Imagination is considered “a power of the mind,” “a creative faculty of the mind,” “the mind” itself when in use, and a “process” of the mind used for thinking, scheming, contriving, remembering [see memory, (2)] creating, fantasizing, and forming opinion. The term imagination comes from the latin verb imaginari meaning “to picture oneself.” This root definition of the term indicates the self-reflexive property of imagination, emphasizing the imagination as a private sphere. As a medium, imagination is a world where thought and images are nested in the mind to “form a mental concept of what is not actually present to the senses.” In the sense of the word as a process, imagination is a form of mediation between what is considered “externalized” reality [see reality, (2) ]and internalized man (with regard to Manovich and Lacan). The term is considered “often with the implication that the (mental) conception does not correspond to the reality of things.” Finally, imagination is a term that circulates forms of mass media when the “internalized” private imagination is presented as public, or expressed in a media form, such as film or in virtual reality technology.
The concept of imagination challenges our sense of what we consider private and essentially humanistic. Imagination challenges technology to explore what media can do: how far inside man can media extend itself, and how far outside man can man bring what is considered his internalized self? Are these processes transmutable through media, and if so, what kinds? Can imagination be coded? Does technology employ imagination in its productive and innovative capabilities? Or is imagination a human faculty only? If the latter, than to what extent can media technologies mimic imaginative functions and/or expressions? And, if media technologies can mimic ‘products’ of the imagination, what is the essential difference between ‘having’ imagination and producing imaginative qualities?
In Aristotle, the imagination bridges the gap between “images” and “ideas,” implying that rational thought takes place in the form of images, and are stored and combined in the imagination. Thus, imagination is implied as an actual space or medium in the individual’s mind, and in this space it has a power to combine images and ideas to do the work of reason.
Kant understood imagination as being “reproductive” because of its basis in a given or experienced knowledge that must be reproduced to ‘shortcut’ the proof posited by the senses. For example, one must use his powers of imagination to deductively reason that even though he cannot see all sides of a cube he is looking at there are six sides to the cube. For, based on the viewer’s experience, a cube factually and observably does have six sides. Were he to pick the cube up and examine it, he should see and note it as fact observable by his senses. However, since the viewer has the faculties of his reproductive imagination, he need not rely on his senses. Thus, if reality can be observed by the senses, imagination addresses a certain no-man’s land between what is observably “true” or “real” and that which is considered totally “fictive” or “false,” in a sense, imagination provides a shortcut. Imagination in this sense, fills in what could in all likelihood be observed by the senses, and apprehends a sense of reality based on the experience of the proof of his senses, without the executed proof.
Kant and Coleridge, in the midst of Romanticism, asserted that the imagination provided a “transcendental synthesis which combines our experience [of the world] into a single connected whole” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 136). This romantic and spiritual sense of the word gives way to understandings of the imagination as a medium that provides coherence for the individual.
In Lacan’s mirror stage, the child’s perception of the Imaginary is an essential stage of recognition of what is real and what is unreal. If the Imaginary is the child’s reflected image in the mirror, it is probable that the imagination is the mental faculty for integrating this ‘represented’ image into the child’s experience of himself in the world. By Lacan’s division of the Symbolic, the Real and the Imaginary, the real is that which resists representation. If the imagination is a counterpoint to perceptible reality, Lacan’s implication is that the Imaginary is in fact representational. This representation, is the mirror.
Furthermore, according to Sartre, art is the expression both of the imagination itself and the higher “truth” conceived of by the imagination. Film and virtual reality in particular have both attempted to prove this idea true. Both forms use mixed-media to create a represented version of perceptible reality. Thus, like the imagination, both forms attempt to express a version of reality that evokes “a mental concept” that goes beyond that which is observable by the senses. The medium of film, it is said, attempts to “hold a mirror” as in the mirror stage, to perceptible reality. This is to say that reality is represented, if not reflected, on the movie screen. Film is fabricated, like the imagination and its creative powers, where the gramophone recording is not. The gramophone picks up “raw or real material” unedited by the designer. For Kittler, film is the contrast to this “real” recording: “Stop trick and montage, slow motion and time lapse only translate technology into the desires of the audience. As phantasms of our deluded eyes, cuts represent the continuities and regularities of motion. Photography and feature film correspond to one another as do the real and the imaginary” (Kittler, 119). Thus, film is considered a ‘phantasm of images’ which creates an imagined reality that represents Sartre and the Romantics’ “higher truth” experienced in the private imagination.
