The Limits of Imagination

Telling stories is interesting — we are left to choose where to embellish, which parts to leave out, and how to set the tone — and, content aside, it is often how we tell our stories that determines how they are received. Just like anything else, the Anthropocene, as a subject, can be depicted in an infinite number of ways, depending on the storyteller/artist/writer. Stories, and art more generally, as Alexa Weik von Mossner tells us, has a capacity to reach beyond our rational minds, past our preconceptions of the world, enabling us to engage with our imaginations. I have always been fascinated with the human imagination — creativity, in particular — and it always surprises me when a person “admits” to not being very creative. In my understanding of the world, we — and by we I mean everything in existence — are a manifestation of creativity. Limits on imagination and creativity stem from the ways by which we are taught to imagine.

The most obvious cultural divergence, pertaining to creativity and imagination, is the direction of rigidness in how individuals are expected to interact with their imaginations. This is apparent in many, if not all domains, ranging from the engagement with the spiritual, religious and metaphysical arenas, all the way to the creation and production of film and entertainment. The former example, that of the “Western” tendency to hesitate to engage, imaginatively, in religion in particular, seems to be rooted in the fear of not being taken seriously — this raises questions of great significance, questions regarding what it means to be an academic with religious inclinations, especially in the “West”. As I experienced it, it appears to somehow curtail the academic’s credibility. Why, though? The example implies much more than just religion: it implies and reaffirms the fear of humoring one’s imagination. This tendency is much more dangerous than might seem apparent at face value. It is more than not being able to tell a good story, or be artistically creative. To be bred to not engage with the imagination, constantly taught how to think, at home, first, at school, after, and in the workplace, later, societies are, maybe without knowing, limiting the essentially unlimited. These ways of thinking have, in many ways, resulted from enlightenment-period fears that too much imagination may land us back in the dark ages. As we perpetuate the cycle, teaching what we were taught, we are only further limiting the ways by which we think we can imagine the world, which, as I reflect, appears to be the dominant message in the literature on imagining the Anthropocene.

All of the articles did a very good job at pinpointing various aspects of our lives in which the limitations of imagination become apparent — from our tendency to imagine ourselves as separate from nature, to our understanding of human agency. These are things we tend to take for granted, until they are pointed out, and then something feels off, which it should, because it is off. We are taught in a very particular way, a linear structure in which we teach what we were taught, by others who were taught what they are teaching by others who were taught. Education, in this sense, is limited, as is the extent to which imagination is involved. Education, however, is dynamic, and to treat it in this way is to disregard its nature and treat it as static stripping it of its ability to engage our imagination.

It is not that we are unable to imagine the world past the barriers of what we are taught is an acceptable degree of engagement with our imaginations. It is that we think we can’t imagine a world different from our own, and this very well may be out of fear — fear that we will not be taken seriously by our “intellectual” peers, that we might be taking things too far, that we might sound crazy. In the Middle East, on the contrary, this fear to imagine is manifested in a way opposite to how it is apparent here, whereby philosophical engagement with religion is taught to be wrong — the opposite end of the spectrum. This comes from a very particular historical incidence, where, as opposed to earlier Sultans who promoted education and philosophy, and stood for the betterment of the community as a whole, the later Sultans, less confident in their rule, abolished systems of education, burned books, and discouraged any thinking, out of a fear that they would be overthrown.

It is in this paradoxical parallel that I see the roots of limitations on imagination. On the one hand, you are constantly told that engaging in your imagination is unprofessional, untaught, even; anything and everything is to be grounded in science, and mistakes are not tolerated; imagination, here, is only to be used for recreational purposes. On the other hand, you are given strict instructions on exactly what to imagine, and how to imagine it; the unlimited capacity of your imagination is limited by your fear of imagining something different from what you have been taught to imagine; imagination, on this end of the spectrum, is to dictate everything you do, but you are not to question it.

In order to be able to engage in the discourse surrounding the Anthropocene, we must first reconsider the preexisting limitations, imposed upon ourselves by others, and later by ourselves upon others, on how to imagine. Failure to do so, as we are experiencing first hand, results in very limited understandings of the Anthropocene — considerations that only include what we are trained to include, based solely on our limited imaginations.


Imagining Geological Agency: Storytelling in the Anthropocene” (Alexa Weik von Mossner, in Whose Anthropocene? Revisiting Dipepsh Chakrabarty’s “Four Theses,” Robert Emmett and Thomas Lekan, eds., RCC Perspectives, 2016/2) [PDF]


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