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.

 

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Star Trek Over Time

I’m super curious about the new Star Trek show that will eventually be coming out, a bit delayed. The original is one of the shows I grew up with. And the entire set of series mark the changes of the world I’ve known over my life.

The Original Series is a cult classic. It’s Wagon Train to the Stars! It has the optimistic bravado of the early Cold War with a bit of an edge with the changing culture during the 1960s. It was largely escapist fantasy during a troubled era, but it was written and produced by those who remembered an earlier time. It resonated with the Golden Age of hard science fiction with its focus on technology and spaceships, exploration and adventure, along with some fun and imaginative ideas thrown in. It ended in 1969, before real world events turned even uglier in the 1970s, not to imply that American society wasn’t already taking a severe downturn.

I’ll skip over The Animated Series. It was a product of the 1970s, but it was very much an extension of The Original Series. I never watched much of it. The quality of the animation was equivalent of Scooby-Doo. The 1970s wasn’t known for its great animation, at least not on network tv, even if some of the cheap cartoons could be amusing for a child to watch. Anyway, Gene Roddenberry never considered The Animated Series to be canon.

Moving onto the 1980s and 1990s, there was The Next Generation. It revived the Star Trek world, brought the original out of status of mere cult classic and cheap rerun fodder. TNG was a truly high quality production. It made this future society much more compelling and realistic. The starship was an entire multicultural community with families, schools, entertainment, social events, etc. It was a utopian vision of technocratic socialism where the welfare state and social democracy had been pushed to their furthest extreme with all basic needs taken care of and all resources and opportunities made accessible, although a socialism that offered an alternative to the hard-edged communist totalitarianism of the Borg.

This particular futuristic imagining was the last gasp of Cold War optimism, the supposed end of history where capitalism had won and yet was becoming something entirely new. The show was initially produced during the last years of the Cold War and the beginning of the boom years that followed. It was a calmer time of history in the US and the West with no major wars or conflicts. Yet there was a growing edge of anxiety in the broader society. Threats of societal unease within the Federation mirrored the same in the United States, the tensions of a vast imperial-like civilization in both cases fraying at the edges with terrorism becoming an issue.

Interestingly, the Maquis were introduced in Deep Space Nine. That next series began in the last years of the previous series, The Next Generation. The Maquis were a terrorist group that arose at the frontier of the Federation, as some of the far-flung planetary colonists felt abandoned and betrayed by the centralized government. As TNG was still being produced, the Maquis storyline bled over into that series.

After the Cold War, Americans found themselves subjects of an empire and not sure what that meant. And those societies at the edge of the American Empire also were feeling on edge, as a new era of unchallenged neoliberalism came into dominance. It was a time of political conflict and culture wars. Without the global conflict of the Cold War, public attention turned toward these fractures within the Western world.

Years before the 9/11 terrorist attack, right-wing fanatics in the US and abroad were becoming central concerns. Ted Kazynski, the unabomber, continued his bombings through the early 1990s, the last two incidents killing the targeted victims, until he was arrested in 1996. The same year as Kazynski’s last bombing there was the Oklahoma City bombing, the largest act of domestic terrorism in US history. That was committed as retaliation for the 1993 violent conflict in WACO, involving the federal government and a religious cult that had been stockpiling weapons. There was also much violence by anti-abortion terrorists, including numerous murders in the 1990s. Outside of the US but in the English-speaking world, there was an upsurge of IRA bombings around that time as well, 28 attacks during the 7 years of TNG series.

On top of all that, it was a time of worsening racial and ethnic conflict. There was the police beating of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The tension of that decade was maybe exacerbated by the Immigration Act of 1990, which greatly increased the number of immigrants for the first time in decades. There was a realization that WASP culture was once again under threat. Fox News took advantage of those fears not just with right-wing pundits but also with hiring tall blonde women who represented the stereotype of the Aryan ideal, the white male audience presumably were supposed to fantasize about these women bearing them a new generation of Aryan children who would save America and lead us into the future… or something like that.

