Restless Imagination: HotE Preview, Ronald Judy

The Humanities on the Edge lectures for this academic year take on the question of “Post-Revolutionary Futures.” If Timothy Brown’s recent lecture on the events of 1968 and the Russian Revolution laid the historical groundwork for asking the question, “Is revolution still possible?,” next week’s lecture by Ronald Judy promises to approach this question in terms of the very conditions of imagining revolution and what may follow it. On Thursday, October 19th, at 5:30pm in the Sheldon Museum Auditorium, Judy—Professor of Critical and Cultural Studies in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh—will present his lecture entitled “Restless Flying from Haiti to Tunisia: What Is ‘After Revolution’ Anyway?”

Imagination as a constitutive element of radical politics plays a critical role in much of Judy’s work regarding the Arab Revolution of 2011, particularly in Tunisia, as well as his examinations of planetary violence, the global U.S. security state, and biopolitical capitalism. If our understanding of revolution involves pushing toward a resistance to, escape from, or overthrow of these latter forces, then for Judy revolution requires a fertile imagination that functions in the poetic expression of a new way of being human in the world—a new poesis of the human.

In much of our talk of revolution, either in speculating its potential or in lamenting its impossibility, the concept of imagination already instructs the terms of the discourse. In recent decades, the concept of a troubled imagination emerges when we scan the scope of capitalism’s dominance. From the Reagan/Thatcher era, we were instructed to approach the revolutionary imagination of a remade world order as a vacancy, a negation, an impossibility, because “there is no alternative.” Marco Abel, in his introduction to this year’s lecture series theme, referenced the well-known statement attributed to Frederic Jameson that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”—a statement that, as Mark Fisher notes in his book Capitalist Realism, describes “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (2). It would seem that, with the terms of the discourse established so, we would need to preempt the question of revolution’s possibility by asking the question of imagination’s possibility. What Judy shows so powerfully in his work is that the question of imagination does not precede or merely accessorize the question of revolution. In fact, the act of imagination may be the key act that realizes revolution, rather than merely establishing the conditions of its conceptual possibility.

Judy argues that revolutionary imagination is tied to the kinds of knowledge and intelligence that function in the emergence of revolution. When new knowledges come into being, through the revolutionaries, they enact a force upon systems of oppression, which must therefore guard against such dangerous imagining. “There are sanctioned ways of thinking and attendant forms of knowledge that contribute to the maintenance of power’s current formation, and there are ways of thinking that threaten that formation by enabling knowledges with threatening potential” (“America and Powerless Potentialities” 133). This quote arises in a discussion of the planetary U.S. state that arose particularly in the wake of 9/11, changing the world order such that “domination through war […] constitutes and maintains the global society” (133). In the reactionary violence enacted by the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere since the 9/11 attacks, Judy argues that the American security regime has recast the world into a quote-unquote “International community” defined as America’s own proper domain through “a mode of war so horrific in its technological thoroughness to be inhuman” (133). In this situation, the imagination has become a primary battlefield for this planetary violence to exert its dominance, and what this war comes down to is, one might say, a refashioning of the human into something it either is not or has not been—the conflicting goals being, for the global security state, the governable and/or disposable inhuman and, for the revolutionaries, the ungovernable and dignified new human.

The assault on the imagination takes place on several tactical levels: through military occupation, policing, and despotic regimes, but also through increasing bureaucratization, economic population-management, and technological mediation of communication and intelligence. These varying but interactive tactics enforce the possibilities for what can be thought and in what ways, through what means and with whom. Reactionary power tends toward expansion, and, as Judy points out, this poses existential problems for revolutionary potential. “If it becomes possible to absolutely manage imagination globally as a habitual function of security institutions, to both anticipate and then preempt the most unlikely disruptive manifestations of it enabled by the information-driven global economy, then how could there be any truly dynamic thinking in the world?” (“Dreaming” 144).

And dynamic thinking is precisely what is needed for freedom, dignity, and life to overcome the controlling violence of what is called security, to open up spaces for the only sort of action that can be afforded the underrated appellation of politics and even revolution. I remember here Hannah Arendt’s comment that “[t]here are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous” (176). The activity of thinking—of imagining beyond thought’s state-legitimated forms—breaks open habits and “common sense,” these representations of the world which serve the security of the powerful status quo. Wherever thinking may lead and however we may judge those destinations, the work of this imaginative faculty is essential for the potential of anything new to emerge. Bound up in state-sanctified notions of the human—as a governable homo economicus and metonymy of the control apparatus—we are bound to continually playing out the violence of habit. What is needed is to be unbound from our enforced common sense of humanity and to play with figurations of a miraculously new kind of human. We might say, following Arendt, that such miracles can’t happen unless dangerous thinking happens as well.

