Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Vanessa Andreotti on imagination and how our dreams are tamed

I recently taught at Schumacher College, and spoke about the work I am doing about imagination.  Afterwards, a few students came up to me and said “you must speak to Vanessa Andreotti“!   She had, earlier that week, Skyped into the class, and presented her thinking about imagination, among other things.  So I tracked her down and got in touch, and we had the following fascinating conversation.  Vanessa is a Professor, and is the Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequalities and Global Change at the University of British Columbia.

She has a particular interest in education for, and about, international development, in global citizenship education, in global justice and in the ethics of internationalization.  I started out by asking her why she thought it was that those students felt I should speak to her, and what her sense is on the current state of health of our imagination in 2018:

“I think they wanted me to talk to you because probably the analysis that they were presented and the frameworks they were presented were a bit different from what they had been presented before.  I work with collectives, that includes scholars, students, but also activists, artists, people in health, all looking at specific questions that relate to the question you’re asking, and in relation to the imagination.

In a nutshell, what we’re looking at is the fact that our senses of self-worth, belonging, enjoyment, purpose, hope and security, are all tied up in a specific structure of being.  Some would say it’s a neural-biological structure.  But it’s definitely not just a structure of thinking, or imagination as we tend to think about it in terms of imaging a future.  It’s deeper than that.

This architecture imposes restrictions on the imagination, and on how we relate, how we act.   It’s like it conditions certain muscles and not others in our being, and unless we have a form of autogenesis or neurogenesis, we won’t be able to break this.  But at the same time in Brazil we have this saying that, “In a situation of a flood, it’s only when the water reaches your bum, that you can actually swim.”  Right?  Before that, if the water is at your ankle, or if it the water is at your knee, you can’t swim.  You can only walk.

We have been talking a lot in the collective about timing, and what it takes for us to lose the satisfaction with the things that have given us pleasure, and comfort, so far.  Not only in material terms but also in the sense of self-worth, belonging, enjoyment.  It’s a sense of entitlements as well, so that we would start to disinvest in the structure that creates this thing.  In many ways it can be compared to an addiction process where we get dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin in certain ways.  And of course there are infinite possibilities of different configurations, but this is the easiest one, the most available one.  And then what would it take for us to choose to be in withdrawal, and to try different things, is part of what we are asking through the questions of the collective.

I interviewed Henry Giroux a while ago.  He talks about the ‘Trump dis-imagination machine’ which I thought was fascinating, the idea of an intentional process designed to pacify and sedate our imaginations.  I notice that on your website you ask “How have our dreams been tamed?”  I wondered what your reflections were on how our dreams and imaginations have been tamed?

In the collective we use the analogy of a house to talk about the basic structure of modernity. Imagine a house with a foundation, a baseline, the floor representing our separation from being entangled with the earth, so we call it separability, our sense of separation.  Then there are two carrying walls.  One carrying wall represents Western humanism and this idea of a singular rationality, and the sense that being can be reduced to knowing.  ‘I think therefore I am’, and all of that.

There’s another carrying wall of the nation state that also conditions how we think about security and belonging.  Then there’s a roof of shareholder capitalism.  A financial capitalism that has a damaged structure in itself and that is leaking in the house and bringing water damage to the walls and to the foundation of the house.

In terms of our dreams being tamed, when we think about global change, we generally either think about fixing the house, or building another house.  So, using the same tools but it’s very difficult to think about not living in a house, or other kinds of houses – like a sweat lodge is in the shape of a womb, and is a house too, but a temporary house.  It just provides temporary shelter.

In that sense our dreams have been tamed by the house itself.  We can only imagine change as long as we keep the same securities, as long as we keep the same sense of entitlement.  We can’t imagine, for example, purpose.  The purpose of life: that house has created the idea that it’s meaning.  We have to find meaning in life.  But, is it?  What life is about? Is life about finding meaning?  Where does this idea come from?  There’s a genealogy to that idea.

But it’s not just a matter of thinking differently.  Because we can think differently.  There are two things.  The two problems are that when we see that house is damaged and that it will run its course, and we’ll need something else, the first response is usually, “Let’s fix it.  Let’s extend it.  Let’s find a way to keep it.”  The second is, “Let’s replace it.”  And the third is, “It doesn’t work.  None of this works.”

The sense that we can imagine something different is that we have to reach that stage where we have lost the satisfaction with what the house – the pleasures, specifically, or the enjoyments and the entitlements – has afforded us.  Trump is helping in that sense.  It is helping us get disillusioned with the house by making it very explicit there’s attempt to fix it, or bring a different, more stable or secure, order in his mind to it.

