Imaginative Horizons: An Essay in Literary-Philosophical Anthropology

Imaginative Horizons: An Essay in Literary-Philosophical Anthropology

by Vincent Crapanzano

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How do people make sense of their experiences? How do they understand possibility? How do they limit possibility? These questions are central to all the human sciences. Here, Vincent Crapanzano offers a powerfully creative new way to think about human experience: the notion of imaginative horizons. For Crapanzano, imaginative horizons are the blurry boundaries…  See more details below


How do people make sense of their experiences? How do they understand possibility? How do they limit possibility? These questions are central to all the human sciences. Here, Vincent Crapanzano offers a powerfully creative new way to think about human experience: the notion of imaginative horizons. For Crapanzano, imaginative horizons are the blurry boundaries that separate the here and now from what lies beyond, in time and space. These horizons, he argues, deeply influence both how we experience our lives and how we interpret those experiences, and here sets himself the task of exploring the roles that creativity and imagination play in our experience of the world.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of American Folklore
Imaginative Horizons models the kind of interdisciplinary study 'we' need (whoever we are). . . . His reader will learn much from the turbulence Vincent Crapanzano stirs up.

— Lee Haring

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
There is a pleasure alone in reading each of Crapanzano's chapters, and his erudite, open-ended, and often purposefully contradictory musings on these topics can well serve as a tonic to anyone interested in ways in which these topics could be fruitfully reframed; those interested in phenomenological, psychoanalytic, hermeneutic, and existential approaches to anthropology will also find Crapanzano's virtuoso readings and critiques rewarding.

— Jon Bialecki

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - Jon Bialecki

"There is a pleasure alone in reading each of Crapanzano's chapters, and his erudite, open-ended, and often purposefully contradictory musings on these topics can well serve as a tonic to anyone interested in ways in which these topics could be fruitfully reframed; those interested in phenomenological, psychoanalytic, hermeneutic, and existential approaches to anthropology will also find Crapanzano's virtuoso readings and critiques rewarding."
Journal of American Folklore - Lee Haring

"Imaginative Horizons models the kind of interdisciplinary study 'we' need (whoever we are). . . . His reader will learn much from the turbulence Vincent Crapanzano stirs up."
Wlad Godzich

“This book makes an important contribution to the contemporary remapping of the faculties. Each chapter reads like a meditative journey in which the reader accompanies a well-trained and generous mind as it grapples with the puzzle of human experience. It will appeal to students and scholars of anthropology, literature, philosophy, cultural studies, and especially to those who are looking for innovation in methodology in these disciplines.”Wlad Godzich, University of California, Santa Cruz

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Imaginative Horizons: an Essay in Literary-Philosophical Anthropology

By Vincent Crapanzano

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 Vincent Crapanzano
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226118746

Chapter One - Imaginative Horizons

That flowing water! That flowing water!

My mind wanders across it.

That broad water! That flowing water!

My mind wanders across it. That old age water!

That flowing water!

My mind wanders across it.

--Navajo Poem
THIS POEM tells of a young Navajo man who looks back across the San Juan river at his homeland, the diné bikéyah. He is overcome with loneliness and homesickness and sings this poem. It begins with a greeting, Ahalaane. The diné bikéyah is the object of his longing. It is, for the Navajo, the center of the universe, the point in space, Momaday tells us, from which all concepts of the cosmos proceed. What is strikingly Navajo is the image of the border-frontier here turned back on itself-as flowing water. The mind wanders across it. The mind wanders across what is in motion. There is no stasis-just movement on movement, flowing on flowing, wandering on wandering.

