LLM Modules, LW928

The Imaginary: an undervalued, yet precious, method of assessing our legal traditions

I believe the imaginary is an underestimated tool for analysing and understanding the history of our legal jurisprudence.
Through the assessment of ordinary people, it is possible to determine the motives behind a specific socio-political period that led to the development – or sometimes retrocession – of the law.
Fascinating is also the fact that the imaginary brings together two different perspective of modern societies: the “communal rights” dimension and the “individual rights” movement.

Communal rights reflect better the vision of Anderson and Castroriadis and coincide with the birth of the concept nation.
Ordinary people coming together sharing values about their common languages, traditions, culture and history led to the creation of constitutional laws that safeguard those principles. Another more current example can be the establishment of the European Union, where member states created a new code of laws based on unified economic and cultural principles.

On the other side, the imaginary explains the development of individual rights, bringing on to the table even more current topics of discussion within the legal word. According to Lacan, the imaginary is strictly connected to the psyche, i.e. the individual experience/the Freudian Ego. Lacan’s contribution to the theorisation of the imaginary helps understanding the formulation of other important legal movements such as human rights law and feminism. Through the assessment of the Ergo, new opportunities are opened to learn and understand what shall be done to improve our ‘social’ and legal dynamic.

Finally, the combination of such communal and individualistic interplay raises new challenges, questioning the role of the law and the society in a modern and globalised society which constantly defies history and tradition leading to the legal evolution/change.


5 thoughts on “The Imaginary: an undervalued, yet precious, method of assessing our legal traditions

  1. jf415 says:

    I do agree that imaginary is a very powerful tool, but I also find imaginary rather dangerous as one can easily misinterpret other’s imaginary.

    Ordinary people come together and share their values about their common languages, traditions, culture and history. However, not everyone envision the same image.

    Take for example, Imagine us having a coffee outside of a café in Paris right now. You had a sip of your coffee and you placed your cup back on top of the table.

    What was the shape of the café table? Round? Square? Because mine was octagonal shape.

    Take another example, artificial intelligence (AI), particularly ‘i,robot’ and ‘skynet’.

    What people worried about artificial intelligence is the fact that the imaginary world we, as human, envisioned inside them will be misinterpreted. We want them to help us build a peaceful world, to protect us from harm; they however, see human beings as the biggest threat to this world, hence destroying us instead.

    Why is this the case?


    How can we be so sure that the imaginary I envisioned be the same as the one you envisioned? How can I be sure that the imaginary I pictured in your mind is the same as the one I pictured in mine?

    I do believe this is one of the flaws within imagination, but this flaw was hidden well enough as we use it as a tool for understanding history and question what shall be done to improve our ‘social’ and legal dynamic instead.

  2. eb274 says:

    ‘ The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones’ – J. M. Keynes –

    I chose this quote from J. M. Keynes because it summarises the content of this comment in reply to my very own first blog post. I decided to write about the imaginary the day before we started the module LW928 because I wanted to see whether my understanding of the topic would have been the same after the course. I can now say that my perception has changed, or better evolved.
    At the beginning, I understood the imaginary as a theory that employed culture, traditions and history to assess our legal reality. Law was standing on its own with a little connection to our social reality. Pointless to say, I was completely wrong. The imaginary is not a way of understanding our reality but it is our reality. And within the legal context, it helps us understand what kind of work law does. In particular, it provides explanations about the connection between law and our ordinary life, legal and social power.
    As individuals, we are the product of the social imaginary in which we are born. Within the Western world, the imaginary has an anthropocentric/liberal approach, in which individuals have inalienable rights protected and implemented by a complex web of hierarchical institutional authorities: the State.
    The social imaginary invests the Law with powers and responsibilities in order to maintain a social order via legal normativity and a system of punishment. This is a clear example of how the imaginary creates a bridge between law and society. By granting such radical decision-making powers within the ‘Law machinery’ (e.g. depriving individuals’ of their freedom), the legal imaginary has to mirror the social reality outside the legal realm in order to be understood as ‘legitimate’.
    The imaginary teaches us that the law is not an abstract concept separated from ‘our background reality’ but it is embedded within and determined by it. Therefore, the imaginary provides a fresh and critical perspective on our social reality and how it can be changed to obtain better results in fields like human rights law and women’s civil rights.

