Collective Dreams: Political Imagination & Community

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On contemporary political imagination

Voluntarism, by contrast, sees national identity as dependent upon the voluntary choices of agents to constitute a nation. Gilbert is especially concerned to establish whether realism can be regarded as a plausible theory of nationhood. As a test case, Gilbert takes the work of the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, investigating the claims and supporting evidence for and against her literary Irishness.

He argues that no such evidence is, in principle, available. Rather, there are features of her work which those concerned with the construction of an Irish national identity can appeal to in deciding whether or not she should be included in a literature which articulates a shared national experience. What should count as the national experience, Gilbert argues, is essentially a matter of choice and not a matter of the independently discernible properties of a literary work. If a national literature is socially constructed then the question which needs to be asked is: who is responsible for its construction?

He argues that if it is the members of a nation generally then their common cultural choices can constitute the association which forms them into a nation according to the voluntarist theory. Thus, the attribution of national identity on cultural grounds does not presuppose the truth of the realist theory.

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For Canovan, patriotic poetry raises interesting questions about political identity and solidarity. Baumeister invoked by patriotic poetry and the universal moral commitments associated with liberal theory. None the less, the type of loyalty evoked by patriotic poetry is also inevitably limited and additionally frequently adversarial, features which cannot be avoided, she claims, by distinguishing a benign patriotism from a malign nationalism.

For while it is true that the demands of patriotic loyalty often conflict with the liberal aspiration towards universal moral principles and obligations, liberal humanism may also find an ally in patriotism in its opposition to communal conflict based on ethnic, religious or racial hatred. If national identity excludes it also includes, and it may include many of those who would be excluded by different criteria of identity or allegiance.

As Canovan warns, the alternative to national identity and the language of patriotism, as expressed in part through patriotic poetry, may not be humanism and universal principles of justice but more exclusive and threatening forms of communalism. However, there are in any case other contexts in which the role of literature in forming national identity might appear more benign.

If the patriotic poetry discussed by Canovan seems to by typically associated with an aggressive nationalism, there are other examples of creative writing in which the connection with national identity might plausibly be seen as liberating. This seems to be especially true of literature which asserts a national identity as a way of resisting imperial domination or of sloughing off its heritage, for example, in what has become known as post-colonial literature.

This is not surprising, because one might expect the culture of liberalism to be especially hospitable to the literary imagination. Seabright takes as his starting point a distinction which he rightly regards as crucial to any liberal political theory, the distinction between public and private. While there is of course much dispute within liberal theory about where and how the line is to be drawn between them, any genuinely liberal theory will require that individuals be granted some significant private space, free from political interference, in which people may pursue their individual interests and realise their own conceptions of the good.

However, if this private space is to be of genuine value to people then it will need to be furnished in some way. Whilst in a liberal society it should not be the role of the political process to arbitrate between the different uses to which individuals choose to put this space, liberal politics will, for just this reason, be more favourable to some ways of furnishing it than to others. It is in this context that Seabright explores the possible roles that imaginative literature might play.

He poses two questions. First, can the activity of reading or writing imaginative literature be viewed as paradigmatic of the kind of project that would furnish a private space sufficiently well to have made it worthwhile creating the space in the first place?

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Second, can imaginative literature provide any guidance as to the furnishing of a private space with other projects and activities? Seabright pursues these questions in some interesting and varied directions but he concludes that, although imaginative literature can, and at times has, fulfilled both these functions and has offered positive support for the liberal vision, the fact that so much of modern literature has explicitly sought to erode or undermine the distinction between the public and the private suggests that the relationship between imaginative literature and the liberal conception of a private space is at times a more uncomfortable one than might be expected.

Baumeister Political Liberalism. For Warner, the underlying problem here is not so much political or ethical as epistemological.

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This tension is one aspect of the wider question of whether or not it is possible to give an account of truth that is both socially contextualised and independent of judgement. These give weight both to the cultural embeddedness of justice and to its universalistic force, and seek to resolve the consequent tension by integrating our passional and social lives into our conception of reason.

She agrees that standard approaches to Utopia, with their emphasis on providing a universally applicable blueprint for the future, are, despite their critical qualities, ultimately deeply conservative and repressive of difference and change. However, drawing on strands of recent feminist thinking informed by work within postmodern and poststructuralist theory, she argues that there is a style of contemporary feminist Utopianism which successfully seeks to move away from the static universality and monolithic certainty traditionally associated with Utopian writing.

On this understanding, Utopianism is an ongoing process of challenge and critique, making the rhetorical strategies and tactics of deconstructive reading particularly appropriate to this mode of thought. In this way, the subversive and transgressive aspirations of the Utopian imagination can be sustained and the closure associated with the more traditional conception of Utopia avoided.

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Such a Utopianism must seek new forms of expression in both literature and politics. In particular, Sargisson claims, it will support and sustain the oppositional character that any form of feminist Utopianism must possess if it is to avoid being implicated in patriarchal structures of domination. One genre of writing closely related to Utopianism and which is also typically oppositional, though not necessarily to the status quo, is dystopianism. George Orwell was a writer who explored the dystopian novel to maximum political effect in his Nineteen Eighty Four.

Orwell consciously chose to express his deepest political concerns in the novel form. Ingle argues that Orwell used the novel to express his understanding of imperialism both as a means of incorporating his firsthand personal experience of British colonialism in Burma and as a way of avoiding some potential pitfalls in a more theoretical presentation of it. Moreover, the corrupting nature of the relationship of domination and subservience as shown most starkly by imperialism was contrasted by Orwell with the values of decency and humanity which the oppressed generally showed to each other.

