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Imagination and Its PathologiesReview - Imagination and Its Pathologies
by James Phillips and James Morley (Editors)
MIT Press, 2003
Review by Jonathan Roffe, Ph.D.
Nov 3rd 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 45)

The equivocal and widespread use of the word 'imagination' throughout the history of modern thought frequently renders any attempt to use it in a precise manner extremely difficult. Imagination may be a fundamental category in philosophy from Spinoza and Locke through Kant to the present day in theorists such as Castoriadis, but in each case the use of the term differs more or less dramatically -- and certainly hold nothing in common with the quotidian use of imagination.  Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, can certainly be accused of blind-siding this concept to a certain degree (as J. Melvin Woody's article in this collection demonstrates), at least prior to Lacan, who uses 'Imagination' to mean something different again from the stock-standard. And other forms of clinical psychotherapy really fare no better. "A vision on my brain was rolled," says Coleridge's Ancient Mariner -- and clinical theories of the imagination more or less uniformly confine the effects of imagination to this level of pathological invasiveness.

Rather than taking the reductive path of attempting a convergent series of ostensive definitions, this welcome book presents papers which traverse the ill-defined field of meanings carried by 'imagination' and put it to work in a variety of quite precise and extremely interesting ways. And, furthermore, it does so with reference to an area in which such elaboration can find concrete application, the study of the nature and treatment of psychopathology.  It is rare to find a collection of essays that does so much to open up a single, albeit underdetermined, concept in such a fruitful way.

Imagination and Its Pathologies is divided into three sections.  The first, 'Pathologic Imagination in Light of Philosophical Reflection,' is the more philosophically orientated part of the book, investigating the topic with reference to Wittgenstein's language games, Heidegger's thrownnes, Merleau-Ponty's theory of perception, and phenomenology more generally. 'Pathologic Imagination and Pyschodynamic Thought,' turns us towards a range of Freudian-related investigations into the phenomena of imagination. Finally, 'Pathological Imagination Applied to Creative and Clinical Phenomena' constitutes a small dossier of reflections on some concrete pathological cases, using the concept of imagination to analyze the cases themselves, or critique the deficient ways that such cases are frequently taken into account. Included are discussions on St. Anthony, the dancer Nijinsky, Nietzsche and childrens' play.  To have some idea of the breadth of this book, consider the following three articles, each of which falls into one part of Imagination and Its Pathologies' tripartite structure.

The philosophically oriented first section of the book contains a number of interesting pieces.  Most striking is Paul Lieberman's 'Imagination: Looking in the Right Place (and in the Right Way)'.  Lieberman uses a reassessment of Wittgenstein's discussions of rule-following in the Philosophical Investigations to examine the role of imagination in psychotic and schizophrenic experience. Noting that the clinical relationship can easily become a combative one -- where the patient insists that a certain experience was real, and the clinician that it is not -- Lieberman argues that the adoption of a Wittgensteinian perspective (1) locates users of a particular language game (here, imagination) before opposing positions are assumed, and (2) focuses attention on the "fine shades of behavior" (Imagination 32).  That is, for Liebeman, therapy must begin with what is in common between the clinician and the patient as common participants in certain languages games, and must not proceed through gross generalizations.  Such a dialogic procedure would allow the patient, he suggests, to "develop, incorporate and sublimate those [pathological] forms of life into others which are 'more realistic.' In this way [. . .] the sharp contrast between what is imagined and what is real is not established more clearly but dissolved." (Imagination 30)  Thus, pathological life and 'more realistic' life become different ways of participating in the same language games, and can thus be substantially brought together by drawing upon this common level of experience.7

