i was digging through some old papers the other day, and came across my infamous “Assassination Of Prof. Harold” packet. i had a particularly difficult time in this class, second semester of senior year in college, for a variety of reasons. i thought taking a class on imagination (how do you categorize that, anyway?) would be ripe with interesting material and discussion. it wasn’t. but recently, re-reading my college essays, i felt compelled to puzzle them together and defend what my 22 year-old self with a hot temper thought and felt on the subject.
what follows is a summary of an entire semester in college; my frustrations, my thoughts, my confusions. it’s interesting to re-read your own mind out of context, a little younger and with so much passion.
“if we grant something like originality, spontaneity, or unpredictability as a necessary feature of the creative process, the must explanations of creativity necessarily explain creativity away? the point here is not just that creation in art, like all human activity, is psychologically complex, but that the explanation of artistic creative action in particular, as it is normally conceived, carries with it an inherent paradox.” -Philip Alperson
for me, imagination isn’t bound by the rules of what exists or what is known, it is perceiving outside of what we think is real, rather than imagining things we can actually perceive in a different context or form. imagination begins where reality ends, thus they are inherently linked. and since reality is subjective, it is hard to justify one reality over another, for one person’s reality could be another’s imagination. the book on the shelf to my right could actually be morphing constantly, but my memory or visual capabilities are limited to seeing the book in essentially photographic moments, remembering the essential components that define reality as i understand it, making the object “a book”. and yet, this could be an oversimplification of a much more complex reality. like this paper. like philosophy in general.
imagination must be a balance of understanding real-world circumstances while being capable of diverging from the “rules” with enough (creative) freedom that the perception of reality can be questioned or expanded upon. how can we understand reality if we cannot understand its limitations? “children deploy their understanding of the casual regularities of the real world to make sense of the novel possibilities that occur within that make-believe framework….thus the disposition towards fiction is remarkbly deep-rooted (Harris)”. Imagination is an exploration of other possible worlds, not confined by the rules of the one we live in. this does not lead to degenerate or illogical thinking (as some argue), but rather to higher mental and emotional capacities that increase throughout one’s lifetime.
on imagining & believing
this makes me think of the parallel between art and religion- how they cannot and should not be considered of a single code. the german archbishop cardinal joachim meisner, at the kolumba art museum, recently proclaimed a piece of modern art “degenerate”, a warning of the repercussions of becoming estranged from worship. upsetting for obvious reasons, this was the same notion upheld by the nazis, used as a forewarning to the formal persecution of artists in 1937.
for me, the fundamental difference is:
imagination = individual
belief = shared
the goals of each are functionally opposite in that one has a framework while the other decidedly must not. one can quickly become oppressive, the other is constantly evolving. belief, in a sense, may actually mean or lead to acceptance. what we don’t accept, we question, and by questioning we imagine something new.
humor me, hume
“we cannot form a just idea of the taste of a pine-apple without having tasted it.” – Hume
first of all, what’s with the hyphen between pine and apple? is there a passive-aggressive side argument going on here about the validity of the pineapple as a fruit? this guy always bothered me. he goes on to say that sensory impressions are extremely important to understanding reality, and if they are lacking (for instance in someone who is blind or mute) their impressions are partial (and therefore, we may deduce, less reliable). what crap! how about this: a person who cannot see perhaps may rely more heavily on other senses they are capable of, including but not limited to hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling.
it is not entirely impossible for an idea to come before its impression. if you are familiar with the colour blue but havent see all of its possible shades, are you incapable of forming an idea of what another shade might look like?
[p.s. to my old self: blind wine tasting is an incredible example of the possibilities here]
but our dear hume thinks this happens with such little frequency (indeed, for someone with no imagination), that it remains obsolete. if you can’t express it, it doesn’t exist. but who is the judge of this success or failure? fucking hume?
language: a marvelous attempt to communicate, although it lacks in many ways and often leaves people feeling like they couldn’t express their full sentiment. this is why writers and artists are praised so highly when they come close to expressing the “inexpressable”.
my question is this: can one visualize something that is not visually possible? or perhaps one can only visualize what is logically possible? it seems to me that in the world as we know it, there is big difference between these two. under this argument, i would be able to visualize a colour that does not exist, smell something that does not exist, or even smell a colour (which, under the general parameters of the word in which we live, this is inconceivable). there is a mental disorder (i can’t recall the name) that permits this sort of capacity. i have often visualized something without a thought attached to it, crossed a mental border that connects one sense to another, and then tried to define what i felt in terms of what i know. this is what lead me to believe that this is possible, even if i fail to explain it.
