Imagination and Net Part II

So, if the Net is the single greatest imaginal space ever artificially devised by a collective consciousness, what has this to do with the imagination? Everything, in my opinion, but I'll have to show you what I mean. The problem is the imagination has been a topic that most thinkers have 'skated over' since the Enlightenment. Kant is one early example. If you believe Heidigger's critique of The Critique of Pure Reason's conclusions about the imagination, you find an emerging theme belonging to both Enlightenment and Modern thought - distrust of the imagination.

Early Enlightenment and later Modern thinkers had good reason to distrust the imagination. With the rise of the scientific revolution, following the Renaissance, there was an increasing rejection of the religious way of seeing the world and humanity. The religious world view included such possibilities as angels and daemons, ghosts and magic, symbols, icons, and gods. For the scientifically minded, these kinds of things are impossibilities. What's more, they are often considered aesthetically repugnant.

What happened at the beginning of the Enlightenment was a paradigm shift - a shift from a cosmology based in the religious 'method' to one based in scientific 'method'. A preferred way of seeing, interacting and thinking about the world replaced a much more ancient and mature perspective on reality and imagination. It is this perspective that modern thinkers have skated over for decades. Only recently have we looked down and discovered cracks in the ice. There is much more to the imagination than we want to admit.

In the religious way of seeing the world, the imagination is often related to mystical experiences, magic, and godly visitations. Psychology frequently looks at such descriptions and then quickly denounce them as hallucinations or, worse, pathology. But many of them missed the point - that it is through the imagination that the divine is revealed. And this revelation of the divine is considered magical simply because it transforms the person experiencing it. This is a meaning to the story of the alchemist turning lead into gold - there was no transformation of a base metal, the transformation was in the alchemist's heart and mind. Something happened in the alchemist.

The understanding of the 'function' of the imagination in mystical experience is that it is a mediator. It mediates our experiences with the divine (and this is how one 'divines' wisdom). Such approaches emphasize that our imaginations also mediate our experiences with our self, with others, and the world in which we live. Finally, we learn that our imaginations are both collective and personal. As more thinkers in the cognitive sciences begin to accept the prevalence of the imagination, we may find ourselves in for another paradigm shift. All this and the Internet too!

I find it an interesting confluence that the Internet was developing around the same time our ways of considering the imagination began to shift (again). But it's not all that surprising when you consider that computers and their networks are structural metaphors that depict a certain theory (image) of the mind and its means of expression.

The image goes something like this: the mind is structured by various levels of different 'languages' all stacked upon one another and which constantly interact. From this idea of the mind was born mathematical linguistics, whose aim from the beginning was to help in the construction of computer circuits. The development of information theory gave rise to a statistical view of language which claimed that communication was measurable in terms of the frequency of the appearance of a word. But it ignored the psychological or meaningful content of language.

The one thing this kind of approach will never achieve is a computer which can appreciate poetry. Human language is a highly complex and expressive thing that may never be truly quantifiable. Human languages and computer languages do share one thing in common, however. They both mediate our experiences of the world. We use everyday speech to say something to others about our experiences and thoughts; computers use their languages to make it possible for us to say something to others about our experiences and thoughts. But a computer alone is not much more than a thinking tool: because it has pre-programmed responses, it never really responds. It is with the Net that a computer comes into it's own as a mediator.

The notion of the Net working as a mediator is pretty obvious. It is a means of contact among any number of people (and it is becoming more seamless all the time). It is also a window into an alternate reality, a virtual reality. Our psychosomatic reaction to surfing the Web has similar characteristics to dreaming. There is a sense of time displacement. We condense large units of information into symbols for mnemonic purposes. We flit along from one image to the next somehow or another developing a coherent narrative. And when we turn off our computers this virtual space disappears, lingering afterwards in a stimulated visual cortex like so many after-images/memories impossible to articulate properly using real-world language.

It is also curious that we speak of virtual reality in relation to the Net. Virtual reality is actually a phrase that has belonged to theories or art and literature for some time now. It's used to talk about imaginative works that are real insofar as they effect people, even if they are only a painting or a book. Now there's the Net. The Net is a virtual reality because it mediates ideas and images allowing for the expression and reception of complex thought and feelings. This is exactly what the imagination does.

The Net may not be the human imagination but it is definitely an expression of it. It was constructed by the imagination of a few people and it is inhabited by the imaginations of millions. Constructed and inhabited by so many imaginations, it must at some level reflect how the imagination works. It has a life of its own and is developing its preferred ways of seeing the world. The Net mediates our experiences in an virtual world, like a dream symbolizing unconscious thoughts. It is transforming our ideas of self and world as we experience different realities than those previously available to our ancestors.

By mediating our experiences with world, the Net is like the imagination. But it is not the imagination per se. Rather it is an imaginal space and a tool that extends the horizon on imaginative expression. It is a place in which we can transform the nature of our understanding of our selves and others, of culture and society. The Net facilitates the imagination and permits space for a new mode of expressing ones ideas, thoughts, and feelings. One question remains: when you are online line do you stare into the face of the divine? Maybe, maybe not. You do, however, stare into a space that is being built by the imaginations of millions. You stare into an imaginal space that can be as transformative as staring into the face of God (regardless of gender or geographical background).

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