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On imagination, again: What does it mean to be on the left?

Revised and expanded version of the keynote address delivered at International Deleuze Studies in Asia, the 4th Conference “Immanence, Philosophy, and Locality”, Seoul National University, Seoul, South Korea, 18th June 2016

This new version was delivered at Japanese-Bulgarian Forum, “Philosophy’s Imagination”, New Bulgarian University, UniArt Gallery, 21th September 2016

 

 

  Today, I will speak on imagination again. Why on imagination? Why on imagination again? Why will an address on the subject of imagination be a repeat?

  When I say “again”, I think of the 1960s. One of the keywords of the then protest movement was imagination. “L’imagination prend le pouvoir” was one of the most famous slogans of May 68; in Japan as well, at that time, people chanted “Souzouryoku no Kakumei”, which means “Revolution through imagination”.

  However, imagination would see its value being reduced. This tendency was strong; particularly in philosophy. As structuralism, which was becoming more and more important over that period, established the primacy of “the symbolic” over “the imaginary”, people began regarding imagination as even infantile. Actually, Jacques Lacan stated that it was by entering into the symbolic that a subject became a subject, a human became a human. He located the imaginary in the infant phase. Imagination’s popularity thus faded away and, today, few people show interest in it. Even such a history of its decline is not looked back upon. Imagination is an obsolete subject to such an extent. I am now about to discuss such an out-of-date subject, again.

  I have mentioned the symbolic, which rises after the decline of imagination. Simply speaking, the symbolic is language or linguistic order. We can therefore say that imagination was discarded by language. Then, a new type of philosophy emerged: philosophy that criticises language through language. This new stream became dominant as deconstruction, which was organized by Jacques Derrida in a highly sophisticated manner. By the way, no one would deny the influence exerted by Martin Heidegger onto the so-called continental philosophy. And, as we know, Heidegger is the philosopher who put the problem of language at the centre of his thinking. In this sense, the rise of the symbolic can be interpreted as the appearance of a latent tendency brought about by this German philosopher. In any event, the twenty-century continental philosophy can be regarded as philosophy that put language at the centre of its interest. It is therefore a language-oriented philosophy.

  This stream, however, seems to decrease rapidly now. Diagnosis of the contemporary trend is so difficult and becomes so rarely convincing that I resort to an authority of today in our field. Giorgio Agamben in his latest book, The Use of Bodies, presents an astonishing statement. “Up to Heidegger”, he writes, “almost all post-Kantian professional philosophers had kept to the transcendental dimension as if it went without saying” (Agamben, 2016, p.113 / p.153). But, he continues, there were also philosophers, whom he calls “non-professional philosophers”, who sought a way out of the transcendental, such as Nietzsche, Benjamin, Foucault and, “in a different sense”, he states, a linguist like Émile Benveniste. They found such a way by shifting “the historical a priori” from knowledge to language. The historical a priori, which is an expression Agamben borrows from Foucault, means that which determines and conditions the possibilities of knowledge in a determinate historical epoch. As a result, “[t]he speaking being or enunciator has thus been substituted for Kant’s transcendental subject, and language has taken the place of being as historical a priori” (p.113 / p.154).

  This is a narrative that is understandable and also consistent with what I have said at the beginning. What is interesting is the following part that Agamben adds to this narrative. “This linguistic declension of ontology [which can be interpreted as philosophy here] seems today to have reached its completion” (Ibid.). This means that language is now losing its position in philosophy. And, besides, such is the case not only with philosophy. Agamben says: “What has changed […] is that language no longer functions as a historical a priori, which while remaining unthought, determines and conditions the historical possibilities of speaking human beings” (p.114 / p.154). Let me paraphrase and explain in a concise way: Agamben’s diagnosis means that language no longer determines or conditions our thought. People are certainly still using a language-like signal system, but this does not affect them. Possibly, if I may say, people no longer write or speak; people can no longer write or speak, so that their thought and experience are not determined by language.

  For structuralism, language (that is, the symbolic order) was the very condition through which a subject becomes subject; a human becomes a human. But we cannot be certain that language is essential for human being to such an extent. One would object that we still write and we still speak. Of course, Agamben knows--and we know too--that people still write and people still speak. We therefore have to assume that the language that is at issue in his argument and the language that people are supposed to write or speak are different.

