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  • Anne Nagel

Foucault, Genealogy, Imagination: What the Imagination Can Do

The concept of the imagination is embedded in the idea that there’s an autonomous human subject—a unified self—to do the imagining. But the self has become decentered, as we no longer take it for granted that the humanist version of a unified, a priori subject exists. Posthumanist theories have challenged the construction of the humanist dialectics that this concept is grounded in: mind vs. body, human vs. animal, self vs. other, subject vs. object. Moreover, postmodern theories have tended to question the dialectical binary itself. Following the “death of the subject,” how can we rethink the imagination, an attribute assumed to exist only in relation to the subject and to operate through dialectics? What does it mean to imagine if there is no unified self to do the imagining? What can such an imagination do?

There does seem to be a need for a non-dialectical reconceptualization of the imagination. For example, Steven Shaviro remarks that whenever we try to imagine an alternative to capitalism, our imagination “seems to have been depleted” (11). Judging by recent literature and film, the only way to imagine a non-capitalist society is to envision a post-apocalyptic one. On the bright side, the apocalypses seem varied: zombie epidemic, alien invasion, meteorite, etc. But ultimately, we have two alternatives: capitalist consumption or some radical, apocalyptic, Bataille-inspired expenditure. Binaries like this are the foundation for dialectical thought.

To think the imagination beyond dialectics, we would have to move past the idea of it as a fixed, narrowly defined appendage that would be lifeless apart from humanist subjectivity. To this end, I propose to map a genealogy of the imagination. In “Neitzsche, Genealogy, History,” Michel Foucault describes this approach as a way to historicize the type of concept that “we tend to feel is without history.” A genealogy “does not assume that words keep their meaning,” but rather highlights the appropriation and reappropriation of terms (76). I intend to map "the entry of forces" in the "emergence" of a postmodern imagination, revealing the "scene where forces are risked in ... confrontations, where they emerge triumphant, where they can also be confiscated" (84, 92-93). By doing this I hope to explore how the imagination has been mobilized by different theoretical constructions, how its function might have shifted, and finally, what it can do.

I. To Represent or...

Recent postmodern turns toward nondialectical thought have conflicted the most with Hegel, making his work a useful starting point. According to Hegel scholar Jennifer Bates, “Hegel’s notion of imagination is so central … that it figures implicitly at every moment of the dialectic” (137). The imagination is at the core of Hegel’s dialectic, his concept of the subject, and his vision of progress, and this is primarily because of its representational role. To represent ideas and “images” of external reality, you must imagine that they’re there (153). Since so much of Hegel’s dialectic hinges on representation, the imagination's role seems large (EPS paras. 454-55).

But outside his schema, he suggests, the imagination would be disastrous. “The arbitrary combinations of an imagination that has only been disorganized by its thought” is “neither poetry nor philosophy,” but rather “an imagery that is neither fish nor flesh,” he writes (POS paras. 42, 68). Intriguingly, the issue of images that fail to represent has struck a nerve with the contemporary scholars who have lamented the imagination’s imminent demise. When Richard Kearney calls the imagination a “species under threat of extinction” (60), he writes, “Now, the image precedes the reality it is supposed to represent” (2, italics added). Likewise, it seems that for Hegel, the ideal role of the imagination is to conjure up representations.

For Immanuel Kant, Hegel’s predecessor, the imagination can operate with greater freedom. Although Kant also makes the imagination subordinate to reason, he places greater emphasis on how imagining can generate new ideas as well as a sense of “freedom from the constraint of rules” (Kant 153-54). Bates notes, “As a result [of this mindset], in the modern era from Kant to the Romantics the role of the imagination becomes central and powerful” (xxiv).

While both Kant and Hegel view representation as an important function of the imagination, Hegel reappropriates Kantian terminology with an inflection. As Slavoj Žižek observes, “Kant still presupposes that the Thing-in-itself exists as something positively given beyond the field of representation,” since “Kant thinks that he is still dealing only with a negative presentation of the Thing.” In other words, the imagination represents reality to you because you can’t have immediate access to it; you experience reality through your subjective lens, but it's out there. Hegel’s position, on the other hand, is that “there is nothing beyond phenomenality.” Nothing exists outside the symbolic realm; all you can access is the representation. For Hegel, “we are already in the midst of the Thing-in-itself," but that Thing is “nothing but this radical negativity,” consisting not only of the inability to gain unmediated access to reality, but now also its lack. In the symbolic realm, “radical negativity” is a sign (393).

