In Defense of the Baseless
In 1968, Georges Perec imagined that every word in a work of writing was replaced by its dictionary definition, and then every word in that new work was replaced, and so on and so on. He hypothesized that there was a finite number of times this process could be performed on two works until they would overlap and begin to resemble each other. The technology to test this hypothesis did not exist at the time; Perec attempted it by hand, but gave up soon after. He later went on to create a radio play in German, entitled “The Machine,” that was simply a version of Goethe's Rambler's Lullaby II with an increasingly jumbled word order, creating new and amusing sentences. Again, Perec envisioned that a machine (hence “The Machine”) would eventually do this jumbling for him, but he created the play with no existing technology advanced enough to aid him. I begin with these two examples because they demonstrate the importance of thinking beyond technology — that is, the value of not just theorizing futuristic versions of current paradigms but of instead imagining entirely new paradigms altogether.
There is nothing inherently problematic in speculating about futuristic versions of existing technologies or in imagining later iterations of current normative cultural ideologies, à la The Jetsons. The problem arises when these speculations begin to define the limits of imagination itself, when they saturate the intellectual field to such an extent that the purely original is drowned out. For example, within the genre of science fiction writing, numerous critics take issue with the way that technological innovation seems to not only supersede social innovation but indeed seems to be the only concern for its authors. Lyta Gold, in an essay for Current Affairs Magazine entitled “Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and the Status Quo,” in which she explores the presence of authoritarianism and monarchy in science-fiction, puts it thusly: “If there are no possibilities, then there’s nothing to negate, and nothing to rebel against. A fantasy novel that simply replicates real-life political discontents — without bothering to envision how they might be solved — is a negative zero, an airless void, not an open playground in which to explore alternative modes of being.”
This is not to say that you are wrong if you want to read about an elf monarchy that controls the human population through magic. However, at its core, that piece of writing is less imaginative than one that imagines a magic-wielding elf population that creates an ethical and stable form of social organization in which humans are treated equitably. The same idea holds true for the presence of sexism, racism, and other types of oppression in science fiction: imagining an alternative reality in which these forms of discrimination exist and are enacted in new ways is simply less imaginative than imagining a reality in which they do not exist at all. But now that a dichotomy has been posed between less and more imaginative, the question, Why is imagination important at all? must be answered.
Alberto Perez-Gomez, a professor of architecture at McGill University, in an essay on the architecture of John Hejduk, makes the following statement: “Theory must provide the words that allow us to ground our architectural work in the totality of our existence, here and now... we need to retrieve a new and more radical experience of being.” Theory is merely a form of imagination — the distinction Perez-Gomez is making is between a theory produced by reality and a theory that produces reality. The former, as evidenced by a dearth of science fiction writing, is a limp reflection of the dominant discourse of the culture in which it was produced; the latter can not only transcend its productive context but also inform the production of a different context altogether. When Perec envisioned a machine that would be able to concatenate and divide strings of words, he did so with a firm ignorance of any technology that could actually do so. The result? A theory composed in 1968 accurately envisioned entirely new technologies not available for decades. Ultimately, theories “rooted in reality” can be trapped by those same roots; there is value to theorizing and imagining beyond existing cultural and technological paradigms.
You cannot know you are speaking a specific language until you encounter a different one; just so, you cannot know what ideologies surround you until you encounter different ones. Imagination, in any of its copious manifestations, is an analysis of the present as much as it is a production of something other than the present — in creating the latter we are forced to confront and investigate the former, and it is difficult to refute the claim that there is no value to self-analysis. Imagination is never spurious: as much as we act within our reality we should imagine acting outside of it. In doing so, we fulfill one of the Delphic maxims and the point of this essay: “know thyself.” Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I might propose my own version: “The unexamined future is not worth living.”