My Imagination...Part I

Did I tell you about imagination yet? Well, have I got something to tell you. It's almost as if there's a conspiracy surrounding our imaginative lives going on in the world. But, this also, is an imagination. It is rhetoric playing on our imaginations. And, imagination is at the root of all our mental activities (with the exception of physical reactions to the real, hard physical world which, by the way, is cloaked in tens of thousands of years of imaginal artifacts). In the imaginative tools - the arts and crafts and in all their sublimation's and complications - we can find a technology of the mind that dates back possibly as far as the origin of our species. Homo Sapiens Sapiens means the (wo)man who thinks consciously. Our genus title should be re-designated to reflect our imaginative nature: Sapiens imaginalis - the thing that thinks imaginatively.

I was interested in the imagination as something to use, study and analyze even as a kid. My earliest years, before my parents first divorce, were spent among the tools and materials of various arts. Inspired by my father who taught me that to imagine is to play and that play is one of the things we do which help keep us humane. This same father, for there were easily two legal fathers, left the circumference of my life when I was a pubescent little snot of twelve. He went south and, a little later, we went North and West. From the sweltering, oak-treed drumlins of a University town in Upstate New York we went to, what I would argue was the case at the time, a scene from Monty Python. We moved from the narrow, cloudy skies with trees as tall as a child can imagine to the forever-skies and waves of land found on the Canadian Prairies. Brandon, Manitoba. Man, talk about imaginal (cultural) shock.

This immigrating experience prepared me for what my birth father much later revealed to me in beer-humid Baltimore bar. In Manitoba, I had learned that people see the world differently. (Sure I already knew this from traveling to Europe as an even younger snot, but Canada was supposed to be the same basic culture, was it not?) Here, I had learned that people see the world differently more than in merely the commonsensical meaning of the phrase. Dad then clarified my observation for me. Referring to his experience as gay man who ran bars and shops for sex tools and his life as an artist, he put it like this: "everyone has their fantasy - sexual or otherwise - and, what's more, they try to live out that fantasy daily."

My eyes were watering at that moment. Not so much from what he said, but from having put too much Wasbi on my tuna roll. I felt a thrill from my father's characteristic take on the subject. His life as a psycho- pomp/bartender, sexual deviant (Freud's take on deviance applies here), and artist allowed him to see and express something I think is correct. Something that, according to Heidegger, Kant shied away from in the Critique of Pure Reason. That something is this: the imagination is the root of human reality.

Every thinker or perspective that has become institutionally accepted since the time surrounding Kant has ultimately done that same thing. Perhaps it was because the West was coming out of the era of religion and myth into a world of science and fact. It could be a result of these changes shattering many dearly held believes as the Western mind chose to see itself as a more rational thing. Of all the possible reasons for this shift in consciousness about consciousness, the demystification and secularization of our cosmos (which includes the mind) was accompanied by an increased emphasis on materialism and the control of our environments (spatial as well as meta-spatial). If all of us hold onto a fantasy about ourselves individually, we also have fantasies about others and the things in the cosmos. Our fantasies must interact with the world around us, otherwise we would be in deep trouble. The question comes down to reality testing. For instance, no matter how much I can imagine I can walk through a tree, I'll still bump my head on the near side of the tree. We all learned at least this one lesson as children: if you want to try such experiments, take a band-aide along with you.

Even if that tree is impassable, even if it is really-real, it is subdued, subsumed by our imaginations. My simply calling a tree 'a tree' we co-opt a potentially naturally-occurring thing to our fantasies. For what is a tree after all? While this may seem to be a silly question (we all know what a tree is having experienced them to some degree or another), it is not. The point is too look beyond what we've experienced regarding trees. We all know that a tree as a thing existing in the real-physical world, but what is it in our imaginations - both our individual imaginings and the consensual ones?

By merely naming the tree, we give this thing, which occurs naturally, a whole host of images and imaginings. A tree can be a massive, living gymnasium; it can be a castle or a fort. It can be a forest or raw material, wood. It can be the centre of the world, an axis mundi. It can also be a tool of execution, ranging from the hangman's noose to crucifixication. Try this experiment: ask your friends to 'free associate' on the word 'tree.' Observe how many ways a tree is seen. Notice how 'tree' functions as a metaphor and learn something about what 'tree' encompasses in our imaginary worlds.

Let's take this line of reasoning further. What we do with a tree, we do with every other thing in our objective and subjective, individual and social worlds. We subsume everything inside and outside of ourselves into our imagination, regardless of whether or not it is dependent or independent of our presence. (I must note that the tendency to believe things are actually separate and independent from one another is a fantasy which the Western mind prefers. It is a fantasy contrary to thousands of years in the history of technologies of the mind - i.e, as mystical praxis).

We do the same thing with ideas. And, as some people have argued, ideas are the only things we experience directly. We certainly don't really directly experience the really-real because 1) it is subsumed by our imaginations and, 2) it is a physical impossibility. Whether this last point is true - in the strict sense of the word - is still left to be decided. No jury, however, can come close to a really-real estimate of is really going with the kind of epistemology which science affords us today.

Ideas are things too, they may not be things in the physical sense but they have the characteristics of something that is really-real. They can move you, they can be obstacles, they can be helpers, tools, and raw material. Ideas, as things, are also subject to our imaginations. How else could there be some many Christianities (who all believe in the same God, the incarnation, and so on but believe that each of the others is a mere heathen). But first, these ideas were products of an imagination, in a way that a real-physical thing can never be. They are non-physical at birth and remain so throughout their life time (which coincides with the length of its human usage). Still, many of these imaginations spoke to the hearts of the people over time and space and, therefore, they persisted/persist longer than others.

