Stephen Duncombe on Imagination, Spectacle and Desire
October 2, 2018
One of the best books I read this summer was Stephen Duncombe’s ‘Dream: re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy’. Written during the last days of the presidency of George W. Bush, it was a plea for progressive politics to embrace imagination, spectacle, wit, sensuality and what one reviewer called “a joyful aesthetic of dissent”. I loved the book’s assertion that “unless progressives acknowledge and accept a politics of imagination, desire and spectacle, and, most important, make it ethical and make it our own, we will bring about our “ruin rather than preservation”.
Today Stephen lives two lives. One is that of a professor at New York University where he teaches about history and the politics of the mass media and writes books. His second life is with the Centre for Artistic Activism which he co-founded with artist Steve Lambert. He travels the world teaching activists to be a bit more like artists, and artists to be a bit more like activists. Noble work. I started our conversation by noting that politics in the US have changed, just a little, since the book was written, and asking how he feels the book now translates into the Age of Trump.
“Unfortunately the book was more prescient that I had imagined. Ostensibly another version is coming out with an introduction about how to make sense of Dream in the age of Trump, but the bottom line of Dream was this idea that I had coming out of my work as an activist – sort of the disappointment with liberal left ways of approaching politics.
It seemed to me that liberal left was very much invested in an enlightenment idea and ideal of how politics works, which goes something like this: a group of people get together in a sixteenth century coffee house, they have full access to information, they have reasonable discussions and make therefore reasoned responses and therefore go out and do reasonable things, which of course is very much the idea and the ideal of democracy. My experience was that that’s not how democracy was working.
Democracy was much more a play of sign and symbol, story and spectacle. It seemed to me that the liberal left had locked in an outmoded idea of how politics actually worked and I looked around at that time and it seemed like the people that really embraced this idea of a modern landscape of sign and symbol, story and spectacle were the right wing. Now since that time, of course, and this is why I say I was unfortunately very prescient, is that right wing which peddles in fantasy has only grown.
If you look around the world, right wing nationalism is on its rise and core to right wing nationalism is the peddling of fantasies and the using of spectacles. The book was really a ‘wake up lefty’, we better figure out how to operate on this terrain, and how to use these sort of aesthetic approaches or we’re going to be left in the dust. It was also a plea to learn how to use them ethically and to try to figure out how to create a spectacle in a way that didn’t do violence to the beliefs that the liberal left have. Things about equality, democracy, and even a belief in truth, and I thought it could be done. So that’s part of it.
Then I went looking for where I could learn these lessons, and I picked four sites that were immensely popular with every day people and immensely unpopular with the left. They were Las Vegas, advertising, hyper-violent video games like Grand Theft Auto, and celebrity magazines. Reasoning – and this is something that goes all the way back to both Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, and but also William James, writing in 1915, where if we want to be popular, we’ve got to understand popular culture. And part of understanding popular culture, is to understand – sort of have a road map – a road map revealed of popular desire.
I was really interested in looking at celebrity magazines, figuring out what sort of basic human need they met, and then translating that into an ethical leftist politics. I did that for all four of those sites. Then the last part is a meditation on what an ethical spectacle might look like.
You wrote in there that “progressives today seem to have forgotten how to dream”. I wonder if you could just reflect on that and also a question that I’ve asked lots of people I’ve spoken to is how would you assess the state of health of our collective imagination in 2018?
Sure, so to answer the first part, which is the left seems to have forgotten how to dream, I think the key word there is “forgotten” because of course the left had possession of political dreams for centuries. It was the dream of democracy against the aristocracy and the idea of the natural order, of course, that once motivated. It was the dream of anarchism and socialism that also motivated people.
Then it was other dreams like the civil rights movement. Quite literally, Martin Luther King, intoning, “I have a dream” and then it really reaches its peak in the 1960s when you have these phantasmagorical dreams which are often aligned with artistic movements. I’m thinking May of ‘68 at this moment, and philosophical movements like the Situationists, who are really daring people to imagine the unimaginable. “Take your dreams and make them into reality” to use a slogan from May 68.
