Dreams of Desire 26 (Pictures of the Floating World)

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cakeordeathsite

3.-hokusai[1] The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife-Hokusai 1814 Hokusai’s  ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) woodcut design for the three volume collection of  erotic tales Young Pines from 1814 is the most famous example of shunga (pictures of spring; spring being a euphemism for sex) created by the one of the masters of Japanese art from the Edo period.

Depicting a shell diver being caressed intimately by two octopi, the surrounding text tells of the mutual pleasure experienced by both the woman and the octopi. However when the image was first seen in the West it was without a sufficient understanding of the accompanying text and critics, including Edmond de Goncourt interpreted the design as representing a non consensual act.

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife influenced Felicien Rops, Rodin and Pablo Picasso who painted his own version in 1903, and along with other shuga shaped the perception of the exotically other Far East as…

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Bombs and the B17

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Have We Had Help?

1200px-Color_Photographed_B-17E_in_Flight

Growing up after World War II in the UK, while my counterparts in town used the bomb sites that still existed in cities like London, Coventry and Liverpool as their playground, those of us living in the country had our own version.

In my own case it was the hawthorn hedge in the back garden that borders the road, the barn and the bottom field closest to Barsham church and village. Be patient, I will explain…

Every year during ploughing time I used to follow along behind whoever was ploughing that field looking for treasure whenever the horse-drawn plough got to the slight dip in the field. It was where an American B17 Flying Fortress crashed on its return from a bombing raid in mainland Europe. Despite the bulk of it having been removed during the war, every year without fail pieces of the remaining wreckage would be ploughed up…

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Imagination is ancient Our imaginative life today has access to the pre-linguistic, ancestral mind: rich in imagery, emotions and associations

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From: https://aeon.co/essays/imagination-is-such-an-ancient-ability-it-might-precede-language

Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become. Animators such as Hayao Miyazaki, Walt Disney and the people at Pixar Studios are masterful at imagination, but they’re only creating a public version of our everyday private lives. If you could see the fantastic mash-up inside the mind of the average five-year-old, then Star Wars and Harry Potter would seem sober and dull. So, why is there so little analysis of imagination, by philosophers, psychologists and scientists?

Apart from some cryptic passages in Aristotle and Kant, philosophy has said almost nothing about imagination, and what it says seems thoroughly disconnected from the creativity that artists and laypeople call ‘imaginative’.

Aristotle described the imagination as a faculty in humans (and most other animals) that produces, stores and recalls the images we use in a variety of mental activities. Even our sleep is energised by the dreams of our involuntary imagination. Immanuel Kant saw the imagination as a synthesiser of senses and understanding. Although there are many differences between Aristotle’s and Kant’s philosophies, Kant agreed that the imagination is an unconscious synthesising faculty that pulls together sense perceptions and binds them into coherent representations with universal conceptual dimensions. The imagination is a mental faculty that mediates between the particulars of the senses – say, ‘luminous blue colours’ – and the universals of our conceptual understanding – say, the judgment that ‘Marc Chagall’s blue America Windows (1977) is beautiful.’ Imagination, according to these philosophers, is a kind of cognition, or more accurately a prerequisite ‘bundling process’ prior to cognition. Its work is unconscious and it paves the way for knowledge but is not abstract or linguistic enough to stand as actual knowledge.

This rather mechanical approach to the imagination is echoed in more recent computational and modular theories of the mind, according to which human thinking is packaged by innate processors. The American philosopher Denis Dutton, for example, argued in The Art Instinct (2009) that landscape paintings are popular because they trigger an innate instinctual preference for distant scouting positions in our ancestors, who were evaluating the horizon for threats and resources. That view – dominant in contemporary evolutionary psychology – seems very far away from the artist’s or even the engineer’s view of creative imagination.

It is perhaps unsurprising that philosophers and cognitive theorists have a rather arid view of the imagination, but our everyday ideas about the imagination are not much better. Following the Greeks, we still think of our own creativity as a muse that descends upon us – a kind of spirit possession or miraculous madness that flooded through Vincent van Gogh and John Lennon, but only trickles in you and me. After the great Texas guitar improviser Stevie Ray Vaughan died, Eric Clapton paid tribute by describing him as ‘an open channel … music just flowed through him’.

We’ve romanticised creativity so completely that we’ve ended up with an impenetrable mystery inside our heads. We might not literally believe in muse possession anymore, but we haven’t yet replaced this ‘mysterian’ view with a better one. As the Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs said of the mysterious loss of self that accompanies the making of art: ‘My hand created, led in trance, obscure things … Not seldom, I get into a trance while painting, my state of consciousness fades, giving way to a feeling of being afloat … doing things I do not know much about consciously.’ This mysterious view of imagination is vague and obscure, but at least it captures something about the de-centred psychological state of creativity. Psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have celebrated this aspect of creativity by describing (and recommending) ‘flow’ states, but the idea of ‘flow’ has proven little more than a secular redescription of the mysterian view.

