Updated: Oct 8, 2021
There is so much talk about imagining in the context of the social crisis: "imagining sustainable futures" is the super-task of our time, according to Yayo Herrero.
What does it really mean to imagine? How can we start doing it now? Who can teach us?
The complex meaning of words tends to be lost behind the mainstream meaning that is attributed to them by dominant culture. Mainstream meaning, being as conservative as power, is often out of adjustment with respect to the present that that word comes to interpret and to the future that it needs to respond to. For a long time, in the culture of the spectacle society ("spectacle" comes from the Latin "spectare": to look), the word imagination has been associated with the concept of visualization, to the point of having become its synonym. In the field of the Arts -and especially inside the traditional institution of the Fine Arts- the concept of imagination as visualization supports the development of the concept of visual thinking proposed as the kind of critical thinking which would be the most appropriate to the society of the spectacle.
However, the concept of imagination as visualization may be inadequate when it comes to describing in depth and with sufficient complexity the process of imagining that is necessary in the context of the present eco-social crisis. In order for the word loaded with old meaning to re-deploy its full potential of understanding in a new reality, it must revisited and integrated in its common use. In this operation of problematization, resorting to the etymology of the word can be extremely useful. The etymology brings with it the impression of the primary communicative and cognitive intention of a word, and it condenses the fundamental gesture that disposes it to collect meaning from reality. Let's see then the etymology of the word imagination. At the etymological level, the word "imagination" comes from the word "image", from the Latin "imago" (portrait, copy, imitation). Calvert Watkins links it with the Indo-European root * aim- (to copy), also present in the words "emulate" and "imitate".
The etymology of the word imagination, rather than an explicit link with the concept of visualization and the visual aspect with which we commonly associate the word image, shows a more general connection with mimesis, with imitating and copying. We know, especially from neuroscience, that imitation and copying are not only pictorial and visual practices, but multi-sensory and kinetic: let's think, for example, of music and our ability to imitate a sound with our voice. According to the most recent neuroscientific discoveries (Sinigaglia and Rizzolati), mimesis, imitation, is the kinesthetic process that regulates our understanding of the world through the perceptual and kinetic activity of mirror neurons. To understand any action that we perceive, the mirror neurons of the perceiver mimic the perceived action in first person. They do the same thing that they are perceiving. They move with the action. Mimesis plays as the cognitive foundation of our mind and it works as mostly as a kinesthetic and synesthetic phenomenon rather than a mere visual one. The results of various investigations in blind people show that the sound of an action involves the mirror system for action schemes that have not been learned through the visual modality and that this activity is not mediated by visual images.
Furthermore, mimesis is itself an imaginative process: mirror neurons intuitively and imaginatively complete the series of actions and movements that have produced the initial perception. Reproving the connection between imagination and movement, even more recent studies show the influence of movement in improving imaginative capacity: movement increases the production of myelin, an enzyme that intensifies the neural connections responsible for imagination. The culture of performativity can help us to shed light on the mimetic and kinesthetic aspect of the imagination and to re-mean the word so that it is more useful when it comes to critically interpreting our present. In recent decades, the concept of performance has increasingly influenced critical theory and has served to describe complex phenomena of the manifestation and reproduction of power. Beyond images in the visual sense, power is represented through a total, perceptual and kinetic bodily dimension. Performance consists of the repetition of codified gestural habits associated with a type of identity with its dominant or subordinate aspects, which serves as a system for the reproduction of power. The repetition of coded movements learned by perceptual exposure to their gestural models is the substance of the performative.
Power acts on the body through mimesis, offering models to imitate, which penetrate the multisensory domain who perceives them and imprinting the corresponding gestural habits on them. Power shapes bodies through oppressive and traumatic forces that have a physical manifestation in our attitudes, tics, postures, and kinetic modalities. Power, through trauma, gives us a way to move in the world and also, consequently, physically suggests a way to move others. Because relationships are also woven by kinesthetic behaviors full of symbolic violence and status struggles.