And then something happened. I think part of what happened is the collapse of May ‘68 and the collapse of those dreams. Then the collapse of the Soviet Union, and all of a sudden the left ended up taking on the mantle of realism. And you can see that happening today, up into 2018. By and large the liberal left response to the right wing nationalist fantasies is to quote facts at them. But to say, “You’ve got it wrong. That’s not really what happened. That’s an alternative fact. Here’s the real fact. Here it is”, which is fine.
I’m a big believer in empirical evidence. I’m a big believer in fact. But facts need to be animated in order for people to care about them. William James went on to say, “Truth is something which happens to an idea” and by that he wasn’t being a relativist. What he was doing is an honest acknowledgement that truth is something which is attached to an idea, that people have to believe it is true. Whether it’s a fact, an empirical fact, or it’s a bald-faced lie.
The nationalist right is very, very good at creating truths based on bald faced lies, whereas the liberal left tends to just trot out the facts and say, “Well actually, that’s not true. Migration has not led to a rise in crime” and so on and so forth. But not been able to make that into a story that people want to hear, or a symbol, or an image that resonates with people. Once in a while it happens by accident.
I’m thinking of the photojournalist who captured the picture of the soldier picking up the young boy on the beach. On the fringes of the left there’s some of the best artistic activists I know, people who are actively creating stories. Even starting to sneak into the NGO world, which pays a lot of my bills as an activist, where there’s an acknowledgment that both story and artistry actually matter, that facts are not enough. But if you look at the mainstream political parties both Europe and the United States, on the centre left, they’re firmly in the camp of the reality principle.
And your assessment of the state of health of our collective imagination?
What worries me is that half the population has a very unhealthy and vibrant collective imagination, and they are the people that are saying “Britain for the British”, “America for white people”, “Kick the Jews out of Hungary” and so on and so forth. All of which are absolute fantasies. None of which are actually going to happen, right? But it is a fantasy. They’re quite a vibrant fantasy.
It’s just horrific. Whereas I think those of us who are horrified by that, we have an atrophied imagination insofar as our imaginations are being set by and large reacting against the right wing. Which is, “No, we want a multicultural society” but what does that look like? What does that feel like? What is the joy in that? And so on and so forth.
I tell you an exercise we do in our workshops. We go around with these professional activists that we work with, and we ask them, “What would winning look like?” They usually say something like, “Well, I’m working on a campaign…” and I remember this particularly working in Houston, Texas with a group of mothers whose children had been incarcerated. They said, “Well, what a win would look like is the passage of House Bill No. 217 which would allow families to have more rights and access to their children who are incarcerated.” Which is reasonable. That’s what they wanted. That’s what they were working on.
We said, “Okay, that’s great. Guess what. We’re here from the future, and you did it. Now what do you want to do?” Then they would say something like, “Well, laws are fine to be passed but you really need to have them implemented. So we need to have them implemented and respected by law enforcement agencies all across Texas.” We waited a beat, said, “Well, guess what? You’ve done that as well. So what’s next?” And slowly, literally over 20 minutes, they would say, “Well actually I want a world in which my kids don’t have to turn to crime or get pulled into crime.”
Okay, well that’s happened. Then, I want a world without crime. Then I want a world without police. Then I want a world without prisons. And we got to a place where you’ve gotten rid of prisons, what happens now? And they said, “Well, we’d actually just live together, and we’d enjoy each other. We wouldn’t worry. Then we asked them to describe what that would feel like. What that would look like and what that would sound like.
They get into vivid detail of literally the sound of children laughing. The smell in this case of waffles. What the sun feels like on their back. Then we’d stop them and say, “This is where we start. You start with the dream.” That is, nobody gives a rat’s arse about HR Bill 217 except for you and your opponents. But if you want to reach the majority of the population, you have to create this greater dream, because they can access it at all sorts of different points and go on there with you. But that’s a hard work for activists to do because oftentimes they’re very much caught up in reacting to the world which is around them, instead of envisioning and imagining a better world.
