For Sartre, in The Psychology of the Imagination, there is a radical distinction to be drawn between the real and the imaginary. The real is the world of perception. It is material existence (later this would be identified as the en soi in Being and Nothingness). The imaginary by contrast is the activity of consciousness (or pour soi). In fact, for Sartre, consciousness is imaginative consciousness. It is an act of surpassing the real toward images which it itself creates for itself. As such, it is a negating act, one that creates a separation between consciousness and the real – and this separation is what he would call ‘freedom’. The result of this separation is of course well documented as ‘anguish’.
This phenomenological distinction is given ontological consideration in BN. Here, however, Sartre is less concerned with delineating the distinction between the real and the imaginary in psychological terms than he is with examining the ontological implications this distinction signals (of course the former study in many ways serves as the foundation for the later work). Nevertheless, in BN, the point remains: human consciousness is a negation of the outside world of objects as it tends toward imaginary possibilities wherein it will create meaning for itself. The problem with this project is that it necessarily fails. It is an insurmountable contradiction. The project of creating meaning by seeking to bring together the imaginary world of possible meaning (which is nothingness) and the world of brute static existence (the en soi) is thwarted by the very nature of each of these modes of being. The one necessarily implies the opposition of and/or by the other. Thus, the pour-soi-en-soi is a project seeking to be its own ens causa sui. In other words, it is a project to be God. (at this point it might be important to note why Sartre was an adamant atheist – the idea of God is itself contradictory). But this project is futile, and as such leads to an impossible destiny of recurrent anguish.
Striking and poignant as this thesis may be, I have been wondering of late whether Sartre missed out on something crucial. It’s not that his analysis itself is faulty. In fact, in many ways I buy it wholesale… but with qualification (so I guess not wholesale :)). His phenomenological approach does seem to fit well with psychological experience. His account of anguish as being rooted in separation is quite convincing. But where I think he may have been a bit off is with making that separation one between the real and the imaginary. Even within his own schema it seems to be a bit sketchy.
For Sartre, much as for Kant in the first edition of CPR, the imagination is the transcendental condition for consciousness. Therefore, one’s consciousness of objects (both material and psychical) is necessarily conditioned by the transcendental imagination. Objects are therefore imbued with value and meaning by imaginative consciousness as it both incorporates them into its schema and then surpasses them towards future possibles. But this binary activity is not one of mimesis (or correspondence), but one of reproduction and production – or if you will, representation and projection). Thus, it seems that it is not the case that imaginary objects are restricted to a world of unreality (as Sartre claims in PI). Rather, imaginary objects of consciousness are the entirety of objects that our transcendental consciousness appropriates. That is, the real is imaginary. It is artificial. It is fabricated. It is the real of images.
This is not merely some pessimistic postmodern missive seeking to bemoan the impact of the world of the image in late-capitalist Western culture. Rather, what I’m trying to work out is the very nature of conscious experience from within a post-phenomenological paradigm, one that both respects the insights of phenomenological inquiry but that also seeks to move beyond the dualisms that it placed forth. The result, I hope, will be to develop a theory of the imagination that eschews both rationalist notions of it as a secondary mediator between the sensible and the rational and Kantian and phenomenological interpretations, which give primacy to the imagination but maintain dualisms between the phenomenal and noumenal and the imaginary and the real, respectively.
What I also hope to maintain, but to flesh out a bit, is the idea that anguish is caused by separation. However, contra Sartre, this anguish does not arise because of a separation between real and imaginary; for all is imaginary. Instead, what I hope to develop is the ways in which anguish is a product of the false idea that there is a distinction between the real and the imaginary. In other words, anguish is the very product of the residue of transcendence. What I mean is that any epistemology that grounds itself within a schema where transcendence (no matter how residual) remains is necessarily destined to anxiety; an anxiety constituted by the illusory hope that some beyond might make itself known or might be known in itself, as it ‘really is’.
Oddly enough, I don’t have any hope in the possible overcoming of such anxiety, particularly for those of us so close in historical proximity to the projects of Modernity. What I do hope is that I can work out some ideas about how to manage this anxiety in fruitful, beneficial directions that can actually serve to aid my community and those within my sphere of influence.
(Side note: is this not a description of the fall?)