Author: Brian Holmes
Introduction: The Social Imaginary
Incommensurably large with respect to human perception, what we call "the world" appears first in the domain of representation – most concisely in the form of maps. For the literary mind, a map is the round earth on a flat sheet of paper, the planet at your fingertips: an invitation to dream of far-off continents and climes. In practical terms, a map is the graphic or computer-generated depiction of a clearly outlined territory, with features that are natural (mountains, oceans, rivers) or artificial (highways, cities, borders). Most people use these printed or pixellated guides to get somewhere, asking only for effectiveness in motion. Yet so-called "thematic maps" (or "information graphics") carry a far wider range of knowledge about human beings and their activities, their relations to each other and to the environment (demography, industrial production, political orientation, cultural and linguistic grouping, educational levels, infrastructure, etc.). What's more, topological figures, derived from landforms and mathematics, are now used to chart processes and relations outside any geographic frame, the most obvious example being the virtual realms of the Internet. In these representational adventures we rediscover the terra incognita of the ancient cartographers. By condensing complex information about the human world, thematic maps can have the uncanny effect of making us feel disoriented – lost amidst the flows and the conflicts. In a period of political, social, and technological upheaval like the one we're living through now, when ordinary people find themselves entangled in processes of global scale every day, maps can help us to expand our perception of ourselves, of our present situation and our closest or most far-off possibilities. The stuff of dreams then mingles with the challenge of reality. But how to meet that challenge, the way one meets another human being on common ground?
My conviction is that we need radically inventive maps exactly like we need radical political movements: to go beyond received ideas and orders, in fact, to go beyond representation, to rediscover and share the space-creating potentials of a revolutionary imagination. In the thoughts and images gathered in these pages you will find an extensive, intensive and sometimes borderline-delirious exploration of the ways that maps allow us to constitute an image of the world, to move through the physical world that confronts us, and to exchange our worldviews and our experiences with the others whose solidarity we depend on.
Where do maps meet the intricacies of minds, bodies, aspirations? The interaction between mental conceptions and graphic representations can be studied beneath the heading of "cognitive cartography." As Daniel Montello writes: "Map design can be thought of as mind design; the way a map is designed will influence the views of the world it stimulates or inhibits."  But cognitive cartography as he presents it is concerned with the psychological mechanisms of perception, what is called "psychophysics." The cartographer uses empirical observation and analysis to determine the most effective means for the representation of data – measuring the perceptibility of shades of color, dot size, line thickness, etc. These mundane questions of graphic design, which are directly faced by the practical map-maker, become immediately relevant when you want to "get somewhere" in the world, or to "get some information" from a map. With the advent of Geographic Information Systems, typically combining the resources of satellite imagery, geographically indexed databases, telematics and global positioning technology (GPS), the problem of cartographic information design is burgeoning into a major new industrial field, mobilizing thousands of digital artisans for the creation of products whose efficiency will be "tested by the market." But just what is the market testing for? If you reflect that the basic elements of Geographic Information Systems, and of GPS-based "locative media" in particular, were developed by the US military for the tracking of enemy movements and the targeting of missiles, and if you further reflect that the same systems are now being massively adapted by the private sector for the management of mobile workforces and the statistical targeting of consumers, a feeling of deep disorientation may arise, concerning "the efficiency of efficiency." What kind of world do contemporary maps represent? What is it good for? What is the use of "getting some information," if the results are commercial or military propaganda? Or of "getting somewhere," if the destination is worthless, even repulsive? What shall we make of the contemporary design of our own minds?
