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Reflections on Imagination

Anthropological Studies of
Creativity and Perception
Series Editor: Tim Ingold, University of Aberdeen, UK

The books in this series explore the relations, in human social and cultural life,
between perception, creativity and skill. Their common aim is to move beyond
established approaches in anthropology and material culture studies that treat the
inhabited world as a repository of complete objects, already present and available for
analysis. Instead these works focus on the creative processes that continually bring
these objects into being, along with the persons in whose lives they are entangled.
All creative activities entail movement or gesture, and the books in this series
are particularly concerned to understand the relations between these creative
movements and the inscriptions they yield. Likewise in considering the histories
of artefacts, these studies foreground the skills of their makers-cum-users, and
the transformations that ensue, rather than tracking their incorporation as finished
objects within networks of interpersonal relations.
The books in this series will be interdisciplinary in orientation, their
concern being always with the practice of interdisciplinarity: on ways of doing
anthropology with other disciplines, rather than doing an anthropology of these
subjects. Through this anthropology with, they aim to achieve an understanding
that is at once holistic and processual, dedicated not so much to the achievement
of a final synthesis as to opening up lines of inquiry.

Other titles in the series:

Design and Anthropology

Edited by Wendy Gunn and Jared Donovan

Imagining Landscapes
Past, Present and Future
Edited by Monica Janowski and Tim Ingold

Redrawing Anthropology
Materials, Movements, Lines
Edited by Tim Ingold

Conversations With Landscape

Edited by Karl Benediktsson and Katrín Anna Lund
Reflections on Imagination
Human Capacity and Ethnographic Method

Edited by
Mark Harris
University of St Andrews, UK

Nigel Rapport
University of St Andrews, UK
© Mark Harris and Nigel Rapport 2015

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher.

Mark Harris and Nigel Rapport have asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the editors of this work.

Published by
Ashgate Publishing Limited Ashgate Publishing Company
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:

Reflections on imagination : human capacity and ethnographic method / [edited] by Mark

Harris and Nigel Rapport.
pages cm. – (Anthropological studies of creativity and perception)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4724-1728-2 (hardback) – ISBN 978-1-4724-1730-5 (ebook) – ISBN 978-1-
4724-1729-9 (epub) 1. Imagination. 2. Creative ability. I. Harris, Mark, 1969- II. Rapport,
Nigel, 1956-
BF408.R253 2015
ISBN 9781472417282 (hardback)
ISBN 9781472417299 (ebk – PDF)
ISBN 9781472417305 (ebk – ePUB)

Printed in the United Kingdom by Henry Ling Limited,

at the Dorset Press, Dorchester, DT1 1HD
In memory of David Riches,
a founder of the Department of Social Anthropology at St Andrews.
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List of Figures   ix
List of Contributors   xi
Preface by Nigel Rapport and Mark Harris   xiii

Part I Introduction

1 ‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’: On the Universal Human

Imagining of the World   3
Nigel Rapport

2 From the River: Making Local Histories of the Imagination   23

Mark Harris

PART II Case Studies

Imagination, Methodology, Ethnomethodology

3 Re-Imagining Ethnography   45
Paul Stoller

4 Tango Heart and Soul: Solace, Suspension, and the Imagination in

the Dance Tourist   61
Jonathan Skinner

Imagination, History, the Uncanny

5 Historical Imagination and Imagining Madness: The Experience of

Colonial Officers in French West Africa   79
Roy Dilley

6 Hauntings: From Anthropology of the Imagination to the

Anthropological Imagination   99
Peter Collins
viii Reflections on Imagination

Imagination, Materiality and Consciousness

7 Reflections on the Encounters of the Imagination: Ontology,

Epistemology and the Limits of the Real in Anthropology   119
Mattia Fumanti

8 Granite and Steel   135

Andrew Irving

Imagination and Social Imaginaries

9 Uses of Finland in Japan’s Social Imaginary   161

Hideko Mitsui

10 The Social Imaginary and Literature: Understanding the

Popularisation of Modern Medicine in Brazil   177
Paulo César Alves

Imagination, Scale, Otherness

11 The Imagining Life: Reflections on Imagination in

Political Anthropology   195
Leo Coleman

12 Do Forest Children Dream of Electric Light? An Exploration of

Matses Children’s Imaginings in Peruvian Amazonia   215
Camilla Morelli

Imagination, Perspective, Emergence

13 Infrastructural Imaginaries: Collapsed Futures in Mozambique and

Mongolia   237
Morten Nielsen and Morten Axel Pedersen

14 Imagination/Making: Working with Others and the Formation of

Anthropological Knowledge   263
James Leach


15 Afterword: An End to Imagining?   275

Huon Wardle

Index   295
List of Figures

1.1 Love Letters, by Stanley Spencer, 1950 (oil on canvas,

86.4 x 116.8 cm)    13

3.1 Belayara Market, February 2009   47

3.2 El Hajj Yaya in New York, 2009   48
3.3 A Groggy Gurwitz graduate dancing with his grandmother,
Rose Stoller   49
3.4 Paul Stoller at The Pitt News, 1968   50
3.5 Entrance to the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market   54

7.1 ‘Ode to an educationalist’, courtesy of Ms C., Namibia, 2009   124

7.2 Studio portrait   129

8.1 Manhattan Bridge   136

8.2 Stella, Joseph (1879–1946): ‘The Voice of the City of New York
Interpreted: The Bridge, 1920–1922’.    140
8.3 ‘Odlum Jumps’, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper,
30 May 1885   143
8.4 Introduction to The Life and Adventures of Professor Robert
Emmet Odlum (1885) by his mother, Mrs Catherine Odlum   144
8.5 Brooklyn Bridge   145
8.6 Yuri: Walking to Work over the Brooklyn Bridge   147
8.7 Thomas: Killing Time on Manhattan Bridge, Waiting for a Bus
to Boston   149
8.8 Sara: Brooklyn Bridge, on Holiday in New York from Israel   150
8.9 Joyce: Manhattan Bridge   151

12.1 Iquitos   215

12.2 Forest spirit   219
12.3 Forest spirit with sunglasses   220
12.4 Matses warriors fight Jean-Claude Van Damme   221
12.5 Colonia Angamos   224
12.6 The village   226
12.7 Chotac yacno (non-indigenous settlement)    227
12.8 Colonia Angamos   227
12.9 Airplane   229
x Reflections on Imagination

13.1 A schematic outline of the imagination ‘from the subject outwards’

(left) and ‘from the world inwards’ (right)   244
13.2 Signpost with the inscription ‘Power Plant #5 to be built’    253
13.3 Drawing of Power Plant #5 plans at Uliastai    254

15.1 Andoke shaman and his wife   288

15.2 Andoke shaman and his wife (section)   289
15.3 Captain T.W. Whiffen and John Brown (section)   290
15.4 John Brown   291
List of Contributors

Paulo César Alves: Professor of Anthropology, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil

Leo Coleman: Assistant Professor in Comparative Studies, Ohio State University, USA

Peter Collins: Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Durham University, UK

Roy Dilley: Professor of Social Anthropology, University of St. Andrews, UK

Mattia Fumanti: Lecturer in Social Anthropology, University of St. Andrews, UK

Mark Harris: Reader in Social Anthropology, University of St. Andrews, UK

Andrew Irving: Director, Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, University of

Manchester, UK

James Leach: Professor Social Anthropology, University of Western Australia

Hideko Mitsui: Assistant Professor, Japanese Studies, University of Macau, China

Camilla Morelli: Research Associate in Social Anthropology, University of

Manchester, UK

Morten Nielsen: Associate Professor Social Anthropology, Aarhus University,


Morten Axel Pedersen: Professor of Social Anthropology, University of

Copenhagen, Denmark

Nigel Rapport: Professor of Anthropological and Philosophical Studies, University

of St. Andrews, UK

Jonathan Skinner: Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, Roehampton University, UK

Paul Stoller: Professor of Anthropology, West Chester University, USA

Huon Wardle: Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology, University of St. Andrews,

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Nigel Rapport and Mark Harris

This volume originates in a conference held at the Centre for Cosmopolitan

Studies, in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews. The
conference was entitled, ‘The Imagination: A Universal Process of Knowledge?’,
with a view to opening up a series of new questions for the discipline on the topic
of the imagination. What role did imagination play in constructing ethnographic
data – knowledge about the social world – both for the anthropologist and for
his or her informants? And what, then, was the connection between imagination
and other forms of knowledge? Here was the imagination both as an object of
anthropological investigation, ethnographic and theoretic, and as a technique for
approaching reality, of the anthropologist and the informant alike.
These questions were grounded in the estimation that imagination was a
universal human faculty and an aspect of universal individual human embodiment:
a focus on imagination thus refreshed an appreciation of the human as a singular
condition and capacity, and extended a humanistic approach in anthropology.
Given this grounding, members of the conference addressed a number of
key concerns, including: whether imagination was a methodological a priori in
anthropology, and whether participant-observation and archival study, fieldwork
and writing-up, were equally indebted to it; what differences might be expected
between imagination as methodology (an aspect of scientific disciplinarity)
and ethnomethodology (an aspect of everyday, local or ‘folk’ modelling); what
an intellectual history of imagination might look like; how imagination might
be ethnographically investigated; and how the imagination might be said to be
limited, in its scientific reach, in its folk recognition.
This volume is an account of the deliberations of that conference in 2011: its
presentations, its discussions, and the collaborations in thought and writing that
have taken place since.
The ethos of the volume remains a humanistic one. That is to say, it is
concerned to redress anthropological tendencies towards cultural relativism and
see, instead, the human being as a universal figure. Part of the possession of
such a figure is an imaginative capacity: a human faculty. The imagination is a
common practice, something to which human beings attend whenever they make
sense of their environments and situate their life-projects in these environments:
a human facility. The book is a reflection on human capacity, faculty and facility
against tendencies that would make the human condition subject to conceptual and
discursive abstractions (‘culture’, ‘episteme’, ‘schemata’).
xiv Reflections on Imagination

The 15 chapters in the volume are divided into three main parts: Introduction,
Case Studies, and Review. Continuing this Introduction will be opening statements
from the volume’s two editors, Rapport and Harris, concerning how they would
personally frame the challenge that imagination represents to anthropology and
why they deem it to be of importance. In the Review, Huon Wardle looks back
on the volume’s contributions and assesses what as a whole they have wrought
and how they might be seen to lead anthropological practice forward. In between,
the Case Studies section offers 12 individual interventions of an ethnographic
kind concerning the imagination as a component in a scientific methodology
and a folk ethnomethodology. The case studies are themselves grouped into six
subsections, drawing attention severally to the ways in which imagination relates
significantly to sense-making, to revelation and character, to subjectivity, to the
political imaginary, to aesthetics, and to sound and vision. Prefacing each of these
subsections is a brief introduction by the editors of the two chapters to come.
As for the editors’ own interventions that immediately follow this Preface, the
following can be said as preamble.
Nigel Rapport represents the imagination as an issue at once epistemological,
methodological and representational: what kind of human-scientific knowledge
does the imagination represent, what kind of truth? He begins with an account of the
way in which for European Romanticism, the Enlightenment and the modernism of
the French philosophes amounted to the degradation and destruction of much that
was sacred in humanity. The mechanistic Weltanschauung of Newton and Voltaire
that saw nature as inert matter to be understood by dissection, experiment and
analysis was false. Instead Romanticism sought to give emphasis, even primacy, to
a universal and individual human capacity to know through the private and personal
activities of imagining and intuiting. Rapport wonders, how should anthropology
respond to this? On the other hand one wants to insist on anthropology as a kind of
human science. The Enlightenment was that moment when human beings recognised
their capacity and also their right to assume true knowledge about their lives and
the wider universe, deploying experimental and critical methodologies, and to use
this knowledge towards their own betterment. There was no supernatural warrant
for anything, and Nature did represent a spiritless or soulless complex of matter
and processes. Notwithstanding, is it possible to square the circle: imagination
as a warranted kind of evidence, as data for a human science, that nevertheless
derives from an individual turning inward or being inward, an interiority that
has no means of external verification or reiteration? The issue is doubled for the
anthropologist. There is the question of his or her own imaginings, and then too
his or her imaginings of informants’ imaginings. The anthropologist has external
evidence of informants’ words and actions but if the disciplinary project is also one
of experience, of entering informants’ consciousnesses, getting ‘under their skin’,
then the interiority of their imaginative worlds must be broached. This is the burden
and the deliverance of the literary turn of recent decades of which anthropology
has been a beneficiary. This calls for a reassessment of what serves as evidence
in a human (and humanistic) science. Rapport draws on ethnographic accounts
Preface xv

of fieldwork among hospital porters and archival research into the life and art of
British painter Stanley Spencer to argue for the centrality of the imagination in
social life and social science alike. Every identity, every relationship, every piece
of data is an imagined phenomenon. There is imagination – an interpretation of
meaning and sense – in even the ‘barest reality’.
Mark Harris’s contribution examines how the imagination is provoked by
living in a particular kind of place. Imagination has been seen as an imprecise
and undifferentiated concept. Embedded in a Western Romantic tradition
where artistic talent is highly valued, as Rapport notes, how can it be useful for
anthropology? Harris suggests what can be of interest to the discipline, amongst
other possibilities, is an emphasis on the activity of imagining and the new range
of possibilities it creates for the self to inhabit.
The Amazon is an example of a strong environment. The commanding size of
the rivers and overwhelming presence of the animal and plant world has a powerful
phenomenal reality. Does the quality of imagination assume a different character
in this place? Does the ongoing exposure to flowing waters at all influence the
mind’s perception of the world? Harris’s answer here is to adopt a Batesonian
type ‘ecological’ understanding (Bateson 1972). Here imagination can be seen
as an activity that passes along a pathway connecting the mind, the body and the
environment. The imaginative self spills out into the surrounding world. However
this understanding creates a problem – does water offer only a convenient metaphor
for imaginative wanderings? Or does the actual presence and reality of water make
a difference? It is often remarked that water offers the most appropriate metaphor
for the imaginative life, by Gaston Bachelard for example. So do those who live
next to a river imagine differently than those who do not? Harris seeks to go
beyond a divide between metaphor and reality, and representation and experience,
by emphasising the work of the imagination as both a mental and physical effort.
This labour, moreover, is shaped by particular kinds of historical contexts.
The riverine dwellers of Harris’s chapter are the descendants of the Indians who
survived conquest and settled in colonial missions and villages. Their lives are
an amalgam of different cultural traditions. In creating new livelihoods, they
also created novel perceptions, innovative imaginaries it could be said. An
anthropological focus on the reflective and self-conscious individual throws into
relief the social and historical context. Rather than talk about ‘Christianity’, say,
or ‘witchcraft’, ‘shamanism’, ‘colonial power’, or other abstract, loaded concepts,
it forces a consideration of the individual’s propensity to go beyond such terms.
Anthropology returns to a human scale; it becomes less easy to pigeon-hole and
takes refuge in established terms and ideas. Harris considers by way of example the
case of two shamans from a riverbank village who were brought to the attention of
the Portuguese Inquisition in the late colonial period. Shamanism in the Amazon
is often linked to rivers as shamans travel underwater. This roaming along rivers
provides another dimension to explore the field of the imaginative life. If a watery
imagination is to be an object of anthropological knowing then a shamanic mind
offers a vital place of discernment and intuition.
xvi Reflections on Imagination

Imagining is then not something separate from material existence but

embedded in it, even if indirectly. A critical strategy of humanistic science is the
use of the author’s imagination in appreciating other lives, whether in the past or
the present. R.G. Collingwood, archaeologist, historian and philosopher, wrote
in his 1938 The Principles of Art, that no piece of art is complete without the
imagination. Similarly, in The Idea of History, Collingwood argued that historical
documents are not facts, sitting on shelves waiting to reveal their secrets. They are
instead complex texts that could be read in many ways. To make sense of them,
scholars need to formulate questions and search for answers in the letter or report.
In other words, neither art works nor archived documents have an independent
existence outside of a framework of individual creative understanding. Essentially
for Collingwood, imagination weaves a web of interpretation between observer
and observed, reader and text. In so doing the imagination creates the meaning out
of traces of the past or other people’s creativity. There is an activity of knowing
akin to faring along paths of mental, and physical, movement.
From an anthropological point of view, this methodological strategy of
imaginative engagement can be put to good effect when it meets with the
imaginative lives of our informants.
Part I
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Chapter 1
‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’:
On the Universal Human Imagining
of the World
Nigel Rapport

Enlightenment and Romanticism

For the Romantic movement of early nineteenth-century Europe, the Enlightenment

and the modernism of the French philosophes represented the degradation and
destruction of much that was sacred in humanity. The mechanistic world-view of
Newton and Voltaire that saw nature as inert matter to be understood by dissection,
experiment and analysis was false and sacrilegious. Nature constituted a single living
organism. One understood it through intuition and above all through imagination,
revealing its powers and mysteries through a kind of spiritual ‘dematerialisation’.
Hence, one has statements such as the following from Romantic notables:

• von Schelling: ‘Nature is visible Spirit: Spirit is invisible Nature’;

• Novalis: ‘The poet understands nature better than the scientific mind’;
• Goethe: ‘I return into myself and find a world’ [The Sorrows of
Young Werther];
• Baudelaire: ‘[Imagination] decomposes all creation, and with the raw
materials accumulated and disposed in accordance with the rules whose
origin one cannot find save in the furthest depths of the soul, it creates a
new world, it produces the sensation of newness’.

Self-absorption did not mean isolation: quite the opposite. Imaginative and
intuitive insights became for the Romantics a redemptive mission.
When I learn this about Romanticism I find myself torn. On the one hand
I appreciate the emphasis given to, even the primacy given to, a universal and
individual human capacity to know through the private and personal activities of
imagining and intuiting. In the words of Fichte: ‘Intellectual intuition is the only
firm standpoint for philosophy. Thence we can explain everything that occurs in
consciousness; and moreover, only thence’. On the other hand I want to know
my anthropology as a kind of human science. I have no truck with mystical talk
of spirit and superorganicism. One way in which to conceive of this volume is as
a project to explore the imagination as data for a human science, as evidentially
4 Reflections on Imagination

valid, while recognizing its distinctive nature: a matter of the individual turning
inward or being inward, practising an interiority that has no necessary exterior
anchor or limitation (Rapport 2008a). I imagine what Doris, my farmer-informant
from Wanet, variously intends by her berating of her daughter Karen in the house
kitchen; I imagine what Roger, my porter-informant from Constance Hospital,
experiences when he walks down the corridors playing air guitar to an intoning of
Black Sabbath. I have the external evidence of their words and actions, of course,
but I am intent, above all, on entering my informants’ consciousness, getting under
their skin, and imagining their worlds from their perspectives. How can this be
science? What kind of claim does my imagination represent on evidencing another
life-world? What kind of knowing (Harris 2007)?
One further feature of Romanticism was to assume an analogy between
individual and community: tribe, nation and race. The individual was metonymic
of a particular collectivity that was to be recognised equally as an organic, self-
determining whole. The nation, for instance, as with the race, contained its natural,
volkisch wisdom of which the individual formed a part. Das Volk and the traditional
culture and language of a nation were to be promoted, even worshipped, as were
the insights of the individual. If Nature constituted a single living organism, then
nation and race were intermediate phenomena by which the individual belonged
to the whole, the conduits through which individual connected to and lived within
Nature. Looking inside himself or herself, the individual knew (intuited and
imagined) because there was a prior organic connexion that made him or her part
of the whole: the nation, race and Nature beyond.
If I believed this to be true then it might solve the problem of an individual
imagination and an anthropological scientist intrinsically separate from other
consciousnesses and life-worlds he or she might be intent on knowing. One
would simply say that the imagination is a species of collective consciousness: an
individual capacity and practice, yes, but one whose form and content derives from
socialisation and enculturation within a national or communitarian or otherwise
collective tradition. I imagine according to my socialisation(s). And this has indeed
been an anthropological thesis, a venerable one, since the days of Herder, figuring
largely in the work of Durkheim, of Levi-Strauss, of Bourdieu, of Clifford Geertz.
Thinking and feeling are not private activities that occur in separate individual
heads, argued Geertz; to the contrary, thinking and feeling (and imagining) amount
to similarly public and collective practices to interaction in the market-place. The
individual consciousness is immersed in a set of symbol-systems which penetrate
body and mind such that to belong to a culture is to partake in the exchange of
symbols that cause one to imagine and feel and intend one’s fighting cock to be
one’s perambulatory penis, say. As Geertz concludes (1973: 405): ‘under the
guidance of symbols, [individuals and groups of individuals] perceive, feel, reason,
judge, and act’. There is no need to give way to psychologism, Geertz urges, and
the ethnographer need not pretend to empathy, because all social life, all human
experience, is construed experience and interpreted experience, determined by the
symbolic forms in terms of which the construing and interpreting takes place.
‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’ 5

But I do not believe this to be true. My experience leads me to distinguish

at every moment between the symbolic forms of my public exchanges and the
meanings with which I animate them – and to imagine other human beings to do
the same. At every moment I may make myself aware of the articulate interior
consciousness that proceeds alongside but that is absolutely distinct from the
exterior life beyond the surface of the self. My embodiment is an ontological
phenomenon: my membership of social groups – nations, communities, other
collectivities – is a symbolic and rhetorical and institutional arrangement distinct
from the absolute nature of my being. I might invest my body and mind in my
support of Arsenal Football Club, Israel, the British Humanist Association and the
Virginia Woolf Society, not to mention my family and my university, but I know
I am distinct from these and would deem it my right to be recognised as such
by others.
And so my problem remains: imagination as a kind of human-scientific source
of true knowledge.

Existentialism and Personality

There is an insight of Sartre’s that I find productive, in his claiming of the

imaginative as key to an existentialist appreciation of the human condition. The
defining feature of the imagination, asserts Sartre (1963 [1948]), lies in the ability
of the human mind to imagine what is not the case. Key to the phenomenon of the
imagination is the mind (and a wide bodily awareness) detaching itself from its
immediate environs. We can distance ourselves from an immediate experience and
so gain a distinct perspective on it. This is our freedom, Sartre goes on to assert, and
the proof of our not being programmed to react to stimuli or otherwise determined.
This character of the imagination as a distancing from the present, from what
presently exists, is taken up by anthropologist James Preston (1991), whose
interests are commensurate with my own: achieving a kind of anthropological
science which extends to include what he calls the poetic and imaginative domains
of human experience.
What is particularly interesting for Preston is the way in which the imagination
distorts what is the case along four transformatory dimensions or domains:

1. The imagination plays with spatial properties: through such processes

as Miniaturisation, Magnification, Condensation (shorthand packaging)
and Translocation (voyeurism), a locational transformation of physical
boundaries is effected.
2. The imagination plays with temporal properties: through such processes
as Simultaneity (sequential time becomes kaleidoscopic), Montage
(progressive – of future possible events – and retrogressive – of possible
past sequences), Progression/Retrogression (invention of possible pasts
and futures) and Flying, explorations of impermanence are effected.
6 Reflections on Imagination

3. The imagination plays with morphological properties: through such

processes as Transmutation (into another being), Materialisation (invention
of beings and the demise of others), Animation (e.g. anthropomorphism)
and Complementarity (e.g. the seeing of binarisms), an altering of the
world of shapes and structures, asymmetries and symmetries is effected.
4. The imagination plays with comprehensive properties permeating all the
above: through such processes as Chromatics (colour/light change), Focus
(flexible concentration and degree), Composition (a flexible balance and
make-up of all the above) and Distortion (twisting, enhancing, etc. of
particular qualities and characteristics), worlds are changed wholesale.
Indeed, Preston suggests that the four properties he identifies in imagination
rarely appear in isolation: they interweave and layer one another.

Before considering how in the practical terms of my quest Preston’s classification

or topography of the imaginative might help, let me add that Preston’s own
conclusion is that anthropology should place the imagination centre stage and see it
as responsible for giving reality to cultural worlds. Contrary to presumptions from
Behaviourism, Functionalism, Cultural Materialism, and Structuralism, subjective
experience should neither be passed over as irrelevant nor deemed epiphenomenal
upon symbolic interaction or discursive positioning, nor avoided as inaccessible,
but approached as the necessary process for the invention of culture and the
manipulation of the environment. The imaginative and poetic are key ingredients
for an understanding of the human condition: ‘every aspect of culture proceeds out
of the imagination’ and is shaped by it, Preston concludes (1991: 102).
Preston’s coupling of the imaginative and the poetic leads me to the
penultimate constructive reference I would make, to insights of Oscar Wilde’s.
In his book Intentions (1891), Wilde wrote that only by intensifying his or her
own personality and entering it into an analytical interpretation could a critic
truly, really, satisfyingly and convincingly interpret the personality and work
of others. Personality, Wilde urges, is ‘an element of revelation. If you wish to
understand others you must intensify your own individualism’ (1913 [1891]: 156).
And central to personality, as Wilde elaborates in the posthumously published
‘De Profundis’ (1905), is imagination. Echoing Preston’s argument on the relation
between imagination and culture, but taking it further, Wilde claims that the world
is made by imagination, even if the world cannot understand imagination. In other
words one does not need to work to make a connexion between imagination and
exteriority because it is intrinsic to our being-in and -with an exteriority beyond
the self, even if the link appears mysterious to the extent that the world created
by imagination cannot look back and explain its genesis. ‘It is in the brain that
everything takes place’, Wilde affirms (1990 [1905]: 874); redness and larks are
in the brain as imaginative transmutations of our sense impressions. And again:

Time and space, succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of
thought; the imagination can transcend them and move in a free sphere of ideal
‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’ 7

existences. Things are also in their essence of what we choose to make them; a
thing is according to the mode in which we look at it. (Wilde 1990 [1905]: 887)

Pragmatism and Reason

I want to sound an empirical note, in touch with brute materialities rather than the
further reaches of what might be dismissed as idealistic and solipsistic versions
of our imaginative capacities. Even if imagination offers transcendence, a tension
remains with the world as is: if imagination as an attribute of personality is
responsible for the externalisation of our world-views and our life-projects into
wider physical environments then resistance is yet encountered from otherness.
The individual is not alone with his or her imagination. This, indeed, is the starting
point of a sophisticated recent anthropological engagement with the imaginative,
in a special issue of the journal Ethnos, edited by David Sneath, Martin Holbraad
and Morten Axel Pedersen, and entitled ‘Technologies of the Imagination’ (2009).
Anthropology can develop its own distinct approach to the imagination, they claim,
if it counters the mentalism of psychology and posits a key role to materiality,
to conditions, relations and situations external to the imagining individual, as
responsible for constituting imaginative projects: ‘delineating the particular vistas
on which that which is imagined assumes its form’ (2009: 14). There are ‘specific
“technologies” through which imaginative capacities are moulded’ (2009: 5);
there are ‘social and material means by which particular imaginings are generated’
(2009: 6). The imagination is to be appreciated anthropologically as an outcome
not a condition, a relational object. And yet problems remain for Sneath, Holbraad
and Pedersen, for does not the imaginative possess very particular qualities? Yes,
the anthropologist must recognise how the imagination is nevertheless defined
in terms of its irreducible indeterminacy. Hence, the imagination remains
‘peculiarly underdetermined’ by the technologies that produce it, by the processes
that precipitate it (2000: 19): an odd effect, bearing neither a deterministic nor
teleological relationship to its source. And its source too must be seen to possess
its own particularities, for what comprise ‘technologies of the imagination’ are
any objects and practices that bring about imaginative effects – that is, ‘outcomes
that they do not fully condition’ (2000: 25). And hence, Sneath, Holbraad and
Pedersen’s complex conclusion: anthropologically to study technologies of the
imagination is to explore those ‘specific conditions under which the unconditioned
emerges’ and unconditioned outcomes come about (2000: 26).
I wish to retain the image of a tension – imagination as a space of indeterminacy
amid social and cultural life – but I would resist its anthropological domestication
as, by its nature, a conditioned and material relationship. Rather than supposing
that particular ‘technologies’ are responsible for opening up an imaginative
space, I would retain individual agency: imagination is an individually embodied
capacity, ontologically transcendent of setting (other than the body), which
impacts upon the material world. Yes, that individual body (and its intrinsic
8 Reflections on Imagination

capacities) is surrounded by otherness – other human consciousnesses, histories of

social institutions and cultural symbologies, the material intransigencies of natural
environments – but what is to be anthropologically appreciated and accounted for
is the way in which human beings attend to the world around them by virtue of
their own individual and individuated interpretive processes and how a personal
history of such attendings-to results in a personal sensorium, a personal life-world,
personal contexts, in which each of us dwells (Rapport 1993; 2003).
And here, finally, I find a definition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s helpful: ‘The
Imagination may be defined to be the use which the Reason makes of the material
world’ (Emerson 1981 [1836]: 35). I like this because in Emerson’s conception,
imagination, reason and the material world come together as individual practice.
In using my reason to engage with the world around me I shape that world in
particular ways: this shaping is a creative, an imaginative process. If, as an
anthropologist, I shape the world into a particular sense, then my informants, my
fellow human beings, do likewise. I reason and imagine and make of the material
world alongside them. We are commensurate in our use of universal human
capacities even if there is uniqueness to how we individually substantiate those
capacities: I imagine alongside my informants albeit that precisely how and what
they imagine is hidden from me by our discrete embodiments.
Notwithstanding, to hear their words and see their actions is to observe my
informants’ imaginations in action, employed in both individual and joint projects.
These must be my clues.

Case Studies

I turn now to three ethnographic episodes: two vignettes from fieldwork among
porters in a Scottish hospital (Rapport 2008b); one from a project, ongoing, that
explores the figuration of the human body in the art of English painter Stanley
Spencer (Rapport 2004; 2005).
For the first episodes it is necessary to know that Constance Hospital,
Easterneuk, is a large state-funded multi-specialised teaching hospital in which
porters (and domestics) occupy rather a lowly position since their skills are not
medicine-specific or the result of long training. However, in the porters’ lodge (or
‘buckie’ in local parlance), two rooms in the middle of the hospital complex of
corridors and stairwells, the porters (some 140 in total, all but two being men) have
a home-in-the-institution in which they can act in a relaxed way and where they
display a masculine bullishness and a self-confidence that includes a contempt for
the hierarchies and self-importance of the hospital. This is born out of the porters’
certainties concerning what it is to be a man on the streets and in the pubs and the
other residential and recreational venues of Easterneuk.
Here is a scene that takes place in the buckie. Two of the porters’ managers,
Peggy and Mark, have recently left, having made one of their routine visits that
aim in part to show management’s human face. Peggy and Mark often come as
‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’ 9

a pair, however, because the machismo of the buckie can be intimidating, while
they often bring with them instructions or news about jobs and pay and holidays
and overtime that can be a source of displeasure for the porters. Coming as a pair
and offering one another mutual support also means that Peggy and Mark will not
themselves be tempted to ‘cross the line’ and become too casual or relaxed or pally
with the porters (since they have not always been promoted staff themselves) and
that the porters, in their turn, will not be tempted to tease them in too openly an
inclusive (and disrespectful) a fashion.
On their recent visit, one porter, Brendan, had made a particular point
of haranguing Peggy and Mark about the state of the bin in the buckie: it was
‘smelly’. Peggy had admitted it was ‘a bit cheesy’ – ‘and that’s even after it’s
changed a few times a day’, Brendan had elaborated, the implication being that the
porters needed a new one if they were to be free from the ingrained odours. ‘Oh!
So you’re having to change it yourselves’, Peggy had sounded surprised, before
concluding: ‘Well: you’ll just have to eat less!’ Her joke and lack of sympathy had
not gone down so well. Now, a short time later, not long after Peggy’s and Mark’s
departure, Wilbur, a senior porter, complains to those still in the buckie about a
task Peggy has now had him do: Wilbur has just been instructed to go outside and
clear away the members of the public as well as hospital employees who have
taken to gathering just outside the hospital front-door and smoking, even though
the whole complex is formally designated a smoke-free environment. ‘What a
job!’ Wilbur claims with annoyance. Arthur agrees: ‘Imagine someone smoking
who’s just been in to see his dying mother! You’d get the cigarette in your eye
if you told him to stop!’ We laugh. Conversation then turns to the way Brendan
had recently ‘cheeked’ Peggy and Mark over the issue of the smelly bin: Wilbur
guesses Brendan will not have done his prospects for job promotion much good
by doing that, and Brendan agrees resignedly. ‘You might get a phone call in a
few minutes to come up to her office’, Arthur offers, and then adds as a lascivious
afterthought (since Peggy is also attractive): ‘Aye, in loose-fitting clothing!’ We
laugh again at the scenario Arthur imagines for us, Peggy’s potential disciplinary
relations with Brendan suddenly transformed into sexual ones. ‘Aye, Peggy’s
okay!’ Brendan concludes with a smirk.
I will not say any more. But the suggestiveness of the scene is rich. Not only
the social norms concerning when and how it is conventional and appropriate to
invoke and deploy the imagination publicly, as Arthur does among his fellows,
but more significantly the existential work that the imagination does: the kinds of
non-existent realities that are imagined forth as ways to rationalise the existent.
The imagination of angry smokers justifies Wilbur’s and others’ annoyance at
Peggy; the imagination of Peggy as sexually forward changes the complexion of
her practice of intervening in the porters’ working lives. And so on.
The second vignette takes place some months previous to the one above, again in
the buckie. Now Arthur is informed by Dave that Peggy wants to speak to him (both
Dave and Arthur, like Wilbur, are ‘chargehands’, a position intermediary between
the portering management and the rest of the portering body; but since they work in
10 Reflections on Imagination

the buckie with the rest, and not ‘upstairs’ with the managers, their identity as ‘one
of us’ is assured). Arthur dismisses the significance of the instruction to report to
Peggy by joking that it will be because she ‘wants a servicing’ – she is requesting
that he go and make love to her – and he mimes the actions for us: he thrusts
forward vigorously with his thighs a number of times, an orgasmic look on his face.
‘Right through her tights’, he adds, for dramatic effect; he imagines there will be no
time or need for formalities. We laugh at his show and the image he conjures, and
Arthur goes off to find Peggy in her office. Some time later, Arthur is back and has
sorted the problem: Roger – given the appellation ‘Ninja’ by Arthur due to his well-
publicised fascination with karate – has agreed to come in and work on Boxing
Day and so the roster of porters on duty is full (Ninja will be paid double time,
and be given further days off afterwards). And Arthur phones Peggy immediately
with the good news, even though she has left work by now and gone home. ‘That’s
funny’, Arthur reports back to Dave on putting the phone down: there was a male
voice delivering the message on Peggy’s answer-phone. ‘I thought Peggy had a
boyfriend’, Arthur calculates: ‘that must be a son on the phone’.
Again, the imagining of sex with Peggy downplays the potential seriousness
of Arthur’s being called to account. Arthur succeeds in turning a work event
into a leisure activity; his boss, moreover, is imagined as the one with needs
(‘servicing’) and Arthur can reprise his male role as the active member in their
upcoming encounter; indeed, he can further imagine giving immediate satisfaction
(‘through her tights’). The same levelling work continues as Arthur conjures up
the image of their somewhat obsessive (and unfit-seeming) work-mate Roger as
the sleek, professional and secretive ‘Ninja’. But then the scene ends with another
kind of imaginative work. Here, the unknown qualities of Peggy’s life beyond
the institution are pierced, and pieced together. She is unmarried, so even though
she is known to have a boyfriend there is no male relationship in her life with
the sufficient formality or publicity to warrant her home answer-phone message
being enunciated in his voice – other than a filial one of course. Thus does Arthur
reason and imagine and shape the world around him into a particular sense – and
I likewise as his anthropological interpreter. (It is only some months later, shortly
after the first vignette I offered above, that Peggy announces she will be getting
married (and honeymooning in Turkey).)
The evidence in my third ethnographic episode is rather different in form.
Stanley Spencer, the great British painter of both realist and visionary scenes, died
in 1959. In accompaniment of his art he left millions of words of written account
dealing with his life and his art. He was an obsessive writer; he was obsessed
with developing a definitive metaphysic of love, concerning the nature of life on
earth, the identity of its living things, and the ordained way in which they should
relate one to another. He wrote – scribbling in pencil on any scrap of paper that
came to hand – the continuing summation of all that he knew: all that life kept
revealing to him, through every progressive moment of inspiration. Writing was
also a preferred mode of communication – although he was also an incessant
talker – even with loved ones. (His preferred form of love-making with his wife,
‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’ 11

Hilda, was through an exchange of love-letters, written in private and then read
out loud to the recipient.) These writings of Stanley’s now reside in large part in
the Tate Gallery Archive, in London. I draw on them here as my primary source
of ethnographic data.
Let me begin with an extract from a letter written by Stanley in 1957 to
John Rothenstein, then Director of the Tate Gallery and a long-time supporter of
Stanley’s art as well as being a friend. As usual, Stanley’s pencilled scrawl, in this
case on pieces of tracing paper, is accompanied by an idiosyncratic style of spelling
(in this and ensuing extracts I use a calligraphic font to evoke Stanley’s own):

Dear John,

The only way I can write about any painting of mine I at all like is when
I am assured of the same or nearly the same degrees of liking in the
reader. It is no use for me to try to describe how I did a marvellous thing
when it has not been agreed that I did a marvellous thing. […]
I am sure there is a key to the realysation of my hopes made by this
fusion between my hopes & my response to the visible world. That what
I hope is going to come about [previous word unclear] being through the
visible world. With the faith in the existence of that meaning I now look
at the visible world & I look & the surroundings are some how with me
in this hope & longing. The unformed unrealysation & only beloved in
meaning came first & later on certainly that something in me effected by
visible world was a key. […]
I remember in 1910 (about) when I was doing the John Donne picture
saying to myself “imagination is in the barest reality”.
And yet bare reality was only barable to me when related [? word
unclear] to my feelings in a very special way. […]
Every thing for me has (especially the visible world) a degree of
meaning which I want to see manifested. This can only be done by the
degree of belief one has in it: a belief in the infinite meaning it possesses. […]

Yours ever


(Tate Gallery Archive 8419).

On one level, Stanley’s explication of his art that ‘imagination is in the barest
reality’ can be taken to mean that whether it is a question of the visionary paintings
that he saw as his life’s work or the landscapes and portraits that he produced in
order to earn a living, interpretation is foundational. When he sees a landscape in
his home village along the Thames (Cookham Moor 1937) and when he sees that
12 Reflections on Imagination

landscape as the setting for a Biblical or spiritual narrative (Women Going for a
Walk in Heaven 1938) the process is similarly one of interpretation. There is no
reality, even of the barest kind, that is not an interpreted reality when those barest
of details are composed into a design and painted.
But Stanley also means something more. Here is an extract from ‘A Personal
Note’ that Stanley wrote for the catalogue to accompany an exhibition of his work
that was mounted in 1958 (the year before he died), in Cookham Vicarage and
Parish Church to help support the Parish Church Building Funds Committee.
Stanley wrote:

While I have a certain respect for my landscapes I was never able to

express in this form the meaning that was to be found in Cookham. It was
when I painted what I had imagined, that I came nearer to the feeling
Cookham gave me. There was nothing in these [latter] works that bore
any specific similarity to any one part of the village. Sometimes in fact,
I noticed something which I thought was very Cookham in one of these
imagined Cookham paintings and realized that no such place as I had
painted was anywhere to be found. I would hunt about everywhere for it
and then conclude I had gone one better than Cookham in expressing this
special atmosphere.

In expressing himself artistically Stanley recognises that even when his medium
is his immediate village environment that he is imagining those aspects of village
setting – fields and river and copses and the inhabitants’ habitual practices – that
provide him with the feeling and the meaning he wishes to paint. It is imagination
that directs his engagement with the surroundings that inspire him: it is imagination
that is foundational both of his vision and his painterly practice.
Far from this process being the personal province of one rather idiosyncratic,
even peculiar, English painter, however, what I gain from Stanley’s account of
his (claimed) practice is an appreciation of the use of the imagination that may
have universal applicability. We imagine our environments, our identities, our
relationships, before we inhabit them and practice within them – however counter-
intuitive this might sound. At the very least our realities are co-produced, and our
projects within those realities co-directed, by our bodily being in them and by a
transcendent, imaginative construction of them.
Let me develop this argument in ethnographic terms by returning again to
Stanley, and the story of his relationship to Hilda, his first wife and the relational
mainstay of his adult life. She appears in this painting from 1950, Love Letters.
This was the year of Hilda’s death from cancer, but here Stanley recollects their
favoured form of communication. (The imagery itself recollects a sketch that
Stanley had added to a letter to Hilda he had written in 1930.) Stanley imbibes
the emotion from letters that Hilda extracts from her bosom, while both are cosily
cushioned in the embrace of a giant settee.
‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’ 13

Figure 1.1 Love Letters, by Stanley Spencer, 1950 (oil on canvas,

86.4 x 116.8 cm)
Source: Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Lugano. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer 2009.
All rights reserved. Bridgeman Art Library.

For Stanley, it is to be argued, relations with Hilda were always, first and foremost,
imaginative ones. ‘It seems incredible’, Stanley wrote to her in 1937, the year of
their divorce, ‘that you exist in the flesh!’ (cited in Collis 1962: 127).
It was in 1920 that Stanley, then 29 and already a graduate of the Slade School
of Art (London) and a survivor of the Great War, joined the New English Art
Club, in London, an association founded in 1885 as an alternate (more avant-
garde, more democratic) venue to the Royal Academy of Arts. Here he came into
contact with broader European movements of ideas than he had previously. He
also met the Carlines, members of an artistic, also well-connected family based
in Hampstead (whose expertise extended to literature and anthropology as well
as fine art). Richard Carline, in particular, was to remain an important influence
as well as a lifelong friend, a source of political radicalism (sympathetic with
the far Left) and of social conscience (campaigning against the perils of Nazi
Germany and for Jewish refugee status). The Carline household became a place
Stanley would stay, reading widely in the family library that included the literary
canon as well as comparative religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam). While the
14 Reflections on Imagination

Carlines provided Stanley with an entrée into a London world, he had, by now,
a growing reputation of his own. This was due to the success of early paintings
such as John Donne Arriving in Heaven (1911), Apple Gatherers (1912–13),
Zacharias and Elizabeth (1913–14), Swan Upping (1915–19), as well as post-war
ones such as Travoys with Wounded Soldiers Arriving at a Dressing Station at
Smol, Macedonia (1919), The Last Supper (1920) and Christ Carrying the Cross
(1920). Indeed, Stanley had described himself as in danger of becoming ‘“smug”
on success’ (Bell 2001: 30).
The period was one of great productivity for Stanley, like a dam-burst after the
parched years of war. He was also ambitious socially. It was a disappointment, then,
when he felt himself spurned by the Bloomsbury set, the pinnacle of the London
avant-garde, and by its critical guiding light Roger Fry. It was Fry’s judgment that
developments in French painting, its ‘post-impressionism’, were the direction of
the future and he cast aspersions on home-grown orthodoxies and the Slade. Once
Stanley had been seen artistically to turn his back on Paris and to continue on his
own, ‘English’ way, Fry and Bloomsbury came to pour scorn on his painterly practice
and its absence of intellectual grounding. Fry professed to finding Stanley’s work
‘dull and inexpressive’: a ‘distinctly unpleasant and disagreeable stimulation’ (1927:
794–5), an opinion he would reiterate through the years: ‘I am sick of [Spencer’s]
muck’, he is said to have confirmed in the 1930s (Hyman 2001: 26), blocking
Gwen Darwin’s attempt to have Stanley commissioned to paint for the Cambridge
University Library. To his marginalisation from the British avant-garde, Stanley
would himself demur that Fry’s and Bloomsbury’s Francophile formalism was
merely ‘a sort of wine tasting, worldly performance’ (cited in Paton 2003: 14).
Each summer the Carline family would depart on a painting expedition with a
small group of friends, and in 1922 it was decided that the new state of Jugoslavia
would be the destination. Stanley was invited to join them. En route the galleries
of Old Masters at Cologne, Munich and Vienna were visited. This was, however,
to be Stanley’s only visit to the great museums of the Continent (and nor were the
great London galleries a large attraction). Volumes of monochrome reproductions
of famous works fulfilled his appetite for the stimulation of other artists and apart
from that Stanley knew he wished to stay put. Going ‘all over the place’, as in
wartime, was disturbing, he told his friends: to settle into his work it would suffice
if he engaged in no more movement than walking up and down the garden path at
the Carlines’s Hampstead home for the rest of his life.
An important appetite that was begun in earnest on this European tour,
however, and one that was to prove life-long, was for the daughter of the Carline
family, Hilda. A couple of years older than Stanley, but also a student at the
Slade, Hilda had had a number of admirers among Stanley’s friends, including his
brother Gilbert, but she and Stanley became engaged. The engagement proved a
protracted, on–off affair but eventually they married in 1925. Stanley’s upbringing
had been what might now be termed ‘sheltered’, and when in his thirties he did
discover ‘the world of sex’, it was a revelation:
‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’ 15

The first time I deliberately touched a woman [I felt] here was a miracle I
could perform’ […] From that day onward what I had always understood
as being Stan Spencer was now no longer so – a whole heap of stuff lust
or what you will was sweeping me along helpless. (cited in Hauser 2001: 46)

[H]aving grown up and having more developed sex feelings than I

had before the war […] they made the earliest feelings of religion and
Cookham so almost die out as to be memories of consciousness rather than
consciousness itself. (Cited in Hyman 2001: 21)

Sex and marriage affected Stanley’s artistic vision for the remainder of his life,
or at least gave a different name to his desire and his urge or longing to create
visual representations. The mainstay of his earlier inspirations – ‘God’, ‘divinity’,
‘Nature’ – were now complemented by ‘women’, ‘sex’ and ‘bodies’: ‘Happy
world of women’s skin / That my own thoughts can make love in’ (cited in
Hyman 2001: 147). Stanley would now follow his sexual and physical drives,
albeit that he saw these as intimately connected to his abiding artistic drives.
Indeed, following them was his artistic duty, wherever he felt they were leading
him. His drives were essentially a private matter, a domestic matter, and an artistic
matter, he argued, whatever the conventions of society might say and however the
law might seek to interfere and channel and constrain. Writing to Hilda in 1955 –
now five years after her death – Stanley looks back on this period in his life and
decides that the sexual ‘desecration’ of his innocent childhood perspective had not
signalled anything but a ‘wonderful’ growing up:

This non-innocent disillusioned you-hugging me feels so much compensated

for the joy of being conscious me, that I feel it is in great degree a fulfilment
of the childhood hope and need (cited in Hyman 2001: 38).

The relationship with Hilda was, however, not to be a calm one. It lasted 12
years and produced two daughters, but domestic, emotional and ‘metaphysical’
differences made Hilda’s and Stanley’s time together as husband and wife fraught
and unnerving. The relationship began with an enormous sense of hope on
Stanley’s part. As he wrote to her in 1923:

You are the most secret & greatest joy of my life, you are like redemption
to me. I think of you all the time; because it brings everything to life when
I do. […] If I belonged to you I feel you would do wonderful things both
with your self & me. […] You know I used to think that the sort of person
I ought to marry would have to be a very clever witty and altogether
16 Reflections on Imagination

thoroughly developed character so that I could boast and swagger with

her to all eternity but I suddenly said to myself yes, but what is all this
wit learning and sense got to do with me specifically to where is the great
joy of making each other, when the person you have married is already
made (cited in Rothenstein 1979: 29).

But it remained, for Stanley at least, more of an ideal than an actuality that was
habitually consummated. Living together was difficult, even at the start, and love-
making at a remove was Stanley’s preferred form:

I often wish that though we see each other every day we could nevertheless
continue to write to each other. […] I wish we could both celebrate and
chronicle every second of each others life. I don’t feel this is a letter, it is
not it is a wonderful spiritual journey that we are both taking together
(cited in Rothenstein 1979: 30).

This was 1924. The awkwardness of their differences was easier to handle when
Hilda switched from being an actual housemate to being a sentiment: a persona
in a private pantheon of imagined others and a sense that Stanley had of himself.
‘Hilda’, Stanley would write, ‘was the love I felt for what I looked at, she was
the smoke coming from the factory chimneys. I want and need her in all my
experience’ (cited in Pople 1991: 453).
By 1930 Stanley is being more explicit concerning the preferableness to him of
their ‘making love’ at a distance:

But its [sic] so lovely just sending my thoughts to you: sending them
“home”. […] This difficulty I seem to have of being able to retain as clear
a vision of you when you are here or with me, that I can when you are
away is rather, in fact exactly like the difficulty I have about painting
from objects; with the object in front of me I mean.
With the object in front of me & with you with me I have to see a lot
of things that I have not imaginatively comprehended and don’t like &
the remedy required in each case is identical; confidence, that one can see
only perfection wherever one looks […] or wether I look at you gardening
or what ever you do that I don’t like; if I see only the perfect you which
ever way I look (cited in Rothenstein 1979: 37).

There was a self-intensity to Stanley, a self-centredness and self-interestedness

that made the reality of marriage to Hilda and their family life burdensome. His
vision was his obsession, and the work it engendered. According to Hilda’s brother,
Richard (1978: 140–41), however, the break-up of the marriage was also a case of
‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’ 17

mutual blameworthiness. Both Hilda and Stanley were extremely stubborn, each
demanding complete agreement, and so heated arguments (on religious views and
domestic ideals) went on for hours. The strain led to Hilda absenting herself, first
mentally and then physically, and often and for long periods. She also gave up on
her painting, originally a major point of meeting between them. Stanley felt he was
doing much himself, including the childcare. By the early 1930s, Hilda’s retreat
from the marriage entailed her returning to her family home in Hampstead while
Stanley remained with his painting projects in the country. With her went their two
daughters, and while Stanley would visit often over the years, the four of them did
not live together as a family again.
Hilda and Stanley formally divorced in 1937. However, this did not stop her
remaining the ‘most powerful force in his life’, as Stanley’s brother Gilbert put
it (Spencer 1974: 200). Hilda remained someone to whom Stanley considered
himself still ‘married’, whatever the law might say. She was the continuing and
continuous focus of his letter-writing: his primary audience and love-object, still,
after the divorce in 1937, after her nervous breakdown in 1942, after her death
in 1950, and up to Stanley’s own death in 1959. Here he is writing to her in
1937, then:

I think that even while now we are in the midst of this legal fight that in
our real selves we continue to be utterly at one, rejoicing in our oneness
(cited in Nesbitt 1992: 42).

And again in 1943 (he was a constant visitor to her nursing home):

I can only feel that oneness that I love, with you. I could identify myself
with you utterly so that I felt like a single being that was me and you.
Also you are the only being I can write to or want to. It is a wonderful
thing to write and not have to be careful what I say. […] Nothing ever
compensated me for the loss of you (cited in Hauser 2001: 59).

and in 1957:

Dear ducky Hilda: Hilda ducky – […]

I feel when I write to you it is a call to you from any moment of my life.
Just as I knew I could love you at any moment: even arrange to specially
love you at some specific quarter of an hour in a week, so I know I can at
any time in my life say hullow ducky & hullow again ducky & at once we
are being together at this moment & you noticing the bed backed against
the wall opposite the windows. […]
18 Reflections on Imagination

And now I will read yet another of my letters to you ducky. It is

from 696 to 704E. I may tire before finishing it but lets see what it is
about ducky. Lets see what I am writing to you on Sunday evening July
16th 1948. It begins “dear ducky” & it seems to be about the relationship
between my Cookham feelings and my you feelings. I am (in this letter I
am reading) sure there is a relationship. I then note that I am I all the
time. That is probably the link.
But I may return to this.

(Tate Gallery Archive 8419)

There was never a time after the collapse of their marriage that Stanley was not
thinking of a reconciliation with Hilda, of their being and living together again,
even of their remarriage. Hilda, too, was pleased to have the legal unpleasantness
behind them. She writes touching letters to Stanley’s agent, Dudley Tooth, as a
kind of emotional intermediary: ‘I feel intensely relieved, because of the happier
feeling it gives, & if I feel relieved, I imagine that Stanley must feel far more
relieved [to be starting afresh on a better, non-legal basis]’; ‘all this legal business
will now be at an end, [and] how much against the grain [it has been]’ (Tate Gallery
Archive 8917/2/7; TGA 8917/2/8). And most revealingly:

Being with Stanley is like being with a holy person, one who perceives. It isn’t that he
is consciously or intentionally good or bad, or intentionally anything, for he is the thing
so many strive for and he has only to be (cited in Pople 1991: 463).

Stanley and Hilda remained on good terms for the remainder of her life, seeing
each other frequently, even though their marriage would not be formally
re-constituted. They also seemed to have reached a mutual understanding, at least
on paper. As Hilda wrote to him (in 1942):

You are too much of an artist to have satisfactory relations with any women. That is the
price you have to pay for your genius (cited in Collis 1962: 174).

Stanley responded (in 1944):

In spite of all I feel for you and my need for you, somewhere in me is
an absence of love. I never have fulfilled love for another (cited in Collis
1962: 195).
‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’ 19

This account of Stanley’s relationship to Hilda is sufficiently rich, I feel, to

warrant the space the vignette has received as a case study. And while it appears
focused on Stanley’s imaginary life, his sense of vision, his artistic project, and in
particular his imaginative construction of Hilda as his wife and mainstay, it speaks
to a far wider truth. It is an instance, I suggest, of the way in which every human
relationship is, and must be, first and foremost a meeting of imaginative constructs.
One imagines the other, whether that be a spouse, a child, a work colleague, a
co-religionist, a stranger fulfilling a role (shop-assistant, doctor, politician) or
an adversary (a competitor, a possible terrorist). The imaginative act may take
place within a context of norms – this is how a family, a university, a church, a
bus journey, a job application should ordinarily function – but even that context
owes to a personal interpretation for it to be inhabited by individual role-players
at any one time. The individual animates the normative structure with his or her
own sense of ordinariness, propriety, meaning, desire and gratification; amid this
structure, he or she will be imagining the identity – the sense of ordinariness,
propriety, meaning, desire and gratification – of those human others with whom he
or she is playing out the relation of roles. Stanley interprets ‘a marriage’ in his own
way – how does he desire to inhabit the normative structure? – and he imagines
the woman, Hilda, with whom he has agreed to play the roles of husband and wife.
I imagine my wife in the same way. It is a separate issue the extent to which
individuals’ imaginations may or may not coincide or be compatible: the luck or
the work involved in achieving an alignment of constructions of the other such
that a viable mutuality occurs. What is fundamental to appreciate is the place of
the imagination in arriving at those interpretations of the world in whose terms the
individual then proceeds to act. Imagination underlies our world-views and our
life-projects (Rapport 1993; 2003).
This should not be taken as a kind of idealistic conclusion, a solipsistic form
of argument. What is especially revealing in the example of Stanley and Hilda is
the physical nature of their engagement, and the way in which Stanley’s artistic
vision was born out of a physical dwelling within a rural environment he knew
from childhood: ‘free to roam and forage, I grazed for years on the fields and
plains’ (cited in Kisler 2003: 38). Stanley dwelled in Cookham village and he
dwelled in Hilda’s body as imaginative acts. It is only in our human embodiment,
separate, individual, that we both dwell in the world as feeling, as sensation, and
come to know the world as imagination and interpretation. Imagination ‘is what
enables us to cross the empty spaces between ourselves and those we have called
“other”’ (Greene 1995: 3); or at least to set sail across these spaces.
Imagination describes that process by which we formulate meaningful
possibilities of otherness – of the world beyond our bodies – and build up
interpretive models of the world and what it is we wish and may and will do with
ourselves and others within it. Imagination also describes the way in which this
process is ongoing. So long as my body functions as an interpreting mechanism
20 Reflections on Imagination

and unit, I am imagining worldly scenarios. Stanley went on imagining Hilda

beyond divorce and death. The porters in Constance Hospital kept imagining
scenarios through which the institutional hierarchy was being overcome in their
experience, such as feeling their ways into an extra-marital affair with Peggy,
their boss. Imagination underlies the ways in which the world is both humanly
constructed and reconstructed continually. In the contributions to follow, in
this volume, we find more examples of imagination in its foundational role in a
personal human sensorium. Imagination is foundational of our physical dwelling
within environments and our intellectual-cum-emotional appreciation of them.
Imagination is foundational of our formation of meaningful worlds and our
re-formations of them.

‘Existence Precedes Essence’

Sartre’s aphorism would appear an appropriate means to bring this introductory

chapter to a close. Human beings, Sartre explains (1975: 348), have the capacity
to formulate, select and change the mode of their being and the roles they will
adopt. They are, and they are free to make and choose, before they are anything
else. They are free to form moral plans and to act on these or not. They are free and
always aware of their freedom, they are self-conscious about their identity and
they can always choose to become someone different. This is different to other
animals to a marked degree, not to mention to plants and to the inorganic world.
Uniquely for human beings, and to a marked degree, their existence precedes
their essence: their existence is not determined by instinct or environment – they
transcend these – and they have the capacity (the ‘existential power’) instead
to decide who and what they will be (their ‘essence’). Their decision-making
power is not absolute: human beings are still subject to disease and death, to
hunger and pain; but comparatively speaking human beings’ existential power
is remarkable.
Imagination is an aspect of this power; indeed, a key part of our human
consciousness. It describes, to recall Emerson, the potentiality that we are able to
see in the material world, the myriad ways in which we are able to make sense of it,
and to remake that sense. Imagination is a way to talk about the random workings
of the human mind, the way it always opens to its owner new possibilities for
thinking about the world and engaging with it (Rapport 2001).
What is social-anthropological about this understanding of the imagination?
Social anthropology might know itself as that intellectual project where the
universals of human bodily capacities are brought into tension with the specificities
of particular lives: individual bodies in time and space. Given the human capacity
for imaginative transcendence, how is it used in specific cases to construe the
world, and to what effect?
‘Imagination is in the Barest Reality’ 21


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London: Phaidon.
Carline, R. 1978 Stanley Spencer at War, London: Faber.
Collis, M. 1962 Stanley Spencer: A Biography, London: Harvill.
Emerson, R.W. 1981 The Portable Emerson (ed. C. Bode), Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Fry, R. 1927 ‘Mr. Frank Dobson and Mr. Stanley Spencer’, The Nation and
Athenaeum March 12: 794–5.
Geertz, C. 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic.
Greene, M. 1995 Releasing the Imagination, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Harris, M. (ed.) 2007 Ways of Knowing, Oxford: Berghahn.
Hauser, K. 2001 Stanley Spencer, London: Tate.
Hyman, T. 2001 ‘Stanley Spencer: Angles and Dirt’, in T. Hyman and P. Wright
(eds) Stanley Spencer, London: Tate Publishing.
Kisler, M. 2003 ‘Resurrecting Cookham: Time and Space’, in M. Kisler and
J. Paton Everyday Miracles: The Art of Stanley Spencer, Dunedin: Dunedin
and Auckland Art Galleries, pp. 5–10.
Nesbitt, J. 1992 ‘Catalogue’, in J. Nesbitt (ed.) Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven,
Liverpool: Tate Gallery Liverpool, pp. 25–55.
Paton, J. 2003 ‘Everyday Miracles’, in M. Kisler and J. Paton Everyday Miracles:
The Art of Stanley Spencer, Dunedin: Dunedin and Auckland Art Galleries,
pp. 11–16.
Pople, K. 1991 Stanley Spencer: A Biography, London: Collins.
Preston, J. 1991 ‘The Trickster Unmasked: Anthropology and the Imagination’,
in I. Brady (ed.) Anthropological Poetics, Savage: Rowman and Littlefield,
pp. 73–110.
Rapport, N. 1993 Diverse World-Views in an English Village, Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
—— 2001 ‘Random Mind: Towards an Appreciation of Openness in Individual,
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12(2): 190–220.
—— 2003 I am Dynamite: An Alternative Anthropology of Power,
London: Routledge.
—— 2004 ‘Envisioned, Intentioned: A Painter Informs an Anthropologist about
Social Relations’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.)
10(4): 861–81.
—— 2005 ‘The Power of the Projected Self: A Case-Study in Self-Artistry’,
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—— 2008a ‘Gratuitousness: Notes Towards an Anthropology of Interiority’, The
Australian Journal of Anthropology 19(3): 331–49.
—— 2008b Of Orderlies and Men: Hospital Porters Achieving Wellness at Work,
Durham NC: Carolina Academic Press.
22 Reflections on Imagination

Rothenstein, J. (ed.) 1979 Stanley Spencer: The Man, Correspondence and

Reminiscences, London: Paul Elec.
Sartre, J-P. 1963 [1948] The Psychology of Imagination, New York: Citadel Press.
—— 1975 ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, in W. Kaufman (ed.) Existentialism
from Dostoevsky to Sartre, New York: New Arena Library.
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Imagination: An Introduction’, Ethnos 74(4): 5–30.
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Archival Sources

Tate Gallery Archive, Stanley Spencer Collection, items number 8419, 8917/2/7,
and 8917/2/8.
Chapter 2
From the River:
Making Local Histories of the Imagination1
Mark Harris

During the fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation, Anna, then my partner,

accompanied me. After about 10 months of living in a floodplain village on the
banks of the Amazon, Anna became pregnant. In the end, she decided not to give
birth there and returned to Europe in December 1993. Before leaving Anna was
told by our friends from the village that because our child-to-be was conceived
and produced on the floodplain, he would remain connected to the river, and its
people, all his life. According to these river dwellers (ribeirinhos in Portuguese),
there is an affinity of matter between food, body or foetus, and the place in which
it is nurtured. And these residues remain in a person’s life, as a beacon searching
for their home. The river is that magnet.
This anecdote on the formation of a riverine person serves to introduce the
significance of a great, flowing body of water in the world of riverbank dwellers
of the Brazilian Amazon. These folk are peasants in the sense they sell to town
markets and catch, or make, most of their own food, especially fish. The ones I
worked with live on the banks of the Amazon River itself and were subject to the
rise and fall of the water level depending on the season. And tens of thousands of
others inhabit similar places. These families and villages grew up at the end of the
colonial period in Brazil (c.1750 to 1822). Their histories embrace the movement
of humans, enslaved and free, of commerce, war and violence that have passed up
and down these water-roads. This traffic in and of life has had many ruptures: the
Amerindian tribal federations were wiped out by disease and slavery, there were
once great economies built out of cocoa and rubber, and forests have been felled.
In spite of these changes, the reality of the river has remained unchanged. For
sure, its course has altered; banks have been eroded, and silted up in others; and its
meaning has been transformed. But the need for humans to drink it, gain a living
from it, move around on it, and the human desire to live with the precariousness
of life on the river is continuous. So too must the knowledge and understanding

1 Versions of this chapter have been presented at the University of Vienna and East
London. I am grateful to participants in the seminars and to those in the initial conference
for their comments, and to the Leverhulme and British Academy for funds to support the
24 Reflections on Imagination

of making a riverine livelihood have been passed from one generation to the next,
even in conditions of upheaval.2
Like many others in the New World these folk had been relocated from their
birthplaces and disconnected from traditional cultural certainties (see Mintz and
Price 1983). Their reconstituted social relations and religious practices lack the
embeddedness of established societies. While contemporary riverine dwellers of
the Amazon can be said to have ‘misplaced ideas’ (like other Brazilians, Schwarz
1992) and histories, they have made their homes on and near the floodplain, as
did their forebears. I will argue that in these conditions imagination takes on a
special significance in relocating the self in a conflicted and chaotic situation. This
is because the individual has been divorced from cohesive meanings and symbols,
and it requires a greater inventiveness to piece back together fragments and traces
of old lives in the present. To tell these histories we need to tap into ‘alternative
epistemologies’ (Sweet 2011; see also Toren and Pina Cabral 2011) that give a
central role to the imagination, both of the analyst and the subject.
The continuous exposure to the river, its tides and movements has attuned river
dwellers to a particular kind of historical arrangement in the world. What are the
imaginative consequences of this attunement? A liquid imagination, I will show,
involves, three general kinds of practical engagement: flow or rhythm, concealment
or depth, and genealogy or extension. In all three, metaphor and reality merge.
In the final section, I will consider how the three elements come together in a
brief exposition of the work of two shamans in a Portuguese administered village.
These two men were reported to the colonial authorities for abusing the Catholic
faith in the 1760s, the period that gave birth to contemporary floodplain societies.
However before reaching back to the past, let us look at the connections between
water, riverscapes and imaginations in anthropology and beyond.3

Flow: Knowing Like a River

It is the very special form and materiality of water that is of interest generally.
William James is well known for having invented the term ‘stream of
consciousness’ (1892). Less well known is James’s trip to Brazil in the mid-1860s,
as a member of Louis Agassiz’s scientific expedition, who was director of the
Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. James was in his early twenties

2 See Cleary (2001) for an excellent review of the longue durée of environmental
history in the Amazon.
3 At this point I should make clear something quite obvious: I will not be arguing
that the cognitive and mental abilities of people in a particular place are fundamentally
different. Rather my starting point is completely uncontroversial: the place in which people
live affects the way they perceive the world. See for example Alfred Gell’s elegant example
from the Umeda from Papua New Guinea on the overriding significance of sound in a dense
forested environment (1995).
From the River 25

and spent most of his time ill and in bad temper. But on the expedition’s travel
up the Amazon he recovered and his mood picked up and he developed close
relations with some locals. The whole episode is often portrayed as irrelevant by
biographers of James, more interested in his scientific contributions. Recently a
revaluation has suggested the opposite, as revealed in his drawings of the people,
notebooks and his letters back home – he was deeply influenced by the people and
place (Machado 2006). There is no evidence that his coining of the idea and term
stream of consciousness, so called because it is not jointed but in constant flow,
has anything to do with his experiences on the Amazon River. Nevertheless, the
suggestion remains that the concept may have been sown at this time. Clearly for
James a universal human characteristic of thought processes is that they are like
a river, and not unique to those who live in watery environments.4 Here I want to
push this further to argue that the river is more than a metaphor, and rooted deeply
in social practice, habitual techniques and lived reality, whether in the past or
the present.
Of interest to me here is an analysis of particular kinds of imaginative
productions in the world – stories, representations of the invisible, shamanic
invocations, novels, poetry, reflections on the connection between bodies and
places, such as the one I opened with. My focus is less on the ‘continuous
sensibility’ (James’s words) of these creations but their very form: the way in
which the materiality of water lends itself so conveniently to a metaphor of the
mental: the grasplessness, the restlessness, and shaping by a form (albeit one that
is dissolvable). So the conventional anthropological question is how those people
who make a living along rivers understand themselves using the particular places
they inhabit. Robert Macfarlane, in his recent book The Old Ways, talks of this
understanding as a topography of self, a map joining the interior and exterior
of our lives. ‘We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those
metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it. Landscape,
to borrow George Eliot’s phrase, can “enlarge the imagined range for the self
to move in”’ (Macfarlane 2012: 26). Accordingly, I interpret imagination as an
activity of discovery, moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar.
River-systems, as powerful and energetic landscapes, actively encourage
certain mental tendencies. Yet the idea that rivers have been fundamental to human
societies, and furnish imagery for our imaginations, is merely a truism. No space is
needed to argue it. My purpose then is not to analyse what riverbank dwellers say
about their perceptions of the river and find there a series of nice metaphors that
can be compared with others. That would set up a distinction between the nature
and society with human comprehension of nature as filtered of cultural metaphors.

4 ‘Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as
“chain” or “train” do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing
jointed; it flows. A “river” or a “stream” are the metaphors by which it is most naturally
described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or
of subjective life’. William James, The Stream of Thought (1891).
26 Reflections on Imagination

The problem with this kind of argument is the fact of being in a specific place
and time is not the starting point. Metaphor, Michael Jackson has argued (1983),
is a way of establishing real, rather than made up, connections. So following this
position I put back together human practical involvement with the world, always
historically constituted, and their metaphorical constructions of it. When people
fish they don’t leave their imaginations behind; similarly when they tell stories,
even if loosely based on experience, they continue to dwell in the world, playing
the audience for all they can, feeling thirsty or tired. With these stories, or other
kind of imaginative productions, the performers and audience are led into a fuller
engagement with the world, not out of it.
Imagination here is an activity of both mind and body in a particular setting.
And it is set off by the practical possibilities – the ‘affordances’ to use the ecological
psychologist James Gibson’s word – that are offered by the various elements
in that environment (1979). The river can be used for travelling along and the
water can be drunk, for example. As we move around we shift our perception,
and according to Gibson, we search for constancies across the phenomena being
sensed (rather than impose preconceived cultural templates on individual sense
data). This continuity is a form of detection concerning what an environment
affords a person. This argument can be extended beyond the natural world to
include all aspects of the symbolic or human made world. Thus even in a context
of significant personal dislocation, collective distress, and a chaos of conflicting
symbolic forces (e.g. religious ones) the search for constancies from one situation
or powerful entity to the next will be taking place. The perceptual imagination can
weave together these seemingly random affordances in novel acts of discovery
(see Ingold 2000: 166–8). Individuals effectively tutor themselves by surviving
with particular modes of being in historically situated places.
Let me give a brief historical example, though one that does not involve a river
or water. Sometime in the late 1720s, Domingos Alvarez – not his birth name –
was shipped as a slave from Dahomey to Brazil. Once there he became a famous
healer on a sugar plantation, even curing the owner’s wife. For fear of witchcraft
his owner sold Domingos to a trader in Rio where he soon earned enough money
to free himself from slavery. In 1742 the inquisition found out about this powerful
individual and he was exiled to Portugal. Yet he continued his work of curing
and divining, eventually disappearing from the record. James Sweet, the author
of Domingos’s story, argues that he mastered the complex bundles of meanings
from three continents. In doing so he brought together very different kinds of
people to share in his own particular blend of religious consciousness. Critical
here is sensitivity to the source of much of this story, namely Domingos’s private
imaginative resourcefulness, at least we have to assume it given the events
recounted. (It is no coincidence that a shamanic type of person is at the heart
of the story.) In this case, the material nature of the environment however is far
less important than the Atlantic world in which Domingos ‘continuously proved
himself to be a socially relevant, progressive and thoroughly modern figure’
(2011: 232).
From the River 27

A recent ethnographic study by Franz Krause of the Kemi River and its people
in Northern Finland complements this historical individual with its attention on a
mode of living in a watery environment. Krause works closely with the concept
of flow: ‘The significance of water in anthropological terms thus goes beyond its
integrating role among human beings and among them and the material world,
since water essentially represents a material and symbolic flow that continuously
forms and transforms the social and ecological universe’ (2011: 7). Humans, he
proposes, think like a river, and, indeed, this may be part of some pre-modern way
of thinking, not specific to those who live next to water. That is, people think in
terms of rhythmic flows. The ruptures are ‘artificial’, and perhaps necessary, ways
of drawing distinctions, making categories and sense of the world as it continues
flowing. ‘Thinking like a river’, according to Krause, ‘means imagining the world
in terms not of permanence and solidity, but of movement and flow … Such a
“riverine perspective” potentially has major implications for the conceptualization
of social relationships and society, for thinking about persons, places and events,
understanding land and landscape, and knowing and dealing with the material
world’ (Krause 2011: 14).5
Yet I remain sceptical of the proposal that humans think like a river. Although it
is Krause’s intention to bring together the physical and metaphorical, as indicated in
the quotation, the tendency is to confine attention to a mere poetic image of human
thinking. Better to leave that kind of investigation to a neuroscientist. On the other
hand, both Ingold and Krause argue there is nothing environmentally determined
about ways of human thinking. Similarly, I am not suggesting that riverine dwellers
have different brains or cognitive functions than others as a result of their adaptation
to a natural territory. Rather I am seeking a more relational position, that is, the
co-production of person, imagination and landscape, a ‘fluvial intimacy’ to follow
Hugh Raffles’s phrase (2002). And in that historically situated, power-infused and
practical encounter to explore the work imagination is doing in intensifying an
apprehension of the world, there lie the local histories of the imagination.