Why are there so many Christianities, religions, philosophies, ideologies and the like? the answer is necessarily complicated, but it is also fairly simple - there are thousands of imaginings about the world that vie for dominance. This isn't always the case, but it certainly is one of the functions of a culture to affirm or disaffirm how the world is imagined to be. In the case of all the Christianities, we can see this specific cultural function at work: it can be spoken of in terms of a 'loosening' of imaginations and 'constraining' the imaginal. The one effectively brings a de-institutionalization and the other an institutionalization of our imaginative lives.

In the West, it appears to be generally the case that progressive institutionalization results in a reciprocal push towards deinstituionalization. Like a water balloon, when you squeeze the water from one hemisphere, it flows to another. Institutionalizing thought or limiting the possibilities of imagining a thing anew forces the issue and the water may come gushing out of a pin-hole. Institutionalization results in de- institutionalization, in re-visioning, re-imagining the thing that is controlled. But only within the parameters the former imagining leaves to the latter (Thomas Kuhn).

If people can say that 'god is male' or 'god is a woman' (and she's rightly pissed-off), and if other people repeat these statements while other object vehemently, then ideas are also things subject to further imaginings (abstractions). And, God is an idea, a root metaphor - as Hillman refers to post-what-ever French thought which, via Derrida, identified certain words/concepts/imaginings as a lynch-pin of our consensual reality.

Don't get me wrong, while we all participate in a consensual reality, and that reality is a consequence of our imaginations, this is not to say that we have no options available to us. On the contrary, we now perhaps more than ever before in our history are daily exposed to more cultural variation (read as imaginative) than any society has been previously. Consensual reality is now born into a new era, it is maturing to a global reach. With the world now at our finger tips, literally a mouse-click away, we can see the world as it has never been seen before. CyberPunk anticipated this from its inception. We are living during the labour pains of an era in human society which will make the world's knowledge (imaginings of knowledge) potentially accessible to the entire population of our tired old planet. But in so doing, knowledge runs the risk of being institutionalized, taken literally and as the final word on a given subject. All of the things written in the last few paragraphs are representations of various fantasies. Or, at best, the results of various people trying to represent their experiences of self and the world. I can only explain my attraction to a cacophony of imaginings, symbols, and metaphors through my life, my experiences, the road that I have traveled to bring me here. Suffice it to say that I've learned to see the world polytheistically. 'Poly' because there are any number of ways of seeing; and, 'theistically' because out of these many perspectives emerge a collection of meaningfulness. It's a smorgash-board of ideas and images out there and we need to eat off of the table. This is precisely what Sapiens imaginalis has been doing all along.

We all have our fantasies/phantasies. In fact, almost all of our individual fantasies come out of what can be called consensual imaginings of the world or agreed upon interpretations of 'reality.' As one of my art instructors states constantly in my imagination of my personal history: "Nothing is truly original." Everything, image or imagining, has an inevitable history, is structured by ideational artifacts that are emerge from one's culture and the existential reality of being human.

The notion that 'nothing is truly original' is one that I've wrestled with for some fifteen years now. My conclusion is that this statement is mostly right. A person can't imagine something that he or she hasn't somehow, experienced before - whether it's origin is interpersonal, intrapersonal, or transpersonal. Furthermore, human beings must have some fundamental common ground in order for the expression of an image to make sense of others. This common ground is much more than language and the symbolic cannon provided by social institutions. It includes the semiotic, the visceral means of expression each of us participates in through such things as body language, pheromones, slips of the tongue, and so on. The common ground all humans share is their physical existentially. By each of us being in a body, being in social and familial relations, being in a physical world we share common experiences. Hence we can communicate our imaginings to one another and they can make sense (to some extent) cross-culturally.

For all of the social issues surrounding the imagination, we must first challenge the fantasy that we are blank slates. We do not experience our being/soul as a tabula rasa onto which the entirety of our lives and the eternity of our worlds are inscribed without personal re-visioning. It is a systemic thing, the imaginal worlds in which we grow not only provides us the fodder that allows us to understand, see and represent the world as 'others' do. We also can influence how 'others' understand, see, represent and construct this world which we share with a variety of other beings.

Being imaginative implies having a civic duty and social obligation. The concern that always confronts us is this: What legacy would we leave for our children, and their children's' children? What imaginations do we want to leave behind? This is at issue. For if we understand that the human world and it's interaction with the physical world is all based in the imaginings or people, we are provided the critical distance necessary to choose those imaginings which appear best for our species as a whole. We need to carefully consider the fantasies we are leaving behind for our children. Which imaginative tidbit from the smorgash-board of ideas should be given to our children to feed their imaginings and interactions?

Most of all, we must accept the reality that imaginations change. And we are due form a massive change soon. The notion of a Millennium is a particularly interesting human fantasy which appears cross-culturally (and I suspect has to do with a certain degree of development of astrology as a science). The idea of millennium imagines change, it is an opportunity for a paradigm shift. The upcoming millennium need not be about the end of the world or Christ and the resurrection. It could easily be a day of change, of growth, and maturation. It need not be dramatic or even traumatic. It just has to happen. But whatever it will be, there will always be an effort of judgment involved. And if we view things imaginatively first, we also know there will be no final judgment.

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Copyright 1997 Marc Fonda. All Rights Reserved.
Last updated: March 5, 1997.