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Protest politics and the ethical imagination

Protest, like marriage, means re-imagining relations to self and other. The Taksim Square Book Club - in which demonstrators in Istanbul stood silently and read books - used reflection as a riposte to state brutality. The ethical imagination is at the root of this. 

Belgian solidarity protest against police brutality in Turkey. Credit: Demotix. All rights reserved. 

What makes love and politics go together? During the 2011 protests in Egypt, a couple got married in Tahrir Square. In June this year, two teachers held their nuptials in Taksim Square during protests against the Turkish government. And last month, two protestors who fell in love in the course of their involvement in the protests turned up with a thousand guests to celebrate their wedding in the same square and were dispersed by anti-riot police using water cannons and tear gas. ‘Long live the resistance, long live love’.

From an anthropological point of view, these marriages – by no means unique - tell us something of interest about contemporary politics. Protest, like marriage, implies a resetting of horizons, the possible start of something new. It is through these attachments to others that we remake ourselves. The passion, commitment and emotion expressed by protestors from Zuccotti Park to Taksim Square – and well beyond – are linked to profound feelings of hope and aspiration: the desire to make the world anew.

It is impossible to explain social and political transformations without linking them to personal hopes and aspirations. Politics, like love, involves an attachment to others. The I makes no sense without the you, nor the self without the other. Without a sense of others – and of our difference from them – we have no sense of self, because the not-me is a constitutive element of self. We intuitively understand this in our family relations where we often struggle to make sense of who we are, of what makes us unique or truly ourselves. We may identify with our parents, love and admire them, but we don’t necessarily want to be them or even be like them.

Paradoxically, our sense of self rests in large part on understanding who we are not. If we did not have the means and the capacity to imagine relations with others both by identifying with them and by differentiating ourselves from them, we would not and could not be a self.

Consequently, we live our lives in relation to others, both those who are our intimates and those who are very far away from us and whom we may never meet. I may make myself in relation to my family, but I may also do so in relation to issues of social injustice, political causes and structural wrongs such as poverty where I engage with how these things impact on other people’s lives. I term this human capacity the ethical imagination.

We can immediately grasp how the ethical imagination, the manner and the means through which we imagine our relations to self and to others underpins much of what we mean by the political. There is currently an ongoing and well recognised crisis in democracy and in the character of the political - not just in how we share this world with others, and in how we imagine ourselves in relation to others, but in the very character of political agency, in how we recognise ourselves as political agents and what we believe political agency is about.

Take one example. Performance artist Erdem Gunduz stood in silent vigil on 17th June 2013, for eight hours, in Istanbul’s Taksim square facing the Ataturk Cultural Centre covered in Turkish flags and a large portrait of the founder and moderniser of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

His action prompted a group of protestors to found the ‘Taksim Square Book Club’ where demonstrators, some masked, stood silently and read books. An apparent favourite was George Orwell's 1984, but many others were reading philosophical texts and novels by Belgian, Japanese, French and German writers, as well as Turkish. Silent reflection and critical thought are a powerful riposte to police violence and state brutality, and they are part of a wider critique of democracy and the political that has emerged since 2008.

It is very often said that protests such as these are media led, Twitter organised, Facebook inspired: a feature of an over connected, over mediated and overheated world. This seems to me to be a rather impoverished way of comprehending these kinds of encounter. Such imaginative acts are precisely about reconfiguring self-other relations, but this does not mean that their outcomes are explicitly spelled out or attached to specific programmes of political change.

They are certainly about acting, but they are also in that moment of doing about self-stylisation, about newly imagined relations to self and to others that lead – hopefully – to novel ways of approaching social and political transformation. Acts that are designed to stand outside cycles of violence and shift the terms of reference are the very terrain of the political.

It is no surprise then that the texts that play such a prominent role in these protests should come from all over the world, and be written in many languages. Ideas and ways of thinking open up new ways of being, all of which require the recognition and deployment of differences – however small or transitory. It is these differences, the small things that otherness offers us, that open us up to change, both personally and politically.

