I read Myriad Intimacies with joy and wonder. It is a beautiful book that frames itself as an offering, rather than an intervention — a spiritual journey between secular and sacred. It pushes against knowledge as capture, and for an understanding of life as sensuous, sentient, and situated. My goal here is to read Myriad Intimacies in the context of the longer arc of Lata Mani’s work, broadening the way we understand her offering. The book gives us an elemental form of transnational feminist political imagination — both an epistemology and a method of political and ethical attunement to others, it enables and creates space for new worlds to come into being. Starting from one pole of her work and moving to the other, I want to suggest that Mani helps to undo the world and remake it, and that a transnational feminist political imagination is precisely this: identifying the world as it is while simultaneously opening the way to new worlds — indeed, helping to bring them into being.

I begin with the imaginative undoing. Mani’s famous 1987 essay, “Contentious Traditions,” which she later developed into a book published in 1998, changed postcolonial studies. It analyses the public debate on sati (or “widow burning”) in colonial India, arguing that women themselves were marginal to the conversation about Hindu tradition and the civilizing mission. To make her argument, Mani excavated debates shaped by Brahmanical scriptures, missionaries, and the colonial elite to find the “sati” in the story. This is because, in a glaring absence, none of the debates about the prohibition of sati discuss the women, the widows themselves. In order to locate them, she had to go beyond the obvious, official evidence — to imagine in attunement with the satis. To do this, she reads the eyewitness accounts of their suffering, provided almost entirely by European males, “against the grain” to reveal that it wasn’t the women’s religious devotion that seemed to guide them, but their concern about future financial and material well-being. As she poignantly shows, women were neither objects nor subjects, but the ground of the debate about sati. By reading not just against, but beyond the grain, she demonstrates that this tradition is actually modern, constituted in the intersection of indigenous and colonial discourses. Perhaps most importantly, she demonstrates how these discourses present women as either supreme beings or victims, as heroines or as abject, which erases their complex subjectivity. By undoing official discourses and scriptures, she creates the space for women — and for satis — to emerge. But this work required imaginative leaps: to go beyond what is written, to notice the silences, to look in careful ways at the interstices. Ultimately, her work helps us to see in the dark.

Rereading Contentious Traditions, I was reminded how much her work has shaped the way I think, the questions I ask, and what a transnational feminist practice is for me. My earlier work on humanitarianism was deeply influenced by her approach of imaginative undoing. That is no coincidence, since humanitarianism continues many colonial logics of saving, and saving black and brown women in particular, from their “unmodern” cultures and conflicts. It was her practice of reading beyond the grain, looking beyond good intentions and being attuned to the lives of all kinds of people, that helped me to see the violence of humanitarianism. This meant taking the practices of undocumented migrants, or sans papiers, seriously, and how they were acting in complex ways to realize their goals, including by making themselves sick in order to be recognized as political subjects. This imaginative method has continued to guide me in my forthcoming book and in related work, which explores innocence as a political concept. I work to “undo” Euro-American liberal attachments to innocence, showing how this presumed longing for moral purity functions as a multi-faceted desire for domination, hierarchy, and separation. Claims to innocence structure so many realms of political life, from migration and environmentalism to racial formations and debates about abortion. My goal is to imagine and help pave the way to a world where innocence is not central to politics; to conceive of other worlds, to recognize them in our midst, and to participate in their creation. This takes me to the second aspect of transnational feminism as political imagination.

If Contentious Traditions is about undoing and making space for different ways of seeing and being, Myriad Intimacies manifests the next part: the remaking of the world. Myriad Intimacies plays with genre — from poetry, sound, and film to prose — to lay out an alternative vision of the world. It does not critique, it creates. Drawing on and inspired by tantra, which is an assemblage of ideas within Hinduism and Buddhism as well as a broader philosophical orientation that conceives of the universe as sentient and all life forms within it as equal, Mani insists that “the planet is a mutually re-creating, mutually sustaining, non-hierarchical form of polyexistence.” With Nicolás Grandi, she brings this to life in the various films that are part of the book. The Nocturnes, for example, immerses us in our entanglements in the world, especially by way of sound. This piece evokes the urban grasslands, the crickets, the frogs, and the crunching of leaves in a polyphonous embrace of voice. Mani is not afraid to lay out a different truth, claiming and disseminating it as such. As she puts it, “interrelationality and mutuality are preconditions of existence — the natural order of things.” Hierarchy and divisiveness are the problem, she insists, and so she plays with language to imagine an alternative. Where the structure of language commonly institutes individuals, “I am, you are, he is, she is,” and so on, she asks how a different perception of the world might make its way into grammar, which right now encodes false assumptions about separateness. She proposes “I inter am, You inter are, He inter is, She inter is…” This would make grammar relational and reveal the world as it is, composed of webbing: no “you” without “me”, no “you” who is not also “me.” This does not mean we are interchangeable, but that we are intimately implicated.

Guided by tantra, Myriad Intimacies models an imaginative feminist practice that insists on re-envisioning and redesigning the world. This vision also has repercussions for political practice, which Mani acknowledges as “an imaginative discipline of living together artfully.” That is, she offers a gentle yet powerful critique of social justice methods that reproduce the same frames and divisions and merely reverse the the same relations of power. She urges readers to generate an affirmative discourse beyond the language of rights and resistance. I see this turn as a scaling up and down at the same time, being attentive to and caring about a broader set of lifeworlds and practices — the micro and planetary at once. We must see that there is only “us,” no them, no entirely external force. Even viruses are “us.” There is only, as she writes, intimacy. A fight for equality must be about relationality. It cannot be about uncompromising opposition. Here, she gives us the contours of a new politics.

What more can we say about transnational feminist political imagination, thinking with Mani’s work? First, it is based on attunement and care, drawing on Black, decolonial, and transnational feminist understandings of the term: at once an affective state, a form of practice, and an ethical-political obligation. While it is a mundane practice of the everyday, care in this form may have a revolutionary, transformative potential. Such radical or structural care is not distributed by assessing who is deserving or undeserving, pure or impure, innocent or guilty, dignified or undignified. It is based on a materially grounded vision of our interdependence and the responsibilities attached to that realization. To take care of you is to take care of me. I am implicated by what you do; I never stand outside you. This has nothing to do with sentimentality or moralism.

Second, this materially grounded care constitutes a new set of political formations. A full sensory attunement to relationships and to place can help bring new political subjects and formations into being. Mani evokes these new formations as planetary mutuality and polyexistence. She conjures both beautifully in her book, through poetry, sound, and visual experimentation. By invoking the multi-lingual and sensorial worlds that already exist all around us, she enables our attunement to them. A transnational feminist political imaginative epistemology and method uses embodied relationality to imagine a not-yet. This epistemology and method is attuned to the edges of what we can see, to the experiments, to the way people imagine and work with other beings to produce a future in the gaps, the interstices. It never forgets relations of power, even as it pushes to recognize the equality of life. To engage this epistemology or method — we might also call it a way of being — is to imagine with others, to speculate and proliferate practices and ideas in order to enact a different future. Lata Mani offers a path to one of these futures with her formidable work.