The Way of Radical Imagination

Someone questioned me about what is radical imagination. I wasn’t sure if they were being merely disingenuous in playing Devil’s advocate as an intellectual pose. An intellectual debate about the issue wouldn’t have brought either of us closer to understanding.

Anyone who has ever had their mind shook loose by seeing in a new way knows the power of radical imagination, whether or not they could explain it. Radical means that which goes to the root. As such, radical imagination is what has the capacity to shake us to our foundation or send us tumbling down unexplored caverns.

The intellectual who was interrogating me seems more attracted to the dark imagination than to the radical imagination, not that the two are mutually exclusive. He considers himself a radical and yet he apparently has a hard time imagining what exists outside of the iron prison. I get the sense that he has come to romanticize dystopia and apocalypse, which he rationalizes as his seeking to understand. The danger is that it can lead to a mirror image of the dogmatic utopian, exchanging one absolutist fantasy for another.

I’m not dismissing this motivation to bleakly stare down ugly truths. Some of my favorite writers leaned heavily in this direction. There is a dark bent to Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, etc; but their speculations didn’t end in mere gloomy cynicism. They were always looking beyond. Even a perverse and pessimistic visionary like William S. Burroughs sought to creatively portray alternative societies and other ways of being.

In my own sense of radical imagination, what drives my thinking is a profound epistemological dissatisfaction and ideological disloyalty, not just toward the status quo but also toward much of what opposes it. I’ve grown tired of predictable conflicts that endlessly repeat, like some cosmic tragicomedy. Each side reinforces the other, making victory for either side impossible. Radical imagination, however, seeks to escape this trap.

No amount of studying the hegemonic order will necessarily help one to see the hidden aporia and lacuna, the gaps in the structure. Negative capability is only useful to the degree that it opens the mind to negative space as creative void and a passageway through. The darkness can paralyze us in blind immobility or it can shift our perception into other senses.

The stakes are high. And the consequences all too personal. It goes far beyond any social order. This touches upon our humanity, the psychological reality of our being.

We stand in a hallway of doors, not knowing what is behind them. The entire social reality we live within is that hallway. We stand there in that tight place, the crowd shuffling back and forth. Groups form taking up different positions along the hallway and sometimes fight with the other groups. A few curious souls notice the doors themselves, but the doors remain unopened. That hallway is warm and safe. We are surrounded by the familiar and we have no fear of loneliness.

But what if some of the doors were cracked open, allowing one to barely glimpse something else? What then? Radical imagination is that inability to ignore the light coming through the crack, the temptation to press against the door, the curiosity about what is on the other side.


12 thoughts on “The Way of Radical Imagination

  1. Here in Canada, ending homelessness may very well have been “radical imagination”.

    What is noteworthy is that even a conservative eventually supported it, when they saw its effectiveness.

    Two years later:

    Even the US MSM has covered this one:

    Unless we see more politicians like Sanders, I don’t see this happening in the US. It might spread though here in Canada.

    • That is a good example of radical imagination. Ending homelessness is a notion that so many brilliant people in the ruling elite and comfortable classes have said is impossible, which is to say they couldn’t or wouldn’t imagine it being possible.

      But what was deemed impossible in the past sometimes becomes the new reality. We live in a world that in numerous ways is impossible according to what people believed in the past, what they believed socially, theologically, psychologically, politically, economically, and scientifically.

      It often requires people fighting for the impossible generation after generation, century after century, until resistance to it finally breaks down and it proves itself possible after all. Then seeing becomes believing.

      Here is another point.

      All the knowledge and analysis of past homelessness couldn’t predict the end of homelessness. As many have argue, homelessness has always been with us, at least since civilization began and people became dependent on homes they could lose. To imagine the end of homelessness is an act of radical imagination at the level of blind faith, that is until enough people act on that faith and change the conditions of social reality.

      Radical imagination is the death knell of ideological realism.

  2. It is not so much the elite cannot end homelessness as much as it is that they do not want to.

    Doing so is ideologically not compatible with the economic conservatives ideals of meritocracy and hierarchy. The Liberal class largely agrees with this ideology.