There has been much written in academic circles in recent years about borders, boundaries and frontiers, on their enforcement, supersession, dissolution, and porosity, on crossings and recrossings, on transmigration, all supposedly affected and effected by the Web-netting, transnationalism, and globalization of our stipulated postmodernity. Though I recognize the importance of geopolitical borders, boundaries, and frontiers, the violence they inspire, the entrapment they produce, the painful displacement they cause, and the inhuman policing they effect, I do not treat them in this book. I will not be concerned with the movement-or nonmovement-of peoples across legally constituted lines or into distinctly qualified domains of culture, language, and polity. Rather, I am interested in frontiers as horizons that extend from the insistent reality of the here and now into that optative space or time-the space-time-of the imaginary. It is this realm that gives us an edge, at times wrenching and painful, at times relieving and pleasurable, on the here and now in all its viscous immediacy. It allows us to escape from the insistent pull of reality, as we are, for example, by odors and tastes, which are not, at least easily, distinguishable from our experience of them. Though being caught up in immediate reality has been associated with primitive cultures and Naturvölker in our altogether questionable ethnocentric mythologies, which stress the primacy of their instinctual life and the sublimation, indeed the etherealization, of our civilized condition, we have all, at one time or another, been so consumed by reality as to lose our bearings, our sense of self and boundary. We assume, quite rightly, I believe, that our defining distance arises from our ability to represent symbolically the world including ourselves. We acknowledge the alienating violence of symbolical inscription-the difference, or as Jacques Derrida would prefer, the différance, inscription demands and perpetuates. (Derrida's neologism is to call attention to the temporal dimension-the deferral-of dfferentiating inscription.) What seems to have escaped attention in this focus on the symbolic is its relationship to imaginative possibility-to hope, to the optative, to moods, like the subjunctive, borne by our grammars. When we reckon with the effects of symbolization and representation, we consider them in terms of desire and have elaborated a crude mechanics of desire which hardly does justice to the range and complexity of human sensibility.

Unlike borders, which can be crossed (unless they are closed) and boundaries, which can be transgressed, frontiers, as I am using the word, cannot be crossed. They mark a change in ontological register. They postulate a beyond that is, by its very nature, unreachable in fact and in representation. My concern is with the role of what lies beyond the horizon, with the possibilities it offers us, with the licit and illicit desires it triggers, the plays of power it suggests, the dread it can cause-the uncertainty, the sense of contingency, of chance-the exaltation, the thrill of the unknown, it can provoke. Imagined, dreamt, projected, calculated, prophesied-so constructed, the beyond always turns on our take on it. Our images, dreams, projections, calculations, and prophecies may give form and substance to the beyond, but, as they do, they destroy it; for, as they construct it, they assure its displacement. And that displacement rattles our assumptions about the reality from which our constructions are made. However foundational, it is not immune to our images of the beyond. I am then particularly concerned with the paradoxical ways in which the irreality of the imaginary impresses the real on reality and the real of reality compels the irreality of the imaginary. These ways cannot be separated. They are in dialectical tension. They are like lovers so entangled in each other that any determination of a singular body-or soul-is almost arbitrary.

Although anthropologists have treated the imagination in one manner or another in much of what they have written, they have done so largely by indirection. In these essays I will look at the imagination through a trope-that of the arrière-pays, the hinterland, and its correlatives: the audelà and the ailleurs, the beyond and the elsewhere. I use the French arrièrepays, ailleurs, and au-delà, not so much to suggest through foreign words an elsewhere beyond-or at least at the outer limit of-our immediate perception and understanding, but to recall the work of the French poet and art critic Yves Bonnefoy, whose little book L'Arrière-pays (1982) is the inspiration for my reflections on an anthropology of the imagination.

L'Arrière-pays evokes in a poetic manner what we can translate only poorly as the hinterland. "Hinterland" is a heavy word, one that connotes backwardness, provinciality, isolation, and may have, as it does in German, disagreeable political connotations. In French, it is lighter, less weighted with political significance, yet suggestive of backwardness. Arrière refers to the back, the rear in the ordinary and military senses of the word. Arrière means "backward" and is used to describe regions as well as people: the retarded, the feebleminded. It also means out-of-date, overdue, in arrears. Pays, country, land, or village, is a rather homey word, evocative of origin and roots, as when the French speak of their "pays"-their village of origin, that of their ancestors. Arrière-pays calls to mind others words, such as arrière-plan, background, and by extension its synonym, fond, as in the background of a painting. It suggests very concretely a land, a place, an intimate one, more primitive, simpler, out-of-date perhaps, which lies elsewhere, ailleurs, beyond where one is and yet intimately related to it. It is in an owing relation, a reciprocal one, with the here-and-now from which it is declared a hinterland.

