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Imaginaries and Interpretation: Reasons for Caution?

Written by Duncan W. Lievi

 

In “Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity,” Sheila Jasanoff (2015) defines her concept of socio-technical imaginaries. One of the most engaging points, even though very explicit, in the text was the relationship between social structures and knowledge. Jasanoff, referring to one of her earlier works, writes, “society cannot function without knowledge any more than knowledge can exist without appropriate social support” (Jasanoff 2004, 2-3). This interdependence harkens back to some of the points touched upon during our first seminar focused on the meaning and application of ecology between science and society. I remember getting reminded of the concept of ideation during the session. Media studies historian Brian Winston described ideation as the imagination of a new technology to serve a specific purpose. That which is envisioned is pursued in some capacity; often it is done in fantasy, but in other cases, there are real, conscious steps taken to ‘achieve imagination.’

In ”Future Imperfect,” Jasanoff talks about the role of science fiction in shaping technological and scientific advancements, citing examples of Dr. Frankenstein and Nautilus, among others. It is evident that imagination plays a significant role in constructing pathways for innovation, and also for seemingly impossible endeavors. This has urged me to think about the role that imaginaries can play in creative efforts. I also thought of the Agenda Setting Theory in Media Studies. There are, however, some distinctions. Media has a direct influence in shaping public concern and shaping mass ideologies. The same cannot be said for the imaginary. The imaginary is an unproven commodity, one that needs to be put forth into the conscious stream of thought of relevant consumers in order to be exposed and, in turn, potentially gain notoriety. This is indeed an integral role that imagination plays in the expansion of socio-technical visions and their inclusion into the domain of conceivability. However, would it be prudent to discuss all such developments?

During one of our assignments during the Urban Ecologies seminar, our group took up the example of The Hunger Games movie from 2012. The movie is a dystopian science-fiction adventure film that depicts a post-apocalyptic future in which a boy and girl from each of Panem’s (fictional nation in the Hunger Games universe) 12 districts participates in a televised fight to the death until one survivor remains. The example of Hunger Games is relevant to dissect some consequences of imaginaries. One concern that certain viewers of the movie shared was the fact that the race of a certain character did not align with their expectation. The Hunger Games is based on the novel of the same name. Readers make certain assumptions based on their experiences as readers, and their immediate surroundings in everyday life, which often shape their understanding of what a visual adaption of the source material would look like. Novels do not always specify each and every detail that is perceived as obvious in the visual medium, which leaves room for subjective interpretation to drive perception. One particular casting decision that invited some input from fans was that of Rue, who was played by an African-African girl. The book describes Rue as having “dark skin,” and yet comments like “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little innocent blonde girl you picture” were made. While these can be attributed to poor reading comprehension or blatant intolerance, instances like this point to a larger issue. Self-projection into a character is usually an unconscious process; audiences project themselves into a character in order to relate to it. The same can be said for imaginaries, which I posit presents an opportunity to project oneself, and one’s beliefs onto the outcome of the imaginary. ‘What would Rue look like if she was a real person?’ – the intention behind this characterization is to interpret the traits of said character and apply them to one’s personal judgment based on experience in everyday life.

The influence of interpretation becomes greater the further removed from known reality an imaginary is. The other argument that arose during our discussion was the role that imaginaries play in allowing us to prepare a reaction to the prospect of the imaginary becoming reality. From a commercial point-of-view, an imaginary can serve as a barometer to gauge the initial acceptance toward the benefit that is promised. For example, Elon Musk’s ambitious underground transportation project aiming to build a network of tunnels under Los Angeles to alleviate traffic issues provided geo-technical engineers the opportunity to scrutinize the potential impact on the structural integrity of the city (Emerson 2017). In the context of films, “the more people who identity with a character, the more tickets a movie might sell” (Goldberg 2012). It thus becomes a goal to frame the imaginary characters as identifiable.

But in the domain of fiction, when the imaginary is not identifiable, interpretation bridges the gap between the known and vast unknown. It is common to prepare reactions to imaginaries which are presented as fiction. However, it is my belief that this can desensitize us to its moral consequences. In The Hunger Games, repeated presentation of violence rationalizes the use of violence in the dystopian world, urging the viewer to adjust their perception to the parameters of the imaginary.

In conclusion, I believe that while imaginaries present a wide network of possibilities, many of which can be productive, there are often unforeseen or unintended consequences during the process of communicating an imaginary to an audience. It stands to reason that imaginaries must be viewed within the framework of known reality, and analyzed through reality.

References

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2015. “Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity.” In Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, 1-33. https://dx.doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226276663.001.0001.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2004. States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.

Goldberg, Stephanie. 2012. “’Hunger Games’ and Hollywood’s racial casting issue.” March 28, 2012. Accessed February 13, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/2012/03/28/showbiz/movies/hunger-games-black-actors/index.html.

Emerson, Sarah. 2017. “We Asked Geotechnical Engineers If Elon Musk’s Crazy Underground Tunnel Dream Is Realistic.” May 5, 2017. Accessed February 13, 2020. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/gvzggw/we-asked-geotechnical-engineers-if-elon-musks-crazy-underground-tunnel-dream-is-realistic.

 

This article is part of the graduate seminar series Urban Ecologies 2020.