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Joseph Kugelmass
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, April 25, 2005

Critical Terms To Be Lined Up Against A Wall And Shot

Posted by Sean McCann on 04/25/05 at 10:35 AM

There was a tv commercial a few years back in which a sidewalk vendor sold people chattering wind up dolls that repeated single inane phrases.  The buyers then had the delicious opportunity to stomp the dolls to bits.  ("we can still be friends, we can still be friends, we can still . . .” Smash!)

Wouldn’t it be great if there were dolls that spouted “probelmatize” or “subvert” or whatever?  And wouldn’t it be even better if they had actual voodoo-doll like powers, so that when you pulverized them their inanities would be finally wiped from the earth forever?  Ecrasez l’infame! 

My current vote for most annoying bit of lit-crit jargon is the ugly and omnivorous use of “imaginary” as a noun--especially in the currently familiar phrase “national imaginary.” What is up with that?  It’s never been clear to me how imaginary in this usage differs from imagination--except, well, that it’s newer and more, um, problematized.  But more importantly, it’s not clear to me at all how the term “national imaginary” (meaning, so far as I can tell, something like a nation’s psychic template) avoids the problem of imputing collective consciousnesses that has long been a problem for literary study.  If you say a nation has an “imaginary,” you’re pretty much of necessity saying that it has a collective mind in which that imaginary operates.  Why exactly would you want to do that?

I have my suspicions.  But for the moment I just want to grumble about the way the critics who use this terminology--critics, I think it’s safe to say, who regard themselves as scrupulously skeptical of received ideas and popular mystifications, particularly of the kind that ascribe false group identities--recussitate in this usage one of the hoariest and most pernicious legacies of literary romanticism.  It’s dumb.  Nations don’t have imaginaries.  There I said it.  Now I wish I could just find that doll and shoot it. 


Comments

It’s a Lacanian term.

By advocating a gulag, you’re becoming just like the radical left-wing critics you hate.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/25/05 at 01:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That didn’t take long.  But really, Adam, do you: (a) think it’s possible to advocate a gulag for terminology; (b) recognizing the sound of joking?  Or was there never an example of intellectual laziness that made you want to jump up and down and holler.

I know, by the way, that imaginary is a Lacanian term, and I’m also aware of some of its other intellectual roots--in Lefort and Iser, if I remember right.  The pedigree doesn’t affect my sense that its typical usage in American literary scholarship is careless.  It wouldn’t be the first time that some high intellectual burnish was used to shiny up some hackeneyed and dubious ideas. 

Also, it’s not radical left wing critics, I dislike.  It’s bloviators.

By on 04/25/05 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Turn about is fair play: I know you weren’t advocating a gulag!  I myself was joking! BWAHAHAHAHA!

It was meant to be a parody of a rhetorical technique that is often deployed against me—if, for instance, I use harsh and negative language in disputing with those opposed to gay rights, I am “just as bad” as those who advocate violence against gays, etc.  Or when I suggest that conservative critics of academia like Horowitz are bad in some way, I am feeding into the very thing I hate.  That kind of thing.  Sorry if it made no sense at all, which seems to be the case.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/25/05 at 01:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

D’oh!  Is there a smiley for blushing embarrassment?

By on 04/25/05 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, the idea of a jargon blacklist has been floated in lit Blogistan on occasion. One example might be this post by Miriam Burstein from a couple of months ago.

Some Valveland commentors and participants were involved in the comments thread there too.

I think the bigger problem is the way we use these terms. We tend to get sloppy… The term “imaginary” might have a pretty specific meaning, but the way it is often used has little to do with the psychic state after the Real but before the Symbolic, in which a child has differentiated his ego from that of his mother, creating an essentially dyadic blah blah blah.

Technical terms should be used citationally as much as possible.

By Amardeep on 04/25/05 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Somewhere among Google’s 37,300 image results for “emoticons” there must be one for “blushing embarrassment,” another for “problematizing,” and another still for “invoking the national imaginary.”

I wonder though: Do you have the same problem with, say, Trilling’s idea of a “liberal imagination” as you do with “national imaginary”?  Or is there a difference between the actual, identifiable politics subtending Trilling’s formulation (genteel though it may’ve been) and the quasi-Jungian nonsense beneath the Lacanian imaginary?  (How’s that for a lob?)

By A. Cephalous on 04/25/05 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t get me started.

