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Foreword Afterall Journal Issue 10

If the mind, while imagining non-existent things as present to it, is at the same time conscious that they do not really exist, this power of imagination must be set down to the efficacy of its nature, and not to a fault, especially if this faculty of imagination depend solely on its own nature – that is if this faculty of imagination be free.

– Baruch Spinoza01

The default victory of capitalism, a tragedy waiting to happen for 30 years at least, threw class-consciousness to the wolves. Historical determinism and dialectical materialism happened in topsy-turvy fashion. The past became the future. Except we already knew, even before 1989, that the future we had imagined was locked into the mass-labour experience of factory work and trade-union organisation, while the present looked a lot more like the unchecked exploitation of communism’s dreams of internationalism and non-alienated labour. Dreams that all real existing socialist states had long since relegated to a utopian neverland of world revolution. In the here-and-now of global capital, solidarity melted into air and free intellectual labour came to be the paradigm of the new Empire of Flows and Control.

We’ve learnt, from Negri and others, that there is no outside, no externalities from which to gain purchase on a total imperial system that invades our own bodies. As a totalist system, and avoiding the possibility of sudden superhuman transformation, we seem held in check by the unavailability of perspectival critique or alternative worldviews. Everything remains at the local, reformist level and the diversity of the ‘anti-capitalist movement’ is still only able to define itself in the negative. Yet the human imagination, as understood in Spinoza’s terms as the faculty of freedom, still requires the possibility to create its ‘non-existent things’ in social terms as much as physical or psychological. We are thus caught in a political bind that has huge implications for our artistic and imaginative lives. Our shared desire for such things as solidarity, progressive social change, even simple resistance, is thrown back as nonsensical, unrealistic and impossible within the conditions as they are pre-defined by those that, mostly unconsciously, try to satisfy and maintain the logic of the totalist system. In this situation, to look to the political realm for imaginative freedom is inevitably dispiriting. We are in a peculiar historical moment when some can proclaim ‘the end of history’ in order to reconcile its peculiarities to system maintenance, while others wait for a return to ‘agonistic politics’ within a totalism that by definition cannot accommodate any such discourse.

In aggregate, and again in this tenth issue, one of the abiding propositions of Afterall has been that the broad field of the visual arts, and those people attracted to its possibilities, is the location to look for the exercise of free imagination and its implications of social change and progressive transformation. This does not mean that art (or artists) need to be progressive in their politics, or even political at all. It is rather a claim that the purchase that art has on the imagination, of both artists and viewers, is a space of proposition that is gone or significantly diminished in other areas that privilege the free imagination less, or replace it with a form of proscribed, applied imagination that negates its very claim to be free. It is uniquely art (of a certain kind) that can be a tool with which to imagine, and imagination becomes the tool to rethink… or to picture a different state of the world and try to create it. Such an art is only rarely overtly political in its content or instrumentally related to actual social change. Instead, it lays out a claim to a version of certain intimate but shared experiences and asks complicit viewers to draw their own imaginative political implications. At its best, it is appropriately small-scale, unpretentious and common in terms of its ambition and address.

Alain Badiou says ’emancipatory politics always consists in making seem possible precisely that which, from within the situation, is declared to be impossible.’ 02┬áHe is right, of course, but that impossibility that is made to seem possible comes about today not through the traditional routes of frozen debate in political chambers. It emerges spontaneously through an act of free imagination and, as Spinoza teaches us, the truly free imagination is an act of deliberate self-deception. So imagination, which is the thing upon which art rests its claim, is finally delusional. To imagine freedom freely, which is arguably what we now require, is to deceive ourselves knowingly – to deny our knowledge of the totality of the imperial system in favour of the benefits of imaginative freedom. And the greatest benefit of all is that in that delusion, resistance again becomes possible and we can, in classic Matrix vein, fight the monsters even when they are inside our heads. It may be that only art can do this today because only art has the permission to imagine without ridicule. For all Spinoza’s materialist doubts, imagination is a real power. If we modify Spinoza’s opening words with a few of Negri’s from 1997, we start to sketch out how that power may be realised.

…in all probability, the virtual is now more powerful than the actual, and the conceptual possible more real than the real. The brain has surpassed the world and, in the antagonistic fashion, is making of it another. One world, one time. 03

The challenge, issued equally to artists as constructors and viewers as reconstructors, is to choose to imagine resistance, to seek to depict it and to make use of those images in our lives – in our intimate, specific, personal and public behaviours and choices. The ‘one world, one time’ that Negri mentions could be the site and moment for that kind of necessarily delusional resistance on the small scale. The politics in mass media and in current democratic forums won’t help us get there. Probably they will be needed some day, if only to announce their abolition, but not now. It is the power of the free imagination, and art’s unique purchase on how it may operate in each one of us, that gives us hope. It is also the reason why this journal e


  • Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, Prop.17,
  • Alain Badiou, Ethics: An essay on the understanding of evil, London: Verso, 2001.
  • Antonio Negri, Time for Revolution, London: Continuum, 2003.