 Evolutionary thought offers a path out of this confusion. In keeping with other evolved aspects of the human mind, the imagination has a history. We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance. In order to understand it, we need to dig into the sedimentary layers of the mind. In The Descent of Man(1871), Charles Darwin says: ‘The Imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty, he unites former images and ideas, indepe, dently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results … Dreaming gives us the best notion of this power; as [the poet] Jean Paul Richter says: “The dream is an involuntary art of poetry.”’

Procession, Zimbabwe, Chinamora, Massimbura 8,000-2,000 BCE. Watercolour by Elisabeth Mannsfeld, 1929, 65 x 202.5 cm © Frobenius-Institut Frankfurt am Main

Richard Klein, Maurice Bloch and other prominent paleoanthropologists place the imagination quite late in the history of our species, thousands of years after the emergence of anatomically modern humans. In part, this theory reflects a bias that artistic faculties are a kind of evolutionary cheesecake – sweet desserts that emerge as byproducts of more serious cognitive adaptations such as language and logic. More importantly, it is premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago). It is common for archaeologists to assume that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work, thinking and creating just as we do today.

Contrary to this interpretation, I want to suggest that imagination, properly understood, is one of the earliest human abilities, not a recent arrival. Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.

Lions on the savanna, for example, learn and make predictions because experience forges strong associations between perception and feeling. Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be. On this view, imagination extends back into the Pleistocene, at least, and likely emerged slowly in our Homo erectus cousins.

When we hear the word ‘cup’, the motor parts of our brain ‘pick up’ a ‘cup’

 In contemporary philosophy, representation tends to be mostly understood in terms of language. A representation is an inner mental entity that has meaning via its correspondence with the external world or via its coherence within a context of other meaningful experiences (that is, other representations, rules, schema and so on). My representation of a ‘dog’ stands in for real flesh-and-blood mammals out in the world. Traditional semantic theories, from empiricism, positivism and even some semiology assumed that the basic element of meaning was the word – ‘dog’ or ‘chien’ or ‘gou’. However, philosophers such as Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon have challenged this model of meaning by showing that there are deep embodied metaphorical structures within the language itself, and meaning is rooted in the body (not the head).

Rather than being based on words, meaning stems from the actions associated with a perception or image. Even when seemingly neutral lexical terms are processed by our brains, we find a deeper simulation system of images. When we hear the word ‘cup’, for example, our neural motor and tactile systems are engaged because we understand language by ‘simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes’, as the cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen puts it in Louder Than Words (2012). When we hear the word ‘cup’, the motor parts of our brain ‘pick up’ a ‘cup’.

This has been important research in how we understand the mind, but to fully understand the imagination we also need to explore the evolutionary period before language (a layer of prelinguistic mind to which I believe we still have access). Like prelinguistic toddlers or even non-human primates, adult humans have an emotive, associational representation of a dog, for example. It might have cute associations that orient us to approach or negative feelings that orient us to avoid. The image of a dog, in perception or in memory will be loaded with feelings and action possibilities. The word ‘dog’, by contrast, is a later, more attenuated and abstract level of representation – neutered of most emotional and motor content.

The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning. Our modern imagination originates in this early era of image meaning, or image semantics. This historical moment (probably initiated during the early Pleistocene, c2 million years ago) is replicated or recapitulated in the processes of our contemporary imaginative activities. It is the power to take the mind offline – decoupled from the immediate flow of perception – and run simulations of counterfactual virtual realities.

 Our improvisational and imaginative life today has an oblique access to the ancestral human mind. Understanding this connection is the aim of a growing research movement – called biosemantics – that seeks to ground human meaning in the embodied interaction of social primates, not just in human language. As great apes, we humans almost certainly engaged in the kind of subtle, antiphonal, body-language communication that we see throughout all social primates. Primate psychologists such as Louise Barrett in Beyond the Brain (2011) are starting to track the interaction networks that build up slowly during development, giving primates the local lexicon of gestures that ultimately serve the bigger functions of dominance and submission, mating, alliance, food sharing, provisioning and so on. But we too operate in these embodied gestural systems of meaning far more than we acknowledge. For a hilarious example of baby communication that is really about emotional expression, turn-taking and bonding, rather than describing the world or conveying information, see this video of ‘talking’ twin babies.

Our primate cousins have impressive abilities (grounded in the cerebellum) for sequencing motor activities – they have a kind of task grammar for doing complex series of actions, such as processing inedible plants into edible food. Gorillas, for example, eat stinging nettles only after an elaborate harvesting and leave-folding sequence, otherwise, their mouths will be lacerated by the many barbs. This is a level of problem-solving that seeks smarter moves (and ‘banks’ successes and failures) between the body and the environment. This kind of motor sequencing might be the first level of improvisational and imaginative grammar. Images and behaviour sequences could be rearranged in the mind via the task grammar, long before language emerged. Only much later did we start thinking with linguistic symbols. While increasingly abstract symbols – such as words – intensified the decoupling of representations and simulations from immediate experience, they created and carried meaning by triggering ancient embodied systems (such as emotions) in the storytellers and story audiences.

