Imagination by Benjamin, Part 1

Hot air balloons going upwards into a blue sky; the one that dominates the view has a rainbow pattern with a triangular basket underneath.

Hot air balloons in Boise, Idaho, 2018 (photo by Christina Hendricks)

As part of Mid-Year Festival 2024, I’m participating in a book circle on Ruha Benjamin’s book, Imagination: A Manifesto. I am going to add a few reflections here on the Introduction and chapters 1 and 2, in preparation for our meeting about those chapters.

I wanted to join this book circle because I have a strained relationship with imagination sometimes. In some ways I feel I have a great deal of imagination (I love drawing even though I’m not great at it, for example, and doing very short, 6-10 word stories), but in other ways I feel like I tend to just continue with things as they are because I struggle with understanding how they might change. This is especially the case with systemic issues that would require very complex work in many ways to even start to approach.

Back in MYFest 2022 I wrote a blog post about imagining higher education futures, and how much difficulty I found with that task because of the interlocking structures that all need to change in order to make bigger changes. I felt somewhat stuck, because while trying to change one thing it bumped up against so many others that made it difficult to move. I’m hoping that while reading and discussing this book I feel even more unstuck.

I’m going to use this space to take notes on these first chapters of the book to help me remember what I’ve read and come back to it later. Note: I’m reading the book in e-book format, and the page numbers may be different.

Benjamin spends a fair bit of time in this first part of the book noting that what she is talking about is not just individual imagination, but collective; and not just collective imagination for any new future, but one that writes new stories of “solidarity, mutuality, and shared prosperity” (17) as against the “old stories” “scripted by colonialism, capitalism, ableism, white supremacy, nationalism, and cis-heteropatriarchy” (16). She quotes Thomas Berry as saying “We are in between stories” (16), between those old ones and the new ones we can create. This is a hopeful idea, that we are already moving past the old and that there is space for something radically different. It opens up that space and invites us in to write and rewrite.

I keep coming up against my old struggles, though, that voice that Benjamin notes in the Introduction as “the cynical, skeptical grouch that patrols the borders of our imagination” (8). She also emphasizes that the grouch is itself a product of other imaginations, other stories: “After all, ‘dangerous limits have been placed on the very possibility of imagining alternatives,’ insists scholar and activist Angela Y. Davis” (8). The very idea that the way things are is the way they must be, that we really can’t change due to human nature or the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds, is part of the imaginary that holds us here. Instead, “radical imagination can inspire us to push beyond the constraints of what we think, and are told, is politically possible” (22).

I’m finding that what I’m struggling with most, though, is not so much generating a vision of an end goal, but the path of how to get there. Today during the meeting of our book circle about this book we did an exercise in small groups where each one of us took turns being a “visionary” imagining a better future related to a particular area or challenge of our choice, and the others asked us questions. This was a freeing exercise, as part of what we started off with was giving ourselves permission to be “mediocre”–we don’t have to have all the best answers. I found our group came up with wonderful visions of the future that were inspiring and energizing. And yet, I found myself thinking about my own visions: but I don’t know how to get there from here. With “here” being a system that is very different, and with interlocking structures that are complex and challenging to move. It will take hard work.

Benjamin also notes that just as imagination can’t, by itself, lead to significant change without hard work, so too does work to address current harms of racism, colonialism, and the climate emergency need attention to “the ideas and ideologies that continue to give rise to those harms again and again” (26), and “what we need is to pour just as much investment and ingenuity into transforming our social reality as we do our material reality” (40). We need to pay attention to the harms and challenges we all face in terms of health, wellbeing, climate, discrimination, harassment, and more, while also going a level above, as it were, to the ideas and ideologies that underpin where we are now and where else we might go. As a philosopher, this very much resonates with me.

Of course, there are different collective imaginaries, and Benjamin criticizes those that do not lead us towards “more egalitarian forms of social organization” (40), and instead towards things like tourist spaceflight for the very rich, or the radical longtermism that might lead us to concern ourselves with far future humans more than with the flourishing and suffering of all of those currently among us. According to Benjamin, “these newfangled storytellers are devoted to the flourishing of imaginary future people rather than the wellbeing of the masses right here, right now” (18). I have only vaguely heard of longermism here and there, and I will be taking this opportunity to learn a bit more and see where and how things can go towards valuing the future more than the present.

Relatedly, one of the many things that stood out to me in these chapters is the discussion of the Summer of Soul documentary by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, which juxtaposes the 1969 US moon landing with the Harlem Cultural Festival (New York) happening at the same time. While coverage of the moon landing dominated the airwaves, tens of thousands of people were focusing instead on the Black singers and bands taking the stage at the festival. Benjamin quotes some in the latter crowd, noting that the festival was at least as important as the moon landing, or more so: one notes that the “cash they wasted … could have been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem and all over this country” (30). Though I’m too young to remember the moon landing (I was one year old when it happened), it still plays vividly in my own childhood memories growing up in the US, while I hadn’t heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival at all. Benjamin notes that the film shows “a class of imaginations–a governing White imagination captivated by the utopian possibilities of space travel, and a Black social imagination demanding attention to the dystopias right under our noses” (31). It’s clear which imagination I grew up in.

Benjamin suggests that alternative imaginations could yield a transition from the story of homo econonmicus to homo cooperativus, “shining a light on how our development as a species has relied on prosocial actions and decisions for the collective good” (43). She notes, though, that it is crucial to remember, as we are writing a new story, that the category of the “human” will need to be rewritten as well, to include all humans, which hasn’t been the case in past histories. If we are looking to human cooperation and flourishing, we need to take seriously the ways, sometimes subtle but no less impactful, in which some humans have been and continue to be left out. As one example that came up in our discussion today, there are numerous ways in which physical, social, educational, and other structures do not work well for people with varying kinds of disabilities.

Benjamin ends chapter 2 with an image of change: she points to Canadian Indigenous peoples calling on Pope Francis to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, one of the old stories that needs to be abolished. The book must have been published before the rest of the story was told, which is that in March 2023 the Catholic Church did reject the Doctrine. This is only one amongst many steps that are still needed, but it only happened because of the many years of work by those who insisted this story needed to stop. Movement does happen, and still there is much to do.




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