The kind of socialism that Orwell espoused was that which he believed to be embodied in the systems of mutual support found in the informal organisation of working-class life. First, the novel is a much more appropriate vehicle than the political pamphlet or theoretical treatise for communicating and sharing lived experience. It was this lived experience and not abstract principles or ideologies which was so important to Orwell.

Second, the novel implies a relationship between the author and the reader of a more egalitarian and less authoritarian cast than most orthodox philosophical or political modes of writing. However, we hope they are sufficient to demonstrate that there are interesting connections and to indicate some of the diverse ways in which the subsequent chapters contribute to this exploration. They are all united only in their commitment to the value of the exploration of relationships between imaginative literature and political theory; to examining both the possibilities and the problems involved in any such undertaking.

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For a helpful introduction to aesthetics with particular reference to literature see Anne Sheppard, Aesthetics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Michaels and C. For instance, the idea of arguments that cannot be reasonably rejected has played an increasingly important role in liberal accounts of impartiality. For an account of the vicissitudes of political theory for the last century or more, with particular reference to the USA, see John G. Reidel, , and for an excellent collection of articles by and about the work of Skinner see James Tully ed. For a brief survey of some of the differences see the entry on ancient Greek theatre in Martin Banham ed.

For a wide-ranging account of the Romantic sensibility see H. Schenk, The Mind of the European Romantics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, ; and for a good account of the influence of Romanticism, especially the English Romantics, on the development of literary criticism see M. For a useful historical survey of literary critical discussions of some of these issues see K. See D. One tradition of thought in which both literary and philosophical concerns intertwine is hermeneutics. Barden and J. For a useful introduction to recent hermeneutic theory see Josef Bleicher, Contemporary Hermeneutics, London, Routledge, See, for example, F.

Baumeister 29 An opinion held in our own time by the moral philosopher Richard Hare. See R. Phillips, Belief, Changes and Forms of Life, London, Macmillan, as examples of philosophers working through literature on philosophical problems. Iris Murdoch might be thought a comparable philosophical novelist writing in English, but she has always rigorously distinguished her fiction from her philosophy.

Moller, London, Phoenix House, On the other hand, lan Robinson has sought to relate Leavisite criticism to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Malachowski ed. Larrabee ed.

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Jane E. Rawls, Theory of Justice, pp. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, trans. Philip Mairet, London, Methuen, Gaita ed. For some interesting examples see the discussions in Homi K. Bhabha ed. Norton, George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, Gustav Klaus ed.

The issue is also considered in the chapters by Maureen Whitebrook and Anthony Arblaster in this volume. The question of what literature has to offer politics—a debatable question from Plato onwards, across the tradition of political theory—has usually come down to some variation on one of two possibilities: literature as example for or illustration of arguments in political theory, or, one step on, literary examples as a form of moral education with which political theory might be concerned.

While both of those possibilities are of continuing interest, neither sufficiently address the benefits for political theory as such of taking a specific form of literature—the novel—as source of political understanding; but neither do more recent developments.

I therefore introduce, in Part II, criteria for a distinctive approach which would allow political theory to gain from literature some enriched understanding of the public and collective life of the individual—those aspects which are distinctively political.

I suggest that in this respect the novel, as the literary form of narrative, has a particular relevance for liberal political theory. Both the content and form of the novel contribute to political understanding.

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Novels present choices, the implications and consequences of choices. I suggest that novels do offer political theory some insight into the Machiavellian problem. Individuals making choices, in so far as they are political agents, are faced with particular political dilemmas involved with those choices, problems of responsibility.

And novels also contribute, by way of their depiction of character, to consideration of the way in which the individual constructs and maintains identity, including the political implications and outcomes of that process. These separate but interconnected sections together offer a response both to my particular questions and to the general intention of this volume—to explain how and what literature can contribute to political theory and political philosophy. Rather, political theorists ought to develop their own approach es —and are capable of so doing, as work in this volume and elsewhere is beginning to suggest.

In the course of his discussions of the nature of philosophy he has made suggestions about the usefulness of literature and literary criticism— providing new vocabularies, or as a way of interpreting people to each other, for instance. Fiction…gives us the details about kinds of suffering being endured by people to whom we had previously not attended… gives us the details about what sort of cruelty we ourselves are capable of, and thereby lets us redescribe ourselves.

That is why the novel, the movie and the TV program have, gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the moral treatise as the principal vehicles of moral change and process. In my liberal Utopia, this replacement would receive a kind of recognition which it still lacks. That recognition would be part of a general turn against theory and towards narrative. But this is to state another basic condition of making sense of ourselves, that we grasp our lives in a narrative….

Narrative is an explanatory tool, a way of giving account of ourselves by telling stories. But he then goes further than MacIntyre in specifying types of narrative and the different ways they might order human lives though for the most part he retains the notions of history and progress as characteristic of narrative. The form of the novel and the way in which modern identity is shaped are inextricable, so that changes in narrative form are associated with, and provide evidence for, the changes in senses of identity which he records. Thus, Rorty suggests that, we distinguish books which help us become autonomous from books which help us become less cruel… The second sort of book is relevant to our relations with others, helping us notice the effects of our actions on other people.

These are the books which are relevant to liberal hope, and to the question of how to reconcile private irony with such hope.