Bernard L. De Koven

On Having Fun

The Civic Imagination

The capacity to imagine alternatives to current social or political conditions

Posted Jul 29, 2016

Vishavjit Singh - used with permission
Source: Vishavjit Singh - used with permission

In their essay, "Superpowers to the People!: How Young Activists Are Tapping The Civic Imagination," (appearing in Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice, Eric Gordon, et al.) Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik define the Civic Imagination as "the capacity to imagine alternatives to current social, political or economic conditions." 

This faculty that we call imagination is as central to our being as play. It leads to our own, personal, infinite playground. And yet, as personal and infinite as we imagine it to be, it is, by its very universality, a shared capacity. What we, together, imagine becomes the very foundation of the human community.

Their essay begins with a story about a man named Vishavjit Singh:

Like many other fellow members of the American Sikh community, Vishavjit Singh experienced post 9/11 xenophobia and racism first hand. As a bearded and dastar (or turban) wearing Sikh, he became an easily recognizable and completely misidentified face for those who were terrified, ignorant, and seeking scapegoats. Thinking back on that period, Singh recalls being called “Osama,” “towelhead,” and being told to “go home” in no uncertain terms. Though things have definitely changed since then, Singh and other members of the Sikh community still endure persistent verbal (and other) abuse, which now tends to ebb and flow in response to news coverage on terrorism. Determined to take action to counter the misinformation and ignorance that fueled such outbursts, Singh turned to popular culture to counter existing stereotypes about Sikhs. In addition to launching (a site that uses cartoons to as commentary on being Sikh in America), Singh also mashed up the turban-wearing Sikh with Captain America, to create a character to drive home his message that: “A Sikh is just as American as an iconic superhero” (Singh in interview with Hills 2014). Initially a cartoon character, the Sikh Captain America came to life when Singh started dressing as his character when he makes public appearances to drive home the point that an American Sikh man can also be a superhero.

Singh’s story is a provocative example of what this essay will call the civic imagination at work. We are interested in understanding the ways that young activists, especially in North America, are conducting politics through images and narratives drawn from popular culture; encouraging other youth to “imagine better,” to envision alternatives to current conditions and develop new pathways into political and civic engagement. Singh’s story also gives us a way to start to answer a core question: What is an essay about superheroes doing in a book about civic media? Often, discussions about civic media focus on creating an independent communication infrastructure, a way of routing around concentrated media, so that citizens can share information, minority voices can be heard, and we can access alternative perspectives. Often, as Stephen Duncombe (2007) has noted, the focus is on how we “get the facts out” yet, in practice, politics may also consist in the ways we deploy participatory culture, narrative, fantasy, the imagination, towards civic and political ends.

So, here again is an example of the power of the imagination. Its political power. The very playfulness of which adds not only to its power, but also to its effectiveness as a tool for raising awareness, breaking down barriers, and uniting people in a common cause.

It is easier to gain entrance to the public imagination with humor than with outrage. Anger, shock, disgust - these slam the doors of the imagination shut. Playfulness, hope, the raising of new possibilities opens them.

Vishaljit Singh - used with permission
Source: Vishaljit Singh - used with permission

"This Sikhtoon was inspired by the news stories below and the 7 pound 'explosive device' we all carry that fuels our imagination, fears, creativity, phobias, innovation, destruction, desires, anxieties, love, hate........."

As they explain in their essay:

This movement from private towards public imagination often depends on images already familiar to participants from other contexts, images drawn not from political rhetoric but popular fantasy. The image bank through which we forge the civic imagination shifts from generation to generation: for the 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,” while for the American founding fathers, it might have been formed around motifs from classical history and mythology. But, the emerging generation of young activists maintains a strong, close relationship to American popular culture, and that shared vocabulary helps them to broker relations across different political groups.

This essay came to me through the courtesy of one of its authors, Dr. Henry Jenkins. Dr. Jenkins has been exploring new media popular culture for most of his long career. He is a worthy ally for all us who believe in the power of play.

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