restricted access Spinoza and the Political Imaginary
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Spinoza and the Political Imaginary

For those interested in pursuing the historical and philosophical origins of the idea of the political imaginary—a key concept in contemporary social and cultural theory—Spinoza represents a well-spring. Even if many seventeenth-century authors reflected on the imaginary and image-mediated nature of political relationships, particularly in the connection between politics and religion, few did so as thoroughly and systematically as Spinoza. Indeed, even more than for Hobbes, for Spinoza the ability of the human mind to create images is an anthropological given and an irreducible dimension of all human actions and interactions.

But even for those more interested in pursuing theoretical and methodological resources for a contemporary theory of political imaginaries, something can be found here. Despite the generality of Spinoza’s epistemological conception of the imaginatio, it receives a remarkable sharpness and concreteness in his political writings. Equipped with a fine sense of the imaginative power of the mind, Spinoza systematically describes political processes and institutions as imaginative and imaginary phenomena. From this perspective, politics as a whole can be read as an area of human life in which images, projections, misjudgments, and often-involuntary associations [End Page 115] between ideas become effective. This effectivity is expressed not only in the fact that these imaginative processes directly affect the ability of human subjects to act, namely, by strengthening or weakening their ability to guide their own actions toward certain goals. But even more generally for Spinoza, politics is a field of the immanent movement and confrontation of imaginative forces and imaginary linkages, many of which are not consciously available to the political actors.

A robust synthesis cannot be found in Spinoza’s reflections on this dimension of political life, but some contributions to a full-fledged theory of the political imaginary are discernible here. To this end, a double connection between politics and the imagination manifests itself. The first suggests that politics is made with the imaginary and through the imaginary, and it can only be made as such because politics is necessarily mediated by images and associations, as its effectivity essentially depends on imaginative mechanisms. The second can help us understand how politics or political action itself affects and transforms the imaginary, how images emerge and change in collective praxis, where the imaginary is politically negotiated. With the help of these reflections, a deep, essential connection between politics and the powers of the imagination becomes discernible. Such a connection offers further insights into the dependency of political power (or the political more generally) on imaginative capacities, opening up the possibility of an active and perhaps even emancipatory politics of the imaginary.1

The essential components of this perspective cannot, however, be easily dissociated from the systematic whole of Spinoza’s writings; and unfortunately, an analysis of the specific connection between image, imagination, and politics cannot be found there at all.2 In what follows, I will therefore attempt to assemble the constitutive elements from various contexts and suggest reading them as parts of a more or less coherent position, one that, I hope, will lend itself to a form of political theory that engages contemporary concerns. First, I will provide a sketch of the fundamental role of imaginatio in human perception and in all human actions, as developed in Spinoza’s theory of the mind in the Ethics. Second, through a brief examination of his political writings, I will show how, for Spinoza, [End Page 116] this idea of a fundamental dependency on images has great bearing on social relations and political contexts, and thus how the imagination also becomes a foundational element in the analysis of the political. Lastly, I will attempt to highlight points of connection between Spinoza’s arguments and contemporary discussions, and conclude with a few reflections on the purpose of a political theory of the imaginary.3

Cognition, Body, Affect

Spinoza’s highly complex theory of mind and affect, which provides the framework for his concept of imaginatio, is part of a comprehensive ontological and epistemological program.4 Following his doctrine of knowledge, the human ability to know can be considered...