But with people for example who have worked with Giroux’s ideas, which are related to critical pedagogy, and the historicity of that idea – the location of that idea being in a period of industrial capitalism, not financial capitalism, that’s how it originated in civil rights, struggles for human rights, and in a period of Cold War.  The things that were made possible in that period are not possible right now.

I’m working with people who have worked with these ideas for 30 years, for example now in the US, coming to me and saying, “I’m completely disillusioned” and then feeling that disillusionment as a problem.  I generally say disillusionment is not a problem, it’s a good thing.  It’s disillusion and you don’t want to be believing in an illusion.  How do we see this as a productive moment?

To actually examine the history of this, and the fact that, for example, in the US now we see a lot of people going back to thinking about civil rights movements as a place of inspiration.  But then I generally say, “Okay, when your government was doing this, and if you look at critical race theory, for example, they have analysis of the legal process of school desegregation, for example, that showed that the justification for school desegregation was actually the Cold War.”  The US could not afford to have as part of its image this idea of segregated schools when it was selling an image of democracy and liberty in other countries.

At the same time, it was intervening in Latin America with coups all around, with killings and torture, at the same time that at home it was creating this other narrative.  So critical race theory talks about the fact that the state has been created to protect capital, to protect property.  And there have only been concessions when the interests of capital converged with the interests of the citizenry, and in that case that was a case in point.

Right now, going back to that movement is not going to have the same effect.  It is a generational thing as well, in terms of if what has worked before is not going to work in the current state of things, then what?  Right?  If people feel that the “Then what?” question is a very threatening question, they’re going to go one way.  But if you think that the “Then what?” is an opportunity for us to approach this very differently, then it’s something else.

But in that sense we would have needed an education that prepares us to deal with complexity, with paradoxes, with ambiguity, with uncertainty and with unpredictability, so that we can walk together in this foggy road, together.  And see failure, and disillusionment, as actually productive things rather than being threatened by this.

When Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no alternative”, they were possibly the four most harmful words anybody could bring to these discussions, because the process of knowing there is an alternative, and asking what it might be, is what unlocks all the creativity that we need right now?

It unlocks a curiosity.  In order to unlock the creativity, we need that neurogenesis thing, which is not just about thinking, it’s sensorial.  I’ve been working a lot with indigenous people.  I have a lot of reverence for the gifts and teachings, but without idealisation, I don’t think there is a model there.  Or, there are examples, and they’re examples of practices that we have lost.  Especially practices that remind us of how entangled we are with everything and that dissociate us from the obsession with identity.  So I’m going in that direction with them.

But one of the things that I’ve heard a lot in Brazil, for example, is that we learn first from the gut.  The gut changes the heart, and the thinking follows.  I’ve been trying to follow that insight and understand it in terms of pedagogical implications.  How do we open up a formal education that unlocks creativity outside of this box?  To be very honest with you, it has been, in the experiments we’ve been doing with the collective, embodied experiences that make you get in contact with something that is in excess of knowing.  Something that is unknowable in the articulated sense, but that you can touch, that then helps you change your thinking, rather than the other way around.

Thinking will change that.  Thinking helps get to the point where you understand your choices and the implications you have.  But beyond that, it’s the body that has to do something.  At the same time, I’m very wary of how the New Age movement has gone, which tries to open these things up, but for sometimes reasons that I’ve still located in the house.  It may open up one of the carrying walls, but still keeps the other walls, or starts talking about it in a different way, but doesn’t necessarily sensorially embody it.

Then there are lots of people selling models, and certainties.  Especially for a way of being that sees certainty as the pre-condition for security.  You have a lot of people selling things that are meant to work but at the same time the promises are very overstated, and the problems are really deep, and we don’t get the time…  at some point it becomes a distraction to want these models, and then not have the time to actually see how we are embedded in something very water damaged.  And will go.  Will have to go.  Because then these promises help us reinvest in the same structures.

Let’s go back a bit and talk about having those really good “What if?” questions.  “What if, actually, it worked like this, or we did it like this?”  One of the things I love seeing in some of the Transition groups, for example, that I go to visit, is when they have a really powerful “What if” question and they facilitate that process of inviting people into it, and it leads to all kinds of amazing things.  What for you are the ingredients of a good “What if” or a “Then what” question?

What if it’s something we can’t imagine right now but we can tap with other senses?  Right?  So do we need the houses?  What do the houses prevent us from being?  I believe we need shelter, but it’s temporary shelter.  We don’t need shelter all the time.  We need shelter when it’s really cold, or when it’s really hot, or when basically the weather is affecting our possibility for survival.