  3. bg263 says:


    Picking up on your suggestion to revisit the claims of human rights and feminism by way of the Lacanian imaginary, I do find that some disturbing continuities could be drawn between the allegorical scene of the (male) infant’s primordial encounter with his Ideal-I and the historico-political conjunctures that inaugurated the kindred images of the universalist human in the UDHR and the liberalist (wo)man in Cornell’s reprisal of the imaginary (at least as it was critically reconstructed in James’s chapter). Like the perfect semblable, the dignified human and the re-integrated woman arise in times of insufficiency which parallel that of the nursling’s bodily dependencies: the nations in the aftermath of the racialised barbarism of the Second World War, and humanity’s incessant failure to live true to its gender-equality claims. Thus propelled into trajectories of self-realisation built upon founding moments of méconnaissance, the actors of the Western-liberalist scripts are consigned to suffer the perpetual undoing of their already-ruined teleological projects. Not only does the fascination with ‘perfection’ screen the politics surrounding the image’s construction, it further consents to the interminable replay of the (self-)aggression that is born alongside the self-alienating narcissism. Confronted with the ‘whole’ fantasy of the self, the subject is at once bestirred with the conflictual currents of admiration and jealousy, love and hostility. Henceforth, the affective ambivalence comes to determine all future transactions within the imaginary of the self. In this imaginary totality, the abrogation of human and women’s rights is but a pattern that must recur — as if ordained by fate.

  4. ncjn2 says:

    The concept of the imaginary is still a relatively abstract concept in my eyes. I struggle to see what makes it different from merely socio-political, cultural and/or historical background. I know it is not one and the same, but I am still working out what makes it something different and not a new word for the same old concept.

    What I found interesting though, Elisabetta, was your example of the European Union and their shared culture and principles. I would like to explore this idea a little further before trying to fit it into how Taylor describes the process of imaginaries evolving.

    The European Union as a body likes to portray the shared values and culture of its Member States, because that is supposedly what binds us together. However, there are some significant question marks surrounding such a claim. We do not have a common language, even common ‘values’ are hard to distinguish. Most countries may described themselves as ‘Christian’, but are still prescribed to different religious movements, like Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox.

    Do we have unified economic principles then? Perhaps. The idea of a common currency and working together for an overall better economy seems appealing and I, personally, do see the perks of the approach. However, (yes, I am going to say it), there is a reason that Britain voted Brexit. The Netherlands and France may not have voted their biggest populists into power; but that does not negate that they still have tremendous support.

    The majority of countries in Europe wanted to be part of the European project when it was going well. But was that really because of shared culture, common values and aligned economic principles? Or was it a desire for (economic) prosperity? From the bloody continent it was in a relatively nearby past to the interdependent group of nation states we have today, there has certainly been some success. However, although the word ‘universal’ remains controversial and this may be somewhat of a generalization, is the desire for economic prosperity and for peace (at least within our own borders) not fairly universal? Is that shared culture, or just strategic alliance?

    So for me, I wouldn’t see the European Union as an institution that emerged from a certain imaginary but maybe it’s evolution (arguably its rise and decline, to a certain extent) could be explained in terms of the process of how ‘new’ imaginaries constantly evolve according to Taylor.

    According to Taylor, imaginaries evolve from theories. An individual or a group of individuals develop a theory as to how we should see things. In the case of the European Union, it started with a modern theory of governing the relationships between (Western) European states. They tried to sell it to the public as having ‘shared values’ over the course of making the states more integrated, but it seems that was all just strategic thinking. The thing about the imaginary is that it needs to be taken up by individuals and then becomes part of the imaginary realm.

    This does not seem to be the case for the European Union. Nationals of nation states still tend to see themselves as belonging to that nationality, not necessarily as ‘European’. It reminds me of James’s account of a longue durée of the imaginary. How ‘certain images have complex history and a correspondingly rich set of significations, and become constitutive of particular debates […] They contribute to our most basic formulations of a subject matter or it’s problem and, while not immovable, is hard to shift.’ In other words, we have been thinking of terms of nation states to long to be able to change that in the space of a few decades.

    At the same time, we do know that as European citizens we can move freely between the states and look for work or study somewhere else. That we no longer have to spend hours at the border going from one European country to another. That part has become part of our imaginary. That is perhaps the reason why it is so difficult for Brits to imagine not being able to travel freely to European Union states or why EU citizens cannot imagine not being able to freely move to The UK anymore.

    So the example of the EU is for me not something that arose out of a certain imaginary, but could perhaps be an illustration of how certain ideas make their way into our imaginary whilst others struggle to do so.

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