On ‘The Imaginary’

I started reading The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination by Jean Paul Sartre (1940) on Monday 23rd March, on the train back home to Glasgow where I would be staying until this whole pandemic thing blew over. I just finished it as lockdown is slowly lifting. It’s a book deconstructing the imagination: such as the ways we can access imaginary scenes, how we can project imagined images directly over the real, and analysing phenomena such as dreams, portraits, hallucinations, artworks and acting performances.

Here are some of my favourite bits:

  • We switch mentally between states of consciousness, mainly those of perception and the imaginary. We can do this through analogons which enable us to ‘see’ imaginary images over and through the real. We also require context and prior knowledge to find meaning in an image or symbol.
  • Knowledge is a kind of memory of ideas
  • Paintings, novels, plays we watch in the theatre, films at the cinema, impressionists are all examples of analogons. An analogon is a physical object from the real world that acts as a portal or catalyst for our consciousness to access irreal, or imaginary sights and experiences
  • The enjoyable part of being lost in a fictional narrative is the fact that we can still see the real theatre-set or pages with words if we choose, we are aware that it is us that is animating the analogon
  • We need to be in an imaginary consciousness in order to see ‘ideal’ images; hallucinations and dreams, even being transported by works of art, require us to submerge ourselves in the imaginary. There can be vertigo or discomfort when switching between perception (the real) and the imaging consciousness (the imaginary), explaining our reaction when leaving the cinema or theatre after an intense performance; our vague unhappiness at unceremoniously crashing back into the real world.
Portraits such as this one of Charles VII of France allow us to ‘see’ beyond the paint and canvas into a vision of a real man, while remaining conscious that the man is not actually standing in front of us. Analogons can be as intricate as this painting or as simple as a few lines.

In reading as in the theatre, we are in the presence of a world and we attribute to that world just as much existence as we do to that of the theatre; that is to say, a complete existence in the irreal. … It is preparing to discover a whole world, which is not that of perception, but neither is it that of mental images. To be present at a play is to apprehend the characters on the actors, the forest of As You Like It on the cardboard trees.”

  • Irreal objects are not real or unreal, hence the term irreal. We do not experience irreal objects in temporal or sensory ways as we do real objects, but in a sense we do experience them irreally. Irreal objects are not fixed, they are inherently ambiguous, which is why in dreams objects and people shape-shift and transform
  • Fear originates in this uncertainty, this transforming potential and multiple identities of the imaginary. This is why monsters in horror movies stop being scary the second we clearly see the monster and what it is. Our imaginations are always infinitely more terrifying than a real object, no matter how grotesque the real monster.

This essential ambiguity of the irreal object appears to me to be one of the principal factors of fear in imagination. A clear and distinct perception is, from a certain point of view, eminently reassuring. If we feel fear in the night, in solitude, it is because the imaginary objects that haunt us are, by nature, suspect. And that suspect character comes from the fact that an object as images is never frankly itself.”

  • When we make a mental picture combining irreal objects, such as my friend Pierre in a top hat if I have not already seen him wear such a thing, when we examine the resulting mental picture we can see that we are mashing together an image of Pierre and an unrelated image of a top hat. Upon closer examination either the image loses the Pierre-ness (for instance becoming the face of the man we have seen wearing the hat) or it loses its cohesion (the top hat floats above Pierre’s head and is not convincingly attached). We cannot truly conceive of something we haven’t seen in real life, so such collages retain their double-ness of original source and new combination

The object of perception constantly overflows consciousness; the object of an image is never anything more than the consciousness one has of it; it is defined by that consciousness; one can never learn from an image what one does not know already.”

  • Dreams are as close as we can get to an unreflective consciousness (a true unreflective consciousness is not consciousness at all), we are trapped in the dreamscape and when we do reflect we awake from the dream
  • There are some interesting considerations to make regarding Sartre’s psychology of the imagination and current technological developments such as AI and virtual reality. Probably can be quite easily summed up in that AI technology, so far, only operates as an unreflective consciousness (example being speaking phonetically in a language you don’t understand, rather than understanding the meaning of the words), I don’t think humans will ever create a true artificial consciousness. And VR is simply the swamping of vision with immersive imagery, giving the illusion of being somewhere else, but remaining in perception. The imaging consciousness is used to picture the real room we are in outside the headset.
Sartre uses the example of the Panthéon building in Paris to refute the ‘illusion of immanence’ theory: if you imagine the Panthéon and try to count the columns, you cannot, because a mental image is not of perception and is not subject to the same rules of solidity as real objects.

Every consciousness posits its object in its own way. Perception, for example, posits its objects as existing. The image also includes an act of belief or a positional act. The act can take four and only four forms: it can posit the object as nonexistent, or as an abstract, or as existing elsewhere. It can also ‘neutralise’ itself, which is to say not posit its object as existent.

If I perceive that photograph as ‘a photo of a man standing on steps’, the mental phenomenon is necessarily already of a different structure: a different intention animates it. And if that photo appears to me as the photo ‘of Pierre’, if, in some way I see Pierre behind it, it is necessary that the piece of card is animated with some help from me, giving it a meaning it did not yet have. If I see Pierre in the photo, it is because I put him there.”

From perceiving a piece of paper with black and white shapes, to seeing a man standing on steps, to recognising my friend Pierre: the process of the imaging consciousness

The Pierre that appears to me as imaged is neither aimed at nor given as the Pierre I could perceive of at the same moment, if he were present: the Pierre who is revealed by the mental images is a synthesis that contracts within itself a certain duration, often even contradictory aspects; this is also the explanation of the moving character that certain images conserve long after their object of flesh and blood has lost the power to move us.”

Seeing faces in fire or wallpaper are examples of hypnagogic hallucinations

This obsession, artificially kept alive, but which at any moment is close to vanishing, cannot fulfill desires. However, it is not completely useless: constituting an irreal object is a way of deceiving desires momentarily in order to exacerbate them, a little like the effect sea water has on thirst … The satisfaction is only played at because, in fact, my friend is not really there.”

Consciousness is constantly surrounded by a cortege of phantom-objects. These objects, although having at first sight a sensible aspect, are not the same as those of perception. Without doubt they can be plants or animals but just as easily virtues, kinds, relations. As soon as we fix our look on one of them, we find ourselves confronted by strange beings that escape the laws of the world. … Appearing and disappearing in jerks, they are given as a perpetual ‘elsewhere’, as a perpetual evasion. But the evasion to which they invite us is not only that which would make us flee our current condition, our concerns, our boredoms; they offer us an escape from all the constraints of the world, they seem to be presented to us as a negation of being in the world, as an anti-world.”

Sartre’s ultimate assertion is that, far from being a simple echo of reality, imaging consciousness is actually the key to consciousness itself. As in Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ statement, the ability to make sense of the world by positing ourselves and bodies in relation to a vast non-corporeal world of feelings, memory, knowledge, beliefs and dreams is at the core of our existence. We probably spend far more of our lives accompanied by phantoms, imaginary objects of various kinds (absent friends, fictional characters, abstract concepts, future possibilities) than actually, completely alone in the real world of perception.

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