The imaginative musician, dancer, athlete or engineer is drawing directly on the prelinguistic reservoir of meaning (sometimes called the ‘hot cognition system’ – a fast, ventral pathway through the brain that gives us emotional and semi-instinctual solutions to problems in our environment). A music improviser or intuitive problem-solver has to tap into that ancient call-and-response cognition of body language and emotional expression in order to navigate the social world properly. We try this move and watch for a response, try that move and watch. We dodge and parry this incoming gesture, except that one. Flying by the seat of our pants, in these cases, is not just some analogy to prelinguistic communication – it is the thing itself.

 Humans can just daydream about a desirable body, and the sexual equipment will begin to ramp up for action

 Call-and-response, for example, is one of the oldest improvisational techniques, as is a synchronisation of our melodies and our body movements (as in dance). These are ancient procedures for cementing communities, captured in performances that express and inspire emotion. At a simple level, humans synchronise their movements to dance in time. At a more complex level, they remember the dance later and experiment with it, reinventing it for themselves. Such simulation techniques allow us to explore open-ended options at the fringes of social and technological rules. Eventually, such socially constrained exploration evolves into more and more offline experimentation, growing into forms of thinking with images, with sounds, with gestures.

The emotionally charged aspect of this kind of offline simulation is obvious when we consider that our animal cousins need chemical triggers and explicit perceptions of a sexually attractive body to become aroused, but humans can just daydream about a desirable body, and the sexual equipment will begin to ramp up for action. First, our ancestors simulated others in real time, replicating dances and tool-making, but then these simulations became available offline (with no real-time model) as memory and executive function developed.

Computational theories of mind – that equate our minds with the binary blaze of a Google search – can jibe with our more recent linguistic thinking, but not with our earlier imaginative cognition. Image-based thinking employs gestalts of information-rich detail, and emotional and motor associations. We encode and manipulate images and gestures, thereby forming the basis of subsequent meaning. As Eric Kandel puts it in The Age of Insight (2012):

Perhaps in human evolution the ability to express ourselves in art – in pictorial language – preceded the ability to express ourselves in spoken language. As a corollary, perhaps the processes in the brain that are important for art were once universal but were replaced as the universal capability for language evolved.

I believe that the pictorial and gestural languages are still with us, and when we quiet our discursive consciousness long enough – as we do in improvisational and creative activities – we can still converse in these more ancient tongues.

A rare case from the medical literature gives us suggestive evidence that pictorial thinking has its own power independent of language. In a striking case study, in 1998 the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey at the University of Cambridge revealed the remarkable similarities between cave painting styles at Chauvet and the drawings of a 20th-century autistic girl named Nadia. Nadia’s case raises the possibility that painting and drawing, far from being the preserve of the fully modern mind, might have preceded language altogether.

Nadia was born in 1967 in Nottingham in England and suffered from a severe developmental disability. At age six, she still could not speak, had physical impairments, and many social incapacities. But even with these substantial deficits, Nadia could draw pictures with great accuracy and expression as early as age three. Humphrey placed Nadia’s toddler drawings next to the images from Chauvet and noticed striking similarities in the rendering of animals such as horses and elephants.

 It is possible that Homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago were graphically literate before they were verbally literate

 The contour lines of the creatures are remarkably similar, as are their dynamic poses, but also the way in which the figures are reiterated and overlaid on top of each other. This parallel is not mystical or a sign of innate representations, but rather an indication that the human mind is primed for accurate simulations. And graphic simulation – just as much as linguistic description – is a kind of knowledge.

We cannot place too much confidence in anecdotal data, but Nadia’s case should at least provoke some scepticism about the notion that Upper Paleolithic peoples had modern minds. If Nadia was so good with pictorial representation, while lacking the foundation of linguistic symbolism, then it is possible that Homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago were graphically literate before they were verbally literate. An even stronger interpretation is that Nadia was pictorially sophisticated because she had little to no conceptual/linguistic distraction in her mind. Without the alienating aspects of linguistic symbols, Nadia might have been more perceptually sensitive – leading to greater accuracy and expression in her drawing.

Nadia made meaning very effectively without propositional tools. Our recent ancestors could also have had impressive non-linguistic minds – perhaps always in imagination mode. Image-thinking could have had a complementary evolutionary pathway, alongside language, or could have evolved earlier from natural selection upon tool-making capacities and adornment techniques.

