On Imagination

‘Imagination in Power’ was one of the slogans used by the French feminists in the 1970s and it’s always been an evocative image for me. The power of the imagination is something we refer to without often pausing to think what that means, it’s become a cliche and one that we don’t bother to examine. If we assign power to the imagination these days, it’s a devalued kind of power because fantasy is something that’s been reduced to a subjective, feckless plaything, certainly not a source of knowledge and enlightenment.

One of the new theorists I’ve discovered recently, Giorgio Agamben, has some very interesting things to say on this score. He suggests that our whole conception of mankind has changed fundamentally since Descartes and the Enlightenment. Up until then, we assigned most significance to experience, hence the eldest in a tribe were its leaders. To have experienced something was to become a person of authority on the matter; experience was understood as a privileged form of knowledge and it made for a very different perspective on death. Death could be seen as the final pinnacle of experience in a full life; if one had felt the ravages of suffering and pain, as well as joy and celebration, if one had known rage and terror as well as pity and compassion, if one had watched children grow, or worked hard for a community, if one had seen beauty and known love, then that life could be considered complete, full and perfect in itself. Death could be experienced itself as a timely end.

According to Agamben, the modern view on life is radically different. Ever since the Enlightenment and the increasing value we have given to science, experience has lost its richness. To have authority on a topic nowadays means to have objective knowledge. In the scientific conception of existence, experience is a doubtful measure indeed; to have felt or seen something is often akin to having been tricked by it. Science only accepts objective verifications as fact, in other words, experiments that have been conducted in a context designed to rigorously exclude the subjective. In the scientific view of life, a full life is one in which we know everything – inevitably death is now always untimely, always premature. (Agamben doesn’t mention it at all, but I think that in our contemporary society things are changing again, and this time it’s energy and drive that are privileged. This is bound to be a consequence of our fascination with youth, but it’s clear time and again that determination and visibility in a culture are valued far more than talent and gentle persistence.)

One of the biggest losers in this cultural sea change has been the imagination. Agamben writes:

‘For Antiquity, the imagination which is now expunged from knowledge as “unreal”, was the supreme medium of knowledge. As the intermediary between the senses and the intellect, enabling, in phantasy, the union betwen the sensible form and the potential intellect, it occupies in ancient and medieval culture exactly the same role that our culture assigns to experience. Far from being something unreal, the mundus imaginabilis has its full reality between the mundus sensibilis and the mundus intellegibilis, and is, indeed, the condition of their communication – that is to say, of knowledge. And since, according to Antiquity, it is the imagination which forms dream images, this explains the particular relationship to truth which dreams have in the ancient world.’

It’s probably why we talk about the knowledge we intuit from dreams and hunches and feelings as ‘primitive’ or ‘primal’ knowlege, a knowledge that comes from deeper within than book learning. What Agamben is saying (he’s not awfully clear in that quote) is that we don’t realise what a fundamental tool the imagination is in making sense of things. To extract significance from our senses, we have to pass through the imagination, using it to picture and understand what’s really happening beneath the surface of appearances. I think this is all of a piece with the kind of knowledge we gain from fiction – there is a very real and tangible truth in a narrative, but we devalue it because it comes from the sphere of the imagination, which is nowadays assigned so little authority. I think it’s more than time that we returned the imagination to its rightful place as an essential tool in our lives. I’d be delighted to see imagination back in power, because for me, it’s the seat of creativity and critique – the sense that things could be different and better as well as the means by which to envisage new solutions, new options. I don’t think we can have enough of that in our troubled world right now.

Incidentally, I’m also posting at What We Said today – includes an update on the agony aunt situation for those of you who might be interested!

7 thoughts on “On Imagination

  1. I agree, we have devalued, and are lacking in, imagination these days. Two thoughts:

    1. Science also suffers from lack of imagination. It takes a great deal of imagination to be able to “create” science, to form the hypotheses that drive the research that changes our worldview. My sense is that these days, much of science is concerned with filling in the background details, without having the vision for a great leap forward.

    2. We prefer to have our imagining done for us. Popular entertainment (tv, movies, Disney, and mass-market books) is both a symptom and cause of this(?).

  2. Well said Litlove! I’ve always found it very odd that the scientific is so down on imagination when the best science comes from those with the ability to imagine. And as you so nicely put it, in order to make the world a better place, we have to be able to imagine it first.

  3. Fascinating stuff. I imagine scientists would be startled by the suggestion that they lack imagination, when so much of what they do is so speculative. Certainly string theorists are engaged in concocting the purest of fictions, just stories, really, about how the universe might be composed.

    It’s said that a proof of certain hypotheses would require a particle accelerator as large as our known universe; further, that there may need to be more universes than there are particles in the one we know to explain how matter and energy function. It’s hard to find evidence for any of that by sensing the appearances of things.

    Of course there’s room for Agamben here. Nobody wants to call these theories knowledge just yet. But what has happened over the past fifty years to make us more comfortable with Einstein’s theories of relativity? Was it something we experienced? Or did we just take five decades to hug the ineffable?

  4. Isabella, what always surprises me, with the scientists I know and work with, is how tiny the steps are that they can take at any one time. Hundreds of experiments have to be undertaken to prove something (seemingly, to the lay person) tiny, and that proof may well require others before it can be established. Interestingly it’s in technology that we see a hiatus coming; we may reach a plateau in our technology culture, after years of rapid expansion, but I think that may be a good thing, as I don’t think we have refined our applications for a lot of what it’s now possible to do. The abdication of imagination onto the commercial and the visual is worrying. I think it’s just generally part of the laziness we are tempted into at every turn, although like all these things, it depends on the individual. One child might be inspired by sugary images, whereas another will suspend thought. I do think we ought just to keep questioning and considering our position in artistic and cultural media all the time. Stefanie – I do think the imagination plays a greater role than culture gives it credit for, and as David is saying, scientists do stretch their imagination as far as it can go! David, I think the distinction I haven’t made clearly enough is between individual scientists, who undoubtedly use imagination in their work, and the cultural understanding of science, which is a very blunt instrument – powerful, but lacking in edges or refinement. The work of scientist seeps down into our culture the way that haute couture reaches the shopping centre, by being diluted and softened and repackaged. I think that’s probably why we’re only coming to terms with a (simplified) Einstein now.

  5. I like this. One question: is imagination only worthy of this proposed restoration of authority if it is put in the service of social progress?–i.e., imagining a better world, etc.?

  6. Good question, Casey. And the answer is certainly not. Imagination is by its nature a free agent. I think all kinds of good can come out of it – not least entirely pointless pleasure – but it is essentially undirected.

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