Depths – Plunging the Riverine Imagination

Water, and especially a muddy river, is suggestive not just of flow but ‘depth and
invisible life’ (Ackroyd 2008: 7). Thus moving and still waters have acted as a
metaphor for so much of human life from consciousness to well-being and health.
Indeed so universal is the appeal to water that the open-endedness of its imaginary
potential would make it a fertile seam to mine for anthropological investigation.
Yet until recently it has not been a focus, though indirectly it has, of course, been,
for example in societies with irrigation systems (e.g. Leach 1961). Recently,

5 The phrase ‘Thinking like a river?’ is the title of a PhD dissertation by Franz Krause
on the riverbank dwellers on the River Kemi in Finland. My thoughts here more generally
owe much to this work.
28 Reflections on Imagination

an impressive body of work on the anthropology of water has been developed

by Veronica Strang, who understands water as a universal symbol showing
remarkably similar responses from human populations (e.g. 2009). In this work,
water is both a reality of the material world and a metaphorical aspect of the social
life. Yet the symbolic possibility remains largely limited to its fluidity, the flow
and rhythmic characteristics. Somewhat obscured is the invitation to investigate
beneath its shimmering surface.
Similarly, the poets and thinkers who have meditated on water, according to
Bachelard, have been captivated by its appearance. He wants instead to attend to
its very substance so that its aquatic nature can be properly appreciated. The form
of water is internal and invisible, but it also combines, composes and dissolves.
There is an ‘essential destiny associated [with water] that endlessly changes
the substance of being’ (1983: 6), recalling what my informants say about the
riverine person.
In literary representations, this essential destiny is also given a rather different
hue, where the river is often portrayed as partaking in a different time to human
life. The mental and physical alertness of someone who lives on the river is
entertainingly described by Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi (first published
in 1883). One of the key skills he came to learn as a cub pilot was how to read
the face of the river in order to know what lay beneath it (1990: 63). Knowing
how underwater sandbars, snags, or other obstructions affect the surface by way
of ripples, waves and wrinkles mean the pilot can navigate safely. However, the
Mississippi that Twain learned to navigate underwent a series of transformations by
the time he wrote his memoir, not least of which was the crippling American Civil
War. Technological progress made redundant some of the skills of a steamboat
pilot. For example, more and more goods were transported by the faster railroads
so pilots, and boats, were no longer in great demand. The old Mississippi River
was a reminder of what was lost in the march for American progress.
This ambivalence about modernity is also present in T.S. Eliot’s third part of
Four Quartets (1944). Both Twain and Eliot were born and brought up alongside
the Mississippi. ‘The Dry Salvages’ uses a series of complex associations of water.
Foremost is its redeeming quality, in this case of dehydrated wreckages, which
could be human spirits in the modern world. With development, the building of
roads and trains, the river is displaced and forgotten. It becomes ‘Unhonoured,
unpropitiated / By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting’.
Water, as an ancient god, can rescue humanity and purify our souls.
Indeed, the ‘strong brown god’ of Eliot’s poem is a most fitting description of
the Amazon (not to mention the haunting parallel of the ‘cargo of dead negroes’).
Even though roads, airports, and to a lesser extent rail tracks, have been constructed
there, the river and its tributaries have not been replaced in the way the Thames and
Mississippi, for example, have as major thoroughfares. While some river-systems
may have been formally mastered by flood defences, a very heavy rainfall often
causes a river to burst its banks and initiate ruination of property. Rivers are never
completely pacifiable. That quiet potential for both pollution and purification is
From the River 29

well captured in Eliot’s masterpiece: ‘Keeping his seasons, and rages, destroyer,
reminder/ Of what men choose to forget’.
Those who live along the Amazon are accustomed to its seasonal tides, so
riverine dwellers are more ready to cope with sudden floods and erosion. Of
additional concern are the enchanted spirits that live in the rivers. Dolphins
(botos) and large snakes (cobras grandes) are the most beguiling since they have
the ability to drag humans down to the underwater kingdoms of the river, known
as encantes. There, every luxury can be obtained, everything is clean and white in
colour. Songs and prayers are in constant production. Humans who go there never
return unless the shaman travels underwater and retrieves the soul. Candace Slater
(1993) has argued that the dolphin in particular is a metaphor of river dwellers
capacity for adaptation to a changing world of diminishing forests and fish stocks.
Thus the stories river dwellers recount of their encounters with dolphins, the
enchanted kingdom, and large snakes are mental representations of the resistance
felt towards outside induced change. This argument is a complement to the river
as an ancient reminder of all things good and pure. Though I would add that the
source of inspiration for these imaginative representations is in fact the river, not
the strange animals that live in it.
The mystery of the river and its beings is nicely evoked by the American poet
Elizabeth Bishop in ‘The Riverman’.6 The poem forms part of a series that became
Questions of Travel (1965), a series of meditations on the movement towards a
new way of knowing the world through dislocation. In ‘The Riverman’ Bishop
draws on Charles Wagley’s story, in his ethnography Amazon Town (1953), of a
man who becomes a shaman and mingles with underwater spirits. Although she
spent a number of months visiting towns along the Amazon in the late 1950s, ‘The
Riverman’ was apparently composed before she set foot in the region (Harrison
1993: 157). The riverman is the narrator and a shamanic figure who is involuntarily
drawn to the river to partake in the society of beings there. Beneath the surface,
life is very different: breath does not make bubbles, cigars are smoked and great
distances are travelled very quickly. Bishop has imagined a non-human world that
is the source of all good things – ‘Everything must be there / in that magic mud …
And all is sweetness there / in the deep, enchanted silt’. The poem ends with the
narrator at the bottom of the river, looking up to the canoes above, listening to human
voices. Addressing the reader, he says ‘you can peer down and down / but never,
never catch me’. This view from below mirrors the shift in perspective required to
appreciate the hold the river has on those who live with it. Bishop’s poem provides
an example of an ‘alternative epistemology’ of the liquid imagination.
What should be coming clear is the kind of imaginative extension the self gains
when in proximity to a river and the contemplation of its depths. The creatures
that live in the river, in particular fish, were a preoccupation of another poet of an
invisible world and how it may be perceived, Ted Hughes. It is easy to imagine
the fisherman, who spends hours watching the rod, line and water, thinking about

6 I am very grateful to Tristan Platt for reminding me of this poem.

30 Reflections on Imagination

the underwater realm. The water’s surface acts as a gateway into this netherworld
of the imagination with creatures drawing them down in a shamanic like voyage
of transformation.
‘Go Fishing’, in his collection River, gives the reader a sense of what such a
journey might be like:

Join water, wade into underbeing

Let brain mist into moist earth
Ghost loosen downstream
Gulp river and gravity
Loose words
Be assumed into glistenings of lymph
As if creation were a wound
As if this flow were all plasm healing.7

The reference to healing recalls not just T.S. Eliot’s perception of water but invokes
the figure of the shaman. (Yet, that creation may be an open sore surely would be
antithetical to Eliot’s Christian beliefs.) Although Hughes does not use the term
shaman, he is drawing on the capacity of cleansing by water to aid recovery as a
magical transformation attributable to mystical powers. At the end of the poem,
and journey, the world is back, ‘like a white hospital busy with urgency words’ and
change has been achieved: ‘heal into time and other people’ (Hughes 1993: 136).
This brief literary anthology about rivers has sought to move beyond the mere
poetic metaphors of water. Each writer has used the river, and its meanings, to
reconnect with the observed and lived in environment. The reader is taken down,
or along, the river, and the underlying connections between metaphor and reality
are revealed. Healing, for example, occurs on physical and spiritual dimensions;
the spirits of the river may be imaginative entities but they still help the shaman
cure illness.

Genealogy – A Filament of Time

Few writers have been more aware of the riverness of Amazonia than Euclides da
Cunha, one of Brazil’s finest writers. Cunha led a Brazilian mission to the Amazon
to set the boundaries between Peru and Brazil in 1905 on account of a border
dispute (and resulted in mostly using rivers as the new frontier). Cunha gives a
very clear answer to Macfarlane’s question about what is possible to think or know
in a particular place. However, for Cunha the self was not positively encouraged
to expand into this landscape. Rather it was entirely imprisoned. Or ‘infected’, to
use his phrase, by the constant energy of the river.

7 I am grateful to Faber for permission to quote from Ted Hughes’ poem.
From the River 31

Ever disorganised, turbulent, vacillating, tearing down, building up, rebuilding,

levelling, devastating in an hour what it spent decades building – with the eagerness,
the agony, and the exasperation of a monstrous artist ever unsatisfied, taking up
again, redoing, perpetually beginning anew a painting without end. (2006: 11)

So fragile was human endeavour, according to Cunha that it could not get a
footing there, hence the title of his translated collection of essays, Amazon: Land
without History. Uniquely he directs his readers towards the way in which river
life is so very different; sensual experience in particular is exaggerated because,
for Cunha, nature is so dominant. The result is that people are ‘estranged’ from
human culture. Incomers start off with good intentions to develop and prosper but
they end up like the established ‘indolent’ peasants on the riverbank. This is an
entirely dystopic view, constituting one end of a continuum of representations of
the region. Nevertheless what can be taken from Cunha is the centrality of the river
in the sustenance of human, animal and plant life.8
In an insightful essay on an Easter ritual amongst rubber tappers on the Purus
River, Cunha provides an example of the way migrants become infected by the
river. At the time of his visit rubber tappers performed a ritual that was common
in Brazil concerning the beating of Judas who had betrayed Jesus. These folk
made an innovation of the rite that made special use of the waterways. On Easter
Saturday they created a human size effigy using old and dirty clothes. It had to
look ugly and easily took on a demonic doll like appearance. This figure, Cunha
argued, was a self-representation, and punishment for their ambition to come to
Amazonia to chase wealth, but finding only poverty. First, the rubber tappers beat
this effigy with sticks. Then they launched it on the river by placing it on a raft.
As it progressed on the current repeated rifle volleys were plunged into the cotton
body. It then sagged and split apart. And so it went on its ‘doleful voyage without
end at the mercy of the river, [sowing] desolation and terror in all directions’.
After a while, it met with other apparitions from other communities, and other
streams, who had made their own figures. Eventually people tired of their attacks
and the rafts were abandoned. Cunha leaves the reader with the image of these
rafts swirling around as they reached a whirlpool and then bashing into one
other. One may sink but the others ‘float on, in rows, one after the other, slowly
processionally, downstream’. The message would seem to be that the flow of the
time cannot be escaped. All things will be absorbed by the river.
In a manner, this ritual is a form of healing and purification. The clown provides
an object on to which an imagined self can be projected and whose sins can be cast
away, a scapegoat. The custom is possible only with the river’s collusion. In the
case of the two shamans from another Amazonian tributary we will find an earlier
historical echo of the dissolution of life, though the elements in the Judas ritual are
configured differently.

8 For more on Cunha’s life, the border dispute, and the late nineteenth- and early
twentieth-century Amazon see Hecht 2013.
32 Reflections on Imagination

The presence of water in Amazonian shamanery is well known in the

ethnographic literature (as well as in mythological sequences, of course). Shamans
travel underwater to enchanted kingdoms or to fetch the lost souls of their clients
(Galvão 1955; Maués 1995). Along the stretches of rivers shamans are considered
to be connected to each other, in a kind of ‘private telephone network’ (Descola
1996: 323) even though they may not know each other. For Philippe Descola
the shaman is by nature a cosmopolitan creature, constantly on the look-out for
new ideas and metaphysical fashions. He strives to break out of his linguistic
and ethnic isolation by making extensive use of metaphors and images that he
gleans from chance encounters during his travels, not always sure of their origin
or meaning, but with a confused sense of sharing some kind of basic stock with the
distant cultures from which they come. In terms of shamanic healing in ribeirinho
folklore, the river is where the auxiliary spirits of the shaman reside, and also the
location of unlimited wealth and luxury. In other words, the watery imagination
and shamanism do share a number of common elements.
Although Peter Gow (1996) does not highlight the significance of the river
itself to the history of shamanism in the Peruvian Amazon, he does argue that the
kind of shamanic practice in existence there is a relatively recent invention. The
use of the hallucinogenic brew made from a forest vine known as ayahuasca is
common in that region amongst some indigenous people, mixed blood ribeirinhos
and in urban peripheries. Gow speculates that the use of ayahuasca to see the
world of hidden spirits is a response to the colonial encounter and, in particular,
the suffering caused from disease and poverty. Its effectiveness in shamanic curing
spread very quickly amongst Indians and mixed blood people at the bottom of the
social hierarchy. This heterogeneous population was dispersed along banks, in the
forests, towns and villages. Yet riverine shamanism provided a shared experience
for the merging of different interpretations and experiences; Gow says the practice
is remarkably uniform. At the core of this new ritual was the curing of illness. I
would add the use of ayahausca in shamanism allowed for the merging of different
imaginative horizons to take place. And the outcomes could not be predicated from
the outset. Moreover the means by which this shared context took place was a
riverine one, knowledge of the new ritual was only made possible by the naturally
existing riverine network that underlay the colonial, and later national, economy
based on extraction of remote forests products for sale in towns and cities.
In summary, the previous three sections have explored three dimensions of a
liquid imagination. Now let us consider their convergence in one example.

A Shamanic Confession in Colonial Pará

The discussion of shamanism provides an introduction to Marçal and Pedro,

two shamans, who lived in the late colonial period of Brazil and in what was
then known as Great Pará. Like the Peruvian Amazon there was a maelstrom
of contending spheres and forces, symbolic and material. It is impossible to
From the River 33

exaggerate the significance of the waterways of the Amazon at this time. Before
conquest, the river seems to have acted as a frontier between ethnic groups, even
though large numbers of people lived on its banks. With colonisation, the river
became a thoroughfare of conquest, resistance and escape. It transported people
(and their deadly pathogens) and products, and was integrated in an Atlantic
network consisting of America, Europe and Africa. Most of social life took place
on and near rivers. The inland forests were largely unexploited, mostly because the
heathen Indians lived there and might come out at any time.
I shall focus on Marçal, who was born in an Indian village, probably Boim,
sometime in the mid-1720s on the Tapajós River, a tributary to the Amazon.
By then the large Amerindian settlements on and near the Amazon River had
been destroyed. In their place Jesuit, Franciscan, Carmelite and Mercedorian
missionaries sought to collect the survivors into new communities and start again
following Catholic doctrine and service to the monarch of Portugal. By the time
he was 40 years old Marçal was a relatively poor farmer, and a captain of his
village, an office that meant he had gained status in the world of the Portuguese.
The Jesuit fathers who had administered the village had been expelled at the end
of the 1750s. As a result the village was run by a secular director appointed by the
Portuguese state and whose task it was to encourage Indians to work for their own
and the colony’s benefit.
At some point, Marçal started attending nocturnal gatherings of Indian men
and women organised by a mixed-blood carpenter called Pedro Rodrigues (or
Açu). Pedro spoke with souls from the dead, told the future and cured diseases. His
rituals were accompanied by singing, the shaking of maracas, and strange voices.
Of special interest to participants was the questioning of the deceased; many asked
about the final destination of loved ones. Marçal so admired the prestige in which
followers held the shaman he asked Pedro to train him in the arts of shamanry.
He suspected the devil helped Pedro but he still wanted to find out more. After a
period of apprenticeship Pedro told Marçal – in his words now:

All that he had seen him do was trickery, with which he fooled the observers so
that they would respect him, because no souls came from the other world to be
at the gatherings; nor did he go up on the rooftops to call them: and all the voices
that were heard were his, which he caused to be higher or lower as circumstances
required, and that it was he himself who supplied the answers that were heard
to all that was asked; however, he, the confessor, should not reveal this secret
to any person, if he wished to be respected by the Indians. (Souza 2003: 173)

Having been told this secret, Pedro continued to instruct Marçal into the second
stage of his training. Yet he maintained his enthusiasm in order to have the
admiration of a group of followers.
In this joint association Indians wanted to find out whether their dead relatives
had gone to heaven or hell. The Christian element was also present in the way the
two men persuaded the Indian women, who had aborted, that it was not a sin to
34 Reflections on Imagination

kill a child ‘within their wombs’. They were able to prove this with the voices of
‘very children thus killed’, ‘all of this is so very true, having been revealed to him
[Pedro] by the Holy Virgin Mother’.9
The two men built up a large and loyal group around them and were held in
much respect and fear. They also used their local position of authority to satisfy
their sexual appetites ‘with any woman’ who [appealed] to them, whether single
or married. These women gave themselves freely sometimes but also out of terror
of the death with which they were threatened’.10 The men had such power because
they were shamans and therefore perceived as superior beings.
The reason why we know about Marçal today is because he was denounced to
the Portuguese Inquisition on 4 September 1764. The denunciation came from the
Brazilian administrator of Indians in charge of the village. His motive is not clear;
perhaps he had had enough of the men’s challenge to his own authority. In any
case by going to the inquisition it meant that the political nature of their leadership
would not have come under scrutiny, only the religious sins they supposedly had
committed. This is significant for reasons that are not relevant here.11
The denunciation forced the visiting board of the Lisbon Inquisition in Belém
to send a small team to investigate the allegations. A group of priests consequently
acted as ratifiers and interviewed a number of villagers in December 1764. All
confirmed what had been said. Then, apparently without pressure, Marçal travelled

9 The translation of the original Portuguese is by Heather Flynn Roller, The

Portuguese Inquisition Visits the Amazon and can be found at
(accessed September 2013). I have used this translation for ease of presentation. The case is
also considered briefly by Laura de Mello e Souza (2003) in her study of Brazilian popular
religion in the colonial period (her original has also been translated into English, which
I have used here). The original trial is in the Arquivo Nacional do Torre de Tombo, Lisbon.
The files consist of the denunciation and the subsequent interrogations of key witnesses
(Inquisition of Lisbon, INLx, Processo 2701 and INLx, Processo 12895).
10 From Heather Flynn Roller, The Portuguese Inquisition Visits the Amazon,
translation of denunciation,
11 First, the administrator of a neighbouring village on the Tapajós River, Pinhel,
had been murdered by Maués Indians a few years before. A former Indian headman, the
highest position of leadership an Indian could attain, was involved in the killing. He had
been previously fired from his post because he was seen as the ‘principal enemy of the
whites’. He was replaced by his nephew. Having killed the director, the former headman
had ‘fled the village with a large entourage of fellow Indians, leaving behind a disturbing
warning for any who would aspire to catch them: the effigies of two Indians and a soldier,
their bodies riddled with arrows’ (Arquivo Publico do Estado do Pará, APEP, Director
Jerónimo Manoel de Carvalho to governor, Pinhel, 29 November 1762, Cod. 115, Doc. 52,
see also Roller 2014: 57–8). What is worth mentioning here is that this uncle and nephew
pair were actively involved in building an anti-colonial alliance with independent native
groups. I have not been able to connect the shamanic cult to this network but given they are
contemporaneous and occur in the same five mile stretch of river it is inconceivable they
are not related. Both are in their own ways about reconstituting new and alternative forms
of community not under the control of the Portuguese.
From the River 35

to Belém and confessed all five months later in May 1765. The confession is
extraordinary in the Portuguese Inquisition files for he admits, as we have already
seen, to making up the whole shamanic act. He appears to have no interest in
holding onto any secrets; he could have said he knew it was wrong, as other
shamans had confessed, that at least would not imply it was made up. Instead
he went the whole way, thoroughly discrediting the institution held in such high
regard by many people (see Hemming 1978 for other instances where shamanism
is said to be made up in other colonial contexts).
At the end of his confession, he said he deeply regretted his behaviour and
asked for his sins to be forgiven. Having heard these words the board sent Marçal
away (not clear if this was to prison awaiting his sentence). The board agreed that
his words were true, and listed his sins to be punished (INLx Processo 2701).
He was sentenced to attend Mass and say prayers every day and not to return to
the village for a period of five years. He must have then settled down in Belém,
though we don’t know how he made a living. Perhaps he still craved the attention
of others and retained his sexual desires for women of all ages. Or maybe he did
truly regret his past and sought a new start. Whatever his intentions, he failed to
realise them. The final note in his file written in August 1766 says:

On the first octave of Easter, the indian Marçal Agostinho had been found dead
in the mourn, in one of his houses located on the banks of the Piri in this town,
and he had been buried in the plaza of the church of São João. (Souza 2003: 174)

No cause of death was given. Could he have been murdered for not respecting
the office of a shaman or did he die of natural causes? We can eliminate suicide
because he was buried in a church’s grounds.12
Clearly, Marçal sought to make himself visible to the colonial authorities – he
was a captain and presented himself before the inquisition. Once he had been
denounced in his own village he went to the capital, Belém, to make a confession
on his own free will; a journey that would have taken about a month depending
on the form of travel and number of stops involved. In line with his previous
behaviour he once again sought his own form of engagement with other people
and the establishment. He may have realised he had no choice but to portray his
actions with complete humility and regret. Better to be a fake, who pretended
to have congress with the devil, than a shaman with real access to the world
of the spirits. This posture reveals Marçal to be a skilful negotiator and able to
switch codes effectively. In this light, we can better understand the revelation of
pretending to speak in different voices, this time from the perspective of a pitiable
colonial subject. He could not talk from any other position.

12 Souza (2003: 174–5) speculates that he was killed for revealing the secrets
of shamanic ritual possession and healing. Perhaps Pedro felt he disobeyed him in not
maintaining silence and respecting the office held dear by so many people.
36 Reflections on Imagination

On the other hand, Marçal and Pedro had a large local following and offered
an alternative form of leadership – for sure mixing personal and communal
interests. They engaged issues that were central to people’s experience and made
them meaningful, such as building the community, abortion, healing and access
to the dead. Both must have drawn on recognised shamanic healing powers
of the river (and forest) spirits who helped shamans see invisible afflictions.
Being of a shamanic mind-set they borrowed related beliefs and practices from
Christianity and located them in their cult. This incorporation 100 years on
from the establishment of the first mission in the region (that is roughly four
generations), illustrates the way in which colonial Indian communities were
coming to terms with this new world and making it their own. For this reason I
have chosen an historical example in order to demonstrate the significant amount
of work the imagination was required to do in these situations of mental and
physical reconstitution. Despite the Portuguese attempt to control the minds and
bodies of Indians, they were able only to achieve a precarious authority over
the extensive network of riverine villages and towns. Instead what emerged was
precisely the kind of localised determinations of the myriad of influences on
view in this example. As with the Peruvian Amazonian study discussed by Gow,
the river made possible the spread and sharing of these imaginative horizons,
that is the genealogical element of fluvial practice; and if not shared, at least a
new kind of mingling and awareness of the manner in which different people
were ‘working things out’. The significance of this late colonial time for Indians
was their imaginative appreciation of the river’s meaning as an assimilator of
humans (from being a boundary in pre-colonial and early colonial period) and
related practices examined here. This was largely a personal project, for there
was a break with the past of traditional collective forms of social and political
organisation. The wretched colonial subject was released, and survival was
critically dependent on his or her imaginative resourcefulness and reflexivity in
recombining practices in the present. Although more evidence could be provided
to develop this argument, this brief illustration should be sufficiently convincing.
This episode is one of the many stories from the archive that requires a degree
of contextualisation and speculation. Two elements are critical in putting this story
back together: (1) the significance of the river and the new forms of connection
it permitted, and (2) the assumption that imagination was a critical part in
directing the cult from the outset. In other words, an attunement to the imaginative
consequences of the river alerts us to the mastery of the complex bundles of
meanings, and moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Pedro and Marçal
fashioned their own blend of religious consciousness, contingent on the colonial
context, which in turn had the river at its core. We get to know and understand the
context through the men’s biographies and not vice versa (though we may search
for clues in other material). As a whole, my reconstruction of the documentary
fragments parallels Marçal’s self-constructed shamanic cult. In moving from the
familiar to the unfamiliar we are both engaging in acts of discovery and novelty
aided by the work of the imagination.
From the River 37

Marçal’s confession effectively dissolved his own blend of shamanism. And

we can speculate that meant he put an end to his sense of self as he moved to
his final resting place on the banks of the River Piri. Cut off from his telephone
network of shamans he may have been haunted by the aborted foetuses. It is worth
noting that in the Southern Andes the foetus is a seen as a pagan, wild devil with
a voracious appetite (Platt 2001). Abortion, or miscarriage, terminates the process
of conversion and formation of the child as a Christian person. Aborted foetuses
become ghosts and menace the living. It is impossible to know if the parallel
associations existed in colonial Amazonia. Still, why did Marçal encourage
women to abort? Was it to prevent children coming into a bad world, as a kind of
resistance? Or to cut their connection to the river, and the formation of a riverine
self (as with my son)? It is clear from the evidence that the ghost foetuses plagued
the women of the cult, who wanted reassurance that they need not fear these little
phantoms and what they had done to them (deliberately or under persuasion, we
don’t know). The foetuses had also been dissolved, perhaps disposed in the river.

An Ending

This chapter has sought to show that the river provides more food for the
imagination than its metaphorical value, as a facile universalism would have it.
From the poetry of Eliot, Bishop and Hughes to Pedro and Marçal’s cult, the river
shapes mental and physical routines. As Cunha writes, the river infects the person
by getting inside his or her mind and body. The brief example of the cult provided
the opportunity not just to examine the liquid imagination as situated practice but
also to use it analytically.
The imagination in these cases has not created abstract representations to
embellish empty environments with meaning. It has instead actively produced
a human/environment relationship through flow, depth and genealogy. Starting
from practice and experience, the liquid imagination has proceeded to an ever
more profound involvement with the lived world, leading deeper and more
comprehensively into it, not out of it. Here ‘the boundaries between person and
place, self and the landscape, dissolve altogether’ (Ingold 2000: 56). Not for this
reason alone it was relevant to open with the anecdote about my son, and by
implication other children who grow up next to the Amazon River.
The imagining person is always emplaced, or sited in specific relations to
other bodies, whether organic or non-organic, from the past or present. Somewhat
paradoxically, the late colonial moment of the Amazon was a time when there was
an opening in the imaginative horizon of recently dislocated individuals. In that
confusion of competing ideas and practices, new combinations became possible.
We can see them in the various elements of the fluvial intimacies that emerged and
flow down to the present.
By drawing on related literary representations of the riverine imaginary, I have
shown how other writers have explored the self’s movement across the border
38 Reflections on Imagination

zones of the special mental and physical landscapes. Essentially these authors
go beyond a literalism of the relationship between imagination and place, that
is where selves or societies are determined by their environments. They also
complicate the universalism of the proposal that humans think like rivers, because
we are always situated in a place and time, even if we are not fully confined to
them. These authors write about how a river, or water more generally, nourishes
the imagination with practical concepts of flow, depth and extension. As the self
is fed by these practices it moves into the kind of imaginative extensions that
Macfarlane encouraged his readers to consider. Here the self moves into a terrain
that is simultaneously mental and physical; a mind is fired up by swimming in the
river and sensing the beings below, or by a shaman speaking in different voices,
incorporating his spirit helpers. These acts of mental and bodily movement, some
everyday, some novel, are mapped by the self as it finds its own pathways and
frontiers. These maps represent the activities and memories of the discovery of the
imagination and serve to guide personal orientation in the future. For Mark Twain,
the cub pilot, these maps were his means to keep the boat safe and secure. For
Marçal they led him to explore novel rituals incorporating Amerindian shamanism
and European Christianity. By reconstructing something of these resourceful
enlargements of the world as experienced we can appreciate the emplaced
biographies and histories of the imagination.


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From the River 39

Gow, Peter 1996 ‘River People: Shamanism and History in Western Amazonia’, in
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40 Reflections on Imagination

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Case Studies
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The two chapters in this section focus on the way in which imagination figures as
an aspect of anthropological knowing, part of a methodological engagement with
the worlds of others, and at the same time how those others will themselves be
involved in commensurate imaginative operations. Here is the imagination as both
analytical methodology and an everyday ethnomethodology. Scales of technicality
link a social-scientific practice to a local or folk practice. And both may suffer
alike from an absence or lack of imaginative skill.
In ‘Re-Imagining Ethnography’, Paul Stoller recalls an American television
show, in February 2011, that discussed the social uprising in Egypt. Two senior
diplomats, who have provided long service to the United States Department of
State, attempted to explain why the US Government had been ‘surprised’ by the
recent social upheavals in the North African region. They refused to characterize
the surprise as an ‘intelligence failure’; instead they suggested that the analysis
of conditions on the ground was somehow ‘lacking’. When pressed further by
the commentator, they suggested that the Government’s analysis, mired in the
past, suffered from a ‘lack of imagination’. Moving from this ‘local’ example to a
social-scientific one, Stoller asks whether we in the anthropological academy are
so different from the diplomats in the Department of State: Is there not a similar,
institutionally contoured, ‘lack of imagination’ that is responsible for transforming
exciting ethnographic details into dull anthropological texts? Stoller offers an
example of ‘lack of imagination’ from his own extended fieldwork among the
West African Songhay. He argues that anthropologists might and should use their
imaginations to produce textual work that is not simply ‘of the moment’—and
then closed to wider spaces and times—but transcendent of the here-and-now and
thus remaining open to the world of possibility.
In ‘Tango Heart and Soul: Solace, Suspension, and the Imagination in the
Dance Tourist’, Jonathan Skinner describes a group of affluent adults taking
part in a niche-tourism event: a ‘sojourn-retreat’ in a French château receiving
instruction in tango. The retreat can be understood as a kind of voluntary and
personal rite of passage for the dance-tourists, Skinner explains, whom he would
44 Reflections on Imagination

have us view as virtuosi of the imagination: the tourists return to their everyday
work and leisure pursuits at the end of the course with a new awareness of the
project of their lives and of their connection with others. The participants deploy
their imaginations deliberately and the deliverances of the latter, while often
poignant and sometimes capricious, are always consciousness-raising. The retreat
takes the form of a suspension of life, Skinner argues, but also a mini-life in itself;
the emotions brought to the fore and embodied by the dance protagonists concern
life and love, death and loss, passion and romance, in the space of a morning,
afternoon and evening. ‘Tango is for solace’, Skinner’s informant tells him, as
bodies are diligently lent to the task of learning the cadencia of the dance form,
and the provocative nature of its musicality. The intensity of the days and nights
of dancing is such that the participants awaken themselves to imaginations of
life, death and a youth that all reside in them. The participants expect to proceed
through these emotional engagements so as to return reinvigorated, re-skilled and
re-enchanted at the sojourn’s end: they die a dance-death in order to be re-born
at the end of the ‘holiday’. Moreover, at the same time as the participants find an
imaginary space in which life and death confront one another, music and mortality,
the anthropologist who dances alongside them also glimpses the workings of the
imagination as a human capacity for enhancing life.
Chapter 3
Re-Imagining Ethnography1
Paul Stoller

In intellectual life we champion the human capacity for imagination and value
the originality of analytical work. Even so, there are many external factors that
constrain the imagination. Consider the media reports that suggested that the
December 2010 social uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt came as a surprise to the
US government. In a wide-ranging February 2011 interview on State of the Union
with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Edward Walker and John Negroponte, two former
ambassadors with deep diplomatic experience in the world—especially in the
Middle East—discussed whether the US reaction to the uprisings in Tunisia and
Egypt constituted an “intelligence” failure. Ambassador Negroponte suggested
that the intelligence analysis of the situation might have been better, but chose
not to use the phrase “intelligence failure.” Both Ambassador Negroponte and
Ambassador Walker agreed that that the US intelligence effort reflected a lack of
imagination (Huffington Post 2011).
From my anthropologically conditioned vantage, it is pervasive institutional
constraints that usually bring on this kind of lack of imagination. US Foreign
Service officers usually remain in a post for only a few years, which means they
don’t have the time to get to know a place, learn the language or comprehend the
cultural dimensions of the locality. If my observation of Foreign Service officers in
Niger is indicative, they usually spend much of their work and most of their leisure
time among compatriots and have little substantive contact with the “locals.”
Success in this institutional culture of the Foreign Service appears to come to those
who are good generalists, men and women whose knowledge may be quite broad,
but not very deep, men and women whose views of the world may, in the words of
the ambassadors “lack imagination.”
Is there a comparable lack of imagination in the academy? Has the
institutionalization of our disciplinary cultures put us in a deep sleep that produces
jargon-laden work that reflects what Clifford Geertz once called the “dead hand of
competence?” (Geertz 1973). If you peruse much of the work that anthropologists
produce, for example, it would seem that the “dead hand” has produced thousands
upon thousands of journal articles and monographs—all containing similar
structures of argument and comparable language. This comparable use of language
and logical structure, of course, is a marker of “disciplinary competence,” which

1 This chapter is adapted from my book, Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-being in the
World, from the University of Chicago Press 2014.
46 Reflections on Imagination

means that from the vantage of institutional anthropology such works are marked
as “worthy” of publication.
As someone who has been socialized into the culture of institutional
anthropology, I must admit that the “dead head of competence” has shaped
many of my journal essays, and several of my books. My mentors trained me to
appreciate and produce “good scholarship.” Like any scholar, I wanted my work to
receive disciplinary recognition that corresponds to “good scholarship.” I wanted
colleagues to cite, discuss and employ the ideas I had put forward. If my case is
illustrative, most scholars don’t think very deeply about the conventional aspects
of what they do. Sometimes it takes an existential shock to wake us from the sleep
of competence and confront “big questions” in unconventional ways.
This chapter is about such an existential shock, an ethnographic epiphany
that compelled me to think about the nature of human well-being, a subject that
anthropologists rarely discuss. It is the story of two men, who, separated by ethnicity,
language, culture, profession, and personal circumstance, manage to bridge their
considerable differences. The story recounts adventures experienced along two
distinct life paths. Yaya’s path followed the twists and turns of contemporary
African long-distance trading. My path followed the sinuous trails of anthropology.
In time our winding paths finally crossed in New York City, where we met and built
a friendship that began to transcend the profound differences that separated us.
When we both experienced the existential shock of serious illness—cancer—most
of those differences evaporated. In this chapter I attempt to demonstrate how
serious illness can profoundly change a person’s life. In our case, serious illness
eventually brought Yaya and me, men defined through difference, to a moment of
profound existential convergence. At that moment, we both understood for the first
time what we needed to do to find well-being in the world.
But how do you represent such an intense existential moment? In this chapter
I discuss how I used musical form to structure two dissonant narratives, which,
in turn, enabled me to bring them to a dramatic and memorable conclusion. In
telling the story of these stories I attempt to reflect on those themes—love and
hate, health and illness, courage and fear, fidelity and betrayal—that define the
human condition, which means that I also ponder our obligation to think hard
about what we do as scholars, writers and human beings.
* * *
El Hajj Yaya Hamidou was born in Belayara, one of the great market towns in
Western Niger. Every Sunday thousands of people from far and wide converge on
Belayara, which is best known for livestock trading.
As a young man, Yaya’s father introduced him to the market and to Islam. Yaya
attended two schools as a young man. During the day, he went to the local primary
school, where he learned how to read and write French and calculate numbers.
In the evening, he would go to the local Imam’s compound, where, by light of a
nightly bonfire, he’d recite passages from the Koran. In primary school Yaya’s
challenge was to perform well enough to advance to secondary school. In Koranic
Re-Imagining Ethnography 47

Figure 3.1 Belayara Market, February 2009

Source: Photo by Paul Stoller.

school, his challenge was to memorize every passage in the sacred book. He did
well enough in primary school to advance to the secondary school in Fillingue, the
site of the provincial government. He managed also to memorize the Holy Koran
and could recite long passages from memory. During his early education, he
also sold goods in the market—sometimes bolts of cotton print cloth, sometimes
chewing gum and candy, sometimes kola nuts, sometimes cigarettes. By the
time he completed secondary school, he elected to forego additional studies at
the Lycée Nationale in Niger’s capital city. Instead, he followed his older brother
Abdou to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, one of the most vibrant cities in West Africa. By
the time Yaya had reached Abidjan, his older brother had established a successful
trade in African art. For his part, Yaya travelled upcountry where he purchased the
beautifully realistic masks of the Guro people.
In time, Daouda, the youngest of the three Belayara brothers, joined Yaya and
Abdou in Abidjan. The African art trading business flourished. Soon Abdou and
Yaya had both compiled the necessary funds to make the expensive pilgrimage
to Mecca, which conferred to him the title El Hajj, a marker of great respect
in the Islamically-contoured culture of West African trade. In the early 1980s
Abdou traveled to New York City to set up an African art trading enterprise in
North America, a fertile market of unlimited possibility. In what was to become
48 Reflections on Imagination

Figure 3.2 El Hajj Yaya in New York, 2009

Source: Photo by Paul Stoller.

Le Magasin (The Warehouse) in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, Abdou rented

a stall and stocked it with a wide variety of West African art objects—Guro masks,
Tuareg camel saddles, tooled leather boxes and leather pillows, all from the
Belayara region, and a wide assortment of leather-sheaved knives and swords.
Abdou asked Yaya to join him in New York. And so in the early 1990s El Hajj
Yaya flew to New York. Travelling with fellow traders across the US, he developed
client lists—patrons interested in collected antique silver jewelry made by Tuareg
smiths in and around Belayara. In those early years, El Hajj Yaya would come to
the US for six months or less, travel from market site to market site around the
US and when demand depleted his inventory, return to either Abidjan or Belayara.
* * *
My path into adulthood could not have been more different from Yaya’s. Yaya was
the son of Muslim parents in Belayara. By contrast, I was a Jewish boy growing up
in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. While Yaya spent time
by the bonfire memorizing the Koran, I attended Hebrew School, where I learned
to read and write the language of my Jewish ancestors. Yaya’s parents instilled in
Re-Imagining Ethnography 49

him the values of Islam and introduced

him to the culture of trade. My parents
and grandparents instilled in me a
passion for success, which in my
family meant less the accumulation
of a fortune, though that certainly
was not discouraged, than becoming a
prestigious professional—a lawyer, or
best of all, a physician.
To demonstrate my seriousness,
I worked hard in school and readied
myself for my bar mitzvah. I also
worked hard at Groggy Gurwitz’s
School of Dance, where I learned how
to dance. If I could give a good bar
mitzvah performance on Saturday
morning and then slide gracefully
along the dance floor at the reception
on Saturday evening, my parents and
grandparents would beam with pride. Figure 3.3 A Groggy Gurwitz
I didn’t disappoint. graduate dancing
In the cultural climate of my with his grandmother,
childhood and adolescence you also Rose Stoller
received accolades for “being smart.” Source: Photo from author’s family archive.
This atmosphere compelled me to
work very hard in high school. I
received fairly good grades and joined the debate team. If I could get accepted to
an Ivy League university, I’d feel like a success. Alas, my academic record put that
dream pretty much out of reach. What’s more, no one in my family was a Harvard,
Yale, Columbia or Penn alumnus, which meant that I had no chance of being
admitted as a “legacy” student. Several select liberal arts colleges also rejected
my application for admission. Finally, the University of Pittsburgh, which was a
respectable enough institution, accepted me and off I went to college.
When I arrived on campus, unpacked and wandered into what was for me
a brave new world, I steeled my resolve to do well. Unlike my roommate and
many of the students on my dorm floor, I spent much of my spare time studying. I
thought that if I spent enough time reading and taking notes, the effort might make
up for my self-perceived intellectual deficiencies.
I took my classes, studied like a fiend, and managed to make the Dean’s List
my first semester. In time, I found literature and especially philosophy much more
intriguing than other subjects—especially the phenomenological philosophy of
French thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I found like-
minded students in my dorm. We’d sit in the dorm café, drink coffee, smoke
cigarettes and discuss the whys and wherefores of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness
50 Reflections on Imagination

Figure 3.4 Paul Stoller at The Pitt News, 1968

Source: Photo from author’s family archive.

or Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception. Sometimes our spirited

discussions would linger into wee hours of the morning.2
My interest in reading and discussing philosophy drew me toward writing. In
my youthful imagination, I thought it would be wonderful to live the writing life.
I wondered if I could transform the deep wisdom of continental philosophy into a
highly engaging story. In short, I wanted to be a novelist.
None of my professors directly encouraged me to pursue the writing life.

2 In the late 1960s the famous philosophers of department at Pitt focused their
attention on epistemology and logic. I, however, came under the spell of Dr Richard
Rubinstein, death of god theologian, existentialist and phenomenologist, which compelled
me to read continental philosophy.
Re-Imagining Ethnography 51

“It’s a tough path,” they said.

“You’d be better off doing something else.”
Some of them recommended that I try journalism. If I liked writing for newspapers
or magazines, they suggested, I might want to extend my writing to short stories
and novels. Following their advice, I began to write for the student newspaper,
The Pitt News, first as a reporter, then as News Editor and finally, in my senior year,
as Editor-in-Chief.
The escalation of the war in Vietnam, my opposition to war in general, and
the likelihood that I would be drafted into the military compelled me to join the
Peace Corps in 1969. Because it was remote and because the official language was
French, which I had studied at the university, I chose to serve in Niger.
During my two years in Niger I fell in love with the people who, though poor,
lived full and robust lives. I taught English as a Foreign Language and learned to
speak Songhay. Toward the end of my second year—in Tillaberi—music coming
from the dune that loomed over the secondary school lured me to a compound, the
site of a spirit possession ceremony. There I met Adamu Jenitongo, the priest of
the possession troupe. He invited me into his compound and asked me to return
any time I wanted. I witnessed mind-boggling episodes of spirit possession, which
Adamu Jenitongo patiently explained to me.
Alas, those two years, 1969–71, passed all too quickly, but I knew that
I wanted to find a way to get back to Niger and the people I loved. So I went to
graduate school, first in linguistics and then in social anthropology and slowly and
inexorably found my way back to Niger and the Songhay. As I awaited research
authorization at the University of Niamey’s Institute of Social Science Research,
I met the legendary Jean Rouch, who besides being a great ethnographic filmmaker
was also specialist in Songhay ethnography. It was the beginning of a long and
lovely friendship that lasted until Jean Rouch’s accidental death in 2004.
With the encouragement of Jean Rouch, I departed for my first site, Mehanna,
on the west bank of the Niger River, some 180 kilometers north of Niamey. There
I refined my knowledge of the Songhay language as I conducted research on the
political uses of ritual language among the Songhay. After six months in the field,
a series of events thrust me directly into the world of Songhay sorcery and healing.
I was initiated as a sorko, a group of Songhay praise-singing healers. Toward the end
of my year in Mehanna, my initiators told me to look up their teacher in Tillaberi, who
turned out to be the same man, Adamu Jenitongo, whom I had met five years earlier.
When I presented myself, he smiled and said:
“What took you so long?”
From that moment in May 1976, I began to “sit” with Adamu Jenitongo. During
our first session, my mentor set the moral compass of our relationship.
“If you want to learn about healing and power,” he said, “you and I have to
create a relationship of trust. If your character is clean, our trust will grow strong.
If you character is dirty, our trust will be betrayed and our relationship will be
broken. In time, I will know the depth of your character which will tell me if we
should move forward together.”
52 Reflections on Imagination

Speechless, I shook my head.

“In everything you do,” he said pointing his finger at me, “remember this: ‘Say
what you mean and do what you say.’ If you do that,” he continued, “people will
know who you are and will trust you to heal them.”
At first, I stayed with colleagues at the secondary school and would visit my
teacher in what he called “the black of night,” a time when you could talk about
powerful words and plants in relative privacy. I would march up the dune at
midnight and quietly make my way to Adamu Jenitongo’s straw hut, the spirit hut.
That’s where he stored all of his sacred objects—a hatchet with a bell associated
with Dongo, spirit of thunder, small leather sandals for the Atakurma, the elves
of the Songhay bush, a tall iron staff—the lolo of sohanci sorcerers—on which
you found copper and brass rings encrusted with years of sacrificial blood. In the
dull flicker of a kerosene lantern, Adamu Jenitongo taught me incantations and
described the healing properties of hundreds of medicinal plants. He showed me his
divination shells—single valve cowries—as well as the intricacies of geomancy.
At first I wanted to learn everything I could—and quickly.
Adamu Jenitongo laughed at my youthful exuberance. “It takes many, many
years to learn korte (or magic).” Toward the end of June 1977, he announced that
our sessions had come to an end. “You have to come back and live here with me in
the spirit hut. Then we’ll continue.”
That statement set the pattern for my education in things Songhay. I spent as
much time as I could in Niger, managing to travel to Tillaberi, Niger during breaks
from teaching. Upon my return each year, Adamu Jenitongo would greet me and
teach me something new about the sorcerer’s path.
During those times, Adamu Jenitongo also sent me to sit with practitioners
from Wanzerbe, the famous village of sorcerers perched among the desiccated
steppes and majestic dunes of northwestern Niger. There I eventually met Kassey,
a diminutive grandmother who was perhaps the most powerful of all sorcerers in
Niger. In Wanzerbe, I suffered two bouts of “sickness”—a temporary paralysis in
the legs, and the presence of a small egg in my stool, the sign of impending death
by sorcery. Adamu Jenitongo said the jealousy of his rivals had triggered the events,
one of which occurred in 1979 and the other in 1984 (see Stoller and Olkes 1987).
After the first event, he complimented me on surviving. “You are well on the
path,” he told me.
After the second event, I told him that I couldn’t go on.
“Don’t worry about that attack, Paul,” he said. “You are still here and now
know that the path of power is very dangerous.”
“Yes, indeed, Baba, but I don’t want to follow it, anymore.”
Adamu Jenitongo chuckled. “Well, then, you’ll have to learn about medicine
on the path of plants.”
From then on we’d sit together in the “black of night” and discuss the
properties of medicinal plants. Adamu Jenitongo demonstrated a remarkable
knowledge of the local flora and how they could be used to treat a wide variety
of disorders—malaria, asthma, skin infections, intestinal parasites, and hepatitis.
Re-Imagining Ethnography 53

He knew that if you picked a plant during daylight, its leaves or stems would have
one kind of bodily impact and that if you picked the same plant at night, its leaves
or stems would have a different curative effect. He knew that for some plants, you
could only use the root to heal people. He also taught me that certain resins could
be burned to produce sedative effects in cases of extreme anxiety. During the same
time period, he showed me how to sharpen my skills in divination, which had been
and still are admittedly weak.
In the summer of 1987 I spent several months with my mentor. During previous
visits Adamu Jenitongo’s vigor had always surprised me. He walked miles every
day and attended to his spiritual duties with an awe-inspiring robustness. In 1987,
though, I found him a shadow of his former self. He didn’t venture away from his
dune top compound, and his increasing fatigue prompted him to take long siestas
and retire early in the evening. His oldest son, Moussa, explained that his father
had been suffering from prostate cancer and that he would probably die in the
coming months.
Despite these considerable difficulties, Adamu Jenitongo continued to heal
people. He also organized several spirit possession ceremonies in his compound.
Our lessons on the path of plants continued, though we had to schedule them early
in the evening. By the time the “black of night” arrived, Adamu Jenitongo had
long been in a sound sleep.
There were no special words that we exchanged the last time I saw my mentor.
We talked about plants and the state of the world that the forces of change had
inexorably altered. One last time, I asked him why he had taught me, a white man,
so much about his world.
“It’s because I like you,” he said, giving me the same answer that he always
gave to that question.
I left Niger several days later. A month after I returned home, I received
word that the physical condition of my mentor had deteriorated. He had been
to Niamey where he had undergone prostate surgery. By the time he returned
home, his weak physical condition confined him to bed. As word spread about his
condition, visitors began to come to Tillaberi, sometimes from great distances, to
pay him their respects. Although weak in body, Adamu Jenitongo’s mind and spirit
remained strong. He regaled the well-wishers with a wide variety of stories from
his long and well-lived life.
From then on, I received regular updates about my mentor’s health. In early
March 1988, however, I received a phone call that he was gravely ill. I made
rapid plans to fly to Niger. Two days later I arrived in Tillaberi only to learn
that Adamu Jenitongo had died the day before. His oldest son took me to my
mentor’s final resting place where I spoke heartfelt words into a stone and placed
it on his grave.
Coming upon the grave, I wondered how I would go on. I had intellectual
reasons for continuing my work in Niger, but then came to the full realization
that it had been love for Adamu Jenitongo that had inspired my dogged pursuit of
Songhay sorcery and healing. What now? I wondered.
54 Reflections on Imagination

Figure 3.5 Entrance to the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market

Source: Photo by Paul Stoller.

After Adamu Jenitongo’s death, my ethnographic life in Tillaberi unraveled.

The slivers of trust that had connected me to his sons and his other blood relatives
quickly dissipated. Between 1988 and 1990, I travelled to teach Adamu Jenitongo’s
sons, Moru and Moussa, what their father couldn’t covey to them. On a trip to
Niger in 1990, I became dangerously ill and had to be evacuated to Paris and then
to Washington DC. Before my evacuation, my Songhay friends said that I had
contracted a “sickness” that wasn’t a “sickness”—a condition that resulted from
jealously and distrust in Tillaberi. Since Adamu Jenitongo could no longer protect
me, they said that it would be foolish for me to return to Niger.
In 1992 I stumbled into a West African market on the streets of Harlem and
found Nigerien traders from towns and villages in which I had lived. I even
knew some of the aunts and uncles of the young and not-so-young men who sold
“African” goods on the streets of New York City. I continued to visit my Nigerien
friends in New York City. My first field site was under the marquis of the famous
Apollo Theatre on Harlem’s major thoroughfare to the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem
Market on 116th Street near the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard.
As that work unfolded over the years, I met many traders, men and women
from Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and, of course Niger—men and women
who had wandered to the edge of their universes of meaning. In the 1997, I met
Re-Imagining Ethnography 55

El Hajj Abdou Harouna, an art trader, who wondered why I was wasting my time
in Harlem. If I wanted to see a “real” market, I should come with him immediately
to “The Warehouse.” I took up his offer and he took me to Chelsea Mini Storage, a
six story building, comprising one entire block in Manhattan, stuffed with African
Art. El Hajj Abdou introduced me to his colleagues and I gradually became a
regular at “The Warehouse.” In February 1998, El Hajj Abdou introduced me to
his younger brother, El Hajj Yaya. Because El Hajj Yaya knew that I spoke the
Songhay language, he addressed me in his mother tongue. Smiling at me he said:
“If you tell me about your work, I’ll tell you about mine.”
* * *
When I first began to listen to Adamu Jenitongo, he said something that at first
seemed strange.
“Illness is your companion,” he told me. “It is always close by, ready to walk
into your life at any moment. Death is part of life.”
At that stage of my life, these comments seemed off the mark. In my family,
illness remained a distant reality. My relatives all seemed to be robust. My great-
grandfather, Joe Stoller, lived an active life until the day he died in his mid-nineties.
My grandfather, Mack Stoller, who was rarely ill, also lived into his mid-nineties.
My great-great grandmother lived to be 106. In short I rarely thought about or
discussed illness or death.
You would think that my early experience in Niger would have challenged
my set of assumptions about health and illness. In Nigerien cities, towns and
villages I saw lepers, children suffering from skin ulcers, and adults hobbled by
elephantiasis. I saw skeletal children and adults who suffered from malnutrition.
I lived through cholera epidemics during which the smell of death permeated the
dusty air. Such suffering remained the province of the “other,” something brought
on by the abject poverty that existed everywhere in Niger. Through circumstance,
then, illness became the companion of my Nigerien friends. Illness was decidedly
not my companion, for I was in energetic good health and given my family history,
I could expect that state of affairs to continue for the foreseeable future.
When my oncologist unexpectedly diagnosed me with Non-Hodgkin’s
Lymphoma (NHL), a “manageable” but incurable blood cancer, in 2001, the
existential shock of “having cancer” forced me to confront the relationship of
health to illness—from a Songhay perspective. Suddenly, illness—cancer—was
my companion. Even though I received world-class state-of-the-art treatments,
even though I entered the indeterminate state of remission after nine months of
grueling chemotherapy, I knew that my companion could at any moment cross the
portal and re-enter my life. We were inextricably linked, a realization that prompted
fear, but also taught me to live well within my set of limitations (Stoller 2004).
At first, my illness experience did not really change my relationship with
El Hajj Yaya, who continued his commercial travel between West Africa and
New York City. I told him about my work. He told me about his. On the surface
our relations didn’t seem all that changed even though he eventually developed
56 Reflections on Imagination

advanced stage colorectal cancer. I initially thought that our mutual experience
of an existentially altering disease would bring us closer together. I asked
after his treatment and sent him information about other cancer programs in
New York City. When I learned about an impressive clinical trial, I sent him
the information.
El Hajj Yaya’s regimen of chemotherapy, however, proved to be physically
and psychologically debilitating. He visited the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem market
less and less frequently. Caught in a cancer vortex, he sought some peace in the
solitude of his apartment. Having been in that situation, I understood his reluctance
to engage in everyday social relations. When his phone rang he usually refused to
answer. If you left him a message, he did not phone you back. If you sent him
letters, he did not respond.
In October 2010 I once again visited my West African friends at the Malcolm
Shabazz Harlem market. Because he spent so much time alone in his apartment, I
didn’t expect to see Yaya that day. And yet, there he was sitting on a metal chair in
front of Boube Mounkaila’s “leather” handbag shop.
He looked tired. He mentioned that the chemotherapy drugs had reduced the
size of his tumor and that his physicians had been cautiously optimistic about
his prognosis. After almost three years of on-again-off-again chemotherapy, they
wanted El Hajj Yaya to continue treatment to “manage” the cancer. That day
we spoke vigorously about politics in the US and Niger as well as about the
twists and turns of the global economy. As always, I found Yaya an admirable
man. In the face of what seemed like terminal cancer, I admired his dignity and
stoic persistence.
When the other traders in our discussion group moved away to tend to their
shops, El Hajj Yaya beckoned me closer. He looked deeply into my eyes and
touched my hand.
“Paul,” he said solemnly, “I’m going home.”
A silence of mutual recognition filled the space between us. Like two cats
perched on a wall, we sat motionlessly and let the statement sink in. He nodded
his head and we sat for a few moments holding hands, a sign of deep friendship in
West Africa. People strolled by. The din of conversations hung in the background.
The sweet smell of Bint al Sudan perfume filled the air.
That moment was just a spark of time, a perfect instant of profound mutual
comprehension and experiential convergence. For just that moment, I knew what
he knew and he knew what I knew. We had crossed a distant existential boundary
and entered a new space of awareness. It was what Martin Buber had brilliantly
called an I-Thou moment of deep dialogue. (Buber 1971).
* * *
We savored the moment. We knew it would be the last time we would see one
another. In that moment of resignation, I felt a profound sadness. I don’t know if
El Hajj Yaya felt the same sadness and resignation.
Re-Imagining Ethnography 57

He stood up and walked toward the market exit. A few paces from me, he turned
around. “I leave in two weeks,” he said in an even tone. He walked away—back to
a life lived with pride and dignity.
So Yaya returned to Niger. I departed for my home in Wilmington, Delaware.
He went back to his family and local businesses. I soon found myself once again
among family, friends and colleagues.
Boube filled me in on what happened to El Hajj Yaya after his return to Niger.
In the absence of chemotherapy treatments, cancer quickly took hold of his body.
He found it difficult to eat. He found it increasingly painful to walk. A month after
his arrival he took to his bed. Friends and relatives came to the family compound
to pay their respects. They talked about wonderful things—travel, El Hajj Yaya’s
life in Abidjan and New York, his considerable success in the world of trade. In
this way, people bestowed upon him the cultural honor that befits a traveler, a
restless taker of risks.
He died on January 1, 2011.
* * *
At our last meeting Yaya and I experienced a rare point of existential convergence,
a perfect storm of mutual comprehension. Like all peak experiences in life, this
one lasted only a few moments, which, for me at least, have been unforgettable.
Those moments changed me. They reaffirmed in me the belief that human beings
from different backgrounds can overcome substantial difference and establish
deep bonds of mutual comprehension.
Those last instants with Yaya also enabled me to understand more fully what
Adamu Jenitongo had taught me a long time ago: “illness is a great teacher.”
For a long period of time, I thought that his statement referred to how sorcerers
move forward on their path. It is through illness—sometimes natural, sometimes
brought on through sorcerous acts—that the apprentice moves forward on her
or his path of power. If you respond to illness with respect and dignity, you are
ready to learn about more powerful rites and more profound truths. If you are
not up the challenge that illness presents, your journey ends at the fork in the
road where your teacher guides you to another path. After the last meeting with
El Hajj Yaya, I knew that illness was also not only a great teacher, but also a great
leveler. When I sat in treatment rooms with fellow cancer patients, I realized that
illness could wash away social differences. If you are a cancer patient hooked up
to an IV, it makes no difference if you are a professor or a sanitation worker. From
the patient’s perspective, cancer does not draw boundaries of social class. In the
treatment room cancer obliterates class distinctions for everyone there is in the
same situation—experiencing an unsentimental face-to-face confrontation with
mortality. What I hadn’t realized, though, is that the experience of serious illness
also makes it possible for two people, defined by social, cultural, linguistic and
historical difference, to transcend their deep disparities, if only for a few intense
moments, to experience a profound existential convergence. That convergence
58 Reflections on Imagination

may have brought some existential closure to both of our lives. It may have
given Yaya a measure of comfort on his journey to a dignified death. It gave me
a sharpened appreciation of the vicissitudes of life on a path toward an uncertain
future (Stoller 2008).
* * *
Confronted with these profoundly existential events, I wondered how I might
write about them. What textual strategies could I use that would capture a complex
moment of power and complexity? The process of writing is a strange one. Each
writer enacts his or her rituals in the struggle to transform experience into text.
I tend to live with my materials—the places, people, and events I want to describe.
I think about them and let them wander about the deep recesses of my mind. In my
experience, this process usually, but not always, gradually results in some kind of
textual solution.
In the case of my story about Yaya the struggle was particularly long and
intense. It is usually this way when you want to pay homage to a particularly
courageous friend or do justice to a life-changing experience. And so, I patiently
sat with and “listened” to the “materials” that constituted Yaya’s story, which, was
also my story. My pages remained blank for many months. One day, though, as
I re-read Milan Kundera’s wonderful The Art of the Novel (1988) I discovered a
path forward.
Music was a central element in Kundera’s socialization. His father, who
was a musicologist, taught the young Kundera to play the piano. Kundera later
studied musicology, which meant that his writings are laced with musicological
references. In some of his works, Kundera used musical form to structure his
narratives. Reading Kundera jettisoned me back to a four-week 1985 NEH
Summer Institute I attended at Georgetown University. The Institute’s theme that
year was Humanistic Approaches to Linguistic Analysis. At the institute I had the
great privilege of participating in the philosophy of language workshop with the
late Alton “Pete” Becker, a man of great and delicate imagination who by then
was an internationally renowned specialist of Asian languages and literature. In
addition to introducing us to Wittgenstein with an Asian twist, Pete would begin
each workshop session by playing Balinese gamelan music. Pete demonstrated to
us how this music consisted of two discordant tracks that gradually became more
and more harmonious until the two tracks reached a brief moment of convergence
after which the discordant features slowly returned taking the music back to where
it began. I realized in an instantaneous moment of revelation, one of the wonders
of the creative process, that his structure fit the pattern that defined my relationship
with Yaya.
Thanks to Pete Becker’s insights and the marvels of creative play, the
ethnography, as they say, wrote itself. Such are the vicissitudes of the imagination.
Such are the rewards of maintaining a playful openness to textual possibility. Such
is one way to re-imagine ethnography.
Re-Imagining Ethnography 59


Buber, Martin 1971 I and Thou, New York: Touchstone.

Geertz, Clifford 1973 “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of
Cultures, New York: Basic Books, pp. 87–125.
Kundera, Milan 1988 The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press.
Stoller, Paul 2004 Stranger in the Village of the Sick, Boston: Beacon Press.
Stoller, Paul 2008 The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Odyssey,
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Stoller, Paul 2014. Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World. Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press.
Stoller, Paul and Cheryl Olkes 1987 In Sorcery’s Shadow, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
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Chapter 4
Tango Heart and Soul:
Solace, Suspension, and the Imagination in
the Dance Tourist1
Jonathan Skinner

Sally picks me up at Toulouse airport, not long after the confusions of a controlled
explosion in the check-in area. I meet a dozen British, Bristol-based tango dancers
for the first time and we share a convoy of cars and mini-buses north to the French
country village with a local chateau for hire. Sally has driven from Bristol with
her dance-partner husband and her two young sons. This is the start of an intense
research engagement of mine with a particular tango organisation from Bristol
on their regular annual retreat-cum-holiday-cum-extended dance lesson. It is also
an opportunity for me, like them, to embed into my body a particular ‘structured
movement system’, as Kaeppler (2000) defines dance. Indeed, it is an especially
structured form of structured movement system since the opportunity is for us to
engage intensively with the exponents of ‘Villa Urquiza’ tango style – a barrio
in the north of Buenos Aires where the milongas are renowned for their ‘spry’
floorplay foreplay footplay and smooth long salon walk (Anon 2013a; 2013b).
Here is an opportunity for us to return home as ‘superstars’ on the dance floor: it is
a ‘dance holiday’ of transformation and self-improvement that we are ‘buying into’
(see Skinner 2011; Bruner 1991). We are paying for a group-learning experience,
one in which we assume that we will be broken down to be remodelled. This will
be done through two hours of music instruction in the mornings, two more hours
of instruction but in movement in the early afternoons, and milonga practice time
in the evenings. The rest of our time together can be spent practising with each
other, relaxing around the chateau pool, preparing meals for the rest of the group,
dining out or exploring the countryside of southern France.
There are only three non-dancers in the party: Sally’s two sons, and the wife of
one of the dancers from Italy who is there to read and swim and chill. In total, we
are 17, predominantly from the dance class Sally leads in Bristol, but with several
further couples from France and Italy who have, like me, learnt of the opportunity
from adverts on Sally’s tango website. In addition to the teacher and the students,

1 I am grateful to the editors of this volume for their due diligence, to the Anthropology
of Tourism students at SOAS for their constructive input, and to my interviewees for their
words, corrections and approvals.
62 Reflections on Imagination

Sally has arranged for ‘tango mentors’ to instruct us: a couple who regularly teach
through her but are based in Holland, an Argentinean lead and his Dutch wife.
Both are exceptional professional dancers, Francisco, the lead trained by El Turca
in Buenos Aires. The lineage seems to be critical to the teachers and students.
Francisco possesses an embodied authenticity instilled through instruction, tango
intangible heritage manifest only in close hold.

Dance Tourism, the Liminal and the Imagined

This dance holiday is a form of niche tourism (Skinner 2003). It is a time away
from home, a time for relaxation, pleasure and indulgence as ‘emotional baggage’
goes ‘on standby’ (Skinner 2007a). It is also, like tango dancing in general, an
expensive and self-selecting affair: whereas there is a self-selection in the dance
with the equipment and costume, and slow instruction to perfection, there is also
the issue of the exotic location in the south of France, in an aristocratic house. The
symbolic capital of the vacation is high: special teachers and special instruction
in special surroundings. The participants are wealthy individuals and couples,
largely retired, pursuing the elusive tango skills of walking and adorning with
apparent simplicity.
This time abroad is very much the liminal time away from home where the
dancers can behave differently. Indeed, the suspension of the ordinary in the
liminal is paralleled by the suspension in the walk to the music: the dancers are in
flight and lateral movement before they come down to earth – ideally without a
jolt – as the foot glides into place with a neat and barely recognisable up-kick; or
this is what we were taught as the maestro revealed some of his Argentine tango
magic to us. Bit by bit we unpicked the music, the hold (embrace) and the anti-
clockwise walk around the room. Bit by bit we copied, imitated, picked up and
plagiarised what we saw and what we sought from the tango couple before us.
We even got to dance with them ourselves in the evenings. The intention was to
return to Bristol not just refreshed from leisure time away from home, but ‘reborn’
as tango maestros ourselves, our imaginations writ large across the milonga hall.
A large proportion of the dance students were late middle-aged, retired and
enjoying comfortable living. The tango represented for them a passionate hobby
that took them places and allowed them to meet, intimately, other people. It was
social social dancing. Being taught and instructed in dance and music lineages by
a teacher whom they emulated and who, as several generations younger than them,
also allowed the ‘wannabe’ dancers to speculate upon what a life in the dance-
world they might have had. They were able to live – imaginatively – through
their teachers. These, then, are tourists engaging with their bodies but pursuing
a nostalgic time of stress, learning and revamp. We are the ‘walking wounded’
receiving remedial attention whilst overseas, almost like health- or beauty-tourists
who convalesce away from home so that no one may witness them during their
transition period.
Tango Heart and Soul 63

‘Salsa is all Smiley; Tango is for Solace’

This is Mary’s second ‘Argentine’ holiday in the south of France. She is a social
dancer of a number of dances depending upon her mood. Some weeks she
disappears off into the swing or salsa worlds, others she remains with the tango.
In each of these dances, she likes to dip into someone else’s culture. This is what
makes the dance world interesting for her, and it is especially rich in the tango
world where there is an orientation about Argentina. Mary is a nervous dancer and
has an ambivalent relationship with the tango. She is attracted to it – ‘It makes me
feel good’ – but when she gets it wrong she can feel awful. She remains in perpetual
tension with this dance. It is unlike the salsa where a more casual approach is taken
and mistakes can be hidden: ‘You can be chaotic in salsa and still have fun, you
know. You can’t be chaotic in Tango’. It was Mary who noted that the salsa dance
is all smiley and that the tango is more of a state of solace. This does not mean that
she prefers one dance to another. She loves them both, but depending upon how
she feels, and how she wants to feel.
Mary’s tango evenings are special and contain an intensity of feeling about
them. In Mary’s words: ‘It’s intense. I wouldn’t say it’s happy, no. No, I can
go home sometimes thinking that was great but I wouldn’t say “happy”’. This
characterisation of the salsa as a party dance and the tango as a place for careful
connection, reflection and foot-articulation is a feature of the tango. It is seen in a
clever stereotyping of female salsa and tango dancers in a cartoon exchange that
went around the social-media networks (Tangocynic 2011). Mary is attracted to
the purity of the tango and has been ever since she started with the dance, as she
explained to me:

Somebody danced tango with me in the salsa club once. They had a small tango
group and it was sublime. So I just thought, he said, he held me tight and he said
“be like a limpet and melt” and it worked. So I just thought “this is all right”. But
of course that wasn’t how it ended up being.

[What characterises the style of their tango?]

Well they like the purity of the early tango, so it’s not people adding, trying to
improve on it. It’s just the authentic ’thirties and ’forties tango from Argentina.
So […] I think I don’t like things that are exploited and then regurgitated for a
mass market.

Mary, like the other dancers on the tango break, is drawn to the dance-group’s
dance-instruction because of its deemed authenticity. The salsa is mass-marketed.
The tango is more natural. The dance has an intensity about it with respect to
the music and the movements, and it has an intimacy about it with respect to the
connection with your dance partner. ‘You are more on your own with the tango’,
Mary adds, in particular when it goes wrong and the reading between the bodies
64 Reflections on Imagination

becomes confused and the steps blur and stumble. Then, the sublime turns to ‘tear-
inducing’. Tango is not for Mary when she feels vulnerable.
Mary’s ambivalence to the dance extends to the issue of dance-tourism and
whether or not she is a ‘tourist’ in the south of France. Mary admits that, for her,
the tango can be escapism. It allows her to forget herself in the sense that she has
to concentrate so hard that it acts as a de-stressor. This is hardly an escapism of the
imagination. It is more fear of mortification if she were to mess up her steps and
the relief when she has survived the tanda with her partner intact:

[So when would you want to tango as opposed to the salsa or what …?]

I think, I know when I really, I think when I need to escape when I’m – I don’t know
really - I mean I haven’t. I’m not particularly wanting to salsa at the moment. I
think salsa actually is fun and like swing I think if I wanted more fun. But tango –
I think I enjoy the intensity; I do enjoy the intensity of it. […] It does draw people
in I think. What I’ve also noticed is that people who have very intense jobs often
like tango as well because it is a complete escape and I found when I was hugely
stressed at work it was the most one. I could sleep after going to tango because it
was like completely you’re there and you can’t be anywhere else.

Mary accepts that the weeks spent this year and last year in the south of France are
holidays, but she shies away from thinking of herself as a tourist:

Partly as researching holidays, I thought that would be a good way to move the
hobby forward a bit by doing an intense week.

Clearly, she is on holiday, vacationing in France, undertaking a course to accelerate

her dance skills and thus, presumably, ease her nerves and fears when dancing
back in Bristol. In her interview, Mary stressed how hard and uncomfortable the
dance tourism process had been for her:

The first holiday, I had a week of feeling really very nervous and found it quite
hard because I didn’t know anybody before I went and, and actually became
good friends with several. It’s an amazing way of meeting people, and the cross-
section of people that I wouldn’t have normally come into contact with was
lovely. And, oh, it was a hard experience: it wasn’t like you know. It wasn’t an
easy experience, it was quite hard really.

On the second occasion, Mary ‘was more at one with [her]self; [she was] more
comfortable in [her] own skin doing it’. But because Mary’s intention was to
undertake an intense period of dance instruction whilst she was away from home –
a period similar to the intensity she puts herself through at home, if not more
so – Mary suggests that she was not a tourist. She was a tango student living and
working within a tango bubble.
Tango Heart and Soul 65

I think I felt very much in a little bubble there rather than a tourist actually. I
didn’t feel I was a tourist, no. I think we were in our little tango bubble. I had a
couple of days in Paris on my way there, so that was like a holiday.

In some circles, the label of ‘tourist’ is considered unprofessional and tainted.

Mary did not want to see herself as a tourist in the south of France. There, she
was studying. It was in the north of France that Mary was a tourist doing the
conventional tourist things: touring, sightseeing, spending her leisure time in a
relaxed fashion. Whilst in the south of France, surrounded by ‘tangoistas’, Mary
was acting out what Stebbins (1982) refers to as some ‘serious leisure’.
Stebbins conceives of ‘serious leisure’ as the antithesis of casual leisure. It is
a feature of post-industrial society where leisure ‘is no longer seen as chiefly a
means of recuperating from the travail of the job’ (Stebbins 1982: 253). Leisure, as
Giddens (1991) has observed, is now associated with identity formation. Moreover,
Appadurai (1996) has extended this thesis into the future: leisure as concerned with
a projected identity-realisation, with ‘proto-narratives’ that new forms of sociality
now enable us to achieve. The tango, for Mary, is an opportunity to express and fulfil
herself and, in adopting it as a serious hobby, Mary is associating the tango with
aspects of her identity. As a dancer by choice and not profession, Mary’s activity
accords with what Stebbins (1982: 257) identifies as the durable benefits for the
amateur practitioner: ‘self-actualization, self-enrichment, re-creation or renewal
of self, feelings of accomplishment, enhancement of self-image, self-expression,
social interaction and belongingness, and lasting physical products of the activity’.
Stebbins (1982: 262) includes tourism here alongside the activity for the hobbyist,
alongside bodybuilding, fishing and hunting and serious reading. It is as though
any purposive activity outside of work constitutes serious leisure and falls within
his serious ambit. The tango for Mary engenders feelings of accomplishment and
deep inner satisfaction. She wants to cope on the dance floor, but it is her choice
to spend her time on the dance floor. As a serious tango dancer, Mary is not quite
on holiday in the south of France as she was in the north of France. It is how Mary
imagines herself – a projection from her fumbling – that causes her concern and
creates an impetus to embark upon a dedicated voyage of intense instruction. The
nostalgia for the tango of the past in Mary’s tango for the future also equates with
the ‘nostalgic futurism’ found in MacCannell’s (2002: 149) ego-centred tourism: a
misalignment of modern capitalism, to paraphrase his words.

Tango Footfall and the Anthropological Imagination

There is control rather than freedom in the tango dancing near Toulouse. It is not
carnivalesque and is only seriously ludic. If there is eroticism in the interdependence
of this public social dancing, it is less overt (Matsinhe 2009) and nostalgic for a
feminist past – a ‘women dancing back’ (Gotfrit 1988) ‘and forth’ (Skinner 2008) –
than the social dancing in the club. For Paul Stoller (2007: 188), ‘the imagination,
66 Reflections on Imagination

in all of its artistic permutations, enables us to approach the world afresh’. He

continues, ‘[i]nspired by the imagination, art enables us to weave the world, to
design a new blanket’. The solace of this dance, an excruciating combination of
‘public posture and private introspection’ (J. Taylor 1998: 1), that is said to reveal
the social imaginary of Argentinean nationhood, here, in Toulouse, cocoons the
dance tourists in an imagination of their own making and funding. They will return
from their liminal dance holiday world afresh, condition(er)ed.
For the anthropologist Julie Taylor (1998), the semi-structured footfalls
described in her semi-structured interviews ‘illuminate aspects of Argentine
behaviour’. J. Taylor (1988), like many an anthropologist, reads culture into the
acculturated stylised body movements. Bodily actions: incorporated attitudes –
she intimates (Taylor 1998: 99). For her, the dance is a space mirroring the power
and terror found in Argentine society (1998: 71): it is a political dance, one of
alienation and exclusion, desirous of the approval of those who watch from
the fringes of the performance. This tango serves as a trope or metonym for a
‘brooding’ and ‘ambivalent’ national character, an ‘assertive façade’ papering over
a collective insecurity (Taylor 1998: 3–4, 69–71).
Marta Savigliano (1995) shares this use of the dance to comment on the
individual and society, ethnography as Tyler’s ‘meditative vehicle’ (1986:
140). Her tango is ‘a tense dance’ (1995: 30), part of her personal project of
‘decolonisation’ (1995: 16). It is ‘the stereotype of the culture to which I belong
[…], a cultural strategy of accommodation, resistance, and insurgency’ (1995:
16). The centripetal and centrifugal forces at play in the body, as it joins with
another and moves together, showcase this phenomenological tangled dance, an
‘experience of domination/resistance from within’ (1995: 17) which can become
scripted examples for anthropological induction and deduction.
This academic interpretation of the tango as social imaginary is not just the
preserve of anthropology. Writing about the meaning of tango and this ‘cornerstone
of Argentinean culture’, Denniston (2007: 15, 187–8) describes it on an emotional
level as ‘an investigation of the nature of human relationships, of the meaning of
intimacy, and of what it is to be human and a social creature in a world that is often
lonely and isolating’. For Cusumano (2008) it is a fierce love affair with a practice
after failing in a love affair with a person. Baim (2007: 27) cites bandoneon
player Arturo Penon’s personal engagement with this ‘courtyard dance’, faulting
the sentimental Western mythologisation of the dance’s roots in some heaving
street bordello: the paradox of the ‘Borgesian brothel theory’.2 Its working-class
roots – rough, crude, direct, wanton and without restraint – certainly feature in our
tango dancers’ descriptions of their hobby, its appeal and its contrast with their
everyday. Theirs is a kind of ‘everynight life’ danced back in time – to make use of
Delgado and Muñoz’s (1997) thesis, equally applicable to the homesick Mexican
migrant-worker at the dancehall in downtown twenty-first century Sacramento

2 The Argentinian writer Jorge Louis Borges famously suggested that one should
‘convert the outrage of the years into a music’. That music is tango.
Tango Heart and Soul 67

(Skinner 2007b) and to the social ballroom-dancer in 1920s Chicago (Cressey

1968). Is this a lip sync to the Golden Era of tango? Is this a restrained and
aesthetic behaviour that toys and plays with the idea of throwing off the culture of
constraint? Baim (2007) writes that ‘[t]he stereotype of a steamy bordello filled
with gangsters and ladies of easy virtue all dancing the tango as a prelude to other
activities is, as far as it goes, probably accurate’. She cites the police reports from
the period. In the French manor house, the tango tourists can imagine themselves
in safe and dangerous fashions as, variously, high society socialites, sophisticated,
elegant and cultured, and risqué, bawdy, street savvy cosmopolitans. Perhaps,
even, these projections can be held at one and the same time. This is because
the tango embrace allows, enables and facilitates that human capacity: the
human imagination (cf. Rapport 2009). ‘[W]e make our circumstance’, Rapport
opines (2009: 4), and Mary makes and pays for her circumstances in Bristol and
in Toulouse. Mary selects her style of dance and her dance location depending
upon how she feels and how she wants to feel. Mary demands what Rapport
(2009: 5) refers to as ‘an individuality of experience’. She has the imagination
and fluidity of (self-)consciousness to oscillate in her lifeworld: to give it variety
and colour, tension and release, diversity and regularity, compose and order, and
embarrassment and breakdown.3
Classen calls upon us to treat touch as the deepest of senses. ‘Touch’, she
argues, ‘lies at the heart of our experience of ourselves and the world’ (Classen
2013: xi), let alone act as instigator for great thoughts as well as great things
(cf. Sheets-Johnstone 1966; Rapport with Vaisman 2005). Art historian Robert
Thompson (2005) goes several steps further, waxing the brogue of his criticism
in his Tango: The Art History of Love (2005), drawing a direct line between the
motion of tango dancers and the long durée of their dance: tango links us both
to Africa and to Europe through the heritage of the connection from the Dark
Continent (feet out, bodies leaning in, posterior out), and the cheek-to-cheek
embrace of couple dancing from the continent that brought us the Enlightenment
(Thompson 2005: 9). This has been popularised through film across the twentieth
century from Valentino (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) to Brando (Last
Tango in Paris), Madonna (Evita) and De Niro (Scent of a Woman). These habits
of the feet are transmitted through the new mass media for the mind as well as
traditional dance parties, fêtes, lessons and intensive dance retreats.4 They are
quoted back at me in interviews and conversations around the ronda.

3 Rapport (2009: 6) fleshes out in us the capacity to go beyond ourselves: ‘[o]ne

possesses a fluid consciousness which oscillates between solitude and sociality, speech and
silence, reflection and habit, aimlessness and purposiveness, bodiliness and cerebralism,
passion and calm’. Rapport attributes these faculties to consciousness, to which I add the
imaginations pursued into reality.
4 Pietrobruno (2006) makes a similar argument in her study of salsa in Montreal, a
transnational phenomenon closely linked with migration.
68 Reflections on Imagination

Three Tango Souls

Virginie is from Toulouse and on her first dance holiday with her husband. She
is athletic and competitive, a rival student with her dance/life partner. There is
stability in their having danced together for many years. There is also excitement
in dancing in tango embrace with other dancers. Her interview is passionate and
revealing. That all-important connection is what she craves. So profound, it had
pulled her into the dance world:

[T]ango completely swept me away and what blew my mind is the power of the
connection and not the embrace. It is about moving to the music but it’s about
moving to the music with another person, with another body, with another being
and having to be so connected. So it’s actually … I think words and literature
and expression was always so important for me in life and I never knew how
to express myself without it being in words. And I think in tango I found that
way of expressing and dialoguing and feeling really what the other person is
without any words whatsoever. And that was totally the pull, what pulled me
towards tango.

