Imagination and Action: Movements between Immanence and Transcendence


Romualdo Dias

Sep, 2021

Dreaming of the impossible to achieve what is possible. Embodying the connections between actions and dreams as different instances overlap with each other. Taking action and dreaming are both needed to forge our way through the world and take our place in history. In the dynamics of dreamspace, meaning is produced by our power to navigate different areas of reality, as well as our ability to stand up to the obstacles presented by reality. When we become involved in transformative political agendas, we gain clarity around our various projects, dreams being both the basis of these projects as well as the compasses and maps we use to guide and orient them. In our stubborn determination to come up with different forms of resistance, our dreams are what nourish and strengthen us.

Paulo Freire, who would have recently celebrated his 100th birthday, maintained that:

“…it is impossible to exist without a dream. The question that is posed, first, is whether the dream is historically viable. Second, if the dream’s viability requires a bit of time and space to walk. Third, if it requires an even longer space to walk and to become viable, it is the case of learning how to walk, and, in walking, to also learn to make the dream come true, that is, to seek the paths of the dream.” [1][1] Freire, P. (1986) Occupação (English version). ItaúCultural.

In the internal realm of imagination, where we cultivate our dreams, a dynamic is in place, made up of intense energies that come from the diversity of confrontations the subject experiences with their reality. It is in this intermediary space, a space located between the subject and reality, in the search for solutions to problems, where we find the level at which movement can begin to stir, strengthening our need for ingenuity. If someone has the capacity to conceive of a new idea in their efforts to transform the world, the force behind this idea depends a great deal on the quality of the connection established between the subject and this space of interaction. Therefore, this “intermediary” space should be carefully safeguarded and protected.

Photo_ Pavli 5_ CC BY 2.0
This is the path we follow through the realms of action and imagination, giving due attention to the various dynamics that shape history. With our feet on the ground, we commit to many different ways of overcoming obstacles, to the most unlikely of movements, as we break through borders. Thus, if we experience different pathways through the domains of immanence with a certain degree of calm, we open up the possibility of honing in on innumerable practices of transcendence. The plane of immanence is, for us, the time and place for action, the time for experiences, the moment to respond to the challenges the world sends our way.

If our imagination is where we experience transcendence, then it is in our experiences that immanence is affirmed. It is there that everything happens, and for this very reason, individual and group actions develop in the realm of history. We are present in the world, we affirm this presence with our actions, and we are shaped by a history. At the same time, we are motivated by a desire to overcome adversity. In this way, action and imagination shape each other when we are involved in transformative agendas. This slowly leads us to the issue of belonging. What makes subjects abandon passivity, a place of relative comfort, and throw themselves into the most intense adventures of creation? What makes someone join a cause that is committed to social transformation?

The plane of immanence is made up of the materiality of time, both in terms of individual life and collective organisations. There is an experience of time that is formed by the experiences that we live through at every single moment wherever we are. However, the experience of another temporality is created when we imagine something that has never happened. With this in mind, we invite everyone to reflect on the differences between times of action and times of imagination. We put our faith in this because, while experiencing different temporalities, something emerges that helps us to get at the core of political action.

What puts these subjects in motion when they move away from the immanent and strive towards horizons far beyond normal boundaries, in the realm of transcendence? What actions are sparked in our lives when we put our imaginations up against what we actually do? Multiple temporalities enter into a dialogue in which individual time meets collective time. In the same way, a tension is created between lived and desired experiences. Moreover, we should also consider what else enters the picture when we get to the core of political action. In this core, time has a material quality that we seek to understand. It is a materiality with a force strong enough to shape us. Forces that originate in history shape us, but they do not hold us prisoner. In fact, this is where we learn to combine the tension between the different continuums that form up to the point of being able to embrace the contingencies that derive from the flow of a lifetime of intensities. From these contingencies, energies are born that push us into the practice of surpassing boundaries. Transcendency also results from a combination with the immanent.

This place of “belief” is where the need for a “new” political imagination is born, an imagination materially formed by the infatigable movement between understanding and doing.

Therefore, we wonder, why does this movement between temporalities drive us to the core of the political? Why does time end up being the strongest political materiality of our existence? Firstly, because only in our real temporality, only as long as we are alive, can we take action in the world and collaborate in order to transform it. The dead do not intervene in history, they do not participate in social life or effect the changes that are required by lived time. Therefore, we can state that the dead do not start revolutions. What they can offer us, however, is inspiration from the stories of their lives, from the examples set by the memory of their struggles.