What does it mean also not to have that kind of shelter?  What does it mean to be part of this interwoven entanglement with everything without having our defences up all the time?  What if we are much more than we have become, in terms of possibilities for being?  For structures of being?  What if we can relate in ways that we haven’t been able to articulate within the house?  These are the kinds of questions.

I’ve been working with young people in a family here and outside that have been asking, “What am I doing here?”  And saying, “If the house is falling apart and I’m not going to have these enjoyments anymore, then what?”  Some of them are asking this.  Others are saying, “We’re destroying everything.  I don’t want to stay to see it happening.”  Levels of depression, anxiety and self-harm have been on the rise, and the kinds of things that I see are useful I think in this process is number one, metaphorically, or in terms of narratives, pluralising the narratives.  For young people, having more narratives.

One of the conversations I was asking, “What is this pain?  Where do you think this pain comes from that you feel?”  The response was that it was like a phantom limb pain.  I thought that was very insightful, and then asked, “So why do you feel that it’s phantom limb?”  Then the explanation was because people tell us we shouldn’t have it, and it’s there.  And then the teachers, the psychologist and the psychiatrists say, “You should just be functional in the house.  You should just numb yourself to this pain and be functional in the house.”

Then they said, “Then you feel guilty for feeling it when you shouldn’t be feeling it too.”  If you go to the books about self-harm and suicide, you will see that the explanation is there’s a lack of belonging, and people are overwhelmed with information, which is absolutely true in our times.  There’s also lack of self-worth.  So I tested it a little bit and I said, “Is this what you feel you’re feeling?  Lack of belonging or self-worth?”  The response surprised me.

For some of them, it was like, “No.  I actually feel quite connected with everything.  It’s just that everything is being destroyed.  I don’t want to stay.” Right?  Some indigenous cosmologists would say that if we are connected with everything, people are dying in Syria, you are feeling it here.  Right?  And the problem in the fact that we don’t have the words to talk about it, or to understand the implications of this, is actually what’s hurting.

Then I tested this again with young people.  I said, “Does it help to name it as a pain that comes from a connection that isn’t acknowledged?”  They said it helps but it doesn’t help us deal with the pain.  I work with a few indigenous communities and I said, “How would you respond to that?”  They said, this is another problem of the house, that it numbs our senses.  We don’t have five senses, we have 99.  That’s the idea that we can sense and feel much more than we are allowed to within the house.

That the same way, I was told, the same way that we can scale our hearing to hear what is near and what is far, we can scale the sense of the heart in how you sense.  They said that it was very important when you were feeling the collective pain, to scale the heart to the collective level, because an individual heart cannot deal with the collective pain.  We need to do it collectively.

It makes a lot of sense.  This sense of being overwhelmed, not only with information, but also with pain, is to do with our incapacity within the house to scale up the heart, and see ourselves as part of everything.  And not just in one temporality, but in a much longer temporality that spans seven generations, seven generations to come.  If we can’t do that, if it’s just this life, this individual body, that needs to be functional within capitalist modern societies, it becomes a very difficult thing for young people to do when the house is falling apart.  And when they know.

Going back to Henry Giroux’s thing about the dis-imagination machine, when Ben Carson was saying, “Well all the slaves, they came here in pursuit of the Great American dream…  They came here on holiday hoping they might find a good job or they were here…”  When our history is distorted and devalued and abused in that way, how does that affect our ability to imagine something other than the house?

That’s a very, very, very good question.  Again in the collective we talk about this process of hospicing a world that is dying, and assisting with the birth of something new, undefined, and potentially but not necessarily, wiser.  The first thing is we need to sit with the mistakes – the repeated mistakes that we have made, and continuously make – in order to make different mistakes in the future.

We also need to break this idea that it’s going to be set right.  But if we don’t have the stamina to sit with our denials, our foreclosures, and the difficult things, without falling apart internally or without having our relationships fall apart, we can’t even start the process, because we will keep on defending and protecting our own fragility in doing this.  And that’s the fragility that the house creates.

In this process of hospicing and midwifing you need to imagine a Venn diagram.  That there’s hospicing, then there’s midwifing touching it, and there’s an interface action.  In that interface there is a storm, and there’s an eye of the storm right there.  So education, or pedagogy, needs to be at that eye.  If you walk too fast you get caught in the storm.  If you walk too slow you get caught in the storm.  So you need to be with the storm in many ways.

