Corrupting the public imagination

Like wayward children, we who have grown up in the 20th century have confounded the expectations of our late 19th-century forebears. The social prophets among them predicted our mentality would be efficient, utilitarian, bureaucratic, disciplined, and, above all, rationalized. Magic and fancy would fade away in the cold light of reason; not imagination but quantification and calculation would prevail.

However true this may be of our lives at work, it is wildly inaccurate in portraying our lives as consumers. In this latter role our imaginative activities are unprecedentedly rich.

A department store display transport us to China, while a shopping center filled with fountains and palms carries us to the tropics in midwinter. On billboards we see images of fairy-tale princesses and handsome knights with wondrous chariots at their command. Magazine advertisements make us dream of living in palaces whose splendid furnishings are portrayed in vivid detail. During one day of TV-watching we see scores of dramas which invite our emotional and mental participation -- the longer dramas which are the programs and the shorter ones which are the ads. One night at the movies can make us feel we are living in the distant past, the future, in outer space, in the Wild West, or Africa, in exalted social circles or mysterious criminal ones. On all sides dream worlds entice us. The sphere of the imagination, it seems, has expanded rather than vanished.

The 19th-century prophets were not totally wrong, however. Whay they failed to see was the increasing importance of our roles as consumers, and the extent to which the imagination itself would be rationalized to encourage us to consume. In a very calculating and deliberate way business exploits our imaginative capacities in order to market not just specific products, but in more general terms a commodity-intensive way of life. The world has not so much been disenchanted of primitive fantasy and magic as it has been re-en chanted in commercial terms.

The consequences of the commercialization of the imagination are particularly damaging in the realm of social imagination. All social progress realized through technological or institutional means is preceded by an image of an end, of a way the world could be changed for the better. But when we habitually think of the future in commercial terms, the dream of Utopia becomes disneyland, and Paradise is envisioned as a Caribbean resort.

One particularly sad example of the trivialization of social imagination is furnished by the movement for women's liberation. Its inspiring vision of one of a world where the two sexes enjoy relationships of mutual respect, equity, and harmony, rather than where one sex exploits the other. This lovely and compelling creation of the social imagination has, alas, been degraded to images of consumer lifestyle.

Commerce, which had traditionally tailored its images to appeal to homemakers , finally realized that women who work usually consume more intensively than those who are "just" housewives. The working mother and wife has more money and less time to spend, so she often buys cleaning and laundry help, convenience foods, and child care, in addition to the transportation and clothing she needs for her job. So the image of Supermom has now given way to the image of the Superwoman who combines family and career -- the constant element being the assumption that a woman's primary role is to be the prototypical consumer. This ghastly caricature of Superwoman degrades the original vision of female liberation, and has in fact become an instrument of woman's oppression. As much as anything else, women need liberation from such false images of liberation.

Even more ominous than the banality of the commercialized imagination is its mendacity. The photographic truth of commercial images is undeniable, thanks to modern technologies of communication which render appearances exactly and vividly. These reveries pose as reality when they are so partial as to be false. The deception is in what does not appear: tears, age, hunger, loneliness , disappointment.

To some degree we can resist such deceptions when personal experience in everyday life tells us otherwise -- although our tendency is to wonder why our family lives don't resemble the images of advertising rather than to ask why the images don't resemble life. We are far more vulnerable when there is little in our experience to bring to correct the deception -- if what we know of the Orient, for example, comes only from department store exhibits or amusements parks.

In its authentic role the imagination does not deny reality but transcends it by envisioning possibilities, by discovering the inner meaning of what exists and suggesting how that existence might by transformed and surpassed. In the face of trivialization and deception, we need to recover what the poet Keats called "the truth of the imagination." To do so means recovering the capacity to dream in noncommercial terms.

This is an extraordinarily difficult task. Well-financed, well-organized institutions have corrupted the collective imagination, and they are not readily controlled by normal legislative means. So far the only attempts to do so have involved the influence of television programming and advertising on children. Even in this case, where it is a matter of protecting the most imaginative and most vulnerable among us, success has been extremely limited in devising a collective control. To devise other, more effective, nonlegislative remedies will require -- more imagination.

For overcoming the commercial imagination requires, above all, more utilization of the genuine variety. Instead of accepting passively the visions of commerce, we must go beyond them to picture what has been omitted and furthermore, to ask why. We must go beyond the banality to imagine the significant. All this requires constant effort, and it is often a lonely and private struggle; but there is no more important personal or social task than confronting deception with reality, the trivial with the important, and the false imagination with the authentic one.

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