The above is a familiar command, which immediately conjures up the subject positions involved: the well-meaning parent and the obstinate child. But what does this injunction entail, and how do we follow it?
Does not the fact that the statement is a command already deconstruct it, pointing to the element within it that undoes its own claim? The intention of the phrase is to allow the child to ‘be itself’, to act away from the distractions of modern culture (video games, television, etc.). By issuing this as a command, we see that while we like to think that imagination is something which we must ‘allow’ the child to have, as if it were something that culture limits but which would otherwise naturally flourish, it is in fact something we demand that they have, a commandment that they have to follow.
In terms of commandments, it relates to the difference between ‘Thou shalt not’ and ‘Thou shalt’, which have long been part of discussions of the parent/child relationship in psychoanalysis. For Slavoj Žižek, the prohibitive superego formulated by Freud not only says ‘No!’ but also ‘Enjoy!’, forcing the subject to obey a cultural demand to enjoy itself in the terms prescribed by culture. The point is that the two, ‘do’ and ‘do not’, are not so different. Allowing something and prohibiting it are both productive gestures; they produce a desire to act in relation to the law. And here we have another superego command: whether we say ‘stop daydreaming’ (do not) or ‘use your imagination’ (do), we produce a desire for something, and produce that something at the same time. In short, we command our children to have imagination, and in doing so produce both ‘imagination’ and a desire for it. Imagination is not spontaneous. One has to learn an imagination and how to use it, as in this remarkable Disney-style step-by-step guide to using your imagination, ‘with pictures!’
But what have we produced, as an object of desire, in this strange thing called imagination? What do we want to convince ourselves that our children have when we say that they have ‘a great imagination’? What desire of our own are we locating in our children, and asking them to possess, which we lack?
A previous Everyday Analysis article has shown that the virtual and the real are counterparts of each other. It is the creation of the virtual, which allows a concept of the true reality to exist underneath – and it is this constructed ‘true reality’, allowed to come into being by the supplementary ‘falseness’, that is where ideological values are really imposed. This is part of what is in play here; it is no co-incidence that when we get our children away from the games console, they go off to play imaginary games in which the most banal traditional structures are rehearsed: ‘Mummies and Daddies’ perhaps, or even the exchange-based ‘Post Offices’. It is when we are telling them to be themselves that the figure of the parent is most dangerous, constructing and forming the child’s ideology by telling them that they are being themselves when they are internalizing cultural expectations.
But while imagination functions in this way – as a tool for constructing the unconscious of children – it also has another dimension. There is always something elusive about imagination, something we do not have access to. We use it to make our children ‘be themselves’ – by which we mean the selves we want them to be – but we also paradoxically hold something back from ourselves – and feel alienated from our children’s imaginations, as if they have something we do not have. Their imagination contains their genius, and indeed that is one of the meanings of the word (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘And as imagination bodies forth/ The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/ Turns them to shapes’.) Though we control imagination, we also want to believe that there is an unknown element to it. What do we imagine that imagination is? We can only imagine.
But these are actually two sides of the same coin. We create imagination precisely as something unknown, so that it can appear to be the cause of the way our children are, their great imagination, their genius, that which is truly them; away from us and away from culture. We need to do this precisely in order to hide from the first point, that really we are responsible for the construction of what is ‘truly’ them. Thus the message from our-culture-as-parent to our children is: you must be what I ask you to be, and also something beyond that, which I am able to pretend is the cause of how I asked you to be.