Imaginal work, done right, can help ten thousand gorgeous weirdnesses bloom
Let me show you a story. It’s one you’ve seen before, I’m sure, probably more than usual the past few years. Its velocity is less the classic arc—flying high and returning to solid earth—and more of an escape trajectory, spiraling upward and outward. Our current center of gravity—the story feels—has had its time. New equilibriums beckon.
I’ve seen about a hundred versions of this idea, in arenas from web3 to metamodernism to biohacking, and it’s been ramping up in my own lil ecosystem:
and so forth.
The story goes: the old world has outlived itself, we must escape it; and any escape from normal will by definition look weird, and we won’t know from the inside which weirds can break us out and sustain us beyond this normal. We have to try out a lot of them and see what’s viable.
Out of my infinite kindness, I’ll assume a few of you don’t know the etymology of the word weird. Let’s take a minute to let etymonline explain:
All caught up now: weird’s original meaning has to do with fate, destiny, fortune; it has more recently come to mean strange and otherworldly.
Those two meanings are reconvening about now, I’d say: the fate of our world and the destinies of the people closest to us—these hinge on cultivating strangenesses. They hinge on creating anOtherworld.
You won’t find me claiming to know what types of weirdness are needed, or which particular strains of it will become commonplace in the world of 10 or 50 or 200 years from now.
I will however go out on a limb and claim some knowledge of where we can look to find fruitful weirds.1
The historian Jacques Le Goff wrote that
“the imaginal life is central to the human story, and should be central to the writing and teaching of history. The world of imagination nourishes humans and leads them to action.”
The shaping force of the imaginal on history is plainly evident even when lightly scratching the surface.2 It becomes even more evident and vital for those of us who aren’t writing and teaching history, but living and making it.
When our world calls upon imagination, it’s as a servant. Goals are set in advance, and the role of this harnessed imagination is to produce ways to hit those goals. The kingdom of the modern imagination is scribbled whiteboard diagrams in a conference room that smells like takeout food and stale breath.
This is, to say the least, not a dignified way of approaching the force that drives the wheels of human history.
If we want some hope of excavating fruitful weirds and expressing them into the world, we’ll have to do better than that. There has to be a relationship there, not an extractive attitude. The imaginal isn’t a resource to be mined for shiny trinkets, but a beloved friend to share a drink with and strive with.
Of course, it’s one thing to say all this, and I’m sure it sounds fine as you read it—it’s quite another to actually take on that attitude and develop it, live with it, and express it.
Part of my calling is to get more people to take the imaginal seriously, and to develop a strong relationship with it.
There’s a backlog of stuff in the collective unconscious that wants to be expressed,3 and there aren’t enough people going there and expressing what they find. Some folks bring out art, writings, emotional insights, sure; and that’s excellent and necessary and admirable, keep doing that.
But there’s more stuff, stranger stuff waiting in the imaginal realm, wanting to find expressions in the waking world, and we need more people who are able to enact that process, because the imaginal is exactly the root of the kind of weird we need.
We need new ways of being human, woven with meaning, connection, mission, duty, love, and integrity. Those don’t come from intellectually remixing ideas that are already here, or repackaging philosophies from the last century—they can only come from thousands of people connecting deeply with what wants to be expressed through them, and then working cannily to express it, whether that’s through art, or business, or community-building, or some deeply strange set of impulses that even the person expressing them struggles to understand.4 Or maybe they express it through an essay that’s getting a bit too long and earnest. There’s a lot of options, is what I’m saying, it doesn’t just have to be art.
This is what most of my work is aimed at. Right now, I’m mostly getting people to walk up to the unconscious, shake its hand, maybe give it a hug. Invite it to dinner if they’re vibing. As more and more people take small simple steps like these, and continue exploring from there, we’ll build larger networks of people venturing into the deeps together, supporting each other in bringing back ideas that are just weird enough—both strange and fateful—to reshape the world, instead of just retexturing it.
If we want viable futures that aren’t just more of the familiar, the normal, the continuation of what’s known and safe, work like this is a key leverage point. We’re not growing just one cool weird project—but ploughing, fertilizing, and seeding the soil for a thousand cool weird projects to spring up, cross-pollinate, and bear fruit.
Starting on May 1, I’ll be working full time on expressing this ethos more and more fully into reality, thanks to a seed grant being gathered by @_brentbaum on twitter. We’re in the last days of gathering contributions to create more space and more runway for this project to flourish. If my work and words resonate with you, please consider contributing. [details below]
If you like me, but not like, that much, the occasional retweet makes a great stocking stuffer.
We could of course simply not worry at all about the quality or viability of any of the weirds. We could throw everything against the wall and see what sticks (and there definitely has to be an element of that, sure). But I’d contend that we’ll all be better off if we put some effort into the pre-throw-against-the-wall stage, paying attention to the types of things we’re throwing; if we throw ink and gorilla glue, rather than wooden spoons and erasers, so to speak.
Kekulé’s discovery of benzene’s structure, Paul’s on the road to Damascus, Constantine’s vision, Jung’s entire psychological system, Steve Jobs’ core ethos and way of working, Einstein’s gedankenexperiment, Ramanujan’s… everything, The Beatles’ Yesterday, the birth of western philosophy with dream-shamans like Parmenides, Joan of Arc’s visions, the periodic table of elements, on and on and on. —And these are just the most explicit ones. The list expands into absurdity when we remember that groundbreaking ideas are never arrived at through logical concatenation, but through flashes of insight and intuition (which intelligence then double-checks and hones).
I don’t know if you believe in the collective unconscious, but whatever you do believe in—the noosphere, the astral, The Dreamtime, the atmosphere of the times, whatever—there’s stuff there that wants you to bring it out.
There’s something here that rhymes with a prophetic mode; in every set of myths, we find people struggling to understand what the gods (or archetypes or the right hemisphere, whatever you prefer) want them to do, and why the gods would make them do such strange things. There’s a certain amount of faith needed here, a certain amount of surrender to non-linear processes.