Volume 2, Issue 1 
1st Quarter, 2007

The Ethics of Imagination:
The Space Between Your Ears

Wrye Sententia, Ph.D.

Page 5 of 6

I'm not staying that we need to shuck our humanity, and embrace a high mind in the form of a skin-like planet.  But, with the freedom to imagine, we are invited and even compelled to relate to a different kind of consciousness, which I think can lead to a different and more comprehensive kind of ethics.

This takes us back to the empathy/sympathy issue.  If you, as a reader, sympathize with humanity, then yes it is a horror story because you don't see the possibility for a resonant other.

However, if you empathize with the smart cells, and you're invited to do that too as a reader of Blood Music, then you can imagine the value of a harmonious culture; a global intelligence that’s a viable alternative to overcoming some of those aspects of human culture that are found lacking. 

From the vantage point of the scientist, or the nanotechnologist, rather than trying to dismiss some of the radically or potentially threatening science fiction visions, I invite the scientific community to engage these texts in ways that will benefit from such a radical perspective shifting.

Now, why do I think that this is a sustainable argument?  Because, in the 18th century, it turns out, when the genre of the novel was just beginning, fictional narratives played a key role in the emergence of what was then a new idea: the then new political and legal concept of human rights.

Lynn Hunt is a professor of history at UCLA, and she's argued that the widespread reading of the new genre of novels in 1740s and 1750s was responsible for creating individual experiences and that an inward experience inspired empathy, and made possible these new social and political formations that the French Revolution solidified.

Lynn Hunt explains that rather than reading the dry political tracts of the time by the likes of Diderot [1] and Rousseau [2], people were widely reading these novels that encapsulated, or incarnated their radical, political ideas in fictional form.

It was through a fictional resonance with characters that people came to understand and appreciate that difference of class, did not need to mean difference in rights.  Specifically, Hunt explained that the people reading these identified with protagonists who were very often a poor servant girl, it was sort of the trope in the 18th century that had all these novels about poor servant girls being exploited, and sort of taken advantage of.

But upper-class men, military officers, the upper echelons of the 18th century found themselves strongly identifying with these female servant girl characters because the books were part of a new genre that was experimenting with that kind of empathic identification in characterization.

Even though they had little in common with the characters in these novels, it led in part to the acceptance of the belief, or the belief and then the acceptance, of universal human rights.

It is because science fiction scenarios create narratives rich in imagined possibilities, rich in the imagined consequences that they offer a unique way today for people to relate to new science and to understand some of the sociopolitical issues that could be attended with that.

I should also mention that in the 18th century, the novel, because it was this new narrative form, was considered lowbrow literature.  Science fiction often gets classed as a popular pulp fiction-esque kind of literature.  In the 18th century, the novel was operating in the same way.

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1. Denis Diderot - (October 5, 1713 – July 31, 1784) was a French philosopher and writer. He was a prominent figure in the Enlightenment, and was the editor-in-chief of the famous Encyclopédie. Wikipedia.org February 12, 2007 1:43 pm EST

2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau - 1712 – July 2, 1778) was a Genevan philosopher of the Enlightenment whose political ideas influenced the French Revolution, the development of socialist theory, and the growth of nationalism. Rousseau also made important contributions to music both as a theorist and as a composer. With his Confessions and other writings, he practically invented modern autobiography and encouraged a new focus on the building of subjectivity that would bear fruit in the work of thinkers as diverse as Hegel and Freud. His novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse was one of the best-selling fictional works of the eighteenth century and was important to the development of romanticism. Wikipedia.org February 12, 2007 1:44 pm EST



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