It was in this atmosphere that DS9 was produced. It showed a different side of the Federation and presented the first main captain character of a Star Trek series that was black. It was set on a space station near a wormhole and a highly religious planet, former territory of the Cardassian Union. The issues of the show were about conflicts, often violent, between various societies and groups within societies. These conflicts were often religious and ethnic in nature, but it also portrayed a setting of a multicultural meeting point where key characters of different races worked together and formed friendships.

The future of the Federation was being threatened like never before, but the enemies involved weren’t what the Federation was used to dealing with. The challenges faced were less of the variety of mighty space empires or communist-like Borg, but instead primarily the dangers of local religious fanatics and the menace of a highly advanced and secretive race of shapeshifters. The Dominion was an enemy that could be anywhere and appear like anyone. It wasn’t always clear, in DS9, who were enemies and who were friends or at least potential allies, as everything was in flux. Relationships, personal and political, were sometimes strained to the breaking point. And it was the destruction of the Maquis, caught in the middle, that was a prelude to war with the Dominion.

Back in the world of the United States, the sociopolitical mood during the mid-to-late-1990s was beginning to sour with the rise of a new kind of reactionary and conspiratorial right-wing that was given a platform through talk radio and Fox News: Alex Jones, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, etc. The Cold War had been about American might expanding onto the global theater and also a time of exploration of space. But in the last decade of the century, American society had turned more inward. The United States was drifting along into the future, we Americans having lost our cultural bearings. Many sensed an impending doom with our civilization approaching the year 2000 and along with it the third millennium, a symbolic calendrical shift giving rise to a foreboding mood as if almost anything could happen, even the end of the world as we knew it.

The reason the Maquis had been brought into the Star Trek world was as a plot device for the then upcoming series, Voyager. That next series, having begun in 1995, took over when The Next Generation ended. The confident optimism of the earlier Star Trek series had entirely evaporated. The new storyline was about a Federation starship and a Maquis starship becoming lost in distant and unknown stretches of space. The stability and safety of the Federation are gone. The crews are forced to join together in hope of finding their way home again. They are thrown into the unintended role of explorers, a rough-and-ready crew reminiscent of the the Federation’s early years.

Like these former enemies who became necessary shipmates, the bitterly antagonistic two-party system of the 1990s found itself unprepared for a world not expected or understood. DS9 having ended in 1999, Voyager carried us into a new century and a new era. The last episode of Voyager was aired only months before the 9/11 terrorist attack. The Voyager had made its way back to the Federation and soon after, outside of the Star Trek world, the United States would regain a sense of national purpose. But the economic good times were already winding down with the bust of the Dot-com bubble. America’s sense of greatness would be militaristic, not economic.

In the new century, Americans became even more obsessed with the national history. Maybe unsurprising, the last aired Star Trek series, Enterprise, brought us to the beginning of the Federation or rather slightly before its formation. That series demonstrated the mood of simultaneously looking back and peering forward. The period of the Enterprise was the Federation’s past and our future. According to the Star Trek timeline, this present century will involve World War III and a period of post-atomic horror. Following that comes first contact with an alien species. Later this century, human society begins to recover. And it is in the next century that humans become a spacefaring civilization, the story told in the Enterprise series.

Watching that series is to see the initial fumbling steps of humanity moving toward maturity as a species, but humans at that point are still largely arrogant toward and ignorant of the world beyond Earth. Many mistakes are made, as humanity attempts to gain a moral compass. For example, the Enterprise crew are confronted with a situation where they have to decide about intervention and this is prior to any Prime Directive, as there is no Federation yet. The Prime Directive has often been interpreted as a criticism of American interventionism, such as during the Vietnam War, but it took on new meaning during the post-9/11 years when the Enterprise series was aired.

