Thinking difference

In July, 2003, the 9/11 commission released its final report. In it, the commission stated “[t]he most important failure was one of imagination.” (Executive Summary, pg 9) Although mentioned in news reports at the time, this statement was subsumed by an understandable desire to identify more concrete and specific failures within government agencies. But despite, or perhaps because of, the abstract quality of imaginative failures, it deserves greater scrutiny and understanding. After all, and argument could easily be made that all problems faced in this age are the result of failures of imagination, be they an inability to think of the unintended consequences associated with changes in scale or an inability to move beyond entrenched modes and models of what and how the world is and could become.

To imagine is to think difference. It necessarily implies a new or other. There are many forms of difference, or of things described as different, but few of them achieve the necessary degree. The late French philosopher Gilles Deleuze is perhaps the leading thinker of difference. One of the tasks he set for himself was to generate an understanding of pure difference or a difference in itself that exists independent of identity. In his thought, identity is not something that exists internally to an object of idea but instead manifests in relation to other objects or ideas. That is to say, my self only manifests in a concrete form relative to local contexts and interactions. Every interaction creates a distinct and different notion of my self. None are more or less true. Nor is the self ever fully defined. These interactive contexts – café versus classroom versus workplace versus bedroom versus etc., however, also do not exist simply as external phenomenon that influence me. They are as much a manifestation of my interaction with them, and therefore created by me and every other person or idea that comes into contact with them. The decision of context versus subject is as local and arbitrary as any other decision.

Moreover, identities are not simply able reducible as in models like genetic trees where two species become combined under a genus. These categories or sets are a product of an observing subject’s decisions and not inherent in the objects or sets themselves. In this way, all sets become equally true and untrue, their significance a matter of their usefulness in how we think about things relative to specific problems or questions rather than in their own right. Any set is simply a normalization or linearization around a certain set of characteristics. It is a form of necessary simplification.

How does this matter? Imagination or the thought of difference exists only in relation to existing norms or sets. What could be is directly related to what is. By assuming established identities as real phenomenon we limit the types of imaginings or differences that are possible. If we essentialize a mode of thought or cast it as concrete reality imagination is similarly limited. Only certain types of difference become possible. This is why the linguistic turn, or postmodernism as it appeared through the latter part of the 20th century, is so important. The criticisms against it, about its tendency towards self-reference and solipsism, its detachment from experiential reality, etc., are perfectly valid within the context of those attempting to manifest particular differences (such as particular critiques of capitalism and globalization), but the postmodern project is a different one. It’s not attempting to manifest any particular imaginary or difference but to open up  possibilities other forms. In this sense, the typical distinction or separation of modernism and postmodernism is unnecessary in its standard form. They exist in different realms but are not necessarily in opposition. The former operates within a particular reality while the latter attempts to map out alternative realities that other could operate within.

Structures and constraints, whether ideologies, paradigms, bureaucracies, norms, etc., always facilitate possible differences and imaginal alternatives. All constraints contain within themselves their transcendence. But this creates its own problems because those structures constrain the range of difference and possibility. The result may end up as a squared dialectic where two forms dominate and limit all other possibility. This is a problem with the capitalism/Marxism relationship and, indeed, with all dialectic forms. They reinforce each other in order to verify themselves and force all other alternatives into their terms. Through their mass they effectively steal energy from alternatives by labeling all potential disagreements as shadow forms of their alternative. So anything that is not an outright endorsement of laissez-faire capitalism becomes latent Marxism just as anything that doesn’t critique capitalism in the appropriate manner becomes apologia.

However, there is an advantage in this. As oppositions become increasingly entrenched as a dialectic, is they become both reified and rarified as either end of a spectrum, their differences become subsumed into each other and, rather than maintaining themselves as different, become the same. They reduce the objects and ideas through which they define themselves to merely each other.

Which brings us back to the failure of imagination. Imagination as difference does not lie only in the divergence from a norm but also in the creation of that norm. If we really want to think difference, if we really want to imagine possibility, and if we really want to generate creative solutions to increasingly complex and complicated problems in the world, the first step is to rethink what the world is and to question the assumed norms around which we act. To make difference we need to think difference. And to imagine is not only to imagine what could be but to imagine what is and might have been.

Coming soon: maybe stuff on dissipative structures, fractals, energy gradients, etc. Also, thought, action, local, global, and why ‘everything is connected’ is meaninglessly flaccid. And, inevitably, events.