29 December 2006

Questions prompted by Roberto Unger

This afternoon I picked up a copy of Roberto Unger's What Should The Left Propose? (Verso, 2005) in large part because I sympathize with the experimentalism he endorses with respect to political-economic institutions. This is a theme that emerges directly from American pragmatism of the sort I find especially persuasive. In any case, at the start of the book Unger writes the following: "The great European social theorists ... indentified the internal dynamics of societies - the revelation of inescapabale conflicts and missed opportunities - as the proximate cause of their transformation. These thinkers were mistaken. War and economic collapse have been the chief levers of change; catastrophe - unforeseen and uncontrolled - has served as the midwife of reform. The task of imagination is to do the work of crisis without crisis."

I think this is an extremely interesting point. We need not adjudicate the empirical question - namely whether catastrophe has underwritten more political-economic reform than has the workings of scoial dynmamics or one or another sort - in order to appreciate the potentially expansive role Unger accords imagination in politics. He takes a very Deweyian view of education as, essentially a training of the imagination. But even so, if we also acknowledge that, like our other "mental" capacities, imagination does not take place 'in our heads,' relying instead on a set of prosthetic devices, then it seems apparent that there is a rather large role in Unger's political project for photography as well as other visual arts.

At this point I will send readers back to one of my very first posts here where I discuss Patrick Maynard's claim that photography is best understood as a technology, one that allows us to not only see things but to imagine ourselves doing so. Unger suggests that we ought to be able to substitute imagining alternatives for having to come up with them as a way of pulling our collective butts out of the fire. Of course, he puts the point much more gracefully. He hopes to "loosen the dependence of change on calamity; and to design institutions and discourses that organize and facilitate their own revision." Invoking an historical case, he continues: "Franklin Roosevelt had war and economic collapse as his allies in the project of reform. It should be possible to be changed without being ruined."

If we confront a surfeit of images of calamity and catastrophe, perhaps we might use them as a substitute for the real thing. Perhaps they might serve as a basis from which to imagine alternatives to the political and economic and social arrangements that sustain such disasters. (Recall, for instance, the finding by Amartya Sen that famine results not from an absolute lack of food but from systems of property rights that differentially distribute access to such food as is available.) Are there other ways that we might use photography for such political purposes? If so, would extant photographic conventions enable or hinder any such potential efforts?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find this topic, on how social scientists can account for political change, is at the heart of what we ought to be doing. Maybe it´s a little bit outside the point of your post, but Mark Blyths "Great Tranformations: Economic Ideas and Institutiona Change in the Twentieth Century" (Cambrigde University Press, 2002) is trying to show how important ideas are for bringing political change about. I think he´s moving in the right direction, and I´m sure some of the underlying mechanisms he´s talking about can be translated to such things you´re discussing here.

30 December, 2006 07:02  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Charlie, Thanks for the comment. Mostly I am just thinking out loud, so there is not really anything outside the confines of the post! I will track down Blyth's book and see what he is up to. I appreciate the suggestion.

30 December, 2006 10:35  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blyth is quite interesting; discussing institutional change by bringing ideas into the analysis. He´s written a shorter piece on this,

Blyth, Mark "The Transformation of the Swedish Model: Economic Ideas, Distributional Conflict, and Institutional Change"

04 January, 2007 05:55  

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