Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 6)

How important is it that we share what emerges from our imagination with others -- that we think of imagining as a collective rather than personal/individual process?  

This is such a powerful and important question - one worth devoting much attention to, as you have!


I don’t think we can ignore that it starts with the personal/individual process – this question of the collective imagination, I mean. As individuals, as children, we learn about the world through our imagination. Playing with things, imagining what they can do and then feeling the pushback to learn about the world. As we grow, we use the same mental capacity to create the stories through which we participate in social life and then, ultimately civic life. We assimilate events and build stories that construct our individual identities inside of a larger group. So all the tools and capacities and tricks of the imagination that we employ as individuals are in preparation for both social/civic life and a larger kind of civic imagination. If we aren’t using our imagination fully to somehow close gaps between novel things and events and what we know, the stories we hold and the identities that they sustain, then we atrophy as authentic individuals – we become part of a pack. And if we are not using our imaginations fully to imagine alternate stories, to experiment with those stories, then we also atrophy. We succumb to inertia in a world that is far from inert. Resilience requires being able to imagine and then act on alternate pathways.


Imagining as a collective scales off of the personal/individual process. We know that as a child grows, they begin to participate in a social group of peers through play where the imagination gets shared through language – beginning language and simple stories. As they interact with family, school and then ultimately increasingly larger social groups, the friction between stories of their own – the stories of their embryonic identity - with and without peers - and those of the larger body require some kind of resolution. This resolution is the beginning of participating in a social group and then civic life - public life with a sense of responsibility to the group. The moment one stops using their imagination for that resolution – accepting unaltered the stories and rules of the social context they are entering – is the moment when one loses the faculties needed for a civic imagination as a collective imagining.


In Pragmatic Imagination, we talk about the personal/individual process of imagining as an intra-psychological process that occurs in a short amount of time – from nano-seconds to seconds. The collective imagination is a shared cognitive/psychological/emotional process that is mediated through language or images and over some amount of time.


So when I think about the collective imagination, I think if it in two ways: as a sustaining imagination and as an evocative – propositional - imagination. The sustaining imagination is contained in the stories of a social or civic group – those stories that provide the shared identity and frames through which a group interacts with the world. ‘Images’ of how a group sees itself, the historical events from which it derives this perspective, and even what constitutes viable futures. Just as a child resolves novelty through the imagination, the civic body does as well. This is why ‘history’ is always an interpretation of facts. Biases of a group are a function of this. The fact that a group of people might actually see something – believe they see something – that does not intersect with the actual event, means that they are all working off of similar banked mental images – the stories of collective self. This is why contested geopolitical boundaries are so contested and so emotionally charged. The stories of events rarely overlap. This is also how we have things like the Salem witch trials and mass hysteria of all sorts.


But in addition to a civic imagination that sustains a civic body, there is the civic imagination deployed to either participate in civic life for the betterment of the whole and the potential for a civic imagination that works to evolve the civic – to shape the civic body anew.


If the collective imagination relies on a current of language and images, today, with all the new media we have, and with the way in which it can spread quickly over vast distances, clearly there is a new capacity for engaging people in collective imagining: for finding and building social community, for sustaining stories, for presenting the stories of others in order to hold up a mirror to a situation, cultivating understanding and empathy, and for engaging others in imagining possibilities in order to create authentic and impactful action at many scales from the personal to political. The pervasiveness of media and the ease with which individuals can participate as both creators and consumers has created hyper-performance around stories and images that are the currency of any communal imagination.


You have made great use of J.K. Rowlings quote “We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside of us already. We have the power to imagine better.” Again that seems to imply the individual BUT when it is part of the Harry Potter fan base – a collective group that takes seriously that challenge and call to action – the imagination transforms into real civic engagement – engagement with a sense of responsibility to make the world better – and real civic action. This is pretty spectacular. Your new civic imagination atlas project is a testimony to the scale of this endeavor of using collective imagination for social change. And again, whether it is change to be catalyzed by empathy or by actual projects – a kind of activism of the imagination.


Another thing about media today is how engaging it is because it surrounds us with multiple inputs that challenge the boundary between the real and virtual. To be able to not only hear about something, but to see it, to be in it, virtually, and then to even participate in the story through media intentionally designed for participation (games, args, world building, fan fiction), has heightened the potential for identifying with people, situations and events as stories. The potential in this is that one slips beyond understanding into empathy. This is fascinating. John Dewey spoke of the Moral Imagination as a capacity to imagine oneself in the shoes of another in order to act better. But he also spoke of rehearsing better action. So imagining and then rehearsing, with the intention of this spilling over into real life. The ability to use media today to, not only rehearse, but to be in the situation with all of its texture is an opportunity to super-charge Dewey’s concept. I, myself, am fascinated with empathy. Empathy is a state that does not go away. Sympathy does. Too often the two are confused and little sustained action comes from sympathy.


