world and the "pure concepts" of understanding. When Kant explores the nature of human creativity in the "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment," the imagination reappears to "explain" how human beings can negotiate new circumstances and produce original aesthetic ideas. As a concept, Kant repeatedly uses imagination to draw the line between explanation and speculation. Castoriadis's view combines Aristotle with the Kantian insight that imagination is the transcendental faculty of synthesis par excellence in that it can unify the manifold into a single image. Therefore, imagination itself is radical because, without imagination, there is no reality.
Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities" reshaped the study of nations and nationalities: he drew attention to the dynamic role of the imagination in organizing social and cultural perception, belonging, and solidarity. The influence of his book went beyond the study of nationalities and nationalism and contributed to the understanding of Sociological Imagination. For him, nationalism and national identity are creative inventions through which we can understand the construction of a state's legal system, a business corporation, credit, and rights, or the notion of entitlement and supremacy, as the faculty of human imagination.
Anderson's approach stresses the material conditions that shape culture and the institutions that support it, from mass communications to education, administrative rules, etc. In later editions of his book, Anderson revisits his argument. He focuses on three institutions of power that changed their form and function as the colonized zones entered the age of mechanical reproduction. "The census, the map, and the museum: together, they profoundly shaped how the colonial state imagined its dominion—the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry."
The political imagination, the politics of imagination, or the images. Social changes, or art in the service of the revolution, could be empty gestures that deal with form rather than content. Questions emerge: how do acts of exhibiting generate political imagination? Does political imagination lead to a political act? Does an imaginary exhibition lead to a political act? The danger lies in an imagined exhibition as a political act. Therefore, one should ask what image evokes political imagination. Or is it the exhibition itself that sparks the imagination?
Waking people's imagination does not require the art object if images are not necessarily retinal but mental. As Bottici claims, an exhibition is a place where people look at things, and people look at people looking at things. An exhibition's potential to trigger the collective imaginary could manifest like participating in a ceremony or a ritual: the encounter and the location where it is exhibited precedes the act of exhibiting. Prominent examples of such conceptual conventions are present in the law, economics, and the arts, depending on interpretation practices. In other words, it is possible to understand artistic, economic, or political law using hermeneutic techniques, at least on a fundamental level, based on judgment and sensitivity to context.
Open Archive, National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, 2020/21, installation view. Photo: Ylli Bala.
Courtesy of National Gallery of Arts, Tirana
The growing influence of curators and gallerists on the public reception of art affected the position of artists, who had taken on the role of deconstructing the institutional environments in which they were asked to work. In retrospect, the 'first wave' of institutional critique was initiated in the 1960s and 1970s by artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, and Robert Smithson, among others, who investigated the conditions of the museum and art field, aiming to oppose, subvert or break out of rigid institutional constraints.
The study of exhibition history shows that radical exhibition practices by curators were preceded by the work of certain artists who imagined ways to make exhibitions - anti-exhibitions in various kinds of public display spaces, including translocating non-museum spaces into the museum and vice versa. These were envisaged at first as vehicles for showing the artist's work, and later as the topic of the artist's work, beginning with the re-assembling of specific spaces, through the partial display of a collection. These practices paved the way for rethinking the institution of the museum.
Many of these display experiments survived as models for current curatorial practice and served as inspiration; In the late 1980s and 1990s, in a different context, these practices were developed into diverse artistic projects by new protagonists such as Renée Green, Christian Philipp Müller, Fred Wilson, and Andrea Fraser. The 'second generation' added to their predecessors' economic and political discourse a growing awareness of various forms of subjectivity and the modes of its formation. Second-wave practices continued to circulate under the label' institutional critique.
The museum and the university often suggest enduring imperial belief systems, making it hard to imagine the world without them. The hollow rhetoric of cultural revanchism tries to hold on to those parts of modern society co-opted by 19th-century colonial ideologies. As a technology of display and memory, the field of imperial history has also erred in the past with propagandistic dispossession and violence. It is possible to describe the main trend in transnational contemporary art as coming to terms with the past for the sake of a different future. This is done by interpretive practices involving social imagination, interdependency practices, theories of decolonization, post-colonialism, forensics, and multidisciplinary methods borrowed from other disciplines. It has little to do with arbitrary distinctions based on style or medium.
One of the main challenges of presenting and making contemporary art accessible to the general audience in public museums is to change the prevailing museum approach that takes the exhibition space of modern art as a natural space, a space without identity, a space of any place and no place, and turning it into a space that is a place in the present. In other words, the main challenge is to render the exhibition space into a (battle)field where different forces, histories, identities, classes, and ideologies operate, not just as a mere representation of this battle.
Challenging the status quo that connects art and social change may liberate us from an equation in which art must justify its existence based on a trade-in of morals and market value. Therefore, to get away from imitative reality and the glorification of the charismatic genius - the artist, the curator, and the museum director - allows for a new agreement to be signed between art and society based on social imagination or the imaginal.
As a public entity, the functions of which include the preservation of material heritage and the amassing of a collection that reflects both the present and past(s) through which a society operates, the art museum exercises a certain authority—the authority to elevate selective narratives to the status of history. The museum, not only the artistic variety, is charged with curating a collective (national/global) memory. The art museum's collection writes the history of each acquisition and thus sets the parameters for comprehending the future.
Such authority risks operating as an extension of the systematic negation of minor perspectives, provoking the question of how the museum can exercise colonialism, mutuality, and de-canonization methods while protecting the authorship and ownership status quo. How are art institutions positioned within the colonial matrix? When museums declare an ethos of inclusion, we must turn a critical eye toward what is done through this declaration. The declaration does not relinquish the museum's authorship but extends its territory. It sanctions inclusion, governed on its own terms.
Colonialism, as described by the Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano, is the "matrix of power that produces racial and gender hierarchies on the global and local level." The potential for an alternative modality of institutional practice arises from traditions of public bibliothecography and archiving. Unlike the historian, the librarian does not seek to narrate or otherwise form contours in the landscape of the past. Instead, the librarian and the archivist are tasked with collecting all documents with which the public may comprehend their cartography and representational choreography.
Can we imagine how museums might transform into libraries? How museums become democratic institutions, where choosing what to display is not limited to the selections of past gatekeepers, and the collection's display is open to public demand rather than current taste-setters.
 Chiara Bottici, Imaginal Politics: Images Beyond Imagination and the Imaginary, Nueva York, Columbia University Press, 2014.
 “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy”, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, vol. 9, no. 2. Fall, .1983
 Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (trans. Kathleen Blamey), MIT Press, Cambridge, 1997. p. 319.
 Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. First published by Verso 1983, and later 2006.
 Charles Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press, 1959.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 2006.
 Claire Doherty, ‘New Institutionalism and the Exhibition as Situation’, Protections Reader, Kunsthaus Graz, 2006
This article aligns with Galit Eilat's The Transparent Museum Through The Looking Glass, featured in the article compilation Exhibitionary Acts of Political Imagination, released by online journals PARSE and VECTOR in 2021.
Under the "Swimming in Correspondence" segment, response articles to influential theoretical texts impacting curatorial practice, as well as texts discussing curatorial action or English-written exhibition texts (historical or current), are featured once in every edition.
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