Looking back now over almost seventy years, I think of all the ways in which I imagined how things might turn out for me as I trod the thorny pathways of life. If I’m honest about those many fantasies — because that’s what imagination is, after all — not one single time has any of those smoky suppositions turned out the way I thought it would . . . or even materialized. I could be projecting my own experience of imagination onto everyone else, but I doubt it. Everyone I know and remember has continually had his or her imaginings “corrected” by an unruly cosmos that refuses to bend to our fantasies.
Here’s the thing. I still do it . . . imagine, fantasize, project. If it’s not innate, it’s at least a well-worn neural pathway. We fantasize constantly; and the more time we have on our hands, or the more bothersome or brutal our day-to-day, the more we wander around inside these hallucinations. No problem so far, but there’s a latent misstep laying in wait: the inability to discern the difference between imagination and those things which are not only objectively possible but practical and probable.
Of course, of course, we can’t know — in a complex and sometimes unstable reality — all the things we need to know to grasp the difference between what is theoretically possible and what is practically possible but socially improbable and what is possible approaching probable. Too many variables of which we’re unaware.
The problem for us latter-day metropolitans in particular is that we are in so many ways utterly divorced from most practical realities, insulated in a kind of technological cocoon where, via media (our window on the [often unreal] world), we are bombarded, day in and day out, with more hallucinations; and those hallucinations themselves come to have generative force in what we deceive ourselves into believing is “my own” or “your own” personal fantasy world. It’s not “my own” or “your own” imagination after all, but a composite of desire (itself overdetermined by media, et al), stories (many manufactured), and well-conditioned magical thinking.
This is not to say that we are incapable of pursuing goals or predicting future outcomes; but I am saying that scale and predictability exist in an inverse ratio. The smaller the scale, the greater the predictability. I can plan a fishing outing, and most times I manage to actually get to where I wanted to go and fish. I seldom predict, however, how well I’ll do, because the number of variables on that end — the end that’s out of my hands — exceed my own grasp of those variables. Even large scale projects are themselves the outcome of many, many failures, and the many troubleshooting attempts that were tried to discover the pertinent variables.
Then a tsunami happens and a nuclear plant spills its deadly contents into the oceans and atmosphere. Or something else . . . fill in the blanks.
If you don’t have control over the variables, then it’s pure imagination. Only arrogance (guilty as charged, your honor) supports the belief that we will gain that control . . . somehow. Big-ass word, “somehow.”
We didn’t lose control. We never had it, and the inability to accept that we are not in control, that we cannot imagine the future, is an essential first step in the discovery of that over which we may actually have the capacity to change things and to change things in the way in which we desire and intend.
One thing we should have learned, if we had sustained the dialectic between imagination and practice, is that we can all change things; but those changes often turn out to be something we never intended — even something catastrophic. One of the key concepts lost to late modernity in this regard is prudence. Like restraint, prudence is anathema to capitalist modernity. Maybe that’s what we need to re-learn first.