It may seem like I am digressing but for me, empathy is engagement that transports one into a different place. Beyond understanding as a cognitive intellectual process, it compels you to act as if it were you. Collective imagining that can attain this and then open up possibilities for alternate futures – possibilities either not imagined or not seen as viable before - and then possible action - the how to get there – this is very powerful for shaping desired, not default, futures.


As I talk about this I am reminded that one must also understand how all of this can be used for bad as well as good. The capacity is agnostic. Collective imagining (ISIS’ new caliphate) can be as powerfully bad as it can be good. Understanding how it works is necessary for counteracting as well as acting.


So, yes, imagining as a collective and imagining at scale. The potential is enormous. Which makes me wonder . . .


In Pragmatic Imagination, we talk about how the imagination engages in an entire spectrum of cognitive activity from perception, through reasoning, speculation, experimentation, and free play. This is a spectrum, not different categories, and different locations on the spectrum correspond to different degrees (proportions) of using the imagination for sense-making and sense-breaking.


So if you permit me to riff off this relative to the collective. Although I am not quite clear how yet, I think there is something super interesting in thinking about how the spectrum works on a collective, even civic, level both operationally and cognitively . . . Certainly networks are forging an entirely different set of scaled public spaces of imagination. I think it could be productive to unpack how the civic imagination (let’s stay with that phrase) operates and could operate all along a similar spectrum. We’ve talked about its value for creating understanding (at least) and empathy (at best), for speculating on possibilities around civic action and then carrying them out (that’s the pragmatic part – instrumentalizing the products of the imagination), and for building/widening communities around this social action . . . We know how the imagination functions collectively to perceive/interpret events that come along (often emotionally) but is it used for ‘reasoning’? And on the far side of the spectrum, towards experimenting and playing (without specific goals in mind), how to think about that . . . at scale . . . could we engage a civic collective at scale in imagining a different future? For instance, could we get a nation to imagine an alternate ‘american dream’ in a way that scaffolds ownership and commitment and leads to political action and redesign.


Benedict Anderson used the phrase Imagined Community in 1983 to define nation as a socially constructed community imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a group despite the very real differences, inequalities and exploitations that exist. It is an imagined political community that shares, what he calls, a deep horizontal comradeship. As testimony to this he talks about the willingness of millions of people over the last two centuries ‘to die for such limited imaginings.’ Writing this today on 9/11 2016, it is pretty clear that that statement has become much more true in certain contexts and much less true in others. What would be interesting is to pragmatically construct a process to catalyze the civic imagination of us at the scale of all of us in order to, not only find coherence of nation, but to imagine a nation that holds all of our diversities[1] in a productive culture[2] of cacophonies.


So yes, to answer your question, sharing what emerges from our imaginations with others is invaluable. Finding pragmatic ways to instrumentalize what emerges is even more critical. And imagining collectively for civic purpose (on the good side) and then finding pragmatic ways to set that imagination on the ground running towards a better future at any scale is even more valuable. I want to emphasize the ‘at any scale’ part because small actions, smartly deployed, can have disproportionate impact. BUT, there is a caution in this. And that is that ‘smart’ is critical. Intention and capacity to imagine better is not enough. In a complex world that is constantly changing and hyper-connected, where contingencies override absolute conditions, unintended consequences or even just unforeseen consequences can override intentions. Knowing how to navigate this world is critical for civic action. This is what Design Unbound is about - a kind of manual for how-to-think-about and tools-to-do. Pragmatic Imagination is what we call both parent and child to DesUnbound because without the imagination, it is hard to get beyond incremental change and default futures. But also, it, as a specifically human faculty, is the way we evolve as individuals, as societies and cultures, and as a globally distributed species. At all scales, imagination is, as one of Frank Underwood’s writers, Beau Willimon, says, its own form of courage. In context of the show, he did not mean imagination itself, but the willingness to follow where it leads and act on it. Of course, in his case, we can’t ignore that there was/is some degree of evil involved.


Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).



[1] Diversities is pluralized to indicate many kinds of diversity from physical to cultural to socio-economic to educational to dispositional and so on – a whole host of diversities.

[2] by culture I mean like the culture in a petri dish – the growing of organisms in or on a medium.