The word out on me is that the things that piss me off (postmodernism, analytic philosophy, statistics-worship, market-worshipping economics) are now obsolete and extinct, and that if I want to be relevant I should be grumbling about something more contemporary. But I don’t even know what these new things are; most of the books I read these days are centuries old.

I’ll buy a dozen of those dolls, though.

By John Emerson on 04/25/05 at 07:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The reason it’s not clear how “imaginary” differs from “imagination” is, basically, that they’re the same. What we have here is an English word with a French cognate, and the lit-crit innovation is to use it with its French meaning in place of the English one. In French, “imaginaire” as a noun simply means “imagination.” Even if it is used technically by Lacan, it is still a quite ordinary French word.

In your post you have another such usage - “mystification.” In English this ordinarily refers to a state of mind, but in French it means a hoax, swindle, or practical joke; in English lit-speak it has this sense too.

Another example is “inscribe,” as used in the phrase “Common sense appears obvious because it is inscribed in the language we speak” (this from a forgettable manual of criticism I once read). This is not ordinary English usage, but it derives from the French phrase “s’inscrire dans,” which commonly means “to be contained in. to be part of.” The author is thus saying “common sense appears obvious because it is expressed in (or is a part of) our ordinary speech.” Depending on how you look at it, this is either dubious or tautological, but if you say “inscribed” you seem to be making some kind of serious point.

I’d guess that this phenomenon is the result of lazy translators simply transcribing French words by their English cognates, instead of finding English reformulations of the author’s intent (but maybe this wasn’t so clear anyway...). There’s a whole book waiting to be written about this, but I’m not the one to do it.

By R Crew on 04/25/05 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Imaginary” is kind of perplexing, innit?  When I first read Pease on the “field imaginary,” I wondered whether it was a poetic noun-adjective inversion, like “young man carbuncular.”

By on 04/25/05 at 07:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the tip, Amardeep.  I think I saw Miriam’s post and was remembering it as I was gnashing my teeth today. 

And thanks for the lob Cephalous.  John’s more the Trillingite than I am, but I wouldn’t be averse to the notion that some soi disant cultural radicals share more with Trilling than they may realize.  Nor would it disturb me to think that some of them are more liberal than they know. 

Still, if I remember right, the heart of Trilling’s argument against Parrington is that by his lights culture is not a flow, but a dialectic.  I think most people who use imaginary today are more like Parrington.  They have relatively simple, indeed simplistic models of national cultures.  Calling it an imaginary lets them defer some of the problems with those models.  To me, it looks like they spun the odometer back.

Here, for an example chosen by random googling, is the blurb for _Film Nation_ by Robert Burgoyne, a recent book published by Minnesota:

“In analyses of five films that challenge the traditional myths of the nation-state--Glory, Thunderheart, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, and Forrest Gump--Burgoyne explores the reshaping of our collective imaginary in relation to our history. These movies, exploring the meaning of ‘nation’ from below, highlight issues of power that underlie the narrative construction of nationhood. Film Nation exposes the fault lines between national myths and the historical experience of people typically excluded from those myths.”

Totally unfairly, I haven’t read this book.  But it sounds to me a lot like other things I have read and which recycle really simple models of nationalism and simplistic accounts of national histories.  This is the old myth-and-symbol approach, though handled less deftly than in the past and given a fancy set of new terms.

R Crew, I think you’re actually a little generous.  Some people like the awkward neologisms that bad translation creates because of the impression of novelty or technical rigor that comes along with them.  Been there, i confess.

By on 04/25/05 at 08:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If I ruled the world there would be no more token plurals: the ones where the writing is is trying to bluff that it’s intimately familiar with every possible angle, not actually saying something .  e.g. ‘knowledges’ ‘textualities’ ‘epistemologies.’
It’s not the bluffing that I object to, only the utter laziness of this particular ploy.

This is the first time I have commented here.  The Valve looks to be a rather argumentative place.  I hope i’m wrong about that.

By laura on 04/25/05 at 08:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

True anecdote:  During a seminar discussion during this semester, I kept trying to interrupt students who were using terms exactly like this in a slip-shod way.  I don’t recall all of them, but one was definitely “subversive.” At one point a student paused and said, “You know, you keep trying to call us on these terms.  But these are just the words we use to talk about things.” And then she went right on with her comment, using the same terms.

By profsynecdoche on 04/25/05 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure if the terms are still abused, but the misuse and/or overuse of “marginal, “"marginalize," and “marginalized” especially made me cringe.