She finds that the dance opens her, exposes her and makes her feel raw. It is primal.
It is a new channel for communicating for her, a complement to the logos schooled
into her from an early age. A high-achiever, Virginie’s tango gives her a different
worldview, new ways of relating to herself and with herself and others. Rather than
constrain her in culture, it is dangerous, liberating, exhilarating and threatening in
what she considers to be its authenticity to the self and to the other.

I feel that tango makes you go very raw. It’s very hard to pretend to be something
you are not. So, with language we can of course disguise slightly what we
are feeling and construct words and ideas better, words but slightly different
from what is … and I think tango – it doesn’t give you much space for that
because embracing. You are embracing someone in your arms: you often feel
the heartbeat; you feel the expression; you feel the difficulties; you feel the
hesitations; you feel the choices and I think that is a window into someone’s soul.
They give of themselves. Yeah, it’s a window into someone’s soul absolutely.

Virginie’s tango takes her in ‘a straight diagonal line’ to someone’s soul. For her,
the dance cuts through all the artifice, pretence and veneer of city-living. She
connects intensely through the embrace, enhanced and elaborated not just in her
movements and foot embellishments. The ‘drama and sadness’ of the tango affords
her this identity-window, though Virginie is aware that this might all be a product
of her imagination:

[Tango] allows us to have a window into someone’s soul. I might have it

completely wrong and I am imagining things about people? People that do tango
Tango Heart and Soul 69

do it so intensely and do it usually for a long period because tango is so dramatic

and sad, and at the same time. I feel that sometimes when people overdo it
they begin to have some skewed diversions of life that everything is slightly too
tragic, or too intense or too nice in your pockets.

[Paranoia almost.]

Yes and how I feel that sometimes that is the thing, the dark side of tango is
when you over-analyse people.

Virginie’s warning shows the power of the imagination to set up an obsession:

imagination as dangerous Romantic fancy. There is a destructive and addictive
side to this social dance that can dominate the life with its lifestyling. More than
the fiction-making faculty, this proto-narrating device takes charge of the future,
allowing us to realise our life-projects – life-projections exteriorised (cf. Rapport
2003; Skinner 2009).
The Captain, the second tango soul here, is a self-confessed ‘tango junkie’ from
Bristol. The Captain dances tango, listens to tango, talks about tango, embodies
tango as far as it is possible: ‘I do meditation and I do Tango. That’s it. That’s my
life!’ Like many social and professional dancers, myself included, the Captain has
changed his living and working circumstances to feed his personal dance craze.
The Captain’s motivation to dance is less fantasy or soul-viewing. The Captain’s
soul-searching takes him back to his childhood, one where he was hot-housed,
missing the space to be himself, the opportunity to grow up into himself. As the
Captain answers:

Tango is, to answer your question, massive, massive, massive: I dance all over
Europe sometimes and, if I can, other parts of the world, and it’s for me. “What
does it really mean to dance Tango?” It allows me to get in touch with childhood
innocence and joy.

Here we have the imagination engaging with the past, re-scripting it from the
present. I lost out when I was younger, and I’m going to make up for it now, reads
the narrative. The dancing is an illicit contrast with his intense education when he
was forced to become ‘an adult in a child’s body’. As a surgeon, he found himself
operating upon bodies. He feels that this led to the neglect of his own.

I spent my whole life winning people’s love by showing them how clever I was,
how many bits of paper I can get, how many golden stars I can earn.

[The mental stuff.]

Mental stuff! And apparently I had a body but I was yet to discover it until I
came to tango, and then of course I expected to learn with the body as quickly as
70 Reflections on Imagination

I learnt with the intellect. So of course everything about the music intellectually,
everything about the kind of steps, what the accent is in this, intellectually.
Great. Put me with a woman in a tango lesson it was like “Oh my god, I am
terrified”. And my body has never been used; it’s got no sense of proprioception
except of course in a forward walking-step and it was like, “Oh my god, how
do I maintain my balance?”, and “How do I?” “Oh!”, and it was a struggle and
it was very humbling.

The Captain shares the sense of past discipline with Virginie, but he is rebelling
against it in his present rather than applying it to his tango learning. He meditates
through the tango, flowing in a state of ‘complete bliss’. So long as he is moving
with the dance, then his narrative is full and he is no longer missing what he
thinks he should have been doing – or not doing had he had the leisure time –
in his constrained youth. The social dancing, the monthly trips abroad to visit
his favourite teachers, the crossover from extreme work environment to extreme
leisure time, these all ground the Captain. In his own passionate words:

There’s no point to tango except for joy. There isn’t a destination or, if there is,
it’s so bloody far away I can’t see it! You know, it’s, it’s – so the only purpose
of tango is joy. So why do I do it? Just so that I can be happy. And I’ve always
felt, “Okay maybe I will be happy tomorrow, next week, when I retire, when my
children grow up”, whatever, whatever and say, “Do you know what? Fuck it. I
want to be happy now”. And when the introduction of our favourite song goes
on, I’m in complete bliss.

The Captain is at his elemental on the dance floor with no tiredness, no worries,
no old age, he simply ‘is’: ‘I’m like flying’; ‘I’m just happy’. After the acute self-
consciousness of learning his first tango-walk – an echo of a child’s first steps – he
has found a ‘magical’ dimension to his-self. This commitment is all-consuming
and is an extreme form of identification. He rebels around the ronda against his
formative years. As he concludes, ‘[t]ango’s been part of the latter part of my
journey in unleashing myself from the shackles that I’ve built into my life. It’s just
magical, it’s just synchrony, harmony’.
The Captain and Virginie are not the only soulful tango dancers staying at
the chateau. Frederico and his wife are based in Italy and drive around Europe
on their very own tango tours. Like the others, they are addicted to the dance. It
sustains them. They are also equally passionate: lawyers by day, dancers by night.
Frederico, in his fifties is very fit, lively and has a strong interest in music, more
so than the dancing.

My whole life I was moving my body when I heard music. But only the body,
not the feet. I got a wife that is very musicality. Special occasions there was
music playing she would like to dance. So she said to me, “Come on try, it”. I
tried it and I had two left legs.
Tango Heart and Soul 71

Frederico tried several dance forms to please his wife such as salsa (including
a dance course in Cuba) and regular ballroom classes in his village. For him, it
was not the tango embrace that caught him first but the tango music. The music
resonated and pierced to his soul unlike any other:

I liked the music from the beginning. It fetched me. The Cuban music had also
fetched me but this was a different way that it had fetched me. It was something
swinging in my soul. It is much more changes in the music than in the salsa.
Salsa’s nice and different instruments, especially the Cuban one, but this was
different – you could make stops, it could slow, and all the instruments was
complete different – and it brought my soul swinging somehow. I could feel it
really in my body.

Frederico is attracted to the structure and tempo of the music (‘It touches me’).
It often has slow poignant parts to it unlike the fast salsas he attempted in Cuba
where he felt like an awkward white man trying to move like a black guy. The
tango suited his personality, and his body started to tune into the music and to
express it: he became an instrument of expression for the music. He led the dance
in the tango embrace, but he was very much the emotional follower to the music.
It made him feel ‘homesick’ for his past. It contains a full life. Then, after some
technical pointers, he felt a fusion taking place, a melting together and, rather
than standing out, the tango got to be part of his life. So, too, he fused with his
dance partner:

I discovered dancing is part of my soul, of my personality. It was something

swinging in my soul. Such strong emotions in it. The emotions of a whole life
of a human being – it’s everything in there. I feel the music and the emotions
stronger when I can move my body. You have no borders anymore and you melt
together in harmony like a heart with four legs.

An ordinary tanda – extra-ordinary for Frederico – consists of three to five

dances set together with a break afterwards to stop or search out a new dance
partner. ‘After a good three I’m bad because I’m empty!’ Frederico explains. He is
exhausted from the release, the unions taking place and the passionate enjoyment
of the experience. He has been uplifted, transported and set down again all in the
space of a few minutes. As an improvised dance it takes Frederico through multiple
doors as the choreography emerges with the music, the mood, the partner, the
ronda. He builds an intricacy of moves depending upon what fits at the moment,
what works and what needs to be done according to the moment. Moment by
moment they negotiate their togetherness, ‘bubbles of electricity’ emanating from
them, ‘a circle of harmony’ in their embrace.
Frederico is not lonely. He is not dancing to find other people through
the connection. Nor is he dancing back to his childhood, to correct his past.
Like the Captain, Frederico is meditating through movement on the dance floor.
72 Reflections on Imagination

Like Virginie, he is viewing the soul, in his terms and on his terms. He is dancing
through multiple doors, as he sees it. He doesn’t know. He just is, approximating
a state of intense flow:

When you dance you don’t know. I couldn’t say what I am dancing, but during
that dancing, depending on the music, you make the movements. You see maybe
this depending if I say it now technically, “how the girdle has her fit”. How
she stands: you see this door open, this door open, this door open. And without
thinking you decide, “I go now out through this door and through this door
and through this door”. Now I’m breathing, I’m stopping up. I breathe because
the music makes me breathing and stand stop, but not stop also but it’s a little
movement. And tango on.

Even when Frederico has suspended his steps, he is moving through breathing
and embracing his partner. They still constitute the dance; a pause as the music
dictates, a dance of multiple non-movements between movement, suspensions, just
as music is a multitude of silences (cf. Beeman 2006). Frederico finds this richness
and plethora of possibilities only in the tango. There are no shapes to express ‘the
colours, express the world, yourself and the being’ in a ‘nice salsa’. Aware of his
life-story, Frederico associates his tango state with a formative experience of the
elemental. When asked if the tango has changed him, Frederico replied:

No, it didn’t change me at all but I can be myself now also in another way.
Through the meditation and through always watching myself, I always had a
favour for these things. When I was a child, there was a tremendous thunderstorm
at home. The rain came down, and the blizzard, and the water coming down: I
was living in the mountain. Suddenly water was coming down the mountain and
the normal streets started to be rivers. It was the danger that powered just from
earth – it wasn’t assault on it, was washed away. I helped my father to try to put
the water away. With the shovel, we worked. I got warm and suddenly you are
wet completely, a storm on your hair. I felt I was part of the elements and I was
the storm and the rain. I didn’t have voice of this, any borders of my person. This
I find in dance again.

Frederico feels that there is a willingness and openness to him when he is in this
way. It plays into his non-dancing as an acceptance and tolerance of the Other. He
‘forgets’ himself and tunes in to the other as a lawyer listening to his clients without
judgement. (‘I have to forget myself and just be receptive to the person. [Which
is like the embrace?] Yes, yes, exactly. So I find myself again in the dance’.) His
imaginations and his memories blur and bleed into each other, working backwards
and forwards. Along with the other tango souls here, he is dancing as a reaction to
his youth. Frederico feels like a child in the dance. Virginie echoes her disciplined
youth in the tango lessons. The Captain dances a childhood that he missed.
All participants are motivated to attend the dance retreat based upon their own
Tango Heart and Soul 73

experience of their tango worlds and their imaginative expectation formation for
the experience at the chateau (cf. Skinner and Theodossopoulos 2011).

Dance Imaginations and the Anthropological Imaginary

In this chapter, we have heard from individuals pursuing their proto- and retro-
imaginations in their travels as dance tourists and around the ronda as zealous social
dancers. Whether this faculty or capacity has led them astray or allowed them to find
themselves, there is an undeniable potency to the human imagination. It is fecund.
This is unsurprising given the rewarding and explosive anthropological literature
on the power of particular individual informants, from !Nisa (Shostak 2009) to
Stanley Spencer (Rapport 2003). As Jackson (2003: xii) notes, ‘the individual
is where life is actually lived, endured, decided, denied, suffered, imagined and
reimagined’. Mary, Virginie, the Captain and Frederico illustrate this on the tango
holiday where they briefly come together for their tango embrace. Written here is
their ‘tactile humanism’, to borrow from Abu-Lughod (1993), a writing against the
conscription of culture with her ethnographic particularism. In the foreground of
the tourist experience, each dancer is engaging with their background.
Salazar (2010: 5) writes that ‘[w]e live in imagined (but not imaginary) worlds,
using our personal imagination as well as collective imaginaries to represent our
lifeworld and attribute meaning to it’. This takes place during our ‘daily activities’
and involves projecting and second-guessing or ‘entering into the imaginings
of others’. I would suggest that in the anthropology of the imagination, this is
inevitable, a consequence of our human capacity and a feature of our humanity,
particularly when linked with empathy (the ability to identify with another). To
play with that identification seems to be a feature of the tango souls presented
above who choose to – or not to, as in Mary’s dance variety. There is also a strong
engagement amongst the three with their formative life experiences that is more
than Gotfrit’s (1988) nostalgia for the past or for a former body type of sensation.
Virginie is fitting the dance into her personal development; Frederico is dancing
into a state of grace; the Captain is dancing a dance of difference. Ironically, in
this careful dance with questionable origins, both the Captain and Frederico are
attracted to the primitive that they find in it. All three are connecting powerfully
through the dance with others and themselves.
Salazar goes further in refining an understanding of the imaginary. We can read
a difference from the force of the imagination. For him (2010: 6), imaginaries are
‘representational assemblages that mediate the identifications with Self and Other’.
These manifest in the sociocultural production of fantasy for the tourist, circulating as
‘collectively held’ (2010: 43) and situated within a wider sociocultural framework.
They are ‘global’ (44) and, after Bruner are – allegedly – ‘metanarratives’ (44),
‘images and ideas [that] travel’ (44). They ‘become incarnated in institutions’ and
are imagined themselves to ‘circulate like blood in a living organism’ (Salazar
2010: 44–6). By way of contrast, I have shown in the above detailed exposition of
74 Reflections on Imagination

tango tourists to the south of France, that for all the apparently collective experience
and commensurability on the ronda, there is a vital individual component to
these generalisations and anthropological projections. The individual lies at the
heart and soul of our understanding of why these people are dancing at home
and away from home. Certainly, there are imaginary attractions, mass-mediated,
dominant narratives such as the lore and lure of authentic Buenos Aires styled
movements that take us back in time. But, in this chapter, I have found it necessary
to foreground what is typically backgrounded in social analyses, motivations and
meanings left unclear, speculative and generic. Salazar is trying to take forward
the ‘social imaginaries of modernity’ spelled out by the philosopher Charles
Taylor (2004) who explains secular and liberal social shifts and locates much of
that in – our dance tourists’ – revolutionary France from whence arises a new
moral order. In these standoffish analyses, there is an appreciation that ‘people
imagine their social existence’ (Taylor 2004: 23), including ‘how they fit together
with others’ (2004: 23) but, in taking a wide normative sweep of the foot, they lose
the sense of why and how activities fit for them and with them, the detail of how an
imagination works, how it conjoins and influences; indeed, how the imagination
trumps all else – as a tricksterish trope – is left unaccounted for. Contrariwise,
here, a humanistic anthropology of the imagination presents a more grounded and
well-heeled account of and for human movement.


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76 Reflections on Imagination

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Imagination, History,
the Uncanny


In this section imagination as a way of knowing, both as social-scientific

methodology and as everyday ethnomethodology, remains a theme but now it is
accompanied by a focus on time. Imagination is key to a construction of time past
and also to the way in which that past casts a shadow on the present. Equally,
imagination is key to anticipations of the future. In both cases it is difficult to know
how to limit the imagination: the boundary between the imagination and madness,
and the imagination and the spectral, are not always easy to decipher.
In ‘Historical Imagination and Imagining Madness: The Experience of Colonial
Officers in French West Africa’, Roy Dilley focuses on a French colonial officer’s
experiences of West Africa: Henri Gaden in Senegal between the late 1890s and the
1930s. How did the region and its peoples work upon his imagination, and how did
Gaden’s prior imaginings also inform his interactions? While ethnography is often
considered to be the transformation of life into text, for the anthropologist in the
archive, Dilley is mindful, texts must be scoured for their hints on lives. Drawing
on R. G. Collingwood, Dilley explores how the imagination might here serve to
retrieve lives that are no longer events but are stripped of their immediate human
experience and their social relations. Key issues here, however, are the shape and
the contents of that imagination: how to imagine and how to render madness, for
instance, through a method of historical reconstruction? Dilley briefly considers a
genealogy of imagination as a concept in order better to situate its work, and also
reflects on its relation to cognate concepts. Reviewing how we have conceived of
imagination may reveal patterns that place imagination itself in history and allow
us to be more aware of the limits of our imaginative labours.
In ‘Hauntings: From Anthropology of the Imagination to the Anthropological
Imagination’, Peter Collins begins with the provocation that, willy-nilly, human
beings are perpetually haunted: that each is always and for ever in the presence
of ghosts. What are the implications of this phenomenon for human conduct? An
inspiration for the chapter is Avery Gordon’s book, Ghostly Matters: Haunting
and the Sociological Imagination, where it is argued that the human present is
‘haunted’ by social forces of the past, with complex consequences. Collins’s own
understanding is that human action can be conceived of as enacted narrative. Not
only is it to be appreciated that the narrative form and the process of constructing
78 Reflections on Imagination

narratives are central to human life but also that what these narratives centrally
concern are the imagined hauntings that are experienced by people in their daily
lives, pertaining not only to things that have passed but also to that which is still
to come. The narratives of everyday life draw our attention to the significance of
agents whose ontology is ambiguous, that come and go, that appear in the corner
of our eye, that are ‘ghostly’ and hard to grasp. This makes ethnography, too, an
imaginative act that the anthropologist undertakes, ‘ghost-hunting’ alongside his
or her research participants: identifying the narrative quality of lives and also the
attempts by research subjects to plug holes in those narratives and effect narrative
continuity. For the research subjects and their anthropologist alike, imagination is
indispensable; imagination is also inherently social and generative of relationships.
The chapter identifies the energy, skill, trickery and prestidigitation involved in the
imaginative, ubiquitous, human construing of haunted lives.
Chapter 5
Historical Imagination and Imagining
Madness: The Experience of Colonial
Officers in French West Africa
Roy Dilley


The anthropological workshop at which this and other chapters in this volume
were first presented was entitled ‘The Imagination’ (subtitled, ‘A Universal
Process of Knowledge?’). The call for papers posed a number of key questions:
can imagination be ethnographically investigated or is it a methodological a
priori?; what role has imagination played in the development of anthropology?;
what are the limits of imagination? One single word in the above formulations
covers a lot of ground and does an awful amount of work. A non-anthropologist
friend of mine quipped recently that anthropologists are fond of analysing single
words. She might have been referring, no doubt, to our focus on topics such as
the anthropology of work, or death, or socialism, or time, or cosmopolitanism;
one could add many more, and indeed my own writings have not been immune to
this tendency.1
What does an anthropological approach to ‘The Imagination’ look like? How
can one approach such a subject? My first thought is that one must avoid a form
of nominalist fallacy that Louis Dumont spoke of many years ago. He argued
that ‘nominalism grants real existence only to individuals and not to relations, to
elements and not to sets of elements’ (1986: 11). Another part of this fallacy is that
we name things that we think we know or we can come to know within ourselves
or among those around us, and that one then searches elsewhere for things that
resemble that initial object of knowledge. Dumont’s preference was to search not
for objects in themselves but for the sets of relations that constitute those objects.
The initial problem, as I see it, is to try to get a handle on what imagination in
Western thought might be. The idea of the imagination, in one form or another, has
featured in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, David
Hume, Immanuel Kant, the Romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, Jean-Paul
Sartre, Ludwig Wittgenstein, among many others. Did they all share a similar view

1 See for example, Dilley (ed.) 1992 Contesting Markets; or 1999 The Problem of
80 Reflections on Imagination

on the concept? If not, what should we, as anthropologists, take to be the referent,
role and function of this abstract noun? The Anthropology of the Single Word has,
therefore, a double complexity: (a) what the word stands for historically within
any intellectual tradition; (b) what the word or its equivalent stands for among any
particular group of people situated elsewhere on the globe whom we might choose
to study.
On this last point I wondered how the English words ‘imagine’ and
‘imagination’ would be rendered in Pulaar, a West African language. ‘Imagination’
can be translated as miijo and ‘to imagine’ as miijaade. However the semantic field
traced out by the verb includes the following ideas: ‘to ponder’, ‘to think’, ‘to
reflect’, ‘to conceive’, and the substantive can also mean ‘doctrine’, ‘position’ and
‘opinion’. (See for further associations and connotations Gaden 1912; 1914; 1931.)
The semantic fields of the English and the Pulaar terms are therefore differently
contoured. For me this signals a caution before embarking on the analysis of
nominal, isolated linguistic items presumed to indicate a universal concept.
Another powerful caveat has been entered by Kieran Egan, who has written a
very short history of the imagination (Egan n.d.).2 In it he suggests:

we have a sense of vagueness about such concepts. In the case of imagination …

this sense of vagueness is due in part to its complexity but also to its containing
a number of elements that do not sit comfortably together. (N.d.: 1)

He then plots a genealogy of the concept, and how at different epochs of history
and for different religious and philosophical thinkers the imagination is construed
in very diverse ways: for some it is a dangerous capacity, something that could run
wild, free from the constraints of rationality; for others, it could be used to rebel
against divine order or religious authorities, or to threaten the status of established
hierarchies. For St Augustine, it was ‘a distrusted servant of higher intellectual
functions’ (ibid.: 5); for Kant, it gave us the ability to generate sublime ideas.
Thus, imagination can be seen to play various roles and be composed of very
different sorts of element: it could be a liberating and creative force, a faculty in
all humans that makes perception and thinking possible; it can conjure new futures
or new scientific discoveries. For the Romantics, it helps conceive of a world other
than it is; for modern scientists, quantum physicists and others, it helps conceive
of a world exactly as it is. Romantics do not have a monopoly on the imagination.
Imagination is thus linked variously to consciousness and intellectual activity,
to rationality and an ability to form images as part of the way humans think, to
different forms of hope, fear and emotion. Imagination is a slippery concept,
and an appeal to an unproblematic examination of the idea in anthropological
perspective does not help necessarily untangle what it is that we are meant to look
at, how the concept is implicated with other cognate terms, and what relationships

2 Kieran Egan is a Canadian-based educational theorist and philosopher who has

written on imagination and teaching practice.
Historical Imagination and Imagining Madness 81

are significant. Indeed, the nature of the relationships between imagination, on the
one hand, and its related cognate concepts, on the other, might form a pattern that
is particular to our very own moment in history.
To return to my present concerns, there are two areas of potential interest that
I wish to examine later in this chapter: imagination, however construed, as an
object of anthropological analysis; imagination as part of an anthropological
method. But first we need to consider how the idea of the imagination has been
used in our discipline.

Some Examples of Imagination in Anthropology

How has the ‘imagination’ been used and referred to in anthropology? One
particularly weak form of the use of imagination in anthropological method is the
kind of idea encapsulated in the statement: ‘I imagine myself to be so-and-so’, an
individual or group of individuals that is the focus of anthropological research.
There is a fallacy in this kind of method, however, which was pointed out many
years ago by Edward Evans-Pritchard. He labelled it ‘If-I-were-a-horse’ kind of
anthropology’.3 Equine analogies to one side for the moment, the fallacy becomes
apparent when a statement such as ‘I imagine myself to be …’ issues from the
lips of say a 59-year-old Englishman about a lad called ‘Jonnie’, the subject of
anthropological research. What are the grounds for this imaginative projection as
a mode of analysis? The researcher obviously had been an eight-year-old boy at
some point in his life, but does this vantage point provide a reliable perspective?
Memories held by the researcher are mediated and filtered by a life of experience,
and so the act of remembering or evoking an earlier existence does not become
a transparent window on to the past or specifically on to the lifeworld of a child.
The fallacy of this kind of method is highlighted even further if the anthropologist
were to say: ‘I imagine myself to be Moussa Guisse’, an eight-year-old boy from
the south bank of the Senegal River, who is preparing himself to be circumcised …
The method is based on a presumed sense of empathy; that is a capacity to
recognise and to some extent share feelings such as sadness, happiness and so
on that are being experienced by another human (or even just sentient) being. It
also rests on a presumed common knowledge of the circumstances in question.
Evans-Pritchard warned that this method, especially when applied to cross-
cultural studies, is fraught with the dangers of subject projection and with the
pitfalls of ethnocentrism, and is liable to the worst sort of category mistake. I will
give further consideration to these issues below.
Another way to approach the concept of ‘Imagination’ in social studies is
through Charles Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination (2000 [1959]). His
call to arms was that a ‘sociological imagination’ would prompt both sociologists

3 Evans-Pritchard (1965) used this phrase with reference to Edmund Tylor’s theory
of religion.
82 Reflections on Imagination

and ‘ordinary men’ to think of themselves and their place in the world in a
particular way. Imagination is therefore of use to the analyst in refining methods,
and of use as a tool for people to think more deeply about their own lives. Wright
Mills writes:

Seldom aware of the intricate connections between patterns of their own lives
and the course of world history, ordinary men do not usually know what this
connection means for the kinds of men they are becoming and for the kinds of
history-making in which they might take part. They do not possess the quality
of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and
history, of self and world. (2000: 3–4)

What would help them in their task is a dose of sociological imagination, according
to Wright Mills, ‘in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the
world and of what may be happening within themselves’ (2000: 5).
He goes on to add:

imagination is the capacity to shift from one perspective to another … It is the

capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the
most intimate features of the human self – and to see the relations between the
two. (2000: 6)

The sociological imagination, therefore, helps to capture the interplay of humans

and their sets of social relations, of biography and history, of self and world; ‘of
what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves’
(2000: 5).
This general sociological understanding of imagination will be deployed
later in this chapter. It will inform the way imagination can become an object of
anthropological enquiry in the case of a French colonial officer: how he gained a
sense of the patterns of his own life, his own biography in relation to the course of
world history; a sense of what was going on in the world and what was happening
within himself. As an anthropologist, this form of sociological imagination also
allows me to grasp the interplay of history and biography in a West African context.
The work of John and Jean Comaroff provides another starting point. Their
writing on ethnography and the historical imagination has tried to delve into
the ‘nature of history and human agency’, of ‘culture and consciousness’, and
more specifically to examine the consciousness of the colonised by means of ‘an
imaginative grasp on the interior world of others that is at the same time respectful
of the real’ (1992: ix). Their concept of historical imagination is not dissimilar to
Wright Mill’s version, for it refers to ‘those who make history’ and to ‘those who
write it’; it is for ‘the ordinary man’ and the analyst. The ‘historical imagination’
here is an attempt to reclaim something of the ‘inner life’ of human subjects that is
involved in ways of interpreting the world and acting upon it. We are not therefore
dealing with a thing, but rather with a set of relations between aspects of the way
Historical Imagination and Imagining Madness 83

that human beings attempt to grasp the world around them and to act in relation to
it. That the historical imagination stands at the intersection of human interpretation
and historical process leads me to emphasise even more strongly how, from this
perspective, the imagination should not be reified or made substantive, but is to be
construed as an aspect of social relations.
More recently still, other anthropologists, particularly those in the US, have
focused on the imagination. But what is the relationship between their imaginings
of imagination and broader currents of thought? For instance, James Fernandez
and Mary Taylor Huber’s Irony in Action: Anthropology, Practice and the Moral
Imagination, published in 2001, posits the idea of an imagination that transcends
or transgresses ordinary situations and perspectives; and irony has a role as the
servant of imagination to incite it against ‘whatever is given, assumed or imposed’.
Imagination in this account is a creative force that acts against the constraints of
the impress of social life.
Vincent Crapanzano develops further the theme of creativity and imagination
in his Imaginative Horizons, a neglected area in today’s anthropology he suggests.
His aim is, as he states, ‘embarrassingly naïve: to destroy prejudices, open new
horizons, and promote creative thought and action’ (2004: 3); and the thrust of the
work acts against the ‘closure of literalist thought’ and its ‘fear of figuration’ (2004:
2). One wonders what the significant relation is in this argument, and perhaps it is
in part the way in which religious and political fundamentalists in the US attempt
to impose literalist thought. Imagination is the sword of creative genius against the
threat of imprisonment within the iron cage of doctrinalism.
In both of these recent examples, imagination plays a role in upturning what
is conventionally given, assumed or imposed. This idea of the imagination
transcending or transgressing ordinary situations draws on a Romantic conception
of the relationship between creativity and the imagination, a combination that
provides the poet with the power to conjure responses unavailable to others
from experience. Indeed, the roots of anthropology can be traced to a form of
romanticism, for in the words of Novalis quoted by David Pocock many years ago,
anthropology can make the ‘strange familiar and the familiar strange’;4 it upturns
our cultural presumptions, dissolves our taken-for-granted categories, it broadens
our perspectives, it unsettles our moral certainties: it works upon our imaginations.
The Romantics’ sense of the imagination belongs closely to the world of the arts
and is something distinct from the workings of reason. But as Egan noted above,
this power might be celebrated as a force of productive creativity or as a force that
harbours potential dangers to the established order of things.
Recent interest in the concept of imagination in anthropology, even in
the UK, has developed alongside a series of related ideas, such as creativity,
innovation, individuality, analytic free-play and so on. Imagination sits within
a cluster of concepts, each of which bears a family resemblance to the others.
This constellation of ideas offers a particular kind of direction for anthropology –

4 See Pocock 1971.

84 Reflections on Imagination

towards some sort of imaginative and creative turn. This constellation of ideas,
however, comes together at a particular moment in our own intellectual history
within the discipline. And it does not seem clear to me that we have worked out
exactly what we are committing ourselves to, both as a theoretical stance in a
contemporary moment in anthropology, and as a position within a genealogical
trajectory of the concept itself. The evocation of the concept of the imagination
as a rhetorical device to challenge the dead-hand of over-deterministic or over-
systematised thought sets the very idea of imagination within a set of formative
relations. To mistake a rhetorical evocation for the thing itself is another more
serious matter altogether.
In the face of the ghosts of anthropology past, creativity and imagination
are harnessed, at least in the United States, to break the icy grip of an imagined
privileged hand of scientific anthropology. Crapanzano’s book encapsulates this
concern. The spectre that so often haunts the corridors of cultural anthropology
in the United States is a hard-nosed, reductionist, and often a materialist scientific
conception of the discipline. Crapanzano refers specifically to the work of Marvin
Harris – a materialist and a reductionist – and comments that although ‘we’
[anthropologists such as Crapanzano] have come a long way since his publications
in the 1970s, ‘it would be foolish to assume that anthropologists today are immune
to the privilege of the hard sciences’ (2003: 4). The concept of imagination in this
account is being deployed to perform a very particular set of tasks in contemporary
cultural anthropology, with its concern for the literary, for innovative social forms
and the free-play of individual actors. It is part of an attempt, as Crapanzano
claims, ‘to affirm the romantic roots of anthropology’, although not by advocating
‘veneration of the irrational, the irreal, or the imagination’ (2003: 18); but only as
a counter in the face of the empirical presuppositions of anthropological science.
It would seem that the concept of imagination in its current form is performing a
very particular set of tasks in contemporary cultural anthropology: it upturns the
challenge thrown down by a deterministic scientific anthropology.
I am often cautious about the way anthropology sometimes commits itself
to positions, the consequence of which have not always been thought through
thoroughly. In view of the kinds of concern sketched out above, my aims are
relatively modest in this chapter, and I limit myself to what I feel to be some of
the more solid ground around the concept of imagination. I take as a starting point
Wright Mills and John and Jean Comaroff’s view that imagination is linked to the
‘interior worlds’ (or reflexive worlds) of others, and that these worlds are grounded
in concrete social realities. The focus of the chapter is on the idea of imagination as
an object of analysis, more specifically how French colonial officers’ experiences
of West Africa and its peoples in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
worked upon their imaginations. That is, how prior imaginings (thoughts, feelings
and images) might have informed officers’ interactions with the region and its
people; and how their experiences of West Africa worked upon those imaginings.
In other words, how did officers gain a sense of the patterns of their own lives,
their own biographies, in relation to the course of world history; a sense of what
Historical Imagination and Imagining Madness 85

was going on in the world and of what was happening within themselves? I am
concerned too to develop a method of anthropological and historical analysis. In
particular I attempt to gain a sense of how the idea of the ‘historical imagination’
as proposed by Robin G. Collingwood in his 1946 publication The Idea of History
may help gain some analytical purchase on the life of Henri Gaden and other
French colonial officers in West Africa.

The French Colonial Experience in West Africa

A number of years ago I embarked on a radically different kind of research project

that had grown out of interests peripheral to my previous work in West Africa.
The new project was conceived as a biography of a French colonial military
officer, Henri Gaden, who spent almost 45 years of his life living and working
in West Africa.5 The pinnacle of his career was his appointment, as a civilian
administrator, to the post of Governor of Mauritania in 1920, a post that he held
until his retirement in 1927. He then remained in Saint Louis, Senegal, living with
his Senegalese wife by a country marriage for a further 12 years until his death
in 1939.6 During this period he pursued historical, anthropological and linguistic
research among the people I eventually studied for my doctorate 40 years later.
The prospect of moving into an archive, rather than the field, was daunting to
me, as an anthropologist with little formal training in historical method. How was I
going to re-create the life of a man, of his contemporaries, and of those he met over
the course of his West African encounters? How does one translate archival texts
and records into a life? Ethnography is often considered to be the transformation
of life into text; but a historian or biographer attempts to turn texts into a life, a life
that is now no longer an event, that is stripped of its immediate human experience
and all its social relations.
Much depends, I suppose, on the types of text and record that one finds in an
archive. I was lucky to be able to get my hands on 13 years’ worth of personal
correspondence between Henri Gaden and his father, and then 45 years’ worth
with his old friend, comrade-in-arms and confidante, Henri Gouraud. (He went on
to become a celebrated First World War General, the French Ambassador to Syria
and the Lebanon, and then Military Governor of Paris.) These letters, once pieced
together and read in parallel, opened up a world of intimate musings on the part
of each man. In them, they talked of their own inner feelings, fears and hopes,
their attitudes towards colonial policy, their anger and frustrations about what they
were asked to do, their relations towards others around them, and their sense of
the immediate, often dangerous and uncertain, surroundings of the French colonial

5 See Dilley Nearly Native, Barely Civilized 2014.

6 A country marriage was one between French officers and African women that
followed local customary practice and was not recognised by the French state.
86 Reflections on Imagination

mission in West Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, a period which was
still marked by military conquest.
How would I ever gain a sense of the human experience that lay behind events,
activities and practices that are now history? How does one recreate the quality
and intensity of social relations from fragments gleaned from textual sources?
My first thoughts were led by my initial training in social anthropology, which
was dominated by the ideas of Evans-Pritchard at Oxford, who in turn had been
influenced by R.G. Collingwood’s work entitled ‘The Idea of History’ (1946).
During the latter part of his career, Evans-Pritchard set himself a larger project
that aimed to redefine anthropology as a humanistic discipline rather than one
modelled on the positivistic sciences. He argued that social anthropology should
proceed along much the same lines as social history or the history of institutions
(1962: 152). But more pertinently, he put the case that the set of abstractions that
derive from the anthropological analysis of observed behaviour is fundamentally
an ‘imaginative construct’ of the anthropologist him- or herself (1962: 149).
Evans-Pritchard elaborated on this idea by arguing that difference between
anthropologists and historians is illusory, given that: ‘… the historian interprets
the past in terms of his [sic] own experience of the present … only the historian
who understands the present can understand the past’ (1962: 187).
The lesson that I draw from this conclusion is that Evans-Pritchard’s version
of Collingwood’s historical method of imaginative construction is never totally
divorced from the present circumstances in which that reconstruction takes place.
Moreover, Evans-Pritchard was not speaking of ‘empathy’ as a mode of imaginative
understanding (something which he distrusted); but rather of ‘an understanding of
the categories of peoples of other times through the experience of the historian’s
own norms, ideas and values’ (ibid.). What he had in mind was Collingwood’s
idea that the imagination enters an historical account, first, in the context of
interpolation. An example of this would be the following: Collingwood suggests
that an authority tells us that Caesar was in Rome on one day, and on a later day
in Gaul. But the source says nothing about his journey. The historian interpolates,
on the basis of what he or she knows about modes of transport, distances and
so on, that the journey would have taken such and such a period of time, would
have been of this sort, and so on. The act of interpolation and of inference is
‘essentially something imagined’; ‘It is this activity which, bridging the gaps
between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description
its continuity’ (Collingwood 1946: 241). The role played by the imagination in the
work of historical construction is not therefore ornamental but structural, and this
‘imaginary … is neither unreal nor real’. A ‘web of imaginative construction’ is
thus produced (ibid.: 242).
Imaginative construction that is brought to bear on historical material is neither
totally divorced from the present, nor is it separate from the historian’s own
experience of the present. How that imagination works, therefore, would seem to
me to be enmeshed within the historian’s own historical and cultural context. It does
not have a status independent of that context. Imagination in this sense is not a priori.
Historical Imagination and Imagining Madness 87

How might one approach the question of an investigation of the process of an

imagination at work, in my case those of French colonial officers? My grasp of
the imaginative life (thoughts, feelings and aspirations) of Henri Gaden, living
and working in West Africa in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the
first half of the twentieth, requires me as an anthropologist, who has an experience
of the contemporary world and of West African societies, to reconstruct within
me the ambience of the period, the categories of thought and experience of those
times. It also requires a sense of the anticipated future direction of the world
for actors situated in that historical period. There are, then, three strands to this
method: (a) the analyst’s own experience of the contemporary world; (b) the
historical imagination necessary to construct an accurate as possible image of the
world in which a person lived; (c) how that world informed the contents of a
person’s imaginative life. This is where an anthropology of the imagination would
begin for me, not from a disembodied or disembedded conception of imagination
per se. Rather it starts from a consideration of the social relations that inform the
constitution of an object.

The French Colonial Presence in Chad

Between 1904–1907 Henri Gaden was posted to Chad, the easternmost part of
West Africa. This was his fourth posting to French colonial Africa, and it followed
on from tours of duty in Bandiagara, Mali, in Guinée – when he captured Samory
Toure – and then in Zinder, Niger. At age of 37, he and his superior officer (Henri
Gouraud, also the same age) controlled an area larger than the size of France, with
only a handful of French officers and local troops. Threats from ‘Sennouists’ from
Libya, Muslim activists from the north seeking to penetrate further south, were a
constant source of worry.7 Colonial officers had, therefore, to bear a huge weight
of responsibility. The insecurity of everyday life, and the uncertainty of existence
so far away from the centres of colonial power, played upon their imaginations.
To reach Chad at the turn of the twentieth century, Gaden had to travel up
through Congo, first, the Belgian Congo under King Leopold, a territory under
close scrutiny following an international scandal triggered by the investigations
of Edward Morell.8 Conditions in the French Congo were not much better. Gaden
underwent life-changing experiences during this period, which saw a radical
transformation in his personal and political outlook. He ‘went native’, started to
doubt colonial policy and its mission (la mission civilisatrice), and was accused by
his commanding officer of becoming partisan, of being ‘the Sultan’s man’.
One factor to play on his mind was the Toqué and Gaud affair, and this fed
his reflections on his own position within the colonial machinery. This affair also

7 Sennouists, in their Gallicised spelling, were the subject of Evans-Pritchard’s 1949

monograph entitled Sanusi of the Cyrenaica.
8 See Hochschild 2006 for further details.
88 Reflections on Imagination

provides a fixed point from which one can interpolate between what we know of
his experiences at one point in time, and his reactions and responses at another
point in time. Toqué and Gaud were two officers in the French Congo who
were accused and later found guilty of the murder of a native guide on 14 July
1903. They had strapped dynamite to the man’s body and ignited it to celebrate
Bastille Day. The incident caused a scandal in Paris and it followed on from other
atrocities committed by officers in the region. Gaden condemned the murder, and
he congratulated himself that he had pointedly snubbed one of the officers when
introduced to him.9 But this incident, along with others, played on Gaden’s mind
and led him over time to question the civilising mission of colonialism and his
part in it.
The second theme of my anthropological method can be illustrated by
another example. This illustrates how the world, or the wider colonial imaginary,
informed the contents of a person’s imaginative life. The theme of cannibalism
was a powerful motif in the colonial imagination. Among officers in the Congo, it
was a constant refrain in colonial discourse. In part a construction of the colonial
imagination, these ideas provided an ideological justification for intervention by
French forces and bolstered a sense of European superiority. Stories about eating
human flesh circulated within the expatriate European community, and they read
like present-day European urban myths. For example, the Commandant at the post
at Bangui related the following tale: ‘A man was badly bitten by a crocodile and
sent to hospital to have his leg amputated. On coming round from the anaesthetic
and seeing his leg removed, he demanded to have it returned to him in order to
eat it. This could not happen, he was told, because the local surgeon had already
devoured it’.10
Gaden was obviously susceptible to these stories of cannibalism and he
reported to his father that:

Forty-three natives from the pillaged factory have been killed, then eaten. The
natives of the region, the Bondjos, are in effect impenitent cannibals. A Bondjo
proverb: “There is no better sepulchre than a friend’s stomach” … The flesh of
factory employees is particularly valued, because as they eat salt everyday, they
[the Bondjos] are supplied with a more salted meat’.11

French colonial imagery informed the way Gaden perceived the world to some
extent, and his own imagination absorbed the images that circulated in colonial
discourse, and he repeated them to his father back in Bordeaux.
In these cases, I argue in favour of the conception of the imagination embedded
within a particular set of social and cultural relations. Gaden’s ‘interior life’ was
informed by broader colonial imagery and by the circumstances that he had to

9 See Gaden’s letter to his father dated 3.7.1905 (CAOM).

10 This incident was reported by Gouraud (1944: 149–52).
11 See Gaden’s letter to his father dated 21.5.1904 (CAOM).
Historical Imagination and Imagining Madness 89

confront in daily life. Johannes Fabian (2000) has reminded us of the problems of
‘disembodied postcolonial theorising’ about Africa and elsewhere. His critique is
that such theorists consider that colonial imaginary operates only at the level of
discourse. They do not take account of the lives and the imaginative constructs of
those at the forefront of the colonial project. I too would suggest that not only is
the imagination embedded within a particular set of social and cultural relations,
but that it is also embodied within the particulars of individual lives and their
immediate social experiences.

Madness and the Colonial Project

Johannes Fabian’s work also provides a link to another aspect of this chapter.
He argued in his book Out of Our Minds that ‘European travellers seldom met
their hosts in a state we would expect of scientific explorers: clear-minded and
self-controlled. More often than not, they were “out of their minds” with extreme
fatigue, fear, delusions of grandeur, and feelings ranging from anger to contempt’
(2000: 3). Masking themselves as scientific observers, colonialists were in fact
driven by deranged minds that could flip between romantic engagement in one
moment and violent atrocity the next. He calls this ‘ecstatis’, the production of
knowledge that was driven by ecstatic elements: ‘the effects of alcohol, drugs,
illness, sex, brutality and terror’, as well as ‘conviviality, friendship, play, and
performance’ (2000: 9).
The French colonial administration and its officers recognised a mental
condition which they labelled ‘Soudanite’.12 This was a form of colonial folly
provoked, the colonialist thought, by excessive exposure to the African sun and
the disorientating and alienating quality of life in distant military outposts. The
French officers Voulet and Chanoine, who headed up the Senegalese mission that
set out from Dakar to rendezvous with two other French columns on the banks
of Lake Chad in the late 1890s, were considered to have been struck down by
the condition. 13 Hushed up at the time of the affair, the atrocities carried out by
these two officers on their way to Chad – burning, pillaging, raping and killing
of civilians, and finally the murder in cold-blood of Colonel Klobb sent by Paris
to arrest them – were put down to the extreme effects of colonial folly. (Voulet
was a friend of Gaden’s, and the latter was bitterly disappointed not to have been
included in this mission. Later Gaden could not understand how his friend had
committed such acts of wanton violence.)
The issue of colonial folly and ecstasis throws up a series of challenging
questions with respect to the colonial imagination and to the use of imaginative

12 See Girard 2002 for a semi-fictional account of the effects of the condition on
French officers.
13 See Taithe 2009 for an account of this mission.
90 Reflections on Imagination

construction in the history of French colonialism.14 First, the imaginative

construction of madness stretches to the limits the presumed coherence and
rationality of historical accounts; and, indeed, even the limits of the historian’s
experience in the present day. Second, to enter into the twisted imagination of
an officer suffering from Soudanite takes us beyond the known world of the
everyday, and places us in a space where rationality, coherence, common-sense
understanding or shared humanity have very little purchase. Collingwood’s
conception of the historical imagination does not address this problem.

The Onset of Soudanite 1896, Bandiagara, Mali

The onset of Soudanite in Henri Gaden can be plotted through the traces left in his
letters to his father in 1896. These texts speak of a tortured mind, and the way in
which passages he wrote are repeated bears witness to obsessive thoughts, and to
an imagination that has run wild. His condition was triggered by an incident that
had occurred in a village near Bandiagara which, up until then, had been calm,
paying its taxes, regularly supplying services and man-power to the French post.
Indeed, it was the home of a number of local troops belonging to a ruler loyal to the
French cause. Gaden had mentioned the village to Captain Laperrine, a maverick
colonial officer who went on to become a respected French General. Laperrine
passed by the village and stirred up a good deal of ‘effervescence’, according
to Gaden. Effervescence was Gaden’s euphemism for trouble, armed attacks and
assaults involving French troops and local populations. Laperrine then summoned
a company of 120 men under the command of Lt Voulet to investigate the village,
which they found in a heightened state of tension, and duly ‘smashed up’ the
place. The cost on the French side was six killed, including a white sergeant, and
26 wounded counting a white adjutant. Losses on the other side were not counted.
The Lieutenant Voulet in this incident is the same Voulet who committed atrocities
some years later with his companion Chanoine. While the Voulet–Chanoine affair
was particularly horrific, incidents such as that in the neighbourhood of Bandiagara
were not uncommon and often passed without notice. Gaden hoped that he would
not be held responsible for any of the dirty business that had happened there. He
was coming to the end of his tour of duty; he felt exhausted by the burden he
had been carrying, frustrated by the sedentary life he was leading, and in need
of repatriation. He was miserable and was suffering from anxiety triggered by a
mission far from home, and by the precarious demands of colonial life in the bush.
His condition grew worse by the end of March, and was not helped by the news
that the Colonel wanted to appoint him for another mission in West Africa that
would delay return home for at least one year.

14 Joseph Conrad’s writings about the Belgian Congo grasp this challenge in all
its horrifying detail, not only in his novella Heart of Darkness, but also in a short story,
An Outpost of Progress published in the collection Tales of Unrest, which contains a vivid
account of two Europeans becoming deranged at an up-country station on the Congo.
Historical Imagination and Imagining Madness 91

Gaden had not been directly involved in the violent incident, but in his
imagination he was implicated; he would be considered equally guilty as his
fellow officer Voulet. Gaden wrote to his father: ‘Voulet was under an enormous
pressure of circumstance and acted without orders’. And what would happen to
him? In the eyes of the civil authority, ‘it is us two [Voulet and I] who will be the
victims, and will be sent back to France as incompetents! I hope to be mistaken
and await events philosophically and with a tranquil conscience’. He goes on:
‘This is what happens to us, Voulet and me, despite all the beautiful promises of
that charlatan, Captain Destenave’. And what of his friend Voulet?, Gaden asks
again, barely disguising his fragile mental state.15
The pressure of circumstances was getting to Gaden too. His letters over this
period became more and more fractured. His anxieties around similar themes
appeared again and again, popping up in different places in his letters, as though
he was being consumed by them, unable to rid his mind of their gnawing effect on
his thoughts. He repeated a number of times: ‘I will wait in the queue when I come
back [to France] in order to be blamed or to be shown completely incompetent’ …
‘I hope I am mistaken’ … ‘I am tired and I long for rest’.16
Traumatic incidents triggered disturbing responses in officers already
fatigued by the demands of long postings. They were out of their minds, and their
deranged thoughts raced through their imaginations. Some managed to keep their
disequilibrium under control; others found it more difficult.

Soudanite and the Grech Affair

Grech was a Maltese interpreter with the French mission in Chad in 1906. He had
a reputation for adopting native customs, which meant in practice taking local
women as concubines. Gaden commented that he was ‘a famous phenomenon’,
and that he made ‘an excellent negro king’.17 Grech let slip over dinner one night
that he had a small daughter in France by his French wife. However, he declared
that it was his paternal love that kept him at Fort Lamy in Chad, for he also had
a daughter at the French post by a local woman. Grech’s African daughter was ill
and, Gaden thought, he was more worried about her than his French child. Grech’s
problems were compounded by the fact that he was due to return to France soon
at the end of his posting, and so he would have to leave behind his mousso or
concubine and his daughter.
By now, a number of officers were coming towards the end of their tours of
duty, and they were affected by Soudanite. Grech was one of them. He began to
write disturbing letters to Gaden and Gouraud, the commanding officer in Chad,

15 See Gaden’s letter to his father dated 26.3.1896 (CAOM).

16 ibid., et passim.
17 Gaden and Gouraud corresponded about Grech throughout 1906, but particularly
in February and March of that year. See Gaden’s numerous letters to Gouraud (MAEE), and
Gouraud’s various responses to Gaden (CAOM) during this period.
92 Reflections on Imagination

which indicated an increasing mental instability. One example of his behaviour

was that Grech had approached the Sultan to ask for a slave girl for his mousso –
as a domestic servile – and he had told the ruler that he had the Commandant’s
approval. The Sultan gave him the best young girl he could find, one who was the
same age as the Sultan’s own son. It turned out that the Sultan had made a mistake
and the young girl was destined to become the concubine of the Sultan’s son. On
realising his error, the Sultan then asked whether the girl could be exchanged for
another one, an offer that Grech refused. A series of very messy and protracted
negotiations then took place, and Grech was censured for his behaviour.
Returning to France in 1906, Grech left behind him the debris of his affair
over the Sultan’s captive girl. Expert not only in creating stressful scenes in
Chad, he now went on to stir up a furore in Bordeaux. Grech descended from the
train at Bordeaux station to find a Lieutenant flanked by a number of nurses who
asked him to step into an ambulance that would take him to the military hospital
for a check-up. This reception had been arranged by Grech’s French wife, who
had been receiving abusive letters from him, which she took as evidence of his
mental instability. After a good deal of debate on the platform, Grech refused to
get into the ambulance and took a car to the hospital instead, while the nurses
followed behind in the ambulance. He stayed in hospital for a number of days of
observations, tests and medical examinations. An order then arrived from Paris
relieving him of his duties.
Grech went to see a lawyer to seek a divorce from his wife on the grounds of
the humiliation he had suffered at the station and that he could no longer share a
bed with such a woman. He visited Gaden’s father in Bordeaux to up-date him
on his son’s activities and the situation in Chad. This was standard practice, for
returning officers could relay to relatives the very latest developments in Africa.
Gaden’s father gave Grech advice and hoped that he would not continue with the
divorce, but Grech persisted in his plans. Grech also threatened to seek redress
in the form of compensation from the government, and requested an immediate
posting as the Resident to the Sultan in Chad, the post which Gaden occupied.
‘This is Grech pure and simple’, Gaden remarked.18 Meanwhile, Grech’s wife
also filed for a divorce herself, and Grech’s career was now in ruins. Gaden later
received word that Grech seemed to be rejuvenated, and had been seen in Paris
walking to the Folies Bergères with a sumptuous woman on his arm, crying out to
all and sundry that he didn’t give a damn about his wife.
Meanwhile, Gaden was becoming increasingly concerned at the irregularity
of the correspondence from his father, who had been unwell. Gaden was worried
about his father’s health and about the lack of news from home. He wrote to
him in November 1906: ‘What are you thinking of to stop writing to me all of a
sudden? … It is already painful to be so distant, but when I no longer receive any
news, it is more painful still’. Again in December, he berated his father for sending
no news from home: ‘What bad game are you playing? I cannot talk to you when

18 See Gaden’s letter to Gouraud dated 28.4.1906 (MAEE).

Historical Imagination and Imagining Madness 93

I know nothing about you’. Or in January 1907: ‘I truly do not understand why
this persistence in not writing …’.19 Gaden obviously felt that the situation was
not all what it seemed and that something must account for his family’s strange
behaviour. His imagination was working overtime.
Gaden suspected the hand of Grech in all of this. He wrote to his friend
Gouraud: ‘You can imagine what his [Grech’s] state of mind was when he came
to visit my father’.20 Gaden had been scrupulous in not mentioning anything of
his private life to his father, a private life that also involved taking native women
as concubines and having slave girls in his household. His mother was a deeply
religious woman who would not have approved of her son’s antics in Chad. By not
mentioning anything to his father, Gaden imagined that he could keep his father in
ignorance of his domestic arrangements.
What Gaden’s father made of his encounter with the deranged Grech, and what
passed between them, we can only guess. But the decline in the number of letters
from Gaden’s father corresponds with the visit from Grech. Was this in some way
a reflection of his father’s feelings of disgust at what Grech might have divulged
about the life of an officer, and especially his son, and liaisons with local women?
What we do know is that Gaden imagined the worst, that Grech had spilled the
beans to his father.
Some months earlier Gaden had broached the subject of Grech with his father in
a letter in early May 1906, perhaps as a means to prepare him about the daily realities
of colonial life. He explained that Grech had without cause written aggressive letters
to his wife, and that she clearly took him to have gone mad. He wrote:

Here he led the life of a native and had no more moral sense than a black
interpreter. Since his departure I have learnt of unimaginable things on his behalf.
He evidently did not recount to you how many times I gave him a dressing down
and how one time I fined him 21 thalers [silver coins of German origin] … he is
stupid to behave like this with her [his wife]. … I wrote him a letter in which I
moralised to him on the subject of a native woman.21

Aware no doubt of the potential damage that the Maltese interpreter could do to
his own reputation within the family, one gets the sense that Gaden was trying
to distance himself from the kinds of activities Grech might have described to
his father, and to indicate that he, the son, had indeed taken a high moral stance
against such goings-on with native women. It would appear that this strategy had
cut very little ice with his father. It seems implausible that Gaden’s father would
not have heard tell of tales of the lurid life-styles of French officers in the African
bush. While this was most certainly not unknown to him, he no doubt did not

19 See Gaden’s letters to his father dated 6.11.1906, 1.12.1906, and 1.1.1907
20 See Gaden’s letter to Gouraud dated 28.4.1906 (MAEE).
21 See Gaden’s letter to his father dated 6.5.1906 (CAOM).
94 Reflections on Imagination

imagine that his son would indulge in such goings-on, or that such tales would
reach the family home.

Commentary and Conclusion

While it is impossible to enter into the mind of anyone, sane or mad, to gain a
transparent understanding of someone else’s predicament, the method of imaginative
reconstruction of the sort indicated by Collingwood can help us to some extent
here. Imagination enters this account of Grech and Gaden as a means to interpolate
between what is known, the traces left in the historical record, and what is held to
be possible by the analyst’s grasp of the categories of thought and understanding
of the people under study. Gaden’s imaginings of what went on between Grech and
his father, the abrupt termination of the correspondence between Gaden and his
father, and the conclusions that can be drawn from them, demand from the analyst
a construction placed on events that is imaginative in itself. Yet, it is founded upon
what is known about social relations and cultural categories of the contexts under
examination. Grech’s insanity can be seen in the context of the tension between two
systems of morality, norms and values: one as lived in Chad as a colonial officer;
the other as existed in France at the turn of the twentieth century. Grech’s world
collapsed once the two spheres were brought together in an agonising collision. The
morality, norms and values of one world clashed with those of his home country
and with those of his close family members, and it proved impossible for him to
negotiate the gulf between colony and metropole.
Although Collingwood’s method of historical imagination has been deployed
to gain interpretative insights so as to reconstruct an account of historical events,
there are limits to the scope of this method. I indicated in the introduction to
this chapter a concern that Collingwood presumes a coherence and rationality
of historical accounts. While the method helps us to link and interpolate events,
practices and outcomes in meaningful ways, it runs the risk of overlaying coherence
and rationality where there may be little or none to be had. I am reminded of
Pierre Bourdieu’s cautions about writing biography – in his 1986 article entitled
‘L’illusion biographique’ – when he warns us that the common-sense notion
of biography presupposes a number of unstated elements: namely, that the life
of an individual is made to be a coherent and finalised whole, chronologically
ordered, and thereby made meaningful. The inclusion of madness in a historical
narrative or biography may fracture that sense of coherence and rationality, and
the ordered chronology of meaning. In addition, recognising the future possible
directions a human life might take – directions that perhaps only exist in a person’s
imagination – gives a sense of alternative futures that could have been lived; it also
gives a sense of the contingent and fluid nature of the life that has been led.
I have highlighted over the course of this chapter a methodological concern
to impute sense and rationality to a situation in which neither sense, rationality
or coherence were the dominant modes of thought and action among officers in
West Africa. Intimations of madness intervene in this account of other lives, and
Historical Imagination and Imagining Madness 95

these interventions stretch the method of historical imaginative reconstruction.

Historical imagination as a method needs to be founded, therefore, at least in part on
the recognition of human insanity and the ‘savage’ possibilities of human subjects
as much as on a shared sense of liberal humanity. Furthermore, an anticipation of
future events should have regard for the incoherent and fractured possibilities that
a distorted human imagination is able to conjure up.
In this chapter I have attempted, therefore, to outline how one might use the
idea of a historical imagination as method to interpolate between the fragments
of an archive to construct a more rounded picture and a continuous narrative for
the lives of colonial officers such as Henri Gaden. My endeavour has also been to
sketch out the contours of Gaden’s imagination and what the content of his ‘inner
life’ and biography were. I have attempted to address the way in which Gaden’s
interpretations of the world are informed by his own personal and social history
and by the course of events in which he is situated. A picture of his ‘inner life’
can be partially achieved through the privileged access his letters give us into the
workings of his mind, his emotional state and the character of the relations he
forged with others. From this perspective, the analyst is charged with responsibility
of drawing connections between the ‘inner life’ and interpretative manoeuvres
of the human subject, on the one hand, and the forms of social interaction and
engagement that subject has with the world around him or her, on the other.
Furthermore, one final conclusion to this chapter is that it is misguided to
consider the imagination as a simple object of investigation.22 Equally, it should
not be treated as a disembedded or disembodied object divorced from social
relations. The imagination, if it is anything, is more perhaps a construct formed
though the possibility of social relations; it is a space in which images, thoughts,
emotions, fear and aspirations are formed, and through which they pass. As an
anthropological object of analysis it is deciphered by means of its contents, which
can be glimpsed through personal testimonies, letters, and private correspondence;
these contents can also be read off from actions and social practices. There is no
lens through which the imagination as an object can be brought singly into focus.
It is a construct through which the analyst can grasp the interplay of history and
biography, and through which human subjects gain a sense of the pattern and chaos
of their own lives within a broader context of social and cultural phenomena.


Unpublished Sources

Henri Gaden’s letters to his father and Henri Gouraud’s letters to Gaden, in the
Archives Nationales, Section Outre-Mer (France), Centre des archives d’outre-
mer, Aix-en-Provence (CAOM). Archives Privées, Fonds Gaden 15 APC/1
(1–15) and 15 APC/2.

22 Cf. Sartre’s critique of this problem in earlier philosophers’ work (1972).

96 Reflections on Imagination

Henri Gaden’s letters to Gouraud, in the Ministère des Affaires étrangères et

européennes, Centre des Archives Diplomatiques, La Courneuve (MAEE).
Fonds Gouraud, Série Papiers D’Agents PA AP 399, esp. carton 136 of 174.

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London: Sage Publications, 2004, pp. 297–303.
Collingwood, R.G. 1946 ‘Epilegomena: 2: The Historical Imagination’, The Idea
of History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 232–49.
Comaroff, John and Jean Comaroff 1992 Ethnography and the Historical
Imagination, Boulder CO: West View Press.
Conrad, J. 2010 Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Conrad, J. 2012 Tales of Unrest (contains ‘An Outpost of Progress’), Cambridge:
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Anthropology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Gaden, H. 1914 Le Poular dialecte peul du Fouta sénégalais. Tome 2 – Lexique

poular-français, (Collection de la revue du monde musulman), Paris:
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Gaden, H. 1931 Proverbes et maximes peuls et toucouleurs traduits, expliqués et
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d’Ethnologie, xxiv. 368p.
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Chapter 6
From Anthropology of the Imagination to
the Anthropological Imagination
Peter Collins

In writing this chapter I have been encouraged to corral a bunch of disparate

thoughts on a variety of subjects particularly on hauntings or spectrality and
ghosts, the imagination, ethnography and the significance of narrative in everyday
life. The particular and peculiar play of absence and presence which characterises
the haunting arises occasionally in anthropological texts, though there has recently
been something of a ‘spectral turn’ (Roger Luckhurst quoted in Holloway and Neale
2008: 297) among cultural geographers, historians, and sociologists during recent
decades. Despite receiving relatively little scholarly attention I am persuaded that
it is an important subject whose scope is considerably greater than one might first
think, as I shall endeavour to prove. To some extent developing an awareness of
these phenomena requires an approach to ethnography that is particularly fine-
grained. But more vital, perhaps, one requires the determination to bracket out
pointless disputes concerning the ‘objectivity’ of such events and experiences,
to embrace a willingness to anticipate them. Hauntings need not involve what
the popular media would have us expect, and I am specifically concerned to
foreground phenomena that might remain unnoticed simply because they are, in
a sense, so ordinary. I came to appreciate the prevalence and value of hauntings
after re-reading my field-notes relating to several different projects. In each case,
the significance of narrative to those amongst whom I lived and worked was very
apparent. Indeed, I read recently that Wittgenstein felt that as a philosopher he
thought he repeated himself endlessly. To an extent I feel much the same in doing
anthropology. I have found narrative to be central in all of the projects in which
I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork.
I shall proceed to examine why narrative is central to social life in order to
contextualise my argument regarding hauntings. I will then discuss James Preston’s
attempt to develop an anthropology of the imagination, briefly assessing its
strengths and weaknesses, before going on to discuss the work of the philosopher
Edward Casey whose approach to imagination more adequately serves my attempt
to understand the play of quotidian imagining that generates the hauntings I later
describe. Having prepared the ground, I present a number of ethnographic examples
of haunting, drawing on two quite different ethnographic projects, one on British
100 Reflections on Imagination

Quakers, the other on local government workers in the northeast of England. In

doing so, I intend to indicate both the unity and diversity of the phenomenon. I will
conclude by reiterating the value of hauntings both to the haunted and to those of us
trying to make sense of social life. But hauntings can only be understood, I argue, in
relation to narrative and it is to this condition that we must first attend.

The Significance of Narrative

In recent years narrative has become an increasingly weighty concept across a

wide range of disciplines. Jerome Bruner (1986; 1987; 1990) has long indicated
the epistemological significance of narrative, as one of two modes of thought.
He says:

A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both
can be used as means of convincing another. Yet what they convince of is
fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their
lifelikeness … their verisimilitude. (Bruner 1986: 11)

Narrative, in facilitating our understanding of the world, has a considerable

epistemological power: it is an agential, hermeneutic, sense-making endeavour.
Furthermore, several scholars have pointed to the ontological importance of
narrative in the formation of the person. Rapport (2003), for example, talks of the
life project as a defining property of personhood (along with self-consciousness,
language, and rationality). In this sense, our very selves are not only constitutive
of, but also constituted by narrative; we may or may not see this as a moral good.
I would argue that the person is always and already connected to other persons
through narrative – or rather narratives – that remain more or less dormant until
invoked in practice. A few of us will have developed a singular, unified project,
while most of us, most of the time, have several, represented by the narrative
threads from which are selves are made. And, methodologically speaking, we
should in our fieldwork be looking out for narrative connections. We arrive on the
scene laden with stories and in the midst of stories and it is not easy, in a short time,
to appreciate this. After one breath is caught after arrival in a new place, it is worth
talking about the way in which these stories are told, such as the non-discursive
ways in which they are revealed, particularly through embodied practice and in
the constitution of the environment. The task demands a particularly attentive kind
of ethnographer in order to perform this archaeology of narrative threads, which
can be taken up and dropped in an instant. As well as its growing epistemological
and ontological import, narrative has at least since the 1990s, become a well-
documented methodological approach (see Riessman 2008 for example).
In simple terms, narrative involves at least two events that are in some way
ostensively connected by the observer, the subject, or both. The events usually
concern one or more subject and there must be a narrator. A narrative interpretation
Hauntings 101

of a series of events focuses on how change from beginning to end is produced,

not just on how one event is predicated or deduced from another: there is a plot
that might be simple and unilinear, or extraordinarily complex. Indeed, narrative
can be singularly elusive. Michael Carrithers wrote (1995: 261; see also Carrithers
1992), ‘narrative thought can be evidenced and conveyed in forms of speech which
are not marked as stories at all’. For instance, terms, phrases, expressions, idioms,
pronouns, tropes such as allusions and metaphor, can all serve as mnemonics for
narratives that might range from the very simple to the extraordinarily complex.
We significantly extend our understanding of narrative if we accept that stories are
not always neatly packaged, explicit or bounded.
Barbara Hardy’s assertion (1968: 5) provides us with a sense of it pervasiveness,
‘We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope,
despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticise, construct, gossip, learn, hate and
love by narrative’. However, narrative is not confined to language. As Barthes
(1977: 79) avers

The narrative may incorporate articulate language, spoken or written; pictures,

still or moving; gestures and the ordered arrangement of all ingredients: it is
present in myth, legend, fable, short story, epic, history, tragedy, comedy,
pantomime, painting, stained glass windows, cinema, comic strips, journalism,
conversation. In addition, under this almost infinite number of forms, the
narrative is present at all times, in all places, in all societies …

Barthes broadens our understanding here in suggesting that narrative is present

not only in speech and writing, but across all sign systems. Long-term fieldwork
suggests that narratives are iterative – they are repeated and developed in a
multitude of ways by means of various media during the course of time. They may
be continuous or discontinuous, they may form a seamless flow or be subject to
multiple interruptions. In any case, they provide us with a means of understanding
past, present and future – they are the principal means we have of organising
our understanding of time (Abbott 2002: 3). Narrative then has something of
Heidegger’s thrownness about it: the notion that one can never fully withdraw
from the narrative life. Narrative is not merely a record or representation of human
life, it can at least appear to be human life.
We make sense of the world and ourselves by way of narrative, and more
precisely through narrative practice. The spaces between individuals and groups
are not voids; relationality and narrative are co-dependent. The interconnectedness
of narratives, the narrativus, is nodal, in so far as narrative threads are more tightly
interwoven in some environments (the meeting house, places of work, and so
forth) than in others. The model erases a number of awkward dichotomies, and
gives full weight both to the temporal and spatial processes through which people
construct their identity and sense of belonging. To ignore narrative connections
in social life is to miss an important part of what makes us human. Narrative
is facilitating not determining, however, and we beware of reification. Reifying
102 Reflections on Imagination

‘narrative’ is just as unhelpful as reifying ‘society’, and while we might agree with
Bruner that ‘life is narrative’ let us remember that narrative is neither structure nor
agency. It is however the stuff, simultaneously process and product, from which
we construct our selves and are constructed by others as persons (Holstein and
Gubrium 2000: ch. 6). And while stories are both lived and remembered, they can
be also imagined.

The Imagination

At least until the sixteenth century, imagination was represented by scholars in

largely negative terms, a dangerous faculty. Blaise Pascal, mathematician, physicist,
and devout Christian, argued fervently that imagination is ‘that mistress of error
and falsehood, an arrogant faculty, the enemy of reason’. Aristotle (De Anima)
places imagination in a mediating position between perception and intellect, and
made it necessary to the latter. Hobbes, Hume and Locke agreed, as did Kant
who reinforces imagination’s mediatory role by distinguishing between two kinds
of imagining: a reproductive kind that is intimately connected with memory and
perceptual apprehension, and a productive kind, aligned with conceptual thinking
(Casey 1976: 17). Others, including German Romantic scholars such as von
Schlegel, Novalis and Schelling characterised imagination as the principal mental
faculty. In their view imagination became the primary creative capacity of the
human mind – not only in art but also in epistemology and metaphysics (Casey
1976: 18). William Blake, in Jerusalem: The Emanation of The Giant Albion,
1804, wrote: ‘Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable
universe is but a faint shadow’, and, the same year, ‘The Imagination is not a
State: it is the Human Existence itself’ (from Milton, a Poem in 2 Books). This
is not merely a Romantic blip – Einstein wrote, ‘Imagination is more important
than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world’ (Einstein
1931: 97).
The complexity of the subject is underlined by Casey (1976: 4):

… to attest to the familiarity and frequency of an activity such as imagining

is one thing; to provide a coherent account of this same activity is something
else again. Imagining is easy enough to enact or experience, but it is extremely
difficult to capture in mid-air for purposes of scrutiny and examination …

Philosophical accounts, as one might expect, lack empirical content (Casey is

something of an exception) and it is clear to me that anthropology can provide the
detailed description required if we are to make any headway in understanding the
social consequences of imagination.
Defined in relation to the real, generally assumed to be its opposite, imagination
gives onto an infinite number and variety of worlds that may be available to one,
or to many. Given its prevalence in human life, across cultures and throughout the
Hauntings 103

ages, it seems peculiar, to say the least, that direct reference to the imagination is
so rare in the work of anthropologists. However, anthropology and imagination
are not entirely strangers to one another. Because of the close relation assumed
between aesthetics and the imagination, largely due to earlier Romantic theorising,
studies often focus on overtly ‘creative’ or explicitly ‘artistic’ outputs with or
without reference to the difficulties of universalising concepts such as ‘art’. But
there is a less than perfect fit between the aesthetic and the imagination. I argue
that the imagination extends well beyond what we might consider the aesthetic,
even broadly defined. It’s probably worth noting that the concept of creativity
is sometimes taken as a synonym of imagination, a sleight of hand that more
often than not reduces the latter to an unnecessarily narrow aestheticising account
of imagination.
For Casey imagination can be understood primarily in terms of ‘pure
possibility’. Drawing on the method known as phenomenological reduction he
engages in a systematic and microscopic analysis based on just three personal
examples, arguing that imagination (or ‘imaginative experience’) is both dynamic
and intentional and made up of two phases: act and content (or ‘imaginative
presentation’) which are not necessarily existent. Casey argues further that
imagination is characterised by three pairs of more or less contrasting traits:
these are the parameters of imagination: spontaneity and controlledness, self-
containedness and self-evidence, and indeterminacy and pure possibility to
which I’ll return later. Characterised by both pure possibility and indeterminacy,
imagination differs from other mental faculties in that there is no limit to what
we can imagine. What we imagine is fundamentally open in character (Casey
1973: 35–7).
Contemporary analytical philosophers have tended to describe ‘imagination’
as polysemous, a collection of homonyms, sometimes equivalent to ‘form (or
experience) imagery’, but in other cases to ‘suppose’, or ‘pretend’, ‘believe’, ‘think
creatively’, and so on. My own view is that the term is more usefully understood
(after Wittgenstein 1953) as a ‘family resemblance’ term whose prototypical (but
not exclusive) application is to the making present that which is absent.

Towards an Anthropology of the Imagination

James Preston (1991) is the only anthropologist I am aware of who has dealt
systematically with imagination. Unlike Casey, Preston seeks to develop a
primarily empirical account and whereas for Casey imagination amounts to pure
possibility, for Preston it is primarily transformational. His account provides us
with a useful platform from which to explore further. He seeks to arrive at a kind
of anthropological science that embraces what he calls the poetic and imaginative
domains of human experience. Drawing on Bachelard, Preston argues that images
are not merely derivative experience but actually are experience open to explanation
in their own terms. He also accepts Bachelard’s description of the imagination
104 Reflections on Imagination

as dynamic and of imagery as inherently unstable. Finally, Preston establishes a

taxonomy based on the various modes that the imagination adopts in reconstituting,
or as he puts it, in distorting the world. Preston identifies four transformatory
dimensions or domains of imaginative experience: spatial properties, temporal
properties, morphological properties, and comprehensive properties.
In Preston’s taxonomic approach, the domain of spatial transformation, for
instance, includes the process of miniaturisation. The fictional accounts of Alice
in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels indicate the poetic possibilities in this
transformation: to become very much bigger or very much smaller is to come
to see the world in quite different ways. Children (and not only children) enjoy
constructing small worlds and the creation of miniatures is not uncommon
among adults. In the religious sphere the Zen tendency in Japanese culture has
a penchant for the reduced in scale. Ethnographic examples might also include
the construction of dolls in voodoo and figurines in various games. Preston
clearly enjoys the symmetrical and so it is hardly surprising that we should next
consider the opposite of miniaturisation. Giants figure prominently in folktales
and a number of authors, again including both Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Swift,
frequently vary the size of their characters in both directions, as does Roald Dahl,
Mary Norton and numerous other children’s authors. In these cases, relative size
is less important than the act of scaling itself, resulting in a novel view of the
world. There is also the symbolism of the huge, dominant in several religious
traditions, including huge figures of Christ, Lord Shiva, and the Buddha, and vast
places of worship, as well as fictional accounts such as King Kong, Godzilla and
so on. ‘Magnification’, Preston argues (1991: 80), ‘reminds us of our finitude,
vulnerability, and mortality’. This should at least provide a flavour of Preston’s
classificatory approach.
In 1991, Preston was confidently upbeat in predicting the rise of imagination
in anthropological writing. In this he was overly optimistic, though in calling the
imagination ‘trickster’, he certainly anticipates the difficulties in mobilising the
term. Perhaps the concept remains rather too narrow and difficult to operationalise.
Since Malinowski (in Britain) and Boas (in the US), anthropology has developed
as a rational, empirical, objective discipline. Anthropologists prefer to talk about
those things which can be experienced and confirmed by the senses; they have
remained cautious in their approach to the inward, the subjective, and interest
in consciousness, dreaming, and so on has developed slowly. Imagination, on
the other hand, is (we assume) more difficult, perhaps even impossible to access
through rational and empirical means. However, we can only ever get at interior
conditions through their sensible manifestation – and we often do that – not only
in our everyday lives, but also in our practice of anthropology. At its simplest, we
ask people to explain or comment on what they have done, are doing, will intend
to do, anticipating the revelation of their motives or reasons. Otherwise, we impute
motives to people on the evidence given in their actions, a process which is, itself,
imaginative. My argument in this chapter is that we have access to imagination in
the same way. Just as the novelist and poet imagine through the printed text, the
Hauntings 105

artist through form, line and colour, we all have the capacity to make our imagined
worlds accessible (in one way or another) to others.
Several scholars, including Sartre (1940), make clear the close relationship
that exists between the external world and our construction and reconstruction
of it. One important approach, then, has been to represent the imagination as a
distancing from the here and now. My aim here is to begin to map out an account
of imagination as immanent, as both process and product, as inclusive and
fundamental both to the life of the individual and society and as central to the
anthropological enterprise. I wish to understand imagination as a means of making
sense of everyday life, not merely as the shadowy reflection of a somehow more
real reality.