Bonnefoy takes us on a poetic voyage that can barely be contained even within his Mallarmean prose. It is a personal, romantic voyage through places (Italy, Greece, Rajasthan), through pictures (those of Piero, Poussin, Degas, and Mondrian), through narratives (a long-forgotten children's story), words, and Latin syntax into that hinterland, which resists entry and requires of him, as of every voyager, return. Bonnefoy's relation to the hinterland, which continually points to the irreal in our concrete certainties, appears to me to be one of temptation and seduction. The hinterland is, to use the title of arguably his best poem, dans le leurre du seuil-in the lure, the snare, the delusion even of the threshold (Bonnefoy 1975). He is drawn into irreality, the imaginary, only to discover its disappearance, or its banal concreteness, as it is displaced by his presence, his description, his terrestrial commitment. He often figures what he takes to be the nurturing relationship between the arrière-pays-that oneiric "plain of pride, but also dissatisfaction, hope, credulity, departure, and fever for the ever next"-and the here and now as marriage. He asks whether one only desires the elsewhere where the here is affirmed.

For Bonnefoy, the hinterland evokes those dimensions of experience that lie beyond the immediate perception of an object, a landscape. These include the anxiety he feels at a crossroad: "There, two steps from the path I did not take and from which I am already distanced, yes, it's there that a land of higher essence opens, where I could have gone to live and which I have since then lost." It is a land of pure possibility, of desire, and fear. Though imagined as real, as realistically, as the earth in its full, material presence, to which Bonnefoy claims a special attachment, this other land takes violent possession of him and deprives him of the happiness the earth offers him. "For the more I am convinced that it is a phrase or rather a music-at once sign and substance-the more cruelly I feel that a key among those which allow us to hear it is missing. We are disunited in that unity, and action can neither sustain nor resolve that which presses on our intuition."

This is not the place to pursue Bonnefoy's worry over the status of the word-the poetic word-which he takes to be of the material world. Nor is it the place to ask, as Bonnefoy does, why we cannot dominate what is, like the edge of a terrace. Why we can't exist, "but differently than at the surface of things, at the bend in roads, in randomness." He notes-to our purpose-that some works of art, such as Poussin's Bacchanale à la joueuse de luth, give us an idea of this impossible virtuality. The blue in Poussin's painting, he says, has "the tempestuous immediacy, the nonconceptual clairvoyance that is necessary to our consciousness as a whole."

The beyond is like shadows-the ombres to which Bonnefoy frequently refers: it cannot be contained. It slips away-to appear again just when we have thought, in relief or in despair, that we have finally done away with it.

Bonnefoy insists that the arrière-pays is inaccessible, nonexistent-the way any object of the imagination (as Jean-Paul Sartre [1940] argued in his phenomenological studies of the imagination) is absent, nonexistent, a negation, nonbeing. And yet, as Bonnefoy reminds us, the hinterland can be situated up to a point, that is, if one abandons the laws of contiguity of ordinary geography and the law of the excluded middle. "In other words, the summit has a shadow, which hides it, but this shadow does not cover the entire surface of the earth," he images. Perhaps.

What makes the inaccessibility of the hinterland terrifying is less its inaccessibility than its determining role in our perception of that which we take naively to be accessible: that which we actually perceive, experience, touch, and feel. Imagined-or, better still, imaginable-it remains elusive. As the philosopher Edward Casey notes: "In fact, we do not, strictly speaking, observe what we imagine at all, for we are not in a position to subject imagined objects and events to the kind of scrutinizing that may be directed toward what we perceive" (1976, 7). It is this elusiveness, this determining absence of the accessible, which is terrifying; for that which we perceive is always determined-up to a point, I'm compelled to say-by that absence, that imagined presence. It is more than contingency that frightens us. It is the artifice of factuality, of our empiricism, our realism, to which we blind ourselves-often through absurdist methodologies of truth and naively positivist philosophies. With these we are all familiar.

Oddly, Bonnefoy shares the empiricist 's terror. Despite his fascination with the hinterland, he appears more comfortable in the concrete here-and-now. His ambivalence, however artfully displayed and rhetorically manipulated, runs through his text. He knows the limits of the real as he knows those of the imaginary. He knows their entanglement and the disquiet that that entanglement, its necessity, calls forth. We have, however, to ask whether there is any reason why we should be terrified by the hinterland, by the imaginative possibility it offers and denies, by (the impossibility of ) crossing over? Can we not take pleasure in its irreality, in its possibility, the play it facilitates? Are we culturally and historically bonded to fear and anxiety before imaginative possibility? Before the absence-the nonbeing- that we attribute to the imaginary? Are we victims of a puritanical epistemology of presence? Or are these fears, this anguish, an essential component of the human condition? I do not know. But I can imagine and do indeed know the pleasure that that possibility furnishes, the release, the escape it affords. What troubles me is the banality, the repetitiveness, of our articulations of the hinterland. What solace I take is in its continual displacement: the mastery it refuses.

