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A Contest Over Social Imagination

This is an excerpt from a book about torture. While I can only hope (and assume) that none of us will ever be victims or perpetrators of torture, I believe this is hugely significant in addressing what I believe is the fundamental question of our existence: What is real?

“Modern torture as practiced in Chile is, therefore, not simply a contest over the visible, physical body; it is better understood as a contest over the social imagination, in which bodies are the battleground…The imagination of a society is the sense of what is real and what is not; it includes a memory of how the society got where it is, a sense of who it is, and its hopes and projects for the future. The social imagination is not a mere representation of something which is real, as a flag represents a putatively “real” nation-state; the imagination of a society is involved when the flag becomes what one will kill and die for. In other words, the social imagination is not a mere image of something more real. The imagination of a society is the condition of possibility for the organization and signification of bodies in a society. The imagination is the drama in which bodies are invested.”

– William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and the Eucharist

What is real? This is a question that alludes and fascinates us; one that has motivated the human quest and drama across all space and time. And Cavanaugh is suggesting that whoever (or whatever) has control over our social imagination wins the right to dictate what is ‘real’.

This begs the question: Who is controlling the social imagination of today? This is a deep and complex question; one that films like The Matrix and Inception explore. Google, Facebook, the major news stations, the NY Times Bestseller list, Twitter Trends: these function as shaping influences over society’s collective politics, culture, community, and spending habits.What about you? Who (or what) is competing for control of your social imagination? What drama or quest are you in invested in? How are you deciding what’s real?

About Samantha Curley

Hi! My name is Samantha Curley. I live in Pasadena, California where I run a non-profit organization called Level Ground (onlevelground.org). I like to ponder, ask questions, and share stories about life, art, and faith.


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