The Unbearable Burden of Imagination

Sometime between the ages of 8 and 10, I read a book that left me with a feeling that I would now describe as “mind-blowing.” I’m not sure the phrase is accurate, but it at least points in the direction of how I felt. I don’t remember the plot, any of the characters, or really anything about it other than the feeling of my young heart & mind attempting to grapple with ideas like the bending and manipulating of time and space. It was an uncomfortable and eerie—even frightening—process, but I can say without exagerration that reading this book and struggling with its imagery and ideas changed the way I thought about the world.

There are a lot of cliches in this society that essentially serve as a stimulus/response mechanical replacement for thinking. For example, if I begin to criticize the disgusting corporate homogeneity of contemporary pop music, in almost any group of people there will inevitably be at least one dunderhead who says something to the effect of, “Our parents hated our music and culture too, this is just how the generations go, it just means you’re getting old and you don’t know what’s cool anymore, blah blah blah.” As if the apocalypse had no actual, objective effect on the nature and quality of pop media.

Another common cliche arises whenever one attempts to compare—or even talk about in a meaningful way—the differences between, say, a novel and the latest OMG HOLLYWOOD movie “based” on the novel. You’ve all heard it before, so let’s say it together now: “The book is always better than the movie!” Usually, once this comment arrives to stink up the atmosphere, the conversation is over—either the robotic remark shuts down the conversation, or the realization that I’m having an android conversation inspires me to withdraw.

What I’m getting at has already been said elsewhere, so I’m going to quote an online source. Note, this text was written in the mid-90s (it even mentions a Walkman, remember those?), before smartphones turned everyday life into one giant virtual reality simulation of the social:

From Immediatism, by Hakim Bey :
All experience is mediated—by the mechanisms of sense perception, mentation, language, etc.—& certainly all art consists of some further mediation of experience.

However, mediation takes place by degrees. Some experiences (smell, taste, sexual pleasure, etc.) are less mediated than others (reading a book, looking through a telescope, listening to a record). Some media, especially “live” arts such as dance, theater, musical or bardic performance, are less mediated than others such as TV, CDs, Virtual Reality. Even among the media usually called “media,” some are more & others are less mediated, according to the intensity of imaginative participation they demand. Print & radio demand more of the imagination, film less, TV even less, VR the least of all—so far.

For art, the intervention of Capital always signals a further degree of mediation. To say that art is commodified is to say that a mediation, or standing-in-between, has occurred, & that this betweenness amounts to a split, & that this split amounts to “alienation.” Improv music played by friends at home is less “alienated” than music played “live” at the Met, or music played through media (whether PBS or MTV or Walkman). In fact, an argument could be made that music distributed free or at cost on cassette via mail is LESS alienated than live music played at some huge We Are The World spectacle or Las Vegas niteclub, even though the latter is live music played to a live audience (or at least so it appears), while the former is recorded music consumed by distant & even anonymous listeners.

The tendency of Hi Tech, & the tendency of Late Capitalism, both impel the arts farther & farther into extreme forms of mediation. Both widen the gulf between the production & consumption of art, with a corresponding increase in “alienation.”

Back to the book in question, which was none other than Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time. Whatever experience I had while reading it is one that can only come as a result of imaginative participation in the story, which prose requires. Movies, on the other hand, replace imagination with prefabricated images that are always the same. No patience needed, just add $12 to the local gigaplex and OMG HOLLYWOOD will do all your imagining for you. There’s now a film version of A Wrinkle in Time, a tragic embarrassment.

And lining up to see it is a new generation of children and young adults who have never known life outside the virtual simulation of smartphones and (anti)social media. For them, there is only the machine, their closest confidant. The magic of comics for them has been replaced by military/tech propaganda masquerading as superhero movies. The magic of traversing time and space through prose has been replaced by Ophrah Winfrey on a giant screen.

Finally, at last, an end to the pain of humanness—a release from the unbearable burden of imagination.


About DZAtal

The true and living
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