Reflections on the Utility of the Poetic Imagination


“This is one object of war scientifically—or better, artistically—considered” Alfred Thayer Mahan, 21st Century Mahan
“The assumption of some scientific enthusiasts that the study of the humane arts has ceased to be important will not bear examination; the management of men, high and low, is more difficult and more important under the conditions of modern reality that it ever was.” Halford Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality

A few months ago retired ADM John Harvey was a guest on the Midrats podcast (Episode 205) and was asked about whether we were putting too much emphasis on STEM subjects at the expense of the liberal arts. As part of his answer ADM Harvey said: “This is not a job for poets.” (I would encourage you to listen to his entire answer because there is more to it than just this excerpt; question begins at 51:47). That statement stood out for me because I had been thinking about the potential utility of the poetic or aesthetic imagination in the context of the national debate about the value of various college majors. Too often this debate resulted in the STEM subjects being touted as the answer to our problems and literature and the arts reduced to “nice to have” not “need to have” subjects. But I think that we need them more than we realize. One of the challenges is that the utility of the STEM subjects is obvious especially in heavily tech-oriented organizations like the military, whereas literature and the arts don’t have that same obvious utility. I believe there is a utility here, but it is not ready-made for us, rather it is something we are going to have to discover (and that is actually a great opportunity.) Whether it is in the military or other institutions, I do believe that this is indeed “a job for poets.” But in order to demonstrate this we have to identify what the poetic imagination brings to the table and develop methodology for practically applying the poetic imagination.

If the poetic imagination is going to have a practical value, it will have to contribute something distinctive. Novelist Milan Kundera has written about how he likes to build a novel with multiple elements including the narrative, an oneiric component, and what he calls the ‘specifically novelistic essay.’ We don’t usually think of the essay as something that fits within a work of fiction, but in explaining his concept of the ‘specifically novelistic essay’ he also keys in on what the poetic imagination has to offer:

“How does one incorporate an essay into the novel? It is important to have one basic fact in mind: the very essence of reflection changes the minute it is included in the body of a novel. Outside of the novel, one is in the realm of assertions: everyone…philosopher, politician, concierge—is sure of what he says. The novel, however, is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses. Reflection within the novel is hypothetical by its very essence…in other words, instead of claiming to convey some apodictic message, remaining hypothetical, playful, or ironic”

This is what is distinctive about the poetic imagination and it is something that we desperately need. So much of our education and training involves mastering knowledge and skills that we then execute within limited boundaries. That’s fine up to a point, but eventually organizations realize that they need personnel who can do more than just execute. They realize that resilience, innovation, the ability to adapt requires individuals who can think beyond what they were trained to do. To do that you have to have people are skilled in a mode of thinking that is playful, hypothetical, provisional; that seeks out unexpected associations between different ideas, things and experiences; that operates in a realm of the willful suspension of disbelief, not as an end in itself but as a way of thinking differently.

“It is the “playful” process of extension, elaboration, and refinement that gives rise to the options out of which comes the elegance that is the essence of artistic statement. Such playfulness can give an aesthetic dimension to the most pragmatic of actions. It is indeed precisely play and playfulness that are indispensable to the creative process.” Albert Murray, novelist/essayist, retired Air Force officer and WW2 vet, The Blue Devils of Nada

The goal is not to turn people into poets and artists (although that is a worthwhile goal) but to use certain features of how poets and artists think for a practical purposes in other fields. The writing or making process can serve as the means by which you access the poetic imagination with the final product itself having no larger value. But the final product (fiction, object, design etc) may also serve the practical purpose of stimulating imaginative thinking, perhaps in a similar way that paintings and poems in certain forms of Buddhism are used not as ends in themselves but as tools of meditation. It can provide the conditions for discovery and serve as a tool to break free of conventional and conditioned modes of thinking.

How do we develop a practice for doing this and exploring the possibilities? Thinking in terms of the “utility” of the poetic imagination can perhaps seem odd, we generally see artistic and literary activity as ends in themselves rather than as tools for other purposes. Fortunately there are people thinking about these issues and trying to develop methods of applying the poetic imagination towards practical ends. One of them, Julian Bleeker of Near Future Laboratory, came up with “Design Fiction”:

“[Design Fictions] aren’t specifications for making, but they are specifications for imagining. These are prototypes that express possibility more powerfully than either fact or fiction could do if they were each left to their own intellectual and creative provinces. This deliberate blurring of fact and fiction is what we have been calling “design fiction.” Fiction borrowing from fact and thereby rethinking and re-imagining what may be possible.
“Design fiction is a way to speculate seriously. It’s not quite brainstorming, nor is it ideating. It is design that tells stories. It creates material artifacts that force conversations and suspend one’s disbelief in what could be. It’s a way of imagining a different kind of world by outlining the contours, rendering the artifacts as story props, then using them to imagine. The prototyping activates the idea, giving it a few material features and some density, and forcing the refinement that comes from making something.
“It would be useful in the design world to prototype things in a way that help us imagine and wonder, and consider unexpected, perhaps transformative alternatives. Rather than the canonical technical prototype that operates as an engineering proof of feasibility, what about prototypes that are more like props? Material things, off the page and in the hand that help tell a story or start a conversation.”

Sometimes starting the conversation is the most important part. The design fiction prototype has a value not just for the designer but also for others to interact with, think about, and as a practical means of inciting the imagination.

Intel’s resident futurist Brian David Johnson has also been thinking about this and has adapted “Design Fiction” into “Science Fiction Prototyping”:

“SF prototypes are short stories, movies and comics that are created based on real science and technology…What makes SF prototypes different is that they use these fictional creations explicitly as a step or input in the development process…SF prototypes are a kind of game; a thought experiment that imagines what would really happen if…Prototypes are not the thing, they are the story or the fiction about the thing that we hope to build….We then use these fictions to get our minds around what that thing might one day be and we also use it to explain together what we hope to build….SF prototyping, as a kind of fictional prototyping, provides a new lens through which emerging theories can be viewed differently, explored freely and ultimately developed further.”

The key in using and adapting methods like Design Fiction and Science Fiction Prototyping is to keep in mind that what appears to be a final product-a story, video, object-is actually a step in a process, it is not the end. “Prototypes are not the thing, they are the story or the fiction about the thing that we hope to build.” And it is not just about technology or creating products, it is also about generating insights into the human experience, leadership, strategy, institutional innovation, the experience of coming home from war, civil-military relations and more. In fact, it’s probably more important to apply the poetic imagination to these areas than to technology.

Certainly this isn’t this only way to approach this. It leads me to a lot of questions that I don’t yet have answers for. With these ideas in mind can we think of the development and updating of the color-coded war plans in the decades leading up to WW2 as a form of “strategy fiction prototyping”? Can you teach people to tap in to the poetic imagination? How do you create an environment within an organization that is open to this kind of playful, hypothetical thinking? The next step is to go deeper into the poetic or aesthetic imagination and try to develop some of these techniques in a practical way and see whether or not this is indeed a job for poets.