To tease something apart that you said there about the distinction between imagination and fantasy…
It’s a bit of a semantic thing. But one of the ways, what I distinguish in my book is the difference between dreams and fantasies. A fantasy – and I don’t know if this is real, this is just like all semantics, I put one in one category and the other in the other – but how I categorise them is a fantasy is when you mistake something for reality.
I have a fantasy for example that if I buy this shampoo I will have a full head of hair, or something banal like that. Or political fantasy, a classic would be Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will in which she created an image of Nazi strength and purpose, and so on and so forth. Wasn’t really there, okay, she created it in the hopes that reality would catch up to the fantasy, and this is what propagandists do all the time.
Dreams, I think, are quite different. When you wake up from a dream, it may have felt real but you know it’s a dream. And this goes back to this idea of the ethical spectacle, is that what I was really interested in, particularly in Las Vegas, was that idea of a fantasy that people know are fantasies, yet still capture them nonetheless. And Las Vegas of course works like this.
There’s the Eiffel Tower which is right next to the Bellagio, which is right next to the Pyramids of Luxor. Nobody really fucking believes them, right, but they still have fun with them nonetheless. Professional wrestling works that way. Brechtian theatre works that way. It’s the notion that you can have a fantasy and understand that it isn’t real. It’s just a dream. It’s a complex idea but it’s absolutely essential. After I wrote that book I went on to edit Thomas More’s Utopia, and produced an edited version of Thomas More’s Utopia, and what I realised is that’s exactly what Thomas More was doing 500 years ago. Creating something and at the same time disassembling it. Until you could have this experience of a new world, yet never forget it was just a fantasy of this author.
You use the term ‘the politics of the imagination’. Could you just expand a bit on what that would look like?
Not quite sure what it would look like, and I’d be suspicious if I was the one who came up with its parameters. One of the problems of utopias throughout history is it’s usually created as a blueprint by a small elite bunch of people and then forced and foisted on the rest of the people. Certainly that’s what happened in the Soviet Union. It’s what happened in Germany during the Nazi era. It’s what happened in China under Mao.
Those types of utopias are absolutely dangerous. I’m very interested in a collective dreaming, or a collective imagining. I have a friend in Scotland who did this great project. He did these workshops, and I think he said at its top he reached one in every 1000 Glaswegians. Everybody from firemen to pre-school students to doctors and so on and forth, and what he did was he created workshops where they would imagine Glasgow in, I think it was, 2031. What he wanted to do was try to take stock of a collective imagination.
To me, interventions like that are really interesting because they’re really prompting this idea of what a collective imagination might look like, because it goes back to this idea of the ethical spectacle. How do you traffic in this very dangerous territory in which fascists and totalitarians really have ruled for most of the twentieth century, and how do you do it in such a way that actually is democratic? I think the way to do it is these collective exercises.
This idea of the spectacle, which like you say before came through the Situationist movement in May ‘68 and so on, I wonder if you could just explain what is a spectacle and what are the ingredients of a good one?
Sure. A spectacle, how I define it, and I use the word spectacle kind of just to piss people off… again, it was like studying Las Vegas and advertising and celebrities. Everybody on the left hates spectacles. That’s what the Nazis do. It’s what Las Vegas does. So I was like, “Well, I’m going to reclaim spectacle”. I could have used situation if I wanted to be nice to the Situationists because I think in the end I define it in a similar way.
But, for me, the spectacle is a dream made manifest in image. It also can be a dream made manifest in sound, or a dream made manifest in performance. But it’s taking the idea of a dream, and communicating it in such a way that it resonates with other people. That’s what artists do which is why I’m very interested in working with artists. So that’s what a spectacle does.