Then we talk about two things that you need to pay attention in relation to hospicing, and two things in relation to helping with the birth.  So in relation to hospicing, there is intellectual accountability, being able to sit with these things but then not being caught in the kind of vortex that that itself creates.  So you need something else.  You need existential surrender.  Outside the fragility that we have been conditioned in.  So intellectual accountability, yes, but you also need to find other ways of being.

Because in this idea of being that is reduced to knowing, if you go deep into all these violences of the past, you get caught in a vortex of guilt and blame and worthlessness and lack of belonging.  That is not useful.  What is useful would be to find another way of being that can help you sit with that.  That’s existential surrender to what is an excess of knowing is necessary, in here.

Then on the other side, for the birth, you need two things that are similar but different.  Instead of intellectual accountability, you need existential accountability, but not as an intellectual choice.  It’s already something that neurologically we were prone to doing if we can find that key.  Then you need also intellectual surrender – the best way I think we can talk about it is allowing the land to dream through you, so allowing the imagination to open to the collective entanglement with things, and not thinking it’s an individual task.  It is something that comes through you.  Indigenous people would say it’s through your ancestors, but the ancestors are not only human, and they are not only those who have come before.  They are also those yet to come, because it’s a cyclical thing.

How do we step back from this obsession and addiction to what the house has conditioned?  To allow ourselves to see our being not just confined to this body?  To see ourselves, the extinction of our being in everything, and that thing being able to dream with us, when you think about us, it’s a one plus one thing.  It’s me and you.

But what I’m talking about, it’s me in you.  Me in this bigger metabolism where I’m just part of something that is born and dies every day, and that is in this continuous cycle of regeneration.  But that right now is probably stuck somewhere, and sick, trying to heal itself.  How do I allow the other kind of cells, like new red blood cells coming from the marrow, and the white blood cells coming to fight the infection, how do I allow that to pass through me, without being afraid of dying, or afraid of pain in this process?

Because it is painful already.  It’s just that the effort that it takes for us to placate the pain is preventing us from doing other things that we can do with pain, in terms of opening up other possibilities.

If you had been elected as the Prime Minister of Canada, or the President of Brazil, or wherever, and you had a run on a platform of ‘Make Canada Imaginative again’ – deciding that there was an intense, acute need at this time to foster imagination through education, in public life, at the community level,  that really the only way forward was going to be to have a national emergency programme of imagination building and valuing and enhancing – I wonder what sort of things you might do in your first 100 days in office?

I think the government of Canada is actually promoting that agenda, but for the agenda of innovation, and the idea of regenerating our economy, but without questioning the premises of exchange value, and the continuity of financial capitalism.  I would probably be working towards a different agenda of opening ourselves up to other possibilities of being.  What would I do at the national level?

I would probably, especially in Canada, talk to some of the others I know in the indigenous communities and say, “That’s our opportunity to invite people into these other practices.” In an ironic way they have it here.  Right?  They have people who still have access to other practices and they have other communities here with access to practices like mindfulness, which are often instrumentalised to some functionality in the capitalist economy too.

But I would get those elders together, and say, “This is our opportunity.  If we have an agenda of neurogenesis and autogenesis, that’s the time when we can invite those who are ready to jump into this unknown, to get as many people as possible to see that there are other possibilities.”  It’s just that we can’t put these possibilities in the box straight away.  We have to live them.  Or start living them before we can start articulating.  I would work with the wealth that is already here.

You talked about education.  I’ve spoken to some people who are working very hard to try and bring more imaginative practice into mainstream school, and some other people who say mainstream school is basically a dis-imagination machine and we need to ‘un-school’ and to find alternatives.  Use the community as the way that we educate.  I wonder for you what would our education system look like if it were most designed to produce a generation of young people who were able to understand the house they’re in, and play a full active role in designing whatever comes next.

It’s interesting.  I work with both.  I work with those who want to transform the current educational system, not because they believe in the agenda – the national agenda of the system – but because they know it’s probably the only place where we have young people forced to be in a place for some time, and that’s a – not a captive audience because they are somewhere else also with their minds – but yeah.

There’s something about that idea that it’s still a commons that we need to fight for, despite other agendas being imposed on it.  I also work with those who have given up the idea of formal schooling and are into something else.  For formal schooling I would say our children have the right to know what’s going on.  And they have the right also to know about communities that have been swimming, right?  So if the waters are rising, we need to learn to swim.  I don’t believe it’s about models.  It’s not going there and seeing how that community can provide a model, but examples.  That includes paradoxes, failures and complexities of every example.

