Crisis and imagination

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a global economic crisis reminds us of the fragility of both our institutions and our epistemologies. Political, cultural, economic, religious, ecological, demographic, medical and military crises increasingly appear to define our world and to delimit the boundaries of the knowable as well as the possibilities for collective action. The “old” crises which occupied the attention of anthropology in the past: acculturation, (de)colonisation, ecological adaptation, etc., were seen (perhaps narrowly) to affect mostly those studied by anthropologists. Now anthropologists are also confronting the crises which affect their own societies: climate change, the limits of non-renewable energy, refugee flows and mass migration, pandemics, resource wars, “human rights interventions.” processes of new state formation, increasingly powerful biotechnological interventions, criminal commodity networks, radicalisation of secularist and fundamentalist discourses, the chaos borne of global neoliberal economics.

And yet, an anthropology of crisis needs to be reflexive — we must be aware that terms such as “crisis” are themselves imaginative social constructs and reflect particular points of view. Many crises may appear as such only in retrospect, and only from particular theoretical or political points of view. On the other hand, organic, gradual social-historical changes may at times appear as crises to those involved in them, yet in retrospect appear as natural and necessary developments.

Discourses of crisis, like those of “emergency,” seem to imply that particular events are deviations from a normal and proper order of things, when they may in fact be the normal products of that order. Responding to events as “crises” can substitute for the recognition of continuity as well as change, and mask opportunities for re-making the social order. Framing events in terms of crisis may act to legitimate and even to necessitate exceptional interventions, “rapid” appraisals rather than long-term research, and “practical” rather than theoretical research orientations.

Anthropology has long studied crises and the responses and adaptations societies make to them. Only occasionally, however (for example, in its deconstructionist, historical, and reflexive turns) has our discipline dwelled upon the fact that Anthropology itself had its origins during a series of European crises – wars of religion and state-formation, the beginnings of capitalism and industrialisation, and the European exploration and colonisation of large parts of the world. Anthropology, as a discipline, represents an imaginative response to and a critical reflection upon these crises. We could benefit from reminding ourselves that both our own discipline and many social phenomena we study are born of crises and carry their traces into the present.

How should anthropology respond to the present global crises? What can we contribute, as both scholars and citizens, to their resolution? Should “problem-solving” become a primary mission of anthropology? Perhaps we should resist pressure to reframe our discipline in terms of its “practical use” in managing crisis, insisting upon its more fundamental scientific role in furthering the understanding of human society. Such a position would reflect an awareness that “crises” frequently have their origins in acts of imagining.

Many of the current crises have their origins as failures of imagination, as paradigms, ideologies, world-views prove unable to anticipate or adapt to changing circumstances. For this reason we would like to focus on the role of imagination in current crises. By imagination we mean: actual or emergent attempts to understand, reintegrate, undermine, repair, create alternatives to, or reconceptualise global, local, environmental, social and intellectual orders. Anthropology has studied many types of imaginative responses to crisis: syncretism, cargo cults, resistance to domination, “imagined communities,” “invention of tradition,” etc. and is now studying new examples of “imagination”: neo-religions, fundamentalisms, the alter-globalisation movements, the “post-human” turn, etc. Imaginative interventions may cause crises when they succeed and/or when they fail (take for example the new financial technologies, or neo-conservative warfare). Many social phenomena are born of crisis, but, we would suggest, all are the products of imaginative activity – whether it be the concrete imagination of myths, material culture, and “subsistence,” the realms of ideology, etc. A focus on imagination (and crisis) also brings to the fore the situatedness of imagination: it can be fiercely local as well as (sometimes) making claims for universality. Anthropology as a discipline has been intimately involved in studying, deconstructing and reimagining social and cultural orders. One of the most-cited benefits of Anthropology has been precisely to demonstrate the range of human possibilities implied by local imaginaries, and the role of innovation – material, ideological, artistic – in social history.

For this reason we would like to invite the participants of the 11th Biennial EASA Conference to reflect both upon crises (past present and future, real or imaginary), and the imaginative acts that are implied – and demanded – by them.