negotiated imagination, Ram Krishna Ranjan

narrator Ram Krishna Ranjan
term negotiated imagination
published June 2021, Gothenburg
affiliated institution Van Abbemuseum

Even if subalterns are seen as active political subjects by the researcher/artist, without facilitating acts of creating/creative acts and their active involvement in the process, there is an inherent risk that either resurrects the subalterns as revolutionary figures or writes them off as the dormant other. A move toward testing a method where subalterns are not accorded the status of creative subjects towards the end of the project, upon discovery, but rather from the very beginning, is a humble move away from representation and towards negotiated imagination. It’s about imagining a situation where the subaltern is not simply being another case-study in an expanded Western history that takes a comparative turn, but about that Western epistemology being challenged by a subaltern way of → knowing and of giving form to that knowing.


Without an articulation of the process, the subaltern is a metaphor – a metaphor that is in service of the dominant. It’s in the methods and the articulations of the methods that we open up ways to go beyond the tokenism of the “inclusion of subaltern history”. The mere inclusion of subaltern stories (including history) does not say much about the conditions under which such stories have been “gathered” and “included”. Moreover, inclusion to what end and who does it serve? Inclusion does not necessarily dissolve the “source community-observed and, “discoverer-observer” binary. For the meaning of inclusion to change, the agency of storytelling needs to shift.


There are no “pure” “methodologies of the subaltern” that we can return to and there are no “subaltern methodologies” that will not reproduce, at least, some power differentials. The subaltern project is not a process/outcome/condition marked by the transition of methodologies from “subaltern methodologies” to “methodologies of the subaltern”. The relations between these two can be conceived as hierarchical or rhizomatic.[1] The metaphors of the structure are less important than the vectors of the agencies concerned, but seeing (in concrete terms – initiating, facilitating or implementing) any subaltern methodology as inherently and deeply hierarchical has two implications: why do it – don’t do it, or do it only when the hierarchy has disappeared. Moreover, it relegates the subaltern subjects (and methodologies of the subaltern) to “outside” of power and denies them the agency that they too can negotiate power relations. Envisaging the relations as rhizomatic is not a denial of power differentials, but rather a way to acknowledge “how one is implicated by, participates in, and resist such systems”.[2] Political and creative imaginaries of any subaltern project are not located “outside” of power but rather emerges in continuous negotiations of power in its varying forms. Negotiation is a rejection of “inaction”, “inclusion tokenism” and “guilt-based intervention”; it fosters the framework of responsibility where one has to confront one’s complicity so that one can be held accountable but still find ways to realise the subaltern project.


The thought of opacity distracts me from absolute truths whose guardian I might believe myself to be. Far from cornering me within futility and inactivity, by making me sensitive to the limits of every method, it relativizes every possibility of every action within me. Whether this consists of spreading overarching general ideas or hanging on to the concrete, the law of facts, the precision of details, or sacrificing some apparently less important thing in the name of efficacy, the thought of opacity saves me from unequivocal courses and irreversible choices.[3]


Towards negotiated imaginations[4]

I have to be(come) intelligible to you; we have to be(come) intelligible to you; we and I suspend our dynamism momentarily; wait, that’s only partially true, you make us static so that you can put us on your scale to measure; a scale that is yours; a scale that you brought; what are we made of?

One speaks, and one speaks for another, to another, and yet there is no way to collapse the distinction between the Other and oneself. When we say “we” we do nothing more than designate this very problematic. We do not solve it. And perhaps it is, and ought to be, insoluble.[5]


We and I have to be(come) knowable; you have to know; we are now locked in this configuration; we and I want to insert the stories of our existence; we tell you in a way that you understand; you testify to our existence; now we both exist; you as the knower and we as the knowable; I think it’s a double-bind – indispensable that our stories are included, infuriating that I am reduced, we are reduced; you make us transparent; what are you made of?

