A common criticism of Sartre’s philosophy is that he is unable to escape pessimism regarding social relations. In BN this is clearly the case as he describes the human ‘project’ as consciousness surpassing one’s present ‘situation’ toward the unbounded possibles that might be realized though the radical freedom of the for-itself as the latter seeks to create itself, create meaning, and overcome the viscous nature of the present which continually threatens the for-itself with the impossible – annihilation (death, becoming an in-itself). Because other free for-itselfs all have the same ‘project’ (structurally speaking, that is) there necessarily arises conflict in the social sphere as one consciousness seeks its own ends over and against the desired ends of any and every other for-itself. Therefore, the for-itself, in the mode being-with-others, is haunted by an unceasing competition with others as individual consciousnesses transcend/negate other persons in a field of subjective competition. Unlike Hegel, there is no dyadic struggle that results in the overcoming of the oppressor by the oppressed. There is no hope for ‘resolution.’ Sartre seems to suggest that the conflictual nature of intersubjectivity is irreconcilable – an absolute result of the ontological freedom of the for-itself. It is this pessimism that has led many readers to hone in on various ‘soundbites’ taken from the massive corpus of Sartre: ‘hell is other people,’ ‘man is a useless passion,’ existence is ‘absurd,’ etc. Taken as definitive characterizations of Sartre’s philosophy, such maxims neglect Sartre’s most ambitious work, Critique of Dialectical Reason, in which (among other things) he develops a social theory that seeks to provide an historical materialist answer to the phenomenological problems of intersubjectivity in his early work.
In CDR, Sartre retains much of the language/structure of his earlier works (the project, the situation, facticity, the primacy of freedom, the field of possibles, intending toward the beyond, etc). However, he modifies their content significantly by turning from consciousness toward human labor in order to define human existence. The conceptual shift from deﬁning human existence as consciousness to praxis is profound, primarily because it incorporates the human being completely in facticity. In his later work, Sartre characterized facticity as the entirety of material human existence in a Marxian fashion – identifying the human with labour: “[The] truth of a man is the nature of his work… But, this truth deﬁnes him just infosar as he constantly goes beyond it in his practical activity.” This latter experience of one working, being deﬁned by her work, and surpassing her situation is what Sartre would call one’s ʻpraxis-project.ʼ It is the essential identity marker of human existence. Like the intending, surpassing, negating consciousness of BN, the human as praxis is characterized by arising within a given ‘situation’ which is to be surpassed. The latter is a process from ‘objectification to objectification.’ As the human works in a given situation her subjectivity is inscribed on the objective world. Matter therefore becomes ‘worked-matter.’ By storing human labor, the material world thus becomes a field of preserved, inert human striving. Called the ‘practico-inert,’ this field is the source of ‘negative reciprocity.’ This latter effect (negative reciprocity) seems to place Sartre on familiar ground. However, through the ‘apocalyptic’ upsurge of group activity in the face of immediate Terror and the impossible (death), Sartre espouses a theory of social relation that is able to skirt a destiny that is bound for mere repetition of alienation. Achieved through ‘mediated reciprocity,’ de-alienation occurs through the communized free praxis of the group-in-fusion. Their primary task being ‘to snatch from worked-upon material its inhuman power of mediation between men in order to confer it on each and everyone in the community,’ the group offers a novel social theory in which the irreducibility of human subjectivity is preserved (a la Kierkegaard) and in which concrete objectivity remains part and parcel of the human’s project (a la Hegel/Marx).
However, the inevitable question arises: how is such a group able to sustain itself? And this is where we see tinges of Sartre’s pessimism arise once again. After the initial, free, instantaneous upsurge (the ‘apocalypse’) the group is then threatened with dissolution into seriality. Not wishing such a fate, an ‘oath’ is sworn: ‘when freedom makes itself the communal praxis of establishing the permanence of the group by way of producing itself its own inertia in mediated reciprocity, this new statut is called the oath.’ Although there is a momentary experience of de-alienated sociality, this ‘instant’ is fated to fail after the oath (the pledge) is made. In the face of the event, the pre-constituted group was faced with the impossible which instigated a united front against a violent foe. By negating this violence with violence and revolutionary resistance the moment of apocalypse offered a glimpse of absolute de-alienated communized praxis (‘mediated reciprocity’). However, after the initial upsurge the group is faced with simple and sudden ossification into a serial collective (because of the ‘ontological check’ – the ‘practico-inert’). Therefore, an oath is made to swear against static institutionalization. However, the very effect of the sworn oath produces a ‘permanence’ which fails to maintain the pure freedom of the apocalypse. In other words, the oath is a ‘reflective act,’ instituted by the group to retain the affective impetus that was initially experienced during the apocalyptic moment. This reflective act is insufficient in three ways:
1. It is a forced (i.e. mediated) reproduction (representation) of a previous immediate affective experience.
2. It establishes a ‘being’ of the group, which negates the free ‘becoming’ of the apocalypse.
3. It creates an ‘image’ whose object is both absent and present; one that is inert and completely produced by the collective imaginative consciousness of the group; that has no creative capacity in itself (it teaches nothing); and that is devoid of the infinity of the real (spatio-temporality).
At present, it is the last of these insufficiencies that concerns me. The reason for explaining this problem is that Sartre, perhaps to a greater degree than any other philosopher of recent years, was preoccupied with the imagination. And although he does not explicitly develop an historical materialist account of the imagination in CDR, it is possible to see how such a project may have progressed. More than that, it is my contention that such a project may in fact offer a viable vision beyond the impasse of ‘circularity’ from series, to group, to series, etc..