The feeling of being irretrievably lost in the process of planetary integration – or "globalization" – is not new. Twenty years ago, the American Marxist Frederic Jameson wrote of the urgent need for "an aesthetics of cognitive mapping" to resolve "the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects."  That phrase, "an aesthetics of cognitive mapping," is at once immensely suggestive and at least partially misleading. It is suggestive, because the word aesthetics evokes an experiential and experimental domain, whose questions are both theoretical and sensual, fully embodied and self-reflexive. The notion of aesthetics points to all the formal, emotional, and associational dimensions that come into play when we ask ourselves questions about a particular artifact that we find in front of us: like a map. What is it? What isn't it? Is it good? Why? What for? How does it relate to other, more familiar things? How can it be played with, reinterpreted, turned upside down? How can it be reworked, reframed, refolded – estranged and transformed for another use? Twenty years ago, Jameson pointed to the striking absence of aesthetic objects, and particularly maps, that could both mediate the debates over the globalization process and help the participants to internalize some of their results, so as to create intuitive, embodied representations of the contemporary world. Cognitive mapping in this sense is about orientation, about situating yourself, achieving a better fit between your body/mind and a mutating earth. In fact, the major intellectual project of the worldwide Left in the 1990s was to map out the political economy of neoliberal capitalism, which had literally produced a new geography. In that respect Jameson's question was a decade ahead of its time. And yet his phrase was also misleading, because the word "cognitive" tends to reduce the interaction of mind and map to the level of individual contemplation, or even to psychophysics – as though it were a matter of a purely functional nervous system staring into its cartographic mirror. Whereas recent history, since the massification of access to the Internet, tends to show that the aesthetics of cognitive mapping only becomes effective, only opens up a public inquiry about the ways the globalization process can be conceived and embodied by its subjects, when it actually transits through the "great global multinational and decentered communicational network" in which we are individually and collectively caught – both as moving targets and as potential actors, that is, as political beings.
So let's try another approach to maps, based not on psychophysics but on semiotics, which studies the production of meaning in all kinds of signifying systems. This approach, which was developed in the 1970s, asks how cartographic knowledge is communicated from one person to the next. Its essential insights were summed up as early as 1969, in a diagram by the Czech cartographer Kolácny – a document of some interest, because it is a thematic map of the map-making process itself. The diagram begins, naturally enough, with a circle representing reality, or what we have so far been calling the world. But that circle contains a smaller one, the "cartographer's reality," a necessarily limited, subjective domain of experience. From there, arrows lead to a box entitled "contents of cartographer's mind" and then onward through "cartographic language," to finally reach the completed artifact: the map. Thus each finished map results from a process whereby the subjective experience of reality is reflected in the mind and then translated into a symbolic code or language, of which the final map is a singular expression (as a particular statement is only a single expression of the potential of speech in a given tongue). But the arrows lead on from this point, again through "cartographic language," to the "contents of the map-user's mind," then back to the initial circle, in which another smaller one is now lodged: "map user's reality." The point of course is that the map itself must also be read through the filter of cartographic language, which allows it to enter the mental process, and ultimately, the reality of the user. At issue here is the classic problem of semiotic theory: an awareness of the gap between the way that an emitter's perception of reality is encoded according to specific rules, leaving the result to be decoded by a receiver.  This gap points to the possibility of a critical debate over the both the language and the specific content of maps, which clearly help to shape the worlds they represent. Yet there is something else here too, something considerably more ambiguous: at the top of the diagram, within the larger circle of reality as such, we find not a gap, but an area of partial overlap between the map-maker's reality and that of the map user. This partial and shifting overlap between the cartographic contents of our minds and the geographic forms of our experience is the site of what I will be calling the social imaginary.
Why use a term like "social imaginary"? On the face of it, Kolácny is concerned only with the "communication of cartographic information." Classical information theory deals with a source, a signal, and a receiver, in a one-way sequence represented perfectly by the horizontal arrows running from left to right at the bottom of the diagram. The central problem of information theory is to achieve the transmission of content from source to receiver with the least possible loss, the least possible "noise." Semiotics, dealing not with the transmission of signals but with meaning, has to complicate this linear schema. First it shows that an emitter's subjective experience of reality must be encoded according to the rules of a language, resulting in a set of signifiers – such as a map – which must then be decoded by a human addressee, with all the interpretive variation that the decoding process allows. The semiotic model posits "communities of receivers," potentially at variance with the intentions of the emitters (the broadcasters, the map-makers). In other words, it postulates the "noise" as being irreducible. Yet in its simpler versions, this semiotic model remains linear and unidirectional. The diagram we are looking at goes a great deal further. By portraying not just a linear transmission, but instead a loop or a circuit, and by showing at its apex an overlap of subjective realities where the source and the receiver meet within the objective world, Kolácny's diagram suggests two things. The first is that sender and receiver, map-maker and map-user, come to share a mental image which inheres to the very reality of the world. This zone of shared mental images is the social imaginary, in its static or "instituted" aspect. It corresponds to a common, embodied understanding of a given environment, where certain maps can be used "intuitively," where certain possibilities can be taken for granted and others implicitly discounted, where certain behaviors can be predicted and others considered unlikely – in short, a condition of consensus where two or more people can consider themselves to be "living on the same planet," as the saying goes. But as any sharp-tongued English-speaker knows, that saying usually goes in the negative: "We must not be living on the same planet!" And the communicational diagram of map-making shows this possibility as well, to the extent that the maker and the user's subjective realities only partially overlap, allowing for disjunction and difference to enter the circuit. The emergence through dissensus of new images, of new maps within the communications loop, corresponds to the radical or "instituting" aspect of the social imaginary, its creative capacity, its power to transform collective representations or "mental maps" – and ultimately, to redesign the real.