Far beyond this observation, in a very primitive space, we know that our temporality forces us to face our own finiteness. Time imposes limits on us and robs us of any illusion of control. We do not choose when we are born, and we normally do not have any power over when we depart from this world either. In this world we develop our abilities in order to care for the vulnerable condition of our existence. Every individual is completely alone in how they manage the fate-determining forces of life. After all, life’s polar extremes consist of events of immense solitude: we are born and die alone. Our arrival and departure may be our own, but we cannot choose when or where these events take place.

Furthermore, time belongs to each one of us and, in all the moments we experience, time also belongs to a collective. Thus, three challenges arise. The first is knowing how to combine individual time with collective time when distributing tasks in creative practices or when responding to challenges in the world. The second consists in creating the tension between the time to act and the time to imagine, as times of action and times of imagination are inherently different. The third challenge, and perhaps the most difficult, consists in coming to one’s own individual understanding of a dimension of reality imposed by the limit of one’s own lifetime. Perhaps when the moment arrives in which much of what we dream becomes reality, we will no longer have a role to play in the story. Others, unlike ourselves, will be able to reap the benefits of this transformative deed. Reaching a certain degree of understanding, regarding this limit, entails a level of wisdom. After all, the processes that change reality occur within a separate temporality to that which is given to individual lives.

The subject in the world

We will now discuss some aspects of the subject’s actions on their journey through the world. As the subject moves through different spaces, they reveal expressions of belonging and recognition that result from their interactions with other subjects and places. Their movements trace a vertical line that intersects with a horizontal line extending from action to imagination. The vertical line connects the one end, belonging, with the other end, recognition. The horizontal line connects the pole of action with its opposite pole of imagination. Where the two lines cross, we find experiences, an intersection from which something very inventive emerges.

The description of these dimensions and how they relate to different ways of belonging and recognition enable us to create a didactic framework for analysing our experiences. This didactic framework is formed around the verbs understand, do and believe. Each of these verbs expresses a dimension closely related to our needs. In the very process of forming our way of being human, we feel the need to understand, we fulfil our desires by doing and we let ourselves be led and supported by a system of belief. Understanding, doing and believing are brought together in a dynamic of mutual involvement.

Every subject experiences the various dimensions of their needs based on the condition of being present in the world. In one dimension, the subject must commit to first trying to understand the world and, while doing so, understand their interactions with it. We call this dimension the sphere of comprehension – the moment when the subject formulates explanations about the world as an occurrence. When we arrive at a certain location, we try to understand what happens there, the reality that the place offers. We also try to understand the possible ties that can be made with other subjects, with all those who are participating with us in the same situation.

In this environment, the subject thinks and interprets in a gradual effort to understand lived reality. At each step along the way, knowledge is gained; a subject does not just conform to what they already know. Simply making an effort to gain knowledge yields the desire to know even more. In response to every challenge that the world presents, more effort is made to come up with solutions, guided by the explanations that the world provides. This is the dimension of epistemology, a philosophical term which we use as a way to express the effort made to understand. This is a general outline of the dimension of understanding, one of the poles making up this epistemology.

We come now to a discussion of the dimension of doing, and again we turn to the field of philosophy for the right term: ontology. By doing, and by applying our knowledge, we advance towards the realisation of our experiences. We jump to action and invent solutions to the problems that arise in our given situation. Immersed in this dynamic of doing, we transform the world, we explore the tensions between the realm of the possible and that of the impossible. At the very moment of action, faced with opportunities to experience different places and people, we feel the desire for more growing within. We become certain that these places of tension awaken the imagination. Once more we observe how action and imagination lead a symbiotic relationship. Thus, we delineate the dimension of doing, this ontological pole, when we experience some mode of existence. In this way, our practices extend beyond our understanding, later returning back to it and forming new ways of thinking that differ from what was previously possible.

In our experiences with social movements we have slowly developed a perception of the intense movement between the realm of understanding and that of doing. Understanding and doing are interrelated and synergistic. The more we develop our knowledge, the more we improve our actions. This is why we feel the need to understand more. This movement takes place throughout our lifetime, allowing no time to rest. Surrounded by all this movement, we have no chance for respite. Breaking with illusions of calm, with the desire to arrive at a place of supposed harmony and peace, frees up energies within us and allocates the dreamworld back to its proper place. Dreaming, in imaginative practices, becomes powerful, always in confrontation with action.