 The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge. The fantasy that really moves us – whether it is high or low culture – tends to resonate with our ancient fears and hopes. The associational mind of hot cognition – located more in the limbic system – acts as a reservoir for imaginative artists. Artists such as Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and HR Giger can take controlled voyages to their primitive brain (an uncontrolled voyage is a madness), and then bring these unconscious forces into their subsequent images or stories.

Archer, Republic of South Africa, Korf Hoeks Farm, 8,000-2,000 BCE. Watercolour by Maria Weyersberg, Courtesy Frobenius-Institut Frankfurt am Main

 The imagination is proficient at image associations, but it’s also extremely adept at mixed-media associations. Thinking and communicating with images requires access to inner representations, but the artist is shuffling these images into unnatural and unexpected combinations. Our very ancient cognitive abilities to free-associate become interwoven with more sophisticated aspects of cognition, such as executive function and the ability to mix or violate taxonomic categories – hybridising images. When we imagine, we blend pictures and propositions, memories and real-time experiences, sounds, stories and feelings. It is a multimedia processor that jumps laterally through connotations, rather than downward through logical inference. Much of this is unconscious, which is why the muse simile is so powerful, but this phase is followed by a reentry phase, where the free associations or stream of consciousness are brought back under executive control, and integrated into the more focused projects of the agent or artist.

 Hominin waking life might have been closer to the free associations of our contemporary dream life

 The mysterious have focused on this egoless stream-phase of imagination, while the mechanisms have focused on the combinatorial results, produced in the dark machinery of imagination. Each model captures an aspect of imagination, but when we consider the evolution of mind we see how the two models are integrated into the activity of our embodied cognition.

In the earliest phase of this evolutionary process (probably during the Pliocene epoch) we had a kind of involuntary imagination. At this time, hominin waking life might have been closer to the free associations of our contemporary dream life. Our ancestors could obviously perceive a lion on the savanna, but random memory images of lions might also rise up unpredictably while engaged in daily work. Next, during the Pleistocene, a semi-voluntary imagination arose, like we find in real-time hot cognition (still accessible in our contemporary improvisational creativity). We can imagine, for example, how ritualised behaviours guided by shamans would have brought imaginary beings (some based on lions) into consciousness through habitual actions and gestures.

And finally (from Upper Paleolithic through Holocene epochs), the voluntary imagination emerges, which harvests associational products from the first two phases and brings them under the executive control of cold cognition (slow, logical deliberation). For example, the cave paintings ‘lion man’ at Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany and ‘bison-man’ in the Grotte de Gabillou in France might be early examples of the voluntary mixing of animal and human forms in the visual arts. Hybridised or composite creatures occupy some of our earliest cultural expressions – from cave painting to Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Vedic mythologies. Such zoological category violations appear to be early (and persistent) manoeuvers in the logic of imagination.

Between the modular circuitry and mysterious flights of fantasy lies the humble realm of evolutionary degrees. Before you have a modern eye, you need a simpler optical predecessor, and before that, you need a responsive light-sensitive tissue. Evolution scales up from the ground, so to speak. Similarly, evolution built a crude imaginative faculty before language and culture refined it into a sophisticated one. The raw system (dominated by emotional and perceptual associations) is still alive and well in the basement of our psychology. You can get a glimpse of it in your dreams, or just pick up a musical instrument or a brush and paper, and open the ancestral mind’s eye.

Stephen T Asma’s latest book, The Evolution of Imagination (2017), is published by the University of Chicago Press.

 

 

Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become. Animators such as Hayao Miyazaki, Walt Disney and the people at Pixar Studios are masterful at imagination, but they’re only creating a public version of our everyday private lives. If you could see the fantastic mash-up inside the mind of the average five-year-old, then Star Wars and Harry Potter would seem sober and dull. So, why is there so little analysis of imagination, by philosophers, psychologists and scientists?

Apart from some cryptic passages in Aristotle and Kant, philosophy has said almost nothing about imagination, and what it says seems thoroughly disconnected from the creativity that artists and laypeople call ‘imaginative’.

Aristotle described the imagination as a faculty in humans (and most other animals) that produces, stores and recalls the images we use in a variety of mental activities. Even our sleep is energised by the dreams of our involuntary imagination. Immanuel Kant saw the imagination as a synthesiser of senses and understanding. Although there are many differences between Aristotle’s and Kant’s philosophies, Kant agreed that the imagination is an unconscious synthesising faculty that pulls together sense perceptions and binds them into coherent representations with universal conceptual dimensions. The imagination is a mental faculty that mediates between the particulars of the senses – say, ‘luminous blue colours’ – and the universals of our conceptual understanding – say, the judgment that ‘Marc Chagall’s blue America Windows (1977) is beautiful.’ Imagination, according to these philosophers, is a kind of cognition, or more accurately a prerequisite ‘bundling process’ prior to cognition. Its work is unconscious and it paves the way for knowledge but is not abstract or linguistic enough to stand as actual knowledge.