When you start from the enunciation and think decolonially, you shall run away from representation, for representation presupposes that there is a world out there that someone is representing. This is a basic assumption of modern epistemology. There is not a world that is represented, but a world that is constantly invented in the enunciation. The enunciation is constituted by certain actors, languages, and categories of thoughts, beliefs, and sensing. The enunciation, furthermore, is never or only enacted to “represent” the world, but to confront or support previous existing enunciations.[6]


I know crises; we have seen many; we see yours too; it’s there in the films that you make about us; anxious; reflexive; anxiously reflexive; you want to understand the difference and appreciate it; in your-self-image we are all do-gooders, so that you can also see your self-image as a do-gooder; I can now admit to differences and deny hierarchies; you can admit to our existence within your system and without creating a hierarchy; what is the difference between you and I? you often is an I; what is my scale made of? what is your scale made of? what are our scales made of? can we put an end to the scale itself?


[There is] no need to hear your [native] voice, when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still the author, authority. I am still [the] colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk.[7]


Representation is speaking on someone’s behalf; speaking on someone’s behalf is produced within the system of the speaker, the speaker is driven by making it intelligible for itself; I feel the pressure to make it intelligible to you; intelligibility is needed for visibility; visibility can lead to inclusion; inclusion is urgent; but urgent produces a bind – necessary but reductive; we and I are in that bind; we, you and I try to represent; representation can be a sum of many singulars but can it ever manifest ethics of plurality?


It is art because it is the elaboration of a proposal that does not yet exist in the real world and because it is made with the hope and belief that something may be done better, even when the conditions for it to happen may not be there yet. Art is the space in which you behave as if conditions existed for making things you want to happen, happen, and as if everyone agreed with what we suggest, although it may not be like that yet: art is living the future in the present. Art is also making people believe, although we know we may have not much more than the belief itself. Art is to start practicing the future.[8]


Imagination involves thinking about possibilities that yet don’t exist; possibilities emerge from practices – practices of storytelling; telling requires listening; listening is available to us all; storytelling is available to us all; imagination is neither fully separable from the “real” nor fully confluent with “dreams”; it is not transparent; it can’t be grasped totally or assimilated so easily; it is not in opposition to transparency; its opacity is more generative than merely critiquing representation; it is a site that binds and differentiates – you, we and I; it’s where hands weave rather than grabbing; weaves have to negotiate; weavers have to negotiate; negotiation is what makes imagination possible; practice is what makes imagination possible; imagination is what makes imagination possible. Is it possible to “focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components”?[9]

[1] In reference to approaches to decolonial curating, Ali Rosa-Salas argues that power should be envisioned as rhizomatic as opposed to hierarchical and that the process of decoloniality entails negotiating actions and power relations. She writes: “Decolonial curatorial practice is not a utopian demand, but an expression of one’s relationship with and negotiations of power in its many forms”. This formulation of power, I think, is very generative for subaltern work. See Ali Rosa-Salas, “Knowing One’s Power: Decolonial Approaches to Curatorial Practice”, Master’s Thesis (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University, 2018), 65–66.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), 192.

[4] This section takes its inspiration from Édouard Glissant’s essay “Poetics of Relation and Denise Ferreira da Silva’s book Toward a Global Idea of Race”, especially the preface. My attempt here is to draw a connection between “representation” and “transparency thesis”, two of the most important pillars of colonial modernity. I see Glissant’s proposal of opacity as a way out of the current moment of “crisis of representation” and I offer “negotiated imaginations” as a provisional proposal/framework to do the important subaltern work without reproducing some of the most insidious principles of colonial modernity. See Glissant (1997), 190 and Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

[5] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London, New York: Verso, 2004), 25.

[6] Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, “Decolonial options and artistic/aestheSic entanglements: An interview with Walter Mignolo”, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 3, no. 1 (2014), 196 – 212. Quoted from page 198.

[7] bell hooks, “Marginality as a Site of Resistance”, Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, eds. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Cornel West (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1990), 241–43.

[9] Édouard Glissant, “On Opacity”, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), 190.