The notion of the social imaginary, as well as its division into effectively instituted and radically instituting aspects, is a reference to the work of the philosopher and political dissident Cornelius Castoriadis, a Greek whose political commitments led him to flee his country and settle in France, where as a member of the group Socialisme ou barbarie he played a key role in the emergence of revolutionary movements critical of Stalinist Communism, then later in the theorization of autonomy and direct democracy as political projects adequate to the new revolutionary forces.  Those projects are exactly the ones I wish to map out here, by following the changing forms that radical social and political movements have been able to give them over the past fifty years. They are experiments that span the continents and often "consist" in pure virtualities, artworks and poetics of the possible. The essential departure point for this kind of study is the ambivalence of the social imaginary, its potential to embody both consensus and dissensus. This is the oscillation that can also be traced in the development of imaginary maps of the present world, over the period from roughly 1994 to the present. For this purpose I will use the notions of a dominant map, expressing the fully constituted relations and processes of a functioning political-economic system, and of a dissenting or alternative map, representing an imaginary breakthrough, a dissensus which nonetheless inheres to reality, providing political beings with the beginnings of a new mode of association, of collaboration, a new common world. The interplay of dominant and dissenting maps is a way to read history – and to participate in making it, to the extent that every successful cartography ultimately helps create the world it purports to represent. Which is another way of saying that the old catch-phrase, "the map is not the territory," lies at antipodes from the stories I will be telling here.
It is the essence of the social imaginary to be both shared and operative, directly involved in the transformation of the material environment (even if its direct involvement necessarily passes through a traditional medium, or one of the electronic media, or some more complex form of mediation). This shared and operative aspect of the imaginary is what leads us to the second concept at work here, the concept of solidarity. To be sure, there is a romantic aura hanging over this word, which has been endlessly evoked by all the currents and factions of the Left, as a value, a duty, a glorious reminder of the past, a promise of the future. If possible, I would like to look at solidarity a little more abstractly, as a way to name the effective, society-wide cooperation between human beings that takes place within the parameters of a shared imaginary, causing that imaginary to inhere to the real. Conceived in these terms, solidarity means something quite tangible: the very cohesion of social relations, which demand a limitation of sovereignty (adherence to common laws and norms) as well as a transfer of property (redistribution). Solidarity is thus a modern name for the complex reciprocal relations, both material and symbolic, which anthropologists attempt to decipher as the diverse elements of a single social tie. In this sense, solidarity can be conceived as a gift for the survival and well-being of others: but a redoubtable and even dangerous gift, one that is most often forced upon us, extorted or imposed.  It remains that at the best moments in modern society (which sometimes are almost inevitable, given the disasters that preceded them), the solidarities prefigured in the social imaginary can be actively reshaped, replayed in both psychic and social space, even as their concrete forms are reinvented and more-or-less freely chosen. In this way they can give rise to a better, more egalitarian system, a progress in civilization.
For many of those who lived through the uncertain wake of a World War which itself had been preceded by a Great Depression, the systems of collective bargaining, of public health care and education, of unemployment insurance and guaranteed retirement income – all instituted in and beyond the Western European countries in the course of the 1950s – can still stand as the pillars of a world shaped by an effective solidarity which drew its models from the workers' movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This world took its concrete form, each time, within the boundaries of a specific nation, where production could be articulated with the chosen forms of redistribution, by more-or-less authoritarian political means. In this respect (central planning), the East-West divide itself only marked a divergence of method, not an entirely different principle. But today these coherent national solidarities appear as relics of a half-destroyed and half-forgotten past, abandoned along with the strictly authoritarian mode of governance.  The world we see around us – to the extent that we can even see it – has largely been projected from corporate boardrooms, military academies, media agencies, top-ranking universities and strategically funded think tanks, all occupied by elites who have been extremely successful at cooperating over tremendous distances, and even at using this distance to conceal their cooperation. Frontiers in this world are no longer primarily geographical, but hierarchical and racial, distinguishing classes and castes within the global patterns of circulation and immobility. Considered in this way, it becomes clear that over the last twenty years, the bearers of the globalizing project – those whom one may call the "transnational capitalist class" or the "neoliberals" – have demonstrated much more effective solidarity than any formation on the Left, despite the methodological individualism of their economic theories.