Now for me it goes back to, well, what is an ethical spectacle, because the Nazi spectacles were ethical according to their own standards. Advertising is ethical according to the standards of consumer capitalism. But if you’re coming from a left of centre or left-leaning position, then you have to first say, well, what are my ethics?
Then the second, how do I create a spectacle which amplifies and doesn’t do violence to those ethics? So I think in ‘Dream’, and I might get this list wrong, I said that, “Well, let’s start with what most left liberals would agree with.” One, that we believe in egalitarianism. That is, we need to have a spectacle which is active participation by as many people as possible. Two, we believe in democracy. Okay, and so that means that what we need is a spectacle which isn’t just run by one or two people, but everybody has a chance and choice in determining the shape that it has.
Three, I think I believe in reality, that is that we believe in empirical reality. Therefore we need a spectacle which doesn’t distort the truth but instead performs the truth. Makes the invisible visible. The civil rights movement was very good at doing this sort of work. An extension of that is that we need a spectacle which everybody knows is just a spectacle, and therefore is based in some sort of truth. I think I had a couple other principles in there, but that’s most of them.
If there was one or two examples that for you were the best spectacle you ever saw, what would they be?
It’s so hard. There’s so many of them. Because one of the things you do is you realise as you go back in history, any good political movement has been using these sorts of spectacular techniques. And that goes back to when we do our history section in our training, we start with Jesus of Nazareth. He’s a really a master of spectacle.
Or sometimes, depending on the group we’re working with, we start with Moses, or with the prophet Muhammad. All of these people use these tools, both to critique the system that is, but also imagine a better system. But a more modern example I would use, which I think is a great use of spectacle, is Rosa Parks taking a seat on a bus in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. Really kicking off the modern civil rights movement.
It’s an iconic photograph, right? This woman, this seamstress, who was tired after a long day of work and refused to give up her bus seat, as was the custom in the segregated south, therefore got arrested and triggered the bus boycott. It’s a great myth. The reality was that she was an experienced political activist. She was the secretary of the local NAACP. She’d been trained at the Highlander Institute. She did what she did knowing exactly what sort of a spectacular image it would create.
That famous picture of her sitting on the bus, which probably in your mind you’re conjuring up right now, was shot a year later. Of course it was shot a year later. There was no photographer there that would have been allowed to photograph that. Then sometimes you get a wide shot of that, and there’s a white man scowling behind her, right? Well who do you think that white man is? Well in my mind, it was the guy she displaced, right? Or rather the guy she wouldn’t give her seat up to who wanted to displace her. But of course he’s not. Why would he sit for a formal picture? It’s the local AP reporter, who as the photographer was shooting the photograph was like, “I need some contrast. Hey, white guy, sit behind.”
So the civil rights movement did this again, and again, and again. When Martin Luther King came to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 to stage a desegregation protest, all the great pictures – horrific pictures, but great pictures – of children being marched off to jail, dogs attacking peaceful protestors and all of that, all of those came from that protest and really were instrumental in embarrassing the United States on a world stage – competing in a cold war with the Soviet Union – and the passage of the civil rights act one year later.
What most people don’t know is that was the second staging of that protest. It had been staged a year before in a different town, and it had failed miserably. It failed because the southern sheriff in charge in that town, in Georgia, just peacefully locked up everybody, put them in separate jails, and let them out a week later. So they picked Birmingham, Alabama for the second stage because they knew that the head of police and fire department was an out and out racist and they wanted him to over react. And he did.
He created all those great pictures. It was completely staged. Now, why is it ethical? It’s ethical because it wasn’t creating reality. It was performing reality for cameras. It was making the invisible visible. The problem with segregation in the south, and violence of white supremacy, is it happened when nobody was taking pictures. It happened when the sun went down. It happened in black neighbourhoods. It happened outside the glare of the media.
The civil rights movement said what we need to do is bring it out into the open, and we’re going to do it by re-performing it and hoping that the whites react the way we think they’re going to react. And sure enough, that’s what they did.
