Can projects of reimagining complement critical research?

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Photo: Ben Kanter

This post was prompted by the responses of some critical scholars to my recent work on reimagining the state; I focus on the challenge of developing transformative methods and the relationship they might have to more critical accounts.

The task of the critical academic is often seen as one of exposure – revealing relations of exploitation, exclusion and domination; analysing their social conditions, consequences, and patterned logics; and more generally, demonstrating what is masked and produced by taken-for-granted modes of thought and activity. Academic work – and I use this term to include activist writers and other commentators – can do this well. Critical writing does not simply expose the ground-rock and shadows of injustice conventionally ignored, but offers eloquent, powerful descriptions, with language and concepts (power-geometries, intersectionality, the prison-industrial complex, to name a few) that make particular wrongs thinkable, talkable – and thinkable through being talkable.

But as this form of writing comes to dominate left scholarship, some commentators have expressed concern about the limits of a certain kind of “negative” critical scholarship. Felski, Sedgwick and others question the reliance placed on exposure and what exposure can accomplish; the problems in treating oppression as so tightly patterned its spores or DNA emerge “perfectly” in all sorts of surprising places (rather than being more contingently joined-up); that critical work can over-pay attention to what is dominant and mainstream (at the expense of what is innovative and marginal); and that, normatively, it affirms the polarities of friend and enemy or else treats all social and political forms as (equally) dangerous.

Subjecting critical analysis to its own critical tools can be useful, but it’s not the approach I want to pursue here. In part, because doing so remains within the realm of distrust and displacement; in part, because it can appear to erase the nuance, diversity and political complexity of critical work; and in part because it suggests other (preferred) methods are less vulnerable or flawed. All methods can be subject to critical analysis – transformative ones as much as others. I want to avoid the “weaponising” of theory which, in its focus on particular methods’ failings, diminishes and loses sight of what different approaches can offer.

Naming, describing and analysing patterned forms of coercion, oppression and exploitation, particularly where they are least expected and suspected, remains important – vitally so. Critical work doesn’t just show what is wrong, it also scoops out space (destabilises a settled landscape) for other kinds of work as well.

At the same time, there is a need for writing that faces in other directions. What we might call it remains unclear: hopeful, transformative, experimental? These terms are only partially right, and indeed can apply to critical work also – which is good; my aim is not to set up a dichotomy between hopeful and critical orientations. Still, if we want to orient ourselves, in our writing, to a more hopeful world, what kind of methodologies might support this task – not as blue-prints or recipes but, in more provisional,  fragmented ways, as suggestions, questions, resources, challenges and paths?  In some fields, such methods exist – in many cases, have long existed. Elsewhere, they are less developed or have been battered by methodological skirmishes between critical and reconstructionist approaches.

In their critique of critical analysis, Sedgwick and Felski argue for readings that are reparative, generative, collaborative, and bridging. Their work, and many of the responses it has generated, foreground literature and related texts. I want to look at what reimagining could mean for practice-oriented political and socio-legal studies by briefly tracing two methods I have been exploring: the development of new conceptual imaginaries and institutional play.

New conceptual imaginaries – different conceptions for different purposes?

Over several years, I have been drawn to work in play studies, anthropology and utopian scholarship for help in reimagining concepts and institutions in ways that are oriented to progressive forms of (future) change. Central to this puzzling has been the argument that we need to make new interpretive and material “cuts” (to use a term Karen Barad has popularised); that it is not simply about taking the concept of, say, the state generated by critical left scholarship (or even by liberal scholarship) and then repurposing it, directing the state as if it were a machine towards new and different goals. Practically forging more progressive kinds of states is important, but we also need to reimagine, in ways necessarily plural, what it could mean to be a state. This reimagining is not about designing perfect future states, but making different “cuts” in the present. So, rather than approaching the state, conceptually, as a unitary hierarchical formation, with sovereignty over people, things and spaces within (and often beyond) its territory, we might use the concept of the state to identify governing formations that are plural, overlapping, heterogeneous, embedded and porous.

This may seem a strange argument today, particularly given the frightening rise in authoritarian statehood. But my argument here is not an empirical one about what states are like (based on what we currently understand states to be); nor is it an argument for adopting such an approach when undertaking critique. Critical work, arguably, needs conceptions of the state that emphasise and illuminate hierarchy, domination and exploitation. My suggestion here is a more modest one – that developing a more fractured, less sovereign, more horizontal conception of the state (alongside other conceptions) may open up hopeful possibilities, otherwise harder to identify, for thinking about what states or political governance formations could become.

There are parallels here with Gibson-Graham’s work on the economy, which highlighted the diversity of existing non-capitalist forms, including cooperative economic practice and domestic economies. Their argument was that it is important to read the economy as plural rather than exclusively capitalist – not because capitalism is benign, but because presenting capitalism as the only “show in town”, within capitalist economies, undermines the development of progressive alternatives.

The need to demonstrate alternatives already exist (a different form of exposure to the critical one but just as crucial), and that we can make different interpretive “cuts” when reading social life, suggests a form of pluralism. This is not an argument for pluralism as a social good. While pluralist economies or state forms might be worthwhile goals or aspirations, the claim being made here is slightly different; it is that we read for pluralism. This can be an empirical pluralism, but it is also an argument for recognising that multiple conceptual tracings of present structures and systems invariably exist, and are, perhaps, no bad thing.

