Film-Philosophy

(ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 17, July 2000

 

 

Marty Fairbairn

Reawakening Imagination

 

 

 

Richard Kearney

_Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Post-modern_

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998

ISBN: 0 7486 1053 7

260 pp.

 

'Better to appreciate what it means to imagine is . . . better to

appreciate what it means to be' (1).

 

Why should we care about a *theory of the imagination*? Didn't the study of

'the faculties of the mind' go out with high-button shoes, like the study

of the bumps on the head, phrenology? Richard Kearney's answer would be

'no'. Now perhaps more than ever we need to understand imagination. We

post-moderns are surrounded by images, trapped in a hall of mirrors.

Indeed, as Roland Barthes's resonant phrase has it, ours is a Civilization

of the Image. For Kearney, the post-modern proliferation and endless

repetition of images is symptomatic of an underlying crisis in three

fundamental areas of philosophy; epistemology, ontology, and ethics. The

post-modern subject has been dethroned as the centre of unambiguous

meaning, just as God, the 'author of the world', was dethroned in the 19th

century, and just as more recently the human author was dethroned as the

source/origin of the meaning of the text, courtesy of Barthes among others.

In short, the post-modern self has had the epistemological/metaphysical rug

pulled out from under it. We no longer know exactly who we are, or better,

it is increasingly *up to us* who we are. In this era of what Kearney calls

'trauma and transition suspended between the extremes of instrumental

rationalism and apocalyptic irrationalism' (8), re-invigorating the notion

of imagination is not only timely but from a humanist standpoint crucial.

As Kearney puts it, we need a 'critical poetics transcending both the

empire of reason and the asylum of un-reason' (9). But before we can

resuscitate imagination, and wrestle the keys to the asylum back from the

inmates, we have to understand how we got here in the first place. What has

led us into this conceptual cul de sac?

 

Kearney goes a long way toward answering this question in the new edition

of his _Poetics of Imagining: From Husserl to Lyotard_ (1991), retitled

_Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Post-modern_ (1998). Just as in the

earlier edition, this expanded edition focuses on the 'phenomenological

project' (4), offering a richly-detailed, exhaustively annotated account of

the modern, (Continental) philosophical development of the notion of

'imagination', from Kant's 'Transcendental Idealism', which sees

imagination as the 'common root of all our knowledge' (4), to Husserl's

'eidetic phenomenology', which sees imagination as both *sui generis* --

that is, its own beast, distinct from perception -- and necessary for the

intuiting of 'essential truths', through Heidegger's hermeneutic

phenomenology, which locates imagination at the centre of the phenomenon of

time and thus necessary to human being (Dasein) as it gathers up its past

and projects itself into the future, to Sartre's existential phenomenology,

with its emphasis on concrete, lived experience, or Being-in-the-world, to

Maurice Merleau-Ponty's 'dialectical' view of imagination, the link between

the visible and the invisible, which rescues imagination from the

alienated, perceptual-world-negating status accorded it by Sartre, to Paul

Ricoeur's 'semantic' view which emphasizes the linguistic, specifically the

poetic functioning of imagination, and, finally, to the post-modern

ridiculing of all *origins* as mere traces of traces, undermining the whole

notion of imagination by questioning the difference between it and the

'real world', as we see, for example, in the writings of Jacques Derrida

and Jean-Francois Lyotard. A lively and lucid sequel to Kearney's

well-received _The Wake of Imagination_, [1] which explored 'the

genealogical development of the various concepts of 'imagining' . . . from

the classical and medieval philosophies through to the modern and

post-modern critiques' (10, n. 3), _Poetics of Imagining_ supplements his

previous, more general explorations with 'a more concentrated study of new

hermeneutic approaches to our contemporary understanding of the imaginative

activity itself' (10, n. 3).

 

After a short but provocative introduction which ranges from Plato and

Aristotle, through Adam and Eve to Andy Warhol, Kearney sets to work in

Chapter 1 filling in the phenomenological background which led to the

impasse with which we are confronted today. Notwithstanding the fact that

Husserl was able to at least partially overcome Kant's Transcendental

Idealism, although its remnants remained, his solution to the problem of

subjectivity left us at an impasse. While imagination after Husserl could

justifiably be thought of as both *sui generis* and ontologically distinct

from perception, the problem was now just what kind of thing was it; what

kind of being does the imagination possess, if not the being of reality?

(35)

 

In a chapter added to this edition, Kearney describes Heidegger's taking up

of the problem of the ontological status of the imagination in his _Kant

and the Problem of Metaphysics_ (1929). [2] Heidegger credits Kant with the

discovery of the transcendental role of imagination in the intuition of

being in terms of time. As Kearney puts it, 'no *Sein* without Dasein; no

Dasein without time; and no time without imagination' (54). Kearney even

goes so far as to claim that, 'thus understood, imagination becomes another

name for *Dasein* in that its aesthetic function of time, as the formal *a

priori* condition of all experience, makes it essentially receptive to

experience, and therefore temporally situated' (54). And again later, even

more provocatively he writes, '*Dasein*, like its pseudonym, imagination,

is a poetics of the possible. It is the very origin of the creativity of

being.' (54) But surely the two are not interchangeable. We have to

interpret this particular phrasing as a provocative, rhetorical flourish.

