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Decolonizing Social Imagination



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I recently reread the introduction to Columbia University Professor and Dean Carol Becker’s edited volume, The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society and Social Responsibility, and one phrase within that essay set me thinking. There, Becker contemplated the vital need for a free imagination for artists and society alike and remarked:

Hence the need to decolonize the imagination of artists and audience, to force us all to break the paradigms that perpetuate this mutual alienation and keep art from having an impact on society.[1]

In this contention, she was surely one with her mentor, Herbert Marcuse, who argued in his final book, the Aesthetic Dimension, that art innately possesses the capacity to puncture the consciousness of those encountering it, allowing the scales to fall from their eyes, metaphorically at least, so they can see how their existing frames had theretofore shaped their ways of knowing the world.[2] Imagination is a necessary requisite to seeing clearly, and is essential to conceiving new ideas or forms of knowing. Charles Dickens illuminated this point in his 1853 New Year’s Eve story, The Long Voyage, whose protagonist begins the tale at his fireside pondering all he has known and experienced, if only in his mind’s eye:

When the wind is blowing and the sleet or rain is driving against the dark windows, I love to sit by the fire, thinking of what I have read in books of voyage and travel. Such books have had a strong fascination for my mind from my earliest childhood; and I wonder it should have come to pass that I never have been round the world, never have been shipwrecked, ice-environed, tomahawked or eaten.[3]

Wallace Stevens, among the most celebrated of America’s modern poets, took up the question of the role of the imagination and knowing in his still timely 1942 lectures at Princeton University, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and Imagination.[4] In this, his only prose work, Stevens argued that reality and the imagination are in constant interplay. Imagination is therefore not simply an alternative to reality, but must arise from, react to and address the pressures of the real, which can often result in an incapacity for reflection and thoughtful consideration:

The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real… There are degrees of the imagination, as, for example, degrees of vitality and, therefore, of intensity. It is an implication that there are degrees of reality. … By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.[5]

Stevens went on to elaborate that the imagination serves as a provocateur or illuminator amidst the heavy press of current claims, and in that sense and to that degree, possesses the potential to help individuals overcome existing social weights and anxieties and see clearly new paths forward:

It is one of the peculiarities of the imagination that it is always at the end of an era. What happens is that it is always attaching itself to a new reality, and adhering to it. It is not that there is a new imagination but that there is a new reality. The pressure of reality may, of course, be less than the general pressure that I have described. It exists for individuals according to the circumstances of their lives or according to the characteristics of their minds. To sum it up, the pressure of reality is, I think, the determining factor in the artistic character of an era and, as well, the determining factor in the artistic character of an individual. The resistance to this pressure or its evasion in the case of individuals of extraordinary imagination cancels the pressure so far as those individuals are concerned.[6]

All of this is of political moment today when one considers the results of a recent Monmouth University survey that found that 62 percent of the 43 percent of U.S. citizens supporting President Donald Trump reported that they, “can't think of anything he could do that would cause him to lose their support.”[7] That is, that despite his self-evident corruption, lies and demagoguery, these devotees of the President remain unstintingly loyal. It is this torpor, this truncation of consciousness, this falsification, accepted on whatever grounds, that must be addressed if today’s “pressure of reality,” to use Stevens’ term, is successfully to be overcome and the veil lifted for those now willing otherwise to accept its darkness. I find myself daily reflecting on the causes of this phenomenon and searching for ways to pierce this epistemic shroud. I take some solace in the fact that Americans, not to say all of humankind, still possess the faculty of imagination. And I take consolation too in the fact that there are artists among us who, while rooted in the real, nonetheless can call on their fellow countrymen through their art, whatever its form, to consider accepted beliefs and think anew about their meaning and implications for self-governance. Indeed, I suspect that it is that inspiriting possibility that provides all individuals and societies hope in the end. 

I cannot think of anyone who has better captured the luminous character, winsomeness and innate nobility of imagination than Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson spent much of his childhood ill and therefore confined to bed at home. While he died young, the Scottish author thankfully had the opportunity to share his prodigious gifts, and one of those was his reflection on his childhood in the now beloved classic book of poetry, A Child’s Garden of Verses.[8]  Every piece in that collection, first published in1885, illuminated the fertile power of imagination as catalyst and engine of possibility. Here is one of those poems, Foreign Lands, in which a young boy, similar to Dickens’ narrator above, contemplates a different, richer and more bountiful world far beyond the confines of his sick bed:

      Foreign Lands

Up into the cherry tree

Who should climb but little me?

I held the trunk with both my hands

And looked abroad on foreign lands.

I saw the next door garden lie,

Adorned with flowers, before my eye,

And many pleasant places more

That I had never seen before.

I saw the dimpling river pass

And be the sky's blue looking-glass;

The dusty roads go up and down

With people tramping in to town.

If I could find a higher tree

Farther and farther I should see,

To where the grown-up river slips

Into the sea among the ships,

To where the roads on either hand

Lead onward into fairy land,

Where all the children dine at five,

And all the playthings come alive.[9]

If Stevenson’s poem reminds one of the sheer joy and expansiveness that inhere in imagination, Trump has offered this nation the reverse with his persistent appeals to darkness, calls to hate, to cowering and to withdrawal inward to self-absorption. Nonetheless, many in the GOP are so devoted to Trump, or so fearful of him, that they appear to accept or condone whatever he may do or say, irrespective of its implications for decency, civil or human rights, the environment, justice or equality. The reality this group has chosen to countenance rationalizes obvious corruption, patent lies and profound moral degradation. That social pressure, and the anxieties that attend it, leave those who do not accept it searching for mechanisms to address it in a democratic way. I remain hopeful that artists, and the imagination they represent and can unleash, will yet find ways to penetrate the colonization, enervation and perversion of imaginative possibility and freedom that Trump embodies and daily seeks to deepen. I find myself picturing a young Stevenson, at least in his fulsome imagination, scanning the horizon from high in a tree, alive with hope for new beginnings, open to novel and as yet unseen treasures of experience. In so doing, I find myself wishing, too, that such a shift in perspective can occur for the millions of Americans now hobbled by anxiety, fear, desire for power or hatred. Those who do take courage and choose to rekindle their imaginations can and will make a profound difference in their own lives and just as surely, in the lives of their fellow citizens.


[1] Becker, Carol. Ed. The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society and Social Responsibility. New York: Routledge Publishers, 1994, p. xiii.

[2] Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension. London: Palgrave MacMillan Publishers, 1979.

[3] Dickens, Charles. Reprinted Pieces: The Long Voyage: A New Year’s Eve Story, Reprinted by University of Adelaide, 2014, p.5,, Accessed October 30, 2019.

[4] Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1942.

[5] Stevens, The Necessary Angel, p.6.

[6] Stevens, The Necessary Angel, p.22.

[7] Allassen, Fadel. “Poll: 62% of Trump Supporters say nothing he could do would change opinion,” Axios, November 5, 2019. Accessed November 8, 2019.

[8] Stevenson, Robert Louis. A Child’s Garden of Verses (Project Gutenberg Edition), 2008, Accessed November 4, 2019.  

[9] Stevenson, Robert Louis. A Child’s Garden of Verses, p. 9.   

Publication Date

November 18, 2019