Saturday, February 09, 2008

Nihil Potest Homo Intelligere sine Phantasmate

Jacky had pointed out the following passage from Agamben's Infacny and History:

Nothing can convey the extent of the change that has taken place in the meaning of experience so much as the resulting reversal of the status of the imagination. For Antiquity, the imagination, which is now expunged from knowledge as 'unreal', was the supreme medium of knowledge. As the intermediary between the senses and the intellect, enabling, in phantasy, the union between the sensible form and the potential intellect, it occupies in ancient and medieval culture exactly the same role that our culture assigns to experience. Far from being something unreal, the mundus imaginabilis has its full reality between the mundus sensibilis and the mundus intellegibilis, and is, indeed, the condition of their communication–that is to say, of knowledge. And since according to Antiquity, it is the imagination which forms dream images, this explains the particular relationship to truth which dreams have in the ancient world (like divination per somnia) and to efficacious knowledge (like medical treatment per incubationem). . . . Within the formula with which medieval Aristotelianism defines this mediating function of the imagination ('nihil potest homo intelligere sine phantasmate' [the human being can know nothing without imagination]), the homology between phantasy and experience is still perfectly clear. But with Descartes and the birth of modern science, the function of fantasy is assumed by the new subject of knowledge: the ego cogito (observe that in the technical vocabulary of medieval philosophy, cogitare referred rather to the discourse of the imagination than to the act of intelligence). Between the new ego and the corporeal world, between res cogitans and res extensa, there is no need for any mediation. The resulting expropriation of the imagination is made evident in the new way of characterizing its nature: while in the past it was not a 'subjective' thing, but was rather the coincidence of subjective and objective, of internal and external, of the sensible and the intelligible, now it is its combinatory and hallunicinatory character, to which Antiquity gave secondary importance, that is given primacy. From having been the subject of experience the phantasm become the subject of mental alienation, visions and magical phenomena–in other words, everything that is excluded by real experience.

(pp. 24-25)

Agamben's aside about cogitare reminds me of Hiroshi Kojima (Monad and Thou) putting the old college twist on the cogito, which had rekindled my interest in thinking about the imagination. Some of the reading I've been doing has focused on the image or imagery. Imagery, however, seems rather to be choreographed by a faculty of imagination, a power of imagining something as something. This power seems intimate and strange to me at turns, like the power of the muses. The footprints of the muses are ubiquitous over the fields of the imaginary, and of course on the pathways of the oneiric. Anyway, this passage of Agamben's has resonated with me, and I reckon I will retain an impression of its sounding as I plunge deeper into a study of the imagination.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:13 AM.


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