By on 04/25/05 at 09:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am perturbed (but not surprised) by the fact that, with the exception of Kotsko’s post, this essentially consists of a series of “words and phrases I don’t like,” rather than a discussion about the term McCann proposes as particularly vacuous, “imaginary.” Kotsko points out that the term is not vacuous and this generates what reaction?  A series of snide and contemptuous dismissals of other terms commonly used in the academy, and a series of comments that just ignore Kotsko, one of which asserts that “imaginary” and “imagination” mean the same thing, which is absurd in English and untrue in French, and completely non-analogous to the other examples that Emerson cites.  The spirit of the commentary can best be characterized by McCann and Burstein’s suggestion of a “blacklist"--this is essentially applying the uneducated proscriptive grammarian model (you can’t begin a sentence with “hopefully”!  Oh, wait, actually, you can) to the level of critical discourse.  Would I be wrong if suggested that what is presented as a critique of style is in fact just the usual rejection of critical theory (or at least, the kind that you don’t like)?

So here goes:  Josh gives a concrete example of the phrase “collective imaginary” from Burgoyne (actually, what sounds like a publisher’s blurb about Burgoyne, surely the best place to find proper usage of critical terms).  Viewers of a film make all sorts of unconscious identifications (for Lacan, identification takes place within the imaginary) with what they see on screen, and some films attempt to elicit what we might call “public” or “collective” or “national” identifications--that is to say, identifications that appeal to me not only as an individual, but also as an American.  For example, Casablanca exhorts its viewers not to fall in love with Bogie just because he’s so cool (as is the case in, say, The Maltese Falcon), but also because his decision to abandon his isolationism and commit to the war parallels America’s decision to do likewise--in short, it attempts to captivate the viewer on the level of a national imaginary.  Yes, it presents an image of America, but the point here is not the image (or the imagination), but the imaginary--the question of spectatorial identification.  Burgoyne’s book attempts to explore the way that a series of recent films attempt to reshape that national imaginary, reshape the potential ways that a viewer might identify what constitutes “American” on screen (and, in turn, identify with that image).

By Robert Rushing on 04/26/05 at 12:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jeez, I thought this was a bitch session, not a meeting of the plenary paradigm committee.

By John Emerson on 04/26/05 at 12:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One term that needs to be used more often is “sociolysis.” See Fiasco.

By Jonathan on 04/26/05 at 01:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Robert, I think it would be fairer to say that Sean and Miriam are suspicious that some jargon is pretentious or comically overused. Its presence is supposed to signal reflective participation in some deep critical project, but (so the suspicion runs) is really just a symptom of drifting with the crowd. So griping about this jargon is not like griping about ‘hopefully’. (You may have a theory about why people don’t like critical theory that forges some analogy with hypertrophic grammatical fussiness, but I am doubtful it will be a sound theory.)

I am genuinely curious how to use ‘imaginary’ as a noun, rather than an adjective, not because I have any plans to do so, but because it does pop up all over the place and one would like to know what, if anything, it means. I don’t quite get Robert’s explanation. Can I always substitute ‘identification’ for ‘imaginary’? Or perhaps ‘unconscious identification’? (The latter would seem to be what Robert has in mind, but I am doubtful our identification with Bogie is unconscious. I think we are conscious that we are identifying with him. Or at least semi-conscious. If you ask audience members who they identified with, they are likely to say: the Bogie character. So this isn’t unconscious. Is that a problem, i.e. is the ‘imaginary’ supposed to be an unconscious thing?)

Another problem with the account Robert offers is that the ‘imaginary’ seems to be both process and product. The film produces a national imaginary by captivating the viewer in a certain way. It makes viewers identify with America. And the film produces this national imaginary by means of a national imaginary. It is because we identify with America that we identify with Bogie? (Have I got that right?) But why does one need to identify with America to identify with Bogie? (It might help, but it hardly seems requisite.)

Perhaps it isn’t a problem if imaginary is both fuel for the process and product of the process. I can imagine how this is supposed to be a sort of feedback loop, reinforcing itself. But I’m not sure that the fuel and the product are the same, so I’m not sure the term is very helpful. Because the term in effect forces me to assume this thing: fuel = product.

Robert says the imaginary is ‘the question of spectatorial identification’. I don’t understand that. ‘The imaginary’ is not short-hand for a question. So can I just drop ‘the question of’ and get by substituting ‘spectatorial identification’ whenever I see ‘imaginary’? If I do so, what am I leaving out? Some sense of the connection between adult spectating and Lacanian stuff about how babies develop, perhaps. But do I have to buy the Lacanian stuff to use imaginary sensibly? Does any use of the term commit me to accepting an analogy between an adult activity like watching “Casablanca” and some baby thing? If so, then non-Lacanians should not use it?