Narrative and Quotidian Imagining

Preston’s taxonomy is interesting and helpful up to a point, but having learnt

something from his approach I want to proceed in a slightly different direction.
Despite his avowed empiricism, I rarely witness the forms of imagination
he describes during fieldwork, whether among Quakers or local government
employees. My objective is to capture the existential immediacy of imagination;
one that involves movement, such as we find in narrative. As Casey (1973: 4)

… imagination is neither superproductively world-generating nor utterly devoid

of intrinsic resources … the ongoing activity of imagining survives splendidly. It
continues to flourish, whether in art or in more mundane contexts. Artists or not,
we are irrepressible imaginers in everyday life, where we indulge in imaginative
activity persistently and not merely as an occasional divertissement. Despite
its airy indeterminateness, imaging arises constantly in the midst of concrete
actions and events.

Carrithers (2007) talks of ‘story seeds’ that may develop during a conversation, a
chance meeting, engagement with a work of art, or in a myriad other circumstances.
For example, someone asks me ‘How was your journey?’ How should I reply
except with a story? Perhaps a couple of words will suffice this time, or maybe
a detailed account that generates a conversation that continues intermittently for
weeks, months, even decades – but more likely something in between in which the
boundary separating truth from falsity, knowledge from belief and fiction from non-
fiction is erased. Stories are elastic, which is to say that they can always be made
more complete. In order to exist in the world we spin stories about ourselves, and
others and do so more or less imaginatively. It is primarily through these narratives
and the work we undertake in making them sensible that we come to make sense
of ourselves, our relations with others, the world and our place in it. However, we
often find ourselves in the middle of narratives that seem barely coherent and our
106 Reflections on Imagination

attempts to fill in the gaps, with whatever comes to hand – or mind, can be more or
less successful. Sometimes we achieve greater clarity through our sense-making
endeavours while at other times the world continues to mystify.
Avery Gordon (2008: 3), the American sociologist, is right when she says:

That life is complicated may seem a banal expression of the obvious, but it
is nonetheless a profound theoretical statement – perhaps the most important
theoretical statement of our time.

Life is so complex that we inevitably take for granted a great deal of what happens
to us and around us, but sometimes (and the reasons for this are many) we are
held in a kind of hermeneutic suspension while the thought occurs to us, ‘what the
hell is going on here?’ And in this I assume that anthropologists in the field are no
different from anyone else. During these disconcerting moments, sometimes the
invisible takes on a penumbral quality that leads our imagination forward. I have
come to think of this ‘second sense’ as a kind of haunting and my experience in the
field leads me to believe that this might be a common phenomenon.

Ghostly Matters

The narrative gaps I allude to are sometimes haunted by ghosts – the ghosts are
in the gaps. Despite the complexities, occasionally we come to see more clearly.
And it’s our imagination that makes the invisible, visible. Duane Michals (1976),
the American photographer says, ‘I believe in the imagination. What I cannot
see is infinitely more important than what I can see’. In Ghostly Matters (2008),
Gordon brilliantly presents the case for taking hauntings seriously. She focuses on
cruelties such as dispossession, exploitation, repression, and the effects they have
on those who suffer them. She explains that the book

is about haunting, a paradigmatic way in which life is more complicated

than those of us who study it have usually granted. Haunting is a constituent
element of modern social life. It is neither premodern superstition nor individual
psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import. (2008: 7)

Gordon offers detailed re-interpretations of three hauntings: of Sabina Spielren’s

work and relationships, particularly with Freud and Jung, during the early years
of psycho-analysis; of the disappeared in Argentina as represented in Luisa
Valenzuela’s novel Como en la Guerra; and of a child killed by her mother in
order to prevent her being taken back into slavery in nineteenth-century America,
a story recounted in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. Gordon elides established
distinctions, for example between society and individual, abstract and concrete,
between the analytical and the imaginary and between fact and fiction. She is
at pains to emphasise the complexity of social life, and of social differentiation
Hauntings 107

based on race, class and gender. She is concerned primarily with the abused
and disappeared and with their memory. These memories, she argues, must be
honoured because they provide a different sort of knowledge of ‘the things behind
the things’ (it is really the processes involved in getting at ‘the things behind
the things’ that most concern me here). Gordon draws not only on the novel and
biographical writing to explore the idea of haunting, but also on Marx and Freud,
scholars renowned for their attempts to uncover that which is hidden.
Gordon (2008: 8) explains that

Haunting describes how that which appears to be not there is often a seething
presence, acting on and often meddling with taken-for-granted realities, the ghost
is just the sign, or the empirical evidence if you like, that tells you that a haunting
is taking place. The ghost is not simply a dead person, but a social figure, and
investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make
social life.

I find this is inspiring, though my concern is not primarily with oppression and
with sociology as a means of making right social injustice and its consequences.
Rather, my interest in haunting lies in its ubiquity, in its utterly quotidian character.
My immediate aim is to identify haunting as a process through which individuals
are prompted to participate more fully in the stories that contextualise their
lives; in this sense ghosts help us to construct our identity, make sense of our
condition, and therefore to belong. The gist of this admittedly speculative part
of the chapter is that the imagination is not only a skill or quality fundamental
to the innovative construction of other worlds, but is also central to the human
endeavour of constructing this one. In citing Gordon I should also at least mention
Heonik Kwon’s excellent Ghosts of War in Vietnam (2008), which draws on both
Durkheim’s sociology of religion and Simmel’s theory of the stranger, and also
Ladd’s The Ghosts of Berlin (1998), which dwells on the materiality of memory:
the book begins ‘Berlin is a haunted city’. Each of these has contributed to my
thinking in this chapter, although in rather different ways.
In terms of the nature of ghosts, we can usefully return to Casey’s
phenomenological approach to imagination. I mentioned earlier that imagination,
according to Casey, is characterised by three pairs of more or less contrasting
traits of which indeterminacy and pure possibility are of particular significance.
Indeterminacy signifies a lack of strictly specifiable form or content and may refer
either to a radically indeterminate background or aura, surrounding particular
imagined objects (unlike in perception) or to a sort of indeterminacy characterising
the imagined objects themselves, in so far as they never presented themselves
as entirely determinate (Casey 1973: 37). Pure possibility is the most critically
important characteristic of imagination according to Casey, primarily because it
is the primary thetic character of the entire object phase (Casey 1973: 111). By
‘thetic character’ he means the character or quality that consciousness lends its
objects as an expression, its attitude towards their existential status. There are four
108 Reflections on Imagination

thetic characters, or posited properties: ‘real’, ’unreal’, ‘necessary’ and ‘possible’ –

each of which might be used to designate an object’s actual ontological status, that
is, its mode of existence considered independently of how it is regarded by the
human subject. When I posit a thing as unreal, I regard it as being unreal. This
does not mean that it is in fact unreal – a distinction between thetic and ontological
properties is always possible. To posit a thetic character or quality in something is
to impute that character or quality to the thing. In perceiving for example, I impute
empirical reality to whatever I perceive. It is less than helpful, then, to ask whether
ghosts are real – as if it was a simple question (Kwon 2008).

Haunting and the Play of Absence and Presence

The imagination … is that which enables us, by a voluntary effort, to conceive

the absent as if it were present. (JS Mill 1985/1838)

Nothing, neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever
simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of
traces. (Jacques Derrida 1981: 26)

Reading Gordon’s work prompted me to look again through my field-notes. And

regardless of the field – British Quakers, Kenyan Quakers, local government
employees facing job loss, doctors and nurses, hospital chaplains and volunteers –
I found individuals hinting at what they almost knew, obliquely to blurred images,
and half-understood references – to grey figures whose agency was never entirely
apparent. Sometimes, there is no direct reference, sometimes a reference is
marked by asides or passing comments such as ‘I’ve just realised that …’, ‘There’s
something going on, but I’m not sure what’, ‘They’re up to something’ – each
signifying a haunting and prompting imaginative work that at first I failed to see.
Bakhtin calls these utterances ‘corner of your eye’ since they note phenomena on
the margins of perception.
Finding compelling examples of the kind of thing I am describing and which
can be presented briefly is not so easy. For the sake of brevity and coherence I shall
present just a few examples from two fieldwork sites. Later, I’ll present a couple
of cases from research undertaken with local government employees on Teesside
but will first discuss examples from research among British Quakers. Re-reading
my field-notes, both Meeting (the Quaker community or congregation) and the
meeting house seem alive with ghostly forms, with the presence of those who are
generally assumed to be absent. And the agency of those who are absent becomes
increasingly transparent both in the talk of individuals and also in the material
culture of the building. According to Toni Morrison (quoted in Gordon 2008: 17):
‘invisible things are not necessarily not-there’.
The first case: Ladd describes the ghosts that inhabit the city of Berlin,
reminding us that, far from being a static backdrop, the built environment is
Hauntings 109

dynamic and generates meanings which are emergent in the interactions between
people and place. As he says: ‘Memories often cleave to the physical settings
of events. That is why buildings and places have so many stories to tell’ (Ladd
1998: 1). Similarly, the Dibdenshaw meeting house is a dynamic phenomenon,
though more intimate in scale. I occasionally heard participants commenting on
the structure of the meeting house itself and despite some familiarity with Quaker
faith and practice, I myself wondered why it was designed as it was. Chatting with
others after meeting for worship, Graham, who had just moved into the area having
attended meeting elsewhere, commented that the meeting room was quite different
to others he had visited and wondered why that might be. Several of those in
earshot replied, attempting an explanation, comment, or joke. The building, unlike
many meeting houses, is modern (built in 1969), one part has a flat roof (which
seemed odd to me, given the average rainfall of the region), while the meeting room
had a soaring roof line quite out of keeping with the vernacular style generally
adopted by Quaker meeting houses. Discussions with participants on these issues
were interesting in that it was clear that they were making the same attempts to
understand the space as I was myself. These were clearly interpretations, and were
often imaginative attempts at ‘gap-filling’. Rooting around in the small library
one day I came across a set of ground plans for the meeting house. I eventually
managed to track down the architect, now semi-retired and living in a nearby
town. He had lots to say about the meeting house that he had completed more than
20 years before. The flat roof, he remembered, was a means of saving money at a
time when the project was going over budget. He explained that the structure of the
building was determined partly by finances agreed upon by the Borough Council
Treasurer and the Committee of local Quakers to which he was accountable – and
partly by himself as architect, who by his own admission was guided in his design
by ambient social trends: ‘well – it was the 60s … lots of brick, lots of glass’. And
the meeting room’s striking roof? Well, he recalled considerable influence exerted
by a local Quaker who ‘had some position of authority in the meeting’ (I later
discovered that he was chair of the committee responsible for the construction of
the meeting house). Charles, another ghost, had ‘very clear ideas’ about what was
required: he was keen that the meeting house should not be ‘overwhelmed’ by the
parish church, which stands behind it – and so the architect came up with a design
that was striking – and cheap – based on a very simple geometrical ‘trick’. Charles
was also behind the plan to include as many rooms as possible in the building –
he was adamant (I heard) that the meeting house could bring in substantial funds
from letting out rooms – so the more rooms the better. The conversation went on,
and at each turn I felt as though I was conjuring up ghosts – the architect, who
few Quakers had ever met and who had nothing to do with the building or the
meeting after the official opening more than 20 years before; Charles, who was,
according to the few surviving Quakers that knew him well, a dominant character
in the meeting at the time, whose preferences are manifest in the shape and fabric
of the building. The presence of Charles and other influential members was more
or less felt by participants of the meeting each time they entered the building. I had
110 Reflections on Imagination

heard mention of Charles’s name on a number of occasions, usually meeting with

a blank response from those present in the conversation. But a haunting might be
recognised in that moment when two older members would glance at one another,
raise their eyebrows, or smile knowingly and gently shake their heads. Ghosts,
then, are not equally absent (or present) to all.
The second case: hauntings were manifest not only during talk (and the
influence of past and present Friends saturated conversations) but also in the ways
in which people moved around the building, their manner of touching, hearing,
smelling and tasting things. I recall two elderly members genteelly sniffing the air
near the kitchen, smiling and moving on. I asked them later why they did this, and
they replied with one voice, ‘Rosemary!’ It seems that the daughter of a member
who had died 10 years before was making a pie that they identified as her mother’s
recipe. One of the two went on to say that the smell brought her old friend to
mind as clearly as if she was standing in front of her – and began to reminisce.
Provisioning is an important part of Quaker life and such contributions are much
appreciated and remembered. They are woven into the narratives of meeting.
The third case: one spring evening I took part in a discussion at the meeting
house which during later conversations was referred to as ‘the John Lennon
talk’. The facilitator began by taking us to stand in front of a poster donated
by a participant in meeting who by then had left. It related to the Quaker Peace
Testimony. We were asked to imagine what the world would be like if there were
no wars. We did our best to do as asked but the conversation kept slipping back
to the woman who had donated the poster – we tried to imagine what she would
be doing now – and recalled those things she was involved in when she was a
participant at Dibdenshaw. As the conversation wore on it became increasingly
clear that the group was not simply remembering or recalling an old Friend, but
bringing her back into the present through a co-operative imaginative effort. As we
settled down to a moment’s silence, someone said ‘I feel as though Jenny is right
here with us’; hauntings elide distinctions between the now and then, the here and
there (Wylie 2007).
The fourth case: I wondered for some time why the library, a room on the
first floor of the meeting house where I conducted fieldwork for two years, was
treated rather differently to other spaces in the building, with a kind of reverence.
This room seemed far smaller than it was on account of the large, heavy oak table
that occupied most of the space. Only after more than a year did I become aware
that the room was haunted. Sitting with an elderly Quaker, waiting for a meeting
to start, I commented on the table and Ethel said, in a matter-of-fact way, ‘Yes,
Donald’s right here, with us’. And it wasn’t hard to imagine this, after she told me
a little more about him. The table, it transpired, was painstakingly refurbished and
donated to the meeting almost 50 years before by Donald, her late husband, and a
much-loved and highly respected member of the meeting, whose ghost continued
to inform opinion among older members. Ghosts, I have discovered, are often
conjured up from the immediate environment. In fact, the built environment of
the meeting house including books, posters, toys, ephemera, paintings, flora and
Hauntings 111

so forth, resonates with the ghosts of many Friends, past and present. Even when
largely mundane, hauntings can provoke awe and wonder, anxiety and even fear,
and spectral places become places of affect.
The fifth case: a few years ago I was involved in a project which tracked the
responses of local government workers to local government reorganisation (LGR),
which involved the scrapping of Cleveland County Council and the transfer of its
services to the constituent borough councils reconstituted as Unitary Authorities –
a process recently suffered in the county of Durham by the way. We were explicitly
interested in the way that employees constructed the meaning of ‘stress’.
I interviewed 16 employees every eight weeks or so during the course of LGR
(about two years), some from the County and others from the ‘about-to-become’
Unitary Authorities. I have space here to present two (rather different) cases.
Maisie was an excellent participant who turned up punctually for every interview
and who was the only interviewee to maintain a ‘stress diary’ for the entire
duration of the project. She was an engaging conversationalist, who enjoyed her
job – which was protected. This meant that she had no worries about redundancy.
By the end of the first interview I wondered what we would talk about – and then
I read the first pages of her diary. Although her writing was clear I could sense
that there was a source of anxiety that was implicit from the first few sentences.
As the months passed, it turned out that her husband (who worked for a large local
company) had been selected for fast-track promotion that involved transfer to the
US. It became increasingly clear that this was a source of considerable stress for
his wife. I could have imagined a haunting, a penumbral figure but at the time
was insensitive to it. During the fourth interview Maisie mentioned in passing the
name of a colleague of her husband whom she couldn’t trust. To elide many pages
of ethnographic notes, it became increasingly apparent to Maisie, and therefore
to me, that this man, who continued to remain a rather shadowy figure during
interviews, was planted in her husband’s company in order to lure him to the
American post. In the final two interviews I learned a considerable amount about
the way large, transnational corporations organise at the micro level.
The sixth and final case: the second case taken from the LGR/Stress project
involves a middle-aged woman, Liz, whose job was also protected but which was
a continual source of considerable stress, for a number of reasons. According to
Liz, her immediate problem, she explained, were all those ‘clients’ who came
to the front desk of her housing office and ‘hounded her almost to death’.
I visited her workplace and understood what she meant – queues of people at her
counter, her colleague off sick ‘as usual’, the phones both ringing which remained
unanswered. She complained about ‘unsympathetic management’, and cutbacks
that meant new staff could not be appointed to vacant posts. During our third
conversation, Liz began to tell me about her life at home. She lived with her
husband who was on long-term sick leave, and intermittently with her daughter
and infant granddaughter, who ‘swanned around the place, contributing nothing’.
Liz wept as she admitted that ‘time was running out’ and that ‘only time would
tell’. I imagined a vaguely defined figure, one that had remained absent from our
112 Reflections on Imagination

conversations, lurking in the shadows – but had little idea of its identity. Only
during our seventh interview did I catch a glimpse of the ghost that haunted Liz
and, increasingly, our ethnographic interactions. She began to talk about ‘the
demon drink’ during our seventh interview (after 14 hours of conversation) and it
became apparent that this was what haunted Liz. She drank heavily in the evening,
always alone. She spoke at length about her drinking and began increasingly to
present alcohol as agential: ‘it has me in its grip’, ‘the booze sort of creeps up on
me’. Liz was on the point of admitting to herself that she was an alcoholic and that
it was the heavy drinking that most concerned her in her life – this she came to
identify as the source of stress in her life – not an effect but a cause. We must allow
ourselves to imagine that the ghost can take many forms.
In presenting these six cases, I hope to have conveyed various hauntings, which
involve the participation of those who are simultaneously visible and invisible.
While they were noted in what might be thought of ‘a religious environment’, they
do not represent a specifically religious phenomenon, neither are they obviously
political in the way that the examples presented by Gordon, Kwon and Ladd are.
Simply, the narrative gaps, spaces, lacunae are completed or repaired, most often,
by the prompting of ghosts. These hauntings, as I call them, are usually made
conscious through the conduit of the imagination of individuals going about their
everyday lives, though their origin is more or less mysterious. Ghosts may be
present to some but rarely to all. That is why their appearance (or emergence)
can be startling. They may be entirely visible to some who may or may not seek
to reveal their presence. They may be transformed from the apparitional through
the concerted efforts of participants, or through ‘spirit guides’, individuals who
are familiar with their haunting presence. Gordon (2008: 22) writes: ‘Conjuring
is a particular form of calling up and calling out the forces that make things what
they are in order to fix and transform a troubling situation’. In this context, the
‘troubling situation’ is the sense that the narrative with which one is engaged
is disrupted and therefore disruptive. In each case, the conjuring up of a ghost
generates the sense-making activities I argue are central to social life.

Concluding Remarks

Cultural geographers Maddern and Adey (2008: 293) describe their sub-discipline
(spectral geography) in these terms: ‘… ghostly geographies may be read as
ways to understand the kaleidoscopic modes of experiencing uncanny agencies,
unforeseen events and a morphology of almost there-ness’; a felicitous turn of
phrase that might equally describe my endeavours in this chapter, so long as one
recalls the import of narrative in comprehending these ‘uncanny agencies’.
I began with the claim that human action is enacted narrative, and after a
brief introduction to imagination I went on to present two ways in which
anthropologists might accommodate or assimilate this rather peculiar process. The
first, as a substantive area of study, represented by the classificatory approach of
Hauntings 113

James Preston; and the second, my own contribution, closely allied to an acceptance
that narrative and the process of constructing narratives is central to human life. One
might argue that the chapter is methodological in so far as it bears on the practice
of ethnography. On various occasions I have heard ethnographers, anthropologists
and others claim that they are engaged in a sort of detective work. However, the
comparison is partial, in that the ethnographer (unlike the detective) need not
be reduced to one simply trying to uncover ‘hard facts’ which are temporarily
hidden and waiting to be discovered, ‘out there’ ‘in the real world’. My fieldwork,
including that among Quakers and local government employees, leads me to believe
that ethnography is primarily an imaginative act in which we are to a greater or
lesser degree, along with our research participants, ghost-hunting. However, what
I am arguing extends beyond the methodological, in so far as I am trying to the
draw attention to the significance of agents whose ontology is ambiguous, that
come and go, appear in the corner of our eye, that are spectral and hard to grasp.
Ghost hunting directs us not only towards things that have passed but also to that
which is still to come. I have found them easy to miss, even though all of them
figured prominently in the narratives constructed by those among whom I lived.
These narratives are generated and sustained, in part, by the imagined hauntings,
experiences by people going about their daily lives and I suggest that this is true far
beyond the confines of the cases I present. Perhaps the two most important parts
of sense making are the identification of significant narratives and our attempts to
plug holes in those narratives. And in this regard an awareness of ghostly presence
reaches beyond the allegorical, the metaphorical (Maddern and Adey 2008: 292).
While the relationship between imagination and haunting is complex, this process
is, I argue, an imaginative process, that is itself inherently social and generative of
relationships, a facet of imagination that has been largely overlooked. Just like the
person on the Clapham omnibus, we expend considerable energy attending to gaps
in narrative continuity and in doing so use many of the same skills, tricks, ploys,
and prestidigitations. An anthropological imagination can be cultivated, though
some of us, as we would surely expect, are more sensitive to hauntings than others.


I would like to thank the participants at seminars at the Anthropology departments

at the universities of St Andrews, Aberdeen and Durham for their helpful attempts
to improve earlier drafts of this chapter.


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Imagination, Materiality
and Consciousness


The two chapters in this section consider the nature of the knowledge that the
imagination delivers. How does it relate to the material world? Do the social and
physical structures of the environment in which human beings live limit what can
be imagined within them? What does personal consciousness entail in a social
context? Is it a realm to which ethnography can do justice?
In ‘Reflections on the Encounters of the Imagination: Ontology, Epistemology
and the Limits of the Real in Anthropology’, Mattia Fumanti asserts that the
imagination needs to be recognised as a universal ontological faculty, one that
is crucial for a human knowing of the world and for establishing oneself as an
individual within it. Fumanti’s ambition, however, is to attempt a synthesis between
divergent theorizations: Aristotle’s idea of imagination as the human faculty that
permits human beings to know the world through reason and the senses, as distinct
from Sartre’s ideas of imagination as crucial for a human consciousness that
transcendentally frees itself from the limits of the real. Hence Fumanti considers
the relation between imagination, freedom and the senses. He does so by looking
at the ways in which anthropologists and informants alike construct their specific
knowledge of the social world, more especially Namibia. Here, the heavy price
paid in the past by activist members of SWAPO (South West Africa People’s
Organisation) during the days of Apartheid has to be imagined, as, equally, does
the way in which Kwaito and gospel music might contribute to making new
gendered subjectivities in the context of an AIDs pandemic. Fumanti’s conclusion
is that imagination offers the anthropologist and his or her informants alike the
possibility to constitute, know and place the self in a world beyond the limits of
the real.
In ‘Granite and Steel’, Andrew Irving explores the relationship between the
thinking, feeling and imagining human body and New York’s industrial architecture,
infrastructure and buildings. The chapter takes as its primary fieldwork site the
enormous granite, steel and concrete suspension bridges that cross New York’s East
River and connect Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens. Towering 300 feet into the
air and 7000 feet across, the building of these bridges established a new sense of
scale against which citizens could imagine and compare their finite, organic bodies
and everyday lives. Irving uses a combination of writings, art, found fragments
118 Reflections on Imagination

and ‘practice-based’ ethnography to argue that bridges may be seen as complex

sites of existential concern, creative imagination and emotional reverie; also that
they generate streams of interior dialogue and imaginative reverie that range
from the trivial to the tragic. When walking across a bridge people are no longer
attached to the land or part of the city but are instead partially in the sky above
the water. Bridges can be said to ‘make strange’ the sense of being on the ground,
and to subject people to various delirious effects including vertigo, flying, and
falling before they reach the other side. Drawing on New York Stories, a project
of Irving’s in which he recorded the private monologues of random strangers as
they walked across the bridges and spoke their thoughts to themselves, the chapter
takes the form of a photo-essay with accompanying text. Through these ‘found’
words and images, Irving attempts to capture the complex streams of mood and
imagination that lie beneath the surface of social life and that human beings, in
their freedom, are continuously inhabiting.
Chapter 7
Reflections on the Encounters of the
Imagination: Ontology, Epistemology and
the Limits of the Real in Anthropology
Mattia Fumanti

In this chapter I will explore the ways imagination can offer human beings new
capacities to constitute, know and locate themselves in the world beyond the limits
of the real. Anthropology, as a set of representations and practices, has long been
the space of imagination. Margaret Mead (1977), for example, reminds us that
anthropology has always had a long engagement with imagination: ‘Anthropology
demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in
astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess’
(1977: ix). This ability to move and reconstitute itself beyond its ontological and
epistemological horizons permeates anthropology and makes it perhaps true to
its own definition as the ‘reasoning’ about human kind or even better reasoning
about the transformative nature of the human condition. In a recent work entitled
Imaginative Horizons Vincent Crapanzano (2004) recaptures this dimension by
looking at the ways in which human beings creatively construct human experience.
In exploring the roles that creativity and imagination play in our experience of
the world Crapanzano argues that imaginative horizons are the blurry boundaries
that separate the here and now from what lies beyond, in time and space. These
horizons, he argues, influence both how we experience our lives and interpret
those experiences.
Building on Crapanzano’s insights, my argument will look at the work of
Aristotle and Jean-Paul Sartre whose ideas can advance in different ways our
discipline’s commitment to imagination. In particular I consider Aristotle’s concept
of phantasia, that is, the human faculty of knowing the world through both reason
and the senses (1953; 1986). Sartre’s concept of imagination remains crucial for
a human consciousness that is free from the limits of the real (1972). I will look
at different examples from my fieldwork conducted in Namibia to illustrate the
ways in which people employ imagination to think of the world around them and
use it to move beyond the limits of lived reality. At the same time, I will explore
with my own examples how anthropologists, when entering the field reconstitute
themselves, and their experiences through their imagination. In this ethnographic
encounter of the imagination/s I argue we as anthropologists should recognise
imagination as an intersubjective concept in an emotive and an existential sense.
120 Reflections on Imagination

What I am arguing here is for a renewed emphasis on relationality. If we take

relationality as the core of the human condition, and imagination as that which
allows humans to rethink relations between the limits of what they perceive as
real, then we can possibly argue that when human beings (re-)imagine the world
they (re-)imagine it through relations and/or through the absence of them. Then
we as anthropologists must surely do the same. If not, we limit our ethnographic
encounters to a matter of adjacency (Rabinow 2008), or a simple choice between
practice and theory. Instead we should reconstitute our role as anthropologists
through the use of an imagination that should be relational rather than adjacent.
This is because imagination requires, in Aristotelian terms, the location of the self
in a moral world.
In the rest of this chapter I will develop this argument by recalling a number of
encounters of the imagination I had in the field. Through these encounters I will
show the simultaneous intertwining and juxtaposition of imaginations, mine and
that of my friends and research participants. Different moments in my fieldwork,
I will show, reflect changes in my real and perceived position with friends and
research participants; I was drawn into the imaginary world of others. Whilst at
times I was openly encouraged to imagine in other circumstances I was, as it were,
captured by their imaginations. The two ethnographic cases discussed here will
bring to bear, albeit in different ways, the complexity of positioning oneself in the
field and with it the often times inevitable process of drawing and being drawn in
the construction of the world, moral or otherwise, through the use of imagination.
I will convey the process of imagining the world through several ethnographic
encounters that I call snapshots. These snapshots conjure up the vivid perceptual
qualities of moments from my fieldwork, which I have conducted in Namibia
between 1999 and 2013. I will further illustrate them through a discussion of two
photographs, which will be used to provoke in the reader an imaginary process.
These photographs do not stand as the frozen picture of a person, a place or a
moment in time. On the contrary they become similar to our ethnographic writing,
the very object they represent through an imaginary process. These photographs
act like Sartre’s ‘analogue’ (1972), which he argues is required for the imaginary
process to occur, that is, the mental equivalent of perception. This can be a
painting, a photograph, a sketch, or even the mental image we conjure when we
think of someone or something. Through a process Sartre calls ‘radical conversion’
the object in question loses its own sense and takes on the sense of the object
it represents (1972: xiv). We come to see it in a new way as an ‘analogue’. In
my examples the photographs of my friends cease being merely colours on paper
and instead stand in for my absent friends. I then come to ascribe the feelings I
have about my friends to the picture of them. Thus, an ‘analogue’ can take on
new qualities based on our own intention towards it. So the reader is invited to
reflect on these images, and my explanation and narrative of them, using their
anthropological imagination. I hope that my approach will raise a series of ethical,
epistemological and methodological questions on the role of imagination in our
discipline and the role and limits of our ethnographic practices.
Reflections on the Encounters of the Imagination 121

Snapshot 1: Rundu, Northern Namibia, 2000

Many times in the course of my first field research in Rundu, a small-town in

Northern Namibia, more than a decade ago, I was asked ‘to imagine’. When
recounting the apartheid years, with the violence exerted by the South African
army, and the suffering people endured, or even when I conversed with
people about their failed expectations for a true revolution in the first decade
of independence, friends, research participants and ordinary citizens I met on
the streets, in the shops, and in the bars, always concluded their stories with
an emphatic ‘imagine’. ‘Imagine’, Ms C. said to me, a local educationalist and
prominent member of the Rundu educated elite (Fumanti 2006; 2007), when
recalling her difficult times in secondary school ‘our teacher, a South African
soldier, was fond of telling us, “I can see it in your eyes, none of you would ever
become a pilot”‘. She would pause and shaking her head in disbelief she would
conclude with ‘Imagine’. ‘Imagine’, Mr N. said to me, another member of the
Rundu educational elite, when describing graphically the torture he had to endure
at the hand of the South African security forces the night the police came to pick
him up from home:

they came and took me to their base at the airport … they blindfolded me …
they took me into a room, they sat me down and then attached this wire onto
my fingers, my hands and my testicles … then someone started turning a
small lever and the electricity shocked got me … Bam … My whole body was
shaking … Imagine!

And finally ‘imagine’, Mr P. would say to me, a local school inspector, who had
complained many times in the course of our conversations about the persistent
socio-and economic inequalities in post-apartheid Namibia. His criticism was
directed mostly to the local white business elite of Portuguese and Afrikaner
speakers who, according to him and others in Rundu, had never wanted to engage
relationally with the local community. For Mr P. their total disengagement was
most striking, among other things, in the lack of knowledge of the vernacular:

You see these people here they don’t care. Some of them have been here since
the 1970s they don’t speak a single word of Ru-Kwangali or any other language
here. For them they think that if they speak another language they will destroy
their own culture … can you imagine? I have not only lost my culture, but also
my name [laughter] and my identity … so how can’t [sic] they not lose a bit of
their culture in order to become Namibian? [This time stressing each letter] …
can you I-M-A-G-I-N-E?

And so ‘imagine’ became for me the verb that epitomised a mode of engagement
and of being in the course of my field research. It became my way to understand
the world around me and to locate myself in it. Imagining their experiences helped
122 Reflections on Imagination

me to be relational not only in the widely accepted sense of relating to people

through sharing activities, the classical tenet of ethnographic fieldwork, but also
through the process of imagining alongside my informants what life was like
and or will it be like. In this way, my anthropological understanding emerged
from these encounters of the imagination. It was both a means and an object of
anthropological investigation; and perhaps most importantly a way to position
myself in the field and in my friends’ moral and existential worlds.
Here I want to go back for a moment to these examples from my early
fieldwork in Namibia. What is it that people wanted me to imagine? Why did
they think that I had to imagine what they were telling me? Weren’t their stories
compelling enough? Was the horror and traumatic experiences they were telling
me only comprehensible through the force of imagination? One obvious answer
would be that I had not witnessed what they saw. I did not live through it. I did not
live through these founding experiences in these men’s and women’s lives. These
were SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation) activists who during the
last days of apartheid had been arrested; they had demonstrated and supported the
liberation struggle against the South African regime and had paid a heavy price for
it. They were part of a generation whose consciousness had been formed during
the struggle, through political activism and the experiences of schooling in an
apartheid educational system (Fumanti 2007). I had not lived through these times
and despite the visible signs of the South African army’s occupation left in Rundu
in the buildings and the names of the town districts, in places such as ‘Kaisosi’
(you are looking for trouble), or ‘Kehemu’ (whatever) – which constituted a visible
and sensuous landscape of memories – and despite my friends’ compelling stories
and also my best efforts to be knowledgeable, it seemed that there was always
something I could not grasp if I did not make use of my imagination. To imagine
in a word helped me to make sense of people’s experiences and to locate myself in
a world of meaningful relations beyond the visible and the tangible world offered
to me by the senses; by what was real and tangible in front of my eyes. People’s
explicit invitations ‘to imagine’ were uttered not only so that I could comprehend
their experiences and their implicit ways through which they imagined. They also
became a way to establish relations between us, so that I could understand the
ways in which they were making their own relations. Imagination in those first
years after apartheid, not that Namibians have lost in the meantime the capacity to
imagine, was a very powerful process. It was an individual and collective effort at
nation-building and at coming to terms with the violent past of the apartheid era in
order to rebuild the world through, among other things, the prism of imagination.
The invitation to imagine I received in Namibia in 2000 was also a way for people
to reflect on the past, the present and the future; to reflect on the ways their lives
had moved on from oppression to freedom and personal accomplishment. When
Ms C. invited me to imagine she wasn’t simply asking me to imagine the past,
she wanted me to reflect on the present, on her current position as a regional
educational director. It was as if she was saying look at me now. Imagine where
Reflections on the Encounters of the Imagination 123

I was and see what I am now. Imagine the ways I was making relations then and
how I make relations now. She invited me to think, to make use of my reasoning
through imagination. Her invitation to imagine, like for other people, was, I want
to argue, an invitation to comprehend her present life and her relations; and very
importantly it was an invitation into the relational and affective world she had
weaved around her through her accomplishment as a distinguished educationalist
and as a war widow and mother of four children. And I will come back to Ms C. in
a moment.
I think here would be important to consider my discussion so far and offer
perhaps a reflection. If, as I have argued, imagination remains important to think
through things and to think through relations, perhaps to paraphrase Claude
Lévi-Strauss (1963) imagination is good to think with, it is also true that without
the direct experience of my informants’ lives, the knowledge of their biographies
and without my engagement with their imagination I would have not been able to
make sense of the world around me simply through the work of my imagination.
I want to illustrate further this point by considering for a moment Aristotle’s
work on imagination in relation to the first of my two photographs. Aristotle
argued that to speak of imagination means to recognise the capacity of humans
for creating or recognising images. Aristotle’s word for imagination is phantasia
(φαντασία), ‘phantasia is that in virtue of which we say that a phantasma occurs
to us’ (1986: III.3, 428a1). Phantasia in Greek comes from phos (ϕῶς), light,
and phantasma (φαντασµα), the images evoked by our imagination. In the literal
sense of the term, images are involved in the process of imagination – either
through the passive reception of after-images or through the active production
of images. In Aristotle then phantasia occurs after sensory perception. And this,
according to Aristotle, remains central to the way people make sense of the
world. Most importantly for Aristotle imagination is steeped in reasoning and
in sensory perceptions. Aristotle’s phantasia can only exist alongside phronesis
(φρόνησις), the human faculty for practical reason and moral discernment.
Aristotle defines phronesis in the Nicomachean Ethics (1953) as ‘the rational
faculty exercised for the attainment of truth in things that are humanly good
and bad’ (1953: 177). This definition suggests that phronesis as an intellectual
virtue, is a state which allows the individual who attains it to be able to ascertain
what is good for humankind. The pairing of imagination with practical thinking
in Aristotle’s thought helps to ground individuals firmly within a moral world
and has important implication for a discussion of ethics in anthropology and
beyond. If we understand imagining as a process of entering into the moral
world of our research participants, I think that the powerful request to imagine
I received in the course of my research was also an invitation to partake in
their moral world. It was as if they were saying: ‘locate yourself into our moral
world of meaningful relations that were, before independence, and are, in post-
independence Namibia, opposed to the amoral world of the apartheid regime and
of the white racist minority in Rundu, or perish’. As one of my friends warned
124 Reflections on Imagination

Figure 7.1 ‘Ode to an educationalist’

Source: Courtesy of Ms C., Namibia, 2009

me the night he saw me conversing in a bar with an Afrikaner businessman, ‘Do

not associate yourself with these people, you know these white people … People
here will not be happy’. These encounters of the imagination denote a realm of
significant ontological and existential meaning.
And I ask the reader to further reflect on this point, and so in Aristotle terms to
imagine, in relation to a photograph that Ms C. showed me in the course of a return
visit to Namibia in 2009, when she was the regional director of education for the
Otjozondjupa region. Ms C. is much praised by her peers for her moral qualities,
her work ethics and great human empathy. On the occasion of her resignation
from the post of Deputy Director of Education for the Kavango region, Ms S., a
long-term friend and member of the Rundu educational elite, composed a poem in
her honour. In it she praised Ms C.’s life as an educationalist and her contribution
to the development of the Kavango region and of Namibia at large. The ode is
printed on a poster with a picture of Ms C. holding one of her university degrees.
I provide below a full version of this poem because it captures Ms C.’s educational
Reflections on the Encounters of the Imagination 125

elite’ career pattern as seen from her fellow elite educationalists and also because
it captures their ‘sentimento’ in Pareto’s sense (1901; 1981), the moral values that
move the elites into action.

Namutenya ZaSinkeva

The beginning of her schooling career was in Sarusungu,

Later she was educated by Ndjamu, then
in Rundu, Mukuve and Haita sharpened her knowledge.
While in High School Nango and Kemba helped you achieve
In Windhoek Sinkeva, you just excelled

Mom you have a golden heart that’s like a rock.

Your thoughts all the time are about lifting your country.
Truly you carry the community of Kavango on your shoulders
You are so committed to Education, that it is as if you were carrying it on your
For it, you forget hunger and thirst.
For it, you forget how it feels to be tired.
For it, you do not know the difference between night and day.
For you Education is a matter of Life or Death.
God always repays people like you
and he lifts those that fear him
your struggles have become your ladder.
The ladder of life for us all

Your absence from our Kavango community,

Should not be like an axe without its iron
that is thrown into the deep side of the river
But it will be like a seed that has been planted with hope.
So that when it is ready people should find life in it.

Mom Namutenya your work should go smooth!

Mom Namutenya your thoughts should become sharper!
Yes, it is true as they say ‘that rabbits never stay in the same place’
But this is also good so that our community will always have a pillar to lean on
(Someone to look up to)

To think of imagination as an ontological project built onto the construction of

a distinctive moral world becomes central to anthropology as a discipline and
to the ways people make sense of the world around them. Imagination here is
strongly associated with emotions and feelings. It is in this sense also associated
with the idea of freedom in the capacity to relocate oneself in the world beyond
126 Reflections on Imagination

the constriction of the real. I will explain the relationship between ontology and
freedom through the second ethnographic snapshot.

Snapshot 2: Rundu, Northern Namibia, 2006

Imagine wasn’t always an explicit request. I did not have to be told that the youth
members of the Shinyewile Club, a youth club I actively joined throughout my
fieldwork, were imagining a different future for their country when they were
criticising the local and national elites for their lack of political vision and
incapacity to command the language of officialdom (Fumanti 2007b; 2011). I did
not have to be told that they were imagining their future role in politics when they
would address each-other as ‘Ombudsman’, ‘Mr President’, ‘Your Excellency’
out of fun or that they were longing for the traditional recognition within their
matriclan or the community when they were addressing each one as ‘tate kuru’,
old father, a title reserved to elderly men, or ‘hompa’, chief, or even ‘esimbi’,
head of the matriclan; or when they put together the Shinyewile youth club and
took great care in its procedures, in its language of officialdom, and in drafting
its constitution. They were making use of their imagination to establish relations,
replace themselves beyond the constraints of the reality that surrounded them and
from which they were excluded because of their age, despite their qualifications
and perceived command of the language of officialdom, in comparison with their
leaders (Fumanti 2007b).
In the course of my more recent research trips to Rundu I continued to work
with young people. In 2006 I started to explore the role of popular culture in a
postcolonial context building on Barber (1997). I was interested especially in the
role of music in the making of subjectivities (Behrend 2002; Weiss 2002; 2009)
and for reimagining society in contemporary Namibia. My main concern was how
music and the construction of gender in relation to religion and the making of
a moral world in a time of HIV-AIDS pandemic. Namibia had been hit hard by
the AIDS pandemic with, in 2006, the number of infections set in the high 20s
percentile. The Kavango region, of which Rundu is the administrative capital, had
one of the highest infection rates. Over the years I have lost many of my friends to
AIDS. In 2006 we travelled to the burial of one of the members of the Shinyewile
Club. This was a highly emotional moment for all of us. I was particularly upset,
because I was not able to travel the year before to attend the funeral of a very
good friend.
So I became interested in how music, in particular Namibian Kwaito and gospel
music, contributed to the making and unmaking of gendered subjectivities in the
context of the AIDS pandemic. But whilst Kwaito, a form of hip-hop imported
from South Africa (Steingo 2005; Peterson 2003), seemed to reproduce the images
of powerful and hard masculinities, of conspicuous consumption and violence so
popular and well established in the hip-hop repertoire world-wide; gospel music
in Namibia was central in trying to reimagine a world that appeared as a hopeless
Reflections on the Encounters of the Imagination 127

procession of burials, deaths, mourning and broken youthful aspirations (for a

comparison with Botswana see Kleits 2010). And so it was for a group of young
gospel artists I met in Rundu in January 2006. They were engaged, they told me,
in bringing the good word through their music; and to save youth from a hopeless
future. They were imagining a new place for young Namibians, one with jobs,
resources and realised ambitions, and an end to the moral decay they saw as the
cause for so many deaths. Their process of reimagining Namibia was one full of
moral reasoning and ethical values.
I spent some time in 2006 with these young, hopeful musicians. I first met one
of them in the Rundu Teachers’ Resource Centre’s library. He told me in the course
of a long conversation that he wanted to talk about youth problems through his
lyrics. The problems ‘the youth are facing in Rundu today’, he said convincingly.
‘I have just released an album’, he told me, ‘and it is called Nsigwe, the orphan’.

I am talking about how difficult the life of an orphan is … I have many songs
in the album … in one song I talk about the teenage girls who are pregnant and
their boyfriends who do not want the baby … and they are left alone … how
the Lord can help them through their problems when everything is gone … then
another one is entitled Where Will this Lead Us? … This is about people who
only want and look for possessions, material things, and stuff … and my song
says that when you are dead it does not matter at all … so my songs all have
morals … I am a true Christian … I am a Pentecostal … but it is hard … there
are not many gospel groups in Namibia … only a few in Kavango … may be
six … more Kwaito … people like that … you should come to our recording
studio in town …

I took up his invitation and spent several days in the course of my research in
their studio, Rundu Graphics, which was located, at the time of my research, in
the central town district of Nkarapamwe. Tucked away at the back of the small
open market, the studio was accommodated inside a one room building, what had
once been a small lock room for the market. Inside, behind a desk, Hafeni, the
manager, could always be found typing documents on his desktop’s keyboard; or
laminating papers; or printing photographs for the steady stream of customers.
On his left, towards the back of this small room, a curtain hid what was the music
studio proper. This consisted of a computer desktop and a standing mike. On the
walls several posters of local artists, promotional flyers for past and upcoming
gigs and record covers aimed to give a sense to them and their customers that this,
despite the humble surroundings and the basic equipment, was indeed a serious
and successful studio recording.
Wernelly and Hafeni explained the philosophy of their recording company
called K-Lova, during one of my visits:

we are trying to help the local artists to grow … we do not charge them for
the recordings or for the instruments … this is all part of the service, free of
128 Reflections on Imagination

charge … other places in town, other studios, they charge artists a fortune …
but these are not good places … they are not serious … they want to rob the
artists … we want to help them.

Here, and perhaps to give more weight to his moral argument and to his presentation
of his business’ ethos, preaching came at hand. Hafeni described their work as an
endless battle between good and evil (a theme also addressed by Werbner 2010),
as the struggle between those who want to do well and help others, and those who
do not and who work for the Devil,

God has given us a talent … we need to discover it and utilise it … because he

can take it away from you … we need to help others with that … the problem is,
the Devil is always there … it is a fight with him a constant battle for survival …
the Devil hears what you are doing and want to destroy it.

Throughout my stay customers enter the shop to collect their photocopies, to print
a file or to laminate a document. There is also a stream of hopeful youths. These
are the local artists in the making. And so the shop’s soundscape is filled with
the sounds of popular records played to persuade other hopeful artists to sign a
recording contract with Hafeni’s and Wernelly’s K-Lova. In particular, three of
Wernelly’s hits: ‘Nsigwe’ (the orphan), ‘Kupi Ngatu Itwara’ (where will this lead
us?) and God’s Gift, were played over and over. The ‘deep meaning’ of the songs
would be explained to the potential artists and to myself over and over again. We
would be told of the struggle of the orphan to survive – a direct reference to the
many AIDS orphans’ struggle to overcome adversities – and more generally of
Namibia’s youth struggle to resist against the ‘sins that destroy our country …
jealousy, witchcraft, violence, deaths, teenage pregnancy and AIDS’. ‘These are
all things’, Wernelly said, ‘that will not lead you anywhere but God will provide
for you … he will help you to redeem your life towards success … I am telling
you when people hear my song God’s Gift they start crying’. Alternating promises
of redemption with success is the central message of the gospel of prosperity of
global Pentecostalism (Maxwell 1988; Meyer 2004; 2007; Robbins 2004) and
these youths are no exception. Their narrative is the familiar tale of rag to riches,
in this case more imagined then real, of determination and success in face of
insurmountable adversities, and of the liberating and redeeming power of God,

We are also trying to be successful people in this life and we are trying to help
others … this talent is here to help us wipe off the sweat from our foreheads …
God gave us this [gesturing to indicate the room] … the sweat is dripping on
your head and God is there to wipe it off … it is our talent to achieve success
and not suffer again … we all know suffering … we all have a story to tell. We
all struggled to achieve this … we all struggle to achieve success … we want
success … we want to leave suffering behind.
Reflections on the Encounters of the Imagination 129

Figure 7.2 Studio portrait

Source: Photo by Gellah.

Imagining their own futures, as one of success and possibly of global stardom as
gospel artists they needed help to achieve this. Throughout my visits they explained
that the studio needed refurbishing, ‘we want to expand the building’. They needed
new and proper equipment, ‘at the moment we work with these desktops and
simple software to record and synthesise the music’. Most importantly they needed
contacts with potential investors. At this point my presence became relevant in the
130 Reflections on Imagination

process of imagining their lives, ‘you live in Europe you can bring contacts …
you can tell people about us … help us with our business … some contracts with
people out there … you can bring our music with you …’. When I was about to
leave they asked me take a picture ‘we want to put it in our office, for us to show
other people’. I obliged and stood next to Wernelly. B-Square, another local artist,
joined us. We waited for Hafeni to take the picture with his digital camera. ‘No
Vashe [my nickname]! You need to change pose’, he suggested, as my original
pose was not ‘cool enough’. So I wore my Diesel sunglasses. I put one hand on
my hip and leaned slightly back towards the wall. I raised my thumb and smiled.
Wernelly standing next to me took a hip-hop standard pose: one hand on his crotch;
one foot slightly raised; and right hand out, thumb up and fingers pointing out.
Only B-Square, perhaps to remain true to his name, squared up to the camera with
a stern and serious looks on his face. And so there I was. Despite my persistent
refusal to raise any hope in them, ‘I do not know anyone in Europe … I do not
know any producer or artists … I cannot work for you’ I repeated endlessly. It was
as if in that picture my agency had been, albeit for a fleeting moment denied, and
I had been caught in their imagination. Frozen in a pose, I was a living memento
to the infinite possibilities that my encounter with them could have in their lives.
I became part of their real world as a friend, but I also came to embody the
imagined role they wanted me to fulfil, that of a white European music impresario
who would help them reach the imagined success and stardom and liberate them
from a life of suffering. As religious people they stressed that all this was a plan,
‘I am sure God has a plan for us to have met’ and that picture became the reminder
of that plan. And paradoxically the earlier invitations I received ‘to imagine’ the
suffering of apartheid, came full circle in that picture as a stark reminder of the
ongoing social and economic inequalities and the legacy of racial oppression in
postcolonial Namibia. In that picture I did not have to be told what to imagine.
I was caught in their imaginary world.
Of course these youths were not delusional. They knew I was not a music
impresario. What they were doing, I want to argue, was to ascribe meaning and
emotions to an imaginary world of which I became permanent part of – perhaps for
good measure they printed my nickname on the picture next to theirs. However,
this was, I will argue below, an imaginary process that had the potential to free
them from the confines of their lives.
Here I want to expand this point by going back to Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea
of imagination. For Sartre, as for Aristotle, the process of imagining starts with
perception. It is however very different from perception. For Sartre perception
constitutes the study human beings do of a certain reality through their senses.
This process argues Sartre is however inevitably incomplete. When we observe
a certain reality, an object for example, we can only have a limited view of it
according to the way we are positioned towards it and how much we see of it.
Thus, perception always involves a type of observation that remains in Sartre’s
view limiting. By contrast, for Sartre, imagination is total. In the given reality,
or object, that appears in our imagination, this is given to us at once. However,
Reflections on the Encounters of the Imagination 131

Sartre argues that the image of the object conjured by our imagination does not
teach us anything. This is a synthesis of our knowledge and our intention towards
it (1972: 7–10). Thus, Sartre calls what goes on when we evoke an image, ‘quasi-
observation’ (1972: 5–10). Because these images, or better imaginary objects,
appear to us in a way which is like perception but is not perception, we have a
tendency to treat them as if they were real. That is not to say we are deluded; we
know that they’re imaginary. But we tend to ascribe emotions, traits, and beliefs to
these imaginary objects as if they were real. In short, imaginary objects are what
we intend them to be.
This condition argues Sartre is one of ambiguity. And yet it is ‘in this mixed
and ambiguous condition we have a new sense of freedom, for we realize that it
is within our power to perceive the object before us, the person, in either of two
ways, as what she is and what she is not’ (1972: xiv). Ultimately, Sartre argues
it is precisely because of this capacity to imagine that we can be ontologically
free. This freedom is realised through our ‘imaginative consciousness’. This in
Sartre is always an agentive and creative consciousness, and it is opposed to the
passivity of the ‘perceptual consciousness’, ‘A perceptual consciousness appears
to itself as being passive. An imaginative consciousness, on the contrary, presents
itself to itself as an imaginative consciousness … the consciousness appears to
itself as being creative’ (1972: 14). It is through this creativity, that the imaginary
consciousness must be able to posit an object as irreal – non-existent, absent
and somewhere else. And so, Sartre suggests, that all of our engagements with
the world have the potential to activate the imaginary process. And since the
imaginary process relies on intentionality, the world is constituted not from the
outside into our consciousness, but rather we constitute the world based on our
intentions towards it.
In this sense the youths at Rundu Graphics re-imagined their lives and the
lives of other Namibian youths beyond the constraint of the real through their
music, their work in the studio and their religious preaching. In doing so they
were reconstituting the world in moral and existential terms as a place of success,
boundless possibilities and redemption.


In this chapter I have explored the central role of the imagination in anthropology
at both an epistemological and ontological level. Starting from the recognition that
anthropology is fundamentally relational, I have argued that imagination becomes
central to anthropology’s project of engagement with humanity. Building on the
work of Aristotle and Sartre I showed through two encounters from my fieldwork
in Namibia that imagination is crucial not only to the ways in which our research
participants position themselves in and reconstitute the world they live in; but
it is also crucial to our positioning, engagement and relationship towards them.
In this sense I argued that these encounters must be envisaged as relational not
132 Reflections on Imagination

simply through shared participation in people’s practices but as encounters of

the imaginations, our and that of our friends and research participants. Further,
I showed through a discussion of two images that this remains problematic. By
comparing two pictures from two different moments in my fieldwork, moments
that reflect changes in my real and perceived position with friends and research
participants, I was drawn into the imaginary world of others. Whilst at times
I was openly encouraged to imagine, in other circumstances I was, as it were,
captured in their imaginations. These two examples thus raises issues about the
complexity of positioning oneself in the field, the agency of the fieldworker, and
the ethics of fieldwork, as we face the often times inevitable process of drawing
and being drawn in the construction of the world, moral or otherwise, through the
use of imagination. I hope that in so doing my approach would have stimulated
in the reader a series of ethical, epistemological and methodological reflections
on how an anthropology of imagination might be able to test the boundaries of
our ethnographic practices. Overall, I have sought to show that a focus on the
imagination has the capacity to take anthropology beyond the limits of the real.


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Chapter 8
Granite and Steel
Andrew Irving

We attain to dwelling, so it seems, only by means of building. The latter, building, has
the former, dwelling, as its goal. Still, not every building is a dwelling. Bridges and
hangars, stadiums and power stations are buildings but not dwellings; railway stations
and highways, dams and market halls are built, but they are not dwelling places.
Heidegger (1971: 145)


This chapter explores the relationship between the thinking, moving and
imagining body and the surrounding city’s industrial architecture, infrastructure
and buildings. It takes as its primary fieldwork site the enormous granite, steel and
concrete bridges that dominate New York’s East River and connect Manhattan
to Brooklyn and Queens, namely the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge,
Williamsburg Bridge and 59th Street Bridge. Stretching more than a mile across
and towering 300 feet into the air, the building of these vast suspension and
cantilever bridges introduced a new sense of scale and material durability against
which ordinary citizens might re-imagine their existential concerns, finite life-
spans and organic bodies.
By using a combination of writings, art, found fragments and practice-based
ethnography, the chapter seeks to consider the effect these massive bridges have
on and in people’s imaginations, including the different kinds of emotional reverie
and aesthetic imagery they generate. Walking across New York’s bridges reveals
them to be complex sites of sensing and imagining, for when on a bridge a person
is no longer attached to the land, or the city and is instead located partially in the
sky above the water but beneath the clouds; not quite a small god but no longer
fully a creature of the ground. Mind and body have the potential to be subjected
to various delirious effects, including sensations of flying, falling, calmness,
spirituality and vertigo, before reaching land on the other side.
The intention is to explore the ordinary and extraordinary interactions that
take place on the four bridges and uncover the different effects these massive
industrial structures have on the imaginative and creative practices of New York’s
citizens, including the writings, music and art people left behind, alongside the
more transient trajectories of thought, reverie and imagery that people experience
when they find themselves on, underneath or close to them. It is a story told
through words and images in the form of a photo-essay with accompanying text.
136 Reflections on Imagination

Figure 8.1 Manhattan Bridge

Source: Photograph by author.

(The larger experimental practice-based ethnography is also available in video and

audible form online.)1

1 It is hard, perhaps even impossible, to wholly dislike a bridge. In the 1980s I spent
a summer as a construction worker, working on one of London’s smaller but nevertheless
Granite and Steel 137


Bridges are complex sites of experience and imagination that are not only good to
‘think with’ – for example in terms of how embodied perception and imagination
relate to material structures that are much larger and more permanent than the
human body – but also in the way that bridges open up new modes of thought
and creative expression. Bridges retain a capacity to make the world ‘strange’
and facilitate new kinds of perceptual, cognitive and imaginative engagement
with the surrounding social world and built environment. Even the most
ordinary of actions, such as thinking, looking, walking, talking, undergo
transformation when experienced through the sense of proprioceptive uncertainty
and vertigo that bridges sometimes produce when human bodies move high
across open water.
As such, bridges have the potential to generate what might be described as
forms of embodied ostranenie-in-action wherein the normal becomes disrupted
and defamiliarised or else takes on a type of poetic distance and ironic detachment,
akin to the way common words and images taken from ordinary life are ‘made
strange’ through the techniques of Russian Formalism. However, this is not to
suggest that bridges possess agency in and of themselves. For when ascribing
agency to material things, it is first necessary to ask whether the thing in question
has the capacity to withhold, suppress or relinquish their actions on the world;
to be an agent also means being able to choose when not to act and when to
withdraw, modify or renounce one’s actions, otherwise it is not agency but a
different means and modality that is being described. Indeed, I argue it is bad faith
to ascribe agency to bridges and that a more fertile and interesting possibility is
found in Franz Kafka’s short story, The Bridge, where he imagines the distressed
mind of a suspension bridge, and is reproduced in its entirety below:

The Bridge
I was stiff and cold, I was a bridge, I lay over a ravine. My toes on oneside, my
fingers clutching the other, I had clamped myself fast into the crumbling clay.
The tails of my coat fluttered at my sides. Far below brawled the icy trout stream.
No tourist strayed to this impassable height, the bridge was not yet traced on any
map. So I lay and waited; I could only wait. Without falling, no bridge, once
spanned, can cease to be a bridge. It was toward evening one day – was it the
first, was it the thousandth? I cannot tell – my thoughts were always in confusion

impressive bridges. Like all bridges, the bridge I worked on developed its own characteristics
and idiosyncrasies, insofar as bridges wear in complex, uneven ways depending on when
and where they were built, climatic conditions, construction materials and so forth. Even
after spending day after day in the bridge’s dark and dank underbelly, removing entrenched
scale with a pneumatic drill, I always regarded the bridge with friendliness and affection,
reinforcing that even when one’s proximity to a bridge generates feelings of familiarity,
these are rarely blasé or dismissive.
138 Reflections on Imagination

and perpetually moving in a circle. It was toward evening in summer, the roar of
the stream had grown deeper, when I heard the sound of a human step! To me,
to me. Straighten yourself, bridge, make ready, railless beams, to hold up the
passenger entrusted to you. If his steps are uncertain, steady them unobtrusively,
but if he stumbles show what you are made of and like a mountain god hurl him
across to land. He came, he tapped me with the iron point of his stick, then he
lifted my coattails with it and put them in order upon me. He plunged the point
of his stick into my bushy hair and let it lie there for a long time, forgetting me
no doubt while he wildly gazed around him. But then – I was just following him
in thought over mountain and valley – he jumped with both feet on the middle
of my body. I shuddered with wild pain, not knowing what was happening. Who
was it? A child? A dream? A wayfarer? A suicide? A tempter? A destroyer? And
I turned so as to see him. A bridge to turn around! I had not yet turned quiet
around when I already began to fall, I fell and in a moment I was torn and
transpierced by the sharp rocks which had always gazed up at me so peacefully
from the rushing water. (Kafka 1971: 449)

In the Presence of a new DIVINITY

The inauguration of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 opened up people’s eyes, bodies
and imaginations to a new vista on the city and a whole set of new aesthetic
inspirations and possibilities. ‘Beyond any other aspect of New York’, historian
Lewis Mumford wrote in 1924 in what proved to be the first history of American
architecture, Sticks and Stones, ‘I think, the Brooklyn Bridge has been a source of
joy and inspiration to the artist’ (1924: 116). This not only recalls Bruce Jackson’s
observation that bridges provide frames for looking at the world around us, but
reminds us that Brooklyn Bridge has inspired countless writers and artists – from
Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and Federico Garcia Lorca to Walker Evans, Georgia
O’Keefe, Jack Kerouac and Andy Warhol – to explore its form through image and
text. Mumford goes on:

The bridge itself was a testimony to the swift progress of physical science. The
strong lines of the bridge, and the beautiful curve described by its suspended
cables, were derived from an elegant formula in mathematical physics – the elastic
curve […] What was grotesque and barbarous in industrialism was sloughed off
in the great bridges. These avenues of communication are, paradoxically, the only
enduring monuments that witness a period of uneasy industrial transition; and to
this day they communicate a feeling of dignity, stability, and unwavering poise.
(1924: 115–16)
Granite and Steel 139

Born 12 years after it opened in 1895, Mumford was interviewed as an old man
for Ken Burns’s documentary The Brooklyn Bridge (1981), and described a
‘transcendental experience’ that happened to him on the bridge in the 1930s:

One March afternoon, I started over on the Brooklyn side. The wind was
blowing; there were heavy clouds in the sky moving around, but the sky was
light enough to give a complete silhouette of the skyscrapers on the New York
side. I began walking over it, and because of it, I had a sense of the great stir of
life, the vitality, the power that lay beneath everything. There were the ships and
the tugs going up the East River. There were little curls of steam coming out of
the skyscrapers. There was the sound of traffic on the bridge itself, and I was
walking, young and feeling happily alone, and I had a sense almost of my whole
career, of the world I was going to live in being laid out before me. I had a sense
of the power and the glory of the present world.

The perspectival horizons formed when crossing over Brooklyn Bridge offer
a series of ever changing surfaces, slants, edges and outlooks on the city. A
frame of receding perspectives and diminishing angles continually guide the eye
towards along the bridge and hence towards an imagined future in the form of
one’s destination on the other side: a point distant in time and space that invokes
a kind of ‘mathematical’ knowing in advance (Heidegger 1977) that emerged
with the advent of modern technology. As with all imagined futures it remains
undetermined and is open to philosophical, scientific and religious interpretations,
for example in the way that the geometric ratios of perspectival horizons of the
bridge provide evidence of divine design for some people and the triumph of
science for others.
Italian Futurist, Joseph Stella, began painting the Brooklyn Bridge after an
intense experience one night around 1919 as he stood on it alone listening to the
noises of the modern city:

Many nights I stood on the bridge – and in the middle alone – lost – a defenseless
prey to the surrounding swarming darkness – crushed by the mountainous black
impenetrability of the skyscrapers – here and there lights resembling suspended
falls of astral bodies or fantastic splendors of remote rites – shaken by the
underground tumult of the trains in perpetual motion, like the blood in the
arteries – at times, ringing as alarm in a tempest, the shrill sulphurous voice of the
trolley wires – now and then strange moanings of appeal from tug boats, guessed
more than seen, through the infernal recesses below – I felt deeply moved as if in
the presence of a new DIVINITY. (Stella 1928, cited in Yau 1999:123)

Stella’s futuristic assemblage of arches, angles, materials and sky anticipates of

the metropolitan future imagined and depicted in Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis. It
looks towards the secular age and shape of things to come but has an equally strong
affinity to centuries gone by and the stained glass windows of Europe’s Gothic
140 Reflections on Imagination

cathedrals. For Stella, it seems the Brooklyn Bridge is not only a bridge between
past and future, but a bridge that spans science and religion. Caught between the
‘infernal recesses below’ and ‘astral bodies’ above, Stella sides for the moment
with religion, asks for redemption in a secular world and discovers a new divinity.

Figure 8.2 Stella, Joseph (1879–1946): ‘The Voice of the City of New York
Interpreted: The Bridge, 1920–1922’. Oil on and tempera on
canvas, 88½ inches x 54 inches.
Source: Collection of the Newark Museum, 37.288e. Newark, The Newark Museum.
© 2014. Photo: The Newark Museum/Art Resource/Scala, Florence.
Granite and Steel 141

Sound! Noise! Jazz!

While some visual artists experience a sense of spirit and religiosity amidst the rich
visual presence of the bridge, industrial noise marks each of New York’s bridges
in a different way. United in appearance and purpose of transporting people across
the river, the bridges are distinguished in terms of the different soundscapes they
present and are easily distinguished from one another, even with one’s eyes closed.
The first two bridges to be built, the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges, possess
walkways that are raised above the bridge’s’ roadways and train tracks, thus
partially removing pedestrians from the noise, pollution and vibration. Whereas
the noise encountered on the Manhattan and 59th Street bridges – where the
walkways are right next to the road and train tracks respectively – courses through
the body and is such that you can shout anything you like on the top of your lungs
and still cannot be heard by the people walking near you or even yourself. To test
this, I once shouted ‘WAHOOOOP’ as loud as I could, and I could not hear a thing;
whereas on the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges one’s shouting follows the
wind and lands on other people’s ears.
The particular sonic ambience of the different bridges opens up the ear to
different creative and aesthetic possibilities. When Sonny Rollins – widely
regarded as one of the world’s greatest ever saxophonists – at the height of his
reputation, commercial success, and musical powers, fell into a musical and
existential crisis that was fuelled by self-doubt and his rapid rise to fame, he began
to take notice of the bridge near his apartment. The year was 1959. Rollins abruptly
and unexpectedly ceased recording and performing for the following three years.
Instead he would go to play his saxophone on the top of the Williamsburg Bridge
for up to 16 hours a day. In all weathers, at different times of day and night and all
year round, Rollins attempted to forge a new sound and creative direction in duet
with the sounds of the boats, trains and traffic and the whole plethora of sounds
he encountered on the bridge. It was also a practical way of practicing his horn
without disrupting the lives of his neighbours:

I was walking on Delancey Street one day and I just happened to look up
and see these steps that I decided to check out. And there was the bridge, the
Williamsburg Bridge. It was this nice big expanse going over the East River.
There was nobody up there. So I started walking across the bridge and said,
“Wow. This is what I have been looking for. This is a private place. I can blow
my horn as loud as I want”. Because the boats are coming under, and the subway
is coming across, and cars, and I knew it was perfect, just serendipity. Then, I
began getting my horn and going up there regularly. I would be up there 15 or 16
hours at a time spring, summer, fall and winter.

When he returned to performing and recording, he released one of modern jazz’s

most acclaimed and commercially successful albums, simply titled The Bridge;
the title track is an extended ode to Williamsburg Bridge.
142 Reflections on Imagination

From humble wooden bridges to giant suspension bridges, bridges are used as
a musical inspiration for many of life’s major events, including the relationships
we form and break with the people we love, and the transition from life to death.
From the nursery rhyme, ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’, to the sophisticated
strains of ‘Chelsea Bridge’ by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, to the beat
poetry of Jack Kerouac’s ‘Brooklyn Bridge Blues’ to the feel-good pop of Paul
Simon’s ‘59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)’, to the saudade of Milton
Nasciemento’s ‘Bridges’ to the rap of Lil B’s ‘My Arms are the Brooklyn Bridge’ …
bridges have long been the muses of songwriters, actors, musicians and writers.

‘I Wish that I were Dead – Absolutely Nonexistent’

Oh damn I wish that I were dead – absolutely nonexistent – gone away from
here – from everywhere but how would I do it? There is [sic] always bridges –
the Brooklyn Bridge no not the Brooklyn Bridge because. But I love that bridge
(everything is beautiful from there and the air is so clean) walking it seems
peaceful there even with all those cars going crazy underneath. So it would have
to be some other bridge an ugly one and with no view – except I particularly like
in particular all bridges – there’s some- thing about them and besides these I’ve
never seen an ugly bridge. (Marilyn Monroe)2

Bridges possess the requisite aura, height and visibility to attract people in states
of despair and personal crisis. From the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to
‘Suicide Bridge’ in London, there is a close and persistent relationship between
bridges and suicide; for instance see Marilyn Monroe’s note above. However, it is
not just easy access and the height of the bridges that makes them common sites of
suicide but also the symbolism of jumping off famous and iconic landmarks. Studies
of suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge found that half of the suicides took the time
and effort to cross the Oakland Bay Bridge en route to reach the much more famous
and picturesque Golden Gate Bridge in order to commit suicide (Seiden and Spence
1983). It is not always easy to discern people’s current intentions, existential state
and inner thoughts by outward appearance alone, as made apparent in Eric Steel’s
recent documentary The Bridge (2006). The bridge in question was the Golden
Gate Bridge, where Steel and his crew of 12 people arrived every morning for a
year to film a year in the life of the bridge. The film captures 23 of the 24 known
suicides that took place on the bridge that year, as well as numerous people who
were talked down or otherwise dissuaded. The film crew managed to intervene
on six occasions to prevent people jumping but for the most part there was little
warning or indication that a person was contemplating ending their life.

2 Hand-written note on paper fragment found among Marilyn Monroe’s possessions

(Buchthal and Comment 2010: 18).
Granite and Steel 143

Figure 8.3 ‘Odlum Jumps’

Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 30 May 1885

Indeed, the first jumper captured by one of the team’s telephoto lenses was not
acting in the manner that the filmmakers expected. He was not crying, looking
agitated or anguished or otherwise showing any signs of distress but rather was
jogging and talking and laughing on his cell phone. Then all of a sudden he leapt
to his death. This is not an uncommon phenomenon, for as psychiatric nurses and
medics are taught, once having decided upon suicide as a means of resolving an
unliveable existential situation, many persons find the burden of existence lifts
from their shoulders and experience a sense of relief and peace and act with a
casual contentment or happiness in the lead up to the suicide.
In Manhattan, more than one in 10 of the people who kill themselves are
‘suicide tourists’ who specifically travel to New York to commit suicide and choose
the city’s world famous landmarks to do so, including its bridges (Gross et al.
2007). Against a background where the vast majority of American suicides are by
144 Reflections on Imagination

hanging, guns or overdose, killing oneself by jumping from height is extremely

frequent in New York – with 1,853 out of the total 7,634 suicides (25 per cent)
recorded between 1990 and 2004 due to leaping off buildings and bridges – a figure
that increases to 37 per cent among tourists and non-residents and far outweighs
every other method used by non-residents including hanging (15 per cent), guns
(14 per cent) and overdose (10 per cent) (Gross et al. 2007).

Figure 8.4 Introduction to The Life and Adventures of Professor Robert

Emmet Odlum (1885) by his mother, Mrs Catherine Odlum

It is telling, however, that the first jumper off Brooklyn Bridge was not trying
to kill himself but to demonstrate his prowess and increase his fame and fortune. A
self-proclaimed ‘professor’, Robert Emmet Odlum was caught in a state of undress
halfway across the unfinished bridge in 1882. After identifying himself as an author
of pamphlets in the instruction of swimming and art of diving, Oldum informed the
Granite and Steel 145

police that he had made a $200 bet that he could dive off the bridge and survive, at
which point the sceptical police banned him from the bridge for life and made a note
that he should never be admitted to the bridge again (McCullough 2001). However,
Odlum was not dissuaded. Hence, on hearing rumours that he was planning another
attempt after the bridge had opened, the police alerted the bridge’s toll collectors
to keep a look out. A toll collector noticed a cab lingering on the bridge and acting
suspiciously. The police found it but it was a decoy set up by one of Odlum’s
accomplices, and as they were searching it, Odlum emerged from under a covered
flatbed and threw himself feet first off the bridge wearing a suit with his initials REO
embroidered on. His fall broke his bones, crushed his organs and killed him.
Odlum’s extraordinary tale was written about and published in a book by his
mother, entitled The Life and Adventures of Prof. Robert Emmet Odlum. ‘Death
loves a shining mark’ his mother Catherine Odlum (1885: 11) wrote in the
opening chapter, but ‘how different was the feeling on Tuesday night, the 19th
of May 1885, when the sad words were flashed over the wires from New York
“Bob Odlum jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge this evening and is dead”’.

The Limits of Science

This is a photograph I took on Brooklyn Bridge. I have a very simple question

about it; it is, however, a question that places us beyond the limits of science itself.
The question is: what are these people thinking?
What, for example, is the man in the yellow T-shirt thinking as he looks up? Or the
man or woman in the sunglasses? Or the man in a dark shirt walking away from us?

Figure 8.5 Brooklyn Bridge

Source: Photograph by author.
146 Reflections on Imagination

What is the empirical content and character of their thoughts? As with any crowded
scene, people may be engaged in diverse, even radically different, forms of inner
speech and imagery, ranging from the trivial to the tragic (see Irving 2007; 2009;
2010; 2011b). Moreover, the extent to which we can identify commonalities and
discrepancies of experience from outward appearances remains an open question.
From the unremarkable realm of someone looking at the water or deciding
which shoes to buy, to the intense emotions of someone wrestling with suicidal
intentions and imagining what it would be like to jump, the experiential lifeworlds
of persons crossing New York’s suspension bridges are diverse, undetermined and
not always apparent to the wider world. Yes, the people on the bridge are social
beings and as such are required to act and move accordingly, but the extent to which
those walking from one side to another are engaged in the same practice remains
uncertain. For, once social life is understood as constituted by ongoing streams of
inner dialogue, imaginative reverie and possibility that exist beneath the surface
of people’s public actions, it becomes apparent that the seemingly congruent
social activities we observe in our everyday surroundings are differentiated by
diverse modes of internally represented speech and imaginative expression that
largely remain uncharted in the social sciences and are rarely, if ever, the subject of
ethnographic accounts or anthropological monographs (Irving 2010; 2011a, 2014).
In marked contrast, modernist writers such as Joyce, Dos Passos, Celine
and Woolf actively strove to engage with and represent the transient streams of
thought and imagination that shape social life and interaction but remain publicly
unavailable. In what now follows I draw on modernist literature to offer a photo-
essay that I created – including online videos and sound recordings – for which
I recorded more than 100 ‘interior dialogues’ of random strangers as they moved
around the city. A central intellectual interest was how different kinds of social and
material surroundings – such as streets, squares, cafes and transport – might have
the potential to generate particular modes of thinking and being.
The method was very simple: I stood at different points in the city and asked
people what they were thinking about in the moment immediately before I
approached them. I then invited them to wear a small microphone and narrate
the stream of their thoughts as they continued their journey while I walked about
10 yards behind filming the street and surroundings. I found it surprising not just
the level of interest in the nature of the project but the amount of people, from all
walks of life, who said ‘yes’. I would begin by standing on the Manhattan side of
the bridge in question and approach people who were about to cross the bridge.
Then I would repeat the process from the Brooklyn side. The bridges are more
than a mile across and so it would usually take people between 20 or 30 minutes
to walk across. In this way, I crossed the bridges many times. When I had finished
for that day, I would download the recordings onto an MP3 player. Then I would
myself walk back and forth over the bridge, only this time with other people’s
thoughts in my head. Finally I would also invite other persons who happened to
be crossing the bridge at the same time to do the same, giving them an MP3 player
with a recording of someone else’s inner dialogue to listen to as they crossed.
Granite and Steel 147

Here are excerpts (of about 3 or 4 minutes’ duration) of the inner dialogues,
taken from four crossings. (The reader is also invited to watch some short video
and audio excerpts online, or even to download sounds clips onto their phone or
MP3 player and walk around their local streets or bridges with someone else’s
thoughts in their head at this link: It is also
important to note that I did not ask people to talk about the bridge or say I was
interested in the bridge per se. Instead I would simply ask people to speak out
whatever came into their head: any reflections upon or references to the bridge
therefore emerged at their own behest.

Yuri: Walking to Work over the Brooklyn Bridge

I’ve lived this life for the past 37 years and the outcome has always been trial
by trial by trial. But at the same time I get a calming sense walking on the
Brooklyn Bridge. It’s perhaps where I got the idea of being propelled up into
heaven by an invisible line. But hopefully today’s job will work out fine. I have
to go in tomorrow for orientation. I have a chance to move up and it’s in sales
and hopefully everything will be peachy and I can set my problems aside and I
can learn how to become a New Yorker. Which I think consists of having 1,000
miles of walking underneath your belt and severe human endurance. Such as the
severe human endurance it took to build this bridge. The lives that it took. Such
as this bridge, such as life. And we are all interconnected.

