The scholar Richard Sennett once wrote, “modern capitalism works by colonizing people’s imagination of what is possible”. If it is the case that our current economic model thrives by creating the conditions that suppress rather than unleash the imagination, and if we recognise that now, more than any other time, we need a mass re-nourishing of the collective imagination, then where might we spot examples of ‘the economics of the imagination’?
If, as I’ve been recently musing, our imaginations need time and space, and much of that time and space is currently being sucked up by smartphones, social media and our online lives, then what happens when people stop, turn these devices off, and deliberately make time to reflect? To explore the answers to this questio, I headed out to The Barn Retreat on the Sharpham Estate, close to where I live, to talk to Tasha Bassingthwaighte who is The Barn’s Manager. I arrived just as participants in one of their week-long retreats were heading indoors for some fine-smelling soup. Tasha and I sat in The Barn’s library, and I started by asking her to explain what happens at The Barn.
“It’s about how the first step to slaying a dragon is for one person to say, probably drunk in a bar somewhere, “I bet it can be done, though”. These are the words of fantasy author Alexandra Rowland, whose novel ‘A Conspiracy of Truths’ was published late last year. The quote captures the essence of an idea, a genre, which she coined, called ‘hopepunk’. Fantasy and sci-fi is a world rich in different genres, but as soon as I read how she described what the term meant to her, I realised she had important things to contribute to our ongoing discussion about imagination, in particular to the question of how our storytelling can help to bring to life in the here and now the kind of future we want to create.
“It is very easy to think of the dystopian ideas. It’s almost lazy. Thinking of the good future is actually really hard because you have to vision something that is qualitatively different. Everyone knows what dystopia looks like. It’s also exciting, in a dramatic way. The reason that all these Hollywood movies and TV series and things are dystopian is that they’re interesting dramatically. We are all attracted to stories of disasters. When we do sessions with the public, even though we’re coming from a point of view of trying to get them to visualise the optimistic side, they still gravitate towards doing dystopian visions, and it takes a real effort to wean people off doing that”.
Functional Imagery Training (FIT) is a counselling technique that we’ve developed over the last twenty years based on our research on desire that started with desire for drugs and junk food and so on, and then moved on to the question of, “How could we create cravings for healthy activities that people say they want to do but never quite feel like doing?” FIT grew out of that, and essentially it means enlisting from clients what it is they want to do, what ideas they’ve got about how to set about it, and then guiding them through their own mental imagery exercises to strengthen their desire.
I did this last year and people seemed to really like it, so hey, why not, let’s do it again this year. Here is my list of all the books I read this year, once again inspired by Shane Parish over at the Farnham Street blog. I post it in the hope that it might act as inspiration to create more time in 2019 for the quiet focus of reading, for the thrill and delight of a good book. Also because it gives you a sense of the kind of stuff I’m coming across in my search for insights on the imagination. And because hopefully you might have a few days off over Christmas and be looking for something to read. So, here we go…
“The imagination needs the whole body and all the senses. Sitting still and having to pay attention and only use some of your senses, it gets kids out of the habit of feeling the world and themselves. That’s a really, really important component in restoring imagination when the kids come to us. That they return to being able to feel themselves and feel the world around them, experience the world around them”.
“We talk about ‘slowliness’, which I’ve used so much now I’ve forgotten it’s not a word. But it’s a beautiful word, and it really encapsulates that idea that actually, if you slow down, that brings in space in all sorts of metaphorical and real ways to give you a chance to notice. I would invite people with their own children to ask the children to think about where an adventure could be had. And to go slowly. To embrace this idea of slowliness with them.
And don’t go with digital. Go simply. Take paper and pencil. What we find continually with our work is that actually if you strip things away, the powerful imaginations that you have are more than enough”.
“I feel like we need to ask more ‘what if’ questions and in more communities. They are being asked now in very rarefied spaces, you know, extreme activist spaces where day to day normal people aren’t really engaged. I don’t think that question has ever been posed to the youth that I work with at Richmond High! Any kind of ‘what if’ questions… We could use a lot more people engaged in creative and productive thinking”.
On a recent visit to the city I headed over to Télescope, a small but rather lovely café in the first Arrondissement, near the Louvre. It is a place which clearly cherishes coffee, and the art of creating it. It has been run for the past 7 years by Nicolas Clerc, who sat down with me in a quiet moment to tell me more about he came to be running a wi-fi-free café. I started by asking him whether the lack of wifi was deliberate? “Yes. Absolutely deliberate, yeah.”