The Paris Situationists of the 1968 uprising used the slogan “l’imagination au pouvoir”, giving human imagination a Romantic and emancipatory ring. Historian Yuval Noah Harari (1) is brutally anti-Romantic on imagination, pointedly using terms like ‘gossip’ and ‘fiction’ to describe its manifestations. But he too sees its potential power. Indeed, he makes the case that, both for better and for worse, the imagination holds power already.
For Harari, we humans are a rationalising species rather than a rational one. We developed our distinctive ways of thinking and talking primarily to connect with and influence other people. Understanding the wider world, problem solving, and developing technologies are supported by our language skills. But they take more effort. They don’t come as ‘naturally’.
“In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.
“How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
“Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, and ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths … States are rooted in common national myths …Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths.
“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
“Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. … It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.
“In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. … Once the lawyers had performed all the right rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if the Peugeot company really existed.
“Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. … Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.”
For me, Harari underemphasises the inequalities of power in story-telling that have featured so influentially in achieving widespread belief, or the compliant appearance of belief, in privileged stories. The authorisation of some stories and beliefs has gone hand in hand with the repression and erasure of others. The imagination, as (somewhat reductively) understood here, has been a weapon in a long history of human dominance and submission. Fortunately, it can be a form of resistance too, as the Situationists of fifty years ago declared. Where there is imagination, there is also the possibility of re-imagination, and this possibility offers hope.
(1) Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind London: Vintage, 2011