In The Psychology of the Imagination (L’Imaginaire), Sartre outlines a phenomenological theory of the imagination. Viewed in terms of intentionality, the imagination is not a supplement to consciousness, the image is not ‘in’ consciousness, but rather imagination is a type of consciousness – an ‘imaginative consciousness.’ As such, it is always directed toward an object. Thus, the object of the image is NOT the image itself, but that ‘real thing’ the image presents. In the case of non-fictive object, there is an actual material object that is sought by the imaginative consciousness. Being both present (as an object of the image) and absent (as not physically present) the object of the image is ‘intended’ by the spontaneous emergence of the imaginative consciousness. In fact, both the image and the imaginative consciousness arise together – they are understood as co-constituting. But it must be remembered that the image is NOT an existent for its own sake – it is only an analogue of the real object sought. As such, it is deemed ‘unreal.’ Thus, the real desire, the ultimate desire, is to realize the material object (the real) in perception. Of course, the latter is impossible. Therefore, there is a deferral of desire/intentionality from the real toward the image. This process is both satisfactory and frustrating: satisfactory because the object is partially presented in its absence as a phantom which gives minimally that which the real could give infinitely; and frustrating because the image is an already constituted unreal existent – it has no capacity, it teaches nothing, and it is finite insofar as it is a product of the intending imaginative consciousness. This last issue means that the image is presented in it entirety There is nothing ‘autonomous’ about the image. It is presented in its totality as a creature of the subject.
In contrast to the image stands the real. The real for Sartre is that which is given in perception. In BN it is the ‘in-itself.’ The in-itself has an infinite depth of being in relation to perception, as the latter is incapable of exhausting all being-in-itself has to give. Therefore, the real has infinite possibilities that both confront the subject as the site of viscous absurdity and offer potential for overcoming one’s situation as she creates herself by her radical freedom for itself.
In CDR, the real is still understood as materiality. However, the material world is that field of inertia that captures human labor, thereby alienating humans from the finality of their project(s). As the group seeks ‘to snatch from worked-upon material its inhuman power of mediation’ it constitutes subjects according to ‘mediated reciprocity’ in which each subject remains individual but also an individual-for-others; and each other (i.e. third) does the same. Therefore, the human as constituted in the group is freed from the negative reciprocity that necessarily arises from the dialectical relationship between the project and the situation. As mentioned earlier, it is this process of de-alienation that most concerns Sartre.
But if it is the case that the circularity of series to group to series to group is a necessary result of scarcity and the dialectical relation between praxis and situation then in what way can the imagination aid us in conceiving a way beyond this pessimistic cycle? Let me suggest that what needs to be explored is the way in which the imagination functions as a moment of praxis, as the ‘transcendental condition’ of the ‘project.’ Returning for a moment to PI, Sartre notes that there are two ways in which we can conceive of the future: (1) the living future and (2) the imagined future. The former is the ‘temporal ground on which my present perception develops, the [latter] is posited for itself but as that which is not yet. The living future is part of ‘real existence,’ which ‘occurs with present, past and future structures, therefore past and future as essential structures of the real are equally real, that is, they are correlatives of a realizing theme.’ But the imagined future is posited by oneself, for onself, as an absence (a nothing, an unreality) that is desired. In the case of the group-in-fusion, the oath pertains to the ‘imagined future’ in that it ‘recollects’ a past moment of reality and seeks to recreate the exigence of that moment by the positing of an image, an image of the apocalypse. The problem is that while such recollection can indeed drudge up a partial affectivity of that past it is not able to reach the real of that moment by virtue of the inert nature of the image. Thus, by reflection (i.e. the oath) the group will never be able to sustain the perpetual revolution that Sartre so desires in order to prevent devolution into seriality. Rather, what needs to occur is that the group needs to take a progressive approach and turn its gaze forward to the field of possible. That is, the group must resist the urge to rest assured within the fraternity-of-terror and instead conceive of ways in which new ‘events’ can be produced. That way, the non-reflective experience of the apocalypse might be perpetuated by the will of the group. Such ‘productive mythologizing’ would arise in situation and seek to surpass such conditions as it imagines and seeks to produce possibilities that are as yet impossible. Of course, the question arises: why will such imagined futures produce the desired result? In short… they won’t. It is not the imagination that produces the apocalypse. Such is a spontaneous upsurge of non-reflexive praxis in situation. The imagination’s role is thus to create an image of that which is not yet in order to motivate group action through the fabrication of affective possibilities. In terms of the project, the imagination is the essential first moment of praxis by which individuals and/or the group envision their next step in overcoming the conditions of scarcity and negative reciprocity. Then, through labor, the situation is modified thereby creating new conditions that must be overcome.
The reason this forward-looking approach has validity is that the group-in-fusion’s primary error is that it is seeking to preserve that which once was, through representation and reproduction of a past moment of pure freedom (or ‘truth’) into a permanent state, whereas the desired approach would be one in which individuals and/or the group arise out of a given set of exceptional conditions but that continually create and produce new images. Therefore, the latter creative imagining never settles and thus never ossifies into seriality. Of course, there will be moments when the group’s task is accomplished, or when the apocalyptic moment ceases. This means that the group from one situation of exigence to the next is not the ‘same’ as it was by virtue of the previous apocalyptic moment. In other words, the group must continually recreate itself in each given situation of exigence in order to resist ever having to settle into being this or that. There is an openness that must come to characterize the social order, one that lives in both the real world and the imaginary state. That is, human praxis must try to tether that balance between that which is and that which might be, with the hope that by tending toward the latter a constant creation of affectivity will actually force the creation of the novel in new unforeseeable situations. In this way, we might call for a derealization of the political, or even better, we ought to revel in the imaginary.