10 Aug

Feeding our imagination: Reflections on the media diet

Posted By Politybooks

shaniWe tend to think of imagination as something private, a personal creative faculty of the mind that is unique to us.

But our capacity to imagine isn’t produced as some kind of spontaneous generation. Imagination must be nourished, as Luc Boltanski says.

Who feeds our imagination in the modern age? We might not always like to admit it, but the media are one of the central ‘feeders’ of our imagination: how we imagine ourselves and others, how we think and feel about the world we live in, and about the lives we could have, or could have had.

So I feel it is important that we look closely at the media diet that is feeding our imagination – which is what my book is about.

This diet is comprised of the images, stories, accounts and voices that we encounter daily, on television and the internet, in advertisements, and in newspapers. These media representations invite us to travel to distant contexts, to ‘meet’ strangers and become their friends, their intimates. They produce what David Harvey calls ‘cartographic knowledges’ – particular maps of the world, certain understandings of what the world is. The images and stories in the media invite us also to explore our selves, to shape our life narratives, and to contemplate possible other lives than our own.

I look at these issues by exploring five central sites of imagination that the media feed – although not always with the most varied and nutritious diet!

Imagining others – looks at how media representations call us on to relate to distant others. I use the example of depictions of victims of natural disasters, and reflect on some of the transformations that have taken place since the 18th century in the way images of distant suffering call on viewers to relate to far-away sufferers.

Imagining ourselves – focuses on the nation as a symbolic construct that remains central and important for how we are invited to think about our belongings in a global world. I use examples of representations of national conflicts to tease out this site of imagining and to discuss its tensions, between identification with our national community and distancing and even estrangement from it.

Imagining possible lives – looks at how the daily appearances of migrants on our television and computer (internet) screens fall into binary opposition of ‘dreams’ (the fantasy of pursuing life in another country) and ‘nightmares’ (the horror the host country and/or the migrants face). But alongside these crude ‘scripts’ about the possible lives global migration produces, there are some other kinds of stories and images that refuse clear conclusion or classification; they provide an incomplete and more ambivalent interpretation of the experience and consequences of pursuing other lives in this global age.

Imagining the world – examines how the world itself is a social imaginary that media images and narratives construct. I focus on New Year celebrations – a media event that is broadcast repeatedly (every year) on the main international and national news channels. The world is presented as a homogenous space of sameness, but also as a competitive space marked by sharp distinctions. Against the formulaic broadcast news reports I look at some alternative cartographic imaginations of the world: an amateur YouTube clip of New Year celebrations in a village in West Africa, the Chinese CCTV broadcast of its national New Year, and a blog written by an activist in Gaza published by Al Jazeera.

Imagining the self – examines how the self has become the principal prism through which the other, the nation, possible lives, and the world are explained and imagined. The story of the individual, often in psychological language, provides a rich and productive form to imagine things outside the self. At the same time, it is dangerous and counterproductive to knowing and understanding: rather than opening up to the other and to the world outside us, and to contemplating alternative lives to the ones we lead, the focus in the media on the individual self fosters an inward, self-centred view.

Media Representation and the Global Imagination speaks to the media and to us, their consumers: let’s be more imaginative about how and what we would like to feed our imagination with.  

Shani Orgad is senior lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science.