  Michel Foucault in Les mot et les choses compared the language of the classical age, which is transparent and purely representative, to the language discovered in the 19th century, which is material and corporeal like solid rock. About the latter, Foucault himself states repeatedly “être du langage” [being of language] (Foucault, 1966, p.394 & passim). This language is not representative but is itself a being. In recent years, this has been discussed in terms of “materiality of language”. But I have to confess that this kind of language experience appears quite different from our own. Where do we encounter this kind of language? Do we really know this? Have we ever experienced “être du langage”? I am tempted to call it fictional. I am also tempted to think that the famous psychoanalytic narrative according to which a human must enter into the symbolic so as to be a human is a made-up story too (Actually, contemporary Lacanians seem to claim so by discovering what they call “psychose ordinaire” [ordinary psychosis] (cf. Brousse, 2009)).

  Agamben’s diagnosis of the present age, which is that language no longer determines our thinking and our experience, is very provocative, but worthy of consideration. My address is based on his presumption. And here is the point. It is imagination that was discarded when philosophy began to focus on language, and, now, language is retreating from the foreground of philosophy and our daily experience as well. I want to discuss imagination at this moment, again. For it seems that, under the reign of language-oriented philosophy, the force and limit of imagination have been left aside and conditions imposed by imagination on our intellect and our actions have not been sufficiently examined. Having said that, my address is not aimed at describing the present day in a neutral manner. It is aimed at discussing politics, however, in a different manner than that of the 60s. And for this, Gilles Deleuze is more helpful than anyone.

 

1.

  The extraordinary response that Deleuze made in his interview DVD, Abécédaire, (Deleuze, Parnet, 2004, “G comme Gauche”) to the question of what it means to be on the left is well known, I presume. In response to this question, he refers to two styles of writing a postal address: firstly, western style starting with street number and proceeding to larger geographical entities (city and country), and, secondly, Japanese style going in reverse order; that is, starting with large geographical entities and proceeding to street number. According to Deleuze, these two styles correspond to two different modes of perception, and he suggests that the second, Japanese style is the perception of the left! (Is he joking?) For him, to be on the left is to perceive periphery first of all, that is, to begin with edges. For example, “Third World problems are closer to us than problems in our neighbourhood”—this is the left-wing perception. From the Deleuzian perspective, the way of perceiving political problems is located at the centre of politics and the leftist political perception is the one that does not start here but there: not nearby but far away.

  It does not matter what he says about France and Japan (the interviewer, Claire Parnet, retorts that the Japanese people are not really so leftist! -- I know it better than any of you). These are mere examples. The problem is the two different types of perception: perception starting here and perception starting there; nearby and far away. And this seems to be a good starting point for discussing imagination in its political sense. For example, if you can imagine a war that is happening in a far-off country, you have a perception starting at the periphery. Conversely, if you think only of how to keep yourself or yourselves as you are, your perception begins at the place where you are settled. Although Deleuze does not mention the word “imagination”, it is imagination which is in question here. Deleuze differentiates the left and the non-left in terms of imagination.

  Well, what is imagination? The definition that Immanuel Kant proposes in his famous Anthropology is appropriate and convincing: “the faculty of intuition even without the presence of the object” (Kant, Anthropology, §28, p.56). So, it is a faculty that produces, in one’s mind, what is not here. To put it differently, it is a power that makes something absent present and gives it a form. You may be tempted to add another element to this very simple definition, by referring to his Critique of Pure Reason, because there he discusses the same faculty in a very special sense: faculty which finds itself between sensibility (Sinnlichkeit) and understanding (Verstand) and, as their mediator, has the task of schematizing (Schematismus). Schematizing is the operation that consists in formalizing the variety or multiplicity of the things received by sensibility and linking their representations to the concepts of understanding, that is, categories. This imagination is called transcendental imagination, so, the one we have just referred to, the one that is defined in Anthropology can be called empirical imagination.

  These two seem to be very different, functioning very differently: the former produces an image of what is not present and the latter formalizes the multiple representations. Incidentally this is why I couldn’t understand why the faculty in charge of schematism is called Einbildungskraft, namely imagination. I am not a Kantian scholar, but I am the translator of the Deleuze’s book on Kant, Kant’s Critical Philosophy. When translating it, I really wondered why it was. And I think this is a question shared by quite a few people, at least in Japan. Because traditionally, the Japanese translators, only when translating Kantian works, have not translated Einbildungskraft into imagination. We have a word “Souzouryoku” for translating imagination, but Einbildungskraft as a Kantian term has been always translated into another term, “Kousouryoku”. I think this problem of Japanese translation has nothing to do with you. But it is interesting in that the Japanese translators’ confusion is not irrelevant to the problem of how we understand the Kantian concept of transcendental imagination. Because it is not self-evident that the empirical imagination and the transcendental imagination are the same.