The growing diffusion of social media involves users in participating in the performance of media power. Users are not only spectators, as with television or cinema, but also performers, through the assumption of certain body languages, participating in the creation and reproduction of dominant choreographies of postures, gestures and attitudes (just think of the TikTok boom). Each selfie is a crystallized movement, it sets off an action in the world and represents a posture in front of it. Because of this position of co-responsibility with power to which virtual media expose us, as users-creators of media platforms, we need to build habits of performative self-reflection to understand what languages of movements we are making our own and what rhetorics of power we are reproducing while .
The interaction of the concept of imagination and the meaning of mimesis helps us to analyze the performances of power in bodies and through bodies. Visual thinking is not enough if it is not integrated by a performative aspect, that is, by an awareness of the kinesthetic aspect of the representation of power. Resigning the word imagination as a performative process allows us to deepen our understanding of culture and power as techniques of the body. Knowing the creative languages of movement, we not only acquire tools for analysis but also creative tools to modify our attitude towards the world in a material way. Imagination as performative thinking offers us a possibility of radical and empowering understanding in the present: detecting and freeing ourselves from embodied power relations present in us. Only in this way will we be able to take action in times of crisis and emergency, critically understanding which performativities we are representing and reproducing and which ones we need to cultivate to change the dynamics of power.
How can we strengthen the power of the imagination in the performance society?
The concepts of imagination elaborated in the practice and theory of the Performative Arts help us to understand more generally the kinesthetic processes that allow performative transformation. It is worth noting here the metaphor that the teacher Philip Zarrilli creates, referring to the performer's body in the act of imagination that becomes "all eyes" when he tunes in with the image and represents it.
Through imagination body sees beyond visuality.
Both in the theory and in the practice of Zarrilli's performance, Yasuo Yuasa's concept of imagination is very influential:
"How unimaginatively we have conceived the imagination. Under the influence of Cartesian dualism, imagination is too often considered to be simply an 'image', conceived as something in the mind. For Yuasa and phenomenology, imagining is a psychophysiological act of mind-body integrity. For the actor to update an image, like visualizing the seagull in Chekhov's homonymous work, means much more than seeing the seagull projected on his mental screen. The performer trained through the body, who has updated her 'ki-sensitivity', is able to intuitively update a full bodily connection with that image that is palpable throughout your body, from the soles of her feet to through her eyes. This is what Barba describes as a distillation of 'energy patterns that [is] applied to the way of conceiving or composing a dramatic action' (1985: 15). This is 'the physical aspect of thought' whose counterpart is 'thinking with and the body', both being essential for a performer, if what the performer wants is to become a complete artist capable of creating thoughts with the body."
At the edge of the breath, looking" by P. Zarrilli
The "kinesthetic" concept of imagination elaborated by Zarrilli, vindicates the role of bodily creativity in the understanding of the art and performance, and beyond it world. It is not by chance that in the West the body has been historically excluded as a spiritual principle and degraded to a lower cognitive function. The intention has been to weaken the capacity for imagination that resides in the body, due to its subversive potential. The propaganda of anti-body value systems, especially the Church and rationalist science, have had an instrumental function in the establishment of the capitalist system, being co-responsible and defenders of its policies of sublimation and extractivism that have led to the economic and social crisis.
Zarrilli's concept of imagination is offered not only as a theory that illuminates the concept of imagination but also opens a field of practice to update our way of educating the imagination and enhancing its effects in this historical moment in which not only artists but to all of us are called to imagine and update sustainable futures to change the world. As if we were artists, we need to train the creativity of our bodies to stop reproducing dominant performativities and generate new performativities that resonate with our images of a livable future. From now on, we need to learn to imagine with the body, as a performer does.
For those who are in Madrid at the end of July 2021, I leave you the information from the Performance, Acting and Creation Workshop: "Rethinking training and imagination" made by my soul teacher Sol Garre, direct student of Philip Zarrilli, Acting Professor at RESAD and and one of most relevant international practitioners in Chekhov Technique.