Photo_ Peter Toporowski_ CC BY 2.0
Using our perception of this mutual involvement between understanding and doing, we can identify the element responsible for maintaining this movement. We have seen how the present, usually in some invisible form, exists between understanding and doing. This implies some form of belief because we believe in the possibility of another world and then we throw ourselves into the intense movements that experience presents us. Belief inspires our actions and pushes us into experiences of connection with other subjects caught up in the same movements, all of us seeking a better world.

Thus, this point of the discussion brings us to a space where we must believe, to the field of “belief”. Again, philosophy provides the right term for this dimension: “axiology”. This is the ideal environment for the imagination to develop because it exists at a level where we believe our dreams are created. This place of “belief” is where the need for a “new” political imagination is born, an imagination materially formed by the infatigable movement between understanding and doing.

In one of Gilles Deleuze’s observations we find confirmation of our belief by coming to our own understanding of what the field of axiology means. Deleuze puts it this way:

“Believing in the world is what we need most; we have completely lost the world, we have been dispossessed of it. Above all, believing in the world is about creating events—even small ones, that are beyond our control—or engendering new convergences of time and space, even over a small area.” [2][2] Deleuze, G. (1990) Conversaciones – El control y el devenir: interview by Toni Negri, Futur Antérieur, nº 1. Ed. L’Harmattan.

With Deleuze’s words we can confirm the extent to which belief in the world and our efforts to instigate events participate in the materiality of our actions.

Modal categories of existence

The didactic framework created with the spheres of knowing, doing and believing offers us an adequate interpretive point of reference to use in the “intermediate” field between action and imagination. This convergence of references will help us in our efforts to care for and cultivate the many planes involved in our struggles for social transformation.

Remaining within this framework, we will direct our attention to the field of action, defining the realm of “ontology” in more detail. We seek this space to realise our existence by affirming our connection with types of exploration that differ from the exploration that happens via mediation. We must insist on giving special attention to the space of “intermediaries”, and we strive to take special care of this terrain and ensure its fertility because the effectiveness of our actions and the vitality of our imagination depend on it.

In this way of exploring what constitutes our existence, we can develop our own understanding of the modal categories of existence: 1) need, 2) reality, 3) possibility. These categories make up ontology. While we exist in the world, while we live through history, we become subjects according to how we relate to these modalities.

Why do we strive so hard to improve our relationship with the modal categories of existence? We do so because they create connections that can support us in our efforts to transform society, improve the world and write history. We wish to call attention to our dedication to cultivating connections. What types of connections constitute each modal category of existence?

In the category of need, we understand how the connection between every subject and their body is created. This involves a certain materiality of life that requires care. We are present in the world because of our bodies. As we are neither angels nor machines, caring for our bodies is a necessity for preserving our health. We can only dedicate ourselves properly to the tasks of social struggle if we are healthy. The more we take care of our health, the less often we are ill.

We need our health to bear the weight of all the tasks involved in being dedicated to social transformation. In the sphere of need, we focus on this dimension of survival. Living, in this sense, is the material condition of survival. The materiality of this plane of necessity encompasses a wide range of types of care: food, rest, leisure, pleasure, tastes, protection from inclement weather, clothing, and so on. This realm includes maintaining our physical health, not just tackling the problems that arise when we are ill. If we organise our attention rationally, for example focussing on prevention, we will have better conditions for maintaining our health. Moreover, the pleasure we experience by living well also factors as an important determinant of our holistic health.

Attitudes, which form within us from birth, easily reinforce connections of guardianship and dependence when they are allowed to take shape spontaneously, within a family, for example. The conquest of attitudes around autonomy requires an educational effort and agenda, and this is one task that must be assumed by organised groups within social movements.

In this modal category of existence, we can identify various aspects related to educational processes. These processes include themes related to our own education, namely challenges that teach us which tasks are necessary for maintaining a healthy body. What aspects of education are relevant here? In the educational realm of necessity we must develop abilities that expand our independence. Every subject needs to develop the self-care skills they need to survive.

The educational aspect of need can be better understood through the following examples. Let’s begin with food. Nutrition is a basic requirement for staying healthy, yet preparing meals involves a set of skills and knowledge. This knowledge can be taught by those experienced at cooking. The same can be said of our clothing. The skills related to making clothes can be transmitted by those who know how to sew. We also need shelter, and the knowledge related to the construction of houses can also be transmitted by builders, and so on. What we wish to point out here is the fact that the development of various abilities will broaden the subject’s independence when the time comes to take responsibility for their own survival.
These ways of understanding the relationships between the subject and their own body teach us a lesson about the care involved in connecting to yourself. Connections the subject establishes with their own body support them in their condition as an active subject. These connections increase in quality and consistency when the subject develops abilities to complete survival-related tasks. This can all be organised by social movements via transformative programmes. Here lies the all important confluence between individual care, carried out by everyone for themselves, and collectively organised care.

