Why We Need To Imagine The Impossible

“Fortunately somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether.” – Luis Buñuel

This week I had planned to write a response to a very intriguing article by David Graeber on America’s imagined future and its failings. But since then I’ve read some unrelated articles and arguments that have recombined in my mind, and the ideas that are bubbling up demand that I write them out, so here goes. I want to discuss why the most fabulous thing that human beings have invented is so important, not just in terms of survival but in terms are creating our world, for better and for worse, and look at some of the paradoxes in how we conceive of and use that invention.

The fabulous invention is the human imagination. The imagination is not an actual thing; it is a concept that we use to try to codify a broad process of human cognition. It is a cultural conception of how we use imagery to construct behavior and thought. The imagination is a capacity that involves most parts of the brain in some form; there is not one location where we conjure all of our imaginings, although many researchers agree that the thalamus is important to the process of imagination. As each brain is shaped by its experiences, however, so is each person’s imagination, and different types of imagining access different parts of the brain. So, this process, this capacity that we all have, is unique. And yet, we most often employ it to make sense of shared symbols and ideas, comparing what we perceive to our individual models of reality (which reside, most likely, in the frontal lobe).

What we mean when we use the term is most often to refer to the “faculty of the mind which forms and manipulates images.” It is the faculty “of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses. ” In its Latin roots it refers to hallucination, fancy, images not directly from your perception but created in your mind. But the imagination is not just a faculty; it is also a resource. It is simultaneously the brain functions and the results of those functions, drawing on memory and consciousness and combining them into elements that we use to interact with the world around us.

I’m telling you this because we use this term constantly (it is peppered throughout many of my own columns) as if we know exactly what we are referring to, when in fact it is a gloss for something that we do constantly and in ever-shifting ways. Eva H. T. Braun noted in The World of Imagination: Sum and Substance, some argue that “‘imagination’ is really an ‘onomatoid,” that is, a namelike word which in fact designates nothing because it signifies too broadly.” To counter this, it is often further defined with some sort of adjective such as “historical” or “scientific” or “artistic” so that it has more discernible boundaries, and this is where the first paradox emerges. In our efforts to invoke the imagination, grasp it and utilize it, we have to limit it. We have to create a point of understanding out of this unique process that we all perform. We have to focus it and also make what it does sensible to ourselves and to others.

After reading Graeber’s article I encountered a discussion on Margaret Atwood’s idea of SF which seemed to come down to the individual needs of imagination, many of which are about limiting not just one’s personal imagination but how one’s imagination is interpreted by others. As I followed the debate (which unfolded on Eleanor Arnason’s Facebook wall), I went back and read a column I wrote looking at Atwood’s “delimiting of imagination.” What occurred to me after re-reading that piece is that what another aspect of what Atwood is doing is simultaneously defending her own interpretation of the imagination while trying to argue that there is one particularly fruitful way to exercise the imagination in literary terms, which is to base it an idea of the real, of what we know humans have done and what science tells us is possible. I no sooner turned away from that conversation than I discovered that a new Center for Human Imagination was being established at USCD:

“Imagination — one of the least understood but most cherished products of the mind and brain — will become the focus of wide-ranging study at a new center jointly founded by UC San Diego and the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation.”

The article went on to outline what the Center might do, including possibly coming up with ways to “stimulate or enhance human imagination.” With that, Graeber’s article came to mind, with its lengthy discussion of the cultural shape of how Americans commonly imagined the future in the 20th century. One of his points is that shared ideas of what the future might hold were eroded by the channeling of our imagination in certain social, economic, and political directions. The imaginations of many Americans are, he believes, constrained by our increasingly bureaucratic society with its procedures of statisical normalization, surveillance, and passive and active controls. I realized then that part of the reasons that the imagination is “one of the least understood” is that we have stunted it, that it is inevitably stunted by our contact with and absorption of the images of the world around us.

This is the next paradox of the imagination; that it is theoretically vast and potentially unlimited, but that it is constantly being constrained, that is it truncated rather than expanded. Perhaps this is the inevitable effect of living, an unavoidable result of being humans who creates templates of reality to make sense of everything around us and inside our heads. But even as we celebrate the idea of the imagination with its untold, untapped possibilities, we strive to impose limits on it. We almost have to impose limits on it, or it does not function. Atwood’s attitude to SF seemed to reflect this thought, and it is certainly reinforced by Graeber’s conception of how elements of our capitalist economy have influenced what we think is possible and what we can actually produce as a result.

All of this troubles me because I believe in the imagination, as unstable and general as that idea is. Graeber essentially argues that Americans have allowed their imaginations to be hijacked and manipulated, and I think that to a large extent this is precisely what human societies and cultures do: create boundaries and shape our musings and conjectures. Sometimes we push against those ideas, sometimes we fall prey to them. Sometimes we improve something, while other times we create blindness in ourselves. And, in rare moments, we create something new. The fantastic, from far back beyond recorded history, was the first innovation, I think, one that as we used it changed our brains. We would not be human if we could not conceive of the fantastic and allow it to dwell within our skulls. Our very imaginations are based on it; that faculty is the engine for and most potent symbol of the fantastic.

And we limit it, constantly. perhaps necessarily. We could not function without imagination, could not relate to others, understand what goes on around us, craft ways to move through our lives. And yet, I think we all (me included) often neglect to push it. We get comfortable with our templates of reality, with the symbols we take in, and while we might make improvements, we seem to make fewer deep innovations. And although I disagree with some of his points, I do agree with Graeber that we have allowed our supposedly science-fictional contemporary world to bind our imaginations, rather than liberate them. It is, as Buñuel wrote, the only thing that protects our freedom, and our world constantly tries to limit changes and erase mysteries, and our imaginations suffer for it. We need to exceed the inhibiting of our imaginations and allow our imaginations to be richly fantastical again, to be excessive, probing, idiotic, and ferocious in the pursuit of what is-not. We need to imagine the impossible to save our imaginations, and ourselves.

3 thoughts on “Why We Need To Imagine The Impossible”

  1. I still want to see a response to the Graeber article :)

    This article, John (great work by the way) reminds me of one of the more chilling (in retrospect) endings to a Choose your own adventure book, the Cave of Time.

    Too lowbrow for this column? Maybe, but I devoured these things 30 years ago.

    Anyway, one of the endings has you wind up irrevocably in a far future which seems perfect, too perfect. Everything one could want, a library of books and movies, even (very meta) CYOA type movies.

    the last bit is the disturbing bit–the admission that “no new movies have been made in the last hundred years”

    A death of imagination. Very subversive! Very scary. I “got it” then, and I get it now reading your column. We have to keep pushing our imagination out, to be human, to keep functioning.

  2. Not at all, Paul; I think that’s a great anecdote. We live in a world where you can allow media to do much of your imagining for you, and we can already see areas of stagnation. That adventure has a touch of jeremiad to it.

  3. There was a very politically reactionary undercurrent to a lot of the superlative predictions of the future. Not necessarily all of them but essentially it’s a statement of faith in the current system. Don’t worry about any problems you see in the world, the current system will fulfill all human needs eventually.

    The reality is that we do have the technology to satisfy most of our perceived problems right now. The “wait for it” approach is actually a form of optimistic denial.

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