For various reasons, many fans disliked that series. It maybe doesn’t help that it is the only series involving a non-Federation crew. A Star Trek show minus the Federation is not quite the same. It is specifically the vision of the future offered by the Federation that has attracted so many fans. But maybe it would have been hard for Americans to feel much interest in any Star Trek series in that early period of the War on Terror, a time when dark and dystopian entertainment captured the public imagination.

Yet in its own way, the Enterprise series did resonate. It maybe resonated too well, in presenting a future that was too close for comfort. In the 21st century, we are entering into the future history of the Star Trek world and it ain’t pretty. The coming years are supposed to be a time of mass unemployment, poverty, and homelessness which leads to the formation of ghettoized Sanctuary Districts and ends up inciting the Bell riots of 2024. It’s a pivotal moment, the setting of the stage for the events that move us toward global disaster and rebuilding. In its inspiration, it mirrors another pivotal moment, as the idea of the Bell riots was based on two real world events from decades ago: the 1970 Kent State shootings and the 1971 Attica Prison riot.

The era of the early Starfleet is born out of the ashes of, from our perspective, a yet to happen near apocalypse. With the mood of America and the rest of the world right now, World War III and nuclear destruction seems all the more probable. Our present fearless leader, President Trump, is a dumbed down and even less competent version of our last demoralizing chief of state, President Nixon with his inglorious impeachment and resignation, providing yet another link between the events of the 1970s and contemporary developments in the 21st century. As we face the future, it’s an immense gulf between our petty American Empire and the grand galactic civilization of the Federation guided by wise leaders such as Captain Picard.

That leaves us with the next installment. Coming soon is the Discovery series. It will return us to the time period of the original Star Trek, approximately ten years before. So, this will involve a refocusing on exploration and, well, discovery. I’m not expecting a re-envisioned Wagon Trail to the Stars, but I suspect the recent movies in the franchise very well might be indicative of the direction being taken. It supposedly is intended to help bridge the 150 years between the Enterprise and the original. I must say that sounds rather ambitious.

I’ll be curious to see how it might touch upon contemporary issues. One thing that stood out to me is that the cast is described as diverse, including a gay character. I don’t recall homosexuality coming up in the original show, but Captain Kirk had interracial kisses in two separate episodes which was scandalous for mainstream tv at the time. Whatever kind of show it is, it will be nice to return to my favorite fictional universe. And I certainly wouldn’t mind the opportunity to escape dark and depressing present realities, by leaping forward a couple centuries into the future. Star Trek, at its best, has been a visionary show and even leaning toward the utopian. We Americans could use some confident optimisim at the moment.

Alternative Visions, Radical Imagination

When Science Fiction Stopped Caring About the Future
by Noah Berlatsky, The Atlantic

Over here is Le Guin, taking a stand for science fiction on the grounds that “we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.” And over here is Star Wars, showing you more pictures of the Millennium Falcon. So much for Le Guin’s call to elevate creators who know “the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”

writing & reading, democracy & despotism 
by Kenan Malik, Pandaemonium

Ursula Le Guin
‘Resistance and change often begin in art’

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

The full text of the talk was published in the Guardian; there is also a video of the talk.

Science Fiction and the Post-Ferguson World: “There Are as Many Ways to Exist as We Can Imagine”
by Mary Hansen, YES!

Again, this is why we need science fiction. We often can’t imagine that things could be different because we can’t imagine alternative systems. Ursula LeGuin just gave an incredible speech at the National Book Awards, where she talked about this and said people can’t imagine a world without capitalism. Well, there was a time when people couldn’t imagine a world without the divine right of kings.

But the writers, the visionaries, those folks who are able to imagine freedom are absolutely necessary to opening up enough space for folks to imagine that there’s a possibility to exist outside of the current system.

I think it’s been a concerted effort to erase those possibilities. These systems that we live under are incredibly unnatural. This is not the way we’re supposed to live. It takes indoctrination to get us to a point where we believe that this is the way things should be. When we take a small step outside that, we are able to break that indoctrination and see that this is not the only way, and in fact there are as many ways to exist as we can imagine.

