“Truth is a matter of the imagination”. Ursula le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness.
Ursula le Guin was a writer without parallel. She managed to combine searing perspicacity with great tenderness, warmth and hope. Her death has left a huge gap in the literary world.
Le Guin understood the role of the imagination in showing us that the way things are is not an immutable fact, but human creation, a complex of artefacts, and as such changeable. As she commented a few years ago, although capitalism’s “power seems inescapable, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings”.
In other words, le Guin saw that human society was a matter of the imaginary, and seeing this, she recognised that change and resistance (or else complicity) were a matter of the imagination.
Although le Guin did not talk about the social imaginary, I feel confident that it is an idea she would have got behind. The idea that imaginaries are fundamentally alterable is the core of my research on imaginaries, and so, in memory of the great woman, I want to elaborate a bit more about what imaginaries are, and the fundamental power of collective imagining. I believe that a grasp of imaginaries would allow us to understand why our narratives, attitudes and objects of attention matter so much, and why renewed investment in the arts will be vital for a flourishing imaginary.
“an imaginary is the nexus of shared ideas, attitudes and beliefs about the world, individuals, and their relationships, that constitutes the matrix from which our social world is born”
So what is an imaginary? As I understand it, an imaginary is the nexus of shared ideas, attitudes and beliefs, including metaphysical assumptions about the world, individuals and their relationships, that constitutes the matrix from which our social world – norms, traditions, language, behaviours, institutions, policy, culture and so on – is born. From this description we can see just how far reaching the imaginary is – it impacts all aspects of our social lives. I strongly believe we cannot begin to address adequately the world’s manifold crises – from patriarchy,racism and speciesism, to the existential threat of climate change, the sixth mass extinction, and nuclear proliferation, for example – without addressing the issue of our imaginary. That is to say that all of the aforesaid problems are manifestations of the attitudes and beliefs that (inter alia) comprise the imaginary. And yet, although our beliefs and attitudes inform our social configurations, these configurations (that is, how we are among the world – what we do, to whom/what, with whom/what, by whom/what, and for whom/what) are in turn the source of our beliefs and attitudes. Thus the imaginary is a circular process of collective imagining.
The circularity of the imaginary is guaranteed by the ‘reproductive imagination’ (or, to be more technical, the ‘apperceptive imagination’): the imaginative faculty which recycles existing shared notions and representations, and reproduces them, sometimes in complex tessellations. These reproductions are manifested in culture, in language, in assumptions, behaviours, policies and so forth, which, as said, then fuel the reproductive imagination further. Thus, the purpose of this reproductive imagination is the integration of a subject with the world, and the world with its subjects. It is a crucial part of the imaginary: it provides society with identity, which acts as the cohesive bind that keeps society together. Perhaps the most salient characteristic of the reproductive imagination is closure. This refers to the intrinsic dynamic by which imaginaries are closed off to new ideas and forms, and which helps preserve the status quo, which in turn is crucial for the development of social identity.
However, this is only part of the picture. There is also the radical imagination, the faculty capable of conjuring entirely novel ideas, perspectives, forms. Although the radical imagination is much more challenging cognitively, and requires a set of personal and social conditions to be optimised and pervasive throughout society, and as such is far rarer than the ubiquitous reproductive imagination, it is nonetheless also crucial for imaginaries. The closure intrinsic to imaginaries also poses an existential threat – and we are seeing this playing out before us in terms of society’s torpid response to climate change. Thus it must be countervailed by the radical imagination, whose capacity to generate newness, represents openness. It is open, because new ideas afford space from which to criticise and challenge the status quo, and to imagine things differently. Thus, the openness engendered by the radical imagination is essential to the sustainability of an imaginary: without it the imaginary will collapse under the weight of its own monolithicity (yes, that’s a made-up word)
So, it is the radical imagination that offers a chance to re-imagine how the world is. And although, in its most sophisticated forms it manifests in the work of exquisite art like le Guin’s, in truth it is often far humbler than, but as vital as that. Re-imagining can involve the simple yet demanding task of consciously checking the implications of our language and metaphors. To take one example, I am trying to avoid using speciesist and sexist language. Far from being a merely symbolic gesture, I believe this constitutes a real and important act of resistance to two of, what I consider to be, the most heinous elements of our society, in that every time we use such language we are shoring up the norms of animal exploitation and patriarchy, respectively. These norms in turn tacitly augment attitudes of dominance, supremacy, competition, instrumentalism – all of which are also those of neo-liberalism and capitalism. And beyond that, such attitudes fortify our tacit metaphysical belief in atomistic individualism. This kind of attention is what is means to be, in Le Guin’s terms, “the realists of a larger reality”.
“When we pay attention to the words we use, the deeds we do, the way we are to whom, by whom, and for whom, and we consciously commit to reimagining the terms of our social life, we make art of the everyday.”
Of course, this kind of resistance is just one element of the radical imagination, there are also opportunities for filling this space of resistance with new, alternative notions that show us how to be differently. These creations will involve a combination of collective and private work, spanning the arts, grassroots movements, the academy, politics, and beyond. Whether we are involved in the creation of new ideas or acts of resistance, we are already contributing to perhaps the most vital characteristic of any imaginary, its openness. And as le Guin observed, although “it is good to have an end to journey toward…it is the journey that matters, in the end.” So even seemingly small, quotidian gestures are in fact crucial acts of reimagining. When we pay attention to the words we use, the deeds we do, the way we are to whom, by whom, and for whom, and we consciously commit to reimagining the terms of our social life, we make art of the everyday.
Needless to say, as a strategy for ‘saving the world’ (sic), reimagining the imaginary is an incredibly slow one, but it is also essential. It is necessarily the work of each and every one of us. As such, it is a fundamentally political project that affirms our (co-dependent) autonomy by locating the locus of power to change the way things are with each of us. The purpose of thinking about imaginaries is first and foremost to demonstrate that we are none of us powerless – despite how it sometimes feels. On the contrary, we have the power to choose creativity and resistance, or complicity. And, as Spiderman once said, with that power comes responsibility.