This rather mechanical approach to the imagination is echoed in more recent computational and modular theories of the mind, according to which human thinking is packaged by innate processors. The American philosopher Denis Dutton, for example, argued in The Art Instinct (2009) that landscape paintings are popular because they trigger an innate instinctual preference for distant scouting positions in our ancestors, who were evaluating the horizon for threats and resources. That view – dominant in contemporary evolutionary psychology – seems very far away from the artist’s or even the engineer’s view of creative imagination.

It is perhaps unsurprising that philosophers and cognitive theorists have a rather arid view of the imagination, but our everyday ideas about the imagination are not much better. Following the Greeks, we still think of our own creativity as a muse that descends upon us – a kind of spirit possession or miraculous madness that flooded through Vincent van Gogh and John Lennon, but only trickles in you and me. After the great Texas guitar improviser Stevie Ray Vaughan died, Eric Clapton paid tribute by describing him as ‘an open channel … music just flowed through him’.

We’ve romanticised creativity so completely that we’ve ended up with an impenetrable mystery inside our heads. We might not literally believe in muse possession anymore, but we haven’t yet replaced this ‘mysterian’ view with a better one. As the Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs said of the mysterious loss of self that accompanies the making of art: ‘My hand created, led in trance, obscure things … Not seldom, I get into a trance while painting, my state of consciousness fades, giving way to a feeling of being afloat … doing things I do not know much about consciously.’ This mysterious view of imagination is vague and obscure, but at least it captures something about the de-centred psychological state of creativity. Psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have celebrated this aspect of creativity by describing (and recommending) ‘flow’ states, but the idea of ‘flow’ has proven little more than a secular redescription of the mysterian view.

 Evolutionary thought offers a path out of this confusion. In keeping with other evolved aspects of the human mind, the imagination has a history. We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance. In order to understand it, we need to dig into the sedimentary layers of the mind. In The Descent of Man(1871), Charles Darwin says: ‘The Imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty, he unites former images and ideas, independently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results … Dreaming gives us the best notion of this power; as [the poet] Jean Paul Richter says: “The dream is an involuntary art of poetry.”’

The procession, Zimbabwe, Chinamora, Massenburg 8,000-2,000 BCE. Watercolour by Elisabeth Mannsfeld, 1929, 65 x 202.5 cm © Frobenius-Institut Frankfurt am Main

Richard Klein, Maurice Bloch and other prominent paleoanthropologists place the imagination quite late in the history of our species, thousands of years after the emergence of anatomically modern humans. In part, this theory reflects a bias that artistic faculties are a kind of evolutionary cheesecake – sweet desserts that emerge as byproducts of more serious cognitive adaptations such as language and logic. More importantly, it is premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago). It is common for archaeologists to assume that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work, thinking and creating just as we do today.

Contrary to this interpretation, I want to suggest that imagination, properly understood, is one of the earliest human abilities, not a recent arrival. Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.

Lions on the savanna, for example, learn and make predictions because experience forges strong associations between perception and feeling. Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be. On this view, imagination extends back into the Pleistocene, at least, and likely emerged slowly in our Homo erectus cousins.

When we hear the word ‘cup’, the motor parts of our brain ‘pick up’ a ‘cup’

In contemporary philosophy, representation tends to be mostly understood in terms of language. A representation is an inner mental entity that has meaning via its correspondence with the external world or via its coherence within a context of other meaningful experiences (that is, other representations, rules, schema and so on). My representation of a ‘dog’ stands in for real flesh-and-blood mammals out in the world. Traditional semantic theories, from empiricism, positivism and even some semiology assumed that the basic element of meaning was the word – ‘dog’ or ‘chien’ or ‘gou’. However, philosophers such as Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon have challenged this model of meaning by showing that there are deep embodied metaphorical structures within the language itself, and meaning is rooted in the body (not the head).

Rather than being based on words, meaning stems from the actions associated with a perception or image. Even when seemingly neutral lexical terms are processed by our brains, we find a deeper simulation system of images. When we hear the word ‘cup’, for example, our neural motor and tactile systems are engaged because we understand language by ‘simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes’, as the cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen puts it in Louder Than Words (2012). When we hear the word ‘cup’, the motor parts of our brain ‘pick up’ a ‘cup’.

This has been important research in how we understand the mind, but to fully understand the imagination we also need to explore the evolutionary period before language (a layer of prelinguistic mind to which I believe we still have access). Like prelinguistic toddlers or even non-human primates, adult humans have an emotive, associational representation of a dog, for example. It might have cute associations that orient us to approach or negative feelings that orient us to avoid. The image of a dog, in perception or in memory will be loaded with feelings and action possibilities. The word ‘dog’, by contrast, is a later, more attenuated and abstract level of representation – neutered of most emotional and motor content.