  But there is someone who helps us resolve this problem. This very kind man is Heidegger. In his famous Kant and the problem of Metaphysics, Heidegger shares this question of whether the transcendental imagination is the same as the empirical and then says that “the faculty of intuition without the presence of the object”, the definition of imagination proposed in Anthropology, means the same thing as what the transcendental imagination does. He even goes so far as to say: “the essence of the imagination, namely, the ability to intuit without a concrete presence, is grasped in the transcendental schematism in a manner which is basically more original” (Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics (1929), En. Tr., Indiana University Press, 1962, p.138). According to him, the transcendental imagination forms in advance, and before all experience, the aspect of the horizon of objectivity as such, which he calls Schema-Image (Schema-Bild). In another words, to schematize is to form a kind of image independently, without referring to the things perceived.

  I do not go into the detail about Heideggerian analysis of the Kantian transcendental imagination. I just want to say that it is appropriate to accept the definition of imagination proposed by Kant in Anthropology which regards it as “the faculty of intuition even without the presence of the object” and it is also appropriate to observe that even the transcendental imagination can be explained by this very simple definition. In schematism, imagination forms Schema-Image before experiencing the object. And with this confirmation, we can begin to examine the possibility that not only our empirical imagination, but also our transcendental imagination might be manipulated in our society. This is what Horkheimer and Adorno suggested in their classical work, The Dialectic of Enlightenment.

 

“Even during their leisure time, consumers must orient themselves according to the unity of production. The active contribution which Kantian schematism still expected of subjects--that they should, from the first, relate sensuous multiplicity to fundamental concepts--is denied to the subject by industry. It purveys schematism as its first service to the customer. According to Kantian schematism, a secret mechanism within the psyche performed immediate data to fit them into the system of pure reason. That secret has now been unraveled. […] For the consumer there is nothing left to classify, since the classification has already been preempted by the schematism of production.” (Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), p.98)

 

  They suggested that not only our empirical imagination but also our transcendental imagination, which is in charge of schematism, was controlled by the so-called consumer society. Maybe you would think that it represents a very easy way to condemn the modern society. Some may see a kind of nostalgic and conservative sentiment in this kind of statement. I share this impression to a certain degree. But, of course, we can read it in a different way. Very formally speaking, we can say that it just affirms that even our transcendental imagination can be modified and therefore it is not trans-historical. As we know, this is what Michel Foucault affirmed in his books on history: our experience is determined by what he calls the historical a priori.

  Imagination can be modified. This means that: Kant is wrong to assume the presence of the imagination in our mind. As is always the case with him, he takes it for granted that the imagination as a mental faculty works always already in our mind. But we cannot take it for granted. The imagination does not function for good. It can stop. And if so, we can think of the possibility that the imagination cannot only be modified but also collapse. We may lose the use of imagination. And if we can think of the collapse of imagination, we can also think of the genesis of imagination. Since it is generated in our mind, it can collapse. The genesis, modification and collapse of imagination--this is the question I want to ask in this research project that I have just started. And, actually, this is the question that is laid at the bottom of Deleuze’s curious definition of the left.

 

2.

  The definition of the left that Deleuze made by referring to the styles of writing a postal address is not impromptu (Actually, as Claire Parnet handed questions to him in advance, Deleuze was fully prepared when filmed). This definition has echoes of the Deleuzian concept of “Other”, which he theorized in his consideration of the desert island. The desert island is a figure that appears intermittently in Deleuze’s early works. And there are two main texts in which he deals with this subject: “Desert Islands” [“Causes et raisons des îles désertes”] and “Michel Tournier and the World Without Others” [“Michel Tournier et le monde sans autrui”]. Now I try to present the essence of his argument.

  To live on a desert island—what kind of experience is it? Deleuze suggests that it is to live in a “world without Others”, and of course it is, because there is no one there. But what does it mean to live “without Others”? We ordinarily live in a world with Others, so, even if we say “world without Others”, we look at it from the side of our world that is with others. To live in the world with Others is to exist in a certain effect caused by Others. Therefore, without investigating this effect caused by Others, we would just project the world with Others onto the world without Others. So, it is hard to imagine what it means to live without others. Well, what is the effect caused by Others? Deleuze puts forward a theory on this matter by reading Michel Tournier’s philosophical novel, Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique, which Tounier adapted from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. This fact makes us guess that it was hard even for Deleuze to imagine what the world without Others would be so that he resorted to literary imagination. (Tournier was one of Deleuze’s best friends and who passed away this year.)