Sometimes, it can be as simple as a new word that heralds a shift in thinking or a story that makes us think again about emotions, experiences or injustices. When this happens we become other-to-ourselves because by identifying with others, however fleetingly or partially, we shift the grounds on which our own self rests. A space opens up for the ethical imagination, for creating a difference in relation to ourselves which gives us the potential to imagine new possibilities for self-other relations, for sharing a world with others, for alternative forms of the political. The media and the internet are important and very powerful in the contemporary moment, but the transformative capacity of the ethical imagination is nothing new.

Since the financial crisis, we have heard a great deal about democratic crisis and the deepening processes of depoliticisation and voter apathy, where the public domain has been given over to a ghastly combination of technocratic management, the governmentality of fear and consensual policy-making. Various prophets and pundits have heralded the end of a politics based on debate and the confrontation of differences, but is this really what is happening?

Dissenters point to the global Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and the wider spread of youth unrest as examples of political engagement. What is significant is the link between what is taking place in multiple locations across the globe and attempts by protestors in specific contexts to create new forms of politics through new ways of thinking both about themselves and how they should relate to others, new ethical practices.

Those who criticize the Occupy movement for wanting change without having specific political programmes for change and/or decry their detailed attempts to run the movement on non-hierarchical lines completely miss this point. Occupy sought to distance itself from what preceded it, looking to a future promise of hope and possibility. The political agents who will make the future need not only a new politics, but new ways of being and doing that fundamentally reformulate self-other relations. This has always been the thrust of utopian movements, but it is also the basis for modern social movements and for politics more generally. It explains why so many movements of reform begin with intimacy and relations between women and men. Love and politics may be different kinds of new beginnings, but together they provide a virtuous circle of desire, hope, aspiration and rebirth.

How does this process of remaking happen? Some of it is down to an act of will, no doubt, but much of it is about recognizing and creating difference. In the first instance, a difference from the old, from previous ways of thinking, doing and being – creating a distance from or a tiny chink in our relation to ourself.

This crucial step is what opens up the imaginative and practical possibilities of relating to others differently. It explains the choice of reading matter in the book club, as well as people’s desires for their own new beginnings, their marriages, to find a symbolic resonance for themselves and others within spaces of possibility and hope. It is an attempt to rethink the horizons of the political by placing one’s own life – sometimes literally – alongside it.

It is because selves emerge out of and depend on self-other relations that we have an ongoing attachment to the world that links the way we are, and the way we would like to be, to an imaginative engagement with others. Political and economic changes depend – whatever the configurations of power, political economy and resources – on our ethical imaginations, bringing new ways of seeing, feeling, being and understanding that provide further possibilities for change.

References to Occupy and the Arab Spring in a host of political situations around the globe can in some instances be reflective of sustained intellectual and political engagement with ideologies, social movements and programs for political change, but in the vast majority of cases they are better seen as words or symbols that create and carry emotions and identifications. In appealing to them or deploying them, individuals and groups are attempting to create spaces for change and also to find a way of characterising themselves, of seeing themselves as agents of history.

Such references capture something important about solidarity with others we have never known, but with whom we identify, their struggles speak to our struggles, and so we can make sense of our own orientation towards political change. 

How can we explain people’s commitment to such arduous, painful and dangerous processes? There is no doubt that sometimes symbolism and semantics are explicitly manipulated – this is often what we cynically intend by referring to something as ‘political’. But this provides little understanding of how individuals imagine and experience their relationships with others, or the forms of identification, hope and aspiration that motivate them, and make a real difference to how and why they get involved in politics. Politics depends on being attached to others and through them to the world we share.

At the root of political protest is the ethical imagination, the capacity and the desire to imagine and re-imagine our relations to others and to ourselves, and to use that ability to make a difference through politics: ‘Long live the resistance, long live love’.

About the author

Henrietta L. Moore is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her work has developed a distinctive approach to the relationship between gender, sexuality and subjectivity and the processes we usually gloss as globalisation. Recent work has also focused on new technologies, virtual worlds and fantasy as generators of personal and social change. The ‘ethical imagination’ is explored in depth in her most recent book Still Life: Hopes Desires and Satisfactions (Polity Press, 2011).


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