For while Heidegger's notion of Dasein may include imagination, it is not

limited to it, at least the way I read Heidegger. Kearney himself says as

much just prior to this controversial claim, where he writes, 'at the most

fundamental level of being, 'imagination', 'transcendental self', and

'primordial time' are inextricable allies' (54). If Dasein and imagination

are truly interchangeable, then the latter cannot be said to be the

'forerunner' of the former nor the 'ally' of it, nor merely 'like' it. At

the very least, much more needs to be said for these concepts to be

adequately unpacked. While Kearney convincingly demonstrates the intimate

relationship between Dasein, in its temporalizing function, and the

productive power of the imagination, he falls far short of demonstrating

that the two are one and the same thing. But their interchangeability is

not necessary to Kearney's account anyway, so perhaps this is nothing more

than a quibble.

 

Kearney goes on to explain, in Chapter 3, 'The Existential Imagination',

how Sartre further develops 'Husserl's basic insight that perception and

imagination differ by virtue of their intentional structure', separating

out four basic 'modes' in which imagination posits its objects (58). But in

so doing, Sartre drives a wedge between perception and imagination: 'the

object of perception overflows consciousness constantly; the object of the

image is never more than the consciousness one has; it is limited by that

consciousness; nothing can be learned from an image that is not already

there'. [3] Hence, imagination was, for Sartre, a negation of reality: 'to

posit the imaginary is *ipso facto* to negate the real' (62). For Kearney,

this will not do. Imagination is too important both aesthetically and

ethically for it to suffer the fate of absurdity. Imagination for Kearney

is a negation of the real, but one that holds open the possible as possible.

 

Kearney next moves into a discussion, in Chapter 4, 'The Poetical

Imagination', of Gaston Bachelard's contribution to the continuing

development of the notion of imagination, which he sees as wrapped up in

the *logos* of 'poetical interaction between the imaginative consciousness

and the images themselves' (111). As Kearney explains, for Bachelard, 'the

being of the human subject, as a being who innovates, is not a fixed point

but an endless spiral of movement. The origin of poetic imagination is

neither a transcendental ego [Husserl] nor a negating *pour soi* [Sartre]

-- it is a becoming of language which demands perpetual birth.' (111)

 

It is not until we get to Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of embodiment that we

begin to discern a solution to the 'epistemological puzzle' which plagued

both Husserl's and Sartre's theories of the imagination. Merleau-Ponty,

according to Kearney, 'brings imagination back to life' by proving that it

never really left in the first place (135). Even the most ordinary act of

perception relies on it. As Kearney puts it: 'The world is full with the

imaginary. Not, as Sartre maintained, because the imaginary is its

negation, but because it is its expression.' (136) For Merleau-Ponty,

imagination is a vital process of communication, 'whereby we pass beyond

ourselves towards what is *other* than ourselves' (136). In this way,

Merleau-Ponty is able to ground both art and politics in a dialectical

phenomenology.

 

Merleau-Ponty's dialectical phenomenology lays the groundwork for Paul

Ricoeur's hermeneutics. Ricoeur laid the groundwork for Kearney's project

of a poetics of imagination by 'conjoining the virtues of an ontological

hermeneutics a la Heidegger/Gadamer and a critical hermeneutic of ideology

a la Habermas' (169). For Kearney: 'Ricoeur's analyses of the symbolizing

and narrating imagination, and its attendant expressions in the 'social

poetry' of ideology and utopia, demand consideration in any serious

discussion of a radical hermeneutics of imagining.' (169)

 

Chapters 7 and 8 deal with the post-modern imagination. Chapter 7 describes

the ways in which various post-modern thinkers have dealt with imagination,

thinkers as diverse as Jean-Francois Lyotard, Gianni Vattimo and Julia

Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard

and Roland Barthes. Dealing mainly with Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva

and Lyotard, Kearney traces the post-modern development of the notion of

imagination as it appears in each of their philosophies. In Chapter 8,

'Vive l'imagination!', Kearney responds to the problem of confronting the

'other', writhing about in the debris left over after post-modernity has

wreaked havoc on the stability of the self. For Kearney, the lesson of

these thinkers is clear: they are 'gesturing towards an ethics of alterity

by re-inscribing ways of imagining which elude both the prison-house of

mirrors and the cheerless conformity of Grand Theory' (218). There is both

a 'bad post-modernity' and a 'good post-modernity': 'Where 'bad'

post-modernity refers to modernity in its terminal condition of amnesia,

paralysis and conformity, 'good' post-modernity refers to the on-going

struggle to reanimate what is nascent in modernity by re-inscribing its

betrayed promises.' (223)

 

Kearney's reflections demonstrate not only that the idea of imagination is

a useful way to understand the modern development of (continental)

philosophy, but that imagination is the hub around which that development

revolves. Kearney is a philosopher of hope, affirmation, and construction

in an era of dissolution, negation, and deconstruction, and as such his

work is a breath of fresh air. While his views may presuppose a

progressivist interpretation of the modern history of philosophical

reflection on imagination, this 'whiggishness' is not nearly so repugnant

as his post-modern interlocutors' obscurantist, self-parodying negativity.

 

Guelph, Canada

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Richard Kearney, _The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture_

(New York: Routledge, 1988).

 

2. Martin Heidegger, _Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics_ trans. J.

Churchill (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962).

 

3. Jean-Paul Sartre, _The Psychology of the Imagination_ n.t. (New York:

Citadel Press, 1948), p. 12, as quoted in Kearney, p. 60.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2000

 

Marty Fairbairn, 'Reawakening Imagination',

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 17, July 2000

<http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n17fairbairn>.

 

  

 

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