  What is the effect caused by Others? According to Deleuze, it is “organization of a marginal world” (Deleuze, 2009, p.344 / p.354). What does this mean? I give you a very simple example. When you see a building standing at a street, you imagine that, behind the façade or the wall, there are rooms, corridors, stairways etc.: you have an idea of depth, without having confirmed it. How can it be possible? Deleuze comments: “the part of the object that I do not see I posit as visible to Others” (p.344 / p.355). When you see a building with an idea of depth, you posit margins that you do not see as visible to Others. This means that it is through Others that we can imagine that that which is absent before us exists. Others allow us to imagine what is not here. This conception of Other is finally formulated in the following manner: “The Other is [...] a structure of the perceptual field” (p.346 / p.357). Other is a structure without which we would not perceive objects; without which we would not posit the world as world.

  If Others are missing, then, how would the world be? In other words, how did Robinson become--Robinson who lived in the world without Others? Deleuze quotes Robinson’s monologue from Tournier’s nouvel: “My vision of the island is reduced to that of my own eyes, and what I do not see of it is to me a total unknown” [ma vision de l’île est réduite à elle-même, ce que je n’en vois pas est un inconnu absolu] (p.345 / p.355). When Others are missing, there is no one who supports my organisation of a marginal world. I cannot posit the part of the object that I do not see as visible to Others. Then, as a result, what I do not see does not exist: there exists only what I see; the world becomes equal to what I see. This is what happened to Robinson.

  If this theory sounds strange to you, please try to think about whether you did not have such an experience in your childhood. I myself had a strange experience when I was a child. I had a friend whom I met only once or twice a year, and I experienced a strange feeling every time after I said good-bye to him. I could not understand that he was spending his own time somewhere that I did not know. This really happened to me. So when I read the Deleuze’s text, I said to myself: “This is what I experienced in my childhood”. I could not imagine that he, who was absent before me, existed in a part of the world that I could not see. At that time, my imagination was highly limited. I was like Robinson. And, besides, the case of Robinson informs us that, not only is a little child a Robinson, but anyone can become a Robinson by mere chance. Imagination is not generated once and for all. It can collapse. And if imagination is generated through Others, it can only be maintained by incessant contact with Others. This is why Robinson’s imagination reduced considerably.

  Let me add the last element to the presentation of Deleuzian theory of Others. In the other text on this subject, “Desert Islands” [“Causes et raisons des îles désertes”], some curious propositions are advanced: “[T]hat an island is deserted must appear philosophically normal to us”; “every island [is] and remain in theory deserted”; “An island doesn’t stop being deserted simply because it is inhabited”; “some people can occupy the island--it is still deserted, all the more so” (Deleuze, 2004, p.9-10 / p.11-12). Now I try to show you how we can understand these enigmatic statements. We have to develop his theory of Others in order to understand what these seemingly philosophical theses. As we saw, when Others are missing, the world becomes equal to what I see. But that’s not all. Because the self [le moi] itself is also what is generated through Others, or rather the effect caused by Others. “I am nothing other than my past objects, and my self is made up of a past world” (Deleuze, 2009, p.349 / p.360). It is not that there is the self in the first place and then it receives the outside world. So Deleuze draws his conclusion: “The fundamental effect [of the Others] is the distinction of my consciousness and its object. This distinction is in fact the result of the structure-Other” (Ibid.) With this thesis, we can understand what the propositions that I quoted from the text “Desert Islands” mean. Even if someone occupies the island, as long as there is no structure-Other there, it remains deserted, namely, his / her consciousness and the island have not been distinguished yet. This distinction is to be generated somehow. Otherwise, every island remains deserted. You may understand that the desert island serves him as a model of origin. It may be called the Deleuzian natural state. However it is a natural state which can recur anytime.

 

3.

  Now I am going into my conclusion. Firstly, Deleuzian philosophy, which is often called “transcendental empiricism”, is a philosophy that focuses on the genesis: it asks of everything how it is generated. It does not allow to assume something as it is. This is why we can draw a theory on the genesis of the imagination from his concept of the Other. This theory may cast a new light to the question of the imagination left unexamined by Kant. In Kant and the problem of metaphysics, Heidegger points out Kant’s recoil from the transcendental imagination. According to Heidegger, “Kant did not carry out the primordial interpretation of the transcendental imagination” (Heidegger, 1962, p.167 / S.160). Despite the fact that ‘[the] fundamental constitution of the essence of man [is] “rooted” in the transcendental imagination’ (p.166 / S.160), he did not even make the attempt of such an interpretation. Heidegger asks himself why Kant recoiled from the transcendental imagination (p.170 / S.165). As we saw, Deleuzian theory of the Other is not only related to the perception of the world, or the empirical imagination, but also to the constitution of the subject or the self itself. In this sense, we can investigate the question of imagination left unexamined by Kant and pointed out by Heidegger through Deleuzian philosophy. And, as we saw with Horkheimer and Adorno, in today’s world, it is possible that even our transcendental imagination is manipulated.

  Secondly, through the Deleuze’s concept of Other, we discussed the genesis, modification and collapse of the imagination. This idea makes us think of the size of imagination. We can also say that imagination has a degree. In my childhood, my imagination was limited to the extent that I could not even imagine my absent friend. His existence was not included in my then-imagination. Now, I think that I can imagine that. But, for example, can I imagine Paris now? Can I imagine Syria now? I have been paying so much attention to what is going on in Syria. I have read so many articles on it and I have seen so many reports on it. But am I really able to imagine what is happening there, in Syria? If we get back to the Deleuzian definition of the left, now we notice that it is very hard to be on the left. If I warn the public of the danger of Donald Trump’s terrible statements, if I support Jeremy Corbyn, if I criticise Japanese prime minister, it does not necessarily mean that I am on the left.

  Deleuze’s philosophy is often considered to be a “philosophy of encounter”. This seems to suggest that the world is full of Others, and, therefore, there must be encounter with them that generates imagination in our mind whether we like it or not. I want to believe in this conclusion. But, now, I cannot. The development of information technology was considered to promote this kind of encounter with Others, which is, of course, not the case. The opposite is what is actually happening. The problem is that, because of the development of information technology, people can easily misread the size of their own imagination, which is very often observed in the far right. But, for example, can the racist “imagination” be called imagination? Do they imagine? If not, how should it be called? Kant would answer very quickly: if the imagination does not harmonize with concepts, it is called fantasy or enthusiasm. But this answer does not help us. How do we know this harmonization? We need a new concept or new name in order to distinguish what is imagination and what is not. Of course, it is totally possible that such a distinction is not possible.

  Thirdly, and finally, on technology. Heidegger once criticised radio and television, arguing that these technologies would cause our sense of distance to become disordered (Heidegger, 1966, p.48 / p.15). He thinks that these technologies make us believe that what is not here is here. I would say that such a criticism of technology is absurd. However, today’s information environment is accelerating this problem considerably. In addition, there is another problem that Heidegger would never think of. In today’s world of information technology and globalisation, one’s actions go beyond one’s own image of the world too easily. If someone tweets a controversial idea, for example, it spreads out immediately all over the world. We are given such a tool. Can everyone handle it? Or, a piece of chocolate you bought in a shop next to your house may have been made by child labour. By buying it, you support a labour form that is never forgivable. But we can easily support an evil that is happening in the place we cannot imagine.

  I am certain that for several reasons we need a new theory of imagination now. This is why I am working on this subject. And, as I have shown to you, Deleuze’s philosophy is an essential reference for this project.

 

[References]

--Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, translated by Adam Kotsko, Stanford UP, 2016 / L’uso dei corpi, Neri Pozza, 2014.

--Marie-Hélène Brousse, « La psychose ordinaire à la lumière de la théorie lacanienne du discours », Quarto, 94-5, 2009.

--Gille Deleuze, Claire Parnet, L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze, DVD, Éditions Montparnasse, 2004.

--Gilles Deleuze, “Desert Islands”, Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974, translated by Michael Taormina, Semiotext(e), 2004 / «Causes et raisons des îles désertes», L’île déserte et autres textes – textes et entretiens 1953-1974, Minuit, 2002.

--Gilles Deleuze, “Michel Tournier and the world without others”, The Logic of Sense (1990), translated by Mark Lester & Charles Stivale, Continuum, 2009 / «Michel Tournier et le monde sans autrui», Logique du sens (1968), Minuit, 1994.

--Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, translated by James S. Churchill, Indiana University Press, 1962 / Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik (1929), Gesamtausgabe, Band 3, Vittorio Klostermann, 1991.

--Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, translated by M Anderson and E. Hans Freund, Harper Perennial, 1966 / Gelassenheit (1959), Klett-Cotta, 2012.

-- Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by Edmund Jephcott Stanford, California, 2002.

--Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1978), translated by Victor Lyle Dowdell, Southern Illinois UP, 1996 / Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (1798), Philosophische Bibliothek, Band 490, 2000.