Film not only represents a version of the imagination to the public in mass media form, but it also suggests an associative capability of the imagination which harks back to Aristotle’s conception of the imagination in cognitive reasoning. Film suggests associations that are made in the individual imagination through its various filmic techniques: montage, cuts, edits, and splicing scenes. Manovich elaborates on this effect when he writes about interaction with various forms of media. He explains that media-interaction too often forgets the element of “psychological interaction” present in most classical and modern art forms. He gives examples: “ellipses in literary narration, missing details of objects in visual art, theater and painting techniques used to orchestrate the viewer’s attention” He indicates that all these are “shortcuts that require the user to fill in missing information” (Manovich, 56). Thus, in film, abstraction in the form requires the viewer’s imagination to create a coherent vision of the work. Montage, then, demands the viewer to make associative connections between images, thus requiring the work of the imagination.
Film and other media mimic or simulate the associative properties of the imagination. The same property of film that represents associative process thought to take place in the imagination is also said to be seen in the layout of the webpage on the internet. In the hyper-link, like montage, the webpage presents a structure in which cognitive associations are designated for the viewer. Thus, a user can click on an image and be sent to an explanation in words, or vice-versa. If this association is an imaginative property then the indication is that the imagination works in mixed-media. Manovich explains that “the psychological processes of filling-in, hypothesis formation, recall, and identification, which are required for us to comprehend any text or image at all, are mistakenly identified with an objectively existing structure of interactive links” (Manovich, 56).
Manovich explores this notion further in his reference to Althusser, when he says, “we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own” (Manovich, 61). It is argued in aesthtic theory that the imagination is not in fact a productive organism but rather a responsive one; one that must respond to outside stimuli. According to this position, the imagination is a generative faculty that requires activation “from outside itself” with “no intentionality of its own but has intentions imposed on it by the demands of its activator” (Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 479). It seems that this activation comes from something perceived in the “real” world, or possibly in the mediated world. Thus, in film, where someone else’s imagination is being presented, the individual is asked to identify with it as it were his own.
Both in film and in virtual reality historically there was a concern that the medium would take over human properties of the imagination. Following Kittler, Manovich cites Munsterburg in The Film: A Psychological Study, “the essence of film lies in its ability to reproduce or objectify various mental functions on the screen.” Furthermore, “Eisenstein speculated that film could be used to externalize- and control- thinking” (Manovich, 58). The trend to externalize the human mind was exercised in the creation of virtual reality technologies, where a simulated world appears to be activated by the user’s mere power of thought and imagination: “VR pioneer Jaron Lanieer saw VR technology as capable of completely objectifying- better yet, transparently merging with mental processes, claiming VR could take over human memory, not distinguishing between internal mental functions, events, and processes, and externally presented images” (Manovich, 58). This, of course, is the ideal communication- to supercede our romantic notions of the untranscendable imagination, or humanity, through technology.
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The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 3 Edwards, Paul, ed. Macmillan, Inc. NY, NY, 1967.
Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Vol. 2 Kelly, Michael, ed. Oxford University Press. New York, NY, 1998.
Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Preminger, Alex, ed. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1965, 1974.
The Language of the New Media. Manovich, Lev. MIT Press. Cambridge, MA, 2001.
Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Kittler, Friedrich A. Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA, 1999.
“The mirror stage as formative of the functions of the I.” Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: a selection. Norton. NY, NY, 1977 p.1-7.