Figure 8.6 Yuri: Walking to Work over the Brooklyn Bridge

Source: Photograph by author.
148 Reflections on Imagination

I spoke to a friend of mine about the evolution of spirituality. Where it was

usually an inward-word thing as far as being separated from the rest of society
but I hear now that human involvement consists of the empathy of others and
being among them. This bridge was built and started in 1857 and it’s interesting
how you feel more of a sense of freedom walking across this bridge than
the more modern ones, such as the Manhattan off to the right of me and the
Williamsburg just beyond that one. And I felt almost insignificant and I continue
to go through this realisation every day. But it’s really all just fear, the only
reason, why hesitation takes place in myself is because of fear, fear that it might
not work out, fear that I will land on my face, fear that I will end up on the side
of the street clutching a bottle of paint thinner. The sign that says “help me”. No
shoes because somebody stole them. Fear.

But when you have nothing to lose you have nothing to fear, so “fuck fear”.
I definitely need to get it together. Dealing with my dead significant other
has really taken its toll since 2007 and it’s 2011 now: eight, nine, ten eleven,
that’s five years. You would think I would have it together now, but really what
I have done is to get to one job to another and continuously drop the ball because
am dealing with the type of perpetual suffering, that I believe none of us are
prepared for it, unless we are 80 and our loved one dies of natural causes. At that
point you can see the train coming. But when your train drops off, your lovely,
unexpectedly on a way home, drops her off onto death, you can definitely pull
the carpet out from underneath you, you can definitely feel like the only person
on the planet, that is most likely why I decided to move out to New York, so
I can be content on being alone and un-alone at the same time. And the odds and
the multiples. And am sure I’m not the only one that has gone through this and
that is when the fractal sense of unity will come in, perhaps I can meet somebody
that has lost a loved one too.

Thomas: Killing Time on Manhattan Bridge, Waiting for a Bus to Boston

The man today. The man who has children and the man who doesn’t have
children. Seeing how this country was made up during the 40s and the 20s and
everything. And the automobiles is the one that put masses of people to work.
Fifty, sixty thousand people to work and here was people who didn’t have a lot
of education and there were people who did have education but you got masses
of people like from Detroit Michigan that came from the South, because they
were share croppers or other than that they worked on the farms and they heard
that the North had jobs in the plants, was able to provide and prosper.

Well they could not imagine today and having lived during the time of the great
depression. My grandfather he fed his children from the soup line that’s how bad
it was during the time of the first great depression, during the Roosevelt times. So
here it is now, how can this economy get off now when you’ve got these masses
Granite and Steel 149

of generations and generations and generations of families that worked in some

kind of factory that don’t have no jobs, so what what what is going to pay they
bills, knowing you understand that there’s nothing to offer and this is the reason
why, like in Detroit Michigan right now they’ve got 93,000 foreclosures and
abandoned buildings. Now there’s 56 million people unemployed right now and
it’s still going high.

The only way that I see of anything there’s going to have to be a factory that
builds cars that fly to turn this whole thing around because of the fact of one
thing: you got to put masses of people to work at one time and the economy
makes its money off of people who own houses. Who pay taxes and everything
and if you got everybody you understand losing everything then we’re heading
towards another great depression, a repeat of history but this one is going to be
more dangerous than the first one because life is more expensive, a loaf of bread
used to cost a quarter now a loaf of bread costs two dollars, a half a gallon of
milk used to cost a dollar twenty-five now it costs almost five dollars, so the
economy that we’re living now is going to be more serious with this side. We’re
only one inch from a depression. That means okay let’s say you understand the
United States do get some people to work but now by as money being invested
all over the world, if the world falls and these different countries fall out of
economics, the United States is going to fall. And there ain’t no ifs or else or buts
about it and that’s the unsurety of the future.

Figure 8.7 Thomas: Killing Time on Manhattan Bridge, Waiting for a Bus
to Boston
Source: Photograph by author.
150 Reflections on Imagination

Figure 8.8 Sara: Brooklyn Bridge, on Holiday in New York from Israel
Source: Photograph by author.

Sara: Brooklyn Bridge, On Holiday in New York from Israel

To walk here and to watch the water and to be on the bridge is something that
is not so easy to express but it’s like flying let’s say, like flying on water. Maybe
it’s kind of wishes. You like to fly, to be like a bird and the bridge gives us the
opportunity to do something above nature let’s say, so, uhhmm, recently it’s not
so, because of the walls here. They have some walls here.

But when I see the bridge itself, it’s funny, it’s something like magnetic, it’s
mystic, like a kind of magic. The one who built this bridge did something good.
Made something good. Maybe they thought that they had to help progress. To
help people, to make it easier to move from one place to another. Maybe a lot of
care and love were there when he did it.

He thought about it.

Maybe he was crazy in his time, as all the good people.

And there must be something in it. That people are just enjoying it. Otherwise
no one would come. It’s not the walls, it is something in it. We don’t see it in
regular eyes, I think. So maybe it sounds mystic or something but ahhhh. I get
calm because something makes me happy and maybe this is feelings. To feeling
happy. To feel joy without any reason, like this is very busy the happiness, the
real happiness. Just to be happy, not because, just I don’t know it sounds crazy
what I’m saying but that is what I’m feeling now.
Granite and Steel 151

You know I have a poster (of the bridge) at home and I just like it as it is and I don’t
know why because I like art but not because of that. Something in the photo makes
you want to come and see the place. So ah but the same talk I could say about any
happening somewhere good and nice and interesting. A picture of Rembrandt,
Picasso, architecture, something. It’s the same but in it. I’m trying to understand
my joy let’s say. I left. It’s a nice day and I said I want to be here and God heard
me and he make a nice day to come and to say goodbye New York and go home …

Joyce: Manhattan Bridge

Figure 8.9 Joyce: Manhattan Bridge

Source: Photograph by author.

The bridge is vibrating a little bit or is that the fence. Here comes the train.
Scream time! Aaggghh, I thought I would do the sound I will just do that,
because I always scream when the train goes by but I think it is such a great
stress reliever. There are those who think she is out of her mind but there is
nothing like a good scream under the bridge. Try it, as the train goes by people
won’t hear you scream anyway! This is the bridge that my dad and myself and
my two sisters walked over in 1958 because I was eight years old. And here I
am, 61, it already feels funny walking out on the bridge, with nothing under it.
Well it has columns holding it up but that is when I depend on my faith. To not
let fear make me turn around and run back. Wow, things change so much.

So I do remember when I was walking with my dad, I was the one that was afraid
to walk over the bridge. Just like am looking now and you can’t see anything
and you’re up high and he just encouraged me that I would be alright and my
152 Reflections on Imagination

other two sisters I think they were too young to, ’cos I seem to have been always
afraid of height. Okay, alright. Oh oh, I’m getting a little nervous, and I’m going
to tell you this story about why this bridge has the effect on me that it does. We
had gotten, there’s a newspaper article, and my dad’s picture was on the second
page of the Daily News and when he was walking with us, going back, we was
probably right here. And he was a photographer so he always had. Oh my shirt,
I had a different shirt, I don’t believe it.

He always had his camera with him and what happened was; I believe we got
right here and there was a man, now mind you this was not here, this was not
here. So he’s pushing us with a stroller and the article says, “Quick thinking
Willy McDonald”. Arrghhh! Train! Scream! I’m not going to scream every
time the train is coming, every two minutes the train is coming. And the article
reads, “quick thinking photographer William McDonald was crossing the
bridge with his three daughters and he had his camera”, Now I think the picture
got taken about right, I can see it so vividly in my mind, we must have been
about right here and the man probably was like right there, one, two, three,
four, five, six, seven of these squares and the man was standing there, and my
dad was standing here with us with his camera. And the man just jumps off the
bridge. And when he jumped, he jumped out, so my dad snapped the picture so
you can see this part of the bridge and you can see the man going jumping out,
he’s like in air, and he died, the man drowned but he caught the picture and it
made the Daily News.

And I never walked on the bridge again. I have never walked over again. That’s
the only picture I have of that day. The man jumping off the bridge. It’s ironic,
because before, God intervened and I got a sound mind, 18 years ago I use to
always want to jump off something. I had a family member that jumped off the
bridge and survived, a brother of mine.

Adventures in Vertigo

Even in the short excerpts above it is apparent that suspension bridges are complex
sites of experience, imagination and expression, which at times can be highly
dramatic or theatrical. The sensation of crossing water or looking down from
height can sometimes generate nervousness and a sense of vertigo, such as when
Joyce describes her anxiety as she starts walking on the bridge and encounters the
strange feeling of knowing there is nothing underneath. Calling on her religious
faith to keep the bridge standing, the noise and vibration of each passing train is
met by a scream: a sound that obviously lacks any precise semantic referent but
which nevertheless is a form of communicative expression. Whereas the other 30
or so people I recorded walking over bridges were complete strangers, Joyce was
a long-standing acquaintance. An ordained church minister, artist, grandmother
Granite and Steel 153

in her 60s, ex-drug addict and former prostitute, Joyce has lived her entire life
under the shadow of the bridge. I was therefore surprised one day, when we were
having a coffee and I mentioned I was recording strangers walking over the bridge,
that she told me she had not been on the bridge since 1958. Joyce then said she
thought it would be interesting to walk over it again and we arranged to meet up
the following day. Little could I have imagined what the content and character of
her inner dialogue would consist. More than half a century since she last ventured
onto the bridge, the image of that fateful day when she witnessed a man jumping
to his death remained vivid in her mind. Her description of seeing the suicide
combines memories of a difficult period in her own life – when she continually
felt the urge to ‘jump off something’ before God intervened and ‘gave her a sound
mind’ – while her own brother’s attempt to commit suicide off the very same
bridge, acted as a constant backdrop to both their lives.
When human bodies move high across open water they are subjected to the
sense of retriocentric and proprioceptive displacement that Joyce describes as she
looks down on the buildings in her neighbourhood that she normally looks up
to. The vertiginous sensation of being high above the ground and the sheer noise
and vibration of the trains going by, produce for Joyce a unique experience of the
bridge that combines nervous uncertainty, a meditation on her childhood and more
recent past and a reassuring recourse to religious faith.
In contrast to Joyce, when Yuri walks on the bridge, he experiences ‘a calming
sense’ that is not always readily available or easy to achieve in other areas of
his daily life. He imagines heaven, the lives and work that went into making the
bridge and describes the succession of trials and tests. Day-to-day life continues to
be overshadowed by the suicide of his partner, however, Yuri describes how he is
able to establish a sense of calm and freedom while walking across the Brooklyn
Bridge that is often denied to him elsewhere. This not only demarcates a key
difference between his and Joyce’s experiences. It emphasises how each bridge
has a different character that helps establish someone’s lived experience of the
moment and, for Yuri, the Brooklyn Bridge affords a sense of calmness that is
made manifest in the body and throughout the nervous system.
By walking over the Brooklyn Bridge into town, rather than driving, taking the
subway or even walking over one of the other bridges, Yuri actively creates the
emotional and imaginative context for his movements in the world. It is a form of
movement that helps establish a sense of calm and endurance, and which shapes
his lived experience in ways that might be radically different to the confined and
crowded carriages of New York’s subway system or while stuck in a traffic jam.
This reinforces the way to which a person’s sense of self and their body, rather than
being understood as an inherent property of being, is crafted and articulated from
moment to moment in interaction with different social and material surroundings.
Moving between thinking about fractals, loss, empathy and the work, the sense of
freedom that Yuri describes while crossing the bridge, makes us realise that the
word ‘freedom’ is not just a semantic, political or philosophical category but a felt
experience, related to but differently articulated from Joyce’s screams.
154 Reflections on Imagination

In Sara’s inner dialogue, her words describe a kind of magic that is contained
in the bridge itself, something miraculous and something magnetic that is not
‘seen with regular eyes’ or ‘easy to express’ but generates feelings that combine
flying on water and the something like ‘wishes’. Sara had travelled all the way
from Israel to walk across the very same bridge whose photograph adorns her
wall at home. At times her words resort to metaphor in an attempt to overcome
the difficulty in expressing how she feels and describes her experience as like
flying on water. However, she is not always using metaphor and when she declares
that there must be something in the bridge, this is a statement of fact and not
similitude. She experiences an explicit sense of ‘joy without any reason’ other
than the simple fact of her being on the bridge: an act that allows her to imagine a
connection with the man, long since dead, who built it. A man who, she suggests,
was ‘perhaps crazy in his time’ but who nevertheless ‘did something good’ and
who put something in it that still generates feelings of enjoyment for herself and
the crowd amassed on the bridge.
For Thomas, the bridge he is walking on seems almost incidental to his
thoughts as he imagines people’s prospects in the past, present and future, social
and economic climate. His thoughts are organised as a sustained social analysis and
argument about the position of working people and the migration of black workers
from the agricultural south to the industrial north. Thomas told me afterwards that
he was very worried about his own job, and did not know if he would be working
from one week to the next. Although, Thomas’s inner dialogue tells us little about
his experience of the Manhattan Bridge – which was mostly a place to kill time,
smoke and look out over the city while waiting for the bus to Boston – it tells us
a lot about the historical constitution of thought and consciousness as he imagines
his own and other people’s lives. The content and character of his trajectories of
thought are explicitly linked to the global economic uncertainty that has over-
shadowed many people’s social lives since the banking and mortgage crisis. This
makes his thought historical in a way that reflects how people imagine the present
and future through passing or more sustained thoughts about 9/11, the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan and the current ‘War on Terror’, signifying a collective set
of anxieties about the world that would not be nearly so prevalent in times of
economic prosperity and before 9/11.
The above excerpts can only ever offer the merest of glimpses into those
realms of perception, experience and imagination that can be articulated and
approximated within a public and highly performative encounter, and so cannot
claim to provide anything more than a partial and passing instance of people’s
situated experiences of bridges. Moreover, we are not hearing people’s thoughts
in themselves but only their verbal articulation in a public context, and as such
they are subject not only to varying levels of personal disclosure, self-censorship
and the act of recording but also to the limits of linguistic expression. Imaginative
thought processes do not fully take place in language and routinely incorporate
various non-linguistic, imagistic and non-symbolic modes of thinking that operate
close to the threshold of, or substantially beyond, the realm of language. Moreover,
Granite and Steel 155

whereas our being-in-the-world is experienced as a concurrent and complex

amalgam of perception, sensation and experience – in which the co-presence of
emotion, memory and imagination mix with movement to constitute our embodied
lived experience of the moment – language is largely linear in its structure and
expression and unfolds over time. As such what is experienced simultaneously
across different modalities can only be expressed verbally in a sequential fashion.
We need to recognise, in short, that these partial fragments of spoken thought
necessarily involve a distortion, reduction and linearisation of the simultaneity
of people’s lived, sensory and imaginative experience of walking across bridges,
and that many aspects are impossible to articulate. In this we can discern a
problem common to all fieldwork and ethnography, namely how to establish
the epistemological and evidential grounds for making claims about people’s
experiential and imaginative lifeworlds based upon the observation of daily
practice and other forms of extrinsic expression that are present to the eye and ear
and which make social life open to anthropological observation and theorisation.
If this remains one of the most enduring epistemological and methodological
problems encountered by anthropologists in the field – including how to read and
understand people’s observable or audible actions – then the alternative is even
more problematical. For to address and understand the diverse modes of thinking
and being found on New York’s bridges, on any given day requires much more
than theoretical speculation alone: it requires us to leave the safety of shore.

Concluding Thoughts

Always and ever differently the lingering and hastening ways of men, to and
from, so that they may get to other banks and in the end, as mortals, to the other
side. (Heidegger 1971: 152)

In ‘The Thing’ (1971 [1949]), and his near-mystical short essay ‘Building
Dwelling Thinking’ (1971 [1951]), Heidegger explores the capacity of certain
things to assemble people together in the form of a gathering. In medieval times, a
jug of wine placed on a table or an old stone bridge that led from the castle to the
cathedral were both things that gathered people together. What kind of ‘magic’, as
Sara, Joseph Stella and Marilyn Monroe asked, do suspension bridges possess that
gathers so many different kinds of people together, from writers, engineers and
commuters to philosophers, artists, jazz musicians and suicide tourists, who then
imagine and interact with the bridges in so many different ways? The complexity
and diversity of imaginative and creative possibilities that are opened up suggests
the magic is partially located in the inter-relation between the sensing human
body and the spectacular arrangement of granite and steel that is necessary to
transcend water.
Here, the imaginative lifeworlds that constitute the social life of bridges, rather
than being understood as an inherent property of being, is crafted from moment to
156 Reflections on Imagination

moment in interaction with the bridge. The sensation of crossing water or looking
down from height, sometimes generates nervousness, at other times religious
fervour, jazz, poetry or peace, or imagining one is floating on air. The decision to
cross the bridge is a creative act of poesis which tens of thousands of people make
every single day. By deciding to walk the bridge rather than take the train or car,
people actively create their experience of the present: they demonstrate what is at
stake when walking above water and entering into unique realms of imaginative
embodied experience that are so different from staying on land.


My sincere thanks go to all the people who took part in the ‘New York Stories
Project’ and the Wenner Gren Foundation and the UK Economic and Social
Research Council, without whom the research could not have taken place.


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Imagination and Social


The focus in this section is the collective work of the imagination, the work
that might be effected by imagining that a collective such as a nation-state or a
national society might possess a common imaginative faculty and might imagine
the same things. The so-called ‘social imaginary’ is a fiction that a populace
shares an identity and that this identity leads them to see the world in the same or
commensurate ways. Why might people invest in this notion, and to what effect?
The chapters offer two case-studies.
In ‘Uses of Finland in Japan’s Social Imaginary’, Hideko Mitsui tells the story
of how ‘Moomintroll’ or ‘Moomin’, a Finnish troll, and the main character in
Finnish writer Tove Jansson’s popular fantasy stories, has become ubiquitous in
Japan’s commodity landscape since the mid-1990s. The chapter examines the
unique career of Moomin as an instance in Japan’s construction of a national-social
imaginary: ‘We all love Moomin’. On one level, then, the so-called ‘Moomin
boom’ is an instance of the successful marketing of ‘cute’ and ‘retro’ or nostalgic
commodities that attests to the conformist tendency of Japanese consumers and
their desire to follow a given fad. However, Mitsui suggests a closer reading in
which it becomes more apparent that the success of Moomin products has much
to do with people’s personal creativity and imagination. It demonstrates the
variety of ways in which Moomin can be said to represent and mediate a nostalgic
yearning for the recent past, while enabling the imagination of, and fantasies for,
alternative, utopian futures. In ways that are at once collective and individual,
Moomin is a cliché that encapsulates the idea of Finland as a utopian land as seen
from the perspective of a post-economic-boom Japanese society.
In ‘The Social Imaginary and Literature: Understanding the popularization of
modern medicine in Brazil’, Paulo Alves explores the popularization of modern
medicine (‘biomedicine’) in Brazil in the late nineteenth-century and how the
new medical knowledge came to be part of people´s everyday worlds through its
appearance in popular fictional writing of the time. The idea of a social imaginary,
of there being a popular imagination, is analytically useful here, Alves argues.
Brazilians invested practically, affectively and intellectually in the idea that they
were (or should be) bound alike to certain ways of living, seeing and making
their national existence. Fiction is a methodological resource by means of which
160 Reflections on Imagination

the anthropologist can explore this social-imaginary investment. For, during the
second half of the nineteenth century, a social group that saw itself as a new
national intelligentsia in Brazil sought various ideal ‘modernizations’ of national
institutions, including the formation of a class of Brazilian ‘men of letters’ who
might appreciate and contribute to ‘world literature’, and also serve as spokesmen
of enlightened public opinion. The fictional narratives popular and popularized at
the time thus reveal their readers’ desired ‘horizons of expectation’: not only how
their society is to be portrayed but also how an idealized version of that society may
be produced. More precisely, examining the circulation and consuming of fictional
literature enables the anthropologist to appreciate the process of the popularization
of biomedicine in Brazil. For, shaped by a realist aesthetic, particular ‘ideal’ new
‘Brazilian’ relations between human beings and the natural environment are
described. Furthermore, biomedicine became a philosophical, ideological and
political project by means of which a potentially mal-formed and mal-informed
populace of immigrants and natives, perverse, anomalous, pathological, might be
transformed into a body—collective and individual, female and male—capable of
properly enjoying the forward march of civilization.
Chapter 9
Uses of Finland in Japan’s Social Imaginary
Hideko Mitsui

Japan, Nostalgia and a Finnish Troll

Since the early 1990s, images of a fluffy and bipedal creature called ‘Moomin’
(mūmin) have become ubiquitous in Japan’s commodity landscape, appearing
in the TV commercials of major Japanese corporations such as Shiseido and
Nissan, and on a variety of goods for popular consumption.1 ‘Moomintroll’ – or
Moomin, as he is fondly called in the English-speaking world – is the protagonist
in fantasy stories written by a Swedish-speaking Finnish artist and writer Tove
Jansson (1914–2001). The Moomin coffee mugs made by ARABIA, a high-end
Finnish manufacturer of porcelain tableware, are ‘guaranteed’ to please those
who receive them as gifts. Every time the limited edition Moomin mugs appear
on the market they are immediately sold out, even though they often cost over
200 Euros each. For the budget-conscious, more affordable Moomin tableware,
licensed and manufactured in Japan, are widely available in neighbourhood shops.
Convenience stores regularly run ‘Moomin Fairs’. One can buy every plausible
stationery item and household gadget imprinted with characters from the Moomin
stories, including cheese fondue kits, chopsticks, lunchboxes, toys and furniture.
Bloggers show off their latest acquisitions of ‘rare’ (rea) Moomin items to one
another, and the official Moomin Twitter regularly tweets on the latest Moomin
merchandise, imported or license-produced in Japan, and Moomin-related events.
Moomin cafés serving troll-shaped pastries and Moomin character-themed soft
drinks are packed with adults with or without children. Despite the economic
stagnation and the general decline in consumer spending since the burst of the
bubble-economy in 1991, anything portraying a Moomin image seems to sell
regardless of its price.
Moomin’s international acclaim began in Britain in the 1950s when the
Moomin comic strips featured in The Evening News became a social phenomenon.
North America was in fact one of few places where the Moomin comic did not
succeed; the Pasadena Independent was the only paper that expressed an interest
(Tomihara 2005: 42), but Moomin books and comic books circulated widely in
Europe. Jansson became one of the most revered authors in the history of children’s

1 An earlier version of this chapter was published under the title ‘Moomintroll and
Japan’s Social Imaginary’, in Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological
Society 37(1): 5–21.
162 Reflections on Imagination

literature (ibid.: 14–21), and after a relatively quiet 1980s, she was ‘rediscovered’
as an artist, novelist and philosopher (McLoughlin and Brock 2007), which spurred
both academic and commercial attention in her works.
At first glance, Moomin appears to be one of many cute (kawaii) images printed
on a variety of mass-market commodities that appeal to Japan’s ‘cutie culture’
(Kinsella 1995). In the discourse of business strategy in Japan, the ‘character
power’ (kyarakutā pawā) has now become a received term referring to the magical
ability of such cute characters such as ‘Hello Kitty’ and ‘Pokémon’ to interpellate
consumers into a lifestyle where they form an affective relationship with the
characters (see Allison 2006). The popularity of ‘Miffy’ (or ‘Nijntje Pluis’ in the
Dutch original) of Dick Bruna’s picture books is arguably the closest counterpart
to that of Moomin in the Japanese cute character market, as their European roots
seem to constitute one of the key components of their charm: Japanese fans go on
organised pilgrimage tours to their homelands, that is, to Finland in order to visit
the Moomin theme park and museums, and to Utrecht to visit the Miffy Museum.
Miffy has also starred in the advertisements of large Japanese corporations. Both
Moomin and Miffy are inspiring an imagination of ‘Europe’ as a far-away utopian
space. I focus here on Moomin rather than other characters and mascots that are
equally if not more commercially successful in Japan, as he offers a privileged
access to nostalgia as a situated, cultural practice in the transforming sociocultural
context of post-bubble-economy, post-affluence Japan.

Moomin and Pastness

‘Natsukashii!’ (it makes me feel nostalgic) is a comment frequently made by

adults when they see the images of Moomin and friends. Moomin indeed reminds
many people of their own childhood in 1970s and ’80s, when they used to watch
the Moomin animation series on TV. However, a similar sense of nostalgia
is expressed by members of much younger generations who did not watch the
Moomin animation series when they were children, indicating that this ‘pastness’
that is associated with Moomin is not necessarily rooted in one’s own experience
of the past, but is rather, importantly, a purported shared imagination of the past
in the present. Moomin, in other words, connotes a sense of pastness in the social
imaginary. By exploring what people and institutions attribute to Moomin as a
signifier of what had been lost and is yearned for in contemporary Japan, we can
zero-in on the realm of the social imaginary. In what follows, I attempt to trace the
ways in which Moomin operates as the souvenir that invokes memories of the past,
and how representations of Moomin ‘envelop the present within the past’ (Stewart
1993: 151). I begin by offering a brief historical background to the moment when
Moomin first arrived in Japan in 1960s, then describe the construction of ‘pastness’
that Moomin enables in a variety of media and commercial representations, namely
as a symbol of nature-friendliness and values beyond capitalism. After discussing
the salient ways in which Moomin enables the imagination of the past in the
Uses of Finland in Japan’s Social Imaginary 163

present, we turn to the simultaneously nostalgic and future-oriented yearnings in

Japan for Finland as a utopia.

Moomin and Japan’s Hopeful Past

The following is a brief historical sketch of the moments when Moomin made his
appearances in Japan so as to contextualise the pastness that the figure of Moomin
evokes among Japanese consumers. When the first Japanese translation of the
Moomin stories arrived in Japan in 1964, the Japanese local boards of education
and child education specialists designated it as recommended reading for primary
schools. The Moomin story thus started out as a ‘teacher-recommended’ children’s
novel from Europe. Moomin’s initial, school-certified image was modified into
something less high-brow and more mass-oriented through the Japanese-produced
animation of Moomin, which began in 1969 as the first in the celebrated animation
programme series in Japan. The Moomin animation was re-run numerous times in
the 1970s, and those who watched the programme as children, that is, those who
were now in their mid-thirties and above, remember having watched the Moomin
animation from ‘the good old days’. But as to those who are younger and did not
watch the show in the 1970s, how do they ‘remember’ Moomin as an icon of
nostalgia? Below I will introduce the historical moment when Moomin entered
Japan in the 1960s.
By the time the first Japanese translation of Moomin was published in Japan
in 1964, Japan’s economy had officially recovered from the devastation of the
Second World War defeat: the 1956 Report from the Economic Planning Agency
Coordination Bureau notably concluded with a statement that Japan was no longer
under post-war conditions (‘mohaya sengo dewa nai’), economically speaking.
In other words, it was when the peaceful and comfortable everyday lives of the
‘postwar middle-class’ (Gluck 2003: 297) were beginning to flourish. Moomin was
the first in the renowned series of the World Masterpiece Theatre (Sekai meisaku
gekijō) that produced and aired Japanese-animated adaptations of classic children’s
literature, written by mainly European and a few North American authors. The series
later successfully exported its adaptations of classic novels for children, including
Spyri’s Heidi and De Amicis’s Cuore, ‘back’ to Europe. When the World Masterpiece
Theatre series began in 1969, the majority of Japanese families owned a TV, as
it post-dates the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964 when ownership of a television
became widespread for a large segment of the population (Ueno 2009: 177). Mūmin
thus became a piece of popular family-oriented entertainment to be watched as part
of post-dinner quality time on Sundays. Hence, when someone who grew up in Japan
in the 1960s or 1970s speaks of Moomin, he or she tends to do so with a fondness for
the atmosphere of domestic bliss of the era. Whether he or she actually experienced
the bliss does not matter so much as the vague but widely shared sense that ‘back
then’ – that is, before the arrivals of cell phones, videogames and iPods, which drove
individual family members to spend their free time separately – a family could
afford quality time as a unit, watching the same TV programme. More importantly,
164 Reflections on Imagination

the memories of family life in the 1970s, of which Moomin is a memorable part,
evoke a then widespread sense of hopeful anticipation, in a period when people
could imagine and aspire to a more affluent future while already enjoying the fruits
of the post-war economic growth. Although Moomin’s Scandinavian origin was
not emphasised or even detectable in the first animation series, the imagination of
an affluent future for Japan may have been associated with an image of Northern
Europe, or Scandinavia (Hokuō), that people held in Japan in the 1960s and in the
early 1970s, when Scandinavia signified, to some extent, the goal of economic and
social development that Japan as a nation wished to follow.
The memory of the idyllic and blissful 1970s is made immaculate by virtue of
its contrast with the ensuing ‘Gilded Age’ of Japan, that is, the bubble-economy
period of the late 1980s to the beginning of the 1990s. By the late 1980s, Japan
had become the most prosperous nation in the world in terms of the GDP. Images
of Japanese tourists flocking to Louis Vuitton andTiffany’s, buying up their most
expensive luxury items, circulated in the domestic and international media. Miyako
Inoue, in her analysis of the making of gendered neoliberal subjects in late capitalist
Japan, characterises the bubble era as one of ‘extreme economic optimism’ when
a ‘euphoric sense of abundance’ (2006: 201) led people to fantasise about social
mobility through the ownership of commodities that signified the class positions
to which they aspired. When the economic boom officially ended in 1991, such
fantasies about consumption-mediated social mobility became no longer tenable.
The society as a whole quickly had to adjust from Gilded-Age euphoria to a post-
affluence condition, now with a widespread sense of fatigue and malaise, along
with the awareness that their society was now officially recessionary. The language
of social pathology permeated the media, and while the hyper-consumerist culture
of the bubble era was missed by some, it was more often blamed for having caused
social and moral disintegration largely through the destruction of the ‘good old’
family and community values. The bubble-economy in this narration was the
cause for the disruption of what is now remembered as the idyllic pre-economic-
boom Japan.
The 1970s Japan that is fondly remembered now as idyllic and prelapsarian was
in fact plagued with environmental pollution and political turmoil, and while the
effect of ‘the burst’ of the bubble was traumatic for some, others do not feel affected
at all. Whether the above periodisation of Japan’s recent past as (1) pre-bubble
Japan (innocent, idyllic and hopeful), (2) bubble-economy (wealthy, decadent and
immoral) and (3) post-bubble (hopeless, fatigued and anomic) is historically valid is
debatable. What is relevant here is that these socioeconomic and cultural transitions
are widely understood to have occurred during the interval between Moomin’s first
appearance in Japan in the 1970s and his return in the 1990s.

Moomin and Critique of Capitalism

Legend has it that Tove Jansson was extremely unhappy with the first Japanese
TV adaptation of her Moomin stories aired between 1969 and the mid-1970s
Uses of Finland in Japan’s Social Imaginary 165

because one of the characters, Snork – Moomin’s girlfriend Snorkmaiden’s

elder brother – owns and drives a car. Moreover, Moominpappa in the Japanese
animation adaptation keeps a gun at home. Japanese fans of Moomin novels tend
to cite this legend to explain to me why the otherwise much-loved first Moomin
animation series from 1969 is never to be seen or sold in Japan or elsewhere.
Tove Jansson allegedly allowed only the animation created in the early 1990s
entitled The Happy Moomin Family (Tanoshii Mūmin ikka) to be aired or sold,
as she made sure her worldview was not misrepresented in the second series.
Masaaki Osumi, the director of the first Moomin animation series regrets in his
blog (entry on 4 September 2008) that Tove Jansson misunderstood the Japanese
producers’ intentions when she was displeased to see representations of cars, fights
and money in the Japanese adaptation of Moomin. Whether or not, and exactly
how, Jansson spoke of her oft-quoted principle of allowing ‘no car, no fight, and
no money’ into her stories is in fact rather uncertain. Mayumi Tomihara, who
translated several of the Moomin stories and wrote extensively on Moomin for a
popular audience, speculated instead that Jansson was, in fact, displeased with the
Japanese producers’ exploitation of Moomin in their desire to produce a political
commentary and to question the status quo of Japanese society in the highly
politicised moment of 1970s Japan (Tomihara 2005: 54–5). What is of interest
here is not so much what actually happened, but the effect of the much more
widely circulated story that Moomin is a product and a legitimate representative
of the author’s worldview.
Take, for instance, the 27th episode of the second animation series, Rich
Auntie Jane (Okanemochi no Jēn obasan). One day, Moominpappa receives a
letter from his wealthy aunt, Jane, who has decided to leave him her large fortune
as an inheritance. Moominpappa appears to be extremely wearied by his aunt’s
decision, which puzzles his family as well as his neighbours in the valley. He
confesses to his family and friends that he is not comfortable with his aunt because
she is the type of person who gets people to submit to her because of her money.
Moominmamma responds to him merrily: ‘I agree with you, and fortunately
indeed, one thing we never had much to do with in our life so far is money!’ and
supports Moominpappa’s desire to get out of inheriting the large sum of money
from his aunt. But Auntie Jane does come to town and, after looking all over the
place for Moominpappa, she finally catches him hiding in a cave, playing chess
with Snufkin. Moominpappa begs her to give the money away to others who are
in need. Auntie Jane then collapses in tears, believing her nephew has refused
the money so that he will not have to take care of her in her old age. Surprised,
Moominpappa tells her that he loves her very much, and he would be very happy
if she moved in to live with the family. Auntie Jane is so touched by her nephew’s
invitation that she happily gives her money away to the eccentric inventors in
Moominvalley. Now that the money is out of the picture, peace and moral order
are restored in the valley, leading to a happy ending.
On Japanese blogs and Moomin fansites, Moominmamma’s support of her
husband’s decision not to take money from his aunt is seen as something of a surprise.
166 Reflections on Imagination

Moominmamma is a housewife who, in Japanese contexts, is normally expected to

assume the role of managing and strategising household financial matters. While
she agrees with her husband’s decision, she does not simply obey the decision of
the head of the household. Even though the animation series is a co-production
by a multinational team, including Japanese producers, the democratic and
non-hierarchical manner in which matters of money are discussed between a
couple as equal parties seems to be refreshing and eye-opening if not outright
exotic for a Japanese viewer. Moreover, the episode represents Moominpappa’s
hospitality towards the aunt and his invitation for her to come and live with the
family as the gift that Auntie Jane’s money alone can never reciprocate. That is
to say, the transaction took place somewhere beyond the system of commodity
exchange and capitalism, which is also outside the traditional confines of filial
obligations. Moomintrolls’s family relations suggest that there may be a space
beyond capitalism and outside the constraints of the family as an institution that is
conventionally and traditionally defined.
The idea that money cannot buy happiness is constantly reiterated in other
episodes of Moomin stories where, for example, a character is wise and happy
because he or she is unconcerned about monetary gain or loss. Snufkin, a nomadic
friend of Moomin, is by far the most charismatic provider of one-liners that
succinctly capture his doubts and sometimes fears of material ownership and greed
for consumer goods. The Twitter account ‘Memorable quotes from Moominvalley
(@Moomin_Valley)’ (Moomindani no meigen) which has approximately 276,000
followers as of November 2013, frequently feeds Snufkin quotes about scepticism
towards materialist obsessions and consumerist desires.
Combined with the legend of Jansson’s worldview of ‘no money, no car,
no fight’, these subplots of Moomin stories with subtly critical references to
consumerism and materialism authenticate Moomin as the messenger of Jansson’s
own scepticism, if not disdain, towards money and consumerism. This image
in turn also lends legitimacy to Moomin as a reminder of Japan’s pre-bubble-
economy past and as an object of nostalgic yearning. While invoking the nostalgia
for the pre-bubble past, which was still untainted by consumerism, Moomin is
not proposing any radical or revolutionary change in the consumerist lifestyle
itself. He instead simply suggests that wanting and owning too much money may
become an obstacle to one’s attainment of happiness. The idea that an excess
of money is the troublemaker underwrites a particular remembrance of Japan’s
recent past, in the course of which Japan has been victimised by this excess,
something external to the society itself and more akin to the comet from outer
space or a flood, threatening the peace and order of Moominvalley. The memory of
untainted and uncontaminated pre-bubble Japan can be conflated with images of
idyllic Moominvalley, and with Moomin himself as an embodiment of Jansson’s
scepticism towards money and a consumerist society. These images and stories
appear to have contributed to the symbolic operations that gradually re-signified
Moomin into a nostalgic and redemptive commodity. Narrating and recalling
Japan’s recent past in such a manner resonates with what Renato Rosaldo (1989)
Uses of Finland in Japan’s Social Imaginary 167

critiqued as ‘imperialist nostalgia’, a term that powerfully captures a symptom

of the mentality of a coloniser who, under the name of civilising mission or
‘development’, takes part in the destruction of the indigenous and traditional ways
of life of the colonised, then laments and mourns the loss of what he himself
destroyed (ibid.: 108). When people mourn the loss of Japan’s idyllic, pre-bubble-
economy past, they are simultaneously establishing themselves as innocent parties
or victims of a distant historical incident that caused its loss. In the following
section I explore whether Moomin may be seen as complicit in the making of
a nostalgia that could be characterised as ‘imperialist’, by introducing another
salient theme that Moomin constantly invokes in Japan.

Moomin and Nature

The nostalgia which Moomin evokes also pertains to nature and environmental
ethics. From the mid-1990s onwards, images of Moomin began to circulate in
major Japanese corporations’ advertisement campaigns. One salient theme under
which Moomin appeared in these advertisements was that of nature-friendliness.
In this section, I will introduce several examples of the uses of Moomin in Japanese
corporate advertisements, and examine the emergent senses and desires for a new
lifestyle that Moomin represents in post-bubble-economy Japanese society.
In 2000, the Nippon Meat Packers (known in Japan as Nippon Ham), Japan’s
largest meat processing company, began running the ‘Scent of the Forest’ (morino
kaori) PR campaign and featuring Moomin. For the 2010 sweepstakes, Nippon
Ham asked the entrants to: (1) send in a proof of purchase of ‘Scent of the Forest’
sausages and (2) to name what Nippon Ham has been trying to reduce, through its
new environmentalist efforts. The campaign adverts provided a clue and asked the
consumers to fill in the blanks in the following phrase: ‘carbon-XXXXprint’. Prizes
included electrically operated ‘eco-bicycles’, Moomin toys and commemorative
plates. For every entry made, the company donated 50 yen to tree-planting and
other counter-deforestation causes. The ‘Scent of the Forest’ campaign included
the new packaging of the Nippon Meat Packers’ sausages which indicated the sum
of the carbon footprint in the production of their merchandise. The word ‘forest’
(mori) used in the title of the campaign makes an obvious reference to the already
existing image of the forests in Moominvalley, where many of the Moomin stories
take place, which gives out a vague sense that by choosing the Nippon Ham
sausages, one is contributing to the protection of Moomin’s habitat, the forest.
According to a Nippon Ham representative who responded to my query by email,
Moomin was chosen as the best messenger for their ‘Scent of the Forest’ campaign
because Moomin not only lived in harmony with nature, but also tended to raise
important questions, about ‘family’, ‘nature’ and ‘time’ for us all to think about.
Nippon Ham, in other words, was aware of the widely-shared idea in Japan that
Moomin lived in harmony with nature and that the Moomin stories tended to raise
philosophical, ethical questions about life. Hence, the advertisement was created
168 Reflections on Imagination

within and in negotiation with the intertextual web of images where Moomin was
already loosely but legitimately linked to the idea of nature-friendliness and a
moral and ethical engagement with the world.
Nissan is another corporation that starred Moomin and his friend Snufkin in
its TV commercials for the ‘retro’ sports utility vehicle Rasheen. The advert for
Rasheen represents Moomin’s closeness and friendliness with nature. It is set in a
forest where a clay-animated Moomin is gazing at shooting stars in the sky, while
muttering his signature philosophical question about human (and troll) nature:
‘Why do humans travel?’ Snufkin then emerges from the woods to stand in front
of a Rasheen, inviting Moomin to join in his adventure. Then the viewers see the
same SUV driving through a forest, and the advert ends with a scene where Snufkin
and Moomin stand together by a serene lake. That the SUV Rasheen is sometimes
misconstrued as a hybrid, eco-vehicle, is due to the same intertexual effect, which
encourages consumers to associate Moomin with nature and environmental ethics.
There are more examples where the naturalised link between Moomin and nature
is exploited. For instance, since 1998 Teijin Textiles, part of Teijin Chemicals and
Pharmaceuticals (net income 765,840 million yen as of 2010), starred all of the
Moomin characters in its TV commercials. The signature pitch is: ‘Teijin: humans
who make humans happy’ (hito wo shiawaseni suru ningen). One of their adverts
for heat-retaining fibre shows the main characters of the Moomin stories dancing
hand-in-hand in a big circle on a grassy field, to what sounds like a folksong
of unidentified origin. Many viewers wondered where the song came from, and
were surprised to know that it was in fact composed by a Japanese songwriter
named Otaka Shizuru, who takes inspiration from world music. The scenery
indicates the imminent arrival of cold winter. Then the voice-over gently narrates:
‘When without clothes, there is no weaker species than human beings’. The
perspective gradually shifts from the dancing Moomin characters to the panorama
of Moominvalley surrounded by a brown, arid chain of mountains. The narration
continues: ‘We work diligently towards the happiness of the species called human
beings’. All this segues into the introduction of Teijin’s technology to produce
heat-retaining fibre.
Another Teijin commercial aired in 1998 markets its flameproof fabrics in a
similar manner, only this time the humans are to be protected by the Teijin fabrics
from fire instead of the cold: it first shows Moomin, Snufkin and Sniff making
pancakes over a bonfire, an obvious quotation from a scene in The Comet in
Moominland (2003 [1946]: 41). Then the view shifts to Moomin’s parents sitting
side by side at home, seemingly concerned about Moomin and his friends being
so close to the fire. As they both gaze out of the window, the view shifts again to
Moomin, Sniff and Snufkin in front of the flame, and then to the introduction of
Teijin’s technology for fire-resistant fabric. In these two Teijin adverts, technology
is repeatedly narrated as relating to the safety and welfare of human beings, and as
something that protects human beings from the menace of nature.
In yet another Teijin commercial, Moomin and his girlfriend Snorkmaiden
are moved to tears by the pristine beauty of a rainbow in front of a waterfall.
Uses of Finland in Japan’s Social Imaginary 169

The voice-over narrates gently: ‘This rainbow is not the same as the one we see
tomorrow. This is why we would like to remember it. Teijin’s technology transforms
“memory” [kioku] into “record” [kiroku]’. An image of optical discs follows the
narration, suggesting that Teijin’s optical technology can help conserve even the
most ephemeral of beautiful things, such as a rainbow, by storing its images on
discs. This narration inverts the relationship between the ephemerality of nature
and corporate-led technological development. Technological advancement
becomes re-signified from what accelerated the disappearance of pristine nature
into the benefactor, if not saviour of, nature. The tension between technology and
nature is at least temporarily resolved by the figure of Moomin, who appreciates
the power of technology to protect human beings from the menace of nature (as
in the fire and cold-resistant fabrics), and to preserve the ephemeral beauty of
nature that may be in the process of disappearing. Moomin, by standing in for
human beings and linking nature and technology, enables ideas of humane and
ethical technology and corporate capitalism to make sense, if only momentarily
and within the representational frame of the adverts.

Moomin and Ambient Ethics

I have thus far described the ways in which Moomin’s capacity to conjure up the
feeling of ‘the good and old’ is used to market a variety of commodities in Japan,
ranging from processed meat and synthetic fabrics to sports utility vehicles. Within
the frame of corporate advertisements that feature Moomin, commodities that he
endorses acquire an aura of nature-friendliness and an idea of ethical engagement
with the world, which in turn is associated with the author Tove Jansson’s ethical
commitments. An association between Moomin, ethics and Tove Jansson is a
subtle and unstable one by virtue of its formation. And yet, the fact that Moomin
has been such a darling mascot for many corporate advertisements attests to his
power as the souvenir to ‘envelope’ the present in the past (Stewart 1993).
By choosing products that have the aura of ethical engagement, those who
shop for the commodities endorsed by Moomin can feel somewhat better about
their own participation in a consumer society. I thus locate Moomin’s strength
in his ability to evoke an ambience of ethical lifestyle, gently indexing the good
old values and lifestyles that have been lost or effaced in the course of economic
development and modernisation. The ambience generated by Moomin as the
souvenir thus invites the consumers to recall what was lost – that is, nature-friendly
and less materialistic ways of life – while writing themselves out of the making of
the loss of the good and old. And in this low-intensity, nostalgic ambience, an act
of consumption becomes repackaged into a vaguely ethical, redemptive act.
Subjectivities of consumers who seek for such redemptive feelings may be
captured by what Toby Miller (1993) terms ‘well-tempered selves’. Miller explains
that, while citizens of a liberal capitalist society are expected to be economically
maximising, rational and selfish individuals, their living-out of such an economistic
personhood leaves them with a sense of ‘ethical incompleteness’ (Miller 1993:
170 Reflections on Imagination

ix). This sense of incompleteness, according to Miller, in turn urges them to train
themselves to attain another persona, which is that of a community-minded,
socially enfranchised constituent of a given collective. By wrapping himself in an
ambience that is underwritten by a vague desire and preference for pre-capitalist,
nature-friendly and ethical world, Moomin makes himself into a commodity that
can be purchased with some sense of redemption, and, importantly, while asking
the consumers to keep participating in capitalism as consumers and workers.
Moomin’s ability to create an ambience that envelopes and tames a variety of
tensions and paradoxes of contemporary political economic conditions addresses
the predicaments of a ‘well-tempered’ subject of contemporary Japan.

Finland and the Imagination of Futures

I have been discussing the ways in which Moomin links the present with the past,
serving as the souvenir that can recall things that have disappeared or are in the
process of disappearing. I have suggested that due to Moomin’s capacity to lend an
aura of innocence and benevolence to virtually any commodity, he may risk being
aligned with the celebratory narrative of economic growth and technological
progress. That is, his aura may be appropriated to contribute to the rewriting of the
history of exploitation, conquest and ravaging of nature into a vaguely felt, ‘history
without guilt’ (Sturken 1997: 76) or ‘imperialist nostalgia’ (Rosaldo 1989). Here I
would place Moomin in slightly different contexts, where he becomes part of the
imagination of the future. I have shown thus far the ways in which Moomin can
displace attention from the present to the past, as he normally does as the souvenir
(Stewart 1993: 151). In this section I would like to explore whether he can still
serve as a souvenir which redirects nostalgic attention and affect to the future.
Providing a background to the various associations made between Moomin
and the future in Japan is the recently ignited fascination with Finland as Japan’s
utopian Other and role model, and the metonymic link made between Moomin
and Finland. Since the nineteenth century, Nordic countries glossed as Hokuō
(Northern Europe), as an aggregate of small but strong, modern and politically
autonomous nations have interested Japanese politicians concerned with building
Japan into a modern nation. In postwar Japan, and especially since the 1960s,
Japanese sociologists have begun paying attention to the wholesomeness of social
institutions in Sweden and Denmark. In other words, Hokuō has a track record
of offering Japan models and tips for nation-building and social engineering. In
recent years, the interest in Hokuō became popularised and widespread, especially
today with particular attention paid to Finland as the strongest achiever in the
arena of education. For instance, at Hokkaido University in 2010, a lecture
course entirely dedicated to discussion of Finland and Moomin was offered. This
semester-long course addressed the question of how and what Japan should learn
from Finland; it was entitled ‘The Land of Moomintrolls’ (Mūmin no kuni), with
all nine of the Moomin storybooks as required course reading material, along with
Uses of Finland in Japan’s Social Imaginary 171

recently published articles and books on Finnish education and social welfare
systems. Moomin is used here to show the stability and wholesomeness of Finnish
society. Moominvalley was treated in the course as an allegorical representation
of Finnish society, where people are civil, intelligent, honest and not obsessed
with material desires, an image consistent with that of Moomin in the existing
literary and commercial representations. This utopian, idealised image of Finnish
people and culture had a great deal to do with the recent news on Finnish pupils’
competitiveness in the international educational league table (PISA, a shorthand
for The Programme for International Student Assessment which is administered
by the OECD) that has intrigued policymakers and education specialists around
the world, who all seem to wonder, ‘How did the Finns do it?’
Popular ‘how-to’ accounts of ‘the Finnish method’ of education and business
management, as well as reports on Finnish culture and society published by
Japanese authors with some experience of the Finnish education system or
workplace, make up a genre with guaranteed readership. Many of the popular
books on Finnish culture are written by Japanese women who have moved to
Finland through study-abroad programmes or through marriage to Finnish men.
Among these women, there is obviously a strong sense that Finland, more than
any other Hokuō country, can suggest suitable remedies for Japan’s current social
predicaments. In 2008, Tokiko Horiuchi, one such cultural translator, who had
studied in Jyväskylä, Finland, published a collection of essays entitled Finland:
Methods of Wealth (Finrando: yutakasa no mesoddo). The book’s promotional
sleeve states in bold print: ‘[Finland is] the polar opposite to bankrupt Japan –
what is the secret to its growth-without-inequality?’ In an even bolder font it states
that Finland ‘ranked top on the children’s scholastic aptitude league table and
on the international economic competitiveness scale for four consecutive years!’
Throughout Methods of Wealth, the Finnish education system is treated as the key
point of entry into the mystery of success of the Finns. Central to each chapter
is the author’s personal accounts of Finland, and the book itself is organised
around the following themes: (1) Finland’s democratic social institutions and
the remarkable importance accorded to education; (2) people’s less materialist
and therefore saner and healthier ways of living; and (3) cultural similarities
between the Japanese and the Finns. Finnish society’s commitment to education
is emphasised throughout the book as something that the Japanese should and
could easily learn from. Clearly, in the background of the emphasis on ‘equality’
is the idea that Japan’s social problems stem from the loss of middle-class culture
following the burst of the bubble-economy and the heightened sense of social
inequality (kakusa) as a result. This sense of inequality among people in Japan,
with the demise of the myths of social mobility through hard work, is contrasted
with Finnish society’s success in achieving domestic equality and the society’s
international competitiveness. Those things that make up the wholesomeness of
Finnish everyday life are then described as the quintessentially Finnish lifestyle
that is close to nature, in touch with the environment and, thus, ecologically
sound. By stressing cultural similarities between the Finns and the Japanese in
172 Reflections on Imagination

the final section, which compares different ‘traits’ of the two groups ranging from
linguistic structures to temperaments, the author suggests that the Japanese are as
predisposed to success as the Finns.
Another cultural translator and writer named Sachiko Kutsuke writes of her
observation and analysis of Finnish society and culture in her web-based essays.
In her essay ‘Finland: Europe’s “Second Happiest” Nation’ (2008), she cites the
2007 report on the European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS) conducted by the
Eurofound which ranked Finland as the second happiest nation in Europe. She
claims that the secret to Finland’s success in achieving a good life for everyone is
that Finnish people are never obsessed with material desires or with money. One
trait that critically distinguishes the Finns from the Japanese is Finnish people’s
lack of attachment to consumer goods. Unlike in Japan, she writes, there is no
cult of brand-name products, either. As an eye-opening anecdote for the Japanese,
she tells the Japanese readers that an average Finnish person would ask why ‘a
shirt with a tiny horse sewn on it is so expensive?’ obviously referring to a Ralph
Lauren shirt which Japanese consumers tend to buy despite its very high price.
She stresses that it is not the GDP, but it is the sense of equality and satisfaction
with one’s own life that enables the majority of Finnish population to enjoy the
status of being the second happiest nation. At the end of her essay she reminds the
reader to remember that Finnish people’s freedom from material desire is what
makes Finland a successful society, which Japanese society can and should learn
to achieve.
There is a simple yet powerful equation which these popular writings on
Finland present to their readers: if materialism and consumerism are subtracted
from Japanese society, it can become healthier, happier, and stronger, just as it
used to be in the pre-bubble-economy past, and, just like the Finns are in the
present. In other words, ‘the Finnish society’ as Japan’s potentially attainable
utopia or a parallel universe is imagined by way of the nostalgia felt towards the
original, authentic state of pre-bubble Japan. In the sense that what one yearns for
tells a great deal about who one is (Gordin et al. 2010: 5): the utopian discourse
on Finland is to be considered as a new discourse on Japaneseness, or Nihonjinron
(Befu 2001). In Nihonjinron, the cultural uniqueness and incommensurability of the
Japanese typically served as an explanation for Japan’s inability and unwillingness
to respond to the call to ‘internationalise’ and open up its market and psyche. The
recent surge of interest in Finland as Japan’s wholesome and utopic alter ego makes
an explanatory gesture as well, only this time premised upon Japanese culture’s
similarity to, and commensurability with, another ‘unique’ national culture, which
is that of Finland, and to suggest that Japanese society can restore its wholesome
self by emulating the Finns.
The above-introduced discourse on Finland as a ‘method’ or ‘manual’ for Japan
tends to stress the effectiveness of the ‘Finnish system’ that is often arbitrarily
defined. Though definitions may vary, there is a general, agreed-upon idea in
Japan that the ‘Finnish system’ fosters strong and internationally competitive
individuals. And importantly, the ‘Finnish individual’ is imagined to be able to
Uses of Finland in Japan’s Social Imaginary 173

withstand the intensifying pressures from the globalised market logic which is
penetrating multiple domains of people’s lives. The Finland-as-method discourse
pertaining to education and competitiveness in fact emerged at a moment when
people anticipated an intensification of neoliberalism in Japanese society. In 2003,
the philosopher Tetsuya Takahashi warned of serious implications of the then-
proposed (now implemented) amendments to the Fundamental Laws of Education
of the Japanese Constitution. The suggested amendments would rewrite the
purpose of education from the nurturance of individual personality and dignity,
as was written into the original post-war constitution, into one that defines the
function of education as the training of younger generations as a convenient
labour reserve that would strategically contribute to Japan’s nation-building in
the era of globalised competition (Takahashi 2003: 113). In other words, Japan’s
education as an institution with egalitarian and humanistic ideals was about to
be rewritten into one that served the neoliberal State, an apparatus to create and
re-inscribe the elite–mass gaps (ibid.: 115). It is probably not a coincidence, then,
that Finland’s success in maintaining a sense of equality and satisfaction in society
caught Japanese people’s attention at a moment when definitions of ‘winners’ and
‘losers’ in life were topics that attracted a wide spectrum of readers and writers in
Japan. Hence, ‘Finland’ as an exemplar and utopia appealed not only to those who
were simply concerned about productivity and efficiency of social institutions, but
importantly, to those who were not necessarily embracing the neoliberal future and
neoliberalism’s potentially dehumanising prospects.
Finland as a utopia for Japan is also depicted in an autobiography written by
a young Japanese woman chronicling her experience as an international transfer
student in Finland. Entitled Because I Saw a Blue Ray of Light: A Chronicle of
Study Abroad in Finland by a Sixteen-Year Old (Aoi hikariga mietakara: 16sai
no Finrando ryūgakuki) (2007), the book shows a Finnish translation of the title
in the centre of the front cover printed in light blue: Koska näin sinisen valo:
16-vuotiaan muistelmat opiskelusta Suomessa. The book cover is deceptively
innocuous, and gives out an impression that it is probably light reading about a
fun and probably heart-warming experience in Finland. A sales line is printed on
the sleeve: ‘I’ll be a high school student in Finland!’ The cover only indicates that
it is about a 16-year-old girl’s experience of a Finnish high school, so one might
also think that it is one of those books that capitalise on the existing, practical
interest in Finnish education. But the enthusiastic responses from young students
and adults alike, expressed in book reviews, on numerous blogs and Twitter feeds
indicate there is something more to its popularity. The book is neither a practical
guide to Finnish education nor is it an invitation to a shopping trip to Helsinki. It
is a powerful existentialist Bildungsroman of an initially meek little girl who was
terrified by her surroundings: her schoolteachers, who were prone to random and
violent corporeal punishment, and the ostracism, bullying and the oppressively
hierarchical relationships among pupils. The author, Erika Takahashi, recounts her
encounter with Moomin when she was 10, which subsequently made her decide
she wanted to go to Finland to study. She compares her old self with the timid and
174 Reflections on Imagination

fearful Toffle (Knytt), one of the characters in the Moomin stories. Erika, too, was
saved by Snufkin who inspired Toffle to live and think independently, without
worshipping or deferring to anyone. Erika’s autobiography is about her journey
from Hokkaido to Finland in search of her own freedom, strength and self-esteem
against all odds. Moomin in her narrative signifies the pastness by standing in for
her childhood self that was yet to be tainted by what she recalls as the oppressive
socialisation in Japanese schools. She looks back on how moving to Finland saved
her by providing her with the sense of authentic self:

… unexpectedly, Finland gave me back “my own self as it used to be originally,

in its authentic state” which I had lost … Everyone I met here [in Finland]
turned out to be as eccentric a character as the inhabitants of Moominvalley, and
I initially found it a bit strange that they all seemed to uphold their own sense
of individual selves, leading their lives as they liked. And yet, the society as a
whole seemed harmonious to me, because each individual understood that it was
natural for people to be different from one another. Despite all the differences,
they could accept each other just as they were. People of this country own the
most fundamental rights of men, which is the freedom “to be just as they are”.
(280–81, my translation)

She recounts her own childhood self when she first encountered Moomin books
as an original, authentic one, which she had lost track of because of intense and
oppressive socialisation through schooling in Japan. Acknowledging that it was
thanks to the memory of her encounter with Moomin that she eventually travelled
to Finland, she likens Finland to Moominvalley, where one’s personality, even
eccentricity, is respected. Indeed, the entire book focuses on what Nigel Rapport has
termed having a ‘life-project’, that is, ‘a kind of self-theorizing and self-intensity
that affords an individual life a directionality and a force’ (2003: 33). Erika’s
tireless quest for her own selfhood and its authenticity exhorts the reader to break
free from social and cultural constraints that stifle individuality. Her narrative of
pursuit of independence and individualism sends a potentially subversive message,
particularly in the social and political climate where constitutional reforms were
rewriting the ideal of education and schooling into a more conservative, oppressive
one. For instance, the book presents a stark contrast between Japanese and Finnish
education, critiquing the Japanese system which was killing her individuality that
was subsequently saved by Finnish education, which she describes as a uniquely
Finnish cultural institution that respects individuality.
Despite the critical content of the book that suggests to young people that they
should live freely and independently and to think outside the system, this book is
in fact officially recommended reading for young pupils in Japan, and is endorsed
by the national school board and library association. The book’s popularity with
the school boards may be because it is about Finland, a country associated with
the idea of effective schooling. While some readers of the book may feel invited to
imagine their life as a project à la Rapport, completely outside the current system
Uses of Finland in Japan’s Social Imaginary 175

that the author critiques, others may read it as a success story of a girl who trains
herself to become a strong individual in the neoliberal sense, through her hard work
and academic achievements in a challenging environment. There is indeed any
number of possible readings of the story, and any number of uses that the readers
can make out of it, depending on what each reader reads into Finland and Moomin
as signs. And it seems that it is precisely the unstable and un-fixed signification of
Finland and Moomin that allows diverse, if not radical re-imagination of possible
futures for one’s own trajectories.


In this chapter I have attempted to shed light on the multiplicity of images, stories
and discourses that Moomin and Finland invoke in late capitalist, post-affluence
Japanese society. In the process, the idea of imagination as capacity becomes
fundamental, because of its social-institutional and heteronomous power on the
one hand, and its open-ended, unpredictable and radical capacity on the other
(Castoriadis 2007: 74). By exploring the ‘pastness’ that the Finnish troll conjures
up in Japan’s ‘social imaginary’, I could identify what people imagine to have been
lost in the past and to be yearned for in the present. The imagination of the past
as a utopia, in other words, enabled a search of a lifestyle that was premised upon
the respect of pristine nature, ethical values beyond capitalism, and the original,
authentic state of one’s selfhood. The same goes with Moomin and Finland as
part of imagined, alternative futures. Featured and embedded in a variety of often
mutually irreconcilable narratives of consumerism, capitalism, neoliberalism,
environmentalism, critique of capitalism, individualism, community values,
Moomin has been opening up a variety of spaces where alternative futures are
imagined, by way of a utopia that is temporally and spatially far away.


Allison, Anne 2006 Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global
Imagination, Berkeley CA: University of California Press.
Befu, Harumi 2001 Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of
Nihonjinron, Victoria: Trans Pacific.
Castoriadis, Cornelius 2007 Figures of the Thinkable, Stanford CA: Stanford
University Press.
Gluck, Carol 2003 ‘The “End” of the Postwar: Japan at the Turn of the
Millennium’, in Jeffrey K. Olick (ed.) States of Memory: Continuities,
Conflicts, and Transformations in National Retrospection, Durham NC: Duke
University Press.
Gordin, Michael, Helen Tilley, Gyan Prakash (eds) 2010 Utopia/Dystopia:
Condition of Historical Possibilities, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
176 Reflections on Imagination

Horiuchi, Tokiko 2008 Finland: Methods of Wealth (Finrando: yutakasa no

mesoddo), Tokyo: Shooeisha.
Inoue, Miyako 2006 Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in
Japan, Berkeley CA: University of California Press.
Jansson, Tove 1946 [2003] Comet in Moomin Land, London: Penguin.
Kinsella, Sharon 1995 ‘Cuties in Japan’, in Lise Skov and Brian Moeran (eds)
Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, Richmond: Curzon; University of
Hawaii Press.
McLoughlin, Kate, and Malin Lidström Brock (eds) 2007 Tove Jansson
Rediscovered, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars.
Miller, Toby 1993 The Well-Tempered Self: Citizenship, Culture, and the
Postmodern Subject, Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Rapport, Nigel 2003 I am Dynamite: An Alternative Anthropology of Power,
London: Routledge.
Rosaldo, Renato 1989 ‘Imperialist Nostalgia’, Representations 26: 107–22.
Stewart, Kathleen 1988 ‘Nostalgia: A Polemic’, Cultural Anthropology
3(3): 227–41.
Stewart, Susan 1993 On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the
Souvenir, the Collection, Durham NC: Duke University Press.
Sturken, Marita 1997 Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic,
and the Politics of Remembering, Berkeley CA: University of California Press.
Takahashi, Erika 2007 Because I saw a Blue Ray of Light: A Chronicle of Study
Abroad in Finland by a Sixteen-Year Old (Aoi Hikariga Mietakara: 16 sai no
Finrando Ryūgakuki), Tokyo: Kōdansha.
Takahashi, Tetsuya 2003 ‘Hearts’ and War (‘Kokoro’ to sensō), Tokyo: Shōbunsha.
Tomihara, Mayumi 2005 Two Faces of Moomin (Mumin no Futatsuno Kao),
Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō.
Ueno, Chizuko 2009 ‘High Economic Growth Period and Lifestyle Revolution’
(Kōdokeizaiseichōki to seikatsu kakumei), in Minoru Iwasaki et al. (eds)
Postwar Japan Studies II (Sengonippon Sutadiizu II), Tokyo: Kinokuniya
Shoten Press.

Internet Sources

Kutsuke Sachiko 2008 ‘Finland: “The Second Happiest” Nation in Europe’ (Yōroppa
de nibanme ni shiawase na kuni, finrando),
post_556.html, accessed 25 December 2011.
Ōsumi Masaaki 2008 ‘Osumi Masaaki’s Workplace’ (Osumi Masaaki no
shigotoba),, accessed
22 December 2011.
Chapter 10
The Social Imaginary and Literature:
Understanding the Popularisation of Modern
Medicine in Brazil
Paulo César Alves

My aim here is a modest one. I would like to give an account of the social imaginary
that has underpinned the rise of modern medicine (biomedicine) in Brazil, a
phenomenon whose beginnings date from the late nineteenth century.1 More
specifically, the present chapter sets out to analyse the process of popularisation of
biomedicine at the fin de siècle,2 making use of the literary novel as an important
means of gaining access to the social imaginary.
A central concept used in the chapter will be that of ‘social imaginary’, a term
that has assumed diverse meanings throughout its history. For the objectives of the
present work, we take into account the concept as developed by Edmund Husserl
(2005), Charles Taylor (2004) and Cornelius Castoriadis (1986). For all these
authors the idea of the social imaginary is that of a mode of positing objects or
a way in which the world is re-presented. It departs from the presupposition that
everything that presents itself in the social historical world is woven in a fabric
both symbolic and practical. Even though institutions are not constituted solely of
symbolic components, they cannot exist without forming their own symbolic nets,
that is, without operations that support images of human praxis. These nets are
formed by meanings that structure stories, narratives, myths, evaluations, fantasies,
expectations, and memories that ground and legitimise the understandings which
people have of their collective practices. They are neither a perception of reality

1 See Madel Luz (1982); Weber (1999); Pereira Neto (2001); Chalhoub et al. (2003).
2 French expression for referring to the cultural climate of the end of the nineteenth
century. The term fin de siècle emerged in France in the 1880s to define a ‘cultural climate’
related to the idea of decadence, of a ‘sensation of finality’, chaos, but also the idea of
rebirth, of new projects and the promises of the century then beginning (see Jaguaribe 1998;
Meyer-Minnemann 1997). In certain ways, the notion of fin de siècle contrasted itself to the
belle époque (a ‘cultural climate’ usually characterised by the enthusiasm derived from the
material and technological conquests valorised by the ‘fine flower and cream’ of the urban
society at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Brazilian bibliography about the fin
de siècle and the belle époque is quite vast, amongst which one could include the work of
Needell (1987), Ponte (1993), Correa (1994), Schwarz and Costa (2000), Daou (2000), and
Saliba (2002), amongst others.
178 Reflections on Imagination

(the apprehension of a presently given object) nor a logical concept or theory.3

Instead, they have to do with the way ordinary people project and understand their
world, and they cannot be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines.
But it is important to stress that social imaginaries refer to operative schemes that
are present in both discourse and action. They are not restricted to the level of
discourse; they also require practices through which representations can become
meaningful. In the realm of the imaginary, discourse and practice refer to one
another and are mutually implicated.
According to Castoriadis (1986) imaginaries are made present and given
figuration in and through the discourse and practices of individuals. They are
imaginary because their references do not exhaust their rational elements and
they impose themselves because they are instilled, created, and broadcast by
an impersonal and anonymous collectivity. The meanings that form the social
imaginary, guiding and directing concrete subjects, fall under diverse appellations,
such as ‘spirit’, ‘nature’, ‘nation’, ‘virtue’, ‘sin’, and ‘god’.
In this chapter I will try to show how an inquiry centred on the concept of
the social imaginary may help to understand the process of popularisation of
biomedicine at the fin de siècle.
Before proceeding it is valuable to note some important aspects of
biomedicine. The modernisation of medicine is the result of a gradual shift from
the contagious and miasmatic conceptions of sickness to a perspective based on
laboratory practices, clinical anatomy, and microbiology in which an explanatory
model of disease based on theories of degenerative, genetic, and psychosocial
vulnerabilities among individuals prevails (see Atkinson 1981; Gadamer 1996).
This perspective is grounded on a set of propositions and generalisations, in which
disease is: (a) a phenomenon provoked by ‘natural’ properties of the human body
(therefore, a ‘biological discourse’); (b) approached through knowledge founded
in the ‘natural sciences’; (c) determined by a ‘specific aetiology’; and (d) classified
through a ‘universal taxonomy’. Biomedicine however, is not only theoretical but
also practical and involves the formation of specialised agents. The development
of biomedicine brought about the ‘sacralisation’ of a profession: that of doctor. As
historians have observed, although medicine had experienced great development
after the Middle Ages, only gradually did the medical profession gain an elevated

3 ‘By social imaginary’, Taylor explains (2004: 23–4), ‘I mean something much
broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about
social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking, rather, of the ways people imagine their
social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their
fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images
that underlie these expectations […] It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations we
have of each other, the kind of common understanding that enables us to carry out the
collective practices that make up our social life. This incorporates some sense of how we
all fit together in carrying out the common practice. Such understanding is both factual and
normative; that is, we have a sense of how things usually go, but this is interwoven with an
idea of how they ought to go, of what missteps would invalidate the practice’.
The Social Imaginary and Literature 179

status. It is mainly from the second half of the nineteenth century that it becomes
more esteemed by the public (Porter 1999).
Needless to say biomedicine’s innovative approach to disease did not encounter
immediate acceptance – it took a long time for it to gain popularity. In Brazil (as
in other places) this was not a linear process; controversies from within (and from
outside) the medical establishment marked its historical trajectory (see Pereira
Neto 2001). Neither should we lose sight of the fact that part of the population
was ignorant of the representations of the human body proposed by doctors and
remained more or less sceptical of the new conceptions and attitudes toward
disease that medical professionals promulgated. According to Figueiredo (2002),
although they benefited from relative social prestige, Brazilian doctors, throughout
a large part of the nineteenth century, were not well respected by the population for
their healing knowledge and skills, and had to share space with other therapeutic
modalities. Thus, the process of the legitimation of biomedicine was not restricted
to just a question of self-recognition on the part of a group of professionals.
The success of biomedicine (and, of course, of the medical profession) was also
dependent on people being able to relate to it and to understand it. Medicine and its
representatives needed to be socially comprehended, requiring the popularisation
of its practices and therapeutic principles. That is, it was necessary that the
explanatory model of disease be integrated into the world of common sense, of
‘the world of the daily life’ (Lebenswelt).
My argument is that the popularisation of biomedicine at the fin de siècle
relied in large part on ‘legitimated translators’ who contributed significantly by
instituting a social imaginary in which biomedicine was associated with a project
of ‘modernity’, and ‘civilisation’, aiding in the search for a ‘treatment’ of problems
of ‘social pathology’. These translators – in that historical context – encountered
in biomedical presuppositions a project capable of confronting and overcoming
the vicissitudes of a ‘dysphoric’ and ‘badly formed nation’, and thus of affirming
the march of Brazilian civilisation.
To approach the social imaginary regarding biomedicine, I will explore
the literary production of the period, particularly the novel. More specifically,
I use fictional literature as a heuristic resource to gather information – or
insights – on the moral attitudes, worldviews, values, and sentiments related to
the institutionalisation of biomedicine in Brazil. The chapter is thus based on the
view that the literary narratives of the fin de siècle contain notions, descriptions,
and interpretations of personal and collective events that are, per se, a valuable
form of empirical knowledge of the social imaginary. It is important to note
that the literature of the late nineteenth century developed a fascination with the
‘disturbed’ body and psyche, which it cultivated in order to explore the ‘human
world’ and its precarity in respect to ‘nature’.
It is unnecessary to reaffirm that all literary creation is a product of an epoch
and that the creative capacity of the writer develops in a field of possibilities that
encompass the writer’s freedom of choice. Nevertheless, literature is much more
than a ‘mirror’ or a representation of society. It provides new visions of things,
180 Reflections on Imagination

and of people, being able to instigate or reformulate ways of perceiving the world.
Merleau-Ponty (2004) draws attention to the fact that the artist can become aware
of simple objects (such as lemons and bunches of grapes in the case of Cézanne)
that normally pass unnoticed, but which encourage us to look at them in a different
way. By his work, the artist motivates us to search beyond the concepts used in
everyday life, for new modes of apprehending the real. In that sense, like other art
forms, literature broadens our understanding of the world and, in doing so, helps
us adopt a more ‘reflective’ stance toward it. But if literary work has the power
to ‘direct’ us toward different ways of perceiving the world, it can only do so by
drawing on an already constituted vision of reality that people share. For this, the
writer uses something that people have in common – a ‘vision’ already constituted
from reality – so that it can represent the phenomena through a new perspective.
Deviating too much from the vision generally accepted in the world of day-to-day
life is to run the risk of being unable to communicate with others. As Paul Ricoeur
emphasises (1994), narratives are somehow always lodged in lived experience.
It is important to emphasise, though, that the ‘mode of being’ of literature
involves not only ‘textual’ or ‘ideal’ aspects – the group of meanings conveyed
by the text and the cognitive-affective relations established between the reader/
listener and the literary work – but also the ‘material’ aspects, practices of reading,
on the one hand, and those of producing and commercialising texts, on the other.
The materiality of the literary work concerns the physical contact of the reader/
listener with the printed/spoken text. It is necessary to take into account that
the literary work is also ‘merchandise’, whose availability – in the shape of a
book or newspaper, for instance – requires a whole process of production and
commercialisation. In that sense, when one analyses literature from the perspective
of its practices, it is important to ask ‘who’ produces ‘what’, ‘for whom’, and
‘how’ this merchandise is consumed.
The argument developed in the present chapter is based on the analysis of
35 novels written between 1880 and 1915.4 Needless to say, the objective of the
research was not to analyse in depth a small or determined set of literary works.
The fundamental preoccupation was of a double nature. The first: to identify and
characterise patterns in narratives and description related to health and to the
‘world of illness’; from experiences of illness, care of hygiene, and health services,
to the nosological, etiological, and therapeutic conceptions of disease etc. How
was this ‘world of illness’ represented in the Brazilian fin de siècle novels? What
are the principals and values that these writers attribute to illness? The second
question deals with the producers and consumers of this novelistic discourse
about phenomena related to the ‘world of illness’. What constituted the literary
intellectual of the epoch? How does one trace a network of relations between
producers, consumers, the publishing houses, editions, and the commercialisation
of texts? Having in mind the ample scope of the project, for this chapter we will
limit our material to just focus on notions of disease associated with sex and gender.

4 Research financed by CNPq-Brazil (processes 310954/2006–1 e 306344/2009–2).

The Social Imaginary and Literature 181

In order to understand the social imaginary involved in the popularisation

of biomedicine, the chapter will reflect on three issues: (a) the role of the
literary intellectual as the spokesperson for public opinion regarding modernity,
established at the fin de siècle; (b) the literary world characteristic of that period;
(c) the discourses about the body and disease related to sex and gender.

