Stephen Duncombe wrote one of the catalog essays for “Wish You Were Here: Postcards From Our Awesome Future” and Packard and I both thought he did a great job pulling out ideas we had embedded in the beginning of the process. After reading Duncombe’s book, it was a great honor that he wrote this piece for the catalog.
Art of the Impossible
If “politics is the art of the possible,” as the 19th century German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck once wrote, then what sort of politics are Packard Jennings and Steve Lambert proposing with their posters? Movable skyscrapers. A martial arts studio on a BART train. Public transit by elephant back. Commuting by zip line. Transforming San Francisco into wildlife refuge. Turning a football stadium into a farm (and linebackers into human plows). Every one of these proposals for our “awesome future” is patently impossible. Urban planning is a serious business: the domain of accredited academics, trained technicians and pragmatic politicians. What’s proposed by Jennings and Lambert — artists, of all things — is not serious at all.
Which is exactly why one needs to take them so seriously. Enlightenment pieties aside, politics is not solely, or even primarily, about reasoned thinking and rational choices; it’s an affair of fantasy and desire. People are rarely moved to action, support, or even consent by realistic proposals; they are motivated by dreams of what could be. This is something Conservatives understand quite well. It is highly unlikely that we will do away with income taxes or become a Christian nation any time soon, yet this doesn’t stop Republican Party standard bearers from making allusions to these futures. An Islamic Caliphate is not in the offing, but dreams of such a possibility convince a disturbing number of Muslim militants to strap bombs to their chests.
Not too long ago imagining the impossible was the job of the Left. Conservatives, after all, wanted to conserve what was, while progressives wanted to move toward the awesome future. What were democracy and socialism if not leaps into the unknown? Who, after all, is remembered for proclaiming “I have a dream”? But things have changed. Think of the Liberal uproar a few years back when Karl Rove told a New York Times reporter that the goal of the Bush administration was to “create new realities.” When this senior adviser to the president then went on to describe (and denigrate) Liberals, reporters, policy experts, and the general Times readership as the “reality-based community,” the Left, far from taking offense, adopted this appellation with pride.
As I write this essay, Democratic candidates for the 2008 presidential election are making appeals to audacious “hope” and unspecified “change,” but the past quarter century of progressive politics has been dominated by the opposite: professionalism, pragmatism, and predictability. And where has all this seriousness gotten the Left? An unprecedented rise of the Right, from Neo-Cons on the Potomac to Fundamentalists from the Bible-belt to Jihadists in the Middle East. A triumph of the dreamers. It’s true, in the United States at least, that some of these dreams are finally being recognized as nightmares, but it’s a bittersweet victory since the Left has little to offer in replacement.
The absurd proposals offered up by Jennings and Lambert have the quality of dreams. The artists explain that they asked experts in the fields of architecture, city planning and transportation for ideas on how to make a better city. These plans were then “perhaps mildly exaggerated.” It is exactly in this exaggeration that the artists’ visions have their political power, and their morality. The problem with the dreams offered up by the Right (and commercial advertisers, who share the technique) is that their fantasies are meant to be taken for reality. Vote for this candidate or buy that product and this phantasmagoric future will be yours. Since these impossibilities can never be delivered, the result is another search for a new fantasy (endless consumption), increased fanaticism in an attempt to will the impossible (terrorism), or disenchantment when the promised future is not delivered (witness the current implosion of the Republican Party).
What is so inspiring — and honest — about the visions of our future offered up by Jennings and Lambert is their transparent impossibility. A city could become more “green” with additional public parks and community gardens, but transforming San Francisco into a nature preserve where office workers take their lunch break next to a mountain gorilla family? Ain’t gonna happen. And that’s the point. Because it is not going to happen their fantasy fools no one. There is no duplicity, no selling the people a false bill of goods. It’s a dream that people are aware is just a dream.
Yet at the same time these impossible dreams open up spaces to imagine new possibilities. The problem with asking professionals to “think outside the box” and imagine new solutions is, without intervention, they usually won’t. Their imaginations are constrained by the tyranny of the possible. By visualizing impossibilities, however, Jennings and Lambert create an opening to ask “what if?” Standing in front of one of their posters on the street you smile at the absurd idea of practicing Tae Kwon Do on your train ride home. But you may also begin to question why public transportation is so uni-functional, and then ask yourself why shouldn’t a public transportation system cater to other public desires. This could set your mind to wondering why the government is so often in the business of controlling, instead of facilitating, our desires, and then you might start to envision what a truly desirable State would look like. And so on, ad infinitum. Jennings’ and Lambert’s impossible solutions are means to imagine new ones.
There is an important place in politics for the sober experts and bureaucrats of the “reality-based community.” These people take the impossible dreams of artists, visionaries and revolutionaries and bring them down to earth, transforming them into something possible. But you cannot start with the possible or there is nothing to move toward (and nothing to compromise with). Otto von Bismarck was famous in his own century for his practice of realpolitik, a hard-headed style of politics that ignores ideals in favor of what’s possible given the real conditions of the times. Our times, defined by the ubiquity of Las Vegas style spectacle and “Reality TV” entertainment, where the imaginary is an integral part of reality, necessitates a sort of dreampolitik. Conventional wisdom may insist that “politics is the art of the possible,” but Packard Jennings and Steve Lambert make a much more inspiring and, ironically, serious case that politics is the art of the impossible.