Sunday, December 9, 2007

Imagination

In 1784, a special Royal Commission of the King of France conducted a series of tests to determine the therapeutic utility of the use of “animal magnetism” also called “Mesmerism” on human health. The study itself is generally credited as being the first placebo controlled blind clinical trials. The Commissioners concluded that Mesmer's animal magnetism had no existence and that imagination, imitation, and touch were the true causes of the observed effects in the Mesmeric salon.

One of Mesmer's students, Armand Puysegur, later transformed Mesmer's ideas into what we now know as hypnotism. The reasons for the effects of hypnotism continue to be debated today, with some still holding the entire matter to be the effect of imagination and imitation.

Imagination is powerful stuff; I’ve noted before the insidious judgmentalism of the phrase “mere imagination.” Imagination is seldom “mere,” but it’s often misunderstood.

It’s also easy to overestimate the power of imagination, or even its nature. One gets all sorts of fallacious arguments in philosophy and political science that begin something like “I can imagine…” Imagine, for example, a zombie that behaves exactly like a real human being, but who lacks self-awareness and self-consciousness. That’s a real thought experiment that I’ve seen proposed. The problem is that I can’t imagine such a thing, and I don’t believe anyone else can, either. I can, however, imagine someone imagining that they imagine such a thing.

Imagination has all sorts of powers—in our imagination. But pinning down those imaginings, that’s something else again. Making imagination real, even as real as a work of fiction, that can involve some heavy lifting.

Moreover, most of our imaginings are second-hand or worse, composed of bits and pieces of pop culture images, forgotten memories, things we’ve seen or read, fairy tales told to us when we were young, and the sea spray of foam that has bubbled up from the id. Imagination rarely gives us a new primitive; try imagining a new emotion, or a new color, texture, or smell. I’ve described such things, or at least written words about such things, but I’d hate to be the movie art director given that charge.

Still, imagination is based on experience and that includes both real-world experience and the experience of being exposed to the imagination of others. A writer’s first attempts at fiction are almost invariably directly influenced by someone else’s fiction, usually a single someone else’s fiction. It’s only as we gain more experience that we learn to avoid flagrant copying by stealing from several sources. When we finally learn to steal from real life and make it sound as good as fiction, ah, then there’s progress.

There are those rare cases that seem almost sui generis. That narrative seems most often to follow the arc of the lonely child (though in the case of the Pangborn’s it was the lonely children), who begins to create an entire fantasy realm, a life-long work that consumes all life experience that is fed to it. The strange world of Henry Darger is one such example. Nearer to home is Paul Linebarger, aka Cordwainer Smith, whose Instrumentality stories took decades to tell.

Of course the “lonely child retreating into fantasy” is the story of many lives, most especially including science fiction and fantasy fans. There are, I think, few among us who do not attempt to create our own original works, but the task of writing fiction requires much more than imagination itself, just as the work of being a professional writer of fiction depends less on the quality of the fiction itself and more on perseverance and self-promotion. But that just says that, like everything else in modern life, success is primarily dependant on marketing.

I suspect that the popularity of role-playing games has a great deal to do with lowering the imaginative barriers-to-entry. It’s a lot easier to play a round of World of Warcraft than it is to write your own fantasy trilogy, or even a short story. Whether this adds up to a net plus or minus in the imagination department is an argument similar to whether television’s destruction of the radio play did a disservice to imagination. Eventually somebody gets to longing for the days of the bards, no matter what I happen to think.

But this is all rumination on the high side of imagination; I think it’s safe to say that anyone reading me is likely to have an above average fantasy life, just because of who reads this stuff and how they get here. But there is always another tail of any distribution.

In The Racist Mind, Raphael S. Ezekiel describes his ethnographic study of neo-Nazis and Klansmen in the late 80s and early 90s. He got to know a number of his subjects very well, a tribute to Ezekiel’s dedication to the anthropological approach to his work. He describes the “mental landscapes” of those he got to know as severely limited. Most of them were of low ambition and expectation, and had trouble conceiving of themselves in better circumstances. This echoes a review by SF Chronicle movie critic Mick Lasalle on “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” the film debut of rapper 50 Cent:

“[T]he movie adopts no distance or irony, and has no point of view about life in the 'hood except Marcus' own. That perspective is limited. At one point, Marcus drives home in a new Mercedes he bought from dealing crack, as 50 comments in voiceover, "I had it all, but something was missing." He had it all? What did he have? He had no career, no purpose, no family, no education, no morality. He had a car.”

