Early Approaches to Imaginaries

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 2.2 Imaginaries

The idea of the social imaginary can be traced back to Voltaire’s ‘l’esprit du temps,’ with which he celebrated the Enlightenment in 1751. He was followed by Hegel, among others, with ‘Weltgeist.’1

With the beginning of the 20th century, the zeitgeist was then increasingly replaced by the Imaginary as a concept to describe something that was “invented or not real, something projected into the future, imagined beyond itself.” The goal was to determine the place from which the imaginings were projected.2

Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan was one of the first to develop a theory of the Imaginary in 1949, in that he, as a psychoanalyst, considers the Imaginary as that which makes one a human being. He locates the emergence of the Imaginary in the childhood phase, in which the child perceives themself as a person in the mirror.2

“Lacan’s own simple definition is that the imaginary is a fantasy – paradigmatically, one formed by the preverbal child”3

Later, he relativizes his theory and arranges the Imaginary in a three-way constellation with symbolism and reality to describe the human psyche.4

Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis (1975) consciously opposes Lacan’s focus on the psychoanalytic but remains similarly fundamental in his claim for the Imaginary: the Imaginary does not make the human being a human being, but society a society. Every society defines itself through the Social Imaginary it develops. For Castoriadis, Social Imaginaries are systems of meaning that help a society collectively interpret reality. They are “the constitutive basis of everything social.”

Castoriadis assumes a single, central Imaginary in a society. It is the social imaginary that distinguishes one society from another.5

Benedict Anderson

In his consideration of nationalism,6 political scientist Benedict Anderson proposes a definition for the nation that became the crucial starting point for many of the major contributors to Imaginaries:

“In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community […]. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”7

Anderson explains the development of these imagined communities in particular with the emergence of what he calls print capitalism. In order to maximize their profits, publishers developed, among other things, a written language that should be understood by as many people as possible. They also mainly printed books that met with broad interest. In addition, there was the role of newspapers, which not only synchronized time consciousness with their daily rhythm of publication but also replaced morning prayer with morning newspaper reading. According to Anderson, the idea that throughout the nation many others were engaged in the same content at the same time was an important contribution to the ability to become aware of a nation.8

Next Chapter: Social imaginaries from Taylor

  1. cf. James, P. (2019). The Social Imaginary in Theory and Practice. In C. Hudson & E. K. Wilson (Hrsg.), Revisiting the Global Imaginary (S. 33–47). Cham: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-14911-6_3, pp. 35-36 

  2. cf. ibid., p. 37  2

  3. Strauss, C. (2006). The Imaginary. Anthropological Theory, 6(3), 322–344. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499606066891, p. 327 

  4. cf. James 2019, p. 38 

  5. cf. Strauss 2006, p. 329 

  6. Anderson, B. R. O. (1984 [2016]). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Revised edition.). London New York: Verso. 

  7. ibid., p. 6 

  8. cf. ibid., p. 33-44 

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