Materialist imagination

I’m going to take a slightly different approach to imagination in this post. What’s on my mind are the pros and cons of targeting your imagination to generating well-defined end products. We can start by thinking through whether it’s always good to have a purpose for using your imagination. In science, a major role for imagination is to assist scientists in coming up with novel answers to research problems. When biologists struggle to figure out how cancer starts, they have to imagine all the possible causes along with ways to test the importance of those causes experimentally. Typically there are some relatively obvious hypotheses — cancer is caused by mutations in gene controlling cell division, for instance — and there are “out there” ideas that sometimes turn out to be true — like the idea that cigarettes cause lung cancer eighty years ago. But in all these cases, the scientific imagination is targeted toward producing answers for an important question, “How does cancer start?”

Alternatively, daydreaming is a sort of imagination that we often think is aimless (if not counterproductive!). Yet it too could be said to serve a role. Daydreaming might help a student escape his or her dreary class and bring some pleasure into life. Some people can take the wanderings of their minds and turn them into art: they use their otherwise idle fantasies as material for new expressions in their paintings or music.

What’s most interesting here I think is not the question whether imagination can ever be truly pointless. Instead, I’m intrigued by how we judge our own imaginings as “productive” or “a waste of time.” I’m thinking here especially of deep-seated overachievers like me who always feel like they need to be productive. This can turn into a sort of commodification of imagination: the idea that my creative energies should only be channeled into concrete products, like research papers, computer programs, blog posts, new skills, and so on. By nature, imagination is focused on things that are not real yet (or ever). We imagine what we don’t know, what we are going to experience, what we would like to be. Yet focusing imagination into tangible products easily slides into materalism. The aims of imagination become pre-packaged in ways that we anticipate will be valuable to other people before we even start imagining.

The aims of imagination are not inherently restricted to the “market value” of their end products, though. Reducing our imaginations to what other people readily find valuable cuts us out of a lot of the benefit of our own minds. Imagination can be a way of escaping groupthink even when it doesn’t lead directly to a tangible proposal. Reading a novel exercises our imaginations through encouraging us to create the fictional scenes in our minds and experience their possible meanings. Reading can “open your mind” without resulting in a particular new skill or idea by the end of the book.

Nonetheless, the pressure to produce (among overachievers) is constant. American society tends to admire people who are successful in multiple ways beyond their career or family life. They are accomplished musicians, bloggers, connaisseurs, inventors, athletes, too. Being impressive in the middle class means simultaneous excellence in several arenas. In this way, creativity is harnessed to social status, and imagination becomes a path to materalism. That is, the aim of imagination becomes the accumulation of more social coolness points rather than something connected to the actual content of what’s imagined.

Still, we all have to eat. Competition for creative, professional jobs is intense. Few of us in this situation have the leisure to embrace creativity without immediate concern for its contribution to our livelihood. What’s the right balance between commodification and open-ended interest?


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