ZiF Workshop

Conceptualising the Political Imaginary

Date: 24 - 25 July 2018
Convenors: Paula Diehl (Bielefeld, GER), Olaf Kaltmeier (Bielefeld, GER)

The political is changing its shape. Ideologies are no longer stable, but instead create hybrid combinations. Populism is getting popular. There are new forms of political experiences, online and offline movements, and a new kind of political consciousness, which does not necessarily follow the logic of political institutions. These phenomena are signs of a deep transformation of the political imaginary. The aim of the conference was to gather contributions from different academic disciplines dealing with the concept of imaginary, in order to develop a framework for theoretical reflection and empirical research in the social sciences and humanities.

The epistemology of the political imaginary: Craig Browne stressed the connection between the political imaginary and the problem of hierarchy. Drawing on Castoriadis' and Lefort's concern with modern bureaucracy, he underlined the role of imaginary in underpinning individuals' attachment to institutions and facilitating the reassertion of hierarchy. Sacha Kagan recognized two different ways of thinking the political imagination, the dialectic and the dialogical one. Thanks to this epistemological framework, he could categorize four different imaginaries of ecological sustainability.

The psychoanalytical perspective on the imaginary: Starting from Adorno's ideas on mass psychology Chiara Bottici and Guilherme Massara Rocha analyzed Trumpism as a form of 'fascist mass' formation via narcissistic identification with the leader. The libidinal ties which are formed between the leader and his followers reflect a form of 'love' which is also to be found in popular culture. In contrast, Kathya Araújo was more sceptical on the use of psychoanalytical concepts—especially the Lacanian idea of the imaginary—in social analysis.

The imaginary in images: With the help of Jacques Rancière's theory of art, Johannes Grave explored the relation between politics and art, stressing the specific political character of the picture in itself. In the materiality of the image, he argued, lies the unused potentiality of images as a place where the order of the visible is questioned. Virag Molnar, drawing on an empirical study of the 'great Hungary' symbol, pointed out that, in order to analyze right-wing populism, we have to pay attention to the role played by symbols not only in the official political discourses, but also in its commercial circulation. Using Appadurai's theory of 'scapes' as a tool, Kristen Kramer argued that globalization is characterized by the creation of "geo-cultural imaginaries", which she illustrated with the example of the imaginary of the 'pampa'.

The relation between the political and the imaginary: Analyzing the populist discourse, Philip Manow stressed that we have to take in account the "political economy of the political imaginary", if we want to explain why there is in Europe a political antagonism with right-wing populism in the richer Northern countries and left-wing populism in the poorer South. Paula Diehl investigated the discontinuities and contradictions between the democratic imaginary and the practices of democracy. Based on Koselleck's analysis of the "contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous", she pointed out that political principles and social norms have different temporalities. If the imaginary can be seen as the form which organizes our experience, argued Mauricio Domingues, in the political modernity this role is played by the triad 'rights, laws, citizenship'. Drawing the genealogy of political modernity since the French Revolution, he underlined the constitutive dialectic of political modernity, the contradiction between abstract values as 'rights, laws, citizenship' and the concreteness, for example, of the social question.

This ZiF Workshop was completed by an international platform of dialogue of the Maria Sibylla Merian Center for Advanced Latin American Studies (CALAS) in cooperation with the ZiF focused on contemporary political crisis in Latin America and the changing political imaginaries between 'left' and 'right' tides.

Conclusion: Imaginary has a conceptual advantage because it contains the idea of image, emotions, and it is not limited to the political field. Nevertheless, it entails the risk of taking it as a whole, an independent reality, whereas it has to be thought in relation with the economic and social conditions and the concreteness of social life. This tension between the imaginary and the practices, the social conditions, is perhaps the inner dialectic of the imaginary itself, which has to be thought as fluid and various.


Kathya Araújo (Sandtiago de Chile, CHI), Chiara Bottici (New York, USA), Bettina Brandt (Bielefeld, GER), Craig Browne (Sidney, AUS), José Mauricio Domingues (Rio de Janeiro, BRA), Angelika Epple (Bielefeld, GER), Johannes Grave (Bielefeld, GER), Felix Heidenreich (Stuttgart, GER), Sacha Kagan (Lüneburg, GER), Wolfgang Knöbl (Hamburg, GER), Kirsten Kramer (Bielefeld, GER), Philip Manow (Bremen, GER), Guilherme Massara Rocha (Belo Horizonte, BRA), Sara Minelli (Berlin, GER), Maria Virginia Lorena Ossio Bustillos (Bielefeld, GER), Julia Roth (Bielefeld, GER), Alex Schlenker (Quito, ECU), Mongi Serbaji (Kassel, GER), Willibald Steinmetz (Bielefeld, GER), Thomas Welskopp (Bielefeld, GER)

Please direct questions concerning the organisation of the workshop to Trixi Valentin at the Conference Office. Questions regarding scientific content and contributions should be directed to the organizers.

Tel: +49 521 106-2769
Fax: +49 521 106-152769
E-Mail: trixi.valentin@uni-bielefeld.de