Imagination taking power

Henry Giroux on the attack on the public imagination

Henry Giroux holds the Chair for Scholarship for the Public Interest at McMaster University in Canada, working in the English and Cultural Studies Department. I read a brilliant article by him called Trump’s War on Dangerous Memory and Critical Thought, and knew he was someone I needed to speak to.  I wasn’t disappointed.

I wonder if you could start by giving me a sense of how you would evaluate the state of health of the public imagination in 2017?

I think we are witnessing all over the world, in many places anyways, an attack on the public imagination.  We’re witnessing an attack on the welfare state, and all those things that speak to the possibility of developing public spaces where public values, public trust, compassion, justice, seem to matter.

We are in the midst of a neo-liberal orgy that seems to privatise, deregulate, and for the most part put into place a kind of world that seems to suggest that self-interest is the only value that matters, and that profit-making is the essence of democracy and that the only obligation of citizenship seems to be shopping.  All of these things in many ways undermine what I call the ‘social imagination’.

That is an imagination capable of understanding why the public good matters.  Why the question of a commons matters.  Why we need to think in terms of eliminating a culture of cruelty and hardness that’s been put into place by a market driven culture.  What it means to save the planet, and to have some sense of how important that is.  And what it means to revive the language of democracy and community.

Is Donald Trump somebody who is bereft of imagination, or somebody who has a damaged imagination?  Or is imagination just something that is completely value neutral?  You can have a good imagination or a wicked imagination?

It’s a combination probably of the first two.  Damaged, and distorted.  This is a guy who, given his own narcissistic celebrity culture persona, it’s impossible for him to think imaginatively about the public, about public good, about social justice, about anything that isn’t commodified or doesn’t in some way connect itself to the bottom line.  He’s a very dangerous guy.

His proposed budget that we just saw represents one of the most extreme examples of our culture of cruelty that I have seen in decades.  His view about social justice and about ecological justice, borders on being practically insane.  I wouldn’t want to use the word psychopath, but I would say that he is an outgrowth in the United States of people that have been trying to kill the social imagination and the critical imagination for years.

You see it particularly, not only in the attack on the welfare state, which provides the conditions for people to actually be able to think otherwise in order to act otherwise, to think critically and so on, but you really see it in the attack on education.  I mean this ‘teaching for the test’, these notions of accountability, that have moved into education.  This sense that teachers are really being deskilled, the sense that unions don’t matter, the sense that public schools should not be teaching critical literacy, civic literacy, social justice.  This is all an attempt to kill the imagination, and to basically depoliticise and infantilise people.

Trump’s imagination is quite stunted, but I think I’d put it more strongly.  It’s not simply stunted.  He hates the notion of the imagination, the social imagination, because for him, that suggests a notion of dialogue, creativity, concern about the truth, a concern about justice and values, and it’s really inimical to what I call his neo-fascist mind state.

You wrote recently about “the Trump dis-imagination machine”.  I thought that was a very powerful way of looking at it.  You talked specifically about history and the idea that in order to be fully imaginative, we need to have one foot in the past.  We need to understand our past, and we’re currently seeing a situation where if there are any bits of our past, our history, that are inconvenient, then we just pretend they didn’t happen.  Like Ben Carson recently suggesting that slaves came to America on some sort of package holiday attracted by the great American dream.  Why is a good knowledge of the past essential to being able to imagine a better future?

We look at the past in order to understand in some way the kinds of legacies of resistance, hope, possibility, justice and injustice that we both want to appropriate and not repeat.  It seems to me that for instance when we see somebody like Trump come along, who echoes all kinds of fascist assumptions, ‘the great leader’, only he can save the world.  The nation is one of utter decline, ravaged by crime and savagery, that Muslims are…  A whole people being demonised on the basis of their religion, or the basis of their geography…

These all echo sentiments of the past that if we understood the past, we’d be able to recognise how dangerous they are.  When the past both either gets rewritten or it’s more as you would say, its inconvenient elements get erased, people find themselves living in an intellectual void in which they have no reference by which to understand what it means to learn from the past in ways not to repeat its mistakes.  And also to learn how to contest in some ways unaccountable authority, how to fight back.

The past is not a static phenomenon, the past presents a legacy of enormous contradictions, enormous insights, and like anything else, it has to be an object not of reverence, it has to be an object of inquiry.  In many ways we either see it as an object of reference, we either erase what we find inconvenient or we learn from the past.  That’s part of what the imagination is about.  The imagination is rooted in a notion of self-reflection that is as historical as it is relational.

You said in your piece “this is a time to study”, which I thought was really interesting, when there’s so many calls for, “we have to get out on the streets”, which you call for as well, but you specifically say that this is a time to study.  I wonder if you could just expand on that.

Action bereft of informed knowledge, practice bereft of theory, practice that just simply seems to cut into a kind of instrumental logic which says you just have to do it, it offers no political guarantees, and I think that in many ways, it’s often reactionary.  I don’t want people to act without thinking about it.  I want people to act in ways they’re informed, they know what they’re doing.  They have a sense of why they’re doing it, and the vision that drives them is one they’ve been self-reflective about.

An action that simply is unthoughtful, not thought about, uncritical, borders on a kind of barbarism, because it can’t even legitimate itself.  It doesn’t know how to legitimate itself and it doesn’t know how to be self-reflective about its implications and its cost.  It’s action for the sake of action.  That’s a very narrow kind of instrumental rationality that not only mimics neo-liberalism, but it mirrors what a whole group of theorists have called a really dangerous kind of anti-intellectualism.