And I taste at the root of the tongue the unreal of what is real.

--Wallace Stevens, "Holiday in Reality"
BY ACKNOWLEDGING imaginative horizons and the hinterland beyond, I want to offer a critique of certain of the empirical presuppositions of our science. I am not dismissing empiricism per se, nor science, anthropological science, but rather a particular take on empiricism (on reality) that denies or at least ignores an important dimension of human experience-one with which we are all familiar. Though I want to affirm the romantic roots of anthropology, I am not advocating veneration of the irrational, the irreal, the imagination. My aim is much more mundane. Like William James, I want to call attention to that dimension of experience that insofar as it resists articulation, indeed disappears with articulation, has in fact been ignored. In his plea to reinstate "the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life," James noted that "the definite images of traditional psychology form but the very smallest parts of our minds as they actually live." He writes:

The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water. Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would flow. It is just the free water of consciousness that psychologists resolutely overlook. Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows around it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of when it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The significance, the value of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it,-or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh. ( James 1992, 164- 65)
James's rush of metaphors is telling. The halo, the penumbra-I prefer the aura-that surrounds all experience, perception, and understanding can only be evoked. Fuzzy, shadowy, it is a necessary component, I believe, of all thought, perception, and experience. It may be conceived of as a source of creativity, as the Romantics did, and as we find in dreams and the unconscious, but I am reluctant to postulate such creativity, for we know only that horizons appear as an opening up, an edge, a falling out, away, through . . . I cannot find an appropriate preposition. The association of imaginative auras and horizons with creativity, however compelling it may seem to us, is historically constituted and remains, as we must acknowledge anthropologically, hypothetical. We must not forget that it is during the Enlightenment that the idea of the imagination, as we know it, was born.

Like James, the literary critic Jean Starobinski stresses the determining role of the imagination in the perception-the constitution-of reality. "Insinuated into perception itself, mixed with the operations of memory, opening up around us a horizon of the possible, escorting the project, the hope, the fear, speculations-the imagination is much more than a faculty for evoking images which double the world of our direct perceptions: it is a distancing power thanks to which we represent to ourselves distant objects and we distance ourselves from present realities. Hence, the ambiguity that we discover everywhere: the imagination, because it anticipates and previews, serves action, draws before us the configuration of the realizable before it can be realized" (1970, 173-74). Not only does the imaginative consciousness allow us to transcend (dépasser) the immediacy of the present instant in order to grasp a future that is at first indistinct, Starobinski argues, but it enables us to project our "fables" in a direction that does not have to reckon with the "evident universe." It permits fiction, the game, a dream, more or less voluntary error, pure fascination. It lightens our existence by transporting us into the region of the phantasm. In turn it facilitates our "practical domination over the real" or our breaking ties with it. Nothing can, of course, guarantee the success of the anticipatory imagination. It may end up producing only "an empty image of hope" (174).

Bonnefoy's image of the arrière-pays stresses the spatial dimension of the beyond; Starobinski, the temporal. His primary concern is with the literary imagination. Bonnefoy does try to capture the temporality of the beyond through narrative movement and metaphors of the river and the voyage, but ultimately, given our inability to convey time as we describe it, he failed. The aura is chimerical. It is in constant, reflexive tension with the flow of articulate experience. It feeds into that experience as it is fed by it. James, who was less concerned with the reflexive relationship than I am, described it in terms of the uneven pace of consciousness. There are "resting places" and "places of flight." The former are usually occupied by "sensorial imaginations," which can be held in consciousness for an indefinite term without changing, while the latter "are filled with thoughts of relations, static or dynamic, that for the most part obtain between the matters contemplated in the periods of comparative rest." He decries our inability to capture introspectively the "transitive" parts of consciousness. "The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks" ( James 1992, 160).


Excerpted from Imaginative Horizons: an Essay in Literary-Philosophical Anthropology by Vincent Crapanzano Copyright © 2004 by Vincent Crapanzano. Excerpted by permission.
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