WE looked last week at some of the ways social media literally affects practices of communication and interaction.

All such practices depend on imagination. All imagination is nurtured by learning about others, other people, other things, other cultures. And by learning more about your own, its history, its diversity. Imagination grows through such learning. So here’s the question: when did the imagination itself become a target for the controlling powers?

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (otherwise known as the 9/11 Commission) report was initiated in November 2002 to gather a comprehensive account of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, the extent or failure of US preparedness for the attacks and recommendations about improvements to protect against future attacks.

The Commission was created by the US Congress and signed into law by President George W Bush. The final report concluded that the CIA and FBI should have acted more wisely, more aggressively, and had they done so, the attacks might have been prevented. The Commission closed in August 2004, its website archived.

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In the book a little history (2013) by Ammiel Alcalay (b.1956), there is this quotation from the 9/11 Commission report: “We believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination; policy; capabilities; and management.”

Section 11.1 is entitled, “IMAGINATION” and in it this statement is made: “Considering what was not done suggests possible ways to institutionalise imagination … It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinising, even bureaucratising, the exercise of the imagination.”

Alcalay is precise in his exposition of the implications of this: if it was familiar to hear officials of the time using the word “imagination” in particular ways (such as how “we” couldn’t “imagine” terrorists acting like that), the systemic failure lay in the extent of “the restrictions put on ‘imagining’ what our own government might or might not be capable of doing to others and to its own citizens”.

This goes beyond government institutions: “It permeates imagination, erecting restrictive forms of behaviour to short-circuit and curtail the kinds of knowledge that might lead to changes in political and cultural consciousness.”

He goes on: “While conventional wisdom has it that culture and writing are too marginalised to matter, the opposite holds true – it is through poetry that new relations, disruptions and interventions can occur, that assumptions can be challenged and the imagination opened up.”

The National: American poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913 - 1980) at a Poetry Festival held at the Royal Court Theatre, London, UK, July 15th to 20th, 1963. (Photo by Tony Evans/Getty Images).

Drawing from the book The Life of Poetry (1949) by Muriel Rukeyser (above) (1913-80), Alcalay identifies the common practice of exploitation – all human and natural resources are assumed to be for use and consumption. But against this he sets the unacknowledged, infinitely time-resistant, perennially valuable resource that is passed between countries and across generations, the one kind of knowledge that resists the exhaustion of overuse by its most essential nature – poetry itself.

And there Rukeyser is using the word “poetry” both literally and metaphorically, since her point applies to all the other arts as well.

Alcalay notes this: “The actions and inactions of the US and British military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond confront us with what has been, in no uncertain terms, all along, a culture war, a clash of civilisations, not in the sense proposed by American think tanks and journalists, but rather as new motivation for military and cultural preparedness. Events during the Iraq invasion show how things have advanced since Vietnam. No example is more emblematic than the guarding of Baghdad’s Ministry of Petroleum while allowing Iraqi archaeological sites, museums, and libraries, not to mention hospitals, to be looted and destroyed.

“A message was sent: only the West, especially the Americans and the British, on their own terms, are to preserve and define the world’s heritage and health. In Baghdad, about a million books and 10m documents were destroyed in the fires of April 14, 2003, alone. The loss in antiquities and artefacts from that period has yet to be fully catalogued.”

Alcalay describes this in terms that have applied elsewhere and at other times: “The destruction of materials enforcing new (or no) versions of the past, present, and future, becomes its own kind of structural adjustment of a nation’s imaginative possession of its history and culture.”

The note there connecting heritage and health, libraries and hospitals, “a nation’s imaginative possession of its history and culture” is crucial. The means of wellbeing are not to be found in the Ministry of Petroleum but in the interconnected practice of material and immaterial reality.

Ezra Pound, whatever the obscenities of his extremisms, says it most succinctly and accurately in his essay, “The Serious Artist”: “The arts give us a great percentage of the lasting and unassailable data regarding the nature of man, of immaterial man, of man considered as a thinking and sentient creature. They begin where the science of medicine leaves off or rather they overlap that science. The borders of the two arts overcross.”

The control of the imagination put forward in the 9/11 Commission, the enactment of the destruction of a nation’s archive of imagination in history, culture and artefacts in Iraq, the distinction between “material” and “immaterial” humanity (we must insist yet again on the inadequacy of the word “man” to stand for humankind) and the analogies between the sciences of medicine and the work of the arts in both their diagnostic and curative practices, their methods of maintaining wellbeing in a world so militarised towards humanity’s self-destruction – all these considerations lay out the terms of our argument clearly.

Yet there is one essential human component affecting all these things which is still outwith human control: language. And the purpose and virtue of all this is that language and imagination working together allow us the possibility of thinking of others. Fail to do that, and everything ends.

When I left home for the first time, my father said to me, “Well, you know the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong.”

I remember his voice. It sounded like a question but it wasn’t. The words were spoken almost as a sigh but with a sense of command and aspiration and affirmation. It was a way of wishing me well, saying good luck, not knowing what the future might hold but telling me he’d be hoping for the best for me.

Hope creates the future tense. Uncertainty is intrinsic to it.

The National:

This is neither compensation, wishful thinking, nor purposeless indifference. It is an investment and a trust. This is why art can never be merely therapy, or therapy only.

