Somewhere or other Henry Louis Gates says something like “racism is a failure of the imagination”. I’m not sure why I find myself meditating on this aphorism this evening, except for the fact that such failures of the imagination seem to be at the heart of much human cruelty and evil. Not only is there the common inability to imagine the psychic life of other persons and creatures, but there is also the inability to imagine their circumstances. The Gestalt theorists teach us about the relationship between foreground and background that is characteristic of every phenomena. Background withdraws. I see another person, reduce them to foreground, and then think them in analogical terms to my own life and circumstances. For example, during the heat wave in France a couple years ago Elizabeth Hasslebeck wondered why people didn’t just turn on their air conditions. During Hurricane Katrina others wondered why people just didn’t get a cab out of the city (seriously, I heard many people say things along these lines here in Texas). Yet others described the behavior of people as looting, rather than as desperate attempts to fight starvation and dying of thirst. These are instances of analogical thinking and are failures of imagination.
In many respects, one of the highest vocations of the social theorist and scientist is to fight failures of imagination by rendering imagination possible for others through their research. Among other things, social theorists and scientists bring worlds into relief. They help that which is otherwise withdrawn to be brought out of withdrawal so that others might see. This is one of the things that great art can accomplish as well. Great art can function as a sort of window allowing us to enter the worlds and subjectivities of other people, allowing us to walk with them as they walk and have lived. As such, it creates imagination. Part of the study of ethics consists not simply in the study of ethical philosophies, but in the study of art, literature, poetry, and well-written history so as to encounter that which is withdrawn through allusion. As Alex Reid argues today, the field of ethics is relational, yet nonetheless is a relationality with that which is withdrawn. Social theorists, scientists, and artists are great cartographers of fields of relation or circumstance, creators of allusion to that which can never be directly experienced, and constantly remind us of the withdrawal of other humans and creatures. That is, they endlessly combat analogical thought which leads to thoughtless cruelty and evil.
I am not adopting the stance of the beautiful soul here, suggesting that if only we understood the world would suddenly be filled with peace and love. Of course, imagination certainly doesn’t hurt in promoting peace and love. There are real antagonisms in the world and these can’t be erased simply through imagination. Nonetheless, failures of imagination intensify these antagonisms even more.