There’s a question that I’ve asked everybody that I’ve spoken to while I’ve been doing this, which is if you had been elected as President Duncombe, two years ago, rather than the current incumbent, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’ – so you had felt very strongly that the challenges were so big that we needed to have a refocusing and prioritising of imagination in education, in policy, in public life, across society – what might you do in your first 100 days in office?
The first thing I would do is create a Ministry of Imagination. And actually, believe it or not, I once ran across these two women in Mexico, who worked in Mexico City, under the Mayor of Mexico City who is now the President of Mexico, who worked under a Ministry of Imagination. So it’s not that far-fetched, and we’ll see what happens if this actually happens in Mexico.
But you should look that up. I’m not sure if that’s the exact title but I think it’s pretty damn close. In any case, what I would do is I’d create a Ministry of Imagination. But I wouldn’t stock it with people like me, or the best artists that ever existed and so on and so forth. I think that’s very dangerous.
Instead what I’d do is charge that Ministry of Imagination with doing the sort of work that my friend did in Glasgow, which is creating workshops that offered the space, and gave the prompts, provided the prompts, for people to begin to imagine on their own. Because that is the only way we’re going to generate a genuinely democratic imagination. It’s also the way to flex those imaginary muscles. Those muscles of imagination that have grown atrophied. Or have grown very ugly and deformed.
So, facilitating imagination as opposed to providing it. Before I was ever an activist, or a scholar, I played in a punk rock band. A series of punk rock bands. I was completely terrible but the one thing I learned from punk rock was that being terrible at something didn’t mean you couldn’t do it. It was no barrier to entry. I think that sort of DIY ethos is actually central to my ideas of how imagination can work, because we really need a DIY imagination.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t skilled imagineers. But those skilled imagineers are not skilled in providing fantasies – we have enough of that already – but instead working with people to facilitate their own fantasies.
Henry Giroux talks about ‘the Trump dis-imagination machine’ which I thought was a beautiful expression, not just to do with Trump but in terms of a number of factors or influences in society that seem to have a harmful, suppressing, constricting influence on the imagination. I wonder if any of those came to mind that you could put a finger on?
What he is putting his finger on is the question of is this right wing nationalism an expression of imagination, or is it an absolute failure of imagination by retreat into an imaginary past. Right? And that’s a good question. I think it is imagination but it’s a reactionary imagination. It’s an imagination that has to rekindle an ideal of the past which never existed, as opposed to a progressive imagination which is imagining a future which hasn’t existed either.
I think that would be the line between the imagination of Donald Trump/right wing nationalists, and the imagination I’m interested in. Does it look forward, or does it look backwards? Both are fantasies. Don’t get me wrong. What we imagine in the future is just as much of a fantasy as the idea of white Britain, or a non-Europeanised Britain, or white America. They never existed.
Part of why I’m hopeful is our fantasies, our dreams, are so much better than theirs. If we were to unleash our dreams, and I think that that’s the 1960s, the dreams of individual liberation were incredible potent and powerful stuff, and one of the ways we know they’re potent and powerful is they became the advertisements for the 70s and the 780s and the 90s and up to today. So one of the ways we can reverse engineer advertising a little bit – look at what everybody’s advertising today and figure out, “Ah, those advertisers are pretty smart. They have a pretty good idea of what people really desire and so we need to build a politically progressive equivalent for that.”
Our time is nearly up. I just wondered if there were any last thoughts you had about imagination that I haven’t asked you the right question to spark?
I guess for me, and maybe this is the historian/sociologist in me, I’m a big believer in that acts of imagination are happening all the time. Where they’re channelled has a lot to do with the given historical, political and economic situations of the time. So at this moment in history, a lot of those acts of imagination are channelled into producing silly memes that get people to chuckle, or into vilifying migrants, or any number of either banal, or destructive places.
But the impulse is there, and it’s really up to those of us who are interesting in building a better world not to bemoan the lack of imagination but to create platforms and incentives so that people’s natural imaginative proclivities can flourish. To me as an activist, that’s my job.