my reading

How Do We Define Imagination?

"The most profound questions of our existence cannot be answered through a mere collection of concrete evidence; at some point, whether we are theologians, automobile mechanics, dentists or draftsmen each of us reaches a border of the verifiable world, and every one of us leaps. A great deal of what we know, we know only through our imagination--and that knowledge is crucial to our lives."

A great reminder from Peter Turchi in his book Maps of the Imagination that reason can only take us so far, that we rely on our imaginations, often times much more than we realize or want to give credence to. And it is difficult to characterize that type of knowing; how do we define or talk about imaginative knowledge without attempting to concretize it, and so find ourselves back in the realm of reason? And how do we remove the barrier that imagination is simply "make believe," that if it can't be verified, it can't be true? 

Author Sven Birkerts, in Changing the Subject, suggests that digital technologies and our enmeshed reliance on them may be eroding our capacity not only to imagine, but to create works of the imagination. Is it imagination that is truly in jeopardy? Because we all use our imaginations constantly. When you tell me about your workday, I use my imagination to fill in the gaps, since I wasn't there to share it with you. We use this type of imagination all day long and wouldn't be able to function as humans if we lost it. So perhaps what we need is a definition of imagination, a way to categories different types or functions of imagination. If Birkerts is suggesting, as I suspect he is, that what is waning is our ability to synthesize our modern experience and arrive at new and culturally meaningful ways of expressing it in our arts, I think he may be right. That is a different category of imagination, one that would take us into Turchi's definition of imagination as a leap of faith, a knowing nourished by intuition, acute observation and experience, then bashed about in the artists's crucible and repurposed as a work of imagination, of art.

Sven Birkerts: Changing the Subject

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I'm working my way through Sven Birkerts's newest book, Changing the Subject. It's a masterful plea to think about the ways digital technologies are eroding our abilities as humans, particularly how it affects and displaces imagination. 

There's one line I've been intrigued with ever since I read it. Birkerts writes a chapter in defense of idleness, not idleness as we would define it today, charged as it is with the aroma of the ne'er-do-well. But idleness that seeks not to achieve anything, but to simply be, to let the mind drift and wander. "Idleness is the mother of possibility," writes Birkerts. 

I have a friend who shared with me a strategy for jumpstarting the creative process. He calls it "intentional nonlinear search." One begins with something that piques the interest and then proceeds by way of serendipity. One book leads to another; a conversation leads to an exploration, and so forth. The goal is simply to drift, to let whim pull you where it will. There is no other goal; one does not know where one will end up. And Birkerts affirms this. But the question must be asked: is such a way of being still possible in our frenzied yet concomitantly enervated culture? Have we gone too far, passed some watershed beyond which there is no returning?

Wabi-Sabi: A Way to Think About the Digital Age


I've been fascinated recently by the idea of wabi sabi, a Japanese cultural concept. This idea, typically difficult to explain, is an aesthetic that finds beauty in things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Its qualities are mysterious and elusive, pertaining to things that are neither here nor there, to things fading and disappearing like mist or sunsets. I picked up this slim book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren. The author writes:

"Wabi-sabi seemed to me a nature-based aesthetic paradigm that restored a measure of sanity and proportion to the art of living. Wabi-sabi resolved my artistic dilemma about how to create beautiful things without getting caught up in the dispiriting materialism that usually surrounds such creative acts. Wabi-sabi--deep, multi-dimensional, elusive--appeared the perfect antidote to the pervasively slick, saccharine, corporate style of beauty that I felt was desensitizing American society."

It's something I want to think more about as I consider my place in a world increasingly controlled by digital technologies but without the desire or will to think about what these technologies are doing.