Finally, Robert’s final sentence invokes two distinct senses of ‘identify’. Identify in the sense of ‘recognize x as x’, and identify with, i.e. ‘feel one is the same as x’. Does ‘imaginary’ signal that both sorts of identification are going on? If so, what does the word actually name? Two aspects of the process? The product of the process? All three? I am not sure that I want a word that means all three because usually I just want to mean one or most two at once.

So ‘imaginary’ seems suspect because ... well, I’ll quote Max Black “On Humbug”: “saying more than you can reasonably mean” is one form. I am suspicious that use of ‘imaginary’ tends to be humbug in this sense.

But I could be wrong. No, really. Set me straight. In all seriousness, I would like to understand how other people use this term. And presently I do not understand.

By John Holbo on 04/26/05 at 02:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Authors of the post are named below, not above --but it’s flattering to be conflated (by Robert) with Sean McCann! Let me ask more direct question of those defending the use of “imaginary” we see in, for example, the Burgoyne blurb:  could you elaborate on what it provides that we don’t get when we say “self-image”? Unlike John Holbo, I’m perfectly willing to adopt the term if I decide it’s nonsuperfluous; but like him, I need a clearer grasp of the baggage/script that comes with it.

On the more general issue of jargon that costs more than it benefits, Amardeep’s point about using words “citationally” corresponds with what I understand Peirce to have prescribed, and it’s devoutly to be wish’d:  the big problem that I have is with terms that have been spread too thin, like “postmodern” and “jouissance”.  “Marginal”, though, I find useful; and “mystification”, although it has a long pedigree, seems to have retained a pretty clear and distinct meaning.  And “problematic” is fine if you’re describing a feature of Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre.  Doesn’t Bauerlein have a book on this sort of thing?

By on 04/26/05 at 03:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m new to commenting here, and an unexperienced youngster in general, so I don’t know if what I’m about to recommend here is old hat to everyone; I’m talking about the “Sokal Hoax” and the debates that followed it (http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/#papers); in which a physicist sent a deliberately parodic paper, filled with postmodernist quotations, to a Cultural Studies journal, where it was blindly accepted. By his own admission, this proves very little; but the explosion caused by this does seem to indicate much about ‘postmodern’ usage of terminology. Later, he co-authored a book analysing postmodern adoptions of mathematical terms, which (to my mind) pretty much exposed the prevalent practice, in postmodern writing, of using terminology with nothing behind it (the philosophers/thinkers discussed simply ‘lifted’ terms from the hard sciences with no clue as to what they refer to). The replies to this by those attempting to defend the authors critiqued are also revealing.
Which is not to say that all writing classed as ‘postmodern’ should be blacklisted; only that authors should be aware of the responsibility to express their ideas clearly, preferably without recourse to theoretical ‘shortcuts’ which make it difficult to address oneself to a distinct content. While this may work well in blurbs, where one only wants a general idea of what the book is about, etc., it should be avoided in serious writing. It’s difficult to tell from short extracts which is the case in a given text, but when I get the impression of a ‘theoretical haze’ when reading a book, over several chapters, I tend to blame the author.

By on 04/26/05 at 10:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Imaginary” is almost as bad to my ear as “Problematic”, when it comes to adjectives used as nouns to indicate that they are academic jargon. ("Problematic" sounds like a kitchen appliance sold by direct mail. The Ronco Problematic! It slices! It dices! It makes M.A. theses!)

But upon reflection I realize that this particular strategy of jargonification is not recent. Hegel, and Kierkegaard after him, spent a lot of time talking about “the World-Historical”. So maybe my only objection is to the loss of the definite article. If everybody could be persuaded to say “the imaginary” or “the problematic” I’d be fine. It would save trouble if I just trained myself to hear an implicit “the”.

By pierre on 04/26/05 at 10:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

PS of course I took a shortcut myself, using the word ‘postmodern,’ which Josh rightly notes has been “spread too thin.”

By on 04/26/05 at 10:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Robert,

So suppose we have a case we could describe as an instance of identifying with an image qua representation of an ideal shared by members of a social group in which the identifier is a member, where ‘identifying’ names a positive affective response normatively required by imaginative engagment with a representation, and whose cognitive aspect (recognition) is unconscious.