‘The Culture of Reform’, Public Opinion and Space

In Brazil, the social imaginary related to biomedicine was instituted amidst

the transformations that swept the country in the second half of the nineteenth
century, mainly from 1870 onwards. In this period, various sectors of Brazilian
society underwent significant demographic, socio-political, and technological
changes. As historians have repeatedly pointed out, from the second half of the
nineteenth century the national scenario altered owing to considerable population
growth, mainly in urban centres, and a segmentation and diversification of public
spaces and development of bureaucracy. According to Alonso (2002), this period
is characterised by a ‘culture of reform’. It means a culture that developed in
the context of a schism in the political, imperial elite (and a weakening of the
institutions that supported the Empire) and from a series of reforms implemented
in the Brazilian society to deal with these changes.
Shaken by ‘social questions’ (such as the abolition of slavery in 1888) and by
conflicts between Church and State, the dominant political regime (Empire) was
destabilised. As a result, the range of possibilities for new forms of collective
action was increased. The ‘political crisis’ contributed to opening up new modes
of political action for groups who until then had been excluded from the decision-
making processes and marginalised by the monarchical institutions. This was the
moment when the ‘intellectual elite’ played a very important role in the creation
of a new order and moral sensibility related to the goal of modernising the
national institutions.
Literary intellectuals – ‘men of letters’ – were looked upon as capable of
providing meaning and direction in a world that seemed (partially) chaotic and
uncontrollable. The literary elite took it upon themselves to give form to the
nation, breaking with certain negative experiences of a historical past marked
by colonisation, slavery, and out-dated imperial institutions. Obviously these
intellectuals were not in full agreement as to how to diagnose and deal with society’s
problems. Nevertheless they contributed, to a large degree, to the development of
the public opinion regarding social events and behaviours considered ‘civilised’.
The concept of ‘public opinion’ deserves some attention before the discussion
can proceed. This term has been traditionally used to refer to the sum of individual
opinions that attained widespread currency. From such a perspective, there
is no difference between the popularity of an opinion and an ‘authorised’ or
‘qualified’ opinion, which has the objective of exerting influence upon collective
understandings and practices. In a book written in the 1960s the Argentinian
182 Reflections on Imagination

philosopher Carlos Cossio established a difference between popular opinion and

public opinion. According to Cossio (1973) the two are interrelated via reciprocal
influence, but they cannot be confused, because each has its own characteristics.
In general terms, popular opinion is about an opinion’s popularity; it is a
quantitative accumulation of personal opinions, which may occur in any collective
situation (as in a suffrage movement). Public opinion also requires a collective
situation but it is not a question of punctual popularity (or merely a convergent
unity of opinions) and, therefore, has more stability than popular opinion. It is an
‘authorised’ or ‘qualified’ opinion that intends to influence popular opinion, an
‘evaluation’ concerning facts that desires to confuse itself with the facts themselves.
It is knowledge transmitted through argumentative rhetoric and therefore has a
more reflexive character.
Public opinion presupposes a legitimate ‘carrier’, one who can advocate – the
‘spokesperson’ – who is looked upon to evaluate events, relations, and experiences.
These are individuals who seek to filter a ‘collective sensibility’, to translate into
words and images certain states, feelings, and conditions experienced by their
public, and in doing so to give them shape and direction. Dependent on social
attention, spokespeople only gain visibility through their relation to an audience
who listens to them and who expects something from them. Their intervention
and their silence are therefore determined, to a great extent, by their public. While
orbiting around popular opinion, public opinion ‘enriches itself as a germ in the
process of maturation, submitted to the force of certain principles of co-validation
or approbation’ (Cassio 1973: 37). In a similar manner, public opinion constantly
seeks to popularise itself and to convert itself into popular opinion. In sum, public
opinion ‘transforms’ particular collectives (popular opinion or ‘of the public’)
into ‘totalities’, that is to say, extracts experiences and common interests from the
needs and desires of particular collectives.
Before proceeding, it is important to explicate what is the signified of ‘public’
in the concepts ‘public opinion’ and ‘opinion of the public’ (or popular opinion).
We start from the presupposition that the signified of ‘public’ refers to the ‘space’
where individuals or social groups create concrete connections between themselves,
configuring collective action, and sharing ideas, feelings, and ways of thinking.
According to Massey (2011), space is: (1) the product of interrelations – ‘as
constituted through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately
tiny’ (p. 9); (2) the sphere of coexisting heterogeneity – ‘the sphere of possibility
of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality’, in
which distinct trajectories coexist (p. 9); and (3) always under construction.5
Public opinion constitutes a space in the sense that all opinion emitted by a
‘spokesman’, by intending to influence collective conceptions, adds ‘something’

5 ‘Precisely because space on this reading’, as Massey says (2011: 9), ‘is a product of
relations-between, relations which are necessarily embedded material practices which have
to be carried out, it is always in the process of being made. It is never finished; never closed.
Perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far’.
The Social Imaginary and Literature 183

to that which is lived on the collective plane: ‘useful’ knowledge, which can affect
collective understandings and practices. Still further, it presupposes ‘means of
communication’ that can generate discussion about the course of a given action.
According to John Dewey (2004), these two elements – ‘spokesman’ and ‘means
of communication’ furnish a ‘climate of debate’ and, with this, ‘create’ a public – a
grouping of people that feel themselves represented in a certain manner by their
spokespeople. Public is, as such, the result of processes of connection between
individuals, groups, and action.
But it is important to emphasise that there is never a perfect fit between public
and popular opinion, because there is usually a dramatic tension in the public
activity of the spokesperson: the tension between the ‘intellectual’ expectations
of the individual (spokesperson) and the diversity of the social groups who listen
to them. On the one hand, spokespeople are always concrete subjects gravitating
toward their public; on the other hand, precisely because they affirm themselves as
unique individuals, they maintain a certain distance from the doings and passions
of the masses. This tension assumed significant proportions for the intellectual of
the fin de siècle, with the arrival of mass society. We cannot forget that, amongst
other characteristics, mass society accumulates people, and, because of this
highlights human diversity, uproots community tradition, and places centre stage
the anonymous. In Brazil the ‘mass’ is a phenomenon that became evident from
the second half of the nineteenth century. For some intellectuals, ‘mass society’
affirmed democratic principles and was to be jubilantly celebrated; but, for the
majority, it was a reason of great concern.
Demonstrating their nonconformity with the principles and values associated
with the ‘mass’, the Brazilian intelligentsia of the period sought to ‘educate it’ (see
Machado Neto 1973). And its pedagogical mission was to explain and guide people
in the process of ‘becoming modern’. This process was understood according to
the teleological, evolutionary scheme prevalent in the social theory of the time;
it unfolded according to principles or laws of ‘universal evolution’. On the
evolutionary scale, Brazilian society found itself behind the times. It constituted a
‘European subculture’; and was inferior because in it there were elements held to
be traditional, archaic, and savage. For large sectors of the Brazilian intelligentsia,
we were ‘condemned’ for being of mixed race. Overcoming the inherited
impediments of a colonial past, with its slave-based economy, aristocratic regime,
Catholic monarchy and, even, racially-mixed population, was crucial to the
conquest of ‘modernity’.
Modernity was thus understood as something to be conquered by progress.
Therefore, it was not being treated as an empathetic re-appropriation of the past,
or as the cultivation of spiritual links with previous times (despite preserving some
of these links), but as a question of surmounting a given state of affairs. In that
sense, becoming modern meant rebelling against a ‘national identity’ moulded by
both imperial society and romanticism (for whom the roots of ‘national identity’
lay both in our ‘exuberant nature’ and in its native inhabitants – ‘Indians’). From
the perspective of the fin de siècle intellectuals, the important thing was to evaluate
184 Reflections on Imagination

the nation’s capacity to become ‘civilised’, and to be built upon and ruled by
scientific and technological principles (Pecaut 1990). Needless to say, the past
was not negated in its totality – rather it represented the horizon against which the
current stage of human progress was appraised.
Despite their commitment to an ideal of progress, intellectuals viewed
modernity with an ambiguous mix of alarm and amazement. This is quite clear
in their descriptions of city life. Many novels portrayed the city as the fundamental
environment for the formation of the civilised human being. However, there
is a mixture of fascination and terror in the rhetoric through which fin de
siècle writers describe urban life. If the city represents the improvement of
behaviour and social habits, it is also the stage for the large scale reproduction
of human misery, corruption, degradation, miscegenation, material and
spiritual poverty.

The World of Literature

The belief that the writer is the ‘spokesperson’ of an ideal modernity, a public figure
whose mission is to propagate civilised standards of conduct, acquired strength
from the 1870s onwards, when literary production was consolidated and the writer
gained more prestige (see Broca 1975; França 1999). At the end of the nineteenth
century, the middle classes of the population, anxious to acquire ‘civilised’ habits
and to follow international trends, were increasingly drawn to the literary works
that were now accessible to them. They encountered in literature a more pleasant
way to appease their anxieties. In this period, the ‘world of literature’ acquired a
certain aura of the sacred.
In the wake of urbanisation and an incipient process of industrialisation,
literary creation was boosted by factors such as the growth of the journalistic
press, the increase in the number of books published, the development of a literary
market and of new material forms of commercialisation and transmission of texts
(theatrical representations, public and intimate readings). During this period the
press – mainly newspapers – was one of the main sources of employment for the
Brazilian intellectual. Journalism became a major means for the expression of the
public opinion.
A fundamental characteristic of the press of the era was to motivate the art of
discussion, and form opinion without intending to hide differences or partisanship.
For this, it was able to establish, to a certain extent, a common ground of
communication, even if provisory, with the public reader. It was still not a press that
sought to disseminate information through supposed objective techniques, having,
with this, to reduce the art of discussion in name of objective information. The
principles of the twentieth century, the reporting of events developed by ‘periodicity
of information’ with its technical body (the ‘reporter’), already in a general way
began to emerge. From this, one would supplant a modality of journalism that longed
to persuade by ‘public opinion’ ‘founded’ in the authority of a ‘spokesperson’.
The Social Imaginary and Literature 185

With the increase in the production and circulation of newspapers and

magazines, literature came to occupy more space in the lives of urban dwellers.
The main form of distribution of works of literature in the second half of the
nineteenth century was the roman-feuilleton (‘serialised novel’), a phenomenon
intimately tied to the beginnings of journalistic production and one of the first
manifestations of mass culture (see Meyer 1996). It was by way of journalism
(and also by way of magazines) that many novels, national and foreign, came to
the public for the first time.
The type of novel dominant in the Brazilian fiction of time was called romance
da atualidade (‘novel of present times’) or de costume (‘of manners’). This ‘genre’
was characterised by many detailed descriptions of everyday city life, and the
habits and customs of the population. Novelists were engaged in portraying scenes
that were familiar to the reader, identifying particular places and landscapes,
introducing credible characters, describing everyday experiences of a biographical
character in a chronological narrative structure. The resemblance between the
universe of fiction and that of social reality often led readers to raise doubts as to
the fictional nature of the text. More importantly, readers sought in the texts models
for conduct. In producing effects of verisimilitude it was the writer´s intention to
facilitate the acceptance of his work by the public (see Sussekind 1984).
This fact was most striking in the Realist–Naturalist novel that searched for
extra-textual elements that would permit the reader to look at fiction always
by analogy with a given referent in the real world. According to this aesthetic
movement, literature should reach out for the things as they are – the world is the
unquestionable basis of all data of experience. In that sense, Realism presupposed
the prior existence of the world as a necessary condition of literary expression –
not a private but an objective world, shared by individuals and social groups in
specific social historical contexts. One could say that it had a veiled ethnographic
intention of producing detailed descriptions of life.
Anxious to normalise and order a given reality, the novel not only ‘reflected’ or
‘mirrored’ society, but also provided new visions of things and people, instigating
or renovating new perceptions of the world. In this sense, the reality that was
transported into the text became a sign of something more. In the wake of Taine
and Zola, the novel was not just a work of observation but also of testimony and
protest. Literature was viewed as an instrument, a weapon of combat, wedded
to, and connected with denouncement (without ceasing to be also entertainment).
There was in the intellectual production of the times a great preoccupation with
underlining the determinate forms of thought and of human conduct. Biology and
psychology exercised a profound influence over the literary intelligentsia. There
was a hope that by the knowledge of ‘human physiology’ one could ennoble the
nation, improving the urban conditions of hygiene and race (Schwarcz 1993).
Questions like sexuality, eroticism, prostitution, and homosexuality, were themes
amply discussed within the ‘physiological’ perspective of the authors considered
here. Characterising illness, the state of misery and of ignorance of large sectors
of the population as ‘social pathology’, the literary intellectuals intrinsically
186 Reflections on Imagination

proposed a ‘cure’, whose ultimate basis was the establishment of conduct

considered ‘civilised’.
In that sense, the literary text was situated between a portrayal of the society
of the period and an idealised construction of that same society, accomplishing
what Iser, in his proposal to found an anthropology of literature, calls the
‘fictionalising act’:

Undoubtedly, the text is permeated by a vast range of identifiable items, selected

from social and other extra-textual realities. The mere importation into the text,
however, of such realities – even though they are not being represented in the
text for their own sake – does not ipso facto make them fictive. Instead, the text’s
apparent reproduction of items within the fictional text brings to light purposes,
attitudes, and experiences that are decidedly not part of a fictionalizing act.
Because this act of fictionalizing cannot be deduced from the reality repeated in
the text, it clearly brings into play an imaginary quality that does not belong to
the reality reproduced in the text but that cannot be disentangled from it. Thus
the fictionalizing act converts the reality reproduced into a sign, simultaneously
casting the imaginary as a form that allows us to conceive what it is toward
which the sign points. (ISER 1993: 2)

The Principle of Pati Natae

Leaving to one side a few exceptions, illness was not an object of great interest
in Brazilian novelistic fiction. It was usually evoked with the intent of creating a
situation, sometimes artificial, that could create sympathy with certain characters
or alienate them from the reader. Disease was either a moral symbol or a motive
for the denouement of the plot. This was not the case with the fin de siècle novel,
in which disease occupied a privileged position.
A concern with the ‘physiology of human nature’ led the literary intelligentsia
to explore the ‘natural’ (bio-psychical) aspects of illness, the ‘sick behaviour’,
and their treatment. Illness moreover provided the door through which the man of
letters explored the intimacy of family life, the alcove, and sexual relationships.
The observations that follow then are limited only to the relations between disease
and questions of sexuality and gender.
The relation between human beings and their ‘natural environment’was a recurring
theme in the turn of the century novel. The expression ‘natural environment’ referred
to the joining of physical, chemical, and biological facts that provide the conditions
for human existence, motivation, and intelligence. It is, therefore, the physical basis
of thinking and of human conduct. ‘Nature’ imposed limits on human action and its
force was constantly evoked in the fiction of the period. In the novel A Mulata (1896
[1975]), Carlos Malheiro Dias (1875–1941) sums up this conception: ‘How can one
intend will to be dominant in the spirit of man, when it is only a function entirely
dependent on ideal molecules, on sensitive muscular fibers?’ (1975: 53). Natural
determinations are, therefore, indifferent to human motives.
The Social Imaginary and Literature 187

The association between human and animal behaviour was unremitting in

the turn of the century literature. For instance, in O Paroara (1899 [1999]) by
Rodolfo Teófilo (1853–1932), the character Chiquinha is compared to a gelded
horse and her honeymoon ‘was an idyll of wild birds’. In A Mulata (1896 [1975])
by Carlos Malheiro Dias (1875–1941), the mulatto Honorina ‘carried in herself, in
her bearing, the barbarity of the race from which she was born’, and her nose was
‘feline and voluptuous’, and ‘continuously opened like the quivering nostrils of a
ferocious animal’.
Late nineteenth-century Brazilian literature provided and stimulated the public
appetite for narratives about phenomena which manifested the ‘natural environment’
and ‘physiology of human nature’, such as sexuality, eroticism, feminine ‘pathos’,
character disturbances, ‘mental suffering’, ‘hysterical bodies’, morbid, and
‘unlawful behaviour’ (see Mendes 2000). The expression ‘natural environment’
referred to the joining of physical, chemical, and biological facts which provide
the conditions for human existence, motivation and intelligence. It is, therefore,
the physical basis of thinking and of human conduct. ‘Nature’ imposed limits to
human action and its force was constantly evoked in the fiction of the period. In
that conception, a large number of the characters in the turn of the century novel
were no longer portrayed through the lens of the romantic hero (‘instinctive’,
‘intuitive’, ‘imaginative’, ‘individualist’). Now, the ‘anti-hero’ predominated,
typified by ‘solitude’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘alienation’, ‘a loss of identity’, ‘a life of
suffering’, ‘guilt’, ‘shame’, ‘decadence’, and ‘aberration’. Descriptions of the ‘furor
of delirium’, of ‘tenacious obsessions and desires’, ‘blood burning with carnal
longing’, ‘nerve-racking desires’ abound. One could say in this sense that our men
of letters exhaustively explored the principle of the pati natae (born to suffer).
The human being is moved by flesh, blood, and nerves. Controlled entirely
by sensuality, characters were voluptuous, lascivious, and capricious. They were
constantly submitted to the determinations of a sexual order. It is worth noting
that in the novels, sexual appetites were described both as needs and vices
(‘degenerate genetic behaviours’, ‘degrading pleasures’, such as prostitution and
homosexuality). Separated from the ‘spirit’, the body was controlled by natural
forces (ruled, therefore, by its own standards); it was the source of desire and
pleasure, but also the locus of perversion and anomaly. The excessive pleasures
of the flesh (over-excitation, luxuriousness, debauchery) took the diverse forms of
‘genital neuroses’, instability of the nervous system, ‘neuro-pathological atavism’
and even madness. These ‘drives’ vary in accordance with both gender and race.6
The female body was usually seen as the personification of sensuality, the erotic
and the perverse (see Caulfield 2000). Feminine pleasure was thought intriguing

6 See the novels like A Carne (1888) by Júlio Ribeiro; A normalista (1892) and Bom
Crioulo (1895) by Adolfo Caminha; Hortência (1888) by Marques de Carvalho; A Codessa
Vesper (1884) and O Homem (1887) by Aluísio de Carvalho; O Cromo (1888) by Horácio
de Carvalho; Alma em delírio (1909) by Canto e Melo; O Missionário (1888) by Inglès
de Sousa; O Simas (1898) by Pápi Jr; Violação (1899) by Rodolfo Teofilo; A Silveirinha
(1913) by Julia Lopes de Almeida.
188 Reflections on Imagination

and an object of intense curiosity. It was pictured as something mysterious, even

dangerous and threatening and the female orgasm was described as a release of
terrestrial forces. Differing from romanticism, the turn of the century novel did not
establish connections between pleasure and fertility or frigidity and sterilisation.
The sexual union was now conceived as a purely physiological act. Subdued by
the laws of ‘nature’, the female body was governed by physical and biological
impulses: it was subjected to ‘uterine torments’ or ‘periodic injuries’. It was an
‘automatic body’. Considered as more closely connected to the forces of nature,
the woman was often represented in terms of base materialism.
Female characters, sometimes described as ‘wild women’, were ruled by
physiological, natural needs. O Homem (1887 [2005]) by Aluísio Azevedo
(1857–1913) is a significant example. In the novel, Dr Lobão, the family doctor,
thus refers to Madá, the principal character who is going mad due to the lack of
a man:

The devil! What a pity that an organism, so rich and so good to procreate,
sacrifices itself like this! Still – it is not too late: but, if she does not marry soon –
ah … well! I cannot be held responsible for the outcome! […] It is dangerous
to play with a ferocious animal that is starting to wake up … The monster has
already given a signal and from the first roar, you can well judge what it will be
like when enraged! […] According to Plato, the uterus is a beast that wants at all
costs to conceive at the appropriate moment: if this is not allowed to happen –
watch out! Look there you have it! […] Before anything else, she needs to be
content and bring certain organs into perfect equilibrium, or her psychic system is
going to be fatally altered; and, as marriage is indispensable to that equilibrium, I
beg you to think seriously about marriage […] Marriage is another way of saying,
it is without doubt coitus! She needs a man! (Azevedo 2005: 31–2)

Such a gross manner of presenting the ‘human condition’ had the undeniable
intention to shock. But, it was a ‘pedagogical shock’. Or rather, the description
of ‘crude reality’ was a resource by which the man of letters called attention to a
new way of looking at the social world, one that intended itself as a ‘scientific’
and ‘true’ account of human actions. An underlying assumption of the turn of the
century literature was that, more than health, it was suffering and insanity that better
expressed the truth about the human condition, the physiological, psychological,
and moral aspects of being human. Through their ‘studies’ of pathology, of the
manifestations of instinct and desire, of the nervous instabilities and hereditary
anomalies which denude man, the literary intellectual sought to expose man’s
precariousness in the face of nature. For them literature has a pedagogical mission:
to expose the reader to that truth.
To know is also to control. There was a hope that the knowledge provided by the
natural sciences about ‘human physiology’ would help improve the urban, sanitary,
and racial conditions of the nation (see Esteves 1989; Soares 1992; Menezes 1992).
As Monteiro Lobato (1882–1948) said in 1918: ‘Today we can breathe easier.
The Social Imaginary and Literature 189

The laboratory has given us the argument which we sought. Based on it we will
oppose the sociological condemnation of Le Bom with the louder voice of biology’
(in Trindade and Hochman 1996: 25). The revealing image of the politician Miguel
Pereira – ‘Brazil is an immense hospital’ – sums up the ideal of a ‘medical crusade
for the benefit of nation’ and points to the role which was reserved for science,
more specifically for biology, in the recovery and/or the foundation of nationality.
In synthesis, the Brazilian intellectual transposed to literature the idea that scientific
knowledge could absolve us, as a people, from the evils to which we were condemned
(the evil inheritance of colonialism, of race, of tropical climate). To redeem Brazil
would be to sanitise it through the perspective of the biomedical model.


This chapter aimed at discussing the process of popularisation of biomedicine

during the period of its institutionalisation in Brazil, from the late nineteenth
century to the second decade of twentieth century. To this end, we made use of the
notion of the social imaginary, conceived as a constellation of meaning (a world
of signification) underpinned by an ontological principle of unceasing creation
(Castoriadis 1986). It is important to note that signification is not restricted to the
level of discourse; it also requires practices through which representations can
become meaningful. In other words, signification implies immanence in language
(as a social institution) and a mode of world forming.
It was argued here that the popularisation of biomedicine took root in a world of
significations. This is a world constructed through the interaction between different
social agents; a world from which emerges a set of actions, images, sentiments,
ideas, and values. That is, discourses and practices which are mutually implicated.
In this sense, the popularisation of biomedicine is a process as much of ‘making’
as of ‘speaking’ about a given phenomenon. I argued in this chapter that the
formation of the imaginary net which supports the popularisation of biomedicine
is partially linked to what Cossio (1973) called ‘public opinion’, an authorised
or qualified opinion transmitted via an argumentative rhetoric that intends to
influence popular opinion. The popularisation of biomedicine was thus dependent,
in large part, on the activity of certain legitimated carriers or spokespeople who
helped translate and give shape to the lived experience of a collective. In order to
understand the institutional supports related to the popularisation of biomedical
practice and knowledge in the fin de siècle, the chapter made use of the literary
production of that time, particularly its novels.
As such, and as we sought to argue, the popularisation of biomedicine at the
end of the nineteenth century was instigated in large part, by a ‘culture of reform’,
in a moment of social and political crisis that stretched the dimensions of the
political sphere. This was due to the transformations occasioned by the decline
of the imperial order, by the changes in the patterns of organisation of work (the
abolition of slavery) and by the modernising reforms of infrastructure. Owing
190 Reflections on Imagination

to these changes, stimulus for new forms of collective action and intellectual
configurations arose. In this process of marked social change the ‘repressive
capacity of the regime and its mechanisms of legitimation and reproduction’ were
reduced (Alonso 2000: 43), enabling the intellectual movement (without doubt, an
elitist movement7) to exercise through public debate, a privileged role in elaborating
new cultural principles and values, and by this, to contest the social and political
order up until that time dominant. In this context, the members of the intelligentsia
were seen as the legitimate ‘translators’ of this contestation of ideas, of modernity,
and of sociocultural reform. Needless to say, the intellectual movement was not
homogenous and its members did not share the same presuppositions. What united
them, argues Alonso (2000; 2002), is a situation – living the same social experience:
the transformations of the socio-political status quo. Their writings undertook a
criticism of institutions, values, and practices associated with the establishment.
In this process of contestation, the intellectual movement incorporated ‘new
theoretical and rhetorical resources to generate an explanation of the crisis and of
the social changes, as well as offering alternative modes of action to social groups
excluded by the principle monarchic institutions’ (Alonso 2000: 45). The agents
of this movement developed a socio-intellectual repertoire – cultural creations
revealing frameworks that were apprehended, shared, and put in practice by way
of a process of selection, which permitted them to formulate their criticisms of the
imperial regime and define new pathways for action. In this manner, they intended
to establish as much a ‘scientific’, conceptual language to explain the Brazilian
reality, as much as a theory or programme of sociocultural reform.
It was the adoption, selection, and adaptation of foreign ‘ideas’ then in play,
such as evolution, positivism, and Darwinism, more than strict doctrinal filiations,
which provided the theoretical and rhetorical resources that acted fundamentally
to express the dissention with the imperial status quo. Synchronous with these
perspectives and of particular importance, were those novels ‘of manners’, or
‘social novels’, of a Realist–Naturalist tenor, and their organist, biological, and
psychological metaphors that uncovered society’s ‘pathologies’. Different from
the idyllic image of the countryside established by the romantic imagination
during the imperial epoch, the fin de siècle literati emphasised the contestation of
values and institutions of the imperial society derived from its colonial heritage,
and the state of misery and ignorance of the population. Beyond this, for the
Realist–Naturalist writer, human beings were subject to physiological laws. To
know these laws, and to be able to explain them, was a pre-requisite for being
able to treat deviation. The writer believed and wanted his readers to believe that
pathology (social or individual) could be treated. Diseased, society too could be
treated and cured; it could be transformed. In the increasingly uncertain world

7 Scholars of the turn of the century Brazilian intellectual movement have called
attention, with just reason, to the elitism of this movement. The ‘scientific’ proposals for the
analysis of social and economic modernisation, the ‘antipopular vocation’ of the intelligentsia
and its ‘pedagogical mission’ are elements that reveal the elitism of the movement.
The Social Imaginary and Literature 191

of the ‘culture of reform’, therapeutic interventions were crucial. The perceived

complexity of the new world then emerging required a different conception of
society’s moral order. Through the literary production of intellectuals the capacity
and right to determine what constitutes evil, what or who is diseased or might
become diseased, and what can and must be done to cure that evil was attributed
to the carriers of specialised, scientific knowledge. In other words, to treat the
pathologies that were generated in the process of modernisation, society requires
a socially legitimated professional to diagnose, treat, and cure.


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Imagination, Scale,


To what extent does the imagination bring the distant near? In different ways the
two chapters in this section set out to explore this issue through ethnographic
details. The globe has been heralded as a single imaginative space since the days of
the Roman historian Polybius at least (‘All [world] events are united in a common
bundle’), and famously in Shakespearean prose (‘The world’s mine oyster’). But
to what extent are these projections substantive mechanisms towards an accurate
knowing, and to what extent can they be described as moral?
In ‘The Imagining Life: Reflections on Imagination in Political Anthropology’,
Leo Coleman reflects on anthropological nostra concerning the role that the
imagination plays in the constitution of ‘translocal solidarities’, whether national or
global in scope. Benedict Anderson famously argued for the imaginary constitution
of ‘horizontal’ solidarities as the foundation of the nation-form; Arjun Appadurai
argued similarly that globalization rests on the ‘work’ of the imagination. Much
ethnography has pursued those ‘imagined communities’ that derive from the
circulations of media and translocal productions of culture. Inspired more by
Clifford Geertz, however, and his concept of the moral imagination, Coleman
urges a return to ethnography’s distinctive method of embodied and interpersonal
acts of sympathetic engagement and collaborative interpretation, and asks what
the imagination might reveal of a global world that is yet, always and inevitably
locally lived. Geertz’s key question is still the relevant one: ‘How may other
people’s creations be both so utterly their own and so deeply part of ourselves?’.
Meeting members of our global world in their local worlds of symbol and meaning
allows the anthropologist to constitute an ethnographic knowledge through the
study of artefacts and symbolic forms—including global mass media—as they are
interpreted in social contexts and at various scales (rather than as abstractions that
circulate ethereally within global economies). Rather than allowing imagination as
a concept to ‘run free’ as a kind of transcendent capacity by which individuals and
collectives shape and reshape the world and constitute their boundaries of being,
Coleman is keen to return to an emphasis on knowledge-relations across local
differences. This is how an exploration of the imagination might productively
reinvigorate a globalist ethnography.
194 Reflections on Imagination

In ‘Do forest children dream of electric light? Young Matses imagining concrete
paths in Peruvian Amazonia’, Camilla Morelli explores how Matses children
living in the Amazonian rainforest develop imaginary relationships with urban
places. The Matses are a native people of Peruvian Amazonia who spend most of
their lives in forest villages and who rarely visit urban settings. However, Matses
children engage regularly with the city by imagining it at a distance. This becomes
manifest in their creative productions and their conversations. In particular,
Morelli has used drawing as a mode of creative experience and expression through
which Matses children can be seen to manifest these imaginary realms of urban
life and gain access to, and make assessments of, global spaces that are locally
distant and may appear locally precluded. Drawing the city becomes a way not
only of imaginatively knowing a remote ‘elsewhere’ not immediately available
but also offers a comparative frame through which the children may interpret
the distinctiveness of their forest environments both positively and negatively.
Morelli reveals how Matses children draw, and learn to comprehend urban spaces
whose meaningful materials—concrete, electric light, streets, cars, television and
aeroplanes—are experientially unknown to them. However, the imagining of the
city remains intertwined with Matses everyday life: its surroundings and common
shared activities. The imagining body, the pens and paper, and the spaces of local
dwelling remain in relations of mutual exchange.
Chapter 11
The Imagining Life:
Reflections on Imagination in
Political Anthropology
Leo Coleman

What is in white heat imaginative reality is in cold imaginary phantasm.

R.P. Blackmur, Henry Adams

This chapter is an exercise in periodization and in marking critical boundaries—it

is not based in ethnography, but rather offers a possible reading of certain trends
in political anthropology, as an academic practice and subfield, and hence is based
in reading in a more direct and literal sense. A textualist approach such as the one
I adopt here may be uniquely suited to reflection on imagination in anthropology,
since investigating imagination necessarily involves attention to the symbols,
mediations, forms, and narrative structures which shape and convey hope, desire,
and aspiration. In fact, defined in just this way as a matter of mediation and
circulating images, imagination has since the 1990s become a key term of some
wide relevance in political anthropology—or, perhaps better, a “key concept,” as
I don’t mean to rest my argument on some claim that the word “imagination” (and
its variants—imagined, imaginary, imaginaire) is somehow more prevalent now
in anthropological writing than it ever was. Any statistical increase in the use of
such a polyvalent term means nothing by itself. But the methods, and theoretical
commitments, associated with some notion of the imagination do seem to have
shaped the subfield in recent years (see Strauss 2006 for a more detailed account
of the uses of “imagination” and the critical theories that underlie this trend).
In order to trace the uses, and usefulness, of imagination in political
anthropology, I pursue two avenues of investigation. I first sketch a genealogy
of the recent past in the subfield, drawing on two textbooks that have traced
important shifts in political anthropology, and in some ways marked the demise
of one epoch (Vincent 1990) and heralded the birth of another (Gledhill [1994]
2000). Second, I examine the promise of a diverse, but common, methodological
interest in fictions, narratives, and the products of the imagination in contemporary
political anthropology. Focusing on the uses to which “imagination” has been put
in anthropological accounts of nations, states, and globalization, I will argue that
political anthropology could fruitfully develop further repertoires of interpretation
to better account for the diverse forms that products of the imagination can take,
the ways they can be taken (read, interpreted, appropriated, loved, or despised),
196 Reflections on Imagination

and the effects that all this can have in the wider social world of relations, disputes,
and political belonging. In this pursuit, I draw inspiration from Lionel Trilling’s
claim that the reading of novels and works of imagination can shape the moral
imagination, but seek to remain true to his insight that only after (collective)
interpretation can reading have its full “communal effect” (Trilling 1976: 252; cf.,
Geertz 1983).
Ultimately, I argue for a particular account of imagination as a social power that
operates through and can only be accessed in mediation. This social imagination
operates in a world of (partially) shared meanings, draws on symbols that pre-exist
any individual appropriation of them, and characteristically relies on compression
of large and plural realities into humanly-graspable and thinkable forms. In its
sociocentric approach, this chapter’s theorization of the imagination stands apart
from those (important and influential) accounts of imagination that treat it as a
fundamentally individual capacity or as a wellspring of “creativity” (Hallam and
Ingold 2008).
My own larger research projects are about infrastructure and belonging, both
in North India and in broader historical contexts of social modernity. Insofar as
infrastructures of transport, communications, and, above all, energy, are a hidden
condition of modern lives, of our common participation in a public and in a politics
of provision, my work is also integrally about imagination—about social practices
that both mark and complete the gap between the here-and-now and the distant and
the future. Infrastructure has always had an important imaginative dimension, one
formed in the techniques of representation, appropriation, and control which allow
great projects to be conceived and applied across time and space, often as part of
an imperial or state-building project (Carroll 2006). Jo Guldi’s (2012) recent study
of the legal and political making of the “infrastructure state” in nineteenth-century
Britain, somewhat inadvertently, reveals the importance of the imagination to
such projects.
Guldi opens her book with a comparison of two maps. First is an eighteenth-
century map of England, which is a riot of place-names, the close-set labels standing
in for any topographical detail on the map itself. While itineraries between cities
are marked by lines, the map presents no “specific information about variations”
in these routes or indeed any indication that there might be several different
roads connecting widely separated places—the roads form a “network only in
the imagination of the cartographer” (Guldi 2012: 9). Second, Guldi presents a
nineteenth-century map of Britain as a whole, where the trunk roads between major
cities have taken over visual prominence, and moreover are set in a finely detailed
context of various routes; all the roads’ “shapes, diversions, and connections” are
precisely delineated, as are variations in the terrain itself. For Guldi, this contrast
between a foot-speed itinerary of places as against an “accurately” represented
network of connections is a direct index of the historical improvement of roads
for transport and commerce, and the contrast thus guides us in understanding a set
of material transformations that knit together the British state. Just as important
as any change in practices of transport that might be represented by these maps,
The Imagining Life 197

however, are the techniques of representation that each map employs, and the
kinds of practices each might spur. These countervailing representations of space
and movement across it—one full of points, of nexuses where habitation and
commerce can be found, the other a network of lines connecting major cities
in a space of detailed topographical variation—are also, and perhaps primarily,
dramatically different imaginative visions. The later and more detailed map, which
makes the road and the terrain it traverses more important than the places along the
way, hardly only represents a material change; it is also effects a change in what we
might see and expect “along the road”—places on a journey rather than points of
habitation—and this imaginative transformation is an essential and prior condition
for the kind of conflict between “locality” and “centralizing infrastructure” that
Guldi traces throughout her book.
In one of my early fieldwork interviews—in Dehra Dun, July 2003—a
discussion of regional development pointed to just such a conflict between
political scale and the provision of infrastructural goods, between centralization
and place. I was speaking to a young engineer, an activist in movements for
further political decentralization to the then-new North Indian state of Uttaranchal
(now Uttarkhand), which has its capital in Dehra Dun. For years, residents of the
region—a mountainous and underdeveloped area, long a province of the large
state of Uttar Pradesh—had agitated for a separate state government of their own,
both out of a sense of local cultural separateness and in order to spur the kind of
development that they felt had been withheld by governments in distant Lucknow,
the capital of Uttar Pradesh. My interlocutor told me that the real problem that
newly autonomous Uttaranchal faced was a lack of roads, construction of which
would not only make their state the kind of completely traversable space that he
thought the rest of the UP had long ago become, but more importantly would almost
magically connect the most remote parts of Uttaranchal to the distant centers of
wealth and prosperity beyond Lucknow. “There are many places in Uttaranchal,”
he said, “where tourists would go—beautiful places, for hiking or skiing, and with
temples. But now you have to take a helicopter to get there—movie stars do this,
but not ordinary people. If we had roads, then we could bring people here from
Delhi or Bombay, and we would develop.”
This single-minded focus on roads, particularly as they leap over space to
connect a North Indian town to distant Bombay, impressed me then, and continues
to entice my imagination now, as something more than a fixation on the goods of
modernity—development and progress, via mass tourism. Anthropologists have
often treated such statements as the evidence of an ideological process, in which the
locals are duped into embracing false promises of well-being. Rightly concerned
about the local impacts such development might have, and politically worried by
the fervent embrace of such material dreams by elites who wield unaccountable
and bureaucratic power, anthropological critics of developmentalism have stressed
the material force and devastating ruin of these processes (e.g. Ferguson 1989;
J. Scott 1999; Chhotray 2011). Yet the power of these promises (as Ferguson has
explored elsewhere—Ferguson 1999) is not only an ideological ruse; it is also an
198 Reflections on Imagination

aesthetic, an imaginative vision, through which the world is known and grasped,
and certain connections to power and authority are made realizable, while at the
same time effective disconnections are also made (for similar, and also South Asian,
rhetorical deployments of development and its imaginative play of connection and
disconnection, see Campbell 2010; Rademacher 2011).
That is to say, while territorial and state power is certainly exerted in large-
scale infrastructure projects, not least in the techniques of representation that allow
them to be planned and the physical control over forces and movements that they
foster, this is not all that such projects accomplish (J. Scott 1999). “Fortunately
for the human imagination, things are a little more complicated than that” when
it comes to the manipulations of space, time, communications, and territory that
characterize modern governmentality (Foucault 1984: 255). The attempt to reshape
the networks that materially bind people and territories into a state, to harness the
invisible power of roads to attract people, involves both imagining the topography
of belonging and communications differently and imagining the stories that will
unspool on such roads—through the connections they promise and the speed they
enable. All this can be a potent counter-politics as much as a material tool of a
supervening and integrative power.
In any case, whether they are finally a tool of discipline and control, or
objects of appropriation and sites of détournement, infrastructures clearly have
an “imagined” dimension constituted by systematic practices of reading into a
terrain or landscape. And yet, this “poetics” by which the material fabric of roads,
rail, pipes, and wires are both made present and occluded (as they become banal)
has often been stinted as itself a key site of politics. As Aihwa Ong has recently
written in a different context, “in postcolonial countries … state sovereignty was
not merely imagined into being (Anderson 1983), but largely embraced as the
necessary political institution charged with defending national [and regional]
well-being in a competitive global environment” (Ong 2012: 26, emphasis added,
internal citation original). The specifics of her argument here are less important to
me than the rhetorical force of the opposition she makes between imagination on
the one hand, and well-being, competition, and material development—as more
fundamental, and fundamentally political, realities—on the other. It is important
to underscore that Ong casually relegates the imaginary dimension to “mere”
appearance, effortless conjuring, while still paying careful attention to political
ideas, identities, and forms of belonging. The contradiction between imagination
and reality, as it were, that she insists upon cannot be reduced point-for-point to
the old dichotomy between material base or infrastructure (no pun intended) and
merely ideational superstructure.
In what follows, I wish to open up this apparently blank contradiction between
imagination and reality, between legal and literary fictions (which I argue play a
large role in shaping political belonging and structuring group life) and the only
apparently superior materiality of politics. Dismissals of the imagination, and of
Benedict Anderson’s influential book Imagined Communities—parenthetically
disparaged by Ong—have been all too characteristic of the subfield of political
The Imagining Life 199

anthropology for a long time, as I discuss in the next section of this chapter. I
wish to examine resources, within the anthropological tradition, for examining the
real entanglement of daily practices of the imagination with (literal and material)
infrastructures; but in addition, moving beyond my own interest in infrastructures,
I will examine the ways in which ethnography has tried to grapple with broader
practices of imaginative connection and sought to examine what Clifford Geertz,
himself borrowing the phrase from another writer, once called “the literariness of
real life” (1983: 47). In sum, I aim to sketch an alternative genealogy for a political
anthropology in the present, one that can embrace the imagining life as an integral
part of the political realities of our day.

Against Imagination

The ideational, ideological, or simply imaginary was, for quite some time, an object
of suspicion and critique in the subfield of political anthropology. The systematic
(and non-Marxian) theories of politics that dominated the subfield of political
anthropology in the 1950s and ’60s were based in a common-sense rationalism
that had little patience for anything that could not be observed in action. A major
textbook of the period (Bailey 1969) tried to define the political in universal terms
of interest and behavioral repertoires which could be found in any culture free of
local meanings (see Silverman 1974 for an influential critique). In this political-
anthropological tradition, even affectively-loaded and often empirically “fuzzy”
or difficult-to-define social realities such as group boundaries and symbols were
treated as the precipitate of strategic action (Barth 1969).
Importantly, the critique of this rationalist and universalist tendency was framed
in terms of a symbolic anthropology (e.g. Kapferer 1977), rather than as a debate
directly over the terms for the anthropological study of politics, since that latter
domain had already been defined so narrowly as to rule local symbolic formations
out of consideration, and to discount the important ways in which people are
connected, and form political ideas, through active participation in ritual situations
of unequal exchange and hierarchical encompassment. Conflict, strategy, dispute,
and material things were all politics; symbols, ritual, and meaning were not—and
neither were the exchanges of meanings and conflicts of interpretation which
preoccupied ritual and symbolic specialists both indigenous and anthropological,
who were not even credited a share in the analysis of “power” at all.
Accordingly, as Joan Vincent remarks in her historical overview and synthesis
of the subfield, in much disciplinary work of this era “culture” was explicitly
excluded as an explanatory term or variable, with its cultivation of concern with
irreal or value-laden ideas (Vincent 1990: 335—although she does not fail to note
“subterranean” influences from symbolic anthropology and folklore which tended
to highlight contests over values and meaning; see p. 371). Ultimately, it became
clear that neither legal recognition nor political power could be seriously discussed
without attention to local categories, forms of knowledge, and the ambiguities of
200 Reflections on Imagination

practice (Moore 1978; Geertz 1983). But this did nothing to mitigate the general
allergy to imagination in political anthropology, even as the universalist and model-
building theories of politics and the subfield they had shaped both largely died out
as an active arena of research and publication in the 1970s and ’80s—perhaps, as
Jonathan Spencer hypothesized, out “of boredom” (Spencer 1997: 5).
Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s, the subfield moved toward historicist and
materialist interpretive frameworks, yet with a few exceptions (Taussig 1987;
Sahlins 1985; Kapferer 1988) still abjured any interest in “invisible realities” of
culture, of cosmology, and symbolism. Vincent, in her conclusion and prospectus
for a revived subfield in 1990s, specifically situates political anthropology as the
materialist and historical side of a general cultural anthropology. Tellingly, she
places political anthropology at the opposite pole of the discipline from the “fad”
of interpretive anthropology, critically identifying interpretivism with “neglect of
the issue of power and the promotion of myths of cultural unanimity” (Vincent
1990: 427).
Meanwhile, in an important textbook of the mid-1990s, John Gledhill (2000)
similarly argued for political anthropology as a study of material power, exclusion,
and violence—although his title, Power and its Disguises, indicates the more
Marxian, and Latin-American, political anthropological tradition which he was
instrumental in codifying and summarizing. Gledhill includes nuanced discussion
of symbolic and ritual forms of modern state power, that appear as distinction,
hegemony, and symbolic violence, but mitigates his attention to such aspects of
power by granting primacy to the “real” ground of political life in physical violence,
in subaltern (and usually semi-autonomous) forms of action and interpretation, or
in ultimately material conflicts over goods, things, and people. In one extended
discussion, Geertzian interpretive anthropology, with its purported attention to
“static” texts and consensual images of society, serves—again—as the antagonist
for the materialist, historical, and locally-embedded approach that he advocates
(2000: 64–6).
In the length of his discussion—which is more focused on current theoretical
debates and trends than Vincent’s historical, albeit “presentist,” review—Gledhill
traces in detail the increasing attention paid in the 1980s to theories of hegemony,
ideology, and to subaltern or hidden forms of resistance, and he acknowledges that
such forms of resistance are always enmeshed in symbolic projects and imaginative,
often religious, responses to the world and to power. Moreover, he highlights as
aspects of the revived, and refocused, political anthropology of the 1980s and
1990s, an important shift to anti-colonial historical writing, direct theorization
of the state (something largely neglected by an earlier anthropology of “political
systems”), and activist forms of engagement—all developments influenced
in different measure by Western Marxism and by Foucauldian theorizations of
subject-formation in contexts of pervasive power (e.g. Comaroff 1985; D. Scott
1999; Scheper-Hughes 1992; Ortner 2006). However, for all his attention to
hegemony and the symbolic modes of domination, Gledhill consistently reads the
world of myth and symbol as something which has, ultimately, been transformed
The Imagining Life 201

in modernity into something alien, desiccating, and fundamentally a “false

consciousness”: “Myths and symbols,” he writes, in summary of arguments about
Sinhala nationalism put forward by Kapferer (who does not, himself, write in this
mode of reduction), “were converted into ideologies of ethnic nationalism via
elite political strategies and these ideologies entered into the consciousness of
‘ordinary people’ and fired their emotions, turning neighbours and fellow victims
of class domination into demons” (Gledhill 2000: 180). While it is empirically true
that the violence of ethnic strife in Sri Lanka, as anywhere, is often perpetrated by
poor people upon other poor people—“fellow victims of class domination”—the
fundamental question is less how they fail to recognize their shared interests,
than how they imagine themselves as similar to some and different from others in
the first place, and how these codes of distinction become such powerful guides
to multiple, local, and often immediately violent acts of discrimination. Nor is
Gledhill wrong to see ethnic nationalisms as “ideologies”: thin, imaginatively
impoverished, and ultimately unsatisfying to the intellectual observer; but again
the question then is how they manage to have the action-orienting force they
evidently do.
What is remarkable in the vision of political anthropology that these two
textbooks mark out—and I am not entirely criticizing, but remarking on a systematic
elision which helps buttress their unique contribution as much as it is a lacuna—is
the way in which the nation, or any other “large-scale” formation to which one
might feel oneself as really belonging despite the fact that it is impossible to see
or grasp immediately, is obscured as itself any real scale for action and interaction
of a politically-relevant kind. The equally institutional and affective sites of
nation or state are not granted any reality as locales where symbols are fostered,
fomented, and take hold, and the self is “hyphenated” to multiple others. Large-
scale formations that depend on such processes of linking, imaginatively, through
and across multiple consciousnesses to become a site of meaningful action—that
are corporate and hence have a real existence through their forms of incorporation,
their collective reality, their mediated or fictional form—are routinely reduced in
this political anthropology to the scale of the psychological operations of (false)
consciousness or to the ethnographic level of immediate relations, the latter often
figured as the site of a dominating and its way constructive violence (Gledhill
2000: 178–9).
The way each of these texts forecloses the imagination as a political force,
having tangible if not immediate sources in texts, practices, affects, and
understandings that bridge the gap between the here-and-now and other times and
places, is indicated by the fact that neither Vincent nor Gledhill engages in depth
with Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (Anderson 1983; 1991). This is
not just the lack of a single citation. Vincent understandably does not cite or discuss
Anderson’s book at all, in part because of the way she defines the boundaries and
scope of her inquiry, but also because its impact in political anthropology was
not evident at the time she wrote. But its absence only highlights the fact that she
excludes from the purview of political anthropology any comparable approach to
202 Reflections on Imagination

the formation of social and political communities, whether in studies of sacrifice,

totemism, kinship, or religion, or via questions of representation and the symbolic
or semiotic properties of identity which link individuals together. For his part,
Gledhill discusses Anderson’s book briefly, but only to highlight its more Weberian
arguments about the career-paths of colonial bureaucrats and the ways in which
the “pyramid” of the imperial state provided the material conditions for national
bureaucratic vocations, and hence led to the emergence of colonial nationalisms
(Gledhill 2000: 75–6).
Yet already by the mid-1980s, the first edition of Anderson’s book had
provoked debate in a range of fields precisely because of its dual claims, first
about print-capitalism and bureaucratic routines as the material conditions for
nation-formation, and second about the equally important and foundational
literary content of national imaginations. Anderson, famously and contentiously,
identified as a central mechanism of nation-formation the literary representation
of a “homogenous, empty time” and a novel “seriality” of personal identity. This
emphasis on a novel literary form and content meant that Imagined Communities
was early on attacked by scholars of Indian anti-colonial nationalism who saw the
work as shifting historical agency away from the later movements of anti-colonial
nationalism and focusing instead on comprador elites, while elevating particularly
literary and intellectual histories to the status of universal historical mechanisms
(Chatterjee 1986)—a debate which rapidly become part of the redefinition of
political anthropology around questions of representation and inclusion.
This early reception via partial appropriations and strong critiques helps
explain the later standard misreading of Anderson’s work as “merely” about
imagination, and not more centrally about the conditions of group solidarity, power,
and order—canonical issues of concern in political anthropology—a misreading
prepared by the disciplinary bent of the subfield toward material histories, visible
relations of power, dominance, and subordination, and embodied (often violent)
encounters. Yet, as developments elsewhere in the anthropological study of
politics revealed, Anderson’s work had indeed opened a methodological pathway
for grappling with “the large scale” of national and state formations (I take this
loose meaning of the “large scale” from Moore 1993).

Imagination at the End of an Era

Now it must be said, again, that the crux of Anderson’s argument was not that
nations are imagined, invented, historically false, or simply ideological fictions;
rather—as is very little remarked—he rested his claims about the emergence of
and spread of nationalism on particular practices of reading and recognition by
which new boundaries and modes of belonging were fostered as imaginative
realities (Greenhouse 2011: 19; Rutherford 2000). Imagined and imagination
take on a very specific meaning in his argument, referring not to private fancies
but to durable social fictions, shaped and formed by specific practices of writing
The Imagining Life 203

and reading—Anderson is concerned with “the style in which they [nations] are
imagined” (Anderson 1991: 6, my emphasis). It is thus doubly ironic that Aihwa
Ong, in the passage I quoted earlier, can so easily dismiss Anderson’s argument
with a parenthetical citation and the phrase “not merely imagined,” for Anderson
both offers a materialist and practice-based theory of national communities
(with his concept of print-capitalism), and more importantly aims to show the
imaginative labor, the shaping of a style of thinking about history and community,
that goes into summoning their irreal existence. There is nothing mere about
the imagination.
By linking the practices of the production and circulation of texts with
their effect in the shaping of expansive imaginations, through the daily and
simultaneous practice of reading as well as the content of what is read, the imagined
communities thesis promised a new way to understand peoples’ actual claims to
belong—intensely, affectively—to an absent, abstract totality, claims which had
long been problematic to a more positivist anthropology and treated as ideological
fictions or as “merely” the domain of litterateurs. As Anderson himself pointed
out, he hoped to shift debate over nationalism into closer proximity with matters
of “religion and kinship” (Anderson 1991: 5). In line with earlier anthropologies
of sacrifice, totemism, and commensality, Anderson’s thesis was centrally about
the strength and depth of community, even in its distinctively modern forms, and
importantly contradicted the antithesis between modernity and community that
had become a fixed habit of sociological thought.
For Anderson, the forms of narration that shape both historical pasts and
immediate presents in national imaginings also, and distinctively, link individuals
into a seriality, a sequence of events, which has continuity and temporal depth but,
at first glance, no particular intensity. But through the narrativization of routine,
and ritual recognitions of similitude, the ever-present “now” of daily life is seeded
with markers of continuity with an immemorial past and co-presence with a body
of anonymous others, which grant it meaning (Anderson 1991: 22–36). The diverse
genres of realist novel, newspaper report, and even ethnography and government
document foster these affects, these imaginings of commonality and continuity,
and, allow all, in their perusal of the daily newspaper, their reading of an account
of their own manners and morals, or a novel of secret deeds and dark corners, to
feel connected to distant events and centers of power and to a shared—and yet
particular—past which stamps its seal on the individual’s identity.
The insights promised by Anderson’s twin focus on the production and the
meaning of circulating texts, and their evocation of belonging to communities in
time, were rapidly taken up in diverse attempts to grapple with the particularities
of this modern form of imagined community—at once distant and abstract,
and physically proximate and even violent in its purchase on the individual
consciousness. Thus, Bruce Kapferer wrote in 1988 that he adopted Anderson’s
account of “print-capitalism” as the “making of folk-knowledge into common
knowledge” in order to help explain certain dynamics of Sinhala nationalism
“because this is exactly what happened” (1988: 94). Edward Said, speaking
204 Reflections on Imagination

to an audience of anthropologists in 1987, said that “nationalism, resurgent

or new, fastens on narratives for structuring, assimilating, or excluding one or
another version of history [and] Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities
drives the point home attractively” (Said 1988: 222). Writing with more of a
concern for disciplinary developments within linguistic anthropology, Susan
Gal identified “an emerging concern with the symbolic, linguistic aspects of
power, domination, and global political economy, reflecting a move as much
by neo-Marxists scholars toward symbolism and discourse, as by symbolic
anthropologists toward questions of power,” all of which was part of a general
theoretical shift which sought to overcome normative separations between the
conceptual and the material that had been associated with structuralism (Gal
1989: 345–6). And Gal, too, found the Imagined Communities thesis persuasive
as an account of language-politics, highlighting an aspect of political practice
interior to linguistic groups that had been neglected by previous theoretical
accounts (356; cf. Herzfeld 1997).
Ultimately, Imagined Communities arrived on the scene just as both political
and literary repertoires of representation that involved the partitioning out “interest”
on the basis of class or ethnicity, or the mimetic promises of formal representation
in a political system, all seemed to be under strain—the strain was theoretical, as
new social movements pressed for recognition and inclusion on new grounds, but
also geopolitical (which is another story). In fact, Imagined Communities achieved
a methodological turn away from reliance on formal political mechanisms of
representation to define and summarize communities—since this is the form in
which modern communities so often misrecognize themselves, or which they
seek as the ultimate ratification of their prior existence—and offered an avenue
of study which could explore how communities, social groupings, are cultivated
in the work of the imagination, not only in the categories and procedures of state
recognition and representation.
Anderson’s notion that “the generation of the impersonal will is, I think, better
sought in the diurnal regularities of the imagining life” (1991: 35 fn. 63) than
in the formalities of political representation or even in the abstract partitioning
of identity and interest on material bases, thus promised specific methodological
tools for studying the connection between the mundane routines of modern life
and the largest claims of collective belonging. In this, Anderson’s methodological
innovations tapped into historical and methodological currents which he could not
have foreseen, and the importance of his arguments was realized not so much in
accounts of nationalism as in challenges to the very sociological importance of
that category in a globalized, networked world.
Thus, in the early 1990s, struggling to understand both migration and new
ethnic formations, Arjun Appadurai explicitly picked up the thesis of print-
capitalism and tried to renovate it for a less bounded, more mobile age, writing
that what characterized social and political formations in his present was the effect
of “migration and media … on the work of the imagination” (Appadurai 1996:
3). As Rapport and Dawson wrote, at the same time and in much the same terms:
The Imagining Life 205

the migration of information, myths, languages, music, imagery, cuisine, décor,

costume, furnishing, above all, persons … brings even the most isolated areas
into a cosmopolitan global framework of socio-cultural interaction. … The
world can no longer be divided up into framed units, territorial segments, and
the like, [the inhabitants of] each [sharing] a distinctive, exclusive culture, a
definite approach to life; rather, everyone is now caught between local origins
and a cosmopolitan society. (1998: 23, internal citations omitted)

What seemed to characterize post-modern, post-Soviet, and post-colonial

politics, for these writers at least (though they are exemplary of a certain trend in
anthropology of the time), was fragmentation and flux, an ever-moving exchange
and flow of people, goods, and ideas on routes that could no longer be mapped by
the firm certainties of a more cartographical science.
Confronted with the real plurality of social movements and forms of collective
identification of the late twentieth century, and with the apparent decline of the
post-war, and postcolonial, “international system” it seemed analytically precise
and even theoretically innovative to speak of any such fixed reference-points
as nation, identity, or belonging as “imagined” entities, as fictive products of
the (ensocialed) mind, on the terms that Anderson had offered. Moreover, the
ways people were linking together across borders and shaping their collective
movements were not based on the kind of material connections that had been the
basis for asserting class or interest-based solidarities. Rather, forms of media—not
merely conveying information, but whole cultural complexes of meaning and
image—were prominent in the new world system that confronted anthropologists.
In the face of the waning coherence of anthropology’s fictions of bounded
“culture” and the simultaneously increasing prominence of mediated representations
of culture and commonality, the ability to incorporate into ethnographic study
forms of discursive production, circulating media and images, shared imaginaries
of distant lands and other mores, and analysis of films, advertisements, newspapers,
radio, or cassette-sermons, seemed to mark a new methodological opening. What
anthropological theory turned to, that is, facing the waning of its fictions, was
more fiction—the imagination and its products took on a centrality and a salience
in the thinking of political anthropologists that was decisively novel, even on the
terms previously mapped out by the study of symbols and forms of hegemonic
incorporation. Imagination in political anthropology was, we might say, “at the
end of an era,” and served to “press back against the pressure of reality” (Stevens
1951: 22, 36).

The Reality of Imagination

There was a fundamental ambiguity in the notion of imagination as it was

appropriated into ethnographic studies from the literary and more historical-
sociological purlieus in which it had been first developed as an analytic term-of-
206 Reflections on Imagination

art, by Anderson and others. How to incorporate analysis and interpretation into the
same frame of study? Did imagination merely refer to the means by which large-
scale social formations were constructed, the media and material infrastructures
(of communications and transport) that linked diverse people together over time
and space? Or could it also refer to the substance of that which was imagined,
the meaningful form and tangible, albeit literary, reality of narrative forms and of
styles of articulation that seemed to summarize whole collective situations?
For the most part, scholars stayed close to the terrain marked out by “print
capitalism,” focusing on the materiality of the networks in which products of
the imagination flow. However, Appadurai’s (1996) attention to the “work of the
imagination” linked up with a new ethnographic sensitivity to the prior discursive
formation of our field sites and locations (Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Marcus
1995). A related turn to studying “publics” and their practices of media, politics,
and belonging focused on “infrastructures of communication, each with its own
qualities, extending beyond printed texts to include parliament buildings, political
rallies, literary salons, teashops and coffee houses, neighbourhood ‘interkom’
networks, movie theaters, and virtual worlds” (Cody 2011: 47, internal citations
omitted). Only some of the work in this vein examines in detail the content of
these imaginative products, or even their meaningful form, in order to ask
questions about the narrative structures or the imaginative power fuelling the
embrace of these sites of mediated sociality as politically important and relevant
(for an exemplary study attentive to content, form, and their political effects in the
imagination, see Kaplan 2009).
A parallel, and equally biased toward the material, sense of the “imagination”
and its role in reproducing large-scale forms of politics was introduced with the
concept of “the imagined state” by Akhil Gupta (Gupta 1995—the 1995 article
is now incorporated into his book-length analysis of bureaucracy in India, Gupta
2012). At first, this concept relied for its critical force on a notion of ideational or
conceptual deixis more than any critical study of imaginative forms, beyond the
fact of their circulation and tangible presence in ethnographic contexts. Indeed,
Gupta was in some senses picking up on the newly available but simplified
use of “imagined” in anthropology; when people talked about the state, or the
nation, or tourists from Bombay, or anything that was not immediately present,
the anthropologist was now licensed to speak of the larger-scale abstraction of
which they speak as something “imagined,” and thus incorporate it into local
ethnography. While such imagined realities might be admitted to be very
powerful, shaping and orienting political practice, the focus in this new sense of
imagined was on the construction of the totality and its real absence. The state, the
promise of development, or the nation, in such work, for ethnographic purposes
was only imagined.
Gupta, in this latter vein, initially frames his primary question as that of the
construction of large-scale, fictive, absent entities: “What is the process whereby
the ‘reality’ of translocal entities comes to be experienced?” he asks, with
significant scare quotes (Gupta 1995: 388–9). His original article can thus serve to
The Imagining Life 207

mark a contrast between the “imagined communities” approach to novel forms of

translocal solidarity as they are conjured forth and made real in literary forms and
genres, and an account (Gupta’s) which emphasizes how entities that remain irreal
are ingredients in local-level action, in part through the now quasi-miraculous
appearance of circulating discourses from some higher, “imagined” level.
Gupta pays attention to the presence and discursive content of periodicals,
images, and other circulating representations, as they were received and reproduced
in local interactions, in order to achieve ethnographic purchase on something which
otherwise might be thought of as outside the frame of investigation—the state. The
ideas held about, and hopes invested in, the distant sarkaar (or government) that
he elicited from local informants in an Indian village were shown to be deeply
affected by both the content and sheer presence of mediated images of state officials
and distant locations (in the form of televisual appearances of prime ministers and
politicians, and newspaper reports of their words, which together gave the state a
false immediacy in the lived world of the village). Gupta emphasizes, however,
a contradiction between such “imaginary” representations of the state and local
practice. The state was imagined to be vertical, encompassing, centralized, distant,
and just, as opposed to the local reality, which was immediate, enmeshed in other
relations of kinship and caste, partial, corrupt, violent, and capricious.
The “imagined state” in this sense for Gupta is the effect of the processes of
circulation and discourse that make it appear as if there is a center to political
life, when in fact there is no such thing. Moreover, its “imaginary” qualities are
just that—they exist only in opposition to local reality, and the “reality” of the
state is kept, rigorously, in scare quotes. What Gupta did not do in this initial
approach to the political imagination was reach into the centers of production
of this imagination—wherever they may be, in novels or in capital cities—to
measure its formalities not against local reality but against its own narrative forms
and generic procedures (see Abu-Lughod 2005). More recently, Gupta has drawn
on a novel, Raag Darbari, about local bureaucratic practice to complement his
ethnographic interests in the force of state developmentalism in the everyday
lives of poor farmers, and to ratify the generality of the discourse of corruption
as a feature of the Indian state imagination. The wide circulation of discourses
of corruption is now adduced as something which is both local and general, no
longer only the direct experience of poor people suffering under unaccountable
officials; it is a structuring feature of the stories that Indians tell themselves about
the state, while remaining a means of marking “the state’s” practical distance, as
an imagined thing, from any local reality (Gupta 2012: 136).
Despite this turn to meaning and the force of official (and international) as well
as literary discourses about the state, the task that Gupta sets himself is still to reach
some level of ethnographic specificity where the state, as it is imagined, might
melt away into immediacy and presence with the real people who are ultimately
invoked as anthropology’s distinctive source and ethical aim. Gupta’s analysis
simultaneously embraces imagination as a critical and distancing term—for the
purchase on abstraction and on large-scale forces that it can provide—and yet
208 Reflections on Imagination

conditions this set of insights as something which must always meet the test of a
more fundamental reality—one not “merely” imagined—in the lives of subaltern
citizens and marginal peoples. An anthropology of imaginary entities must guard,
he cautions, against the danger of a fundamental separation from the really real of
daily life and the ordinary violence that is otherwise unreported and “slips beneath
the radar of politicians, academic, journalists, and concerned citizens” (2012:
137). It is characteristic of the dueling aims of his analysis that Gupta both uses
novels and other texts to gain insight into the tropes and interpretations that give
form to this imagined reality of the state, but at the same time moves away from
textuality and meaningful form in order to seek the hidden reality buried under the
prolixity of this imagination.
As Thomas Blom Hansen has recently commented on Veena Das’s similar
elaboration of “the ordinary” as a testing ground for the ethical truth of anthropology:

In this move, actual speech, public statements, and ritualized conduct by those
who claim social or cultural authority in the communities studied, or those who
just speak and banter, may be relegated to a realm of the mediated, even not so
ordinary. Only those properly equipped … seem able to decipher the whispers
and murmurs of the ordinary. (Hansen 2012: 20)

But further—as Hansen’s own exemplary ethnography of contemporary Indian

political life in South Africa amply demonstrates, by incorporating analysis of
films and plays, local newspapers and high-state legitimations—the realm of the
mediated or “not so ordinary” is precisely a prior condition for “speech, public
statements, and ritualized conduct,” and the tropes, forms, genres, and techniques
of social description are as much a part of the analysis—and the means by which
authority itself is claimed—as the only apparently absent reality to which they refer.
I don’t mean to mount a simple-minded defense of textuality as a method, nor
certainly does Hansen. Indeed, textuality is a seductive danger in anthropology—the
Western reliance on authorized, written, forms of knowledge-production (and
more recent love of “discourses”) can often lead unwary anthropologists into
inserting proxies for presence into ethnographic accounts, since such (written)
proxies appear more authoritative than the fragile evidence of ethnography. This
is a real danger, since such reliance on the written and authoritative interferes with
the trust and listening necessary to capture any other register of knowledge and
being in the world (Borneman and Hammoudi 2011). Most problematically, the
anthropologist can end up divorced both from everyday life and from the power
relations that provide him with his own perspective.
However, circulating texts and media are not merely proxies; they are also
literary forms, vehicles of meaning which are diversely seized, interpreted, and
reshaped, and which gain much of their power from the very imagined reality
that they make available, one which is not always (or even often) tested against
hard local realities—by the readers and consumers of these imaginative products
least of all. It is by evading the very possibility of comparison that they become
The Imagining Life 209

structuring elements in daily life, and imaginative realities. The problems

presented by mediation in ethnographic practice, thus, seem less urgent to me
than the risk that we might run by sacrificing the social imagination and its forms
as real objects of ethnographic engagement. It is my argument that by sacrificing
imagination, we would risk losing our ability to trace the ways in which the “large-
scale” with its authority is in fact received, constructed, taken for granted, and
itself imaginatively present in everyday life, often through the reuse, recirculation,
and transformation of high political terms and concepts—like neoliberal, or
accountability, or corruption—in the service of new projects of solidarity and
belonging, and of imaginative affiliation with some powerful center, often enough
at that center itself. (As a sidebar, this is a complexity of location—being at
the center—that has seldom been addressed as an epistemological problem in
anthropology, or as a result of processes of the imagination, but it is I think a
simple enough observation that some locations are not imagined to be central even
by those who live there, while others are very much at the center of things, while
remaining inveterately local, and this is an imaginative difference that matters to
any anthropology of politics).
Moreover, the effort to maintain some understanding of the “large-scale” as
a political framework in which moral projects are constructed and individual
identities achieved, and made meaningful, by no means entails dispensing with
the traditional anthropological concern with persons, men and women working,
thinking, writing, and talking in the flow and flux of social life. Creative
constructions of self and other—even the most idiosyncratic or heroic—depend on
shared horizons of meaning and collective constructions of the good and desirable,
and this is the avenue by which a specifically political anthropology comes to deal
with them. These shared experiential and interpretive horizons, though imaginary,
cannot simply be “imagined” in the sense of “made up,” out of whole cloth: they
must be said, inscribed, echoed, and rehearsed into existence, in the complex play
of social dramas and in the diurnal regularities—including the dreams and fancies
of the night—of the imagining life.
Far from being “mere” imagination, what I am seeking to define here is that
aspect of imagination by which forces which extend beyond the scope of any
individual power come to take on form and become socially real; that dual aspect
of reality and fantasmatic appearance of which we might justly say, “what is in
white heat imaginative reality is in cold imaginary phantasm” (Blackmur 1980:
199). Neither just the obverse of cold, material reality, nor some foundational
fantasy that refers back to an inaccessible and primary realm of unsymbolized
real relations, what comes to attention in this way is that aspect of the political life
that is urgent and meaningful in a collective moment of concern, and often is only
grasped in fleeting shorthand or in compressed reference to some larger and absent
reality (hence its often highly liturgical, and religious, appearance in “ritualized
conduct”). The elements of this imagination wax and wane depending on the
needs of the day, may be more or less present in a given moment, and benefit from
ritual concentration as much as from misdirection and subtle reference. Rather
210 Reflections on Imagination

like irruptive fantasy, this social imagination can transport you elsewhere while
also maintaining its connection—through symbolic associations and stylistic
compression—to the real-world and interpersonal context in which it occurs,
and to which it returns, and from which its interpretation gains all its force and
relevance (Borneman 2011).
In conclusion, then, I wish to explore briefly the resources which may remain
available for an account of this “imaginative reality”—what Geertz called the
“literariness of real life” (Geertz 1983: 47)—as a political imagination, fostered
by certain literary forms and decisive in both anthropology and everyday life for
any understanding of others.

The Moral Imagination

Responding to Trilling’s fragmentary, posthumously-published thoughts on

anthropological difference and the literary imagination, Clifford Geertz lamented
that we so often are left, in our attempts to imagine other ways of living, with
the pleasing but wholly unsystematic path of empathy (Geertz 1983). But, as he
pointed out, in fact there is something in the literary forms and forms of life of
others which does make them comparable, in a fairly systematic fashion but at
the cost of illuminating all the dark and unexamined corners of our own moral
life, revealing the taken-for-grantedness of all our own most precious forms (this
is, of course, the great liberal and Boasian project of anthropological relativism).
The partialness and aestheticism of such an account of difference and relativity,
particularly the limited, one-sided accounting of the costs and who bears them,
and the implication that others are different and static and “we” anthropologists
are those who change, have been justly criticized by postcolonial scholars
(D. Scott 1999).
But there is something to be said for the idea that other, more strange, forms of
symbolic compression can illuminate that which is elided in those which are more
familiar; the encounter with other interpretations of a future, its rewards and risks,
can force a recalibration of our own. This does not have to take the extreme form
of Evans-Pritchard’s “Nuer are fortunate” to have its relativistic force. One doesn’t
need to be a romantic to see in the tightly-written topography of local places, way-
stations and market-towns, of an eighteenth-century map, a different imaginative
vision than that which structures a map of modern freeways. The mistake would
lie in assuming that the imaginations fostered by the older map were any more
local, bounded, shaped by place than the present-day ones—or, as Trilling sharply
corrects a misapprehension about Jane Austen’s moral world, that it was “much
more abundantly provided with trees than with people, a world in whose green
shade life for a moment might be a green thought” (Trilling 1976: 250). It is
good to know what towns you’re passing through, if you’re passing through them
slowly; Trilling’s point is that slowness is no guarantee of moral rectitude, nor
does it imply greater density of connection or more authentic experience.
The Imagining Life 211

Likewise, the imagination that sees in roads, trucks, and the transport of
both heavy goods and tourists a promise of development is no less true to the
local concerns of a community than that which seeks to defend the “pristine”
environment and culture of the hills. Livelihoods give people a stake; hopes give
them a future; imagination knits this together through repertoires of story-telling,
emplotment of self and other, and projections of unseen totalities in order to shape
a politics both local and large-scale. The community that developmental visions
seek to make prosperous and grow is just as real as that which fosters traditions
and remains tied to place and the land—which means that it is equally imagined.
The tropes are different; the hopes are too—what community means to each itself
will change. But the role of the imagination and of the works of the imagination
is equally important for each, particularly (as Gupta’s more recent work reminds
us) when modernist dreams of participation are systematically fostered in both
local and central locations, through democratic representation and techniques of
publicity. But the style, the particular scope of a ritual, the reach of a demand for
developmental goods—addressed to a local bureaucrat or to a national journalist
or a visiting anthropologist—does matter, as does the kind of community that it
invokes, whether as a constituent part of a large-scale political project of belonging
and representation, or as a bulwark against power and against its cultural forms.
In either case, what is key for anthropological understanding is the symbolic
form and narrative context in which the imagination takes shape, through
systematic forms of compression, reliance on words that mean more than they at
first appear to, and the use of figures, tropes, and conventions.
To understand this final, key aspect of the political imagination—which is
also, always, a moral and moralizing imagination, of who and what should be
given a share in a relevant world—I am drawn to T.O. Beidelman’s definition
of the imagination, which he ties fundamentally to storytelling and more
particularly fable-making: “I use the term [imagination] in a restricted sense to
mean the picturing of characters and events in the mind’s eye in a manner or form
resembling, but significantly different and removed from, reality. … Few such
clear cut and enduring stereotypes are formed in real life” (1980: 33). There is a
significant defamiliarization that comes with such compression, but which also
produces a gain in interpretive power. The stories that interested him were, he
wrote, “odd, not in the sense that they do not represent recognized characteristics,
feelings, motives, and roles, but in the sense that, whereas in real life these cannot
all be properly judged and met by the same person or in one situation, here they are
clearly defined and resolved.” He continued, however, to mark the unreality of this
moral imagination: “Indisputable, unambiguous moral judgments and permanent
resolutions must remain imaginary so long as a person lives” (33).
This final sense of “imaginary” is important for Beidelman’s argument, and
my own—for if such indisputable, unambiguous moral judgments are imaginary,
inaccessible, for any one individual, they are precisely the register in which society
itself becomes real, for good or for ill, in everyday life. It is the insistent sound of
the collective which is heard in such moments of judgment, not the murmur of the
212 Reflections on Imagination

ordinary and ineluctably human. As Beidelman goes on to explore, the imagination

in his sense is not something opposed to reality but something superadded to it as
an interpretive guide to real life. Highways do not “bring” development; tourism
has costs as well as benefits; media depictions of what is going on “over there”
can be abusive and damaging as much as they can dazzle and scintillate. But such
imaginative projections are part of real life, they act back in the situations that matter
to us as anthropologists, and also form part of our own apparatus of understanding.
Or, as the poet says, imagination presses back, “against the pressure of reality”
(Stevens 1954: 36). And there is nothing mere about that.


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Chapter 12
Do Forest Children Dream of Electric
Light? An Exploration of Matses Children’s
Imaginings in Peruvian Amazonia
Camilla Morelli

I think the reason that boredom is the principle affliction of school children in the
United States … is that they are bored with the artificial world. The artificial world
is boring.
Margaret Mead 1977: 22, italics in original

Concrete is great. I love concrete.

Paloma, six-year-old Matses girl

Figure 12.1 Iquitos

Source: Drawing by Paloma, six years old.
216 Reflections on Imagination

The above drawing represents the city of Iquitos, Peru, and was drawn by Paloma,
a six-year-old indigenous Matses girl living in the Amazonian rainforest. Her
drawing conveys a vivid sense of urban life. Huge tarmac streets zigzag across the
city and black houses, made from concrete, are connected by power-lines to the
electricity grid. Gigantic lampposts tower over the houses and shed light across
the city, while underneath bubble-shaped cars carry passengers along Iquitos’s
busy streets. The car in the very centre of the drawing contains two people. They
are Paloma and her mother, who are driving around the city and observing all that
urban life presents.
However Paloma, like most Matses children, has never been to a city and
although she has occasionally visited rural towns outside of her forest-village,
she has never encountered tarmac streets or been in a car. Peru’s cities are not
only far away from Matses territory but are too expensive for most Matses people
to travel to. Instead, Paloma explores Iquitos by imagining it at a distance: there
she is in the midst of the city’s concrete streets, in a bubble car, looking out at
the buildings and people that surround her. In Paloma’s drawing, an inaccessible
and un-witnessed city comes alive on a piece of paper and a distant elsewhere is
brought into being through the combination of Paloma’s imagination, coloured
pencils and the drawing hand.
This chapter explores the contents and character of children’s imagination and
how this can be made visible through drawing and speech. I use children’s drawings
to show how imagining is never free-floating but always accompanied by different
emotions and entangled with children’s lived experiences and possibilities of
action. By addressing imagining as a means of creating and accessing social
worlds beyond people’s immediate dwellings (Crapanzano 2004), I will consider
how children develop imaginative constructions of a distant elsewhere that is
invested with value and constituted in opposition to their everyday environments.
My aim is to bring out how children’s curiosity, fascination and moral appreciation
of an imagined elsewhere impinge on their self-perceptions and expectations for
the future, and thus have an impact onto children’s experiences and those of the
wider social community.
I look specifically at how indigenous Matses children, who live in Peruvian
Amazonia and spend most of their time in forest-villages, engage with the
nonindigenous world of cities at a distance and by means of the imagination. Until
recently this world was largely unfamiliar to Matses people, who lived itinerantly
in the Amazonian rainforest and only encountered other peoples through raiding
and warfare (Romanoff 1984; Romanoff et al. 2004). Following missionary contact
in 1969, the Matses began opening up to the chotac, ‘nonindigenous people’,
and started living in more permanent settlements closer to navigable rivers and
nonindigenous territory. Over the last 30 years, they have started to adopt formal
schooling, use money and manufactured goods, and they have developed new
subsistence activities. As a result they are becoming increasingly reliant on trade,
Do Forest Children Dream of Electric Light? 217

the market economy, monetary exchanges and relationships with nonindigenous

people and practices.1
Nevertheless, Matses people rarely travel outside of their territory. The
nonindigenous world, its affordances and inhabitants – including electric light,
cities, concrete, Jean-Claude Van Damme, manufactured goods, white people, and
so forth – are perceived as distant and uneasy to reach. Cities are geographically
remote and too expensive to travel to; money and manufactured goods such as
shotgun cartridges to hunt, fishing tools, knives and clothes are always in short
supply; there is no electricity, artificial light or running water in their villages;
and nonindigenous peoples such as local authorities or visitors very occasionally
travel to Matses territory; therefore, Matses people’s direct encounters with the
nonindigenous world remain limited. And yet, the children insistently engage
with nonindigenous places, people and materials even in the absence of these,
and frequently bring them to life through speech, play and drawings. Contrary to
Mead’s statement reported at the beginning of the chapter, for Matses children ‘the
artificial world’ of cities is not ‘boring’ but extremely captivating and intriguing,
and they establish a connection with it through imagining at a distance.
Imagining offers a way to enter the fluid and many faceted forms of life
that exist beyond the horizon of people’s immediate surroundings and into what
Crapanzano describes as the ‘hinterland’, that is, ‘a very concrete land, a place,
an intimate one, […] which lies elsewhere, ailleurs, beyond where one is and
yet intimately related to it’ (2004: 15). By considering how children embark
on imaginary journeys towards an elsewhere and inhabit the nonindigenous
world, I try to delineate how these imaginary realms are entangled with the
here-and-now of their domestic, everyday environments. I suggest that by
imagining the urban world as a place of better opportunities, the children
start viewing it as a destination for their adulthoods from an early age. At the
same time they disregard a whole set of practices and worldviews that are well
established amongst old Matses, but do not equally catch children’s interest
and attention; first and foremost forest skills and knowledge, which are visibly
decreasing throughout generations.
I argue, therefore, that an analysis of the imagination is necessary to fully
acknowledge how children make sense of the world and actively contribute to
processes of social transformation; however, the analysis might not be free
of complications.

