Fact and Image*

“To whom then am I addressed? To the imagination.”

“The jump between fact and the imaginative reality” (William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, p. 3, 70)

It is the task of research to “determine the facts” and it is the task of research writing to articulate those facts in coherent prose paragraphs. But there is no automatic way to get from the fact in the world to the paragraph in an article. The facts do not make themselves known, and they certainly don’t write themselves down. Wittgenstein rightly said that “We make ourselves pictures of the facts.” That is, we have to imagine them.

I worry that this “jump” is being forgotten in academic writing today, certainly within the social sciences. What C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination” has been gradually replaced (as Mills himself complained when he developed the notion) with a kind of unreflective sociological “confidence” or, better, arrogance. (And this of course leads to all kinds of feelings of insecurity in the individual scholar who is trying to write.) It is a faith in (and orthodoxy about) the ability of theory and method to establish an, if you will, “official” relationship between facts and our statements about them.

Although this point is not made explicit, it strikes me as an attempt to make do without imagination. It is an attempt to “address ourselves”, not to the visceral imagination of the reader, but to his or her disembodied intelligence. We think (hope) that we can communicate the facts “as such” to the reader without having to evoke anything as a poetic as imagery in their minds. We forget that our research community is made up of living persons, that it’s not just an impersonal institution that “knows”.

I’m not opposed to facts. I’m as amused (when I’m not horrified) about the factless “truthiness” of pundits and futurists. But, as Leonard Cohen once wrote, a good teacher “puts cartilage between the bony facts”. Elsewhere he declares: “I will not be held like a drunkard under the cold tap of facts. I refuse the universal alibi.” Social inquiry invokes the universal alibi of “those are the facts” too often, I think. We have to address ourselves again to the living imagination of our peers.


*This is repost from my old blog. It came to mind recently when I was reading Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend’s preface to Paul Feyerabend’s Conquest of Abundance. “We need intermediaries,” she quotes Rumi. “A story is like water that you heat for your bath. It takes messages between the fire and your skin.”

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