Intellectual history Think Piece

“If The People Can Imagine Something, There Will Come a Time When They Will Achieve It”: The Imaginary in Times of Revolution

By Nabila Abbas

By Nabila Abbas

The Tunisian Revolution that overthrew the authoritarian regime of President Ben Ali after 23 years of rule not only reverberated throughout the Arab world but also marked the beginning of a new era of protest in Europe and the United States. It inaugurated a wave of heterogeneous social and revolutionary movements, which demanded the right to (more) democratic participation, civil liberties, and social justice in countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Spain, Greece, the United States, Turkey, and many others. In Tunisia, the beginning of the revolutionary process marked an end of a long phase of disenfranchisement and denial of political and social rights. The Tunisian citizens struggled for political freedoms, a more just and less corrupted socio-economic order, an independent justice system, and women’s rights.

However, after a short period of euphoria, social scientists and journalists began describing the “Jasmine Revolution” as a mere hunger revolt or a short-lived uprising, fearing that the erstwhile civic protests would become instrumentalized by (Islamist) extremists. They denied the revolution’s inherently political character, as it did not easily correspond to any ideological current or political party. To many, a revolution that occurred seemingly spontaneously, horizontally structured between “simple” citizens without any leaders or specific ideological commitments, seemed unimaginable. Although ideological programs were not the main points of reference for Tunisian actors, this does not mean that the protestors did not have political ideas or convictions. In a “post-ideological” world, in which ideologies have lost their former status, the concept of the imaginary is particularly helpful in making sense of the ideational dimension of revolutions. The imaginary allows analyzing the political horizons opened up by actors in revolutions and movements of contestation that often persist even after the “end” of a revolutionary moment.

Cornelius Castoriadis developed one of the most elaborated theories of the imaginary, in which he emphasized the close relationship between the imaginary and political action. While the notion is commonly deployed in works of French historiography (See Corbin, Le Goff, or Ross), it is not typically treated as a core concept in political theory or philosophy. There is certainly an abundance of different accounts of the imaginary and the imagination: from Plato to Kant and up to Ricoeur (with whom Castoriadis engaged in a fascinating exchange on the concept of the imaginary) and Taylor. Before Castoriadis, however, they occupied a marginal place in the Western philosophical tradition.

In Castoriadis’ work, “the imaginary” denotes simultaneously the collective social representations and political ideas (what he terms “social imaginary significations”), as well as the capacity of the imagination to move beyond the given conditions. In L’institution imaginaire de la société from 1975, he showed that the individual and collective imagination contains a creative force that enables the emergence of new social significations, which makes it the source of social and historical transformation. Thus, the imaginary plays a central role in the processes of social conflict and deliberation that concern values and institutions. As a psychoanalyst, Castoriadis was particularly interested in the psycho-emotional components of imaginary significations, which are not reducible to ideas, histories, or myths; yet always consist of projections, desires, and affects.

According to Castoriadis, societies establish their identity—organizing themselves as singular socio-historical realities—on the basis of imaginary significations. From this perspective, revolutions appear as privileged moments in which societies put into question their central institutions and create new imaginaries. In revolutionary processes, “in which the instituting society breaks into the instituted” and “creates itself as a different instituting society,” Castoriadis saw the birth of new social imaginaries. During revolutionary moments of rupture and foundation, societies generate new significations when they search for and reinvent their form, self-understanding, and imaginary common sense.

Like no theorist before him, Castoriadis paved the way for a theoretical exploration of the imaginary. It is thanks to his oeuvre that this concept has found such a sophisticated treatment as an object of philosophical and social-scientific inquiry. However, his accounts of the imaginary at times remain abstract, which has made his approach difficult to operationalize for empirical political science. Hence, his concept of the imaginary appears to require adjustments in light of empirical research.

Inspired by Castoriadis’ theory, I conceptualize “the imaginary” as a set of political significations and beliefs that agents develop throughout their political actions and experiences within revolutionary contexts. Importantly, these significations are not only expressed in the form of what commonly is referred to as political “ideologies;” although imaginaries are not free of ideological or utopian elements, they are not reducible to them. They allow for fragments of social projections to appear, which are not always coherent or purely rational but instead characterized by emotional and symbolic dimensions. In my empirical research on imaginaries in the context of the Tunisian revolutionary process, I showed that imaginary significations remain fluid and malleable: they emerge or are reconfigured in the light of events. The experience of certain events allows imaginaries that may have previously seemed marginal, unrealistic, or undesirable to step into the center and become a political alternative.

To grasp these transformations conceptually, I suggest to extend Castoriadis’ notion of the imaginary by applying the conceptual pair of the “space of experience” and the “horizon of expectation,” as developed by historian Reinhart Koselleck. When certain events or new experiences create a fundamental transformation of the space of experience among actors, the horizon of expectation is opened up, thus enabling the emergence of new imaginary significations. The transformation in the horizon of expectation relativizes the supposed immutability of social order and political institutions, allowing actors to develop different ideas about the future. Hence, political action involves the faculty of imagination insofar as subjects must be able to mentally distance themselves from their experience of reality, which allows them to refigure the given order as open to transformation and think of themselves as potential agents in this process. The concept of the imaginary allows us to apply this projection to the future. In contrast to the notion of the “frame,” which is often used in political sociology to analyze social representations among movement actors, the concept of the imaginary is not reducible to the present: the imaginary articulates past, present, and future. Anchored in individual and collective experiences of the past and the present, imaginaries provide a form to the projections for a future political order.

This analysis of revolutionary processes through the prism of the imaginary remains abidingly relevant today. The revolutions and protest movements of the 21st century are overwhelmingly horizontal movements carried by “simple” citizens, who often reject established channels of political representation and break with coherent, clearly defined, collectively shared ideologies. Revolutions produce new political orders and new social representations of the political and social institutions they try to create, as well as of the modes of action they use to bring them about. The analysis of imaginaries also allows us to recognize the circulation and appropriation of political ideas – across time, in historical resonances between different revolutions across centuries and space, between geographical regions and cultural spaces. Revolutionary projects, slogans, chants, images, symbols, and manifestos travel between countries and epochs. With the concept of the imaginary, they become intelligible and open to articulation.

Title from Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, p. 344.

Nabila Abbas holds a binational PhD in Political Science from JLU Giessen (germany) and University of Paris 8 (France) and works currently at the CRESPPA research center (CNRS/Paris 8/University of Paris Nanterre). Based on Castoriadis’ theory of the imaginary, she has conducted research on the place of the imagination in political action, especially in the context of the Tunisian Revolution. She is the author of “The Imaginary and Revolution. Tunisia in Revolutionary Times” (Campus, Fankfort-on-Main, 2019) and she has taught at Sciences Po Paris, Sciences Po Rennes, the Universities of Aachen, Paris 8 and Paris Est-Créteil.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Demonstrators in the capital city of Tunis sitting on a wall where “Free at last” was written after the popular unrest of the Jasmine Revolution forced Tunisian Pres. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to step down, January 2011. Christophe Ena—AP/