To understand the imaginary is to understand the way that a person might identify with an image, such as the image they see when they look in a mirror or when they watch a video of themselves. When a person sees this mirror/video image, they might think or say, “That’s me.” However, the image is not them, the image is not their physical body, nor their mind; it is a representation the person’s mind-body, which is not the same thing.
Another way to think of the imaginary is the way we imagine ourselves and others to be. Our imaginary-self is ourselves as we would like it to be experienced and/or perceived by the self and the other.
Generally speaking, I feel confident in saying that people want to be seen in a consistent way, and they also want to see others in a consistent way. When someone is constant, we can predict them better, can intuit what they think, or how they will react to something. Our ability to predict how we will react to X, or how others will react to X, is often signified by the term “understanding,” when we get a good grip on a person’s imaginary self we think we understand the, or when they get a handle on our imaginary self they think they understand us.
Likewise, when someone we know does something that does not comply with the heretofore “understood” imaginary version of the self, we get kinda irritated.
You see this all the time when someone does something that we feel contradicts something in the imaginary consistent way we think they are, and we accuse them of being inconsistent. We respond to their inconsistency by trying to bring them back into alignment with the imaginary consistent version of themselves we believe we know and understand. We do this by saying things like,
- But you’ve always said, wanted, thought, loved, etc.…
- No! The other day you said…
Likewise, again generally speaking, when someone accuses us of being inconsistent, we are likely to become defensive. We say things like,
- No, I’ve always/never wanted, thought, loved, etc.
- I know I said, that, but that’s not what I meant.
This has been a rather long-winded way of trying to claim that the imaginary is an imagined sort of consistency, a consistency we want ourselves and others to have so that we can have a good idea of how other people will (consistently) react to the ways we (consistently) behave.
Some contemporary examples of the imaginary we can point to today are:
- Someone cultivating an “image” on things like social media.
- The construction of identity (identity being a synonym for image) as we see it in identity politics today.
- Telling someone, “I identify as X” is a way of providing them with a convent consistent image they can use as a tool to assume different things about you —“You’re an X, that probably means that Y is important to you, and A is something I should avoid speaking to you about unless I want to piss you off…”
I want to close by saying that this imaginary consistency is not the way we are, nor how other people are. Sure, it is the way we would like things to be, and sometimes things are closer to an imaginary consistency than not, but nothing alive is ever truly 100% consistent.
Consistency is an image, a very appealing image, but it is not real.