Taking a step further in the formulation of our didactic framework, we approach the next modal category of existence called “reality”. This is within the sphere of action, understood as an exercise of the political, the place where groups find solutions to problems that come along with the challenges of any social context. In the category of reality, we understand how each subject forms ties with their peers. The power of our involvement in action, in movements of social transformation, very much depends on the quality of this type of connection. This is where we find the “intermediary” space, which has the special quality of being the necessary condition for sustaining the action of collective tasks. The quality of our bonds with others, with those who share our mode of action, allows us to broaden our ability to exercise power. If we wish to increase our power when looking for solutions to the problems around us, we should cultivate these bonds built on otherness. After all, it is by interacting with others that we create something new with every action.

In this modal category of existence, at the level of reality, we identify different aspects related to educational processes. Here we face the challenge of the prerequisite tasks that are needed to care for the health of our connections to the other. What core issue of this category pushes us to further develop educational processes within social movements using organisational processes in struggles for change? This is the space in which attitudes are formed.

What do we understand about the formation of attitudes? Forming an attitude entails making an effort to overcome devices of control, supervision or authoritarian practices. Attitudes in this context refer to the fact that every subject can count on themself and can count on the other without getting trapped in modes of dependence. One’s attitude has to do with their political position, with the way they are present in the world and in history. Our attitudes, if we wish to develop autonomy, do not emerge naturally out of thin air and cannot be assumed to be inherent to the subject for the sheer fact of being alive. Attitudes must be formed by different forces, and this leads us to educational processes. Attitudes, which form within us from birth, easily reinforce connections of guardianship and dependence when they are allowed to take shape spontaneously, within a family, for example. The conquest of attitudes around autonomy requires an educational effort and agenda, and this is one task that must be assumed by organised groups within social movements.

Now let us take the formulation of our didactic framework yet another step further by addressing the modal category of existence called “possibility”. This is the realm of the imagination. In it we exercise our capacity to dream of all the ways a new world could be achieved through cooperation. The first steps towards living life in all its diversity consist in using our dreams to imagine possible ways to break with our reality. In our dreams we deal with the complete spectrum of possibility for fulfilling our desires, both individually and collectively. On this level we cultivate hope as an exercise of responsibility. The practice of hope, however, does not consist in surrendering oneself to passive expectation, as if the world will just magically change on its own. Instead, it entails bringing the future into the present by involving every subject in programmes of collective action.

In this modal category of existence, the plane of possibility, we identify different aspects related to educational processes, and we accept the challenge of including them as necessary conditions for the good health of our connections with the world. We also identify the educational tasks that should be undertaken by organised groups within social movements. These tasks refer to the field of values, the material elements responsible for the composition of our beliefs. Different ways of believing can also be tended to by the education of individuals and groups at the same time.

Between action and imagination: ethics, aesthetics and politics

Through our educational experiences with organised social movement groups in Brazil and in other Latin American countries we have been able to shape these frameworks of interpretation into didactic resources. Using these frameworks, we can evaluate the results of our programmes of action. In the context of these formulations, we have sought out the most decisive core concept in mobilising and acquiring new participants. We have based our search on the work of Paul Freire. Here we will limit ourselves to presenting other methods of interpretation inspired by one of this master’s key readings.

This key reading is derived from our interpretation of the dedication found at the beginning of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which Paulo Freire writes:

“To the oppressed, and to those who see themselves in the oppressed and, thus, discover themselves, suffer along with them, but, above all, fight alongside them.” [3][3] Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogía del oprimido. Siglo XXI.

In this dedication, Freire uses three verbs: discover, suffer and fight. Let us explore the meanings of these verbs, applying the didactic framework discussed above.

We associate the verb “discover” with the field of understanding. In terms of Freire’s philosophy of education, it refers to a reading of the world developed through reading words. It is worth highlighting the emphasis that Freire puts on the relationship with the other. There is a definition that states that the act of discovery is carried out together with the other, marked by a discovery of oneself in the other. We understand that the importance given to this stage of the development of knowledge points out its political dimension. The more the subject broadens their range of knowledge through experiences in the world, the greater the subject’s power to act. This power dynamic, present in practices of reading, makes this the ideal place for the practice of politics.