1 The Matses number around 2,000 individuals settled in Peruvian and Brazilian
Amazonia, and are classified by scholars under the Panoan linguistic family (Romanoff
1984; Fleck 2003: 21; Romanoff et al. 2004). I carried out 14 months of research between
2010 and 2012 in a village of 200 people on the Chobayacu Creek, on the Peruvian side,
where I mainly worked with children aged 6 to 12. In order to respect the privacy of my
respondents, all personal names have been changed and the name of the village will not be
218 Reflections on Imagination

Exploring Children’s Imagination

Any ethnography of the imagination poses a series of thorny epistemological and

methodological problems, not least the difficulty of defining what the imagination
is and the impossibility of directly accessing another person’s imaginative activity.
The Matses do not even have a word for ‘imagining’, the closest expression being
the verb tantia, ‘to hear’ or ‘to listen to’, but also ‘to know’, ‘to remember’ and
‘to think about’. Nevertheless, I argue that imagining-at-a-distance is foundational
to how the children develop ways of knowing and understanding the world: in
this case, the nonindigenous world, which remains geographically out of reach
but is made available through the imagination. Whilst it is clearly necessary to
recognise that ‘lived experience is never identical with the concepts we use to
grasp and represent it’ (Jackson 1989: 2), I argue that the imagination can be used
as a valuable analytical concept that offers a means of exploring children’s lived
experiences within a wider theoretical discourse.
The imagination, as Crapanzano suggests, constitutes ‘an important
dimension of human experience’ and thus requires ethnographic consideration but
problematically resists and even ‘disappears with articulation’ (2004: 18), making
it notoriously difficult to research and represent. Concomitant problems have been
encountered whenever anthropologists have tried to overcome the ‘empiricist’s
terror’ (ibid.: 17) and venture beyond the limits of observable experience so as
to grasp people’s imaginative and unspoken lifeworlds (Jackson 1989; 2002;
Crapanzano 2004: 18; Irving 2011; 2013; Rapport 2013). Rather than follow
traditional paradigms of what is possible and worthy of investigation within
anthropology, a small number of anthropologists have advocated, in different
ways, the need for new modes of inquiry and methods within the discipline which
can render the ‘open-endedness and ambiguity of human experience’ (Jackson
2002: 125) while recognising that ‘experience is not reducible to objectivities’
(Rapport 2013: 13).
In order to grasp children’s imagination as a kind of embodied and emplaced
activity that takes place in the flow of their everyday thinking and being, my
aim is to bring together Collingwood’s (1992) inquiry into the human mind with
Michael Polanyi’s (1965) study of human consciousness. Collingwood proposes
an approach that ‘does not ask what mind is; it asks only what mind does’ and as
such ‘renounces all attempt to discover what mind always and everywhere does,
and asks only what mind has done on certain definite occasions’ (1992: 61, italics
in original). In this Collingwood is moving from definition to function: rather
than making an ontological claim about what the mind is, he is offering a way
of thinking about its material outcomes, of which art and drawing are paramount
examples. In a related vein, Polanyi argued that it is never fully possible to access
another person’s consciousness and bodily states, although these can be to some
extent grasped by dwelling in ‘the external workings’ of another person’s ‘mind
from the outside’ (1965: 807, my italics); although here ‘mind’ can be replaced
with a broader attention to bodily feelings, emotional states and embodied actions.
Do Forest Children Dream of Electric Light? 219

I therefore seek to engage with people’s practices of imagining through ‘an

investigation into observable behaviour’ (Irving 2013: 133). My aim, following
Collingwood, is not to attempt an exhaustive definition of what the imagination
is – insofar as this would reduce the complexity and immediacy of that imagination
as it emerges in action and render it in a too static or reified form – but rather
to try and grasp what imagining does within the context of a practical fieldwork
encounter. Here the gerundial form ‘imagining’ draws attention to the fluid,
situated and unfinished activity of the imagination and how it is enacted and made
manifest on specific occasions towards undetermined ends. Following Polanyi,
I propose to access the process of imagining to the extent it is carried out and
made visible to others in tangible forms of expression (or ‘external workings’)
and more specifically through the act of drawing, which I used consistently
as a means of developing fieldwork
relationships with Matses children and
engage with their imaginary lifeworlds
beyond words.

Drawing and Imagining as ‘Being-


Drawing is a useful method, distinct

from film and photography, which
has the potential to explore the realms
of making, imagining and knowing,
while simultaneously offering a mode
of documentation and representation.
In the research with children, drawing
is recognised as a valuable technique
that can help explore their cognitive
understandings beyond words (e.g.
Mead 1932; Toren 1990; 1999; 2007)
but also as a situated activity that takes
place in a material setting and within
certain power relations (Mitchell 2006).
In this chapter, drawing is addressed as
the tangible expression of imaginary
processes in which links between
disparate entities are established and
syncretic forms are brought to life
into a single representative space; as
exemplified in the images below by
three-year-old Bridget and eight-year- Figure 12.2 Forest spirit
old Simón. Source: Drawing by Bridget, three years old.
220 Reflections on Imagination

Figure 12.3 Forest spirit with sunglasses

Source: Drawing by Simón, eight years old.

The above drawings were produced under my elicitation and within the first two
weeks of fieldwork, when I was determined to investigate children’s relationships
with the forest environment and insistently asked my young respondents to draw
forest creatures, including animals and spirits. The images portray two mayan,
‘spirits’ that are said to live inside tree-holes and to take humans away, but these
are made anew through children’s imagination. Bridget explained that her spirit
‘comes forward floating like people in the movies’, which children can watch only
occasionally. Simón’s drawing suggests that spirits are deadly creatures living on
forest trees, like elderly Matses describe them; but his spirit has a skeleton body,
which children see in movies or schoolbooks, and wears sunglasses, some of the
most desired goods amongst Matses boys and girls.
The drawings can therefore reveal something of how children attend to the
world and which aspects of it capture their imagination most powerfully. For
example, it helped me discover that young Matses are not as fascinated by the
forest environment and its creatures as they are by the nonindigenous world and
its inhabitants; unlike old generations of Matses who spend a great deal of time in
the forest and frequently talk about it. Even when I asked the children to draw or
talk about different subjects, they would often include elements associated with
the nonindigenous world in their pictures and speech, and in so doing they brought
into view new imaginary entities – such as spirits wearing sunglasses.
Do Forest Children Dream of Electric Light? 221

This process might be termed as ‘bricolaging’, which following Lévi-

Strauss’s (1974) original notion indicates a process of crafting that requires
mediating between the given properties of already-there materials and the
possible innovative uses that might come from a combination of them. By
positing a view of knowing as itself a process of crafting meaning (Harris
2007: 12), the concept of bricolage can be extended so as to indicate a creative
act of making through which new imaginary forms are brought into being by
mixing disparate sources of knowledge. For example, Matses children hear
stories about forest spirits from their elders but their attention is also caught
by the multiple attractions of the nonindigenous world – including movies and
sunglasses – which are nevertheless absent from their everyday lifeworlds. The
children complain that they cannot watch movies very often or buy sunglasses
and other manufactured goods, which are sold in the city at very high prices.
By bringing the nonindigenous world into the material piece of paper, they
make it available and ‘coeval’ (Fabian 1983: 31) with their everyday lifeworlds,
where the concept of coevalness refers to the possibility of a shared temporal
but also spatial coexistence of disparate spheres of the world. Another example
is the drawing below by eleven-year-old Nelson, which shows Matses warriors
(on the left) fighting against action-movie superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme
(on the right). The Matses fight with bows and arrows and a shotgun, whereas
Jean-Claude Van Damme and his army counterattack with a helicopter, an army
tank and machine guns that release red and yellow flames.

Figure 12.4 Matses warriors fight Jean-Claude Van Damme

Source: Drawing by Nelson, 11 years old.
222 Reflections on Imagination

Matses children occasionally hear their elderly grandparents recounting warfare

episodes from their youth, when the Matses regularly raided and were raided by
different indigenous Amazonians and nonindigenous peoples (Romanoff 1984:
40; Fleck 2003: 32). The Matses would attack their settlements and kill the men
with bows and arrows, as shown by Nelson, but also kidnap the young women
and steal their tools such as machetes and shotguns. In his drawing, Nelson brings
together the tales of warfare from Matses past with new imageries of warriorhood
that emerge from nonindigenous media, in this case action-movies. Drawing
here offers an immediate means of bringing into view objects and situations that
transcend the ordinary and can only exist in children’s imagination, while also
revealing children’s passion for Jean-Claude Van Damme and television.
These hybrid forms do not fully exist prior to their representation, but are brought
into being in the act of drawing itself: spirits are made to wear sunglasses, army
tanks invade the rainforest and Jean-Claude Van Damme fights against old Matses
warriors. Drawing can therefore be understood not just as a way of externalising
onto a piece of paper some cognitive understandings that exist prior to the act of
drawing itself, but as a dynamic, ongoing process of ‘knowledge-making’ in which
knowledge is thought to emerge ‘directly from the indissoluble relations that exist
between minds, bodies, and environment’ (Marchand 2010: 2). This approach
recalls Heidegger’s view of knowing not as a process through which notions are
‘stored up in the cabinet of consciousness’ (1962: 89); but rather as a dynamic
way of being-there with the entities that are known and of engaging with them
through certain situated modalities. The same can be affirmed for thinking about
or expressing what is known, which also becomes a way for establishing dynamic
relationships with the known and represented entities. In Heidegger’s words,

If I “merely” know about some ways in which the being of entities is

interconnected, if I “only” represent them, if I do no more than “think” about
them, I am no less alongside the entities outside in the world that when I
originally grasp them. (ibid.: 89, italics in original)

Knowing and representing what is known is thus a way of being alongside

the known entities or ‘amidst’ them, as Dreyfus renders it (1991: 44–5). If we
can admit imagining as being a form of knowing that allows for accessing an
elsewhere beyond the limits of the habitual and the ordinary, and drawing as a
dynamic activity through which the imagination is carried out and brought into
view, then also imagining/drawing can be considered as ways of actively engaging
with objects and realms of the world even if at a distance. Drawing offers a
tangible form of expression in a way that neither the camera nor text is quite able
to do, since it makes possible engaging with faraway entities even in their physical
absence while bringing them into public view. As Taussig put it, drawing should
be addressed not just as a ‘means of witness’ (2011: xi) but also as ‘a hauling, an
unravelling, and being impelled towards something or somebody’ (ibid.: xii, my
italics), hence as itself a form of movement.
Do Forest Children Dream of Electric Light? 223

In the rest of the chapter I will focus more closely on the act of imagining/
drawing as a dynamic activity that allows the children to reach the faraway
chotac yacno, ‘nonindigenous places’, and thereby reveals their being impelled
towards them. The drawings were produced in various situations: individually
and collectively, in school and outside, under children’s spontaneous requests or
following my elicitation. In most cases, however, the children themselves initiated
drawing and they often chose to represent scenes and materials associated with
nonindigenous places.2 There are two main chotac yacno that Matses people living
in Peru are familiar with: Colonia Angamos, a rural town which is about eight
hours away by motorised canoe from the village where I worked; and the city of
Iquitos, which is connected via airplane to Colonia Angamos. Matses people are
relatively familiar with the former, which is easier to reach, but only a few of them
have regular access to Iquitos, since flying is expensive and as Matses people
often lament, piucquid nidbëdec: ‘there is no money’. Children might be taken
to Colonia Angamos by their parents a couple of times a year but only a few of
them have ever been to Iquitos, therefore their direct experience of nonindigenous
places is generally very limited. However, I will show how the children bring this
world to life through everyday acts of imagining, in order to emphasise how the
imagination holds serious consequences in their ways of understanding and being-
in the world.

Concrete Paths in the Rainforest

The image below was drawn by nine-year-old Romina. It represents Colonia

Angamos, the closest rural town to Matses territory in Peru. The drawing
is far from a photographic description of the town; it instead brings out the
nonindigenous world in a mixture of visual stimuli and materials as it is recast
through the girl’s imagination. Romina proposes her own creative perspective on
the world: nonindigenous houses are upside down, and giant concrete paths cross
the town and connect the oversized buildings. The disruption of perspectives and
the asymmetrical shapes are partly due to her limited ability to draw as a nine-year-
old girl, and to coordinate visual stimuli, memory inputs, the nervous system and
the hand that draws. But this particular, irregular assemblage of figures can also be
said to reveal something of how she imagines and perceives the place at a distance.
For example, the disproportioned paths in the middle of the drawing emphasise the
importance of concrete paths in the nonindigenous town, and suggests that when
Romina imagines the nonindigenous world at a distance she perceives concrete as

2 Although Matses children occasionally draw in school, this is seen as more of a task
than a recreational activity since they have limited stationary material at their disposal and
must adapt to their teachers’ commands. I instead offered plenty of good quality stationery
and let the children draw whatever they liked, and from the very first week of fieldwork,
groups of children started looking for me, asking to draw and play.
224 Reflections on Imagination

Figure 12.5 Colonia Angamos

Source: Drawing by Romina, nine years old.

a dominant material. Concrete paths indeed emerge as a constant and dominant

feature in nearly all of the drawings of nonindigenous places that were made by
the children.
When I asked Romina what the shapes in the middle of her drawing represent
she simply replied cemento, the Spanish word for ‘concrete’. Matses people are
almost entirely monolingual but have incorporated some Spanish words into their
language, such as cemento, which not only refers to cement as material but also to
‘concrete paths’ (like the ones in Colonia Angamos) and ‘tarmac streets’ (which
the Matses can only see in Iquitos, the city). In the village where I worked, there
is only one small concrete path. It is badly constructed and weather-beaten, and
was built a few years back by the major and regional municipality of Colonia
Angamos, likely in an attempt to seek recognition from Matses people and gain
votes for the following elections.3 Although the path is effectively useless and in
my view the local administration could have instead paid for malaria medication

3 Matses villages fall under the jurisdiction of the Yaquerana district, which is part
of the Loreto department of Peru and whose seat is Colonia Angamos. Once every four
years, Matses people are required to travel and vote for the election of the mayor of Colonia
Angamos. The regional municipality provides gasoline and offers them food once in
Colonia Angamos, and the candidates try to lure them and gain their votes with all sorts of
Do Forest Children Dream of Electric Light? 225

or school equipment, Matses people are very fond of it; especially the children,
who often talk about how they would like more concrete paths in their village, like
those in Colonia Angamos.
The frequency with which concrete emerges as a topic in children’s
conversations reinforces the extent to which it stimulates their imaginations, as
suggested by the following dialogue between a six-year-old girl and myself:

Paloma: Camilla, is there concrete in your land?

Camilla: Yes, there is plenty of it.

Paloma: Oh, I see.

Camilla: Do you like concrete, Paloma?

Paloma: Yes! I love concrete! [cemento bunquioebi, ‘I really want concrete’]

Camilla: Why do you like it?

Paloma: It’s good. Good for walking. Good for running.

Camilla: Is soil not good for walking?

Paloma: No. It’s painful. Concrete is great.

Paloma admits, ‘I love concrete’ but the literal translation of the above is ‘I really
want’. In her drawing of Iquitos at the beginning of the chapter, the most prominent
features are giant black houses and cemento streets and Paloma explained to me
that in Iquitos even houses are made of concrete. The further away one moves
from Matses territory, the more concrete is found. I once asked seven-year-old
Matias, how he imagines my homeland. With no hesitation, he replied: cemento-
ic-pambo, ‘all made of concrete’.
In children’s imaginings, concrete is understood as a special ‘affordance’ of
nonindigenous settlements – a term that Ingold (1987; 1992) applied to understand
the possibilities that a material environment offers to its living inhabitants,
including animals, in relation to the type of body they have. By extending the
term to the urban environment, concrete can be defined as a special affordance of
nonindigenous places since children imagine it as allowing for certain possibilities
of moving, acting and dwelling that are invested with value and yearned for
(‘concrete is great’). As such, the nonindigenous world is constituted in opposition
to the forest-villages where concrete is scarce or absent, and one cannot walk

promises and loud gestures. From what I could witness, the election system is extremely
corrupted, disorganised and dysfunctional.
226 Reflections on Imagination

Figure 12.6 The village

Source: Drawing by Lily, nine years old.

and move in the same ways. The very term cemento, borrowed from Spanish,
defines concrete as a material that comes from the outside and is only found
elsewhere. This contrast is made visible by comparing Romina’s drawing of the
nonindigenous town with that of nine-year-old Lily, reported above, which shows
the children’s village.
As seen in the drawings, Matses houses are much smaller than those in the
nonindigenous town, as well as colourful and not connected by concrete paths.
A big tree stands in the middle, somehow giving a sense of the rich vegetation
in the village. Here, people live in houses made of forest materials and walk
barefoot on the ground, full of thorns and stinging plants that often hurt their
feet and which young people complain about. Harry, an eight-year-old boy, told
me that walking barefoot on the ground is unpleasant because the soil is mata-
mata-pambo, ‘all muddy’ (literally ‘painfully muddy’). Old Matses, by contrast,
are proud of having developed a thick hard layer of skin on the soles of their
feet, which they say ‘is like a shoe’ and is the consequence of daily treks and
excursions walking barefoot through the forest. As the elderly complain, young
Matses are not as strong and resilient as them; they cannot handle trekking
through the forest and instead prefer walking on concrete like the chotac,
‘nonindigenous people’.
Do Forest Children Dream of Electric Light? 227

Figure 12.7 Chotac yacno (nonindigenous settlement)

Source: Drawing by Emanuel, 10 years old.

Do Forest Children Dream of

Electric Light?

The children drew the above

images spontaneously, when I
gave them blank pieces of paper
and asked them to draw anything
they pleased; and, as often, they
chose to represent the world of
nonindigenous people. In the
first picture, Emanuel, 10 years
old, shows an unspecified chotac
yacno, ‘nonindigenous place’.
Three big houses stand in the
middle, all connected by power-
lines for electric illumination.
The circles attached to the roofs
inside the houses are internal
lights. The power-lines are then
linked to lampposts outside the
houses, three on the left hand
side and three on the right:
at night, the chotac yacno is
illuminated on both the inside Figure 12.8 Colonia Angamos
and the outside. Source: Drawing by Billy, eight years old.
228 Reflections on Imagination

In the second drawing, eight-year-old Billy shows a nonindigenous man walking

through Colonia Angamos. The purple base on the bottom of the paper is a concrete
path, while the huge purple building on the top right is a water cistern, which children
often refer to when addressing Colonia Angamos: unlike their village, the town
has running water. The big green construction on the left hand side is a lamppost
and the circles attached to the houses are houselights. It is night-time and the man
walks around the nonindigenous settlement fully illuminated by artificial light.
Like concrete paths, lampposts and houselights are recurrent features in children’s
drawings of nonindigenous places and understood as constitutive of people’s lives
there. Luz, the term Matses people use for ‘electric light’ (but which also signifies
‘lampposts’, ‘houselights’ and ‘power-lines’) is, again, taken from Spanish.
Luz bëdamboshë icquec: ‘electric light is great’, say the children, and they often
lament that there is no illumination in their village. Adults go to bed when it is dark,
and at this time children from about eight years of age enjoy going out and meeting
each other, walking together, playing, chatting and laughing. The nights in the forest
are so dark that not much can be done, and flashlights and batteries are some of the
goods that Matses children are most eager for. Electric light, like concrete, can thus
be understood as a particular affordance of nonindigenous environments that opens
up a set of different possibilities of dwelling, moving and interacting with others;
in this case, the possibility of having a different kind of social nightlife, as shown
by Billy. As he walks on a concrete path at night, the man in Billy’s drawing also
wears shoes and long trousers: both are very expensive and much desired items
by Matses children, as these can only be obtained through money which is always
short. Therefore, the drawing hints at an implicit awareness that nonindigenous
people are allowed different possibilities of action also because, like the Matses
often point out, aton piucquid dadpen icquec: ‘they have plenty of money’.
While imagining makes possible transcending an environment beyond the
boundaries of immediate perception, at the same time it always takes place in an
environment. As can be argued for all forms of knowing, imagining as a situated
activity ‘is always bound up in one way or another with the world’ (Harris 2007: 1,
Marchand 2010), and cannot be understood outside of its specific spatial,
temporal and cultural surroundings. This means that children’s imagination of the
nonindigenous world as an alluring place only makes sense as it emerges within
and in relation to their everyday dwellings, which often lack the affordances
offered by the city. The children’s drawings indeed seem to display a long-standing
dichotomy between urban and rural life which has been elaborated on in various
fashions, for example in Simmel’s (1905) essay on metropolitan life and its
implications. Here, the ways-of-being in the city (emotionally detached attitudes,
close physical contact with strangers, and dependence on money, to name but a
few) are always addressed in comparison with non-urban environments, whereby
‘the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference
to the sensory foundations of psychic life’ (ibid.: 410). The drawings I have
shown propose a similar dichotomy, as the children seem to understand being-in-
nonindigenous-places as a tangible alternative to life in forest settings. The sense
Do Forest Children Dream of Electric Light? 229

of impossibility and distance from the nonindigenous world is especially vivid in

their representation of airplanes, as I will now illustrate.

‘Airplane, Take Me with You’: The Tangible Implications of Imagining

The following image, drawn by ten-year-old John, shows an aircraft landing in

Colonia Angamos. As usually happens, a crowd of people rush to watch the plane
landing, including Matses children who are visiting the town with their families.
A soldier in charge of security (flights to Colonia Angamos are operated by the
Peruvian military) stands in front of the crowd with his machine gun.

Figure 12.9 Airplane

Source: Drawing by John, 10 years old.
230 Reflections on Imagination

Children not only see airplanes when visiting Colonia Angamos, but also from
their home-village when military and international aircrafts fly over the forest.
When hearing the noise of an airplane, they scream with excitement and look to
the sky trying to spot it, often making jokes and shouting to the sky, ‘plane, take
me with you!’ When I asked them where the airplane is going to, the children
would always reply, ‘it goes to your homeland!’ and they often added ‘Camilla,
when you go away to your land, take me with you on the plane!’
Even though couched in humour, children’s exclamations reveal an implicit
and shared feeling of desire and fascination towards the faraway world of cities –
which was openly reinforced whenever I interviewed them about their hopes and
expectations for the future. Like other boys and girls, John, the ten-year-old who
drew the aircraft above, told me that in the future he hopes to ‘make money’ so
that he can travel to Iquitos and Lima, the capital of Peru, where probably less
than 10 Matses people out of a population of over 2,000 have ever been. The
children also said that, when they grow up, they wish to travel to my homeland
and the United States, made famous amongst them by Jean-Claude Van Damme’s
action movies.
The homeland of matses ushu, ‘white people’, which is imagined as ‘all made
of concrete’, represents the ultimate urban space. It is the place where concrete,
electric light, airplanes, movies, telephones, money and manufactured goods
originate and come from. The children are captivated by imagining this land, as
well as by other nonindigenous places they have heard about but are aware that
they cannot easily reach. Airplanes, which consistently inhabit their imaginations
and drawings, emphasise the feelings of inequality between Matses children and
the nonindigenous world. While the airplanes can reach Matses-land, flying over
their villages or landing in Colonia Angamos, Matses children can never possibly
reach the point where airplanes come from, even though, as their jokes suggest,
they would like to be able to.
Between the children and the world of cities lies an impossible distance that
cannot be fulfilled other than through means of the imagination. Drawing and
imagining become the only ways to appropriate the chotac yacno and actively
experience them on an everyday basis, in a Heideggerian view of knowing and
expressing knowledge as ways of being-amidst what is known and represented
(cf. Dreyfus 1991: xi). This is shown, for instance, in Billy’s drawing of Colonia
Angamos or in Paloma’s, who has never seen Iquitos and yet shows herself and her
mother in the city, travelling in a car. However, imagining the city through feelings
of desire and representing it through drawing or speech also reinforces children’s
awareness of their restricted possibilities of action. Matses children are aware
that certain people, such as myself, are able to transcend the boundaries between
the city and forest-villages, but such a possibility is precluded to them and their
parents. Drawing as explicitly imaginative action openly displays and highlights
the restrictions encountered in the everyday world: Paloma cannot travel to Iquitos
and has never seen a car, and Billy has no shoes or chance to hang out with his
peers at night-time. As Crapanzano put it:
Do Forest Children Dream of Electric Light? 231

What makes the inaccessibility of the hinterland terrifying is less its

inaccessibility than its determining role in our perception of that which we take
naively to be accessible: that which we actually perceive, experience, touch and
feel. … [F]or that which we perceive is always determined … by that absence,
that imagined presence. (2004: 17)

The imagination has tangible consequences: the process of encountering the

nonindigenous world and engaging with its affordances (not only physically,
but also imaginatively) reaffirms children’s perceived sense of inequality and
impossibilities of moving and being in the village. It emphasises how Matses
people are poor and cannot enjoy the opportunities offered by the city. When
compared to the concrete paths in Colonia Angamos, the ground in the village
becomes ‘painful’ to walk on. And as opposed to nonindigenous places illuminated
at night, the rainforest darkness becomes restrictive and boring. Matses children
learn that aspects of their everyday environment could be changed and improved:
they would like more concrete, electric light, as well as a whole series of material
goods that are only accessible in nonindigenous places.
These forms of desire and the very recognition of being poor are a recent
phenomenon in Matses society, for as the elderly people recount, until a few decades
ago the Matses did not have any money nor wealth based on individual possession
and accumulation of manufactured goods,. In this sense, children’s perception
of having no money and being unprivileged can be read as consequences of
modernity, here intended as ‘what results from the diversified impact of capitalism
on social formations across the world’ (Moreiras, quoted in Wade 2007: 50). The
children’s desires might be defined accordingly as ‘expectations of modernity’
or better of ‘nonindigenousness’, which, following Ferguson (1999: 13), I define
as the desire to gain ‘access to the “first-class” things of the world’ and more
specifically to concrete, electric light, television, money, airplanes, and so forth.
At the same time, the children are developing a sense of what Ferguson terms
‘abjection’, that is, a feeling of being ‘thrown aside, expelled, or discarded’ and
stuck into ‘the ranks of the “second class”’ (ibid.: 236) within a world that opens
up better possibilities for life but which are only accessible to privileged people.
Imagining the nonindigenous world and its affordances reinforces children’s
awareness of their tangible, daily conditions and possibilities: as Crapanzano put
it, ‘the irreality of the imaginary impresses the real on reality and the real of reality
compels the irreality of the imaginary’ (2004: 15).
Consequently, the children learn to view the nonindigenous world of cities as
a desirable target for their adult lives; like John and many other boys admitted,
when they grow older they want to make money (which is addressed as a male
activity) and travel outside of Matses territory. Girls expressed a similar desire,
admitting that they wish to marry a wealthy husband – possibly a nonindigenous
man – who, in their words, will ‘buy clothes’ for them. Meanwhile, the children
are not paying equal attention to a series of practices and forms of knowledge
which older generations of Matses regard as paramount and started engaging with
232 Reflections on Imagination

in their childhood. They show little interest and enthusiasm in the forest, spirits,
plant medicine, hunting practices, or the production of handcraft products such as
bows and arrows, and they express little desire to live like their grandparents when
they grow up. Old Matses themselves complain that children and young people in
general ‘want to be like the chotac’, nonindigenous people, and are always talking
about them.
I argue, therefore, that simply by choosing to give attention to certain aspects of
the world rather than others – even if only through imagining them at a distance –
the children are setting up the tangible conditions for certain possibilities of life in
the future while closing off others, and in so doing they are directly contributing
to continuing processes of social change. In particular, young Matses are setting
up the conditions for a growing importance of the market economy and exchanges
with nonindigenous peoples in Matses society, while closing off the possibility
of a future lifestyle based on a hunting economy and forest knowledge. Indeed
a growing number of young men and women in their late teens and early
twenties have started seeking new ways to access waged labour and attain better
livelihoods in the city, with many boys joining the Peruvian army and girls
working as housekeepers for nonindigenous families, while less and less young
people know how to trek and hunt properly, and have very limited knowledge
about forest life and practices. Therefore, young Matses become themselves
agents of transformation, which shows that children are not ‘passive recipients of
adult expectations and knowledge’ (Rapport and Overing 2007: 42) but ‘actively
involved in the construction of their own social lives, the lives of those around
them and of the societies in which they live’ (James and Prout 1997: 4).

Conclusions: Children’s Imagination as a Serious Matter

Children’s imagination, like playing and other childhood practices, should not be
dismissed as ‘a frivolous activity’ (James 1998: 104), but recognised as holding
tangible consequences on children’s concrete experiences and those of their
elders. Therefore, despite the methodological and epistemological difficulties that
might arise in the process, the imagination requires serious consideration. In this
chapter I have tried to grasp children’s imaginative lifeworlds by looking at ‘what
the imagination does’, and specifically by using drawing as a form of expression
through which imaginary journeys are carried out, unaffordable actions brought
into view and impossible distances fulfilled.
In approaching imagining as something brought into being through tangible
expressions of making, I have tried to address it as a way of being-there with
the entities that are imagined and represented. This means that by imagining the
nonindigenous world at a distance Matses children actively engage with it, they
turn the city into a tangible element of concern and preoccupation, and they place
value onto nonindigenous affordances despite geographical distance. In so doing,
they also learn to perceive their everyday dwellings as lacking certain possibilities
Do Forest Children Dream of Electric Light? 233

and to understand themselves as poor and unprivileged compared to nonindigenous

people, who so vividly occupy their imaginations. They thus start aspiring to the
nonindigenous world from a young age, hoping that one day they will be able to
fulfil the physical but also socio-economic distance that separates them from it.
At the same time the children are refusing to learn many of the skills and
types of knowledge of old generations, thereby contributing to how Matses ways
of knowing and relating to the world are changing throughout the generations.
For instance they are reinforcing an increasing distance of Matses society from
the forest world while actively strengthening the importance of nonindigenous
practices, skills and materials. I have thus tried to show how the elsewhere of
children’s imagination is intertwined with the here-and-now of everyday material
life and shapes how children understand and experience the world. Therefore, the
analysis of children’s imaginings that I attempted in this chapter seems necessary
to fully address children’s ways of knowing and attending to the world, as well as
their active role in society.


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Imagination, Perspective,


The two chapters in this closing section of case-studies concentrate on the

emergent property of the imagination: how it is specific activity, reliant on certain
conditions, and giving rise to products that themselves have a certain character.
Both would take seriously a perspectivism that questions positivistic distinctions
between the imagined and the real. Imagination concerns a common cultural
repertoire that is exposed to certain experimental and exploratory procedures in
collaborative discursive exchanges. If imagination effects a certain liberation—
reaching a new state of understanding—then this is both conditioned by cultural
norms concerning the nature of reality and a result of momentary social makings
that return to the cultural conditions of origin with a distinctive warrant.
‘‘Infrastructural Imaginaries: Collapsed Futures in Mozambique and Mongolia’,
by Morten Nielsen and Morten Axel Pedersen, reports on ethnographic fieldwork
in Maputo and Ulaanbaatar respectively, and a comparative investigation into
Chinese investments in the two countries. The chapter explores the imaginative
effects of projected but ultimately failed large-scale infrastructure projects planned
by Chinese commercial consortia, more precisely the collapsed plans to a build a
new Maputo City Centre on the Island of Inhaca, and the now defunct plans to
construct a new 500 MW power-plant in eastern Ulaanbaatar’s Shar Hat district.
Nielsen and Pedersen’s central contention is the apparently counterfactual one that
even though the plans for the respective futures have collapsed their imaginings
continue to have possible effects. The imagined futures become detached from
their anchorage within a set of prior conditions, as it were, and the unrealized
infrastructural materialities constitute kinds of free-floating social spaces that
are imbued with distinctive efficacies. The imagination, Nielsen and Pedersen
conclude, can be conceived of as having emergent properties such that a model
of the future that has ceased to exist can nevertheless have after-effects that are
actualized in the present. The chapter thus posits a dynamic relationship between
materiality and time, and imaginative processes to be eruptions in a ‘normal’
temporal process with possibly powerful recursive effects.
In ‘Imagination/Making: Working with Others in the Formation of
Anthropological Knowledge,’ James Leach describes his ethnographic experience
among the Reite of New Guinea. Again, the imagination is shown to be
methodologically crucial: an enabling mechanism in the relation with research
236 Reflections on Imagination

subjects. More than this, however, Leach would describe the imagination as a
space of emergence; anthropology is a kind of knowledge-making in that space,
but for the research subjects, too, a creative mis-repetition, a creative addition,
occurs in the mutual attempt to make sense, to ‘synthesise’ with the other or join in
mutual possession. If we are to understand the imagination then we must recognise
that we are talking about specific, located, conditioned actions, Leach elaborates,
for particular synthetic makings. However, while we must trace the conditions for
particular imaginings to emerge, we must also recognise that imagination is not
determined by these conditions but introduces a space of possibility. As we have
seen, it is a space in which anthropologists and research subject might jointly craft
a kind of communication based on a kind of mutual possession. But not this supra-
cultural exchange alone. For the Reite, myth is in the land as a kind of person. To
do this knowledge anthropological justice is not to define the imagination against
reality or a kind of compensation or lack or even as something separate. Rather,
imagination causes land, person, history itself to emerge as mutually possessed
makings among human beings in relation.
Chapter 13
Infrastructural Imaginaries:
Collapsed Futures in Mozambique
and Mongolia
Morten Nielsen and Morten Axel Pedersen

It is probably no exaggeration to claim that most contemporary studies in the social

sciences treat imagination as an a priori capacity by which social life is perceived,
expressed and acted upon. A good example is Charles Taylor’s well-known work
on ‘social imaginaries’ (2002) in which the imagination emerges as a template
for thought and action: an all-encompassing horizon of meaning that is required
in order for human beings to make sense of the world (cf. Sneath, Holbraad and
Pedersen 2009: 6–7). In the introduction to a volume on social imaginaries,
Gaonkar (2002) outlines the underlying assumptions behind this understanding.
Social imaginaries, he suggests, are:

first-person subjectivities that build upon implicit understandings that underlie

and make possible common practices. They are embedded in the habitus of a
population or are carried in modes of address, stories, symbols and the like.
They are imaginary in a double sense: they exist by virtue of representation or
implicit understandings, even when they acquire immense institutional force;
and they are the means by which individuals understand their identities and their
place in the world. (Op. cit.: 4)

Anthropological studies of the imagination have argued that social imaginaries aid
people to make sense of changing social, political and economic circumstances
by straddling the divide between an uncertain present and an unknown future
(Crapanzano 2004; Hansen and Stepputat 2001; Masquelier 2002; Vigh 2006). A
good illustration of this approach can be found in Crapanzano’s book Imaginative
Horizons (2004), where he makes the argument that imaginative possibilities
are conditioned also by what lies beyond the immediately given and resists
total articulation, a ‘hinterland’ that human beings might never reach. The
imagination emerges as a creative and driving force that potentially transcends
the phenomenologically given parameters of social life.1 Unlike Sartre’s concept

1 Crapanzano is thus in line with Carnelius Castoriadis who, in The Imaginary

Institution of Society (1987), formulated an ‘ontology of creation’ with emphasis on
the indeterminate nature of the social imaginary. On imaginary indetermination (or
underdetermination), see also Sneath, Holbraad and Pedersen (2009).
238 Reflections on Imagination

of the imagination as an individual act of detachment from the world (1948), then,
anthropology has tended to treat the imagination as a purposeful mode of social
engagement. As Tim Ingold puts it, imagining ‘is an activity; it is something people
do. And as an activity it carries forward an intentionality, a quality of attention that
is embodied in the activity itself’ (2000: 417, italics in original). Imagination, in
short, is what allows humans to recalibrate their perception to an always-shifting
social environment via a dialectics of introspective deliberation and extrospective
involvement (Vigh 2004). More precisely, most recent anthropological studies
of the imagination share the belief that the flexibility and open-endedness of the
human imagination is (at least in principle) in sync with a recalcitrant exterior
world that resists full articulation.
Via ethnographic accounts of how people learn and refine practical social skills
anthropological studies of the imagination have thus made possible a new and
improved understanding of the seeming universal human tendency to recalibrate
individual pathways to partially known and gradually changing social milieux.
Yet, this anthropological success story rests on several important if largely implicit
and therefore often unexamined ontological assumptions regarding the general
relationship between subject and world (Sneath, Holbraad and Pedersen 2009:
8–11). The imagination as a subjective capacity for engagement is assumed to
imprint the dynamic totality of the surrounding world onto individual subjects,
as they move through it via their continuous and creative adaptations.2 Here, the
imagination operates ‘from the subject and out’. The world acquires its meaning
from the creativity of different individuals, who are charting new pathways
through partially known social words. And the tacit assumption behind this theory
of the imagination is that a given subject’s (interior) imaginative capacities help
to make sense of the (exterior) social world outside by creating an interior mirror
version of it.

2 As an apt example, we might take Vigh’s recent analysis of racial conflicts and
urban youth in post-war Guinea-Bisau (2006). In order to examine the unstable processes of
social differentiation, Vigh introduces the notion of social imaginary, which, in this context,
is understood as relating not only to a historical narrative. Rather, as Vigh puts it: ‘Instead of
merely being related to the way we see ourselves as having cut a path through time towards
our current situation, our imaginaries play an essential part in shaping our self-images as
social categories and framing our realm of possibilities. It is through the social imagination
that we locate ourselves in the world, position ourselves in relation to others and seek to
grasp our potential and anticipated future; that is, the sphere of our existence which we have
not yet experienced but which we nonetheless act towards in anticipation’ (op. cit.: 483).
This is a convincing analysis of the heterogeneous ways in which subjective experiences
fold themselves around recalcitrant worlds and in so doing open up new pathways towards
unknown social horizons. Still, the question is whether this and other anthropological
theories of imagination offer a sufficiently robust analytical framework to generalise across
the full spectrum of ethnographic variations.
Infrastructural Imaginaries 239

Our aim in this chapter3 is not to make any direct critique of this dominant
anthropology of the imagination. Rather, we wish experimentally to reverse
the correlation between interior and exterior human worlds by conducting
a comparative ethnographic analysis of failed infrastructure projects in the
Mozambican capital of Maputo (Case 1) and the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar
(Case 2), namely the allegedly collapsed plans to build a new Maputo City Centre
on the Island of KaTembe, and the defunct plans to construct a new 500 MW
power plant in Ulaanbaatar’s Uliastai district. Following a discussion of some
of Kant’s and Bergson’s writings on the relationship between imagination and
human perception, we proceed to explore in the two ethnographic cases particular
processes of ‘involution’ where the exterior world is ‘enfolded’ within subjects as
sets of imaginary effects. In so doing, we hope to show that the imagination can be
understood not merely as an individual’s subjective capacity for making sense of
the world, but a creative force that is internal to matter itself. Human perception,
we argue, works by slicing up parts from a whole, and there is for this reason only
a difference of degree (rather than in kind) between that which is perceived and our
subjective sense-making practices. In other words, imagination does not always
operate and move from the subject outwards but also from the world inwards.

A World of Images

For Kant, the imagination was to be understood as a ‘secret art residing in the
depths of the human soul’ (1996: 214) that allows us to bring to mind that which is
not entirely present to the senses. It is through the use of our imaginative capacities
that we are able to produce synthetic formations of knowledge comprised of ideas,
experiences and things. The imagination operates independently of the processing
of sensory material into products of experience (say, as concepts or recollections)
and is therefore essentially ‘freed’ to produce reflections upon a sensory manifold
without determining its status or final meaning. The power of imagination lies in
its mediating role between sensibility and reason – between the ‘is’ of nature and
the ‘ought to be’ of morality (Kneller 2007: 158).
Far from a limited set of innate and universal categories by which the world is
perceived, the stuff of the imagination on Kant’s model emerges as ‘a maximally
broad and heterogeneous ambit of phenomena in which the workings of the
imagination, seen as a process rather than a distinct field, can be detected’ (Sneath,
Holbraad and Pedersen 2009: 12). Indeed if, as Kant claims, the imagination

3 The authors have contributed equally to this chapter. We thank the Danish Research
Board of the Social Sciences for generously funding the research project, ‘Imperial
Potentialities: Chinese Infrastructure Investments and Socio-economic Networks in
Mozambique and Mongolia’, which the two authors conducted from 2009 to 2012 in
collaboration with,anthropologist and sinologist Mikkel Bunkenborg, who aksi collected of
sone of the data presented in our Mongolian case study.
240 Reflections on Imagination

operates as a dynamic interface between sensibility and reason, the subject is

emptied of all substance and emerges as a function of the syntheses that are being
established through the power of imagination (Einbildungskraft) (Kant 1996:
404).4 Rather than functioning as a locus of detached reflection, the Kantian
cogito is a contact zone where immediate sensations interlink with memories and
accumulated knowledge in novel ways. The (interior) unity of the subject emerges
as an imaginative effect of the syntheses between sensibility and reason, for the
impressions or ‘pictures’ (bilden) generated by this unity are neither of the order
of appearance (pure representations) nor strong manifestations of ‘that which is’
(Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 1988: 30). Indeed, the creative power of imagination
derives precisely from this meditation between moral-cum-logical knowledge and
immediate and intuitive sensations.
It follows that, surprisingly as it may seem to the father of transcendental
idealism, Kant’s cogito is essentially void, for ‘all that remains of the subject is the
“I” as an “empty form” … This is so because the form of time, which is the “form
of the internal sense” permits no substantial presentation’ (Lacoue-Labarthe and
Nancy 1988: 30, emphasis in original). Now, while Kant has been criticised for
denying the possibility of an ‘original intuition’ it is just this ‘weakening of the
subject’ (ibid. 1988: 31) as the motor of the imagination that we find especially
pertinent in his model and here wish to explore anthropologically. Indeed, we are
going to suggest that a close ethnographic exploration of the temporal aspects of
imaginative processes may allow us to understand in better detail how and why
it is this that the ‘pictures’ (bilden) that emerge in the imagination of a given
person are not entirely determined by (let alone contained within) a purportedly
universal human cognitive make-up. Before doing so, however, we need to discuss
in some detail the relationship between perception and memory as discussed by
Henri Bergson (1913; 1965; 2001; 2005). While paralleling the Kantian divide
between sensibility and reason, Bergson’s theory of human perception opens
towards a reconfigured relationship between world and subject where human
perception is always already included in (rather than detached from) the flux of
life. Accordingly, with Bergson, we arrive at an understanding of imagination as
an involution (as opposed to mirroring) of the ‘outside’ world.
Bergson’s (2005) theory of the relationship between perception and memory
in a sense starts out where the Kantian understanding of the ‘empty’ subject stops,
namely in the gap between our understanding and the world itself. In place of
Kant’s distinction between moral philosophy (reason) and practical knowledge
(sensation), Bergson introduces the well-known opposition between ‘realism’ and
‘idealism’, arguing that both are equally incapable of explaining the gap between

4 In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that ‘(s)ynthesis as such … is the mere
effect produced by the imagination (Einbildungskraft) which is a blind but indispensable
function of the soul, without which we would have no cognition whatsoever, but of which
we are conscious only very rarely’ (1996: 130).
Infrastructural Imaginaries 241

sensation and reason (2005: 26–7).5 Whereas, he explains, realist epistemologies

assume that external perception is capable of allowing us to access things ‘in
themselves’, as it were, and thereby aspire to know the world objectively ‘as it
is’, idealist epistemologies (including Kant’s transcendent idealism) hold that
external perception is defined by the spiritual projections of representations that
are taken to constitute the reality; in other words, perception is subjective.6 The
problem, according to Bergson, is that both end in the same impasse, which is
how to connect the ‘exterior’ world with the subject’s ‘interior’ understandings
of the former. Whereas idealism argues that our so-called ‘belief systems’ uphold
our impression of some kind of order in the world (as we are denied access to
things as they truly are), realism faces the impossible task of accounting for
subjective representations which can only appear ‘miraculously’ given that human
perception is governed by the environment (Bergson 2005: 22–8). To straddle this
chasm between seemingly incompatible positions, Bergson’s proposes a solution
that is ‘deceptively simple’ (Middleton and Brown 2005: 66): what we experience
are neither things as they ‘really are’ nor reflections of individual accumulated
knowledge; but simply ‘images’:

Matter … is an aggregate of “images”. And by “images” we mean a certain

existence, which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation,
but less than that which the realist calls a thing – an existence placed halfway
between the “thing” and the “representation”. This conception of matter is
simply that of common sense. (Bergson 2005: 9–10, italics in original)

Both realists and idealists would agree that the world presents itself to humans as
a ‘panorama of images, made up from a complex array of colours’ (Middleton and
Brown 2005: 67). Bergson’s ‘deceptively simple’ point is that these images should
be taken at face value – the world is precisely what it appears to be: an ‘aggregate
of images’. But crucially, these images are not mere representations or models of
a reality fundamentally inaccessible to us, as the idealists would have it. Rather,
for Bergson, images are extended in space and thus partially independent of our
perceptions, for as he puts it, ‘an image may be without being perceived – it may
be present without being represented’ (Bergson 2005: 35, italics in original).
With this notion of ‘images’ as ontological properties of the world, the site
and the power of the imagination are displaced in relation to the subject. For, if
perception constitutes a contraction or ‘slicing up’ of reality, this means that there is
only a difference of degree between being and being perceived, or rather, between
matter and the perception of matter (Ansell Pearson 2000: 142). Perception is

5 This distinction is revealed, for example, in the split between Descartes’s geometrical
extensivity and Berkeley’s pure mentalism.
6 Put crudely, this distinction could be taken as a metonymic description of the
opposition between ‘direct realism’ (Gibson 1966) and, basically, the large majority of
anthropological approaches to the ‘imagination’ described in the previous section.
242 Reflections on Imagination

internal to matter, as it were, since the image that presents itself to us is ‘already
there’ in the object (Deleuze 1995: 54). For Bergson, reality is an undivided flux of
innumerable ‘vibrations’ from which momentary snapshots are cut out.7 Nothing
is hidden beneath the surface; the colours one perceives are not a representation or
‘duplication’ of a purportedly true and original ding-an-sich.8 Perception merely
isolates a part from the whole that is ‘more than, but not … different from, that
which is actually given’ (Deleuze 1995: 78) – as when one hits a piano key and
sees the vibrations of the string just as the sound of the note reaches one’s ear
(Deleuze 1995: 128–9) Thus, given its prior existence in matter, the image is not
defined by interiority but rather by exteriority. Consciousness is not of something:
it is itself deduced from matter.
Interestingly, Bergson also claims that ‘every perception is already memory.
Practically, we perceive only the past, the pure past being the invisible progress
of the past gnawing into the future’ (2005: 150). Considering the discussion
so far, this statement seems somewhat odd. As we have just established, to
Bergson, human perception is oriented towards the present as series of immediate
contractions of the surrounding world. So why this prioritisation of memories and
the ‘pure past’? In order to understand this crucial aspect of Bergsonian time, we
might fruitfully return yet again to the Kantian discussion of imaginative power
introduced at the beginning of this section. By clarifying the impossibility of
both ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’, Bergson refuted the Kantian opposition between
reason and sensation. Still, Bergson maintained that the human sensory system
serves as a necessary interface between matter and mind, a ‘place of passage of
the movements received and thrown back, a hyphen, a connecting link between
the things which act upon me and the things upon which I act’ (Bergson 2005:
151–2). This involves a certain process of slowing down or hesitation – a ‘zone
of indetermination’ – as the vibrational flow of inanimate matter is confronted
with the vibrational resistance of the sensuous system. Thus the coming into being
of images involves a twofold process: that of perception which puts us ‘at once
into matter’ and that of memory which puts ‘us at once into the mind’ (Deleuze
1988: 26). This distinction is important as it paves the way for Bergson to claim a
precedence of the past as the ontological premise for all present experiences.

7 To describe the part–whole relationship between image and reality, Bergson uses
the example of the chrysalis, which is ‘motionless on the surface, in its very depth it lives
and vibrates’ (op. cit.: 204). Deep within the chrysalis, the larva creates vibrations that make
the hard outer case gleam. What the spectator perceives as light of qualitatively different
colours is, thus equally, the quantitatively continuous vibrations of the larva.
8 As Lawlor has argued (2003: 5), Bergson insists on the concept of ‘image’ because
it implies vision and a dependence on light. Considered as luminosity (propagations of
energy), the individual image becomes available to perception ‘not by more light being cast
on it, but by a diminution of light, a darkening of its contours’ (Ansell Pearson 2000: 142). In
other words, if images might fruitfully be considered as emissions of light, representations
are essentially subtractions or selective filtering of light.
Infrastructural Imaginaries 243

For Bergson, then, memory is a totality within which an innumerable amount

of memory-images co-exist in different degrees of contraction. When a memory is
formed, it detaches itself from its object but continues to co-exist with the present
as a virtual image in and of itself. Each act of recollection implies a leap into a
pure past. Thus memories do not pass out of time but out of the present; they are
‘impassible’ in Deleuze’s term, for they cannot pass away (Lawlor 2003: 54). As
Deleuze (2002)9 writes:

[A]n actual perception surrounds itself with a cloud of virtual images, distributed
on increasingly remote, increasingly large, moving circuits, which both make
and unmake each other. These are memories of different sorts, but they are still
called virtual images in that their speed or brevity subjects them … to a principle
of the unconsciousness. (Op. cit.: 112)

Imagining from the World Inwards

Let us now return to the question of the imagination and the anthropological
purchase of the Bergsonian theory on images, memory and time outlined above. As
we explained in the Introduction, most anthropological studies of the imagination
have been premised on the more or less tacit assumption that imaginative
possibilities are predicated on the subject’s capacities for purposeful (intentional)
creativity. Now, in making the above reading of Bergson’s ontology of images,
we hope to have sketched a different anthropological approach to the imagination
which focuses instead on how perceived images derive from momentary hinges
made across the flow of matter and memory.10
Consider the figure below, where we schematically map out the differences
between the conventional anthropological (phenomenological) understanding of

9 In his Difference and Repetition (1994), Deleuze explains how past and present are
logically co-existing. If a new present were required, he argues, in order for the past to be
constituted as such, a (former) present would never cease to exist and we would therefore
never arrive at a new one. ‘No present would ever pass were it not past “at the same time”
as it is present; no past would ever be constituted unless it were first constituted “at the
same time”’ (op. cit.: 81). Consequently, if the ‘pure past’ did not co-exist with the present,
it would be difficult (if not outright impossible!) to explain the passing or transformation of
any present. Based on this particular reading of Bergsonian time, it might be concluded that
no present exists that is not preceded by a past. Or rather, ‘there has never been a present
experience that is prior to its memory’ (Lawlor 2003: 55).
10 Crucially, while we have here focused on the relationship between (human) subjects
and world, this theory of images pertains to nonhuman-nonhuman interactions and interfaces
as well. After all, as Colebrook as recently explained (2002: 87–8), ‘[T]he image is neither
actual nor virtual but the interval that brings actuality out of the virtual. The plant “images”
or perceives the sun towards which it turns, allowing for the becoming of photosynthesis;
and it is to be a plant nothing more than this becoming, experiencing or imaging’.
244 Reflections on Imagination

Figure 13.1 A schematic outline of the imagination ‘from the subject

outwards’ (left) and ‘from the world inwards’ (right)

imagination and a Bergsonian (non-phenomenological) one (see Figure 13.1).

The left image depicts an understanding of the human imagination that takes its
point of departure from the momentary and gradually changing perspective of the
subject. The right image might be taken to constitute a tilted Bergsonian cone.
Irrespective of whether turning towards perception or the ‘pure past’, a subjective
perspective is a contraction or a ‘slicing out’ of a larger continuous whole.
Note that, whereas in the left model, the subject emerges as the premise for
the creation of images of the world, in the model to the right, the subject as locus
and a source of the imagination is absent. This reflects what we consider to be
the central lesson of Bergson’s, namely that the human subject merely serves as
a ‘zone of indetermination’ that connects pure past with immediate perceptions:
memory (and, we might argue, imagination) does not come from perception but
to perception, for the past does not derive from the present as much it arrives
at it. Sidestepping chronological linearity, the past emits virtual memories like
electric currents that reach us as cascades of images when they are actualized in
the present.
Whereas intuitive theories of human decision-making will claim that actions
directed towards the future are guided by a logic of causal connectivity (moment
‘A’ leading to moment ‘B’ and so forth), Bergson inverses the procedure by
arguing that a future-oriented action requires a leaping ‘into being-in-itself, into
the being in itself of the past’ (Deleuze 1988: 57). Far from imaginatively probing
the obstacles between myself and my willed outcome to establish a meaningful
path between a series of consecutive actions (that is, a plan), my search for lost
recollections involves ‘jump[ing] the interval of time which separates the actual
situation from a former one which resembles it; and as consciousness goes back
to the earlier date at a bound, all the intermediate past escapes its hold’ (Bergson
2005: 146). In contrast to conventional chronology where the future is an effect
of progressive linearity, Bergson’s philosophy thus stipulates that the future is,
in some way, independent of what has already (causally) occurred. Depending
on the immediate sensations and affects arising from the ‘slicing’ up of reality
Infrastructural Imaginaries 245

(i.e. ‘interior’ perception as part of the ‘exterior’ world), different regions of the
pure past are activated and come to structure the subject’s temporal orientation.
According to Deleuze, this process implies a fundamental ‘cut’ by which the
present becomes detached from the pure past and projects us into a completely
unknown future (1994: 88). At the same time, however, this cut also serves to
assemble time because all the events of the pure past are here detached from all of
the events of the future.11 At any given moment, time splits into two heterogeneous
and asymmetrical emissions: ‘one toward the future, making the present pass, and
another toward the past, coexisting wholly with the present it was’ (Turetzky 1998:
217). While maintaining the stabilising effects of linear chronology, the eternal
return of the ‘cut’ installs in the present a virtual openness towards a future that is
unconditioned by the past.
In the remainder of this chapter, we explore the purchase of this Bergsonian
approach for an ethnographic study on the imagination. In our two case studies,
we describe concrete imaginary capacities from the ‘outside in’ and, in so
doing, chart the contours of an anthropology that studies specific processes of
imaginary involution.

Case 1: Collapsed Futures in the Pure Past: ‘China Town’ in Maputo

The KaTembe Bridge seems to have always been at the centre of political debates on
urban development in Mozambique. Nielsen started doing ethnographic research in
Maputo in 2004 around the time that Armando Guebuza was first elected president
and he vividly recalls daily debates on TVM, the national television station, on the
importance of connecting the city centre with the KaTembe peninsula. Currently,
access to KaTembe can be made only by taking a small ferry that carries a
maximum of eight cars and around 50 people to and from the peninsula on an
hourly basis. The limited access has proven to be a serious impediment, not only
to the 22,065 inhabitants living on the peninsula (Betar Consultores 2012: 3), but,
equally, to an increasing number of entrepreneurs within and beyond the ruling
Frelimo party, to whom KaTembe constitutes the next financial hub. In 2011,
the Mozambican General Director of the Mozambican Investment Promotion
Centre, Lourenco Sambo, finally announced that foreign investment necessary
for building the KaTembe Bridge had been secured. Representatives of the ruling
Frelimo government had signed a memorandum with the Chinese government on
the financing of the bridge and a ring road around the city centre whose fragile
road network was on the verge of complete collapse. A year later, the official loan
agreement was signed by the Mozambican Finance Minister, Manuel Chang, and
representatives of the Chinese Exim Bank, outlining that overall costs would

11 This is the case, for example, when a moment in time is infused with the sensation
that nothing (neither past, present nor future) will ever be the same again. This sensation, in
effect, conjures up the whole of time.
246 Reflections on Imagination

add up to 725 million USD with the Exim Bank subsidising 95 per cent and the
Mozambican state putting in 5 per cent. On 20 September 2012 the first brick of
the bridge was laid and, with an expected construction period of three years, the
KaTembe Bridge would be inaugurated in autumn 2015.
A few months prior to Lourenco Sambo’s public announcement on the signing
of the memorandum in 2011, Nielsen visited the KaTembe peninsula to meet
with Alberto Nhone, the local head of the Regional Urbanization Department.
Nielsen was told during the hour-long meeting, that the Chinese government
would fund not merely the construction of the bridge but, quite surprisingly, also
the building of a ‘Chinatown’ (Nhone’s words). Nielsen was somewhat puzzled:
while knowing a few of the state officials involved in the project relatively well,
no-one had mentioned anything about the building of a Chinatown in KaTembe.
As Nielsen was not able to confirm Nhone’s statements, he did not push the matter
further, and proceeded instead to focus on the planned relocation of 245 families
that would be affected by the building project.
When Nielsen returned to Mozambique in 2012, he visited KaTembe once
again, to resume conversations with residents living on the peninsula. At the
time, it had just been announced that the project of building the bridge had been
awarded to the China Roads and Bridges Corporation (CRBC), which would
also be responsible for building the ring road around the Mozambican capital. As
Nielsen was returning to the city centre with the small ferry, he noticed a black
Toyota RAV with four Asian men dressed in elegant black suits and with their
eyes covered by huge dark sunglasses. Despite feeling that he might be about
to play a part in a Hong Kong gangster movie of questionable quality, Nielsen
approached the car and tried to look as friendly and unassuming as he could. The
young man sitting next to the driver rolled down the window and exchanged a
few cordial greetings and comments about the brutal heat and the overcrowded
ferry. After a few minutes, Nielsen mustered the courage and asked what they
were doing. The young man’s voice was constantly being drowned by the motor
noise from the ferry so Nielsen had to put his head halfway into the car cabin in
order to hear the response: ‘We are building a Chinatown’, the young Chinese man
replied without hesitation. ‘CRBC invited us here and we have been at KaTembe
to locate a suitable place to build 2,000 houses’. Before he could continue, the
portly man sitting in the back seat pulled his arm and signalled to Nielsen that
the conversation would be momentarily interrupted. The young man listened in
silence for a few minutes to the man in the back seat before he turned towards
Nielsen again. ‘My boss wants to know if you are in the construction business’, he
said, nodding towards the back of the car: ‘We are also considering building one or
two cement factories in KaTembe and we want to collaborate with someone who
speaks the language’. As politely as he could, Nielsen declined the offer and after a
few more minutes of cordial exchanges, the conversation was over and the young
Chinese man rolled up the window.
Less than a week later, a good friend of Nielsen’s, who was working in
the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, forwarded a collection of internal
Infrastructural Imaginaries 247

documents describing the involvement of private Chinese companies in ongoing

and projected infrastructure projects in Mozambique in general and in KaTembe
in particular. From these documents, it appeared that a project of building of a
new city centre in KaTembe had already been drafted in 2011. Estimated at a
total cost of 2 billion USD, the project would be carried out by the China Tong
Jian Investment Corporation and comprise the construction of a new seat for the
National Parliament and several additional public buildings and squares. Hence,
to Nielsen’s surprise, it seemed that the head of the Urbanization Department
in KaTembe was correct when arguing that a town would be built in KaTembe.
Although a new company had apparently been selected to carry out the ambitious
construction project, it was not entirely off the mark when Nhone characterised the
urban plan for KaTembe as the making of a ‘Chinatown’.
While visiting the projected construction zones, residents would often tell
Nielsen that they were not against the expected relocation. More than anything
else, relocation offered the possibility of transforming illegal occupancy into
formal property-rights as residents currently occupying land in the designated
construction areas would be relocated to areas that were laid out in accordance
with state-authorised urban plans (see Nielsen 2011b). Hence, even if it would
imply moving to a different part of Maputo, many KaTembe residents considered
relocation as worth the trouble. Of the 22,065 inhabitants living in KaTembe,
very few (if any) had legal property-rights to their plots and people were worried
that they would eventually be removed by force by corrupt state officials wanting
to sell the land to members of the party elite or to one of the many real estate
agencies trying to make a profit on the expected increase in land values arising
from the improved accessibility to and from KaTembe. The area that was now
destined for the projected construction zone was previously owned by Emodraga,
a state-owned company that was responsible for dredging national harbours and
rivers. When Emodraga recently moved its headquarters to Beira, its Maputo
workforce was made redundant. As a way of compensation, the employees were
allocated plots of land that were previously owned by the company in KaTembe
but, crucially, without receiving Land Use Rights – the so-called DUATs (direito
de uso e aproveitamento da terra) – to the plots. At the time, the Mozambican
government had not yet established what Armando Guebuza, Mozambique’s
president, has recently coined an ‘eternal friendship’ with China, and the bridge
to KaTembe was therefore not on the political radar as a realistic priority. Hence,
neither Emodraga nor its dismissed employees found it worthwhile legalising the
occupancies in KaTembe.
Although Nielsen heard this historical account several times from residents
occupying land in the projected construction zone, it was quite rare that he actually
met former Emodraga employees who had been allocated land as compensation
for lost jobs. As Nielsen soon realised, the large majority of residents currently
living in the area had apparently bought the plots from former Emodraga
employees, many of whom had used the allocated land merely as machambas
(cultivated fields) to grow crops for their families who were living elsewhere in
248 Reflections on Imagination

KaTembe. Perhaps somewhat naïvely, Nielsen initially assumed that the land
transactions had occurred prior to the spreading of news regarding the projected
construction project of the KaTembe Bridge and the new ‘Chinatown’. Taking into
account the increased uncertainty surrounding the occupancies in the projected
construction zone, Nielsen considered it to be quite unlikely that anyone would
invest in land – let alone commence building a cement house – knowing that it
would most probably be removed. However, when meeting Felizardo, a retired
war veteran who was living in a two-room cement house with his teenage daughter
in the projected construction zone, Nielsen was forced to drastically reconsider his
initial assumptions.
Felizardo had acted as middleman in some recent land transactions with
Emodraga land but, interestingly, the potential buyers were not external real estate
agents planning to make a profit of the booming land-market in KaTembe. Rather,
the majority of interested buyers were other residents who had previously been
occupying land illegally elsewhere in the peninsula. As Felizardo told Nielsen, as
soon as it was announced that the area was likely to be projected as a construction
zone, numerous residents had approached him wanting to buy land from former
Emodraga employees. Having lived in the area for more than a decade, Felizardo
was considered by locals as an expert on the genealogies of land ownership in
KaTembe and he had therefore been used as middleman in several transactions
between former Emodraga employees and potential buyers. With Felizardo,
Nielsen visited several plots that had recently been purchased by KaTembe
residents who had previously been occupying land elsewhere in the peninsula;
although the large majority was living in small one- or two-room reed-huts, a
few occupants had already laid the foundations for their future cement houses
and, in one instance, a one-room cement house was nearly completed. With zinc
plates covering the roof and wooden door, and window frames already in place,
the house only needed plastering on the outside walls and tiles to be laid as a
front terrace. Being somewhat bewildered about the situation, Nielsen asked these
newcomers to explain the reasons for buying land even while knowing that they
would most likely be relocated within the next few years. As Nielsen had expected,
initial responses revolved around the prospects of acquiring formal property rights
to land through a state-authorised relocation process. However, as he pushed
the matter further, it was clear that to many of the newcomers who were now
occupying land in the projected construction zone, relocation did not necessarily
entail a physical move to another area in KaTembe. Although the magnitude of the
construction project was without precedent in post-Independence Mozambique,
national residents in KaTembe and elsewhere had vivid recollections of being
exposed to the modernising aspirations of the governing Frelimo party; something
that had often resulted in disastrous failures and a consequential worsening of
an already fragile socio-economic situation. By occupying a physical space as
politically saturated as the construction site in KaTembe, relocation paradoxically
indicated a momentary stabilisation of the situation by steering towards an
ordering of space that the government was clearly incapable of realising. Based on
Infrastructural Imaginaries 249

the residents’ collective recollections of the incapacities of the state, the occupied
spaces served as apt devices for potentially reconfiguring the unstable relationship
between residents and officials.
It was during a brief conversation with Júlio, Felizardo’s fast-talking neighbour,
that Nielsen was first introduced to the surprising reverberations of the relocation
process. As Júlio told Nielsen in a cascade of staccato sentences, the plot had been
purchased less than five months ago and he had already invested a considerable
amount of money in buying construction materials that were now piled up in a
small reed-hut. ‘As long as I am the owner of this plot, I decide who enters the
house and who doesn’t’. He turned his torso towards the sea: ‘And if I don’t want
them [i.e. State authorities] to enter, they will leave empty-handed’. Felizardo
laughed: ‘Yeah … When the Chinese come, they will find the New Man [o Homem
Novo] running things here’.
To be sure, an immediate and straightforward reading of these occurrences
would be that Júlio and his peers in KaTembe are fatally miscalculating the socio-
political repercussions of the ambitious infrastructure project. Keeping in mind
the Frelimo government’s eager attempts to remove all hindrances in the way of
foreign investments and, in particular, the growing presence of Chinese financial
agents in Mozambique, it seems quite likely that the KaTembe Bridge and the
projected ‘Chinatown’ will be built within a relatively short time-span. From this
perspective, how else to interpret Júlio and Felizardo’s reflections than as a kind
of imaginative ‘poaching’ (de Certeau 1984) on the fringes of a political landscape
that they are also fundamentally misconstruing? Although Júlio and Felizardo are
deciphering with surgical precision the infamous relationship between politically
stated objectives and their less than satisfying outcomes, their analysis of the
current situation fundamentally underestimates the pace and determination of the
Sino-Mozambican collaboration.
What we would take to be of crucial importance in this case, however, are
the imaginative possibilities that seem to arise from the residents’ physical
move into the projected construction zone. From Nielsen’s conversations with
the two residents, it emerges clearly that the purchased plots in the construction
zone afford residents a particular perspective on the local social universe that is
quite unlike those of the surrounding areas. The zone near the seaside seems to
constitute an intensified crystallisation of the Mozambican state that allows Júlio
and Felizardo to confront any outsider with the force of the erstwhile socialist
ideal (the ‘New Man’) that was to spear-head the ideological revolution in the
years following Independence in 1975 (Mahoney 2003; see also Nielsen 2014b).
By resuscitating the idealised image of the socialist hero, Felizardo momentarily
reverses the unstable relationship between governed and governor. Confronted yet
again by outside imperial powers, it is not the weak and increasingly paralysed
State that will actualise the country’s dormant revolutionary powers: at the Last
Day, the national territory will be safeguarded by the unlikeliest of combatants,
who are to be found among the illegal occupants in the projected construction
zone in KaTembe.
250 Reflections on Imagination

What we argue, then, is that these imaginary capacities arise not as a ‘template
for thought’ by which Nielsen’s interlocutors made sense of the world (pace
Taylor 2002). Rather, by physically moving into the projected construction site,
new images are potentially becoming available to Júlio and his peers that might
connect with their memories of prior occurrences. As an enfolding or involution
of the flux of social life, the imaginary capacities arise as a contingent connection
between immediate perception (say, the physical move) and individual and
collective recollections (say, of the ‘New Man’). In contrast to conventional
anthropological approaches, we argue that the imaginary capacities arise as
a function of the world, while the individual is, in a sense, the subject that is
fortuitously positioned to actualise these capacities (cf. Nielsen 2011a; 2014a).
We agree with Deleuze’s claim that ‘a subject will be what comes to the point
of view, or rather what remains in the point of view’ (1993: 19). Without fixing
the imagination to the individual’s subjective constitution, imaginary capacities
can be seen as having a prior existence in the flux of life from which the object –
or ‘image’, to use Bergson’s term, is extracted. Whereas immediate impressions
of the construction zone obviously hinge on residents’ previous experiences
(e.g. regarding conflicts over access to land, the history of failed state-authorised
infrastructure projects, etc.), certain imaginary opportunities seem to arise from
their practical engagement with the physicality of the area. In other words, the
concrete space affords particular imaginary scenarios and therefore also of certain
hitherto unrecognised possibilities. Interestingly, then, although the KaTembe
Bridge and the ‘Chinatown’ might eventually be realised, the ambitious building
projects endure as images of collapsed futures when gazed upon from within the
politically saturated construction site.

Case 2: The Vanishing Power Plant: Collapsed Futures in Peri-

Urban Ulaanbaatar

In a peri-urban zone located in the north-eastern corner of the Mongolian capital of

Ulaanbaatar, an area known as Uliastai from the small river that runs through it, the
social life of several households have since 2008 been continuously effected by the
reverberations from a power-plant never to be built. Known as ‘Power Plant #5’ by
officials and residents alike, the plan and later tender was made by Ulaanbaatar’s
city planning office in 2008–2009 as part of a wider national strategy to beef up
Mongolia’s energy production capacities in light of the steadily growing capital
city. Ulaanbaatar has more than doubled its population since in the early 1990s
and the electricity consumption has grown with more than 5 per cent per annum
during the same period. In addition there have been rapidly increasing foreign
investments in the Mongolian mining sector over the last decade, culminating with
global mining giant Rio Tinto’s multi-billion investment in the Gobi desert’s Oyo
Tolgoi deposit, which is poised to be the world largest copper and gold mine and
Infrastructural Imaginaries 251

to account for more than a third of Mongolia’s BNP in 2020, as well as growing
Chinese bilateral aid and resource extraction (Pedersen and Bunkenborg 2012).
Foreign Direct Investment was indeed the reason why Pedersen began
researching this particular peri-urban locality in the first place. It was during the
early stages of the research project on Chinese infrastructure projects in Mongolia
and Mozambique that he conducted with Mikkel Bunkenborg and Morten Nielsen
from 2009 to 2012 (see Note 3), that Pedersen first heard rumours from officials
a Chinese company had won the planned Power Plant #5 tender, which was now
going to be constructed ‘close to water, somewhere to the east of town’. After
having spent several afternoons driving around Eastern Ulaanbaatar’s derelict
Soviet-era industrial wastelands, Pedersen and Bunkenborg finally came across
a man who claimed to ‘know a lot’ about the plans for a power plant in this part
of Ulaanbaatar. The man was the middle-aged head of a household which had
relocated its ger (yurt) from the crowded northern edges of the city in the hope
of finding better pastureland for its livestock (10 or so sheep, and a few cows).
As with thousands of other former pastoralists who have migrated to Ulaanbaatar
since 1990 (see Bruun and Odgaard 1996; Sneath 2004) this household now
supplemented their small stock of animals by suitcase trading and various odd
jobs (Pedersen and Højer 2009). Yet, there was also another reason why the
household had decided to move to Uliastai, namely the promise of electricity and,
by implication, the promise of resident status and entitlement to land:

Morten: Are you from the city or from the countryside?

Household Head: From the city. We don’t have our own land, so we are hoping
to get it here.

Morten: Formerly you stayed inside someone else’s fence?

Household Head: Yes, for many years we paid for that. Then we decided that we
wanted to have our own land, so we came here. We have been here long now,
since last March.

Morten: So, is it a good place?

Household Head: Well, many families have left now. The reason is that they
stayed here for too long time without electricity. As long as there is no electricity,
people are not sure about their land. They doubt whether officials will give them
permission for it.

Morten: So what about that power plant? Have you heard whether it will be built?

Household Head: I heard next Spring.

252 Reflections on Imagination

Morten: You mean that it is going to be built?

Household Head: Yes.

Morten: Here?

Household Head: Yes.

Morten: Really?

Household Head: Is it not going to?

Morten: I don’t know.

Household Head: I don’t know either. People say different things about it. Some
have been saying that a power plant would be built here for years now. I don’t
know. There is a sign that says a power plant will be built here.

Morten: Is there a sign that says that? Precisely where is this sign?

Household Head: There is a sign just to the south from here on red board that
says Power Plant #5 will be built here. There is also a sort of net there.

Morten: Might you have to move if the plant is built? Are you afraid to be
kicked out?

Household Head: Why would they kick us out? They have already marked a
spot for it. We really want it here. We were hoping so much that electricity
would come, but it hasn’t. Do you know what’s going to happen? Will there be
electricity? Are you going to build the plant?

