These past weeks have been suspended in a world of coal, nuclear, and solar imaginaries. It is through these types of non-reality that real and physical worlds come about, an alchemy that transfers thought to Earth. A deeper look at these imaginaries revealed what is necessary to understand in order to understand our current moment, asking us to pay attention to the undulatory currents of history.
The United Kingdom’s preoccupation with and fantasy of coal during the 19th and 20th centuries unfolded through this week’s focus on the coal imaginary. This force moved the whole of a territory into the underbellies of the Earth, simultaneously shaping the politics, art, literature, and other limbs of society. Charles-François Mathis details this elemental history in the UK in his book La civilisation du charbon. In it, he links coal’s magical uses to that of something derived from “the grace of God” (Mathis 97). Such an elemental-religious relationship, bordering on fanaticism, underlines the dangerous features of imaginaries: taking these ideas to the extreme by denying the validity of anything else closes the door to valuable exchanges of knowledge. What follows is a sort of precarity rooted in a lack of perspectives, of forms of energy, or anything rendered unwanted by the imaginary.
During the conversation between Dr. Mathis and Dr. Stepanov, three parts that make up the coal imaginary were juxtaposed: the cult of progress, the culture of coal, and the civilization of coal (being the title of the book). It is here, in relation to progress - a concept that has become of interest to me - that threads of connection began to form in my mind. Progress as cult, which is a beautifully perverse phrasing, erases all that is external to itself. It is a shining star. A silver bullet set to save humanity. The key that will unlock the enigmas of the future. It promises that all desires will be fulfilled through its fictitious beauties. Yet, this progressivist cult is also dangerous, as it devalues history to nothing at all. The past is steeped in archaisms, unable to answer our modern problems, so temporally distant that it is anything but pertinent: this is what progress and progressivism would like us to believe.
This cult holds more. A person is made to obey rules, believing in the ways of our leaders. Through their fictional stories meant to convince, they manufacture inattention at large. In her book, In Catastrophic Times, Isabelle Stengers gives quite an evocative word to describe this type of phenomenon: stupidity. Even if debatable, this word captures the corrosiveness of only looking to those in power, those people who preach progress. They want us to not pay attention.
To Earth’s textures.
To our needs.
To climactic disturbances.
To the world’s problems.
We are thus cultivated by the cult, absorbed into the daydreams of an imaginary.
But this is not to say that I think of imaginaries as solely terrible and useless. Quite the contrary. It has been through imaginaries that we have been able to dream up realities wherein the nonexistent has come into existence. Almost everything has come from some imaginary. Also, in imaginative and dream-like states, we are able to rethink life on this Earth and give hope to existence. Sometimes, it is only through our dreams and fictions that we can come into action, into movement, into living life more response-ably.
We must create and nurture intimate webs of life on this Earth, fixing ourselves on soil. There is a growing need to reengage in our very senses, to land in quilted communities, to recall histories and History. All this, yet not constrained by feverish dreams.