3i Power: imagination, identity and interaction

Abstract Composition with Head and Sailing, 1950 (oil on hardboard)

Abstract Composition with Head and Sailing, 1950, Morris, Elizabeth / UCL Art Museum, UK / Bridgeman Images

What is the role of imagination in power? For example, how might the workings of my imagination affect the way that I will behave at a difficult meeting next week in what I say and do?

In addition, if we are talking about imagination what of our identity that fashions our imagination. Take this one-step further, if our imagination affects how we act with other people how will they react with their actions, and the pattern of interactions thereafter.

These were the ideas that I became intrigued with at a workshop I went to last week hosted by Alison Donaldson and John Higgins called ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ (or as I would prefer to call it Speaking one’s truth within power relations). I am not going to discuss the detail of our conversations but I will outline how it made me reflect on my experiences and encouraged me to think how I would react in the future.

Eleven of us met in Brighton, all occupying different aspects of life in university, heads of department, lecturers, professors, some at the fringe. Given our topic it was interesting that we felt that we could not meet at a university, that seemed a step to far (possibly the subject for another blog – the role of location in trust and power).

I became intrigued when one participant explained how they envisaged a meeting that was going to be difficult might turn out. I related to this in a visceral way with a very real situation that I am dealing with now. I spoke of how I was imagining in what way a new working relationship might develop over the next few months. For example, where we might meet, what we might agree to do, how the previous history of what I knew of individual might affect how we might get on.

Conversations like these can only occur in relation to who we are; in other words our identity.  But our identity can be deeply hidden, particularly to ourselves, becoming more noticeable and formative when we come into contact with others and of difference, in this sense the self is social.

The vivid story of another participant made me think of what we reveal to others particularly if we have met them for the first time and they are different from us in some significant way. What we reveal provides an insight as to who we are and what we are not. For example, I have been an academic for about five years now. How I introduce myself to people depends on who they are and how I think they might react to me. I remember the shock some years ago when a former senior director I worked with described me as having ‘become an academic’, this was not a compliment.   The issue of identity is important when it comes to how our internal imagined conversations are mediated. Sometimes this only becomes clear to us though others. The imagination and identity are bound.

This brings me to interaction. These imagined conversations have impact. As we start our conversation, our imagination finds its voice and our words create a reaction. This can for example affirm our thoughts, or we can be discombobulated by a mismatch of expectation and experience. But of course the people we are speaking with have also had thoughts and imagined conversations and will similarly have surprising or affirming reactions.  Our interactions have the potential to create something surprising and novel, developing into new patterns of relationships.


3 thoughts on “3i Power: imagination, identity and interaction

  1. Good point Pete. From what I know about projection and transference it doesn’t quite pay attention to what I was noticing, that of the powerful effect of imagination. I was thinking of adding a discussion about C Wright Mills and his thoughts on sociological imagination but didn’t due to space, perhaps next time.

    • That’s another distinction I think – imagination in the sense of thinking about how we got here and how we can create things in the future…

      So now I have in my mind:
      – That kind of (sociological) imagination.
      – What we imagine other people might be thinking.
      – What we imagine (project) what other people might be feeling.
      – What we imagine another person is like (their identity) based on our past experience (transference).

      Into this you are – rightly, I think – asking questions about how our own sense of (separate) identity and/or our socially constructed identity play into all this.

      And in particular how our own personal sense (or power) of imagination plays into power relations? Is that what you are noticing?

      Great question by the way!

  2. Nicely put Rob. Sounds like an interesting discussion.

    Of course, there are other words to describe this – projection, transference etc and a long history of investigation around them. Mind-reading – where we guess or make assumptions about what others might be thinking of us – is also a common, and perhaps related, phenomenon I think.

    Are these what you are describing, or something different?

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