Sometimes it can work as therapy but if such purposive priority prevails the art itself will suffer. And yet, as Joseph Conrad puts it: “Art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe.”

It is redress, in all its forms.

In some places, at certain times, it’s possible to see clearly the evidence that something is wrong. The feeling of injustice, a sense of the need for redress, starts working under the skin, palpitates within the body, often silencing verbal expression but not thought, and imagination, quickening a desire both to find a form of exclamation appropriate to the outrage encountered and to find a longer-lasting articulation of what justice is and must be made to happen, to counter that sense of wrongness.

I remember this vividly from the 1980s in numerous instances, a counterpoint of progressive understanding against reactionary disposition. In The Australian newspaper on September 1, 1981, Shelley Neller reported on the first exhibition of aboriginal art by three artists from the heart of the continent, “Honey ant dreaming of another time and place”.

The show was to run from September 3-6 at Syd’s, in Sydney, a venue set up by Elaine Townsend, with paintings by Nosepeg Tjupurrula (aged 70) who could sing all the subjects of his paintings, and had appeared in film Jeddah and the TV series Whiplash; Mick Namararri (aged 50), who had travelled to Sydney before and judged it “too much city”; and Tutama (aged 70), who was to publish a book Irriti, the Oral Literature, collecting stories crossing hundreds of generations.

The three of them lived 250km north-west of Alice Springs in the Papunya district. Tjupurrula and Tutama did not see a white man until they were in their 40s. It was Tutama’s first visit to Sydney. Flying in, he asked why the plane was upside down, why the stars were “downstairs” and later commented on the “cheeky bugger” elevator doors when they sandwiched him in a city building.

THESE responses were recorded less as colourful examples of a “primitive”

or “unsophisticated” verbal idiom but rather as an indication of an immediacy of presence and perception and an immediately accessible wit whose seeming naivete was complemented and counterpointed by the aesthetic priorities of their paintings.

Billy Marshall-Stoneking, a poet from Papunya travelling with them, said: “I watched Tutama paint the same patch of ground for a year. It was exhilarating and overwhelming how much a person could feel for a piece of earth.”

In 1970, Geoff Bardon, an art teacher at the local school, had introduced them to “white fella painting material” – acrylics. Now they paint on almost any surface. Their work has not been exhibited in Australian cities until now, yet it has already been enthusiastically received in France, Germany, England and New Zealand, and is beginning to receive tremendous attention in New York.

There was a goodness, a value introduced to the white world, a necessary relativisation, enacted, presented. A new imagination at work. I visited the exhibition and speak of it in 2023 with that experience still vivid in my memory. Earlier that same year, in May 1981, an Australian newspaper reported as follows in an article by Andrew Stewart under the headline Aboriginal land rights – Lang’s ‘solution’.

“West Australian mining magnate Mr Lang Hancock believes mixed-race Aborigines should be sterilised and confined to a small area in north-west Australia. They should then die as a race. Hancock’s remarks on Queensland television embarrassed the Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, as he hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. [...] Queensland Premier, Mr Bjielke-Peteren, a close personal friend of Mr Hancock, refused to comment on the remarks.

“More than 500 viewers telephoned Brisbane’s Channel 9, many weeping and hysterical, to complain about the remarks. In the interview Mr Hancock said most of the racial trouble and demands for Aboriginal land rights came from [people of mixed race .

“His solution would be to make their dole and social security cheques receivable only at Karatha, the port for the Hammersley iron ore mines in Western Australia from which Mr Hancock collects royalties of more than S10 million a year. ‘They would gravitate to Karatha to receive their pay cheques,’ Mr Hancock said. ‘And when they had gravitated there I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future. That would solve the problem.’ “The interviewer, Mr John Barton, said later: “Several people who said they were Aboriginals wanted to know Mr Hancock’s whereabouts so they could lynch him.”

There’s a wrongness that is profound, an inhumanity enacted in print, imagined in purpose, that might have been made fact, and in other places, has been. In some locations, at certain times, you know something wrong is being maintained. In the South Africa where Nelson Mandela was locked up, in the Nigeria where Wole Soyinka was held in solitary confinement and later sentenced to death should he return; in the United States of America when slavery and racism prevailed and wherever it continues to prevail – the examples are obvious enough and could be multiplied.

Standing outside these places and times makes seeing the injustice more possible more quickly. But living within them conditions assumptions and narrows expectations. These conditions can kill but they can also create a more determined focus and propel a more intensely maintained strategy of social and political redress.

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And in Scotland?

An uncharted company of poets and writers and artists of all kinds have worked hard to “make visible” expressions of what Conrad called “the highest kind of justice” but their work, and the reasons why it was ever composed, and the force that compelled them to create it, has never been a priority for exposition to the people through mass media.

Most people know next to nothing about them or what makes the best of their work so essential. Why? The assumption of oppression is the prevalence of ignorance or, just as liable, the presumption that no explanation is required.

War is the permanent condition of modernity. When the Second World War ended, it didn’t stop. It froze. It became the Cold War, which was just as real, with casualties, campaigns, disasters and small victories.

And after the suicidal destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, the War on Terror became a conditional continuity that seems to have no ending of any kind in prospect.

But there is an opposition.