Thursday, May 17, 2012

Revaluing the Imagination

In a nutshell: As we think about the transformative potential of aesthetic experience, the capacity for aesthetic self-transformation, and any pedagogy based on these convictions, we need to consider the role of the imagination as a concept once highly valued, of late devalued, and presently in serious need of revaluation.

One of my graduate students quoted this passage from Edward Said's Humanism and Democratic Criticism on her final exam:
The original explanatory power of the term [imagination] has been modified by such alien and transpersonal concepts as ideology, the unconscious, structures of feeling, anxiety, and many others. In addition, acts of imagination, which used to stand alone and do all the work of what we may still call creation, have become reformulated in terms that include performatives, constructions, and discursive statements; in some cases these seem to have entirely dissolved the possibility of agency, whereas in others, agency, or the will, no longer has the sovereign authority or plays the role it once did. (42)
I was very grateful to my student for underscoring this passage precisely when I have been thinking so much about humanistic pedagogy, the transformative power of literature, and the possibilities for teaching the capacity for self-transformation through reading and other types of aesthetic experience.

Said is right on in this passage. Which is not to say that I do not embrace the concepts he calls into question. Each of these concepts is associated with one or more influential and even inspirational modern thinkers: ideology with Marx, Althusser, and many others; the unconscious with Freud, his followers, and his many critics; structures of feeling with Raymond Williams and the cultural materialist tradition; anxiety with Harold Bloom and others who view literature in psychoanalytic terms; performativity with a range of thinkers from J.L. Austin to Judith Butler and beyond. Construction is a particularly multivalent notion, important not only in the idea of social construction that originates with Berger and Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality, 1966) and is later popularized by Foucault and his many adherents, but also in the contexts of structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction, all of which are fruitful critical frameworks for thinkers including Barthes, Jameson, Derrida, and many others. And finally, discourse has become such a ubiquitous concept that, while in a game of Password it might most readily elicit the response "Foucault," it is difficult to associate it exclusively or even primarily with any one individual or group of thinkers.

And yet, Said is absolutely right to lament that this assemblage of critical concepts has proliferated and enriched critical thinking often at the expense of the imagination. More than that, these "alien and transpersonal" concepts often appear to negate the idea of the imagination, as if the imagination were itself "merely" ideological or discursive; that is, as if the imagination were in need of being not just explained, but explained away. Indeed, as Said suggests, these concepts often seem to deprive humankind of not only of individual subjective agency, but of the capacity for creativity and creation.

In the process, these concepts tend to undermine the efficacy, if not the very possibility, of commitment in literature and other creative activity; commitment, that is, to any kinds of ideas or ideals, be they religious, political, philosophical, or otherwise. This, I think, is one of the most sad, serious, and unfortunate losses from the perspective of transformative pedagogy. Our students find it increasingly difficult to believe that writers write for any reason beyond either pleasure or didacticism of the most elementary sort: a story, poem, or play is either (1) merely entertaining, or (2) moralistic in the simplest, most straightforward, uncomplicated, unironic sense imaginable.

An example from my own recent teaching: In my classical mythology courses, I teach that mythology is a type of knowledge about past events, and that history is another type of knowledge about past events. I teach that mythological thinking precedes historical thinking among the ancient Greeks, and that when historical thinking emerges, it is not willy-nilly, but rather by invention (the invention, in particular, of historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides). Moreover, the invention of history complicates the Greeks' relationship to their own mythology. We can see this complication dramatized in Greek tragedy, where mythological figures exist and act, walk and talk, in a historical world, with all sorts of attendant consequences not only for the plots of individual plays, but for the fate of all humankind.

My students often have a hard time accepting the idea that Greek tragedy reflects in any way the Greeks' invention of history. Isn't a play like Oedipus the King merely a good story, or at best a way to preserve a traditional mythological narrative in a new medium, or at most an expression of religious or philosophical beliefs about fate and the gods? Now, for one thing, there is nothing "mere" about any of these interpretive options (my husband, the poet, scholar, and teacher Jason Schneiderman, forbids his students to begin any sentence about a text with the word "just," for just this reason). To entertain, to retell a familiar story, to preserve a religious or philosophical tradition, are all stupendous achievements of the human imagination. But when I claim, for example, that Theseus's insistence that "The gods don't care" about Herakles's threats of suicide is a way for the playwright, Euripides, to express skepticism about the validity of mythological thinking now that the Greeks live in a historical world, many of my students think I have gone too far—that I have given too much credit, or credence, not only to Euripides as an individual creative thinker and artist, but to literature as a medium for communicating high-stakes ideas about society, culture, and the human condition.

So...not sure where I'm going with this post exactly...except to say that as I develop my ideas about the transformative potential of aesthetic experience, the capacity for aesthetic self-transformation, and any pedagogy based on these convictions, I will continue to think about the role of the imagination as a concept once highly valued, of late devalued, and at present in need of revaluation.

In the meantime, enjoy this powerful valuation of the imagination (I'm sorry I cannot say where or when this was recorded, but I'd guess early to mid 1960s).

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