Political Imagination: Materiality, Politics and Pedagogy

International conference in Själö Island in the Turku Archipelago, Finland

10-12 June 2022

This conference addresses political imagination and its material, political and pedagogical dimensions. It explores the manifestations of political imagination and utopian thought, including the ways in which political alternatives are imagined, performed and lived out today in a host of places and spaces. We approach political imagination as a driver of social change and a practice of transformative politics and social critique. Political imagination is a generative force that is inherently intersubjective, affective, material and social. It can animate and mobilise diverse political projects, agents and effects. By envisaging alternatives to the existing social order, political imagination can enable social dreaming and destabilise conventional ways of thinking that tend to restrict us to a narrow repertoire of political possibilities. Material arrangements, such as architecture, technologies and material objects, shape the ways in which we can imagine and make alternative futures happen. Political imagination is also a skill that needs to be taught, stimulated and cultivated, highlighting the centrality of pedagogy in the practice of imagination.

The unsustainability of our current social formation has become glaringly clear, not least by the pressing climate emergency, and there is an acute need to envisage alternative ways of organising our common life. Our current conjuncture is often characterised as post-political, anti-utopian and thoroughly dominated by forces of neoliberalism that make it difficult to articulate alternatives and organise resistance. This interpretation, however, risks obscuring much of the subversion that takes place in diverse nooks and crannies of society. Resistance, contestation and struggle are not only brewing and bubbling under the post-political lid, but also increasingly rolling into the streets and squares, gardens and kitchens, art galleries and theatres, and workplaces and media. In lieu of or in parallel with political disenchantment, we are witnessing an upsurge in acts and gestures that challenge the capitalist factory settings of economic growth, waged work, limitless consumption, and persistent gendered, classed and racialised forms of oppression and exploitation, and envisage and prefigure post-capitalist futures.

The conference sets out to map and advance our understanding of these diverse acts and gestures of transformative politics, along with the complexities and ambiguities they involve. It seeks to facilitate discussion about conceptual, methodological and empirical aspects of political imagination and utopian thought as a vital part of transformative politics and social change, and strengthen our collective capacity to imagine better futures. It invites participants to explore, debate and articulate visions, ideals and struggles for alternative social formations.

The conference addresses the following questions:

  • Where and how is political imagination practiced? What kinds of political alternatives are articulated, enacted and lived out in different contexts?
  • How does artistic practice contribute to envisaging alternative social formations?
  • How are power and imagination entangled with one another?
  • How can we theorise political imagination and prevent it from becoming instrumentalised?
  • How do historical processes and legacies shape the practices of political imagination?
  • How do different spaces encourage, block, animate or constrain imagination and utopian energies?
  • How do technologies and material arrangements constrain and facilitate practices of imagination?
  • How can our capacity to imagine alternative social formations be trained and stimulated?
  • How do various intersecting inequalities of class, gender, race, sexuality and age affect the ways in which people imagine and act towards social change?
  • How can we approach political imagination methodologically?


Rhiannon Firth: Anti-authoritarian utopias, everyday life and resisting the repression of political imagination 1945-present

There is little that can tell us more about the political achievements and failings, prevalent ideologies, and everyday lives within a society than articulations of the dreams and desires of its inhabitants. In this talk I attempt to give a history and compendium of anti-authoritarian utopias and frame fluctuations in the utopian impulse since the end of WWII until the present, with reference to societal context. I would like my contribution to function as a preliminary guide to the contemporary canon, as well as a call-to-arms in defence of utopian thought and action in increasingly anti-utopian times. Utopias in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been incredibly diverse. I group utopias according to political developments and social movements they are associated with, to include: dystopias, movements of the New Left, critical, feminist and queer utopias, Black and decolonial utopias, ecological utopias, the intentional communities movement, educational utopias and critical pedagogy, post-left utopias, autonomous social movements, cyber- and tech-utopias, posthuman utopias and disaster utopias. Although the structure is more categorical than chronological, there is a historical narrative to be told of the proliferation and diversification of prefigurative and anti-authoritarian utopias during the demise of Soviet communism followed by commodification of the positive utopian impulse under accelerating neoliberalism, followed by its increasing repression and co-optation under contemporary conditions of securitization and counter-insurgency. I conclude calling for a revival of utopia from its present dystopian slump, as the timeless need to imagine things differently needs to be rearticulated in response to emerging situations.

Rhiannon Firth is a Lecturer in Sociology at IOE: University College London’s Faculty of Education and Society. Her research is at the intersection of Sociology, Education and Politics, with a focus on the pedagogical and prefigurative practices of social and ecological movements. She has conducted funded research with self-managed sustainable communities including co-operatives and eco-villages; with grassroots disaster relief movements including Occupy Sandy and COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK; and with alternative organizations using automation in experimental and artisanal ways (including a co-operative and a hackspace). She has also conducted historical and theoretical research on feminist consciousness-raising, utopian literature and communities, critical pedagogy and critical cartography. She is the author of three books: Utopian Politics (Routledge, 2012); Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the UK (Palgrave, 2020); and Disaster Anarchy: Mutual Aid and Radical Action (Pluto, forthcoming 2022).

Eeva Luhtakallio: Imagining democracy, imagining change: Material, visual and class perspectives to politicization 

Politicization processes are the drivers of social change and the lifeline of democracies. The mundane practices of taking steps from personal grievances to social critique today are multiple, as indeed, current societies are marked not only by complexity but by a plurality of voices/faces/experiences whose differences cannot be put aside, compromised, or tamed. The crucial question is, then, how can we – how do we – create common ground and imagine futures together while sustaining these differences. How to both steer and envisage a possible life together and promote change amidst differences? In this talk, I propose a concept of politicization in which the elements of a public, a conflict and a performance that formats experiences as recognizable co-occur. Drawing from recent research, I show how this threefold notion of politicization enables analyzing and valorizing politicizations that may otherwise remain invisible and latent or get discarded or labeled as marginal or erroneous. Illustrations from politicizing material environment in a marginalized urban neighborhood, politicizing psychological distress and a non-normative self through visual action, and politicizing class grievances through performing ordinariness show the contingence and fragility of processes of politicization, but also their potential in changing people’s lives and capacities to imagine further.

Eeva Luhtakallio is Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki. Her work focuses on democracy and citizenship as mundane practices, including recent studies on visual forms of politics and activism, young people’s political engagements, and political marginalisation. Luhtakallio leads the Centre for Sociology of Democracy (csd.fi) and therein the projects ”Imagining Democracy: Young Europeans becoming citizens by visual participation”, “Politicizing environmental emergency in Russia and Finland” and ”Democracy makers”. She is the author of Practicing Democracy: Local Activism and Politics in France and Finland (Palgrave, 2012) and Demokratia suomalaisessa lähiössä (together with Maria Mustranta, Into-kustannus, 2017).

You can find the full conference program below.

For further information about the conference, please contact the organizing committee: polimaconference@gmail.com

The workshop is organized by the research project “Political Imagination and Alternative Futures (POLIMA)”, https://polima.fi/

The organizing committee: Suvi Salmenniemi, Inna Perheentupa, Pilvi Porkola, Salome Tuomaala-Özdemir and Hanna Ylöstalo.

Health and safety of our conference guests is important for us. The conference will be held in accordance with current guidelines on COVID-19 by the Finnish government. We will keep you posted on these guidelines and travel instructions.