We seem here to be faced with a ‘productive poetics of ignorance’. Far from

inhibiting communication and more generally the space of imagination associated
with the power plant, it was almost as if our joint lack of knowledge about Power
Plant #5 fed into and drove forward our conversation (cf. Højer 2009). Certainly,
like an archaeologist of the future searching for ‘cracks’ that ‘com[e] from the
future as a sign of the future’ (Ansell Pearson 1999: 120), Pedersen spent the
rest of that day looking for the red sign that presaged the power plant to be. Yet,
even though he walked several kilometers along the swampy bank of the Uliastai
stream, he did not manage to find it. And, since all this happened during his last day
of fieldwork that year, Pedersen had to leave Mongolia without having resolved
the issue. Fortunately, Bunkenbirg was staying for an additonal week, and assisted
by a local translator, he was able to continue the search. And finally, after several
additional hours of looking, his quest bore fruit.
Infrastructural Imaginaries 253

Figure 13.2 Signpost with the inscription ‘Power Plant #5 to be built’

Source: Photo by Mikkel Bunkenborg

This unremarkable sign was the closest Power Plant #5 ever came to acquiring
a material manifestation in the peri-urban neighbourhood of Uliastai. Yet, in
spite – or perhaps because – of this limited degree of physical materialisation, the
power plant still appeared to loom large in people’s minds. In fact, it was almost
as if the ghostly image of Power Plant #5 was ‘haunting’ Uliastai’s residents, like a
ghost of the future that kept returning to the present in the tragic desire of attaining
a finality that was never to be.
Take for example, Enhmaa, a middle-aged woman living with her children some
500 meters to the north of the site, who had also been the person to draw attention
to the site in the first place. Of all the people that Pedersen and Bunkenborg met in
the neighbourhood over the three-year period stretching from 2009 to 2012, it was
Enhmaa who seemed to know most about Power Plant #5, and it also was she who
took the greatest interest in it. Little wonder. Having originally moved to Uliastai
from central Ulaanbaatar in 2006 in the promise of land and improved income
opportunities, Enhmaa soon found herself in dire straits as she was physically
assaulted by some relatives whose livestock she and the children’s father had
arranged to look after (a common practice in Mongolia) and as the latter turning
increasingly to drink. It was during the summer of 2007, as she found herself
struggling to get by alone with the children with no source of income and food,
254 Reflections on Imagination

that she was approached by an important-looking men, who offered her a job as
a caretaker for the ‘organisation’ (baiguullagga) planning to build a new power
plant. Soon after, Enhmaa moved her ger into the fenced compound (hashaa) the
organisation had put up. She could almost not believe her luck, she said, as she
unlocked a chest and produced the following drawing:

Figure 13.3 Drawing of Power Plant #5 plans at Uliastai

Source: Photo by Mikkel Bunkenborg

The following summer Pedersen returned to Mongolia. Determined to invest

the necessary time and energy that was needed get to the bottom of things, he
held a number of meetings with government officials and energy consultants
associated with different international organisations. From these and various
online news sources Pedersen learned that the plans had stalled. It was true that,
in the previous year, a Chinese company had been selected by Ulaanbaatar’s
Energy Authority to build a new power plant in the city’s Uliastai neighbourhood.
But since then, this plan had come under severe criticism from several sides,
including the World Bank (whose specialists were not at all convinced about the
technical capacity, let alone financial viability, of the Chinese company, which,
they objected, had only won the tender because they were the only bidder), and
Infrastructural Imaginaries 255

the Ministry of the Environment and various environmental NGOs whose stake
holders expressed shock and anger about the fact that someone would even
consider building a power plant atop the city’s main fresh water reservoir. To be
sure, ‘Power Plant #5 is going to be built’ (after all no-one was denying the need
for energy), but it was going to happen via a new, improved tender managed by
the World Bank, and at a location most definitely not in Uliastai, but in western
Ulaanbaatar at a convenient site right next to the existing Power Plant #3. (In any
case, a Mongolian energy consultant told Pedersen, it would be very difficult to
build any large structure on the boggy grassland that flanks the Uliastai River to
both sides).
The great majority of residents in Uliastai seemed to concur with the gist
of this assessment. Upon his return, Pedersen was thus met with numerous
statements such as: ‘Well, I heard at one time that a power plant was going to
be built here, but then people apparently decided not to do it anyway’. And yet,
unlike just a few years back, this consensus did not entail many residents leaving
or even considering moving away. On the contrary, several entirely new rows of
hashaas with gers and wooden houses under construction had sprung up so that
the perimeter of the city now reached right up to the stone that marked the location
of the now defunct power plant to be.
When Pedersen asked what thoughts people had about future access to
electricity and other amenities associated with official resident status, he was
struck by how carefree people’s answers were. The power plant, it appeared, was
not needed for these people to imagine a viable future for their households in the
neighbourhood. Instead, residents seemed to hinge their hopes on more general
economic development and political processes, such as the exceptionally high
levels of economic growth in the Mongolian economy (nearly 20 per cent p/a in
2012) and the fact that local parliamentary candidates from all parts of the political
spectrum had promised to speed up the legalisation of unregistered households on
Ulaanbaatar’s fringe. Indeed, Pedersen was told, a cluster of households across
the river had been connected to the grid following the last election after having
voted for a particular candidate. What is more, another rumour had it that the large
plots of land upriver that were being fenced in the months prior to the election
were owned by businessmen and senior officials secretly supporting one of the
big political parties. While these hashaas were ostensibly going to be used for
vegetable farming, in reality their owners were really waiting for the election to
finish to be rewarded with permissions and infrastructure allowing them to build
new garden townships for Mongolia’s new middle classes.
Enhmaa, however, was as confident as ever about the plans. ‘You know’, she
told Pedersen as she poured him a cup of salty milk tea, ‘my bosses are not bad
people. They call me every now and then to ask how I’m doing. Recently, I had
to go away for a while because my brother died in a car accident. In the meantime
some people moved here. But then they [the bosses] called me and told me that
that I would not lose the land. They said something would be built here for sure’.
Pedersen asked Enhmaa whether those people who had moved to the place during
256 Reflections on Imagination

her absence would have to leave again when the power plants was going to be
built, to which she concurred:

Yes, they do. No land in this horoo [sub-district] was given to people because of
the big organisation and the power plant. Those families are not allowed to live
here. But they are stubborn and disobey me. I keep telling them not to, but they
build hashaas and houses just next to here. I tell them “Stop it” in a quiet way,
but they call me “Pig” and “Dog”.

Enhmaa sighed, ‘It is a hard job to be the caretaker! But when things start to
be built here next June, it will become better’. Pedersen asked what was going
to happen next June. Without responding directly to his question, Enhmaa said,
almost to herself, ‘I can watch this place until then, even if it is hard. After all, I
have been doing so for five years now. And since I have been working for them
for so long time, I am thinking perhaps the bosses will give me a flat here once the
power plant is made’.
Pedersen felt that he was facing an ethical dilemma. How was he supposed
to respond to what Enhmaa had just told him? Clearly, she was suffering from a
delusion that a power plant was still going to be built in the neighbourhood, despite
overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And sadly, her ‘bosses’ had evidently done
nothing to dispel this misconception; perhaps, Pedersen told himself, because
they – like the other speculators who had secured large hashaas around the river –
needed someone like her to look after these sites of potential future profit. Surely,
Pedersen reasoned, the time had come for Enhmaa to be confronted with the naked
truth about Power Plant #5. While it was undoubtedly going to hurt to experience
the collapse of an imagined future imbued with such hope, things would only be
worse if she was left to waste her life chances and risk her health to protect the
sinister and hidden interests of a more or less fictional organisation. Careful to
adopt a tone of voice that was not too confident and self-assertive, Pedersen told
her that he had heard officials saying that Uliastai was not suitable for a power
plant and asked her if she had considered the possibility that Power Plant #5 was
never going to be built in her neighbourhood. ‘In fact’, he reasoned, opening up
another flank, ‘I haven’t been able to find out anything about the organisation that
you work for. No one answers when I call the number you gave me’. To which
Enhmaa replied, with a cool expression on her wrinkled face:

Enhmaa: They are going to build #6 and decided not to build #5.

Morten: Where did you hear about this? Did any officials talk about it?

Enhmaa: We talk on the phone. And recently they came to take photos because
they want to build foundations for #6.

Morten: Who came?

Infrastructural Imaginaries 257

Enhmaa: My boss, the head of Power Plant #5 who takes care of heating. And
the accountant and storekeeper. They said “We decided to build #6, #5 will not
be built here, but near to power plant #3”. They showed me one paper with a
stamp on it and they said that that was the order.

Morten: If they are going to build #6 here, who is going to do it??

Enhmaa: They don’t tell people like me about specific details. The reason why
they decided not to build #5 is because there are many water pipes here because
of the river.

Morten: When did they make this decision?

Enhmaa: This spring, in June.

Morten: What they will use to heat it? Coal?

Enhmaa: Not coal.

Morten: Then what?

Enhmaa: Something that burns. I don’t know, for all I know it could be a
nuclear plant!

On the face of it, and much like our Maputo case study, we see here an example of
what happens when the ‘annihilation of chances … leads to … the disappearance
of any coherent vision of the future’ (Bourdieu 2000: 221). Imprisoned as her
social imaginary was on the socio-economic margins of a neo-capitalist and neo-
patrimonial post-socialist state, Enhmaa and others could only act ‘as if, when
nothing was possible, everything became possible, as if all discourses about the
future – prophecies, divinations, predictions, millenarian announcements – had
no other purpose than to fill what is no doubt one of the most painful of wants:
the lack of a future’ (ibid.: 226). Surely, the reality behind the desperate hope that
Enhmaa kept on clinging to was that the people from ‘the organisation’ were in
fact only continuing to pay her meagre salary and tell her the latest news about
plans for the power plant in order to buy some additional time and thus keep a
stake in potential future investments in Uliastai.
Yet, as enticing and perhaps even comforting as this interpretation seems, it
appears to us that the story of the vanishing power plant in Eastern Ulaanbaatar
allows for an alternative reading. In making this point, we do not want to ignore
the undeniable economic inequalities and political asymmetries of the present case
study. On the contrary, it is fair to assume that, for Enhmaa and her peers, the
capacity internally to map and thus also successfully to navigate the perpetually
shifting social, economic and political landscapes of post-socialist Mongolia have
258 Reflections on Imagination

been severely hampered by the extreme hardships and radical uncertainties they
have been subjected to. Yet, for this very reason, Enhmaa also personifies the
non-subjectivist theory of the imagination outlined earlier in this chapter. Far
from being a projection of the present into a clear future horizon ‘from the subject
outwards’, the imagination here emerges as the opaque blur which emerges from
an inherently unpredictable bundling of a cascading series of images ‘from the
world inwards’. After all, does not what we earlier called the ‘productive poetics
of ignorance’ entail ‘a zone of indetermination’ (in Bergsonian terms) where
more or less fictional narratives and speculations, as well as more or less sinister
strategies and schemes pertaining to Mongolia’s infrastructural investment boom,
come together in a singular and yet bottomless vanishing point?
Little wonder, then, that so many people in Ulaistai (including someone
as intimately vested in these issues as Enhmaa), gave the impression of being
uninterested in sharing news about, or seeking out information and corroborating
rumours about, Power Plant #5 and other infrastructural and political-economic
developments in this neighbourhood writ large. In a situation where the efficiency
and creativity of the imagination is a function of the degree to which the gates to
the world remain as widely open as possible, ignorance truly is bliss. Certainly,
this is the point we have tried to convey in both this case study and the previous
one, namely that, in order for human consciousness to be able to extract the free-
floating images of affects that the world continuously self-emits, the subject of
imagination must, in a certain paradoxical sense, cease being a knowing subject.


Our contribution to the development and refinement of an anthropological theory

of the imagination in this chapter has concerned the complex interplay between
materiality and time (see also Nielsen 2011a; 2014a; 2014b; Pedersen and Nielsen
2013). A central contention has been that, as free-floating after-effects of futures
that could have been but were never to be, the images and desires associated with
the two infrastructural projects acquired their own lives in Maputo and Ulaanbaatar.
Adopting Kant’s vocabulary, one might have described these as ‘pictures’ (bilden),
if it were not for the fact that these halo-like temporalities are fundamentally
divested of human sensory input (let alone cognitive projection). After all, most
stakeholders above acknowledge that the projects have irreversibly failed.
In this way, our comparative study of collapsed infrastructural futures
in Mozambique and Mongolia ethnographically extends the Bergsonian
understanding of time and human perception. As described, his concept of the
‘pure past’ challenged conventional understandings of human perception as an
interior cognitive capacity or faculty. For Bergson, a given moment belongs to
the ‘pure past’ as a dormant recollection that may potentially connect with any
other recollections if actualised by the human perception. But what our case
studies indicate is that such moments do not even need to be actualised (viz. to
Infrastructural Imaginaries 259

have actually happened) in order to become the ‘pure past’. In both Maputo and
Ulaanbaatar, images of collapsed futures are ‘sliced’ from the messy political-
economic vagaries of people’s lives. Here, the capricious configuration of social
worlds makes the future materialise as if having already collapsed. Irrespective
therefore of whether the always-already collapsed future will actually happen or
not – whether the two infrastructural projects at hand would materialise or not –
the future precedes both past and the present as a ‘pure failure’.
It is this emergent nature of the imagination – the fact that its images erupt
from the ‘cut’ between a collapsed future (that has ceased to exist) and its
continual after-effects in the present – that we have tried to convey by borrowing
the mathematical concept of ‘involution’. Loosely defined as ‘creation of an extra
layer by … making an inside of an outside and an outside of an inside’ (Gell 1993:
39), involution blurs distinctions between inner and outer, cause and effect, and
helps explain how materialities become repositories for temporal assemblages that
stitch together past, present and future in new and often paradoxical ways.


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Chapter 14
Working with Others and the Formation of
Anthropological Knowledge
James Leach

A disjunction between the imagined and the real is a characteristic of all human
activities …
Robert Macfarlane 2003: 19

This chapter advances two interlinked notions. The first is to suggest an approach
to the imagination as an aspect of bringing-into-being that happens together with
others. In order to shift emphasis onto this participation of the imagination in
emergent social processes, secondly, I counterpoise examples of such imaginative
making-with-others to some commonly encountered ‘negative’ associations with
the imagination. These are associations that are supported by certain assumptions
about persons as individuals and include ideas of projection, and of ‘lack’. That
is, I will trace assumptions about the individuality of mind and agency – of mental
projection, and of the idea that imagination is a compensatory action or measure –
to a particular cultural milieu. Anthropologists are ethnographically positioned to
expose the particular assumptions of this milieu, and the cast such assumptions
give to ‘the imagination’. As Sneath, Pedersen and Holbraad wrote recently,
‘ethnography acts as a technology of the anthropologist’s analytic imagination’
(2009: 25). It is to ethnography that I will turn for one example of making-together
later on. I start however with a personal experience that illustrated a key aspect of
the imagination: how we imagine with others.

Conditioned Synthetic Makings

In early September 2011, I was enthralled to watch my three-year-old daughter

singing over a nursery rhyme book that she could not read. She showed in her songs
and actions that despite not knowing what the words were on the page, she could
very well imagine scenarios and plots that related to the pictures. As I followed
her songs, I realised that her imagination was at play, making connections between
previous readings that she has heard and the situations in which she heard them, her
own interests and comforts, and current thoughts about other beings and persons
around her. Her imaginative play involved mimesis, singing themes and phrases
264 Reflections on Imagination

in a specific focus on what she had been learning with others. Her activity drew
upon her particular history of experience and understanding, as I could understand
from listening to the words and names, the situations and outcomes (because I
had shared many of them). The language she used, the references that shaped the
outcome or progress of her improvised songs, or indeed her drawings (when she
draws), spoke of both the history of the person to that date, about the emotional and
physical steps and stops they had already known, as well as about how they were
moved (moving) to engage others. She was moving her body and mind to bring
something into being, to make present others and herself in a common and shared
world. Movement, gesture, song and speech, all already learned and specified in the
particular emergent world that was her family, were necessary and foundational.
What she brought into being was only individual in the sense that she was the
centre of the movement, central because of the other beings and persons she could
animate, and that thus partook of what was brought into being.
The incident serves as a way of introducing my theme in this chapter.
I propose seeing the imagination as a space of emergence, and anthropology as a
kind of making in that space, a making that requires always attending to specific
and located actions. There are conditions, in other words, for imaging particular
things. My child’s songs were particular to her. They were not imagined in an
unconditioned way, they were synthetic makings in which she drew others in,
related to her experiences so far, and imagined herself and those others in an
experimental and exploratory manner.
It is the particularity of the emergence that I am interested by, not how
the imagination draws on a common repertoire of culture. Indeed, in their
recent survey of the imagination in anthropology, Sneath, Pedersen and Holbraad
caution against the use of the term ‘imaginaries’ as synonymous for culture
and cultural possibilities, warning us against, ‘accounts of the human
imagination, which tend to aggregate up to collective experience’, as Stafford
puts it (2009: 111).
In that contribution, Sneath, Pedersen and Holbraad report on what they
term, ‘an insight that runs through the philosophical writing on the imagination,
from Kant as well as Vico, through Coleridge and up to Castoriadis, namely that
the imagination can be defined, in Castoriadis’ words, “as a type of being that
essentially escapes determinacy” (1987: 168). They go on: ‘If the imagination
is defined by its essential indeterminacy, […] imaginings are distinguished from
other human phenomenon by the fact that they cannot be fully conditioned’ (2009:
24). So while we might trace conditions for particular imaginings to emerge,
imagination is not determined by these conditions. It is given possibility by
experience and understanding but it is not limited to these because of its synthetic
and its motivational character.
One might also say that imagination is vital to any human relationship. It
is certainly a vital element of any anthropological project and relationship – an
enabling mechanism that crucially bears relation to its sources in people, but
in which there is creative mis-repetition, or creative addition, in order to make
Imagination/Making 265

sense, to synthesise, to join in a kind of mutual possession with others. The phrase
‘mutual possession’ is drawn from Tarde. Because what my daughter exemplified
was a making that was neither individual, nor generalised; it was an emergence
from the (short) history of relations she has had to others.
In my own imaginings then, I link all this with the recent (re-invigoration of)
interest in Gabriel Tarde and his notion of innovation as imperfect mimicry and
copying. Humans replicate and mimic each other’s actions but in the imperfections
of those copies, emergent differences that further bifurcate and generate are
inevitable (cf. Candea 2010: 8–9). I have been led in what I have written here by
Tarde’s impetus in the sense that my thinking about the imagination is shaped by
particular histories, and its emergence in particular relations to others, rather than
it being shaped by an overarching entity that offers, and bounds, possibilities for
an ‘imaginary’ to emerge. This is linked with the possibilities of new or emergent
things that arise in a meeting between people.1
I proceed by questioning some rather conventional senses of the imagination.
What it has meant, and what it might mean. While this exercise is brief and
inadequate, I have a further purpose in undertaking it. By outlining a couple of
ways in which conventional conceptions of the imagination might restrict and
limit our ability to work with it as anthropologists – might even restrict our ability
to understand our own practice fully – I try to make space for a positive definition.
That definition emerges in relation to the way people I have worked with in Papua
New Guinea understand (imagine) land (Leach 2003). I move then to imaginations
around, and in relation to, land.

Imagined Landscapes

In a recent popular and much applauded book on climbing and mountaineering

landscapes entitled Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane writes that, ‘[a]
disjunction between the imagined and the real is a characteristic of all human
activities, [but] it finds one of its sharpest expressions in the mountains’ (2008:
19). The premise of this statement runs through his book: that what we think about
mountains and what mountains are ‘in fact’ are different things. He says that we
are interested in mountains because of what they allow us to imagine, but that this
is different to their reality: ‘Stone, rock and ice are significantly less amenable
to the hands touch than the mind’s eye’ (ibid.). Macfarlane, then, makes some
declaratory statements about what is (in two senses – that of what a mountain is,
and how the imagination is separate from reality):

What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of

the world with the imagination of humans – a mountain of the mind. And the

1 There are obvious dangers as well, and the question of a limit or threshold on the
run of imagination, and how it structures or motivates interactions, is a significant one.
266 Reflections on Imagination

way people behave towards mountains has little or nothing to do with the actual
objects of rock and ice themselves. Mountains are only contingencies of geology.
They do not kill deliberately, nor do they deliberately please: any emotional
properties which they possess are vested in them by human imaginations.
Mountains like deserts, polar tundra, deep oceans, jungles and all the other wild
landscapes that we have romanticised into being – are simply there, and there
they remain, their physical structures rearranged gradually over time by the
forces of geology and weather, but continuing to exist over and beyond human
perceptions of them. But they are also products of human perception; they have
been imagined into existence down the centuries. (MacFarlane 2008: 19)

What notion of the imagination lies behind this distinction between rock and
stone, and the mind’s eye? One thing being imagined by MacFarlane is a radical
separation of the human from the processes of land. Is that separation one we ought
to embrace or to reject in tying the vital human capacity for imagination to how we
understand the places in which we live, work, and come to know others? For all
the beautiful flow of the prose, his suggestions amount to arrestingly conventional,
one might say even reactionary, sentiments. In his argument, we see that along with
an emergence of an imagination of mountains as wonderful things that possess us
in our imagination also emerges a notion of the imagination itself as fantasy, as
unreality, detached from the actual, physical solidity of nature. The contrast with
how I understand (have imagined) land and landscape with people in Reite, a village
in the north coast of Papua New Guinea was too apparent for me to pass over.
When I write about land in Reite (or for the Piro that Peter Gow (1991) reports
on in Amazonia where ‘kinship is geography’), it is vital to be able to describe
the animate nature of land for the people who live with it. Not only is history and
kinship visible and present in the land for these people, their world is populated
by landforms that are kinds of person. One would say there is an imaginative
engagement with land. But that engagement is not fantasy, not an engagement
with something different from the land itself.
Let us take one example: the way that myth is in the land as a kind of person
for Reite people. In order to know how to do anything in Reite, people rely on and
relate to other persons. Knowledge is explicitly a social relation. They ‘ritualise’
(as we would call it) moments when knowledge is transferred because of this
inevitable connection to other beings and persons in anything that one knows,
and any action one performs. For them to be effective, that link is vital. That is,
knowing how to grow tubers in the specific manner that Reite people do so is
passed to younger people in initiation by their maternal kinsmen. Those maternal
kinsmen in turn can trace the routes by which they came to be the people they
are – that is, the routes by which they share knowledge – as a mode of relating to a
place, as an aspect of their connection to specific others. And at some point in the
past, that way of being a person in this place was given to a specific and connected
person by an entity, a kind of person (be that spirit other or ancestor), who was
situated somewhere. The name of the myth of taro, the character who gave it to
Imagination/Making 267

Reite people, and the place in which he resided, are named as the same thing.
Samat Matakaring Patuki translates as ‘the story/knowledge/character of Samat
Matakaring place’. The term patuki translates as all those aspects at the same time
(story/knowledge/character). Knowing how to grow taro in the place that is Reite
is to have a relationship with that place in a very intimate and real sense. The very
people who have grown your body through their labour and nurture, the people
who in turn have taught you how to survive and how to develop a political, social,
kinship identity, are also grown by the same land and knowledge. What one knows
then is always about the relation one has to specific others, and how they in turn
have been grown by, on, and in specific relations with places.
Others have worked through the necessary arguments that would reveal that
we are not talking about an ideological overlay that informs politics. Briefly, to
take such a line would be to suggest that what Reite people do with land is a matter
of belief. However,

In order to believe or disbelieve in a thought, it is first necessary to imagine it

as part of a belief system; but problems that are authentically anthropological
are never posed in terms of psychological accounts of belief or in the logistic
language of truth-values. Alien thoughts cannot be taken as opinions (the only
possible object of belief and disbelief) or as collections of propositions (the
only possible object of truth judgments). Anthropology has already caused
a great deal of damage (in the bad old days) by casting the relation between
natives and their discourse in terms of belief – thus making culture look like
dogmatic theology – or by treating this discourse as an opinion or a collection
of propositions – thus making the study of culture into an epistemic teratology:
error, illusion, madness, ideology. (Vivieros de Castro 2010b: 135–6)

I assert that for Reite people, Samat Matakaring is not a ‘belief’, not a projection of
dogma or theology. Every time it is followed and drawn into the formation of a taro
garden, there is a real engagement with what we call land as an engagement with
the patuki – the story/knowledge/character of Samat Matakaring. By growing taro
in this way, taro is already Reite taro, already part of, and anticipated as constitutive
of, the particular bodies that are Reite bodies and the particular trajectories,
activities, and makings of situated people. It is not a projection of a symbolic or
imagined system onto the brute stuff of nature, but a creative investigation that
happens between the land and the person. That happening is a making over and
again of Reite persons and ‘land’. Contrast this with MacFarlane’s romantic but
conventional assumption that rock and stone are the brute stuff of nature, and can
never be known, can never be a part of people because our relation to it is only to
physical forms, not to other people or to the substance of bodies themselves.
Land is kinship in Reite because persons emerge from and return to places.
Those places remain animated by the others who were part of previous people.
Further, by drawing their knowledge from placed others, action and effect are
tied into land in a way that is not imaginary, if imagination means something
268 Reflections on Imagination

separate from the emergent reality of the land/person/history itself. Far from a
‘collaboration of the physical forms of the world and the imagination of humans’
(MacFarlane), these are inter-subjective constitutions: persons with other persons –
of different types and histories, different modes of effect and of making presence
known. ‘Landscape’ then is an imaginative process in which life comes into being
and is sustained in surprising, novel and yet known (related) ways. Landscape
and land are shared spaces of common imagination in which bodies and persons,
institutions and histories are formed. The imaginary is known because it is an,
‘external imaginary space spanning between persons, or between persons and
things. … [S]uch external spaces are often constitutive of imaginative projects,
as they serve to delineate the particular vistas on which that which is imagined
assumes its form’ (Sneath et al. 2009: 14).
Reite land is then redolent with human presence, with the history of kinship, of
people, of closely allied myth that inhabits space not as an overlay but as its formation.
Myth and person are enfolded in land and land enfolds myth, history and person
(Wagner 2001). To say what Reite people perceive in, and relate with, in landscape
amounts to a fantasy or projection is mistaken. It undermines another reality.
With this briefest outline of the reality of the imagination in myth and land, we
see the emergence of particular persons, things, knowledge, beauty, fear, frustration
and anger, death, as makings. That is, the possibilities for human experience
are not fantasised but realised in specific imaginative engagement with others.
I want to tie this back into the possibility of how we might view imagination
in anthropology as a relational space for anthropology itself to be within. The
ethnographic relation is itself a space of imaged meeting – in the Reite, not the
Macfarlane, sense of possibility-made-concrete, of actuality-in-emergence.
I suggest that the imagination is crucial in anthropology, but it is not an
imagination with free play to construct. Freedom may not be limited by ‘stone
rock and ice’ but it is by the reality of our location in particular relations to others
and our own histories. Here imagination is grounded in the relational emergence
of knowledge between people. Those people may take the form of text and data
(as in ethnographic data), or the form of interlocutors. They may, as I indicate,
take the form of animate mountain ridges and ancestral mountain springs. But the
point is the same: it is the reality of situation in a history of relational emergence,
not the reality of brute matter, that is the enablement and the condition of
the imaginary.

Imagination as Reaction? (Why the Real/Unreal Distinction?)

I suggest then that imaginative engagements enable certain kinds of making. But
let us pause for a moment to question the term imagination. What has it meant? And
more importantly, what might it mean, if as Vivieros de Castro argues, ‘the ancient
premise of the ontological discontinuity between language and the world, which
assured the reality of the former and the intelligibility of the latter (and vice versa)
Imagination/Making 269

and that served as ground and pretext for so many other discontinuities and
exclusions – those between myth and philosophy, magic and science, primitive and
civilized, for example – seems to be in the throes of metaphysical obsolescence’
(Vivieros de Castro 2010a: 221)?
Sneath, Pedersen and Holbraad are worried by any implication that

the imagination is only interesting for the social scientist insofar as it can
be shown to fulfil a certain purpose, whether in terms of social function or
existential potential (as in Taylorian approaches), thus “constantly shifting” the
imaginary, as Castoriadis puts it critically, “towards something other than itself
and [letting it be] absorbed by this something else” (1987: 168).

Something of this could be seen in psychoanalysis where the imaginary is seen

as something that makes up for, or is motivated by, lack. In Freud and Lacan,
according to Deleuze, desire is determined by negativity. The imaginary and
imagined are ‘the booby prize’ (Ravetto-Biagioli, personal communication 2011)
if you like: what you can have when you cannot have the real object of desire. The
imaginary is a way of masking or coping with a lack: here is a philosophy of lack
that Derrida terms a ‘negative theology’.
But why should we be determined by negativity? How do we turn this negative
conceptual heritage, allied as it is to seeing natives as holding fantastical and
misguided beliefs about land (for example), to positive advantage for anthropology?
The answer might be to see imagination as a making, as an exploration of mutual
possibility and mutual difference. How to make anthropology a becoming of
imaginative projects rather than rejecting imagination on the grounds it is a
projection, a fantasy to fill a hole, that it is always about lack and starts and ends
from that place?
In his book The Craftsman, Richard Sennet argues that for enlightenment
philosophers Adam Smith and David Hume, ‘entering into others’ lives requires …
an act of imagination’ (2008: 92, original emphasis). ‘For both philosophers’, he
goes on:

“empathy” meant imagining oneself as another, in all his or her difference,

rather than simply likening him or her to ourselves. Smith thus invokes in The
Theory of Moral Sentiments the “Impartial Spectator”, a figure who judges
others not by his own interests but rather by the impressions they make on him.
It is this imaginative work of sympathy rather than reason that first enlightens
us about people.

Sennet reminds us that Plato talks of how anything has to be intuited or imagined
before it comes into being. What drives an anthropologist to devote their time, and
often health, to the pursuit of anthropological knowledge? (And what is implied
by the term ‘pursuit’ here?) Is it imagining an alternative to the way we live and
understand? Imagining at least that there is a possibility for this alternative to
270 Reflections on Imagination

be real, to be somewhere and somebody? ‘Ancient Greek embedded wonder in

poiein, the root word for making. In the Symposium Plato says, “Whatever passes
from not being into being is a poesis”, a cause for wonder’ (Sennet 2008: 211).
I am reading ‘anthropology’ here as something affirmative and based on
emergence. Not therefore based on lack. The model of politics (imagination) I
have rejected is predicated on lack. Anthropology could be taken as an affirmative
model that allows for emergence rather than the constant return to lack; so that
the imagination that drives the anthropologist in their investigation is a kind of
imagination that we might learn from, be creative with and alongside, without
subsuming or being subsumed by. It accounts for reflexively taking responsibility
for one’s own history of emergence.

Crafting with Others

The issue here is not that there is no difference. To understand any other person’s
position – be that one’s spouse or small child, or ones’ interlocutors in the
Melanesian bush – takes a willingness to imagine oneself into their position, to try
and grasp the emotive, conceptual, social and psychological factors that result in
particular forms of behaviour or action.
Many anthropologists report the sense of hitting a brick wall during fieldwork.
One is brought up sharp, as it were, by a statement or action because the necessary
habituation that life demands in on-going relationships (that are not pathological
or overly neurotic) comes to blind one to the differences between people.
I remember well how close friends, after many months living together, eating,
sleeping, washing, defecating etc. together, would shock me by asking questions
about the world of ghosts, or what happens after death because they had continued
to assume that I was a form of ghost: I was dead (as a white skinned person). The
shock – hitting that brick wall that makes one re-think over and again – is of course
disturbing. It is also potentially useful. It makes one reconsider. But in order to
undertake that reconsideration, imagination is necessary. Why do they think I am
dead? How can they continue to treat me as a kinsman, a neighbour and a close
friend, if they do so? What in fact is ‘death’ here? These questions are core to the
enterprise of understanding that fieldsite. Indeed, to generalise, they are core to
any anthropological project where comparative analysis is the foundation.
Sennet writes: ‘Surprise is a way of telling yourself that something you know
can be other than you assumed’ (Sennet 2008: 211). That is at quite an experiential
level. But scale-up to one of the most talked about and drawn upon theories of
our contemporary discipline, arguments around Amerindian Perspectivism. Those
theories and approaches take the imaginative project of understanding and making-
present other worlds and their inhabitants as a coherent and forceful imaginative
project. The imagination here is to reach out to make present another in one’s own
thinking and world, to expand the population, as it were, of our own thought with
others and their positions. (Reite people do this with land itself.) Anthropology is
Imagination/Making 271

a craft of the imagination. ‘Craft’ because it takes attention, skill, experience. And
those are to put limits on imagination so that what we know is not just fantasy.
Our thinking is in fact constantly under scrutiny from both interlocutors in the
field, and colleagues in the academy. We may be party to the gradual emergence
of a ‘“practical ontology” (Jensen 2004), “in which knowing is no longer a way
of representing the (un)known but of interacting with it; that is, a way of creating
rather than contemplating, reflecting or communicating” (Deleuze and Guattari
1991)’ (Vivieros de Castro 2010a: 222, my emphasis).
‘Making’ seems a good way to express this. It is essential for the anthropological
project that imagination creates a shared space for new things to emerge within.
I do not just represent Reite, they do not just learn about what I know through me.
We create something together in the midst of my imagining and theirs, of what
they do and why, and them imagining where my questions come from, and why.
That then allows the population of both our worlds with others that are others, and
remain so, while making new understandings and things possible.


Crafting is not the imposition of form. It is not individual invention (see Leach
2012). Although imagination is not a determined space, there are limits on what
is reasonable as an outcome of this making. One might say that limit is negotiated
in the very relations and interlocutions that generate the imaginative project in the
first place. Anthropology is an on-going conversation, then, with data and with
people whose interests and desires also shape it. Sneath, Pedersen and Holbraad
view the imagination as an outcome, enabled by various and specific material
practices: ‘Crucially, we argue, viewing the imagination as an outcome rather than
a condition allows for a definition of the imagination that is considerably sharper
that the prevalent uses encountered in the anthropological literature’ (2009: 19).
The imagination here is not ‘to become’ another: to usurp their place, translate
what they do or say into oneself, or as fulfilment of some lack. It might well
be to generate separation and difference. This is of course what MacFarlane
does in writing on mountains. I do not object to his desire to make mountains
and people radically different; to object would be to treat his imagination as an
opinion or belief. But I do think it important for us to realise that we should neither
assume that because our conventional understanding of imagination plays upon its
unreality, its projection, and its difference from brute matter, that that is the reality
of the imagination: that the imagination is determined by a higher order reality
of this specification. MacFarlane, as many of us brought up in the same traditions
do, brings a reality into being with his imaginings of mountains. That reality is a
separation, where we do not feel mountains’ actions and presence in and through
others and ourselves in the same manner as Reite people do. But let us not take
this separation from mountains to be the only possibility because of ‘what they
are’. Neither let us assume all imagination works as projection and avoidance of
272 Reflections on Imagination

lack. As anthropologists we know our own practice is an imaginative making with

others. Situated, particular, but not determined.
In ethnographic relations, imagination is both a condition and an outcome –
a particular space for imagination that is conditioned by real interlocution and
discussion, but is also a space of possibility, a space for the crafting of
communication between persons based on a certain mutual possession, but not in
service of that alone. So it is important to attend in detail to ethnography – as a
kind of natural limit on imaginative construction – not because that is the real as
opposed to the imagined, but because it is the substance of the relationship; that
is, being with other people that is the imaginative constitution of the relations
of knowledge. Whether undertaking ethnographic work among Reite people
or among free-software producers, where the imagination was equally a major
motivator in their efforts and engagement (Leach 2009), it has been demonstrated
to me that it is in the particular interplay between things made together and an
emergent sense of the reality of the effects of those things that enables ideas and
practices to reciprocally condition imagined futures (cf. Corsin-Jiminez 2011).


Candea, Matei 2010 The Social After Gabriel Tarde, London: Routledge.
Gow, Peter 1991 Of Mixed Blood, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Leach, James 2003 Creative Land. Place and Procreation on the Rai Coast of
PNG, Oxford: Berghahn.
—— 2009 ‘Freedom Imagined: Morality and Aesthetics in Open Source Software
Design’, Ethnos 74(1): 51–71.
—— 2012 ‘The Task of Anthropology is to Invent Relations (Speaking Against
the Motion at Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory)’, Critique of
Anthropology 32(1).
Macfarlane, Robert 2008 [2003] Mountains of the Mind. A History of a Fascination,
London: Granta Books.
Sennet, Richard 2008 The Craftsman, London: Penguin.
Sneath, David, Morten Pedersen and Martin Holbraad 2009 ‘Technologies of the
Imagination. An Introduction’, Ethnos 74: 1.
Vivieros de Castro, Eduardo 2010a ‘Intensive Filiation and Demonic Alliance’, in
Casper Bruun Jensen and Kjetil Rödje (eds) Deleuzian Intersections. Science,
Technology, Anthropology, Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 219–53.
—— 2010b ‘Zeno and the Art of Anthropology’, Common Knowledge 17(1):
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Chapter 15
An End to Imagining?
Huon Wardle

Making present what is actually absent, is the mind’s unique gift … this gift is
called imagination …
Hannah Arendt

Imagination … is the only inner compass we have, we are contemporaries only

as far as our imagination reaches. If we want to be at home on this earth, even
at the expense of being at home in this century, we must try to take part in the
interminable dialogue with its essence.
Hannah Arendt

When we try to understand what others are imagining, or how they are imagining it,
we are faced with a very great initial difficulty and then with multiple ramifications.
As anthropologists, we sometimes talk grandly of a certain ‘collective imagination’,
of ‘collective memory’ as a type of this, or of the ‘anthropological imagination’
as the means of accessing it. More loosely, we refer to particular people’s (or
peoples’) ‘ways of imagining’. However, in claiming this kind of knowledge
we are making a primary analogy between what we observe about these others
and qualities we truly know of ourselves alone. Qualitatively, I know that the
other person imagines because I know it about myself; without this fundamental
comparison with how I think I can truly know nothing of what that individual may
be imagining, nor how their imaginative capacities freight their observations and
judgements as they go about their life.
Jakob Meloe tells us that, as human beings, we are ‘poor observers of whatever
activities we are not familiar with as agents’ (1988). He means that my ability to
understand what this other person is intent upon is significantly limited by whether
I have myself done the work of imagining-and-perceiving involved in that kind
of task, or not. Be that as it may, I do also depend on this other person’s view of
me to be able to reflect on my own standpoint: their stance toward me becomes
a component of my viewpoint as I come to imagine myself and my intentions. I
do not just listen to what they say, I intuit and infer their view: I infer it by seeing
what they do, noting how they stand with regard to me as well as the company
they keep; and I register the effects all this has on me. And in that way – speaking
now as an anthropologist – I triangulate an insight into their way of imagining
by adopting a standpoint close to theirs and by retracing the direction, from the
276 Reflections on Imagination

phrases and gestures that apparently guide their actions, back toward a way of
looking out on the world that I take to be their point of view.
Ethnography bears witness, in this respect, to a dizzying array of imaginative
viewpoints: children of different co-wives argue in an African house compound;
an Amazonian shaman in his hammock recounts the antics of the creator gods
as they make the universe during the mythtime; gang members debate the state
of business on an urban street side; singers at a wake for the dead in the Blue
Mountains of Jamaica argue over which key to sing in; these views open out
and fade away as our gaze shifts from one ethnographic scene to another. In this
regard, Foucault talks of ethnography offering a ‘treasure-hoard of experiences and
concepts’ but also a ‘perpetual principle of dissatisfaction’ (2003: 383). So these
final comments pick up on the tensions and dissatisfactions but also the treasure-
seeking that anthropologists engage in when they try to ‘reflect on imagination’.
Looking back at themes raised in this volume, I review some of the means and
ends of an anthropology of the imaginary and the imaginative.

Malinowski and a Sketch of the Anthropological Imagination

Max Weber tells us that, in establishing a coherent version of the lifeworld for
any specific person or group, the social scientist is, in effect, constructing a
‘utopia’: their ‘as if’ articulation of the social is simultaneously in excess of,
and significantly less than, the sum of observed facts (2012). Anthropologists,
in that sense, write accounts that are both imaginatively invested and utopian in
form, though this does not stop them from also offering true knowledge. Social
scientists are not alone in this either: the activity of imagination, by lending
coherence to a world we share with others, has inherently utopian (and dystopian)
effects. Utopianism (and its shadow, dystopianism) are much needed elements of
our everyday common sense as we go about balancing the irreconcilable in our
social lives. Sometimes our utopias correspond quite closely to witnessable human
reality, sometimes partly, and sometimes there is no fitting what Kant called the
‘crooked timber of humanity’1 into them at all. Either way, their presence in what
we call the ‘anthropological imagination’, and in the making of an ethnography is
intellectually more deliberate, so let us begin there.
Few anthropologists would dispute Malinowski’s pre-eminence in establishing
what we now call the ‘anthropological imagination’. His Argonauts of the Western
Pacific is the paramount case of the ethnography understood as a method of
imagining the lives of unfamiliar others. How does Malinowski use the words
‘imagine’, ‘imaginary’, ‘imagination’? It may be surprising how often he deploys
these words, especially at the beginning of his book, and he does so in three
specific ways. First, he asks the reader to imagine his/herself coming to live in the
Trobriand Islands:

1 ‘Warped wood’ in some translations (Kant 1983: 34).

Afterword 277

Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a
tropical beach … Imagine yourself … making your first entry into the village …

Let us imagine that we are sailing along the south coast of New Guinea towards
its eastern end.

[I]magine the chiefs sitting high up on the shore under the gnarled, broad-leafed
branches of the shady trees. (1922: 4, 33, 212)

Malinowski tells his reader to shake off ‘popular’ ways of imagining ‘the natives’,
but he does not mean that they must replace their preconceptions with dry scientific
views. Successful ethnography should still allow a reader to

perceive or imagine the realities of human life, the even flow of everyday events,
the occasional ripples of excitement over a feast, or ceremony, or some singular
occurrence. (1922: 17)

Malinowski explicitly and imperatively directs his reader toward the work of
imagining other people’s lives as coherent in their own terms. He lays far greater
emphasis on this task than did the next generation of anthropologists, Raymond
Firth, Audrey Richards, Edward Evans-Pritchard, for example. Roy Dilley in this
volume reminds us that Evans-Pritchard regarded the use of empathetic imagining
in ethnographic work with a certain suspicion and even scorn. Malinowski,
however, sees the mutual orienting of the imagination as necessary in the
relationship between anthropologist and reader. It is needed, in part, to dispel
untruths about ‘savage’ peoples.
Hence, in a second deployment of the word, Malinowski criticises how
other social scientists, economists in particular, have, up to now, used the idea
of ‘primitive man’ to shore up certain foundational principles in their textbooks.
Here, Malinowski takes ‘imaginary’ in a pejorative sense to mean unevidenced
by empirical observation, a priori and assumed – nothing more than a figment. In
contrast, ethnographic evidence demonstrates

how entirely the real native of flesh and bone differs from the shadowy
Primitive Economic Man, on whose imaginary behaviour many of the scholastic
deductions of abstract economics are based. (1922: 61)

Thirdly, finally, Malinowski positions himself imaginatively in the point of view of

the Trobriand islanders themselves in Argonauts. Especially when he is surveying
their expectations and the plans they make for their grand inter-island expeditions
to exchange highly valued Kula goods. Malinowski looks at these inter-island
voyages in terms of how the Trobrianders themselves comprehend them. Here,
imagination is what binds Trobrianders to the future allowing them to strategise,
bridging current fears with anticipated successes.
278 Reflections on Imagination

Thus the imagination of the adventurers, as in all forms of gambling, must be

bent towards lucky hits and turns of extraordinarily good chance. The Kula
myths feed this imagination on stories of extreme good luck, and at the same
time show that it lies in the hands of man to bring this luck on himself, provided
he acquires the necessary magical lore. (1922: 328)

We see, then, Malinowski trying to redirect and reshape his reader’s attention and
their imagination, dismissing some of the utopic thinking that underlies Western
social science while entering into the contrasting frame of a ‘native imagination’ –
the world of his informants’ expectations and intentions; their vision of their world.
In all these instances, he acts as mediator and translator, drawing the reader further
away from one world of social expectations, their own, into another where they
will learn to comprehend quite distinct imaginative concerns.

Anthropology and Productive Imagining

At least for Malinowski, then, anthropological work is founded in active imagining.

The anthropologist, he proposes, must mediate between worlds which are usually
unreflectively and conservatively imagined – the native worlds of ‘Westerners’ and
of ‘savages’. Productive imagination becomes essential because only by means of
it can the anthropologist and their reader manifest new types of concept and fact
about human social life. Gellner has argued that Malinowski combined a bent
toward empiricist fact-finding with a certain Central European romantic holism
(1998). In particular, he was steeped in a version of the Germanic philosophical
view that facts are simultaneously products of empirical experience and of active
human imagining; that these two are an interwoven pair, not opposites. It is worth
considering this tradition in more detail.
It begins with Kant’s critique of naïve empiricism. There is no reality
unmediated by how human imagining encounters the world, argues the
Enlightenment philosopher. The mind always meets its sensory experiences or
‘intuitions’ armed with prefigured analogies concerning what the world is like; if it
were not so, understanding anything in particular would be impossible. For Kant,
imagination is the mode in which we humans, as fundamentally social creatures,
engage with sensory experience; how, in particular, we make what is absent
present, constituting the now of our experience in awareness of our memories and
hopes. Things become things, concepts become concepts, as opposed to noise or
a ‘rhapsody’ of unconditioned potential, because imagination actively preshapes
what we know (1949: 128).
Common to highly diverse neo-Kantian thinkers such as Weber, Simmel, Piaget,
Bakhtin or Sartre is the realisation that imagining is already entailed in any act of
recognition. Even so, we are mostly unaware that imagination is acting in advance of
what we take to be our view of the world. We do not feel ourselves to be imagining
when we acknowledge and recognise some thing or some other person. But knowing
Afterword 279

for certain – knowing that the front plane of this building is specifically ‘Gerschom’s
house’ – involves an anticipatory-imaginative projection out of limited points of
salience: ‘yes, this is the one, this is the house! Do you see the cacti in the window?’
It is often hard to recover how those anticipations came to us, even though we do
now know for sure that what we thought might be, truly is the case. ‘Look, there’s his
moped!’ Hence Freud’s metaphor of submerged and surface knowing: the conscious
self can find itself compelled by anticipatory knowledge that came from somewhere
out of view: ‘Below’, according to Freud’s particular imagined geography.

Forms of Imaginative Investment – Metaphors, Symbols, Myths,

Scripts, Charters

The sheer scale of coordinated social activity entails that the awareness of
many individual people must be engaged sporadically with common objects of
imagining in order for life together to go on. That people frequently reference
the same points of symbolic reference can lead us to suppose that there exists a
collective imagination, or a potential for inter-subjectively blended imagining, or
that there are epistemes – thought-templates – that generate the imagining of entire
epochs and of the particular people therein. But these are metaphysical claims and,
as Nigel Rapport points out in this volume, they can blind us to those aspects of
the relationship between individual imagining and culture that are indeterminate
and non-symmetrical. Note how toleration, collusion, yay-saying, lip-service,
accismus, lying, fear of speaking out, muteness, misdirection, equivocation, ironic
acquiescence, ambiguity, vagueness, disinterest and simple misunderstanding can
all generate an illusion of public unanimity that belies how, or what, any given
person is actually imagining.
The world is what offers itself to be imagined, but imagining cannot itself be
found in the world. Of course, we see many forms for thought, or of imaginative
investment – signs, images, mnemonics, projects, goods and especially other people –
in plain view; but we cannot witness directly the awareness–imagining–seeing that
remains the necessary condition for their salience except, to a limited extent, in our
own thinking. If we attend to these investments (of course, our attention varies) we
will find, or can at least infer, prescriptions, scripts, charters (mythic and utopian),
and diacritic rules of thumb for action personally or en groupe: ‘you can be chaotic
in Salsa and still have fun … but you can’t be chaotic in Tango’ (Jonathan Skinner,
this volume). Contrastive repertoires of this kind inform us of everyday norms and
shared logics against which personal experience can be tested: at the same time, they
foreground points of conflict or dissonance in our common sense understanding of
how the world is ordered (‘do I dare to tango chaotically?’). We may thus take
from what is offered delightful ‘elsewheres’ for playful rumination – like the cities
that the forest-dwelling Matses draw, as Camilla Morelli tells us here; spaces of
adventure that allow an out-spilling of imaginative content vis-à-vis the dullness or
incoherence of the quotidian life-space (Wardle 1999).
280 Reflections on Imagination

Of all the problems that exist in exercising an anthropological imagination

perhaps the most difficult to avoid, or even to take account of, involves the hubris
of confusing culture as a heuristic, a contextualising tool, with some specific
person’s actual way of imagining things. There is a certain vested interest on the
part of the anthropologist in treating their own overview of the ‘cultural field’ as
the actual ground against which the people they meet ‘in’ that culture truly imagine
things, rather than as a utopic model or metric that can help them understand the
diverse human activities they witness. Once we come to see human subjectivity
as, to use a widespread analogy, a ‘fold’ of the cultural field, then we have licensed
ourselves to pre-empt whatever imaginative spontaneity the other person may
bring to the occasion: ‘did you see what she just did?’ says the anthropologist
in this vein, ‘what a striking enactment of cultural protocol!’ On the one side, to
use Mattia Fumanti’s phrase (this volume), the freedom of individual imagination
‘from the limits of the real’ – including the anthropologist’s view of reality – is
all too easily blurred. At the same time, when it comes to imagining, we can note
how, as Nabokov writes, ‘the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with
the individual’ (1980: 252). So, it may be helpful cautiously to reverse the ideas
involved – the belief in a unified and knowable cultural field is best understood as
a ‘fold’ of egoistic imagining (Wardle 2009).
Neuro-anatomy has advanced the use of new tools for cortical mapping that
can pin down the places and times in the brain where electro-chemical responses to
particular objective stimuli happen. In the face of these technologies imagination
may begin to sound like a flimsy unscientific word, but, again, an account of
imagining that, in this case, restricts itself to brain physiology or brain chemistry is
destined to trace ever-decreasing circles of evidence and meaning. Neuro-anatomy
can point to possible physical correlates of imagination, but it does not explain nor
even describe imagining: on the contrary, it is imagination that lends these data
fullness and coherence without itself being encompassed.
Introspection likewise has its hazards as a route to telling what, or where,
imagination is. When I ‘dwell’ on it, my imagination seems to offer a ‘private’
‘space’ into which I can ‘withdraw’. I ‘turn my gaze inward’; I ignore what is
‘outside’. I ‘map’ and ‘figure out’, ‘move between’ and ‘arrive at’ certain images
or ideas. Notice how many metaphors are invoked, with greater or lesser caution,
when we try to describe imagining; words, symbols, and images that I came by
while talking about and inhabiting a world with others (cf. Lakoff and Johnson
1980). As Wittgenstein points out, it is easy to trick ourselves when we use words
like ‘inner’ and ‘private’ to describe thinking (1953). The subjective ‘innerness’
of imagination is not like the inside and outside that respond to each other in
the world around us: imagination is not, in that sense, a space at all. Subjective
‘innerness’ has, of itself, no true ‘outside’ – not even the view reflected in a
mirror. Instead, I depend on the stance and gaze, touch and gesture of some other
being, another subject, to gain whatever comprehension I can of myself as an
exteriority; and the same is true for that other person looking at me (Bakhtin
1992: 36–64).
Afterword 281

This conceptual problem of ‘inner’ versus ‘outer’ viewpoints comes to the

fore when claims are made about how or where the self, the body, imagining
and world overlap, interact or merge. Rubrics for these relationships clearly vary
across cultural settings and likewise between individuals (for example, between
Descartes and Locke). Boesoou Erijisi told Leenhardt on behalf of the Papuan
Kanaks that, for them, the body and consciousness are unconnected; what
Leenhardt called ‘the body’ was, for Erijisi, not a singular thing at all (Clifford
1992: 172). French philosopher Levy-Bruhl took descriptions of this kind as
evidence of ‘participation’; a pre-logical merging of self and environment common
to primitives (1966). But in this instance, at least, the centricity of a self for whom
bodily aspects blend and extend, is still needed and given. Who, apart from a
specific self (Erijisi) could we (or Leenhardt) attend to for a view on these matters?
The metaphors we use have consequences, then, for the kind of validity that
our presence in the world entertains: they bridge an aporia – a gap or ‘blind
spot’ – that exists for all human beings out of which plural morphologies (and
dysmorphias) can emerge. Is it Alice (herself) who has shrunk and grown, or is
it Wonderland (the environment)? A proportion of Euro-American test subjects
can be convinced, using a certain apparatus, that a rubber hand, objectively
unconnected to their body, is physically ‘their’ hand (Botvinick 1998). Some
mobile phone users report symptomatic feelings that their phone is somehow
an extension of their body.2 Others describe ‘out of body’ experiences when
observing the visual image of a heartbeat projected on a wall.3 The capacity for
human consciousness to re-clothe itself in diverse animate and inanimate material
forms is perhaps the most widespread of all mythic themes; one that reappears in
latterday ideas of, for example, bionics or cryogenics. For modern biomedicine,
the indisputable pragmatic value of placebo treatments present a complex parallel
problem: their effects can neither be explained solely in terms of what individuals
imagine about their own bodies, nor by reference to bio-physical causality alone
(Harrington 1999).
And so, ideas akin to those expressed by the Kanaks need not be absolutely
‘remote’ to us, precisely because, as Lévi-Strauss suggests, they derive not
from ‘outside us, but within us’ (1963: 104): they are inherent potentials of the
asymmetry between imagining and inhabiting a world with others.
Even so, the technologies that organise society are successful to the degree that
they institutionalise a certain democratic indifference toward concerns of these
kinds. A creationist, an eco-warrior, or a follower of Ayn Rand can simultaneously
stop at traffic lights, use an elevator, or an automated payment system, (or cross
a bridge in Andrew Irving’s example here) without entering into conflict over
their contrastive imaginings. Somewhat differently, Radin describes how, for the
Winnebago of the American plains, freedom of thought was expected, but so was

282 Reflections on Imagination

individual responsibility for its consequences (1927). Social coordination, then,

can (and does) happen without individuals needing to imagine things identically.4
Two people can arrive at, or evince, similar approved answers to a task without
following an even remotely related pulse of thought. Their personal trajectories
coalesce at this moment without conforming at any other: with the result that, while,
as William James puts it, ‘the trail of the human serpent is … over everything’,
much of the time its tracks need hardly be noticed (1922: 64).

Case Study 1: Imagining a Cultural Institution: ‘The Street Corner’

The ‘corner’ as a site of street action must count as one of the oldest topics of
urban social research; eponymous examples being William Whyte’s Street Corner
Society (1943) and Simon and Burns’s The Corner (1997), where, in both case
studies, the corner is synecdochic of an entire urban situation. It is fair to say that
most ethnographers of ‘corners’ or ‘cornermen’ have described them concretely in
terms of a certain kind of relationship to the space of the street: ‘corners’ have been
evoked as sites of inequality and marginality; the place where ‘marginal man’
hangs out. Here, I want to point to the abstractness of the ‘corner’ ideal, though,
and toward the role of individual imagination in enabling its reiteration. At least
in Kingston, Jamaica – a city I have worked in ethnographically for over two
decades – ‘a corner’ is not precisely a place, neither is it simply a known group of
people. The corner is, nonetheless, a knowable quiddity. As a form for thought, the
corner marshals a cluster of public symbols – a network of overlapping imaginative
investments – and puts them to work: its effects are pragmatic and real.
Here is an example of how the ‘corner’ becomes an imaginative investment. I
am talking to CDman who has some recent music – ‘sounds’ – that I am interested
in. There is no problem with delivering these music disks to me, he says, ‘I can
bring them to your corner’. I am a little intrigued by this spontaneous turn of
phrase since we have never spoken to each other before. However, CDman has
observed how I ‘move’ and, even though I have only been in Kingston on this trip
a short while, he knows where my ‘corner’ is – over the other side of the street
with Marshy at Marshy’s fish and bammy stand. This might imply that the ‘corner’
is the place itself, but that is not the case: it is not the segment of street-side but
rather an analysis of how and where I interact with Marshy and the rest of the
‘crew’ that constitutes ‘my corner’.
In its simplicity, the image CDman presents of my ‘corner’ extracts from the
noise of everyday experience something that is both personal and categorical. The
interpretation is a tautology of course; that I ‘have a corner’, and what I do ‘at’ the
corner, evidence each other. In the case of Marshy and ‘my’ corner, my reiterated
presence ‘there’ has gathered a recognisable rhythm – become a distinct gestus

4 Kant proposes that ‘logical private sense’ coexists with a more mutually responsive
‘common sense’, though the relationship can break down (2006: 113).
Afterword 283

for others to notice and acknowledge. And, to that extent, ‘my corner’ is now an
extension and property of ‘my’ bodily person. So, by using the phrase, CDman
asserts a conceptually delimited past-and-future for my activities and thus creates
an effect. I am aware of the ‘distance’ or gap between the ‘role’5 being ascribed
and how I imagined things up to now, but I am happy enough to reorient my
common sense to take in this new vista.
So, a concept-word like this invites us (even commands us) to acknowledge
some coherent and predictable locus or thing – to make it our imaginative
concern. But as we attend to one quality of ‘the corner’ others are occluded. For
example, when we then ‘see’ the corner as a functional response to, or symbol
of, marginalisation, underemployment and money scarcity – which indeed it can
be – we temporarily lose ‘insight’ into the corner as a theatre for individual poetics
and distinctiveness of character. Shift imaginative frames and ‘the corner’ has a
chameleon-like capacity to change too.
This unfolding and retreating of views is unending. We hold onto the meaning
of the word but we cannot be sure that what concerns us is shared, though, for
the most part, in terms of getting by, this may barely matter. To comprehend ‘the
corner’ anthropologically, though, we have either to keep alive the fact of varied,
divergent, imaginings, or what we see becomes an accretion of sociological
clichés. As anthropologists, the objects of imagination shift and change as we
coordinate our horizons with those near us. Thus the ethnographer lays her or his
stake in the field of social inquiry on memories drawn from dwelling next to these
other individuals, attempting to register what it was that made up their world. In
the process of exploration, we learn of ‘the corner’ what Max Weber says of other
ideal types that ‘in its conceptual purity, this mental construct cannot be found
anywhere in empirical reality’, instead (as we indicated earlier) it is ‘a utopia’
(2012: 274).

The Limits of Imagining

‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come to imagined places, not just stay at
home?’ asks Elizabeth Bishop in one of her poems, Questions of Travel. Some
anthropologists have challenged the significance of imagining as a necessary and
defining feature of human experience. For instance, Ingold has argued that:

[I]magining is not a necessary prelude to our contact with reality, but rather an
epilogue, and an optional one at that. We do not need to think the world in order
to live in it, but we do need to live in the world in order to think it. (1996: 118)

The distinction here is puzzling. Why would we assign opposite values to these
two qualities that seem inextricable one from the other – thinking the world and

5 See Goffman (1961) on ‘role distance’ in Encounters.

284 Reflections on Imagination

living in it? We must certainly live in a world to think it, equally we must think
of a world in which to live. Neither phase is ‘optional’, nor is the one reducible
to its twain. When I solve some small everyday problem I begin by imagining a
solution, but then, as I grasp at and match up whatever materials I can assemble,
I re-imagine that outcome over again to bring the job to fruition.6 Every world
is, in this sense, uniquely imagination-dependent; every act of imagining
uniquely world-dependent.
Overall, the Kantian description of imagining – that imagination is irrevocably
co-implicated with living in a knowable world – has been confirmed many times as
some of the following observations will illustrate. With this in view, it is important
to note how, despite the essential role of imagination in anticipating a knowable
world, there are limits to its powers:

The power of imagination … is not as creative as one would like to pretend. We

cannot think of any form for a rational being than that of a human being. Thus
the sculptor always depicts a human being when he makes an angel or a god.
(Kant 2006: 71)

When we populate other planets in our imagination, Kant goes on to say, we

use human-like beings as our avatars. We might wish to qualify Kant’s claim –
rationality can, after all, be dressed as a fox or a spider – however, the key is that
what limits imagining is everything we have come to know through living in and
thinking through our world up to now. As they approach closer to the mysterious
planet Solaris, in Tarkosvky’s beautiful film, the cosmonauts’ closest memories
are re-materialised and take on a life of their own according to a force that can
never be known for itself. Nalo Hopkinson’s vivacious science fiction novels
call on and rearticulate her knowledge of life in Jamaica and the Caribbean. In
contrast, nineteenth-century Romantics, for whom subjectivity could will into
being whatever world it imagined, failed to account of the thermostatic control
that the world as lived, versus the world of imagination, exercise with regard to
each other.
Georg Simmel argues that the most recognisable forms of religious imagining
draw their vivacity from familiar relations such as ‘the child’s faith in its parents,
the friend in a friend, the individual in his people, the subject in its prince’
(1997: 280). Radcliffe-Brown comments likewise that aboriginal totemism has
nothing esoteric about it in terms of experiential content: eaglehawk and crow,
the totem animals for certain kin moieties in New South Wales, were species
which habitually followed foraging bands as they burnt the undergrowth for
food (1951: 17–18). In this respect Neilson’s and Pedersen’s argument in this
volume that ‘the concrete space affords particular imaginary scenarios’ is well-
taken. The relationships and communities of individual imagining are not,

6 See Levi-Strauss’s famous description of the ‘bricoleur’ or handyman in The Savage

Afterword 285

though, a replay of some particular objective social-geographical arrangement.

In his efficacious ritual chants the Piaroa shaman reconfigures for the event in
question a poetics drawn from an entire lifetime of curing practice.7 What can
be imagined is always in excess of what is immediately given to the senses and
is likewise more and other than whatever can be communicated meaningfully at
any one place and moment.
Imagine this unfamiliar creature: the closer I inspect it in my mind’s eye, the
more it seems improbably composed from distinct but familiar things: the beak
and webbed feet of a duck, a body covered in fur with small eyes like a mole. In his
book, Kant and the Platypus, Eco describes how 90 years passed before specimens
of the duckbilled platypus were recognised as real by a scientific community
(2000). Initially encountered as a set of incoherent elements, the platypus was
widely viewed as a crude attempt at fraud: recognising it demanded much more
than an empirical encounter; it required conceiving and communicating that this
kind of entity, in its totality, could be a thing at all.
Piaget shows in a similar vein that for a child coming to recognise that the
world is made up of distinct and enduring things involves an extended process of
imaginative-sensory feedback. Crucially, for most people, this includes a growing
capacity to discern critical sounds and to recombine and rhythmicise these as
meaningful utterances for others to hear. Hence, this dynamic of imagining and
sensing through which the child ‘constructs reality’ entails also an emergent
awareness that this self of theirs is something distinct from other aspects of
world (1955). Egoistic symbiosis with world gives onto self-differentiation
from and within world in a dialogical (and uncompletable) process. Sudden
reappraisals of how the world is made up vis-à-vis self (and hence who the
self is in the world) give imagining–perceiving its characteristic feel of surge
and diminuendo.

Feedback between Imagining and Perceiving

After a great deal of dialogue and cognitive effort, ornithorhyncus, the duckbilled
platypus, ‘added up’ – perhaps still odd, even uncanny, but no longer impossible.
Psychologists of perception have provided many insights into how complexes of
information are composed imaginatively as knowable entities, and how coherent
perception-imagining can fail. It is worth reviewing certain of these findings
in detail.

How Perceptual Ambiguity is Resolved

The psychologist Fred Attneave was amongst the first to recognise that ambiguous
visual phenomena provide valuable insights into how imagination composes reality

7 Joanna Overing, personal communication.

286 Reflections on Imagination

(1971). For example, looking at a cluster of similarly sized equilateral triangles,

the mind’s eye tends to posit a ‘direction’ in which the triangles are ‘moving’ – it
is hard to ‘see’ them as having no trend at all. Even so, some residual ambiguity
always remains. As Bateson points out, meaning and point of view are unstable
moments of fixture in a looping feedback between concepts, self and environment
(1979). To this, Mary Douglas has added that the degree of effort put into asserting
unambiguous meaning for particular aspects of the world varies according to the
seriousness of people’s co-dependence: in contrast, laughter can signal that the
imagination welcomes incongruity in human relationships (1966). A drive to attain
coherence, and to acknowledge incoherence or ambiguity, are equally significant
for learning about, and narrating our experience of, the world. The ‘hauntings’
Peter Collins discusses in this volume, and uncanny awareness in general (‘what
the hell is going on here?’ as Collins puts it), speak to the significance we grasp
from disturbances and gaps in this process.

How Imagining and Attending are Co-implicated

While we seem to appreciate the world as an integrated panorama, the eye

itself has clear focus only on a small part of the field of vision, the ears only
on narrow wavelengths, while the full sense of scenic completeness is supplied
by our imagination. Two experiments show relevant aspects of this. In a well-
known ‘gorilla visitor’ illusion, psychologists Simons and Chabris ask audiences
to attend carefully to the number of passes a group of ball players are making in
their game. Many of those taking this test – though not all – will fail to notice a
gorilla-suited actor walking between the players. In a second experiment, subjects
arrive at a counter and are handed a form to fill in. When they hand the completed
form back, a majority will not notice that the receptionist who gave it to them
has been replaced by someone else. They continue to act as if their world were
unaltered (Simons 2000). What people think is, and what they imagine should
be, the case is, much of the time, tautologically interdependent. There is a further
aspect to the issues involved here which Whitehead calls ‘negative prehension’:
in order to build a coherent perspective, a wide range of information must be
actively excluded from imagining and perceiving (1929). Hence, theoretically
at least, there exists for each of us an aggregate of imaginary ‘dark matter’; of
unimaginables or things never imagined.8 The world could always have been
imagined otherwise.

The Socialness of Imagining and Attending

Since human acts take place with others in mind, then, as Leo Coleman discusses
in this volume, imagining, whether intentionally or not, is ‘sociocentric’. The

8 ‘[K]nown unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ to quote former US Secretary of

State, Don Rumsfeld.
Afterword 287

experiments above show that we are prone to attend to what we have been directed
toward by those around us, to the exclusion of other information. And, since
comprehending people’s intentions may well be vital for sustaining my own pattern
of life, looking where they look (aligning myself with their objective) is generally
valuable. This alone can explain much of the compulsive quality that certain objects
and projects hold temporarily for gatherings of people. We do not need, then, to
invoke group mind or special powers of mimesis as Durkheim and Tarde did to
explain these feelings. However, in this regard, rubrics shift and change. In 1836,
Lelut redefined the term ‘hallucination’ to describe ‘internal perceptions wrongly
attributed to the action of external objects’ – hence a signal of insanity. Many
people were redefined as insane in these terms (including notably Socrates whose
‘daemon’ or guiding voice helped him resolve philosophical problems; Leudar
and Thomas 2000: 8). As we have noted, though, when it comes to the relation
between imagination and world, the distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’
is highly equivocal: this boundary has inherent potential for manipulation. And,
as Lugones also tells us, it makes a great difference to how we respond to the
world imaginatively whether our means of self-expression are calibrated by others
according to what she calls ‘arrogant perception’ or rather by way of a ‘loving’
view open to playfulness and incoherence (1987).


Coherence-seeking, then, drives the relation imagining-and-perceiving.

Psychologist of music, Diana Deutsch has experimented with capturing recorded
speech and playing it in a repeating loop (Deutsch et al. 2011). When speech
sounds are reiterated often enough they begin to be heard as song/music: this
can occur after only a few repetitions. Deutsch’s research reveals explicitly what
many musicians have always known intuitively. For example, John Blacking
has described how, for the Venda of Southern Africa, u imba, meaning song, is
distinguished from u amba, meaning speech, on the basis that the former is recited
using a regular meter (1973: 27). In a related observation, Husserl shows how
hearing music cannot be a matter simply of registering notes one after another,
but must involve an extensive listening that combines and explores the past while
anticipating the future (1964). While the present moment has no definable length,
it does correspond to a subjectively felt continuity of rhythm: and, likewise, we can
note how any particular human being introduces a distinct syncopation (of gesture,
speech, attentiveness) into their interactions with others by way of presenting
themselves. To this extent, human interaction involves a crossing of rhythms
as well as an unavoidable counterpoint, since the entry of each distinct self into
interaction brings a new pulse to the unfolding event. Our personal utopias have a
rhythm to them that emerges from the past and protends into the future. Learning
how to introduce and perform these kinds of rhythm effectively is a painstaking
process; learning too well, may, as Paul Stoller suggests in this volume, introduce
a kind of lifeless ‘competence’ into communication.
288 Reflections on Imagination

Case Study 2: Imagining the Standpoint of a Life

If we turn the pages of Captain T.W. Whiffen’s The North-West Amazons:

Notes of Some Months Spent Among Cannibal Tribes, we will come to this eye-
catching photograph:

Figure 15.1 Andoke shaman and his wife

Source: Photograph by Captain T.W. Whiffen.
Afterword 289

Whiffen references his illustration in the following way:

The only member of the tribe who varies from his fellows is the medicine-man,
and he will adopt any idea that appeals to him as an addition to the eccentricity of
his appearance. One Andoke medicine-man, whom I photographed, was wearing
a turban of bark-cloth dyed a brilliant scarlet; but his taste in this particular was
purely individual, and denoted neither professional nor tribal distinction. The
large bag shown in the adjoining illustration should be noted, for it was greatly
admired by the tribe. It appeared to be made … with threads of red and undyed
palm-fibre. It was not manufactured by the Andoke, but had been obtained by
barter; however, it was of indigenous make, and probably came from the north
of the Japura. (1915: 74)

The explorer has clearly posed his photograph to foreground this ‘eccentric’
distinctiveness of the shaman and his wife and we take this cue from him. However,
the closer we look at their faces the more we are struck by some indefinable
pathos: for once, the sentimentalism ‘I feel for them’ captures a certain literal truth:
I feel-imagine – I initiate a certain rhythm and directedness, a pattern of life – on
their behalf. Their expressions resist interpretation, and precisely for that reason,
my thoughts attempt to cross the boundary of appearance trying to find a way to
comprehend this stance of theirs from their point of view.

Figure 15.2 Andoke shaman and his wife (section)

Source: Photograph by Captain T.W. Whiffen.
290 Reflections on Imagination

Below, is an image of the photographer himself from his archive: the pipe-
smoking Captain is on the left, and his servant John Brown, who accompanied him
through the Putumayan jungle, is to the right.

Figure 15.3 Captain T.W. Whiffen and John Brown (section)

Source: Unknown photographer.

These faces intrigue us too because they also resist any familiar interpretation.
In his monograph, Whiffen describes John Brown as ‘invaluable throughout the
expedition … more loyal and more devoted than a traveller … has reason to
anticipate of any black servant’ (1915: 3). It is hard to ‘find’ exactly that sentiment
‘in’ the photograph, though.
This last picture is a section of a portrait of John Brown,9 again by Whiffen.
This time Brown is carefully dressed – with a mark of distinction of his own, a top
hat. The contrast with the other photograph is striking and whatever we thought
we knew about Brown undergoes an intuitive re-organisation when we look at it.
There is a great deal, potentially an infinite amount, that we could add by
way of context which might help us further understand the Andoque shaman
and his wife, and likewise Captain Whiffen and John Brown, not to mention
the interrelationships of all four. I am less interested here in how a good or true
interpretation in those terms would come about.10 What I am aiming at is more
immediate and primary. Engagement with these faces and then the further attempt
to comprehend the stances or standpoints involved starts when their gaze meets
ours and we recognise not a genus or type of person but rather a life distinct
to itself. This moment, which combines recognition but also resistance, is what
provoked us to imagine those people more fully and to ask (ourselves) for more

9 The positive identification of John Brown in these two photographs was made for
me by Ramiro Rojas Brown, his grandson (see also Rojas Brown 2010). I am grateful to
Jocelyn Dudding at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for making
these and other of Whiffen’s archival photographs available for viewing.
10 These comments are prefatory to a longer study of John Brown currently underway.
Afterword 291

Figure 15.4 John Brown

Source: Photograph by Captain T.W. Whiffen.

context. So, the germ of intuition out of which an anthropological interpretation

begins to unfold has in it a contradiction, because the imaginative process has
ceased if, or when, I claim that the people involved are best understood as products
or ‘folds’ of a particular epoch, or of a network of relations, or that their lives are
expressions of a particular ontology. Here then, is one kind of tension or friction in
the ‘anthropological imagination’ that is ignored if my priority is to move toward
a final assessment. This ability to recognise the lives of others as on a par with
my own is an imaginative ability. ‘Imagination’, Hannah Arendt suggests, ‘is the
only inner compass we have, we are contemporaries only as far as our imagination
reaches’ (1953: 392).

Concluding Remarks: A Kingdom of Imaginative Ends

My son, Max (12 at the time of writing), informs me that he has become interested
in the power of what he calls ‘immaterial objects’. In the yard of our village school
two boys were playing, he tells me. The first gifted the second an imaginary
weapon, ‘fire sword’, while reserving to himself ‘diamond sword’ to ‘fight’ with.
Soon boy number two wanted to have the use of ‘diamond sword’, but his playmate
292 Reflections on Imagination

refused to relinquish it. An argument started, which was only resolved by a teacher
sending boy number one to sit on the ‘naughty step’ because he had refused to
‘share’. Max was struck by how the boys argued as if the things in question were
real and by how the teacher took them seriously.
Some important features of imagining are foregrounded especially clearly in
this struggle over ‘diamond sword’ and ‘fire sword’. Certainly, when we consider
them from the side of imagination, all objects, tangible or otherwise, have an
‘immaterial’ dimension since, without the contribution of imagining, they are not
objects at all. At the same time, absolutely immaterial, or virtual, entities hold
an ever more compelling position within our modern horizons where more and
more is invested imaginatively in goods that – or people who – have no tangible
presence, but whose social and material effects are felt nonetheless. The exchange
value of money is perhaps the most ubiquitous example, but there are certainly
at least as many of these intangible presences in the life of the modern person as
there were amongst the animist thinkers who conversed with anthropologists such
as Paul Radin or Irving Hallowell. In this respect, where an object is invested
with significance by only one or a few then it is perhaps easily disregarded, but
where the investment is evidently made by many, then it acquires a power of ‘dull
compulsion’, to use Karl Marx’s phrase, becoming entangled and imbricated with
many other concepts, aims, actions, institutions – an obstacle that all must clamber
over or sidle around. The swords of the two boys are immaterial, but their tears
and anger are not, nor are the effects of the teacher’s intervention. One boy must
sit on the ‘naughty step’ while the other perhaps – who can say? – finally and
triumphantly raises ‘diamond sword’ aloft to his mind’s eye.
Imagining puts in play not only a familiar community of voices and valued
things gathered during a lifetime in the world, but also looser feelings, untethered
memories and uncanny absences and presences. It has a rhythm of ebbs and flows that
responds to contingent impulses without producing any fully necessary sequence;
more an elusive stream, or a serpentine crawl, to use William James’s metaphors
(see Mark Harris, this volume). For each of us, this self-generated common sense
ordering is unique. And, since it pre-empts sense experience, imagination is an
irrevocable constitutor of our realities. We are left with a puzzle: knowing what
and how someone imagines is indispensable to understanding their vision of their
world – the primary anthropological task – but we have no direct access to these
qualities only their exterior show. We see a rhythm of activity and amidst that we
intuit imagining at work. On our side, as observers and participants, is the fact that
imagination cannot absolutely depart from the world it inhabits. So, the closer we
are to someone, the more likely it is that what is important to them imaginatively
may be close at hand (even if, like ‘diamond sword’, it has no material presence).
At the same time, we rely on our standpoint outside their world of experience – our
own common sense – in order to appreciate theirs in its own right.
When it comes to the correlation between imagining and world, each of us has
little option but to rely on our own intuitive sense. As Malinowski points out, when
I explore this or that person’s vision of their world, then I engage in an imaginative
Afterword 293

endeavour: what does this stance of theirs consist in? What are they attending to,
invested in, intent upon? What images, parables, folktales, analogies or metaphors
do they ‘live by’? From their view on their world, what do they know, or hold
to be self-evident and what does all this add to our common anthropological
knowledge? In this broadest sense, anthropology treats the imaginative lives of
each and all as elements of what Kant called a ‘kingdom of ends’ – each self,
as much as the next, expresses a distinctive ‘world knowledge’ (weltkenntnis)
that undergoes change as it directs itself toward life with others; to cultivating
a life in certain ways alone, in other ways in common. The idea of a kingdom of
imaginative ends, in turn, provides a horizon for the work of anthropology – that
is, for the anthropological imagination.


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