Economy, state, gender: different conceptualisations can support different purposes; and our goal should not be to corral or erase this divergence. This is a contentious position since academic scholarship tends to suppose that conceptual commonality is advisable (especially outside those “appraisive” concepts, such as fairness and justice, now recognised post-Gallie as “essentially contested”). We may all be working with different conceptions of what it means to be an economy, state or gender, but the ideal, it seems, is to arrive at a shared one. Thus, academics argue hard that their conception is the best or right one, which not only should other people take up, but should use regardless of whether their aim is analysis, critique, reform or transformation.  Anything else, it would seem, would lead to (or at least accept) tremendous confusion – how can we converse if we use concepts in different, particularly incommensurable, ways?

Translating between different usages happens all the time, and there may be something to be said for making this more explicit in conditions where different conceptual “cuts” are assumed and recognised rather than treated as an annoyance or irritation to be resolved. But I want to turn to a different question and that is how we develop new imaginaries of concepts (or structures) such as the state, economy or gender.

Among critical writers engaged in exposing patterns of domination, there is often scepticism about the seemingly “heroic” academic, advancing ahead with their new imaginaries, at a distance from the “real”, everyday life, which they believe (naively, arrogantly?) their conceptual thoughts will trickle down to. But imaginative academic work doesn’t have to take – or be read as taking – a lone, individualistic form. It can be far more modest, collaborative and horizontal. This is usually recognised when writers engage in bridging work, giving voice to radical practices already in existence (or being trialed) in experimental spaces, everyday utopias, or traditional communities. Yet, the academic developing new conceptual “lines” can also be engaged in collaborative work, where reimagining the economy, state or gender are not  claimed as original authoritative creations that others should adopt, but as a supported tracing or path within a shared landscape that may or may not prove helpful to others.

Can we play at being a different kind of state? 

Reimagining concepts highlights the place of practice. One form I have become interested in, in part because it remains under-explored within political and socio-legal writing, is mimetic play. We might think of such play as a way of practicing the imagination and of putting the imagination into practice – a register that involves actualisation (or doing) but where, at any given moment, a space remains between what is done and what is realised. Mock parliaments or mock UN meetings, for instance, do not make laws with “real” effect; rather they work pedagogically to induct children into existing political systems.

Mimetic play, however, does not have to affirm the status quo; it can also be used to explore how states and state institutions might be more democratic, egalitarian, caring and socially embedded. Calling it play doesn’t mean it is trivial or lighthearted. While play suggests subjects’ willing engagement in creative, open-ended practice, what is also important is the aspirational surplus play identifies. The crowd-sourced constitution developed through the LSE (2013-15), for instance, demonstrated a readiness and ability to undertake a task normally seen as the responsibility and prerogative of parliament, even as its modern progressive constitution was unable to have legal effect. Likewise, the globe-trotting feminist judgments project, where feminist academics, simulating judges, wrote judgments on already decided cases showed what feminist arguments were possible within the legal and social knowledge governing the original decision. Yet, while feminists could produce new judgments, these judgments could not do what judgments are expected to do as authoritative decisions held up through a complex matrix of institutional power.

What counts as play (or not-play), importantly, can change. It is also often contested as participants disagree over whether a particular form has been realised – for instance, are local currencies “real” money or “pretend” money – particularly when they involve re-imagining what money is and can do? Yet, while we can get caught up with questions of effect, and what experiments can accomplish, what is important about mimetic institutional play is how it provides a practical way for the left (although not only the left) to develop social ambition – exploring what legal judgments and money, but also universities, tribunals, states, constitutions and embassies, could be like – in ways that go beyond what can currently be realised, and in ways that refuse to be dissuaded and disempowered by the notion that forging institutions and institutional imaginaries are the exclusive terrain of elites.

I am not arguing for critical academics to switch gear – to move from describing and analysing social harms, from uncovering domination and control in unexpected places to engaging in practices (conceptual, utopian, mimetic) that simulate (and stimulate) new hopeful imaginaries. At the same time, I do think we need a clearer, stronger, more confident space for the latter within the broad auspices of contemporary critical work.

Discourses of play have generated much mistrust in left academic quarters for seeming to emphasise lighthearted, mischievous amusement, and for valorising a refusal to commit; where play’s unsteady, endlessly shifting form means there is always slippage or something else going on. We might think of Bateson’s playful nip that signifies a bite but not what is signified by a bite (feminist judgments that signify legal rulings, but perhaps not what is signified by a ruling). Play here is like an accordion – stretching in and out, and refusing to be pinned down to a single static consistent form.

One place, though, where this movement can be productive, and does not have to mean a lack of commitment, is in thinking more positively about the relationship between critical analysis and hopeful reimagining – how both depend upon, and in a sense enact, the other, even as each produces its own endless spiral of reflexivity – critique leads to more critique; transformative imaginaries produce new, “improved” aspirations. Play may be useful here as a way of thinking, in more complex and constructive ways, about their interrelationship. It’s not simply a matter of critical work accommodating or integrating its more optimistic counterpart, any more than it’s about creating clear divisions where one method trumps or sits discretely alongside the other.

In short, we need to get out of the game of determining whether it is critique or hopeful reimagining that is most worthy of our time and attention, and instead develop richer ways of thinking through their interconnections. This is a project which the language of play can, I think, helpfully contribute to.

Thanks to Antu Sorainen and Didi Herman for their helpful suggestions.

I have explored conceptual methodologies and the use of play in reimagining the state further elsewhere, see



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