We define civic imagination as the capacity to imagine alternatives to current cultural, social, political, or economic conditions; one cannot change the world unless one can imagine what a better world might look like. Beyond that, the civic imagination also requires the capacity to see one’s self as a civic agent capable of making change, as part of a larger collective which has shared interests, as an equal participant within a democratic culture, and as empathetic to the plight of others different than one’s self. Research on the Civic Imagination has represented a space where the humanities meets the social sciences, where we can explore the political consequences of cultural representations and the cultural roots of political participation. The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life describes the concept in terms of “people’s theories of civic life….cognitive roadmaps, moral compasses, and guides that shape participation and motivate action”. Clearly, these mental models will look different to people in different political and cultural contexts, which is why we explore the concept from a mix of different national and regional perspectives. Stephen Duncombe speaks of the need for “utopian thinking” which allows us to escape “the tyranny of the possible” and imagine alternative paths forward. The Institute for the Future has stressed the need for a Public Imagination so that our fantasies for the future can be shared within and across diverse communities. Others have suggested that the shared imagination fuels discussions, debates, a thinking through of new possibilities, and as such, becomes important when our politics seems to hit a dead-end. The need to locate and spark the civic imagination has taken on much greater urgency at a time when a CNN/ORC poll conducted in 2015 found that only three in ten Americans believe that their views are well represented in Washington and when many report that the American nation is as divided politically as it has been at any point since the civil war and reconstruction.
Yet, we recognize that the crisis in American politics that has unfolded over the past few years is far from unique around the world, as witnessed by the Brexit vote, the rise of right wing nationalism in Europe and Asia, the political disorder in Brazil, struggles with drug lords in Latin America, and religious extremism in the Middle East, to cite just a few examples. Our early research is discovering ways that indigenous peoples around the world are tapping Avatar and other science fiction texts to dramatize their struggles, the ways that the three finger salute from Hunger Games is being deployed by student resistance movements in Thailand and Hong Kong, the ways that the Islamic world and Russia are developing their own superheroes to reflect their own sense of social mission, and the ways that Brazilians have used the visibility brought by the Olympics and the World Cup to question the priorities of their national government. So, our goal is to create a work which encompasses the tools and tactics, the cultural resources, which have shaped the ways citizens around the world are responding to these dire and often deadly situations.
This movement from private toward public imagination often depends on images already familiar to participants, images drawn not from political rhetoric but popular narratives. The image bank through which we forge the civic imagination shifts across generations and regions. For the American civil rights movement in the 1950s, it might have been formed around the rhetoric of the black church with its talk of “crossing the River Jordan” and entering the “promised land.” Throughout American history, any number of creative works have sparked political and social movements. Examples might include novels (such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, The Grapes of Wrath, It Couldn’t Happen Here, Invisible Man, or To Kill a Mockingbird), plays (such as Twelve Angry Men, Fences, or Hamilton), songs (such as “Fanfare for the Common Man,” “We Shall Overcome,” or “This Land is Our Land”), paintings (the works of Norman Rockwell) or films (for example, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Milk or Do the Right Thing). And social change has been fueled by more informal cultural resources, ranging from folk practices to personal testimony, that has awoken people to shared perspectives expressing their hopes and fears for the future.
Over the past few decades, popular culture has increasingly offered the resources people have drawn upon to spark the civic imagination -- from the multicultural, multiracial, and multiplanetary communities depicted on Star Trek to the struggles of ragtag rebels against autocratic empires in Star Wars, from images of female empowerment and collective action in Hunger Games to the depiction of an American Muslim superhero in Ms. Marvel. Many of these narratives speak powerfully to a particular subcultural, niche or generational cohort, but these narratives are often hotly contested by other groups who come from different political, spiritual, or ethnic backgrounds. Many minority groups are struggling for inclusion and representation within popular media or to overcome decades of negative stereotyping. In other parts of the world, American popular culture surfaces, alongside local alternatives, as part of the culture of protest and democratic struggle, with superheroes or zombies becoming widely used as reference points in debates and protests. No one popular narrative can speak for everyone and many believe that critical conversations need to occur to heighten awareness of the potential and failures of different genres to capture the diversity of the contemporary American nation. If stories can inspire and empower social change, stories can also shatter communities, feeding our fears and suspicions, re-enforcing stereotypes in particularly vivid ways. Examples might include the use of Hindu mythology in Modi’s India, the ways that the Nazis drew upon imagery from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or the ways that The Birth of a Nation helped to revitalize the Klu Klux Klan. In many cases, the only way to combat the corrosive power of such stories is through other stories which invite us to understand the world from alternative perspectives, which help us to understand how other people live and what they feel about their conditions. There are some signs that Hollywood is trying to be more inclusive of diverse experiences, as suggested by likely Oscar contenders such as Fences, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures, or by television success stories, such as Fresh Off the Boat, Blackish, or Jane the Virgin or even in the diversification of the cast in recent entries in the Star Wars and Marvel Extended Universe franchises. As these new media representations emerge, they are the focus of heated debate from all quarters and there is enormous value in creating a context where these issues of representation and inclusion can be debated openly but with an ethical commitment to respectful listening.