Imaging Ourselves to Death

An Image Based Culture Might Mean the End of Imagination

If you’re like me and ever look at the constellation figures dreamed up by the ancients, you’ll wonder how on earth those people thought of those intricate designs in the sky. What were they going off? Or observe the cathedrals and mosques and try to comprehend how a person could have the kind of mind to build such extravagance. The answer is actually simple. They had profound, rich, and wonderful imaginations. These people had no access to the photograph or the iPhone screen and couldn’t envision the world through the eyes of Google Earth, and yet they imagined whole worlds on their own, producing legacies of beauty and culture we continue to marvel at today. All because the imagination was valued and developed.

As a kid, I wrote a lot of fictional short stories, had little access to television, and was never too attracted to the computer screen (except to play some choice video games, of course!). I got bored sometimes and didn’t feel the impulse to check my phone for text and news alerts. I read book after book and wrote story after story. Friends came over to play and I watched movies beginning to end without scrolling through Facebook. I was in junior high when Snapchat and Instagram arrived on the scene and went through puberty at a time when kids stumble into pornography at the average age of eleven. Years later, I own an iPhone, struggle to stay off social media for more than a day and find it difficult to concentrate on a given task for more than thirty minutes. Why? I submit that many of us, this fledgling generation especially, is living under the tyranny of the image.

Images are powerful. We all know this from experience. Political ads, news outlets, and graffiti art all capitalize on the ability of an image to enthrall, disgust, and hypnotize the human mind. So what happens when one lives in a culture dominated by the image? What happens when mediated images are literally everywhere, manufactured, moving, sending messages to the viewer all hours of the day? It’s impossible to briefly underscore all the effects of digital media and the attending proliferation of the image, but one thing is clear: more images does not mean more imagination. In fact, it may mean exactly the opposite. 

Images, while not inherently bad (imagination needs an image after all!), can be manipulated in a way that they cultivate emotional, pleasurable reactions without bearing any substance or meaning. This is true of social media, which has been designed to capitalize on the reward center of the brain through its notifications template and profile feed, and it’s certainly true of pornography, where the pleasurable effect the content has on the viewer is all that matters. The late Sir Roger Scruton summed this up well in his Oxford Classic Beauty, explaining how art, born of imagination, is all about learning to appreciate something for its own sake, while entertainment (based on what he calls fantasy) is not interested in the meaning of the content but the emotional effect it takes on those watching (or reading) it. So images, when separated from the concerns of critical thinking, beauty, and meaning, become just an avenue for self-indulgence and ultimately, addiction. We can become so saturated in this image-based culture that we become addicts to the many digital outlets of our day, social media and pornography being the ones mentioned here.

Imagination calls for paying attention, not to just receive a pleasurable feedback, but to envision what is in front of us, both visible and invisible, and return with a sense of renewed meaning of the world and human relations. This has its own and superior pleasures, because it is the pleasure of love—seeing and delighting in the other for what it is, not what it can give us. Love requires we look beyond ourselves into something greater, putting the self into a narrative grander than personal feeling and desire. When we pay attention, imagine, and have vision, we may find that we’re becoming more and more like those Jesus spoke of who “lose their life for My sake and thus find it” (paraphrase of Matthew 10:39). Far from draining us of life and purpose, this kind of attention offers identity and meaning. But we need the imagination to get there.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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