Imagining Alternatives

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Literature & Social Justice / Politics / Truth

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In the first meeting of Tackling T.I.N.A, an anti-capitalist reading group, we immersed ourselves in discussion surrounding the power of imagination in struggles for change. As literary scholars our work centers around the imagination. One of the core tenets of fiction is that even when it is based on reality, it comes directly from the imagination. We value fiction for the truths that it can tell us about the world. This positions us as change makers. Through our reading and interpretation of literature we are given ample opportunities to see the ways that the world could be.

For anti-capitalist efforts, the ability to imagine alternatives is essential. Arguably, any efforts toward societal change require the ability to see ways the world might be constructed differently. In Revolutions in Reverse, David Graeber writes that “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and, could just as easily make differently. In this sense, a phrase like ‘all power to the imagination’ expresses the very quintessence of the Left” (47). As we so often are told and we just as frequently tell our own students: the world is socially constructed. Capitalism, like any other systems we analyze in our work, is a social construction that didn’t have to be and doesn’t need to stay. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply engrained into our lives and it certainly doesn’t suggest that change will be easy. It merely means that we have a place to begin.

I come back frequently to aspects of Frederic Jameson’s “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture” when thinking about a need for different societal and economic formations because of his insistence that the desire for a different structure is common in humanity.

All contemporary works of art—whether those of high culture and modernism or of mass culture and commercial culture—have as their underlying impulse— albeit in what is often distorted and repressed, unconscious form—our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived. (147, emphasis mine)

Anti-capitalism is within us, but in order to construct an alternative we need to let our creative sides, our imaginations, shine. It won’t happen overnight, but it can and must happen if we want a more egalitarian and just society. We need to begin by thinking about what kind of society we desire and what aspects of the current system are inhibiting that vision.

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Image courtesy of Just Seeds

“There is No Alternative” is a phrase so commonly used in conjunction with capitalism that it needed an acronym, T.I.N.A. Yet, there are alternatives if we are willing to give them a chance. Too often the people who believe in emancipatory change are told to “be realistic” or are mocked for their “idealism” which is often used as a euphemism for naïveté. But the danger in being too “realistic” is falling into the trap of T.I.N.A and believing that the way the world has been constructed thus far is the best or only way. In her essay, “Imagination and Reality” Jeanette Winterson challenges the idea that reality and imagination are contradictory. She writes,

I see no conflict between reality and imagination. They are not in fact separate. Our real lives hold within them our royal lives; the inspiration to be more than we are, to find new solutions, to live beyond the moment. Art helps us to do this because it fuses together temporal and perpetual realities. (142-143)

As scholars we are taught to push back against naturalized beliefs. Even analytical interpretations that we love and agree with offer spaces for continued discussion and further analysis. Why should our economic system be any different? Especially when that system dominates our society. Whether you see yourself as an-anticapitalist or not, we all need to be imagining the best possible world we can.

The book group, which meets every-other Thursday, is open to anyone whether you identify as anti-capitalist or you have only minor concerns with the capitalist system. By bringing together thinkers from across the Lehigh campus, engineers and literature majors alike, we hope to broaden the scope of our imagination one reading at a time.

 

The Readings:

Bellamy, Edward. “Why I Wrote ‘Looking Backward’.” The Nationalist, 1890.

Graeber, David. “Revolution in Reverse,” Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination, 2011.

Winterson, Jeanette. “Imagination and Reality.” Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, pp. 133-151

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