The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning. Our modern imagination originates in this early era of image meaning, or image semantics. This historical moment (probably initiated during the early Pleistocene, c2 million years ago) is replicated or recapitulated in the processes of our contemporary imaginative activities. It is the power to take the mind offline – decoupled from the immediate flow of perception – and run simulations of counterfactual virtual realities.

Our improvisational and imaginative life today has an oblique access to the ancestral human mind. Understanding this connection is the aim of a growing research movement – called biosemantics – that seeks to ground human meaning in the embodied interaction of social primates, not just in human language. As great apes, we humans almost certainly engaged in the kind of subtle, antiphonal, body-language communication that we see throughout all social primates. Primate psychologists such as Louise Barrett in Beyond the Brain (2011) are starting to track the interaction networks that build up slowly during development, giving primates the local lexicon of gestures that ultimately serve the bigger functions of dominance and submission, mating, alliance, food sharing, provisioning and so on. But we too operate in these embodied gestural systems of meaning far more than we acknowledge. For a hilarious example of baby communication that is really about emotional expression, turn-taking and bonding, rather than describing the world or conveying information, see this video of ‘talking’ twin babies.

Our primate cousins have impressive abilities (grounded in the cerebellum) for sequencing motor activities – they have a kind of task grammar for doing complex series of actions, such as processing inedible plants into edible food. Gorillas, for example, eat stinging nettles only after an elaborate harvesting and leave-folding sequence, otherwise, their mouths will be lacerated by the many barbs. This is a level of problem-solving that seeks smarter moves (and ‘banks’ successes and failures) between the body and the environment. This kind of motor sequencing might be the first level of improvisational and imaginative grammar. Images and behaviour sequences could be rearranged in the mind via the task grammar, long before language emerged. Only much later did we start thinking with linguistic symbols. While increasingly abstract symbols – such as words – intensified the decoupling of representations and simulations from immediate experience, they created and carried meaning by triggering ancient embodied systems (such as emotions) in the storytellers and story audiences.

The imaginative musician, dancer, athlete or engineer is drawing directly on the prelinguistic reservoir of meaning (sometimes called the ‘hot cognition system’ – a fast, ventral pathway through the brain that gives us emotional and semi-instinctual solutions to problems in our environment). A music improviser or intuitive problem-solver has to tap into that ancient call-and-response cognition of body language and emotional expression in order to navigate the social world properly. We try this move and watch for a response, try that move and watch. We dodge and parry this incoming gesture, except that one. Flying by the seat of our pants, in these cases, is not just some analogy to prelinguistic communication – it is the thing itself.

Humans can just daydream about a desirable body, and the sexual equipment will begin to ramp up for action

Call-and-response, for example, is one of the oldest improvisational techniques, as is a synchronisation of our melodies and our body movements (as in dance). These are ancient procedures for cementing communities, captured in performances that express and inspire emotion. At a simple level, humans synchronise their movements to dance in time. At a more complex level, they remember the dance later and experiment with it, reinventing it for themselves. Such simulation techniques allow us to explore open-ended options at the fringes of social and technological rules. Eventually, such socially constrained exploration evolves into more and more offline experimentation, growing into forms of thinking with images, with sounds, with gestures.

The emotionally charged aspect of this kind of offline simulation is obvious when we consider that our animal cousins need chemical triggers and explicit perceptions of a sexually attractive body to become aroused, but humans can just daydream about a desirable body, and the sexual equipment will begin to ramp up for action. First, our ancestors simulated others in real time, replicating dances and tool-making, but then these simulations became available offline (with no real-time model) as memory and executive function developed.

Computational theories of mind – that equate our minds with the binary blaze of a Google search – can jibe with our more recent linguistic thinking, but not with our earlier imaginative cognition. Image-based thinking employs gestalts of information-rich detail, and emotional and motor associations. We encode and manipulate images and gestures, thereby forming the basis of subsequent meaning. As Eric Kandel puts it in The Age of Insight (2012):

Perhaps in human evolution the ability to express ourselves in art – in pictorial language – preceded the ability to express ourselves in spoken language. As a corollary, perhaps the processes in the brain that are important for art were once universal but were replaced as the universal capability for language evolved.

I believe that the pictorial and gestural languages are still with us, and when we quiet our discursive consciousness long enough – as we do in improvisational and creative activities – we can still converse in these more ancient tongues.

A rare case from the medical literature gives us suggestive evidence that pictorial thinking has its own power independent of language. In a striking case study, in 1998 the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey at the University of Cambridge revealed the remarkable similarities between cave painting styles at Chauvet and the drawings of a 20th-century autistic girl named Nadia. Nadia’s case raises the possibility that painting and drawing, far from being the preserve of the fully modern mind, might have preceded language altogether.

Nadia was born in 1967 in Nottingham in England and suffered from the severe developmental disability. At age six, she still could not speak, had physical impairments, and many social incapacities. But even with these substantial deficits, Nadia could draw pictures with great accuracy and expression as early as age three. Humphrey placed Nadia’s toddler drawings next to the images from Chauvet and noticed striking similarities in the rendering of animals such as horses and elephants.