II. The Un-Representable

An experience of the sublime is one that is awe-inspiring, potentially terrifying, and ultimately, so affectively intense that it can’t be rationally grasped-- or represented. For Kant, the sublime is an “opening onto the supersensible,” a part of reality that's incomprehensible. Your failure to make sense of it doesn't expose a deficiency of your ability to reason, Kant argues, but of the imagination (Bates 17). Hegel sidesteps the nonrepresentational aspect of the sublime by making "radical negativity” a sign (Žižek 393). In this way, he keeps the imagination’s role primarily negative. Moreover, he confines it to the realm of representation, even in the case of the sublime. He gives the imagination an important position in his dialectic, and yet he seems to make a major effort to keep it in the mode of merely representing. Perhaps the reason Hegel doesn’t give the imagination a chapter of its own in Phenomenology of Spirit is that doing so could expose the fragile balance that seems to be required to contain its power.

Jean-François Lyotard destabilizes this balance. Lyotard returns the imagination to its role in the structure of the Kantian sublime, but with a difference. Of course, he doesn’t single-handedly reconstruct the imagination for the entirety of Western theory, just as he doesn’t simply order theory to stop creating metanarratives. But he describes a thought process taking place through multiple discourses, articulates it, and participates in advancing it. He calls himself a Kantian, but only in terms of the Kant of the Third Critique, the “Kant of the imagination, when he cures himself of the illness of knowledge and rules” (Taylor 57). Despite the value he places on the Kantian imagination, he resurrects the impasse of the Kantian sublime, in which for Kant, “the imagination, even at its most extended, does not succeed in presenting an object that might validate or ‘realize’ the Idea” (Differend 166 no. 4). The imagination can't make sense of it.

However, Lyotard reverses the logic of the Kantian sublime. For Kant, the failure of the imagination emphasizes the power of reason, whereas for Lyotard, the sublime only emphasizes the failure of reason. Jacques Rancière writes, “Lyotard turns [Kantian] logic on its head. The feeling of powerlessness in the experience of the sublime is endured by reason. It experiences its inability to be able to ‘approach matter,’ in other words to be able to master the sensible event” (93). Lyotard's reconceptualization disrupts not only the Kantian sublime, but also Hegel’s dialectic. The sublime rends what Lyotard terms a “differend,” an impassable abyss between the "phrase regime" of reality and the "phrase regime" of the idea. This agitation of “the infinity of the Idea” drawing “to itself all the other capacities” produces an “Affekt” (167 no. 4). Affect, an experience of intensity more immediate than emotion, is not representable.

III. New Moves

In Just Gaming, Lyotard playfully introduces Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of language "games" into his imaginative repertoire. He writes, “Justice does not consist merely in the observance of the rules; as in all the games, it consists in working at the limits of what the rules permit, in order to invent new moves, perhaps new rules and therefore new games.” For Lyotard, acting justly means observing "the singular justice of each game” instead of trying to judge all "games" by the same set of rules. In other words, he's making a case for theorizing through multiple micronarratives instead of one grand, all-encompassing metanarrative, such as Hegel's dialectic of progress. According to Lyotard, this sense of justice “prohibits terror,” but it also “authorizes the ‘violence’ that accompanies the work of the imagination” (100). Conceived of in this way, the imagination would no longer maintain the mechanism of Hegel’s entire dialectic. Instead of dutifully representing the idea of “radical negativity” to the ego, the imagination would continue to negate. With its potentially violent “new moves” and even “new games,” the imagination would negate both the link to phenomena "in itself" and the subjective link to the ego, challenging not only the “knowability” of external phenomena, but also the very existence of the subject.

This disruption uproots the foundations of Hegel’s dialectic, while imaginatively reappropriating the mechanics of the dialectic to invent "new games." It liberates the imagination from the necessity of representing external reality to the subject, but it also privileges negation to synthesis. Empowered to construct new games, the imagination not only negates the knowable a priori object, but goes on to negate the knowable a priori subject. It cannot synthesize because synthesis entails representing the particular and extrapolating universals. A sort of hyper-negativity results, intensifying into a multiplicity of negations, along with their reversals.

Disrupting the representational thought integral to dialectical synthesis, the imagination continues the process of dialectical negation. It still uses "moves" from the Hegelian dialectic by deconstructing and reconstructing, but it disrupts the resolution of synthesizing them. Conceptualized in this way, the imagination may not be the victim of Derridean deconstruction, but rather a force responsible for it. This sort of imaginative negation might reconstruct identities to deconstruct them, positing performative rather than essential identities. This calls to mind the work of Judith Butler. On the other hand, the emphasis on negation also corresponds with Shaviro’s frustration. Trapped in a state of negation without synthesis, the imagination moves primarily by constructing dialectical antitheses to negate. The primary mode of constructing an alternative to capitalism consumption is, then, conjuring up an apocalyptic expenditure of resources. But this mode of negation seems hard to shake.

