New Futures and the Mixology of Imagination
I keep thinking about imagination.
There are a variety of tactics that systems change-makers and shalom-seekers have to keep pivoting between, many of which can be located in:
- changing hearts and minds
- changing policies
- creating our own places/institutions where our ends can be realized now
Probably. There's some stuff that doesn't drop easily in these buckets, but for the sake of dialogue let's roll with these for a moment (I threw out a much more complex change model here).
If we're to pursue any of those options, we need some alternative inkling of a way of being in the world, forming relationships, and institutions, and communities, and systems of governance. In this season of life, I'm steeped in the impact of the economy on every aspect of justice. So bide with me as I think about these themes with an economic inflection.
I tend to use the term story. But the same concept crops up under all kinds of words:
Worldview - I got this one a good deal growing up in youth group, emphasizing that my mind and way of understanding reality should be shaped by the bible instead of secular sources. Kind of a strange choice for a community seeking to insulate itself from worldliness considering it was coined by Karl Mannheim, one of the founders of the sociology of knowledge which was deeply deconstructive of religion. Mannheim showed in the '20s that "every point of view is particular to a social situation."*
Pre-analytic Vision - Wonky phrase used by Joseph Schumpter, a prominent twentieth century economist, who was frank that any "analytic effort is of necessity preceded by a preanalytic cognitive act that supplies the raw material for the analytic effort." In other words, stuff is socialized into our brains and bodies that shapes how we think before we ever have a conscious thought. He went on to write, "analytic work begins with material provided by our vision of things, and this vision is ideological almost by definition." Which leads us to...
Ideology - Perhaps with the most cynical of connotations among words on this list. Ideology smacks of dogma and entrenchment. It also alludes to the power contest over who gets to shape ideas. Economist and best selling Econ 101 textbook author Paul Samuelson got this. And because he did, he was one of the most ideologically impactful people of the twentieth century you've never heard of. Samuelson once said, "I don't care who writes a nation's laws--or crafts its advanced treatises--so long as I can write its economics textbooks...The first lick is the privileged one, impinging on the beginner's tabula rasa at its most impressionable state." And our concept of the economy has been constrained and misdirected by him ever since. Ideas are the battleground.
Paradigm - The word Thomas Kuhn made famous as a description of scientific advances. Our categories come in seasons. They stick around and shape the culture and conversation, holding enormous weight and momentum, until eventually the category breaks open and the whole field of thought rushes forward into a new organizing pattern. Dominant stories hold us in a state of relative equilibrium until they can't anymore, at which time the shift can be startlingly fast.
Frame - Another way of talking about the same thing, but it implies that we view the world through one lens or another that gives meaning to all we see. The word itself is a metaphor (think: looking through a picture frame), and that was the point sociologist Erving Goffmann was trying to make when he introduced the term. George Lakoff advanced and popularized the field of framing significantly, pointing out seeming innocuous metaphors like the orientation metaphors in Western cultures ("Why is she so down? Because she faced a setback then hit an all-time low.") which can have unexpectedly damaging impacts (progress is moving forward, and so we colonize and demand an economy that grows) and much more blatantly ideological framings (tax relief vs. tax justice).
Maps - Used by people like psychologist Jordan Peterson, I find this one a helpful reminder that the map is not the place itself. It simply helps orient us to and guide us through the actually existing reality. It was picked up by Alan Roxburgh in his book Missional Map-Making.
Metanarrative - Things which I'm told died because some bummed out French guys said they did a few decades ago. Apparently we're all deconstructionists now. I'm not so sure. Either way, these are the big stories that shape a whole society's collective way of thinking-doing-being -- like religious "worldviews" and epochal dispositions created toward the world by colonial modernity. My preferred word to metanarrative is cosmology. Way sexier.
Increasingly, though, I've been wooed by Willie Jennings, Walter Brueggemann, and John Paul Lederach to use the word imagination.** It sounds like playing. It opens potential for newness. Fresh options dance into view. Horizons open. The curious are freed to roam. To poke their heads around hidden corners. To dabble. Mix. Experiment. Adventure. Dream.
I don't think imagination ever arrives ex nihilo. Human creative acts simply don't roll like that. But the act of imagination allows us all to be mixologists, blending what's out there and watching in amazement as never before considered possibilities emerge. Imagination is fun. It is full of hope. Hope that the world need not be as it is, that the old categories need not be all there can ever be.
Imagination holds explosive potential.
What we imagine, we tend to create. For better or worse.
Into the heart of darkness or the kingdom of God. To terrorize under "doctrines of discovery" and liberate within visions of shalom.
Arguably the biggest problem with neoliberal capitalism is that is it anti-imagination. For neoliberals, the future is closed. That's why they walk around saying dumb%$$ things like, "there is no alternative" and "we have reached the end of history."
Over the past seventy years, neoliberals waged one of the most successful ideological campaigns the world's every seen. The result is that we all slink around with warped and shrunken imaginations forcing us to live within a discourse of inevitability. The multidimensional universe of socio-political options was reduced to a single stream of unavoidabilities: privatize, deregulate, financialize, liberalize, apply austerity, pursue growth, and build the violent state apparatus to protect private property, borders, and commerce against the Other.
And so our politicians keep mumblin' and fumblin' along without something worth calling an original idea while the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the Black and Brown get more oppressed, and the planet grows closer to uninhabitability.
Truly, without a vision the people do perish.
Where does imagination come from?
It's late and I don't have powerful words to say on that at the moment. Content for another blog let's hope or better yet for your thoughts in the comments.
I will say I'm recaptivated by the 12 design principles of permaculture for shaping this process. I'm impressed by research showing how literal images are the building blocks of imagination. I believe that immersion in diversity, that deep analysis, and that practices like meditative prayer which free our minds from their normal structures are fundamental. I think we need to get better at playing, at listening to children, and at listening to those at the margins whose imaginations are less beholden to the world as it is. I also believe that overly subjecting our minds to the categories of the nightly news -- revolving from Russia to Stormy Daniels -- are never going to get us there. We need deeper, more moral, more intersectional, more historically rooted, more centering of oppressed people's truth, and more eschatologically expansive points of departure. I continue to find inspiration in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Scriptures, and the great book of Creation.
Imagination is the terrain on which the struggle for our souls, our cities, and mother earth is being waged. For the love of God and neighbor, let us struggle well.
* Creds to my intellectual crush Kate Raworth for all the quotes in this post. Read her book Doughnut Economics, revolutionize your imagination, change the world, and be a better person.
** Respectively, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, The Prophetic Imagination, and The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace.