Imaginary Relations

Call for papers for a new online journal

Tom Pepper

Our goal at Imaginary Relations is to produce an open access online journal to examine how our ordinary daily practices work to produce, and reproduce, our ideology.  The title “imaginary relations” derives from Althusser’s theory of ideology, which he defines as our imaginary relations to the relations of production. 

I expect that two points need clarification right off.  What are “imaginary relations”?  What exactly do I mean by “ordinary daily practices”? 

By “imaginary relations” I mean that felt sense of how the world just naturally is, how things work, and how we can relate to or interact with it.  Althusser’s point is that ideology is not primarily in concepts about reality (as in science, say, or theology).  Rather, ideology is mostly in practices, in those things we do which seem natural and normal, which seem meaningful to us.  These practices usually entail a belief, which may be implicit or explicit; but what is crucial is less what we say we believe than what we do, especially what we do without much intentional deliberation.  Imaginary, then, does not mean made up or fanciful—this has nothing to do with the “false consciousness” idea of ideology.  Think, rather, of “image,” of the structure of our perception of the world.  Imaginary relations do not necessarily require false beliefs.  For instance, if one’s ideology is that hard work is ennobling, then one really does feel better about oneself after having worked hard—we aren’t “mistaken” or “deluded” about that sense, really and truly feeling awful but trying falsely to convince ourselves we don’t.  Imaginary relations are what primarily keep us doing what needs to be done for our way of organizing the human social world to be at all workable.  These go all the way from our sense of shame when we are unemployed to our sense of what is proper behavior in the grocery store.  What feels natural, normal, the ordinary thing to do, is our imaginary relation to our relations of production.

The kinds of daily practices I am interested in, then, are those that work to produce these imaginary relations.  These can include many things usually classified as “culture”: arts, sports, courtship rituals, clubs and organizations, leisure activities generally.  In short, anything from Proust to Grand Theft Auto, from attending the opera to playing in a softball league, can work to produce our imaginary relations. It would also include things like the kinds of technology we regularly use, how we organize and behave in a classroom, workplace norms of behavior, arrangements of public and private spaces…and the list goes on.  

My own personal focus is likely to be on certain kinds of art, particularly film, television, and most of all Literature of all kinds.  I would hope that others will at some point be inspired to submit discussions of the imaginary relations produced by things I am less familiar with: cell phones (I don’t own one), video games (I don’t play them), or the modern world of online dating (it didn’t exist during my dating days). All of these things shape how we experience the world, what we think reality is like, and what seems natural for us to do.

Here is Althusser’s description of how the enjoyment of a work of art functions in our lives:

What purpose can this imaginary pleasure possibly serve?  Unquestionably, it helps to sustain the existing practices and ideologies.  It is a fact that, while experiencing the pleasure of playing, a child engages in a veritable apprenticeship that prepares it to engage in practices of production or social relations.  It is a fact that games and festivals, public spectacles and the like strengthen the social bond by bringing people together in one place and offering all of them the same object of pleasure to consume, an object that extols idealized social relations or ‘plays’ with prohibitions…It follows that, like the other practices, aesthetic practice too, far from being a pure act that creates beauty, unfolds under the domination of abstract social relations, which are not just norms defining the beautiful, but also ideological relations of class struggle.  (Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, 153-154)

My goal here is to explore the working of this reproduction of existing practices and ideologies, both how they are reinforced and how they are reshaped, in specific individual social practices and works of art. 

Another goal is to avoid an academic or scholarly discourse, and to discuss these things in ordinary language to the extent possible.  My hope is that if we can become more aware of the ideology being produced by our everyday practices, we can gain some ability to change it with deliberate intention.  

To many in the academic world, that last sentence will seem hopelessly naive. One of my interests, however, in starting this journal is to revive the old practice of doing “readings” of individual works of art or other products of culture.  In academic literature journals, at least, this is mostly forbidden now; to publish, one must discuss the effects of an entire genre or discourse.  My belief is that we read novels or watch movies one at a time, and that each one has a unique effect that may differ from its genre.  For instance, we all know that detective fiction as a whole is quite ideologically conservative, from Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie through Earle Stanley Gardiner and Mickey Spillane to today’s Dennis Lehane and Craig Johnson.  But saying this is not saying much, and each individual work produces its ideological effect in a unique way.  It may do this against a background of expectations, and it may be sometimes necessary to consider these expectations in discussing the effects of the work, but my interest is primarily in what happens to the individual subject when undertaking the particular practice of reading this particular novel or watching this particular movie.  For instance, K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic detective novels may be all the more startling because his left wing politics are at odds with the genre of police procedural, but the novel works (or doesn’t) for reasons beyond simply the general ideology of the genre.

Readings of the kind I’m interested in are usually not possible within an academic discourse, which refuses to consider that works of art produce our ideology. I’ll give an example.

Consider the common assumption that a poem cannot be paraphrased.  Decades ago, when things like Literature and art and philosophy were still studied at universities and sometimes at the better high schools, this was drilled into us as an essential truth. Something about a poem must exceed any attempt to paraphrase it or else it is not art.  Art somehow addresses the ineffable, and poetry speaks in words about what is beyond words.  One of the most famous statements of this was an essay we all had to read as English undergraduates, Cleanth Brooks’s “The Heresy of Paraphrase.”  But as Stanley Cavell pointed out back in the sixties, in fact Brooks himself paraphrases poems all the time.  The problem was not that a poem could not be paraphrased, but that once the poem has been paraphrased the critic “has to do everything at his philosophical disposal to keep paraphrase and poem from coinciding: in particular, speak of core and essences and structures of the poem that are not reached by the paraphrase”(“Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy”, 71).  The point, what I take from Cavell’s discussion, is not to say “aha, Brooks has really been paraphrasing after all!”  Rather, we need to recognize that there is something about the poem, and the practice of reading it as a poem, that is somehow more than the conceptual content.  We need to try to explain what more a poem does, other than what it says, and why it is so important to the critic to obscure this function behind talk of ineffability and essences.  That is where we will locate the ideology of the poem, the work it does to produce our imaginary relations.  

Let me offer a brief illustration.  We all know Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”  We could all easily paraphrase this poem.  In fact, when teaching it, students will often think we have accomplished the task of “close reading” once we have gotten them to see that the speaker did not, in fact, take the “road less travelled by” at all. On a first reading, they universally take the poem to say something like: if you follow the harder path, you will succeed.  Of course, a proper paraphrase would be more like: later in life, you will claim to have made the harder choice, to convince yourself that things would have been worse if you had made different choices.  Or something to that effect.  We can argue about the best paraphrase, but we can’t think that the former example is anything close to what the poem actually says—it isn’t a paraphrase at all, and misses the whole point of the poem.  

However, once we’ve paraphrased the poem, we haven’t yet begun to explain the ideological function it serves.  In fact, for many readers, almost all apparently, its ideological function depends exactly on failing to really read the poem at all.  That is to say, the affective experience of reading the poem (the way most people will read it) is to convince us that we ought to set out to do the harder thing in life, and we will be rewarded later on.  It is often invoked, from high school graduations to car commercials, to inspire us to do what in fact is—no, not the less common thing—but exactly the thing demanded of all of us collectively.  Go to college, that’s the “road less travelled”!  The demand is that we all must follow this “harder path,” like everyone before us, if we hope to survive in the world.  Sometimes it’s “go into debt for this really expensive car” or “play this cool new video game” (both television ads I’ve seen the poem used for), but it always functions to inspire us to pay up now for reward later. Or, it is meant to. And we think we are special if we do this, among the few who did the harder thing.  

And once we’ve corrected our “reading”?  Well, then the poem still works to produce an affective response. We come to feel a sense of ironic detachment from the petty business of choosing what to do in life.  We feel special, among the few who can correctly read a poem and appreciate its subtle irony—and we let go of our concerns for things like political and economic reform. What matters is achieving calm detachment and contemplative humor.  

My point, with this little example, is that we generally focus on what a poem says, and miss what kind of imaginary relation to the world it works to create in us.  That, in fact, cannot be captured by paraphrasing the poem, because it is not in the content of the poem.  Instead, we need to look for it in the practice of reading and appreciating poems.  

The goal of educational institutions is to avoid contemplating exactly this.  They are meant to mystify the function of art, to talk of ineffable essences, so that art can go on doing its work. Film studies will obsess about cinematography or montage or technique, and avoid discussion of the ideological function of actually watching a movie on Netflix.  Or we obsess about the vacuous content of Instagram feeds, but ignore the imaginary relations to our real conditions of existence created by the very fact that we must use our phone for absolutely everything now.  

My hope, in Imaginary Relations, is to explore what we are usually trained to ignore.  The question I want to ask is: when we do this, what kind of a subject does it make us into?  What kind of a person do I become, with what abilities, tendencies, desires, and assumptions about the world, when I play this game or read this book or use this phone? As Althusser asks: What purpose can this imaginary pleasure possibly serve? 

I hope others will join in, and I’ve had some promises of contributions, but if I don’t get them I’ll just keep right on posting my own thoughts every week or two until I do.  In the works are essays on The Good Place, Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and The Witcher.  Others have mentioned writing about Gilmore Girls, Friday Night Lights, and Fox News.  I hope I get some of these submissions, and more.  If you’re not sure what this project is all about, I hope you’ll check back, read some of the essays, and engage in the debate. Because the goal here is a debate. I hope to open the conversation about the imaginary relations of our everyday practices, not settle it. Attempts to outline ideologies in this way may be tentative, subjective, open to complication or revision.  

Tom Pepper

Feel free to email me at wtompepper@icloud.com, or post a comment here, if you have any ideas for possible contributions.  

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