Sunday, 18 November 2012

Against Imagination!

In recent years, I have become increasingly annoyed by the high regard in which 'imagination' is commonly held. The word is used almost synonymously with 'creativity'. It is time for me to speak out. I am against it. There. I appreciate that to declare yourself to be against imagination is to equate yourself with the worst excesses of Gradgrindian utility, or fascist suppression. 'Imagination liberates,' you will say, 'whereas reality is a prison.' You are wrong. Imagination is a dead end.

I don't believe that reality/imagination form a true opposition. 'Reality' is itself such a murky concept that almost anything could be placed in opposition to it. I find system/madness a more useful distinction. If madness consists in the chaos of the unknowable, and system is merely the makeshift collection of stories and games we call 'knowledge', which we indulge in to make sense of it all, then 'reality' becomes little more than a tradeable commodity along that axis. We need madness to refine and adapt our knowledge and understanding of the world, but gaze too deeply into the chaos, and all our systems, laws, accounts and logic begin disintegrate. All true creativity springs from that dangerous madness, but imagination is something else.

Imagination is not creativity; it is a product of the same rational part of the mind that creates those systems that limit and define us. We use imagination in order to shield us from the madness that threatens those systems. Imagination merely supposes a world in which knowable elements are swapped or substituted as a sort of stand-in for the realm of madness. A cow that flies, a car that talks, a dancing tree, a bee that sells you insurance: these delightful and fanciful images could be assembled by a computer using an algorithm to pick out interesting combinations. Imagination is rarely edgy, hardly subversive, never destructive. Notions that derive purely from the imagination cannot undermine us. Madness, however, is treacherous and impalpable.

When we are ready to look beyond imagination, to use parts of our brains in unthinkable ways – beyond the rational, conscious skill of contriving unlikely combinations – to risk our very identities, to kill 'the watcher at the gates of the mind', to transcend language, to submit to the deadly madness that crouches in the shadows of all our daily activities, then, and only then, are we creative.

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