In the section devoted to Freud, Jennifer Church's chapter 'Depression, Depth, and the Imagination,' stands out for its clarity and originality.  After opening with a critique of the Sartrean picture of depression as the result of a deficiency of the will, Church's argument constructs a synthesis of Kant, Freud and Kristeva to offer an alternative: depression as a failure of the imagination.  As the invocation of Kant here might suggest, Church is not talking about depression as the inability to imagine what the pyramids might be like, not having visited them, but rather the ability to have the proper kind experiences of the world at all.  For Kant, the imagination is one key element in the complex transcendental system of experience, and the one that allows the self in question to connect past and future elements, along with things that are not perceptible from a certain point of view, to the present experiences, thereby rendering them meaningful.  For Church, as the depressive person's "capacity to imagine alternative perspectives on the world diminishes, so too does the experienced depth of that world; appearances flatten out to become more and more a mere string of conjoined impressions, and hence less and less appearances of a world at all." (Imagination 179-80)  Church uses this Kantian picture to orient Freud's understanding of the failure of sublimation.  When a repressed desire cannot be re-connected (sublimated) to some other means of expression, necessary for a healthy relation to the world, this desire becomes the cause of depression: "When deflection or sublimation is unsuccessful -- as when imagination fails to find successful continuations for one's frustrated desires -- then, according to Freud, the impulses that underline one's desires disconnect from the objects one perceives or the ideas that one entertains [. . .] Depression involves a loss of affective engagement and, precisely because of this loss, it involves a kind of objectless longing -- a desire for everything and nothing." (Imagination 181)

Finally, in the section of the book devoted to discussing imagination in the context of clinical cases, Amedeo Giorgi's 'A Phenomenological Psychological Approach to Research on Hallucinations' exemplifies itself.  Like all the pieces in this section, Giorgi's is characterized by the attempt to find some common ground between 'sick' and 'normal' people -- or rather to see that there is a more profound continuity to experience in general that can only be broken up into dyads like 'literal/imaginative' or 'real/hallucinatory'.  Giorgi gives a rigorous account of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's theory of perception, paying special attention to the inclusion of 'aberrant' experiences like hallucinations into the basic structure of experience (James Morley's piece in Chapter Five deals with related questions). It is the body as the locus of experience that must be examined, according to Merleau-Ponty, if we wish to understand the 'meaning' of pathological modes of experience. This in turn leads us to the whole corporeal and experiential world of the psychotic sufferer. Using this framework, Giorgi then goes on to discuss an account of a recovered psychotic, noting the failure of a traditional clinical approach and the strength of his phenomenologically-inspired perspective for doing justice to the patient's experiential world.

Having touted the virtues of this collection, not all of the articles present equally cogent positions -- for example, J. Melvin Woody's 'The Unconscious as a Hermeneutic Myth: A Defense of the Imagination.' Woody's aim is to undermine the Freudian concept of the unconscious by arguing that consciousness, on the psychoanalytic account is a discursive notion, and thus all non-discursive thought (and imagination par excellence) is relegated to the fictional realm of unconscious thought.  Interesting as this claim may be, there is a wealth of material in Freud that rebuts this picture in a number of directions.  Not only, as Jacques Lacan was to insist upon, is the relation between discourse and subjectivity fairly complex in Freud's work, but the unconscious is not simply that which is not symbolised.  As the realm of drives, the unconscious could never be described as the imagination -- at least without a substantial redefinition of the term, which would defeat Woody's argument.

Aside from this point, the only weakness of the collection otherwise is in the articles that do not deal with imagination at all, or only in a cursory manner. Richard Kearney's 'Narrative and the Ethics of Remembrance' and Jennifer Hansen's 'The Impossibility of Female Mourning' are interesting pieces in and of themselves, but do little to enrich the discussion.  In fact, both Kearney's meditation on memory and ethics and Hansen's critique of Kristeva's Black Sun could have profited by dealing with the topic question.  Such an attention would have broadened Kearney's Derridean approach to memory by including the question of imaginary fabrication of memory, and not just fabrication -- that is, fictional writing -- as a wellspring of the imperative to remember.  Likewise, Hansen's already substantial point about Kristeva's lingering psychoanalytically-inspired misogyny could be further advanced by dealing with the Lacanian concept of the Imaginary and its role in Kristeva's thought.

It is a shame that there are not more collections that draw together such a diversity of opinions on such ambiguous topics in such a spirit.  In the sea of often poorly conceived academic publications, they would be welcome.


© 2003 Jonathan Roffe


Jonathan Roffe is the Convenor of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy, and the co-editor of the forthcoming Understanding Derrida (Continuum, 2004).


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