    • It’s not that they can’t. But I think even the elite are trapped in a worldview, just many others. Their imaginations are also hobbled. This relates to the point I’ve made in a post. I quoted someone as explaining that the rhetoric coming out of think tanks and similar institutions is propaganda directed at the upper classes, not the masses. Thought control operates on all levels of society. And the nature of propaganda, if it is effective, is that those who are its targets tend to come to believe in it.

    • On the positive side, Trump makes everything so blatant that it is harder to ignore and rationalize. It has force awake people like my parents. Yes, there are still plenty of people asleep. But the severity of the situation is beginning to sink in for an increasing number of Americans. Let’s hope it’s not too little too late. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how this Titanic going full speed is going to be able to course correct before hitting the iceberg.

      • Trump has made good on his promise of industry in one way, consistent with his home turf– Hes the greatest boon to comedians since the end of Prohibition. Doug Stanhope’s latest special had some pointed, and hopeful ( a rarity with his style ) lines, one relevant to this discussion– The world is full of starving people, the world is practically overturning with food, feed the starving people and move on down the list ( another paraphrase, but who am I, the mind of Mencia? ). Housing the homeless makes sense in Canada, in many places on the West Coast it’d be nightmarish, spreading out in gleaming air conditioned estates without hummus in the fridge.

        Isn’t the illusion that we’re on such a tight ship, to begin with? I’m socially hobbled but I’ve met the gamut, from Republican bench warmers to Iraq vets working in the poverty relief sector of government , and they don’t live ideologically pure lives, or more accurately they don’t place their lives on the altar of ideology. How that works in the confines of the ugly compromises which mostly comprise politics ( my paraphrase, I think, of many of your previous posts which I’ve found insightful ) , depends on so many factors that I can only say with conviction that the continuing history of the American part of Western Civilization is something that requires the work of an entire civilization, over long spans of time, to comprehend.

        • What is the name of Stanhope’s latest special? Is it on Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon, or available somewhere else online? If I can find it, I’ll watch it this weekend.

          About housing, I doubt anyone would want to try to house large numbers of the homelesss in the water-scarce Southwest and California. It is insane and unsustainable the vast amounts of water taken from elsewhere, including stolen from Mexico, in order to make possible big ag and the defense industry (and Las Vegas) in that region of the US.

          I agree with your last comment which is intended as a paraphrase of my own opinion. Attempting to comprehend it all is a real humdinger. I don’t know about other countries but American politics can feel like a hamster wheel. It tires out us hamsters while distracting us from the reality that we are running in place and still stuck in the cage.

          Future historians have their work set out for them, assuming there is a long-term future for our civilization. I’ve never thought I’d be long for this world with depression always dragging me down, but part of me wouldn’t mind living long enough to see how some of the short-term stuff plays out.

          • It’s on netflix , they’ve been cleaning up big , I can finally forgive them for their largely crap sci fi and horror archives. I’ll arouse some metallic bureau’s wrath if I give away his title– I’ve been feeling out the WP moderation system plenty as it stands on my American Horror Noir page.

            He’s one of the funniest comics out there.
            I’d like to see him live- even over Eric Andre, since I don’t drag out the ponchos and galoshes till late fall, and E.A. has more of, shall we say, a cheesy Grand Guignol method of audience interaction.

            I don’t like speculation on re-incarnation, but Lenny Bruce is still walking his beat on stages across the land, cheers to his sodden heart.

    • The opposite of radical imagination is what the ruling elite will try to enforce and maintain through political rhetoric, media propaganda, psyops, and such. They’ve been keeping the radical imagination in check for quite a while now. The Civil Rights movement was the last time they lost control and radical imagination came into public awareness.

      Control, in the long term, is hard to maintain. It becomes rigidified and brittle, eventually unable to predict and prepare for new challenges. That is when, like the Jim Crow authorities, it turns to violent force. MLK and other leaders were smart enough to understand how to use that violent reaction to promote democratic reform.

      I hope we get some worthy and inspiring moral leaders like MLK. Even the Kennedy brothers, born into wealth, radically spoke of the coming revolution. Sanders doesn’t have the personality to play the role of an MLK, that is for sure. It’s good that he is bringing up important issues. But we somehow need to step up our game.

      Otherwise, your suspicion will turn out to be true.

Please read Comment Policy before commenting.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s