IV. New Games

This disruption of representation and synthesis mobilizes other postmodern theories as well. For instance, affect theory explores the nonrepresentational experience of affect, searching out immediacy rather than the mediation of signifying regimes. Spatially, the interest in boundaries and transgression signals the blurring that would accompany this shift. The “reterritorializations” and “deterritorializations” that Deleuze and Guattari describe are offshoots of this interplay of boundaries; the negating imagination cuts and recuts, constructs and deconstructs.

As boundaries blur, the movement of “becoming” is privileged over “being,” again recalling Deleuze and Guattari. Complete escape from the dialectical mechanism that Hegel articulates would be nearly impossible because as the idea of “becoming” demonstrates, there is still the sensation of movement, as if toward a synthesis of “being.” Yet the imagination is trapped within the dialectical movement of negation-- progressing toward a synthesis that never occurs and never establishes a new, static condition of “being.” This tension emerges in attempts to imagine beyond the dialectic on one side and on the other side, a sense that the subjective, representational imagination is in jeopardy.

“Knowledge is not made for understanding,” Foucault asserts. “It is made for cutting” (NGH 88). Amid these shifts, Foucault displaces the historicist approach of Hegel with the genealogy, which he attributes to Nietzsche. The Foucauldian genealogy does not reveal an essential origin or an “unavoidable conclusion” of a systematic development (92-93). I cannot foretell the changes that our concept of the imagination might yet undergo, nor can I definitively say how it must operate to take us beyond the dialectic. But I hope that thought experiments like this micro-genealogy will prove useful by illuminating, as Foucault writes, the “relationship of forces" and "the usurpation of power” involved in this sort of "appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it” (88). In this case, a part of the Hegelian vocabulary seems to have turned against the rest of the dialectic. As if in parody, the imagination tauntingly affirms some rules of the Hegelian dialectic, while functioning counter to its mechanism. Looking ahead, its potential remains unclear. Perhaps more conceptually "violent" imaginative work is needed. After all, in response to the question “How could [a term] change roles on the same stage?” Foucault writes that it is “only by being seized, dominated, and turned against its birth” (92).

Intriguingly, Bates makes a minor error in her reference to Kearney’s work. She calls it “In the Wake of Imagination” instead of “The Wake of Imagination” (xix). Kearney’s title suggests the remembrance and mourning of a beloved, albeit abstract victim, and although “in the wake” can signify an absence, it can also describe a very different scenario. "In the wake of" could, in fact, suggest that the imagination is not the victim, but rather the destructive force. The phrase evokes cinematic images of a once great city in ruins, “in the wake” of some monstrosity. A Godzilla of the epistemological world, the imagination seems to have escaped confinement, eluded recapture, and gone on a rampage of disorder through the structures that would so narrowly define it.

Works Cited

Bates, Jennifer Ann. Hegel’s Theory of Imagination, State U of New York P, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, Random

House, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans.

Richard Howard, Random House, 1965.

Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow,

Random House, 2010.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences,” MIA Hegel


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “First Philosophy of Spirit,” The System of Ethical Life and First

Philosophy of Spirit (Part II of the System of Speculative Philosophy), trans. H.S. Harris and

T.M. Knox, State U of New York P, 1979.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, Oxford UP, 1977.

Kant, Immanuel. Excerpts from Critique of Judgment, eds. Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin,

Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, Blackwell, 2008.

Kearney, Richard. The Wake of Imagination: Ideas of Creativity in Western Culture, Hutchinson

Education, 1988.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Lyotard, Jean-François and Jean-Loup Thébaud. Just Gaming, trans. Wlad Godzich, U of

Minnesota P, 1985.

Rancière, Jacques. Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans. Steven Corcoran, Polity Press, 2009.

Shaviro, Steven. “The Singularity is Here,” Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, ed. Mark

Bould and China Miéville, Pluto Press, 2009.

Žižek, Slavoj and Ernesto Laclau. “Not Only as Substance, but Also as Subject,” Sublime Object

of Ideology, Verso, 1989.

#annenagel #imagination #posthuman #postmodern #MichelFoucault #subject #hegel #representation #Kant #SlavojZizek #JeanFrancoisLyotard #StevenShaviro #dialectic #Deleuze

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