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?


Dead bird, abstract bird: imagining the natural

In the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, behind the nature walk on the first floor, is a room full of birds. More precisely, a room full of dead birds stuffed with cotton. It’s a funny way to learn about birds in nature, right? First you kill them, then you preserve them and maybe put them in cute poses for display. What we lose in this process is the sound, the movement, the location of the birds. What we gain, though, shouldn’t be overlooked. In fact, we can look at preserved specimens of birds in ways that are usually impossible in nature. Want to get an accurate drawing of the bird’s coloration down to the feather? You can get as close as you want to the specimen. You can also put a whole sequence of birds next to each other, such as a sample of specimens from the same species over a whole continent. That’s a tactile comparison that can’t be found in nature.

In order to learn more about something, we often have to change it first: maybe we take it out of its normal environment, or we freeze an ongoing process. Sometimes we kill and break things, too. Once we’ve changed it, though, we have a new problem. Yes, we can measure things in the altered case that are impossible otherwise, but how do we know these measurements reflect the natural situation? Maybe the data we get by killing the bird and preserving it in the museum are distorted by that very act. The specimen in the museum display is really a complex object, both natural and artificial in subtle ways.

Walking through the hall of birds inextricably demands our imagination. Here is a prop — the preserved specimen — that enables and also threatens your imagination of the living thing. In the wild, you might be lucky to glimpse a bird for a few seconds from the bottom through binoculars. A flash of yellow on its stomach against black wings. What species is it? After careful study of pictures and specimens, you might call to mind several possibilities and fit what you saw to their distinctive patternings. Imagine the bird you saw as similar to the other birds you’ve already got to know — which seems most likely?

On the other hand, there are some things you’ll never learn from a specimen in the museum. What does the bird do when a predator approaches its nest? There was a mother bird nesting outside the north end of the museum this summer that would sit screeching on trees and street lamps and dive-bomb anyone walking past. The mother never actually touched anyone, though, so it was more of a bluff than a real threat. (Which made it pretty funny to watch as unsuspecting people became targets — many never even noticed!) If you spent too much time with the dead specimens, their static character might grow to dominate your thinking about the birds. One can’t see the birds’ behavior in their bodies, only the anatomy that supports it!

What I like best about the hall of birds exhibit is the way the exhibit designers have recognized this gap for our imagination: they have projected black and white profiles of living birds onto the walls and included a soundtrack of birds chirping and singing. The video isn’t a realistic portrait of the birds in the wild — it’s not like watching a nature video on TV. Instead, it’s the living bird as abstract moving art. For me, this fits perfectly in the experience: the bird itself is something we never see in full, and going to the museum is most truly an act of imagination. Here we are reminded about the other aspects of the specimens we see in the cases but the sound and video heightens our imagination instead of replacing it.