So where has such thinking happened in recent years? Judy identifies this in the “restless” imagination of the Tunisian youth during the Arab world’s revolutionary moment of 2011. In his analysis of the Tunisian Revolution, Judy compellingly shows how a revolutionary imagination can emerge as dangerous to the authoritarian state. The youth of the Tunisian Revolution were in certain ways products of the 1958 Project for Educational Reform instituted by President Habib Bourguiba and Mahmoud al-Mas‘adi, the writer and intellectual who served under Bourguiba as Secretary of State for Education, Youth and Sports (“Restless Tunisians” 141). The goal of the reforms was to standardize, by means of education, a “restless” humanist subject, and this subject would later turn out to be existentially placed in a way fitting to imagining revolution.

Judy notes that the Tunisian youth of 2011 under the repressive Ben Ali regime would, in their protests and public activity on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, make the Avenue into a sort of “agora in the proper political sense, in which free and open association, the spontaneity of collectivity and collective expression, has happened […], the public venue for elaborating the potentialities of the revolutionary project” (141). Their activity proved resilient to Ben Ali’s counterrevolutionary measures, in which he closed the Avenue to demonstrations.

As Judy ultimately argues, the power of these youth of the Tunisian Revolution lay in their use of imagination and poetic expression, which emerge from their existential condition of qaliqa, or “restlessness.” The term restlessness, which is itself importantly rooted in national poetic texts held significant by the revolutionaries, means to be existentially transitional, to feel as though one has no “proper place of origin,” to be homeless, “in the sense of without founding mythology” (“Restless Tunisians” 143). This sort of restlessness on the part of the revolutionary youth implies their severed ties to national patriotism and instead marks “a certain existential condition, a certain type of human persona or subjectivity that is not circumscribed or even enabled by the nation-state” (144). Existing as such, the youth of the Revolution embody an ungovernable subject imbued with a poetic energy and force capable of constructing spaces for life and human dignity to flourish as freedom, against the inhumanity of the control apparatus.

In describing the new kind of human coming into being through the imagination of these young revolutionaries, Judy includes a meditation on a part of a 1933 poem by the Tunisian poet Abou el-Kacem Chebbi that I believe bears quoting in full:

If the people will to live

Providence is destined to favorably respond

And night is destined to fold

And the chains are certain to be broken.

And whoever has not embraced the love of living

Will evaporate in its atmosphere and disappear. (qtd. in “Introduction” 13)

The young revolutionaries of Tunisia have embodied the sort of human existence captured in this poem, a human who is critically linked to the concept of dignity—a human coming into being through a “perpetual revolution” enacted through “its spontaneous imaginative capacity and techniques in concert with its desire” (“Introduction” 14). In his writing on the revolutionaries’ use of this poem, Judy further reveals the centrality to revolutionary politics of an activity of poetic expression, with its ability to communicate desire, to imagine beyond the reach of what is allowed, and to imagine in the rhythm of timely and eventful thinking (16). He also poses to us a question that we must place at the center of our discussions of revolution—a question which will contribute a great deal to our thinking through this season of Humanities on the Edge lectures: “What is the human, according to whom?” (16). We can look forward to hearing how Judy will develop these themes and this question during his visit next week.


Image source: "Tunisian revolution one year commemoration" (Flickr, uploaded by khaled abdelmoumen)

Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. Harvest, 1971.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. Zero Books, 2009.

Judy, Ronald A. T. “America and Powerless Potentialities.” Yearbook of Research in English and American, Theories of American Culture Theories of American Studies, vol. 19, 2003, pp. 129-154.

Judy, R. A. “Dreaming About the Singularity of the New Middle Ages: Three Provisional Notes on the Question of Imagination.” Critical Zone 3, edited by Douglas Kerr, Q. S. Tong, and Wang Shouren, Honk Kong UP, 2009, pp. 113-144.

Judy, R. A. “Introduction: For Dignity; Tunisia and the Poetry of Emergent Democratic Humanism.” Tunisia Dossier: The Tunisian Revolution of Dignity, special issue of boundary 2, vol. 39, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-16.

Judy, Ronald Abderrahman. “Restless Tunisians.” La Tunisie du XXIe siècle: Quels pouvoirs pour quels modèles de société?, special issue of EuroOrient, vol. 38, 2012, pp. 137-147.

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