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Culture, Imagination and Fantastika: More Thoughts on Conjuration

“Not only does the imaginative consciousness allow us to transcend (depasser) the immediacy of the present instant in order to grasp a future that is at first indistinct, , , but it enables us to project our ‘fables’ in a direction that does not have to reckon with the ‘evident universe.’ It permits fiction, the game, a dream, more or less voluntary error, pure fascination. It lightens our existence by transporting us into the region of the phantasm.” – Vincent Crapanzano, Imaginary Horizons: An Essay in Literary-Philosophical Anthropology, (p. 19)

I just returned from a great weekend of Readercon, where I was fortunate to lead a panel on “Anthropology for Writers.” We discussed the promise and pitfalls of cultural representation and produced a conversation that has stirred up some more issues in my head about the idea of worldbuilding and the places of culture in fantastic fiction (and I hope to put up a video of the panel over the coming weekend). The more I think about and discuss how culture is used and represented in fantastic fiction, the more I feel that we are missing opportunities to create more entertaining and insightful literature.  I want to examine two issues in this week’s column: the link between culture and imagination, and how our ideas of what culture is often limit the fantasies we produce and read.

When I taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology courses at the college level, I always began by informing the students of an important fact: that they were all already anthropologists. They were participant-observers learning about the cultural ideas and practices around them and constructing “culture” in their heads. They had done it since birth and would continue to do so until their brains ceased functioning. They learned about the world around them and were also taught ways to examine and reflect on culture, and used such tools every day. They were not using the theories and philosophies of scholarly anthropology, but they were using theories and had crafted or appropriated methods of their own for understanding the behavior and utterances of other humans.

This is important to keep in mind because every work of fiction is an extended meditation on cultural construction and representation. Writers formulate the words and readers interpret them but both they, and anyone involved in the process of creating or passing on a story, not only view the works through a culturally-inflected prism but enact their own anthropological analysis upon them. As I noted last week, culture is not a finely-tuned system, but is an unevenly-distributed, contingent vision of life and meaning that we have to invigorate and refashion as we go. To do that, we have to learn and apply ideas of how culture works. Like anthropologists, we are observers, we are creators of culture, all of us conjurers of worlds.

Culture and imagination are often sequestered from each other, except for instances where the “cultural imagination” is referred to. As we talked about cultural symbols at the panel I realized that this is a problem because “the imagination” is both a cultural conceit and an array of cognitive practices heavily conditioned by our ideas and assumptions about culture. There is no one spot in the brain that we can point to and call “the imagination;” it is itself a cultural interpretation of mental activities. The imagination is always cultural. At the same time, culture “itself” is a production of imagination; we carry a bundle of notions, precepts, and expectations around in our heads “that allow us to transcend. . . the immediacy of the present instant” as Crapanzano (via Jean Starobinski) puts it. Culture and imagination are made in relation to each other and exist in a rough synergy, shaping and challenging each other and the world around us.

I point this out because so much of the discourse on worldbuilding is not about how humans construct their worlds, but focuses instead on the materials and effects we use to express and enact culture. Our separation of culture and imagination and their bounded reification, treating them as somehow separate, limits our conception and utilization of them. We impose parameters on each rather than emphasizing how they inform each other. Conversely, we also imbue them with exaggerated qualities: the limited, structured, inescapable culture versus the limitless, dream-strewn imagination.

This separation creates a number of assumptions and heavily influences the worlds that many fantastic stories create. You can see it in towering piles of novels that seem to recycle the same ideas time and time again, occasionally subverting or riffing on a trope. You can see it in worlds that are defined by their statistics and ornaments, in the hunger of some readers who care more about the decorations of culture than the practicing of it. You can see it in the differing conceptions of Fantasy and SF, where Fantasy is so often culture-bound and SF is ideally innovative and mind-stretching. I’m thinking in particular about the recent Mind Meld discussion about monarchies in fantasy fiction. Several participants noted that monarchies proliferate in epic/high fantasy because they are culturally comfortable for many readers and are  relatively simple and useful for creating scenarios of conflict. These ideas essentially affirm the limits of imagination we have imposed (at least on secondary world fantasy) by deploying cultural assumptions about what political structures make for quick and obvious backgrounds for a story.

As Maire Brennan points out, however, for most of human history we have had other forms of social organization and governance, and this was in large measure true right up until the 18th century. Today our imaginations are colonized by a tripartite political imagination of monarchy/dictatorship/democratic republic. We find it hard to imagine past the economic trinity of capitalism/socialism/communism, and for our fantastic pasts lean on mercantilism and feudalism. Our fantasies often have lovely decorations, but are built on a very limited range of foundations. This is not the “liberation of imagination,” as Richard Mathews put it; this is its truncation.

In my view, this is partly caused by poor anthropology. We spend a lot of time on the details, on embellishing the basic structures, and less effort questioning those structures and pondering what makes us, and the characters and stories we create, deeply human.  We often speak about crossing genre boundaries, about hybridity and interstitiality, but we too infrequently apply that thinking to our core categories and bedrock assumptions. Fantastika has great potential for helping us explore these under-visited realms. Doing so might revitalize the literature we revere and enjoy, and enrich our own inner lives as well.

6 Comments on Culture, Imagination and Fantastika: More Thoughts on Conjuration

  1. In my view, this is partly caused by poor anthropology. We spend a lot of time on the details, on embellishing the basic structures, and less effort questioning those structures and pondering what makes us, and the characters and stories we create, deeply human.

    Oh absolutely. Marie also was making this point, as did other panelists, at 4th Street Fantasy. The Divine Right Monarchy is a shorthand, and too often a default that doesn’t get questioned. But should.

    • Yeah, I thought she had one of the best responses to the Mind Meld question. There’s a lot of either making monarchy cool or pointing out its obvious faults, not enough thinking and writing past monarchy.

  2. Questioning the structures should be, I think, one of the first projects of any fictional worldbuilding. It generally is for me. (thanks for a thoughtful post!)

  3. Hi John,

    Thanks for this post. I have to say I agree with most of it. I am also tired of the endless riffs on little kingdoms in much of fantasy and treasure examples that go in other directions. How about a review/ introduction at some point of writers or stories that utilize this kind of political imagination?



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