The Site of Imaginative Contention


Rob Marks is awarded the Inaugural Hannah Arendt Prize from PNCA's MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research.

The MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research Program is pleased to announce that San Francisco writer Rob Marks has won the Hannah Arendt Prize for his essay “The Site of Imaginative Contention” (below), with judges citing his direct, unblinking address of the theme of “The Visible, the Invisible, and the Indivisible.” The prize carries a $2,000 cash award and is funded by the Colville Foundation and Gard Communications. The runner-up is Madeline Avram Blount for her essay on the political asymmetry of visibility and invisibility. Robert Spencer Coldren was awarded third place for his essay “Visibility,” which interrogated the prompt itself.

The competition elicited submissions from applicants hailing from thirty-three countries around the globe, and was determined by a distinguished roster of judges.

Along with Anne-Marie Oliver and Barry Sanders, founding Co-Chairs of the MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research at PNCA, the judges for 2012 included: Keith Gessen, Founding Editor, n+1; Lewis Hyde, Professor of Creative Writing, Kenyon College
; Atta Kim, Photographer
; Geoffrey Mann, Designer and Lecturer in Product Design and Digital Consultant, Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University;
 Sina Najafi, Editor-in-Chief, Cabinet
; and Jacques Rancière, Professor of Philosophy, The University of Paris, St. Denis (Emeritus), and Professor of Philosophy, Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien/EGS.

The Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research is an annual prize competition for those interested in the juncture of art and creative research and in the principles at the heart of the arts and humanities, including sense-based intelligence; the reality of singular, nonrepeatable phenomena; ethical vision; and consilience between inner and outer, nature and reason, thought and experience, subject and object, self and world.

Above, photograph of Hannah Arendt, NYC, 1944. Courtesy of the Estate of Fred Stein (fredstein.com)

The Site of Imaginative Contention

by Rob Marks

In a world inhabited by nanobots, spliced DNA, and virus-sized transistors, the question is not, Does the failure to see these invisible phenomena undermine society’s capacity to interrogate their effects? Instead, it is, Does a global culture steeped in triumphant capitalism fail to subject new technologies to the imagination, and does a culture that embraces the Kantian sublime apply the wrong criteria—aesthetic rather than moral—to the very small?

Recent history is littered with the implausible denial, “[Insert biological, seismological, meteorological, political, or economic event] could not have been predicted.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “black swan” suggests why our analyses overlook potential events and phenomena. The failure to have detected such events or phenomena in the past is taken as proof of their nonexistence, a limit on the universe of future possibility.

If we constantly experience yet deny the limitations of our own analyses, could we marshal prosthetic devices to force ourselves beyond these limitations towards a broadened worldview? I propose a scientific method that is artificially enhanced by the imagination, mimicking the artificially-enhanced vision attained by devices such as electron microscopes. The imagination can achieve what science never does—an unbounded capacity to consider unproven and unprovable conditions and outcomes.

Fantasies of the Microscopic

Three conditions, three fantasies, impede interrogation of the technological realm of the microscopic. First, any new technology offers the possibility of unlimited capacity, thereby transporting us into the realm of science fiction. The superhero, incredibly small, is able to marshal both invisibility and extraordinary access; techno-prostheses transcend the limits of human deficiency.

Second, the world of the tiny expands to impossible magnitude through human intervention. Medication-targeting bots carry not only drugs; they also carry our imaginations into the suddenly enormous world of the microscopic. Immanuel Kant defined the sublime as aesthetic phenomena too enormous to comprehend, inspiring feelings akin to awe. Kant did not consider the cellular world, even though Leeuwenhoek had penetrated it a hundred years earlier. The tiny world becomes immeasurably vast, evoking the sublime, particularly when populated by human proxies. The sublime feeling, however, is an aesthetic judgment, which Kant defines as a response to a phenomenon in which I have no parochial or ethical stake beyond mere contemplation, and lies outside the realm of right and wrong. When I experience the sublime, that feeling of wonder and awe excludes all other judgments.

These two conditions—the science-fiction fantasy of technology, which washes away misgiving, and the sublime feeling, which transports me outside the practical, the political, and the ethical—together undermine the societal capacity to question and evaluate technological advances in the microscopic realm. But it is in the context of the third condition, the strictures of the scientific method that limit the capacity to imagine, where society might intervene. Researchers are legendarily inspired by wonder—by a question—but limited only to what they can prove. Imagination poses the question, maybe even proposes the answer, but silences itself during the discussion that follows.

A Failure of the Imagination

The apparent failure to interrogate the invisible, thus, seems at first a failure of technology itself, then a failure of will, but it is, finally, a failure of imagination. The essential characteristic of the imagination—and by this, I mean cultural imagination as much as any individual’s imaginative machinery—is, by definition, its limitlessness. When we say, “No one could have imagined,” it means simply that we have unnaturally bound our imaginations so that they may not imagine.

Art and literature perform the hard work of imagining both utopia and dystopia. It may be that these imaginings can infiltrate if not the well-fortified domain of the scientific, at least the more permeable realm of the socio-commercio-political, the arena in which technological advances disperse. But we need a more robust intervention to alter the scientific method. Instead of relying on artists and writers alone to critique from the outside, we should demand that the research paradigm itself evolve as the site of imaginative contention. The scientist in collaboration with the entrepreneur and the policymaker ought to incorporate into the research process a logic that attempts to conceive the unimaginable and speculative as well as framing merely the imaginable and demonstrable.

Has the complexity of human systems—which incorporate the global, the technological, the environmental, the cosmic, and the rapidly changing states of visibility and indivisibility— combined with the potency of human activity to instigate enormous and devastating change, reached the point at which empirical methods alone are insufficient? These methods are effective at measuring whether X does Y, but they have never been effective at detecting whether X does not do A to W. Perhaps, in fact, we have reached the point where we must strive toward the impossible task of proving the negative. Further, these methods are limited by both the insensitivity of measurement technologies—too many things fall outside the level of detection—and by the enormity of the interconnected ecosystems—too many things seem to fall outside the sphere of investigation. A better model than the standard scientific method might be the Environmental Impact Study, which seeks to consider the interweaving factors that might disturb a site and its ecosystem. The EIS that I envision would consider not simply the proven or even the provable but also the speculative and the fantastic.

An Imaginative Science

The tools of interrogation require the invisible to display itself and the indivisible to reveal itself as multifarious, as the atom, once invisible, appeared through the lens of the electron microscope and, once conceived as unitary, proved divisible into quantum particles. But it is neither visibility nor integrity that can help us understand these evolving forces. It is the revelation of an untold and ever-present complexity that an imaginative science must narrate, not so that this complexity can be avoided but so that it might be achieved.

Works Cited:

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgement. Edited by Paul Guyer. Translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

About the MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research

The MA in Critical Theory and Creative Research (CT+CR), the first of its kind in the U.S., is an accelerated, 45-credit, seminar-based program (one year + summer intensive) that prepares students for opportunities at the intersection of art, theory, and research. Located in the metropolitan heart of the Pacific Northwest, a center of creative risk-taking and social experimentation, the program combines the study of critical theory as a mode of socio-political critique and creative research as a process-driven form of inquiry, pushing both theory and research in new directions within the context of a 21st-century art school. The program is devoted to people and ideas and to a rethinking of the present and future of cultural production; of arts-based research and research-based arts; of curatorial practice, documentary, and the Archive; and of social and political reconfiguration in relation to major sites of contemporary contestation. See additional information on the MA CT+CR program page. Founding Co-chairs: Anne Marie Oliver and Barry Sanders.

— Posted on 10/15 at 12:56 PM

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