It is possible that Homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago were graphically literate before they were verbally literate

The contour lines of the creatures are remarkably similar, as are their dynamic poses, but also the way in which the figures are reiterated and overlaid on top of each other. This parallel is not mystical or a sign of innate representations, but rather an indication that the human mind is primed for accurate simulations. And graphic simulation – just as much as linguistic description – is a kind of knowledge.

We cannot place too much confidence in anecdotal data, but Nadia’s case should at least provoke some scepticism about the notion that Upper Paleolithic peoples had modern minds. If Nadia was so good with pictorial representation, while lacking the foundation of linguistic symbolism, then it is possible that Homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago were graphically literate before they were verbally literate. An even stronger interpretation is that Nadia was pictorially sophisticated because she had little to no conceptual/linguistic distraction in her mind. Without the alienating aspects of linguistic symbols, Nadia might have been more perceptually sensitive – leading to greater accuracy and expression in her drawing.

Nadia made meaning very effectively without propositional tools. Our recent ancestors could also have had impressive non-linguistic minds – perhaps always in imagination mode. Image-thinking could have had a complementary evolutionary pathway, alongside language, or could have evolved earlier from natural selection upon tool-making capacities and adornment techniques.

The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge. The fantasy that really moves us – whether it is high or low culture – tends to resonate with our ancient fears and hopes. The associational mind of hot cognition – located more in the limbic system – acts as a reservoir for imaginative artists. Artists such as Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and HR Giger can take controlled voyages to their primitive brain (an uncontrolled voyage is a madness), and then bring these unconscious forces into their subsequent images or stories.

Archer, Republic of South Africa, Korf Hoeks Farm, 8,000-2,000 BCE. Watercolour by Maria Weyersberg, Courtesy Frobenius-Institut Frankfurt am Main

The imagination is proficient at image associations, but it’s also extremely adept at mixed-media associations. Thinking and communicating with images requires access to inner representations, but the artist is shuffling these images into unnatural and unexpected combinations. Our very ancient cognitive abilities to free-associate become interwoven with more sophisticated aspects of cognition, such as executive function and the ability to mix or violate taxonomic categories – hybridising images. When we imagine, we blend pictures and propositions, memories and real-time experiences, sounds, stories and feelings. It is a multimedia processor that jumps laterally through connotations, rather than downward through logical inference. Much of this is unconscious, which is why the muse simile is so powerful, but this phase is followed by a reentry phase, where the free associations or stream of consciousness are brought back under executive control, and integrated into the more focused projects of the agent or artist.

Hominin waking life might have been closer to the free associations of our contemporary dream life

The mysterious have focused on this egoless stream-phase of imagination, while the mechanisms have focused on the combinatorial results, produced in the dark machinery of imagination. Each model captures an aspect of imagination, but when we consider the evolution of mind we see how the two models are integrated into the activity of our embodied cognition.

In the earliest phase of this evolutionary process (probably during the Pliocene epoch) we had a kind of involuntary imagination. At this time, hominin waking life might have been closer to the free associations of our contemporary dream life. Our ancestors could obviously perceive a lion on the savanna, but random memory images of lions might also rise up unpredictably while engaged in daily work. Next, during the Pleistocene, a semi-voluntary imagination arose, like we find in real-time hot cognition (still accessible in our contemporary improvisational creativity). We can imagine, for example, how ritualised behaviours guided by shamans would have brought imaginary beings (some based on lions) into consciousness through habitual actions and gestures.

And finally (from Upper Paleolithic through Holocene epochs), the voluntary imagination emerges, which harvests associational products from the first two phases and brings them under the executive control of cold cognition (slow, logical deliberation). For example, the cave paintings ‘lion man’ at Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany and ‘bison-man’ in the Grotte de Gabillou in France might be early examples of the voluntary mixing of animal and human forms in the visual arts. Hybridised or composite creatures occupy some of our earliest cultural expressions – from cave painting to Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Vedic mythologies. Such zoological category violations appear to be early (and persistent) manoeuvers in the logic of imagination.

Between the modular circuitry and mysterious flights of fantasy lies the humble realm of evolutionary degrees. Before you have a modern eye, you need a simpler optical predecessor, and before that, you need a responsive light-sensitive tissue. Evolution scales up from the ground, so to speak. Similarly, evolution built a crude imaginative faculty before language and culture refined it into a sophisticated one. The raw system (dominated by emotional and perceptual associations) is still alive and well in the basement of our psychology. You can get a glimpse of it in your dreams, or just pick up a musical instrument or a brush and paper, and open the ancestral mind’s eye.

Stephen T Asma’s latest book, The Evolution of Imagination (2017), is published by the University of Chicago Press.