 

 

Wanted: Visionary for a Cynical World

This post is just about what is on my mind at the moment.

First off, I recently ordered two books that I’ve been excited about.  Quentin S. Crisp’s fiction book Shrike just came today.  I’ve only read a few of his stories, but I enjoyed them.  Also, even though I read many blogs, his is the only blog I regularly follow.  He has an interesting take on life and is an imaginative writer.  The other book I ordered is Carl Jung’s Red Book which is now being published for the first time.  It was a private journal that he kept during a difficult period extending many years.  If you’re a fan of Jung, this is a must read.

New books always make me happy and I can always use some extra happiness.  Recently, I’ve been in a bad mood for various reasons.  The most overt reason is that I’ve been listening to the news and the news is so very depressing.  I probably should ignore the news, but I seem to be a masochist.

In a perverse way, I was happy to see the CIA get nailed for one of it’s covert activities.  The CIA, of course, is always doing something evil somewhere in the world, but it rarely gets caught and when caught rarely gets into the news.  This covert operation involved kidnapping in a foreign country and extraordinary rendition where a person was tortured horrendously.  The reason I’m happy is because a foreign government decided to hold America’s government up to a moral standard that Americans should expect of their own government.  I’m not a fan of evil secret agencies such as the CIA and I’m not a fan of those who are the strongest supporters of this kind of evil such as the evangelical Christians (who are the biggest supporters of torture in the US).  May these CIA agents end up in torture prisons themselves and may these evangelical Christians end up in the hell they like to fantasize about.

I was watching Alex Jones documentary Terrorstorm.  It’s conspiracy theorizing, but it’s intelligent conspiracy theorizing based in actual facts that you can research if you’re one of those people who prefers not to dwell in complacent ignorance.  Agree or disagree about Jones overall view, the examples he brings up are in the public record.  You may dismiss them as isolated events or you may see a repeating pattern, but either way I think it’s important to know about such things.

I wrote about this a while back detailing the entire dark history of the 20th century US government and let me tell you it was a long post.  Jones covers some of the same things that I wrote about.  As I said, it’s all in the public record for anyone to research for themselves, but sadly few people choose being informed over being ignorant.  I wish I understood the attraction of ignorance.  Between government agencies and megacorporations, there are endless examples of oppression and the cynic that I am I simply accept that there are immoral people who enjoy oppressing others.  What I don’t get is why most of the world’s population wants to be oppressed.  There are people walking free who have commited various crimes against humanity and most people don’t seem to care.  Why?  Is it just ignorance?  Or is it fear?  Or even do people believe they deserve to be oppressed?

Every day, the goverment and media feeds the public lies and propaganda.  In the industrialized West, we like to think we’re free and yet we live in a fantasyland detached from reality.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then read the writings or documentaries by people like Noam Chomsky.

It makes me wonder what a visionary like Jung would think about these dark times we live in.  He saw the social climate shift as Europe descended into WWII and he had great fear of the evil that can be accomplished when people become organized.  But he also had faith in the individual and as an individual he has had great positive influence on the modern world.  There are plenty of doomsayers (whether intelligent like Alex Jones or idiotic like Glenn Beck), but where are the visionaries?

The ugliness of politics has become so blatantly obvious in the past half century that I think most people have become too cynical.  These dark times will pass, but it’s hard to see beyond them.  In the next couple of decades, the world is going to transform so dramatically that the outcome can’t be predicted.

About cynicism, I grew up in the cynical mood of Generation X.  My generation is much more realistic and informed than previous generations.  We grew up with more information available to us and we learned young not to trust authorities, not to trust single sources of information.  When I look at older generations, they seem very naive and trusting of the government and of authority figures.  Older generations grew up when there was certain authority figures everyone trusted such as Walter Cronkite, grew up before all the corruption came out about various presidencies such as Nixon and government agencies such as the CIA, grew up before the assasinations and COINTELPRO that destroyed the civil rights movement, grew up before the loss of America’s moral highground.  My generation, on the other hand, was bottle-fed on dark visions of post-apocalyptic America and dark visions of demonic children.

