How might we imagine something new? How might we even begin?

This question has been on my mind since I read Jonathan Kay’s extraordinary piece on Jang Jin-Sung, a defector from one of the last remaining dictatorships of Orwell’s darkest nightmares: North Korea. Before escaping south, Jang worked as a poet laureate of sorts for the Kim dynasty; that is, he worked in Section 5 (literature), Division 19 (poetry) for the Worker’s Party United Front Department.

Now while it might seem that North Koreans have much more to worry about on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than the fine arts, it’s telling that the Kim leadership not only knows the importance of the arts, but maintains a heavy bureaucratic stranglehold upon them. Case in point: a wrongly chosen metaphor meant to exult the leader might result in years of hard labour in a concentration camp, or possibly death.

Of course, to aspire to a great master would require, at least, access to the master’s work. But North Koreans don’t have that. Their “art”—trust me, I use the word dubiously—is completely divorced from larger conversations, traditions, or generic conventions. (Little wonder they are still writing long epic poems). Yet despite the insularity, such art is incredibly good at achieving its purposes. In fact, from the stories told by Jang, this propaganda-laced “art” is a drug so effective that his initial epiphany that the Kim family was not divine, contrary to what the nation’s best poetry claimed, sent him reeling. 

How do most North Koreans not see past such nonsense? Well, perhaps like all of us, they know what they know and can only imagine within the limits placed upon their imaginations. From the outside we might see these limits as obvious, but within, such an enlightened perspective is a lot more difficult. It’s the same lesson from Plato’s cave, or The Matrix. Their knowledge has been manipulated by forces external to them, and the wings of their imaginations are being pinioned before most even get a decent shot at taking flight.

While North Korea might be that reality most of us suppress into some dark realm of our subconscious, it bears a reminder that even in the most “free” of societies in which we proudly claim membership, the capacity to have our imaginations bound is no less plausible even if its far less possible. While North Korea’s status as the world’s last remaining dictatorship might suggest that Orwell lost the competition for the most accurate twentieth-century dystopian prophecy, Neil Postman’s insight in the preface to his Amusing Ourselves to Death is still valid. To paraphrase Postman: Orwell believed the largest threat to human freedom would come from the external confines of an onerous State authority; however, Huxley (in Brave New World) believed that the biggest threat to the free play of the individual would be an inner failure catalyzed by technology, hedonism, and wealth. Orwell thought we’d be enslaved from without, Huxley thought we’d be enslaved from within. Or to make a Hunger Games analogy, Orwell envisioned the slavery of the twelve districts, Huxley the slavery of the Capitol. Just looking at the rising global world, a world often cast in the image of the West, there’s evidence that Postman’s insights hold: Huxley was right.

It’s for this reason that I’m intrigued to follow some of the work that Alan Jacobs lays out in his (self-described) “oddball rantish thing” about the state of the imagination in the Market Society of our Western world. What’s happening, Jacobs asks, when our artists are increasingly patronized not by wealthy individuals and foundations, but by universities, institutions increasingly cozy with and in service to the behemoth forces of our modern, industrial economies? How have we let our imaginations, increasingly molded by the larger military-industrial complex in which we move, be clipped in flight from the outset? How do we even begin to think something new?

I’ve got a few ideas that are beyond the scope of this blog to lay out, but I’ve also got a growing interest in our ineluctable capacity to be duped, to think small, to conform to normative standards we never set—in short: to chain down our imaginations. Particularly as you engage your imagination in your particular sphere of work, stepping back to look at just what informs your decisions, or possibly limits the scope of what you think is possible to do, say, or even think, is perhaps the first way to start saying, or doing, or thinking something new.