Everybody seems to be so time poor, stretched so thin.  I wonder if you draw any connection between boosting the social imagination and a universal basic income as a way of freeing up some space?

Rob, that’s smart.  For me that’s smart.  Time can be a luxury or it can be a deprivation.  When it’s a luxury there’s a space for thoughtfulness, there’s a space to make connections with others.  There’s a space in some way to regain our humanity.  There’s a space to study.  It means that you’re not caught in a kind of dystopian survival of the fittest, pressure every moment.

What this neo-liberal logic does that now dominates so many societies, is that it robs time of its possibilities, in that it not only privatises the notion of time, it often places people on a treadmill in which the only logic that matters seems to be surviving.  This is an age of enormous precarity and you can’t separate time from that logic of precarity and austerity that’s increasingly imposed on the 99% in almost every nation.  People are struggling.

It’s hard to think about justice when you have to think about making a choice between eating and taking medicine, when you have to make a choice between feeding your children, and feeding yourself.  This survival-of-the-fittest ethic, the massive inequity it’s produced in power, in wealth, and so forth and so on, has so limited the conditions for any notion of agency in which people can basically operate a level where social rights are now providing the ground work for personal and political rights.

This notion of Universal Basic Income is absolutely essential.  I just don’t know how without that, given the way that society, particularly the United States, is moving to the right with all social provisions being cut, particularly for those who are most vulnerable … that’s a ticking time bomb in my estimation.

If Henry Giroux had been elected to the highest state of office in November and you had run on a platform of “Make America Imaginative Again”, what do you think might have been some of the things you’d have done in your first 100 days in office?

That’s a tough question.  One of the first things I would do is institute a Universal Basic Income.  The second thing I would do is universalised health care.  The third thing I would do is cut the military budget by two thirds, and redirect that money basically into public goods – into schools, into infrastructure.

The fourth thing I would do is I would absolutely limit the power of corporations.  I would think very, very hard about what it would mean to redistribute wealth in ways that matter.  Fifthly it seems to me I would put an enormous emphasis on the importance of education and lifelong learning, and provide the conditions for that to happen.

I would do everything I can to institute a massive jobs programme around infrastructure that would not only provide jobs and skills for people throughout the country but would basically almost eliminate unemployment in the United States.  So there are some of the things.

I would immediately engage in what I would call a nuclear de-proliferation policy where we would set the standard by abolishing nuclear arms, and then attempt to get the rest of the world to do that.  Lastly the question of climate change just has to be addressed.  The two major threats to the world to me are both nuclear war and an ecological massive disaster, and so it seems to me there would have to be away to bring the people together both in the United States and around the world to have to address this in utterly emergency drastic terms.


It strikes me that the main thing we need to be developing is spaces where we imagine together.  It’s what we do in the Transition movement, getting people together.  Intentionally creating spaces where people come together, be imaginative, in dialogue with other people, feels to me like one of the most important things we can be doing a the moment.  As a closing question I wondered if you have any reflections on that?

I think, Rob, that is one of the most important insights around this discourse around imagination.  Because what we have to fight right off is the assumption that the imagination is about individualised genius, that it’s about some male or female in some room, sort of hiding away contemplating great ideas.

What we really need to talk about are the public spaces that bring people together that allow that imagination to blossom, because it doesn’t happen alone.  We don’t want to individualise the process, just as we don’t want to individualise the social, right, and say all things are a matter of individual responsibility, and character, and nothing else.

It seems to me that we learn together, but we have to have public spaces that provide the conditions for that to happen.  Ideas wither without public spaces because people become isolated.  They become alienated, they become cut off and they become cynical.  I don’t know how it works for you, but for me, I have to work with other people for my ideas.  It’s often what somebody will say to me in a conversation like this, that sparks an idea that allows us to talk about it, to flesh it out, to talk about its implications.

Nobody harbours all the insights that it would take for an imagination its highest momentum.  I mean, that’s stupid, right?  Who’s that smart?  That’s why we need to talk to each other, but we also need to talk to each other because we need to be a part of associations that remind us that our lives to be elevated into the public realm have to be public.  We need public spaces to be public.  And not simply Starbucks.  Right.

I was reminded there was a lovely thing I read that Brian Eno said about that where he was saying we fixate on this idea of the genius, this solitary person, but he said actually he said we should be talking about a “scenius”, because all of those people came out of a scene.  Captain Beefheart was extraordinary, but he came out of a whole scene around him that he became just the best associated person with.  He didn’t do everything completely in isolation.

Think about Martin Luther King.  This is really something, right, as if King did this alone.  I mean there was Parks, there was the whole civil rights movement, there were all kinds of schools – Highlander in the south that were educating people to be involved.  All a waste in the language of the icon, the hero.

It seems to me that’s another register that your work and my work on the imagination has to fight.  That we build on other people, we build on history, right.  People often say to me – I hate this, this is really stupid, right? – “Well you’re the father of critical pedagogy”, and I say, “No I’m not”.  That’s absolutely wrong.  The language is wrong, the sentiment is wrong and the intellectual intervention is wrong.  I came out of that movement with a whole group of people , we learned from each other.  We put things together.

Some of us wrote more than others, but there’s no fathers here.  I mean beyond the masculine overtones of all of this, I mean, so stupid.  But yet it‘s so entrenched it seems to me in the collective mind that there has to be one leader, one person.  You know how it goes, right?


  1. E. Luther
    April 27, 2017

    Name the space and see who comes

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© Rob Hopkins 2017