Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dynamics of the Imaginary

Jean-Paul Sartre claims that introspective reflection on the imagination yields a statics of the image and nothing more (The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Jonathan Webber, Routledge, 2004, p. 15). Based upon my own intropection I dispute this claim, and therefore I also question some of the distinctions Sartre has drawn between imagination and perception which presume that images in their rawest form are isolated and static.

Imagine a chair. I imagine a chair like an egg cut on the bias with a pedastal or base. The base narrows, and then widens to encompass the whole of the body of the chair. It narrows again. The chair swivels on the base, then it wobbles, then it is fixed. The base is black, then off-white like the chair. It emerges from the wall instead of the floor, and then the ceiling. It is a net. It is an electrogravitational field of some sort. The chair materializes when Pierre drops his butt into it. It is ecru, egg-shell, winter white, bright white, mushroom white. The chair is a mushroom. The chair is an off-white recliner. The sections drift apart and spring back. It is soft as a baby's bottom. Pierre is embarrassed that I spotted him carressing the upholstery. It has little bumps. The arms of the chair are flanges, wings. The chair flaps its wings. They are flanges again. A control panel is set in the right flange to adjust the chair's dopamine levels. A wicked thick needle emerges from the head rest. An internet jack at the base of the skull. On the flange is a tray for the dental equipment. A bright light shines in Pierre's open mouth. Molars you could sit in. The chair trembles. It rattles. It clasps Pierre's ankles and wrists and then lets go. Hoppity hop chair. Bouncing pony saddle with gold stirrups. And so on.

Did I imagine one transmogrifying chair or forty different chairs? (The number forty is rhetorical. It could have been forty thousand. This is important when one considers the putative infinite inexhaustibility of perception and how this compares to the repletion of the imaginary. If forty won't cover it, perhaps forty thousand will.) Does the imagination deal in static images, or does it deal in imagery, projects of imagination, or, indeed, phantasmagoria? I think it's easier to imagine that the image is wrested from the phanstamagoric flow than to imagine that the phantasmagoric is composed of pasted-together static images. Is the consciousness of the chair as imaged static or dynamic? To answer such questions I can only recommend that you yourself imagine a chair and study your imagination.

Some further questions arise from Sartre's investigation of the image. He says, "An image is not learned: it is organized exactly as the objects that are learned, but, in fact, it is given whole, for what it is, in its appearance" (p. 9). By learning objects he means multiplying possible points of view on them. (Hmm.) He says that things in the perceptual world are characteristically overflowing while things in the imaginary world are impoverished. The image, he says, contains only what is put there by consciousness. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but I would question whether imaginative putting is typically exhausted in a single act, like a snapshot.

Let's hone in on the immediacy of the image according to Sartre. He says that in imagining something that moves "there will never be the smallest time-lag between the object and the consciousness. Not a second of surprise: the object that is moving is not alive, it never preedes the intention. But neither it is inert, passive, 'worked' from the outside, like a marionette: the consciousness never precedes the object, the intention reveals itself at the same time as it realizes itself, in and by its realization" (p. 11, Sartre's emphasis). Sartre remarks in an endnote that hypnagogic imagery may be an exception to this, that hypnagogic images resist consciousness. I wonder though whether hypnagogia doesn't teach us something essential about the imagination, and whether we have in our wakeful lives the capacity to be surprised by our imagination. I believe that if I allow my imagination free rein (again with the horses) I can be surprised by images. Since digging into Sartre's study of the imagination I can't be certain about whether this is true for others.

Now Sartre says something about the imagination that I think must be partially true (or, in fact, mutably true). He says that the imaging consciousness "is spontaneous and creative; it supports, maintains by continuous creation, the sensible qualities of its object" (p. 15, my emphasis). Of course in this post I am questioning whether or how the imagination maintains or conserves the object as imaged. I would argue that precisely because it does operate by continuous creation the imagination does not have conservation or maintenance as its goal, and because the image springs from a "deep spontaneity that cannot be assimilated to the will" (p. 18, my emphasis) it has surprise as one of its possibilities. However, I must confess that my imagination of the chair this morning is in part a remembering of an episode of imagination that occurred on Thanksgiving, an episode that has been relived, in parts, since then. Though I am able to imagine newly–at this moment for instance the chair is a red button–I also imagine oldly, which suggests that indeed the imagination does maintain sensible qualities and in various aspects conserve the object as imaged. Remembering is generally part of my writing process, as I often think in bed, in the shower, while reading, exercising or otherwise occupying my mind away from the computer, and I typically write in the mornings when my mind is clear and strong, as far as that goes. So there does appear to be an element of maintenance involved in the imagery of the chair I've given. Is this the work of memory completely separate from the work of imagination, or do the imagination and the memory operate on the same wave lengths? Do they produce the same sort of results? Sartre says that imaging consciousness "feels itself to be consciousness through and through and homogenous with other consciousnesses that have preceded it and with which it is synthetically united" (p. 14, my emphasis). I remain uncertain about the relationship between imagination and memory.

(I will take the opportunity to announce here that I will be devoting some thought to Mnemosyne, and thinking memory as a mindfulness of something other than la même, though perhaps la même cannot be avoided.)

Finally, does the imaged object give itself as a nothingness? Well, Sartrean nothingness may be especially replete. It may make sense to speak of irreality and a transversal consciousness that has no object. I don't know what this nothingness has to do with certainty though, and it is certainty that Sartre is claiming to uncover in these opening chapters. I don't doubt that Sartre was imaginatively conscious of some objects or that he reported honestly on what he observed. Nevertheless, I can't share his confidence in the certainty of the data of introspection. I am certain about the imagery of the chair that I've had, and I suspect that my imagination does traffic in uncertainties, but I have no illusion that I therefore know how the imagination works in every instance, for everybody. What is the relationship between the phantasmagoric faculty that I've discovered and your own imagination of a chair? And how would such a faculty actually relate to memory or to other consciousnesses? Is perception really the arena of inexhaustibility, or is it the imagination that supplies the forty thousand aspects of a thing?

Labels: , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 8:57 AM.


Post a Comment

Fido the Yak front page