This idea further unfolds as we look at the second verb: suffering (with the oppressed). The verb “to suffer” allows us to identify the point at which the subject relates to their own condition of vulnerability, i.e. the ethical dimension. When the subject recognises their fragility, they discover within the other the conditions for the exercise of their complementarity. This presents a paradox that deserves attention, because it is in the condition of our fragility that we recognise our strength. Therefore, we move towards the other from this place of fragility, not because we obey some rationality that comes from the level of understanding, but rather because we recognise that we can only complete ourselves by encountering and engaging with the other.

However, we do not stop there; we find ourselves caught up in the enjoyment of suffering, and we begin to fight. In collectively organised movements we develop actions to transform the world wherever there is suffering. Together we create solutions to overcome different forms of suffering. This is called the aesthetic dimension because it is the place where a work of art is composed for the world, in the world, together with the actions of others.

There are, therefore, two different approaches to the precarity of life. The first is ontological and we can have a certain understanding of it. The second is historical, and for that we utilise various scopes of knowledge as resources to work out the best solutions.

Using this combination of three verbs, we can better understand that the ethical dimension is a point of adhesion, where the strength of mobilisation resides. Through this powerful attribution to the moment of contact with suffering we distinguish an ontological condition of precarity for which there is no solution. We are born as vulnerable human beings and deal with so many different limitations in our lives. Our understanding reaches new levels when, beyond our perception of an ontological dimension of suffering, we identify the hallmarks of another vulnerability, one produced in our histories, for which we can find solutions. There are, therefore, two different approaches to the precarity of life. The first is ontological and we can have a certain understanding of it. The second is historical, and for that we utilise various scopes of knowledge as resources to work out the best solutions.

Times of patience and times of urgency

We close the text by returning to the differences between times of action and times of imagination. Our intuition originated in the understanding of the confrontation between “historical patience” and “historical urgency”, beginning with arguments already formulated by Célio Turino, the mentor of “Puntos de Cultura” (Cultural Points) in Latin America.

In times when life seems destined to present us with moments of uncertainty, in times when the extreme vulnerability of a pandemic is ever present, the rhythm of life does not coincide with the rhythm at which transformations occur. Thrown into the greatest of fragilities, our individual lives take priority. Looking beyond our individual survival, from the moment we see brutality start to emerge in social relationships, notions of patience come up against the urgency of history. Times of patience do not resemble times of urgency. Not letting people die of hunger or urban violence is quintessentially a political act. This treatment of temporalities, observing the specifics of patience with the need for urgency, can seep into creative and productive processes with the temporal aspect of care in both our actions and imagination.

Where everything begin…

After creating a referential framework in order to help evaluate our actions within social movements, we now turn to emphasise how action becomes deed via experiences. Anyone participating in organised groups, anyone committed to movements of social transformation, can only experience an intervention of the exercise of politics by starting with the practices of movement between spheres and involving oneself in experiences. The development of rationality becomes more consistent when it is truly linked to a practice and occurs at understood levels of effectiveness.

We end our journey with a question: Where does everything begin? We can pinpoint the starting point of social movements within the figure of the militant subject, as this figure is able to take on the role of educator. This ability includes the capacity to gather experiences and teachings that offer ways to react to reality with practices of social transformation and to transmit acquired knowledge so as to permanently establish widespread exchange of knowledge in organisational processes within social movements. Therefore, we assert that the changes in a society are never the work of angelic beings or programmed machines. Every subject, assuming the responsibility of cultivating within themself a broad sense of humanity, appropriates history and reworks it through complementary interactions with the other.

Having underlined the role of the militant, we would also like to highlight grassroots work as part of that triggering nucleus, that point identified as the place where everything begins. Experiences and subjects develop and are transformed via intense movements of reinvention and resistance.

We close our text with Paulo Freire’s concluding words in his introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“From these pages I hope at least the following will endure: my trust in the people, and my faith in men and women, and in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love.” [4][4] Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition. Continuum.

Managing the different temporalities of subjects, in their movement between action and imagination is closely tied to community trust. This trust is reinforced by movements that reinvent both subjects and entire worlds. In these combinations, love is elevated as a source of life and guiding principle.

In conclusion, it is a long journey towards the viability of dreams, one that is guided by dreams themselves and reinforced by experiences. The immanence of action intersects with the transcendence of imagination. In this way, we can become the other, and, at the same time, invent worlds where life can flourish with intense joy.