The solidarity of an increasingly homogeneous managerial and financial class, on the neoliberal Right, has shaped the contours of what was briefly announced as a "borderless world"  – and the way this world has been successively stitched together and segregated apart to meet their desires is what will occupy a great many of the pages to follow. Nonetheless, the global solidarities that interest me lie still on the Left, and still are actively involved in a revolutionary project, if by that we mean the egalitarian transformation of society, made possible through the conscious use of humanity's accumulated knowledge, skill and overarching ideals. The north stars glimmering everywhere in this text are emancipation, autonomy, substantive equality and the right to subjective and collective difference.
To gain a sharper idea of what the relation between dominant and dissenting imaginaries can mean in cartographic terms, one need only consider the relatively recent conditions of the Cold War, when a bipolar map split the world into two rigidly defined camps, dependent either on the United States or the Soviet Union. The rise of national liberation movements in the colonized countries, with the emergent image of the "Third World" in the 1950s, followed by the political consolidation of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1960s, provided a radically different representation of the earth, one whose influence was everywhere apparent within the West throughout the postwar period – and particularly amidst the social, cultural, and political turbulence of 1968 and of the early 1970s. In this cartographic shift, to whose floating signifiers the work of an artist like Oyvind Fahlström bears such playful testimony, one can grasp the interrelation between a particularly volatile imaginary and the concrete operations of global solidarities, extending across the North/South divide and in all directions. As we will see, critical roles were played at this time by renegade psychiatrists, analysts who worked to split apart the oppressive solidarities that the revolutionaries were challenging with a gun, artists who offered intimate or theatrical subversions, but also glimpses of worlds beyond, other wholes. The psychopolitical dynamics of the period and the insights that its changing maps can offer us today are themes to which I will return further on, in a discussion that aims to disentangle and reknit some of the ambiguities surrounding so-called "Third Worldism." My belief is that of any historian, and of most experienced activists: only an understanding of the recent past can liberate us to create an unknown and ultimately unpredictable future. But the future starts right now. So to approach what never arrives and never ends, let us first plunge directly into the dominant and dissident maps of the present, before even broaching any of the necessary historical considerations. The departure points for this study are the contemporary maps of our own divided minds and of our fast-evolving world.
- "Earth at Night," source: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/BlueMarble/ .
- Daniel R. Montello, "Cognitive Map-Design Research in the Twentieth Century: Theoretical and Empirical Approaches," in: Cartography and Geographic Information Science,vol. 29, no. 3, 2002, p. 283, http://www.geography.wisc.edu/histcart/ v6initiative/12montello.pdf/ .
- Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review, no. 146 (July-August 1984).
- "Communication of Cartographic Information," redrawn by D. Montello, "Cognitive Map-Design Research in the Twentieth Century," op. cit., p. 292.
- See, for example, the article by Stuart Hall, "Encoding/Decoding" (1973), in Culture, Media, Language (Hutchinson, 1980).
- The central work in this respect is The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press 1987/French edition 1975).
- The founding anthropological text is Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Forma and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (New York: Norton, 1990/1st French edition 1950).
- For the transition from authoritarian to contemporary governance, see B. Holmes, "The Flexible Personality: For a New Cultural Critique," in Hieroglyphs of the Future (Zagreb: Arkzin/WHW, 2003), or http://www.geocities.com/CognitiveCapitalism/holmes1.html/ .
- For the classic essay denouncing this rhetorical figure of neoliberalism, see Masao Miyoshi, "A Borderless World?" in: Politics/Poetics, Documenta X – The Book (Ostfildern: Cantz, 1997). For the social movement it spawned in response, see http://www.noborder.org/ .
- Oyvind Fahlström, The Little General (Pinball Machine) (detail), source: http://www.fahlstrom.com/installations_02_little_gen.asp?id=2&subid=2/ .