Now, my generation is coming to power.  Obama is technically a GenXer according to certain definitions, but he is on the very oldest end of GenX and some categorize him as different generation entirely.  Also, Obama grew up abroad and so doesn’t have the same experience that most US GenXers had growing up.  But he does represent the change that is happening.  He is a different kind of president than we’ve seen before.  He is the first president, for example, who has successfully used the internet in his presidential campaign.  Even so, there are more ways he is similar to than different from the neocon presidents of the last several decades.  He has so far done very little to distinguish himself from Bush jr.  More so than Obama, I’m looking to the GenXers outside of politics.  Will the innovativeness of GenXers actually pull us through this divisive time?

I don’t feel hopeful.  Glenn Beck is also representative of this new generation as he was born 3 yrs after Obama.  Both Obama and Beck know how to use the new media to influence the public.  Sadly, though, Beck’s cynicism is more in line with GenX than is Obama’s hope.  Who made a drunken clown like Beck into the mainstream voice of GenX’s cynicism.  I feel deeply ashamed that he represents my generation in any way.  I suppose the true visionaries of our time are people like David Foster Wallace who recently killed himself.  I could maybe try to nominate Quentin S. Crisp as the new visionary of GenX, but I doubt he’d want the job.

Carl Jung: 20th Century Visionary

The Holy Grail of the Unconscious by Sara Corbett

Henri Cartier-Bresson

This article is what I consider great journalism.  For one, Jung was a great thinker and so makes for a more than interesting subject.  Also, the research that went into this article was extremely thorough.  The author considers all of the people involved and paints a vivid picture of the Liber Novus which Jung seemingly considered a full accounting of his psyche, a direct expression of his soul.  I’ve never seen the thing myself, but I’d love to get my hands on a copy of it.

(Click here to see larger image.)

There are two reasons I’m writing a post about this.

First, this article is the type of thing that The New York Times does best.  Many articles about Jung have been written in that publication over the years, but this particular article is above average even for the New York Times.

More importantly, I simply want to recommend the article.  If you enjoy Jung and all things Jungian, then this is a must read.  Or if you’re just a curious person who enjoys intelligent writing, then this article probably will satisfy.  Jung isn’t for everyone, but he was one of the most influential men who lived in the 20th century.  You really can’t understand the world we live in without understanding one of the greatest visionaries of his time (and, I would add, without understanding the relationship between Freud and Jung and the flourishing of scholarship in the 19th century that influenced both).

For whatever reason, our culture at present doesn’t give much respect to visionaries.  The 19th century produced many visionaries, but the visionary as a respectable profession seems to have mostly died out in the middle of 20th century.

Even great thinkers influenced by Jung never quite live up to Jung’s greatness.  Jung covered massive intellectual territory, and did so with a creative flair and a depth of insight.  Some of my favorite thinkers such as Terrence McKenna and Philip K. Dick were influenced by Jung and they were innovative thinkers, but I doubt they’ll have the influence Jung had and continues to have.  Philip K. Dick probably comes the closest to Jung’s fearless explorations into madness and also Jung’s prolific output.  Sadly, though, thinkers like Philip K. Dick grew up in a time when visionaries were forced into the margins of society (science fiction in the case of PKD).

However, even Jung was marginalized by Freud’s fame.  Are all visionaries doomed to be only understood by mainstream society in retrospect?  Maybe so, but there do seem to be periods of history that create the right conditions that encourage the visionary profession.

I do hope that eventually the respect for visionaries will be renewed.  Present day visionaries are more of the flavor of Ken Wilber.  I appreciate Wilber’s scholarship but his visionary ability pales against that of Jung.  Joseph Campbell came closer to Jung’s level, but still fell short.  The world needs a new Jung.  So, who will be the visionary of the 21st century?