[sigh. if only i had told this to the right person. there is so much going on here. incredibly, i condemn myself (“mental disorder”) while defending myself (“crossing a mental border”) for something that i knew little to nothing about, which turns out to be synesthesia and is becoming increasingly more accepted, relevant, studied…everything.]
we can react/respond to a concept or image just as we would to something that is real (ex. cinema). the malleability of our belief mechanism is what leads us to produce a response with similar effects, regardless if the belief is based on a fiction or a reality. this is particularly interesting to me with regard to motor reflexes. does this mean that a physical action performed solely in the brain can still benefit the operator? if so, we can use our imaginative capacity to learn a new physical skill before actually performing it (ex. matrix!). kinetic learning in the imagined state (dreams!). i immediately refer to my practice of movements on horseback- i used to lie awake thinking of the entire sequence and perform each motion in my head. i often still imagine myself walking through space (with or without gravity) and have to adjust my movements to move about fluidly or perform some kind of action. sometimes they are pretty specific, like when i tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a roman vitruvius style home. i have not actually been in that kind of space, but i understand the architectural layout, proportions, et. and i try to move through the space as a roman might have. obviously this is totally do-able in comparison to floating on green wavelengths.
these guys talk about creative behavior being dependent on “socially acquired bodies of knowledge, belief and value”, i.e. not derived solely from the minds of individuals. a “recombination” of this socially acquired knowledge is what Kant argues is needed to be a fully socialized human being. must it be true that artists are socially functional human beings? in antiquity, the artist figure was the one to document events occurring among the tribe; they had to be fully socially aware in order to sum up the days’ events. but this is no longer the artist’s role. documentation is now for reporters and historians, so is it actually necessary to be a fully socialized human being? surely at least the term “fully socialized” requires further definition. assuming it means being able to think and perform readily under the social requirements of society- understanding the bodies of knowledge, belief and values it adheres to, then i would say for the artist whose concern is mainly political, this awareness is essential. but most of the time, artists and their work don’t fit neatly into a specified category, such as neo-expressionism or conceptual art. these are names that are used to attempt to define bodies or styles of work by people who don’t do it. the artists themselves often cross boundaries set before them on an almost compulsory basis- after all, isn’t that what creativity and originality are all about?
Gaut goes on to consolidate the meaning of creativity for the purposes of his argument, as “creation in the fully fledged sense of the word”, leaving out the whole part about creative destruction. he emphasizes creation as the making of things which are original and saliently new. he ties “virtue” into the idea of genius, and in the following sentence asks if the act of originality is enough to make an original object valuable. this is frustrating to me, because i believe that’s a completely separate and complicated question. i’m not sure if it exists in philosophy, but in art theory there is a lot of debate about an artwork’s individuality, originality, its aura, value, etc. But this argument is all focused on the product, not the inspiration, so i digress.
[i sincerely hope that undergraduate programs have advanced since 2007, when the term “interdisciplinary” was big, bad and scary. how is it ok to compartmentalize education to the point that i doubted my philosophy class could handle questions brought up in art theory?]
fiction vs. reality
on the outset, it’s interesting to conceive of the imagination as a possible propagator of knowledge, furthered by things like fiction reading. but i find the parameters described to be extremely limited. there are many instances in history where the imagination led to performing totally immoral acts (ex. columbine shootings, the guy who shot John Lennon after reading “catcher in the rye”). not only do i think it is limiting to think of knowledge as a stimulus for moral thought/action, i also think that linking knowledge to fiction via imagination is questionable. Currie describes the imaginative act in relation to fiction-reading as trying out values in a fictional world, whereby we avoid the costs of bad choices in the real world. what about the extremely immoral character who makes terrible choices, yet the irony and excellence of the novel is that we still identify and support them? even if we agree that killing is immoral, the circumstances in the book may support a different conclusion by which we are willing to bend our moral beliefs. so, by reading fiction do we really learn to avoid the costs of bad choices, or does fiction actually challenge our moral conceptions? furthermore, i do not live everyday considering my actions in terms of my moral convictions (for better or for worse). daily-life choices are often made based on other operative modes of consideration, such as pleasure, which do not function the same way as logically-based methods of morality.
[spoken like a true 22 year-old]