I take it CASABLANCA is supposed to be just such a case.  Now, what is it in the case that is “the imaginary?” Is it what is said to be normatively required?  Or is it the shared ideal itself?  Or is it the tendency of group members to react to a class of representations in the same way?  Or what?

By Steve on 04/26/05 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s try to Politics-and-the-English-Language this.

Burgoyne’s book attempts to explore the way that a series of recent films attempt to reshape that national imaginary, reshape the potential ways that a viewer might identify what constitutes “American” on screen (and, in turn, identify with that image).

“Burgoyne’s book talks about recent movies that imaginatively express American identity in novel situations.”

What’s missing from this translation?

By pierre on 04/26/05 at 12:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura: The Valve does look to be rather argumentative, doesn’t it? But it is not only that, I hope. And while writing online may make it easier to be rude than face-to-face conversation, it also makes it easier to ignore people.

I agree with your comment about ubiquitous plurals. My particular pet peeve — and here I align myself with the bitchers rather than the discussants — is the use of slashes to designate multiple meanings: “decadents/ce” is one that comes to mind. This is so old hat — those wits who lampoon the MLA every year have been on to it for ages — but people still do it. It’s not clever, it’s lazy. But then, I have never liked crossword puzzles much, either.

By Miriam Jones on 04/26/05 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Viewers of a film make all sorts of unconscious identifications (for Lacan, identification takes place within the imaginary) with what they see on screen, and some films attempt to elicit what we might call “public” or “collective” or “national” identifications--that is to say, identifications that appeal to me not only as an individual, but also as an American.

Robert: I understand that Lacan believes that identification takes place within the imaginary.  I entered graduate school determined to interpret modernist texts via psychoanalysis--my essay sample, “Masturbatory Appropriations: Joyce, Freud, and ‘Green Faces With Red Eyes,” contained Lacanian sentiments like “the order in which Freud’s patient’s hallucinations proceeded in the imaginary is identical to the order in which Stephen’s proceeded in the symbolic.” I say this not to establish my credentials but to indicate that I’m not sitting around sniping Freudians/Lacanians/etc.  That said, can you provide evidence that Lacan’s statements (as well as the assumptions on which they’re built) bear relation to reality?

That is, can you prove that imaginary exists?  Can you prove that Lacan correctly accounts for its creation?  Can you prove that individual identification takes place within it?  Can you prove that national identification takes place within it? 

John’s done an excellent job addressing your argument on its face, but I grew disenchanted with psychoanalysis after spending years listening to Gabriele Schwab argue against certain unproven Lacanian precepts on the basis of their deviation from certain unproven Freudian concepts, so John’s logical questions (excellent though they may be) miss the mark for me.  I’m not interested in whether Lacanian arguments are internally consistent, I’m interested in whether they bear any relation to the world they claim to describe.

By A. Cephalous on 04/26/05 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You do ask a lot, Cephalous.  But, really, the excellent comments by John and Steve seem pretty consistent with your complaint to me.  One reason it’s hard to tell whether Lacanian arguments, or the like, bear any relation to the world they claim to describe is that it’s really difficult to say exactly what they claim to describe.  Depending on how you ask the question, the answers vary wildy.  (John has described one version of this tactic with his famed puffer fish analogy. http://examinedlife.typepad.com/johnbelle/2005/01/clueless_in_aca_1.html)

I think Steve’s question is especially helpful in this particular context.  As Steve suggests, references to “national imaginary” frequently conflate at least three or four things: (1) a collection of beliefs, assumptions, or images thought to be crucial to the working of a society; (2) the psychic process by which people adopt those assumptions and come to believe that their convictions are fundamental to themselves and can’t easily be swapped for others; (3) the role of literature and media in circulating such assumptions and soliciting belief in them; (4) the ability of states to secure the obligations of citizens. 

The power of the vagueness of the idea of the national imaginary is that by conflating all these elements it makes them appear as if they’re inseperable from and imply each other--when in fact it seems obvious to me that they’re independent of each other and interact in pretty complicated ways.  The result, I think, is reductive and implausible accounts of what remain in fact interesting issues.  (Did Hollywood films solicit the American citizenry’s commitment to fighting WWII, and did they suggest that it would be impossible to be an admirable person otherwise?  Absolutely.) For me anyhow, rejecting terms like “national imaginary” has nothing to do with interest or lack of interest in the issues they purport to define, only with the imprecision of they’re use.