So one of the projects that I have – a research project – is to create case studies of communities and organisations and social initiatives that are doing three of the four criteria that we have that are related to the house.  So communities that are imagining – not imagining, they are setting their horizons of hope, beyond capitalism and socialism.  They are setting their horizons of hope beyond this idea of singular universal rationality.  The third thing is anthropocentric separability – the idea that we’re separate from each other.  The fourth thing is nation states and the idea of – there’s something about relationships too.  There’s this idea of promoting relationships beyond knowledge, identity and understanding.  I don’t remember where exactly it goes.

So the four things are basically the nation state, separability, single rationality and capitalism and socialism.  So we’re working with communities in Latin America – mainly in Latin America – that have identified themselves as doing at least three of these.  Creating stories that can be told to young people to say that, “Look, this has happened in other places, before.  Actually to subsidise the house you are in, right now, that house has a cost that was not paid by the people in the house necessarily.  The house sucked resources from the planet and deposited its waste in the planet as well, and we are reaching the limits of that in the communities that have not been in the house, or have been associated with the house but with a foot outside fighting these effects.”

Young people have the right to know about the struggles and the fights of other communities.  They also have the right to know that there are other practices of being that can provide them with the things that they need right now to be able to survive this.  So maybe even talking metaphorically about neuroscience, in terms of other possibilities of generating dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, so that we can be with each other in a very different way.

With those who are outside already who are promoting alternatives, my engagement has been to figure out an alternative way of engaging with alternatives that is not just a dialectical negation of what you don’t like in the old system.  So generally the process gets caught in this…  There is an analysis, “I don’t like this in the old, I’m going to try and do something that is opposite to that.”  That creates a problem, because it’s like you saying, or me saying, “I’m not going to be like my Mum.”  And in the end you are still caught in that relationship between what you are rejecting and what you are negating, and what you want to become.

There is another way of stepping out of it and saying, “This is actually a dynamic, and what is actually is possible doesn’t depend on this.”  Right?  Yes, we need to sit with that, and we need to sit, but we also need to sit with our own response to it because the response is still caught in the same structure of being.  It is a more difficult process with those who are engaged in alternatives, because there is also a very strong serotonin response about self-worth, that if I get this right, then I’m going to change the world.  Then failure becomes a real problem, and it’s a personal validation problem.

Dealing with critique and dealing with paradoxes, it’s more difficult than even in the formal system.  The idea that education should be about complexities, paradoxes, ambiguity, is actually easier to swallow if you’re still in the system than if you’re trying to create something different.  For that I think I witnessed a teaching from Deborah Friesen once in the Occupy Movement in Ireland.  I was waiting to speak at a square.  They had asked me to talk about global relations and distribution, and she was speaking before me.

What she was saying is that once the system peaks, and you want to walk out, the hope you have for an alternative is still bound by the hot ashes of the old.  You’re still looking for the same sense of security and through the same sense of entitlement that the old has afforded.  But she said that this is not what is going to help.  You need to know that whatever alternative you create from the hot ashes, it’s still going to reproduce the old and fail.  You need to use this failure, that has the seeds of what those who come after you may take, in the fertile soil when these ashes have cooled down.  I thought that was really what is necessary.

How do we go for the seeds – and have the sense that there are hot ashes that need to cool down, to become composted, and then become the fertile soil for those who come after us – rather than look for our own sense of worth and belonging and value in the thing that we’re doing?  That kind of thinking I found, or that kind of sensing actually – it’s not a thinking, it comes from the gut, it’s a visceral thing about us being, that those who come after us are still us.  And my body has a different temporality that spans lifetimes and I take account of that as I’m doing something, and I have more patience to learn from my mistakes.  So that others can make different ones, not the same ones.

I can articulate that carefully and pay attention to the pathway in a very different way so that it’s not for me, it’s for others.  My own process of self-validation doesn’t become the priority here, which is something interesting at the house.  Part of the problem is that separability, this idea of separation of humans from everything else, or us from each other, has created the idea that we don’t have intrinsic value, and therefore we have to prove why we’re alive.  So the sense of worthlessness, and the fear of worthlessness, of pointlessness, of meaninglessness, tends to drive a lot of our efforts.  But if we remove that fear, That’s my ‘if’ question:  if we manage to remove that fear, of pointlessness, worthlessness, and meaninglessness, what would be possible for us to do?


  1. tony buck
    May 10, 2018

    Don Juan stated that in order to arrive at “seeing” one first had to “stop the world.”
    Journey to Ixtlan – Carlos Castenada

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