Stunted imaginations come from the same source as stunted bodies: the impoverishment of circumstances. We know a lot about physical nutrition, but we know little about what nutrients the imagination needs. It’s easy to imagine how a brutalized childhood can fill a child’s imagination with images of brutality, images that most children will try to shut down and deny. Their interior landscape becomes a desert, and only a rare few walk out of the desert with a higher calling.

But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that brutality is limited to the physical and that impoverishment of the spirit is synonymous with monetary poverty. There are wealthy people who are as sick and twisted as any crack baby’s mother, and there are plenty of ways to brutalize that leave no marks.

So a sturdy few find themselves despite the aridity of their surroundings. Others make for the thin crack of light offered by the narratives available to them; they escape by talent, luck, and a tenacious grip on opportunity. The rest are easy prey for those selling soma, pleasant dreams, or at least a respite from the nightmares. They will follow other people’s dreams, substitute others’ wills for their own. I think that this is an important root of authoritarianism in our time, with those of stunted soul following the vampires that feed on them.

An overly poetic image perhaps, but then, I was lucky. My mother read to me when I was very young.

8 comments:

black dog barking said...

Imagine, for example, a zombie that behaves exactly like a real human being, but who lacks self-awareness and self-consciousness.

I can imagine making the case that your zombie is indistinguishable from a committed Pax America neo-conservative circa 2007 carrying on in spite a planet-full of data contradicting his world view. In this 21st century undead creature uber-denial operates a pseudo-self that continues to believe and carry on the dogmas. A boring and blowhard Sybil.

But your observation is more interesting -- "I can, however, imagine someone imagining that they imagine such a thing."

World of Warcraft type games have spawned a hybrid medium -- machinima, desktop cyber-movie making.

JP Stormcrow said...

Interesting to me on several levels.

1) Yes, I think things like WoW are an easy entry into an imaginative world, which is one reason that I think it most likely that the Virtual World(s) that will first succeed at really capturing any real momentum as a general Web interface will have a bit more fantasy in them than the relatively sterile Second Life has today.

2) I think the whole online world of fanfic and fan art provide some similarly lowered barriers (or at least some feedback/encouragement functions) of entry to the imaginative world.

3) I had (and still have to some extent - some day I will regret writing all of this type stuff) two avenues of imaginative escape that I spent most of my childhood feeling vaguely ashamed about. The first was just an overly richly structured fantasy life of sports heroes etc. which could drag on for weeks. I would frequently write out the stats (trust me Ted Williams was not the last .400 hitter in young JP's world) and study them as part of the exercise. As I got older other considerations crept in like the .400 hitter who was banned for protesting the war in Vietnam etc. A book that absolutely resonated for me was Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon with the vivid fantasies of its hero.

I used imaginary maps in a similar way. I drew them incessantly, to some extent they were an end in themselves, but once complete I would sometimes use them to imagine various snippets of narrative. (More often I would just attempt to imagine the landscape from various vantages on the maps.)

... Actually I tell big lie up above - I do none of these things today... I am now steadfast productive zombie to work for the greater glory of the consumption and transformation of materials and resources. All power to the Invisible Hand, please forgive me any remaining impure imaginative lapses.

black dog barking said...

Maps are a form of poetry, the shape of a bit of physical reality condensed to a stylized collection of marks on paper. To use simply open the map and add imagination.

Ditto baseball box scores. They capture the bare facts from which (with a bit of imagination) the entire game can be replayed.

I too spent a lot of young-time looking at and thinking about maps. My favorite part of Lord of the Rings, Dune, or Foundation was the place. In my mind's eye each of these worlds looked up close like a Disney comic book, bold colors and clear lines -- Mickey Mouse's Picnic. Exciting in a safe way.

It was much later that I began to appreciate the imaginative space of places like the Grapes of Wrath.

James Killus said...

Okay, now this is odd. Reading JP's comment, I decided to try to find the essay in my newsgroup where I wrote about Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

The Google doesn't ken my newsgroup, but on the off chance I might have mentioned it elsewhere, I did the search, and it came up here, but written instead by some guy named stormcrow.

JP Stormcrow said...

Yeah, I almost mentioned The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. in my comment but it was geting kind of long. It was different than I expected - but pretty damn good in a dark, pathetic way.

I did some of the invented dice game stuff, not a lot - sometimes associated with maps. Somewhere I still have the records of about 40 seasons of the Northeast Ohio Professional Football League.

On fictional maps, here is an incredibly detailed set of maps form one guy. In Life As We Know it Bérubé mentions that he drew imaginary maps. I also recall reading where Claes Oldenburg did so as a child as well.

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