Though, to be honest, my suspicion about why the phrase national imaginary is so prominent is that many academics still want to believe that literature (or film) expresses the spirit of a nation. They’ve found more complex ways of saying that, but the appeal of the basic idea hasn’t changed much.

By on 04/26/05 at 04:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I’m actually sympathetic to assertions that the 4 unrelated things you identify as inconsistently referred to by the term “national imaginary” are actually different facets of a unitary phenomenon of socialization. (Which I would identify with the Burroughsian word-virus. But never mind that.)

This basic idea though seems separate from the now much-caricatured strategy of pompous jargonization. Or is that the rest of the theory? That socialization, the formation of the state, etc. all result from pompous jargonization, which, it turns out, is the essence of language? If so would it be the case that the Theorizers of various stripes have cleverly created a performative demonstration of their theory, by constructing a state-within-the-state of academia?

I say this mostly to encourage Robert to follow up, since he may feel somewhat piled-upon in the comments since his last.

By pierre on 04/26/05 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me add one point of encouragement to Robert, if he shows back up. I should have added to my long picky comment to his comment that comments are supposed to contain lots of errors, so picking at them is uncharitable. For example, my comment tries to maintain the use-mention distinction, then just gets bored and stops. Robert should feel free to extricate himself from pins by simply saying that’s not what he meant.

By John Holbo on 04/26/05 at 08:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think we all accept that blogcomments abide in the marginary.

By on 04/26/05 at 09:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The faux protest in this photo (click my name link) is analogous. I especially like the partially hidden sign that reads “Inflammatory statement”.

By Logical Meme on 04/29/05 at 09:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not an academic, just a student, so don’t go too hard on me here guys. I just wanted to put in my 2 bits, amateur that I am. I have a few points:

1) Lots of you criticise words for being pompous, but your entries are incredibly pompous! It was like reading a Sir Humphry Appleby blog, I hardly understood most of what was said in most of the posts!

2) I’m not a philosophy student, and I think this is a pretty philosophical concept, but I’ll give it a go anyway. I personally associate ‘the imaginary’ with Anderson’s ‘imagining’ a collective identity: for me the ‘imaginary’ is a self-perceived collective image that has developed out of the ‘imagining’ process. Take for example East Timor, a new nation. It is in the process of ‘imagining’ itself, i.e. actively working to create a national consciousness, a collective image (through language, historiography, whatever). What results is a concept of collective identity. It is an imagined collectivity in that in many ways, the links are abstract and exist in the minds of the individuals of the collective. But at the same time it is not at all the same as ‘imagination’ because the links are not imaginary in the sense of ‘not real’ (like my son’s imaginary friend Elmo for example), they can be qualified and described and are based on shared experiences, shared history, shared language, shared territory etc.

3) There may be other, more conventional terms for describing this, like ‘self-perceived collective identity and consciousness’, but this doesn’t really cover it, and anyway as the term ‘imaginary’ has now entered the vernacular, it is now legitimate. Whether you like it or not, it is now a word that has a specific meaning to the people that use it and it doesn’t have a single-word substitute.

4) This now becomes a linguistics debate. We don’t have the equivalent of the Academy Francaise for English, and it’s a good thing in my opinion. Sometimes you’ll be pleased by a new word sometimes not, you have to take the good with the bad. Language evolves, everyone knows that, and it’s what makes language rich and interesting. Linguistics teaches us that being prescriptive about language and word usage is pointless anyway, because words will be used and adapted and modified and coined whether we like it or not. Complaining about it won’t change it, you have to move with the times, keep up!

5) Is it fair to get huffy about people being ‘lazy’ with word-usage? We’re not all perfect writers and most of us just want to get our point across. Students and many academics of my generation have a collective understanding of what ‘the imaginary’ (as a noun) means, so we use it, it gets our point across succinctly (like the student mentioned in the anecdote earlier in this blog). The more we use it, the more accepted, legitimate and understood it becomes. 

I’m not trying to win an argument here. I’m just trying to explain why this term is in popular use.

By on 05/19/08 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This wonderful little post is the very first hit if one does a google search on “imaginary noun”. Bless you, Michael McCann.

By Apuleius Platonicus on 01/24/10 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Apologies, Sean McCann. Don’t where I got that “Michael” from!

By Apuleius Platonicus on 01/25/10 at 07:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I sense a difference between the two. Why are you all trying to convince yourselves there is none?  Also, if people wish to talk about a concept, who are you to pretend to be almighty arbiters to say it does not exist?  If you can’t see it, maybe you are just dumber.

By on 03/24/11 at 06:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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