Democracy is like fun: you can’t set your mind to having it

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From: https://aeon.co/ideas/democracy-is-like-fun-you-cant-set-your-mind-to-having-it?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=fcd6982175-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_10_03&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-fcd6982175-69504325

Thank Goodness, I’ve got it in my mind in the whole of my life… it’s actually something that you’ll be born with 🙂

 

 

https://aeon.co/users/robert-talisse

Robert-Talisse

is a professor of philosophy and chair of the philosophy department at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. His latest book is Engaging Political Philosophy (2016).

900 words

Edited by Nigel Warburton

he terms democracy is used today to denote everything that is wholesome in the social world. Yet there is such a thing as too much democracy. By this, I do not mean that democracy needs to be tempered by some autocratic or elitist political ideal. Rather, I mean that we must reserve space in our shared social lives for that which is not political at all. Even in a democracy, politics must be kept in its place.

Keeping democracy in its place is not easy. The very idea of collective self-government tempts us into thinking that citizens must be perpetually fixated on the task of ruling themselves. Accordingly, a central message of most democratic theory has been that our social lives as such should be driven by democratic aims and projects. And this theoretical message has clearly worked its way into practice. Democratic politics has thoroughly infiltrated our social lives. Our daily interactions, from coffee shops and street corners to comment threads and blog posts, are increasingly structured by our political allegiances, and those allegiances ever more frequently supply the content of our casual conversations.

It is no exaggeration to say that in the United States today, your choices about mundane matters – where to buy groceries, what television shows to watch, the sports teams you follow, how to get to work, where you go on vacation, how you spend Sunday mornings – are all deeply tied to your political profile. And this, in turn, means that your day-to-day interactions with others are limited to those who happen to also shop at those stores, watch that programme, follow that team, take that bus, and walk in that park. Our entire social worlds are shaped by the travails of contemporary politics. To put it dramatically, our social lives are tyrannised by democracy.

The saturation of civic life by democratic politics crowds out the fundamental bases for the community and social cooperation that the democratic ethos needs in order to flourish. If we are to work together as a self-governing polity, we must cultivate a kind of civic friendship that enables us to regard each other as fellow citizens and sharers in a common fate. When we interact only on the battlefield of politics, our divisions erode civic friendship. Democracy is thus dismantled.

The tyranny of democracy undermines democracy. This is in no way an anti-democratic thought. It simply applies to democracy a general insight about value, namely that sometimes, in order to realise something of value, one must strive for something else. Certain values are undercut by our single-minded pursuit of them. In such cases, the pursuit of the value in question produces its opposite.

To see how this works, consider a value such as fun. Surely it’s good to have fun? But fun can be had only as a byproduct of participating in activities that have some other objective. We have fun when engaging in pursuits whose point is something other than fun: winning the game, dancing to the song, experiencing the plunge of the rollercoaster, completing the crossword. Accordingly, the persistent boredom of teenagers is the product of their not having anything to pursue but entertainment. When fun itself is the name of the game, everything’s a drag.

Friendship, too, has this general structure. We need friends. Consequently, we ought to form deep friendships. But one of the surest ways to fail at making friends is to try to make them. Friendships emerge from activities other than friend-seeking. One gains friends by sharing experiences, undertaking common projects, and caring about other persons. No matter how good it is to have friends, friendship itself cannot be our pursuit. When we take friendship itself as our goal, we wind up friendless.

The phenomenon has the flavour of paradox. In order to cultivate certain values, one must aim for something other than their cultivation. Yet to regard something as valuable is to be disposed to seek to produce it. Certain values, it seems, require us to develop an odd form of schizophrenia. We must to some degree turn our backs on the value in order to make it manifest.

As democracy rests on civic friendship, it is perhaps no surprise that in order to practise better democracy, we need to engage with each other on matters that are not political. Our civic lives must be structured around shared activities and common experiences that do not have politics at their core, arenas of social engagement that are not already structured and plagued by political categories. We must seek out activities that will involve us in cooperative endeavours with others who, for all we know, have opposing political views from our own. We must talk with strangers about matters of substance that are not at all political. We must create sites of social involvement in which party affiliation and platform allegiance are simply beside the point. We must ‘tune out’, not from society as such but from society as it is constructed by democratic politics. In short, if we want to do democracy right, we need sometimes to do something else entirely.

 

 

 

 

 

Lost Town

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paperlanternsinpapertown

Hand full of cuts

Mind full of dreadful sound

That’s how things roll up

In this lost town.

Seeing faces with marks

Crawling for their crown

Dragging their soul

For what they couldn’t found.

Night full of isolation

Days full of cursed bound

Only faded shooting stars

Passes through this lost town.

Now only scavengers

Rule this desolated town

As the people who used to exist

Now left with the hollow eyes

Full of screaming sound.

But the doors which used to be closed

Slightly opened with a ray of hope

That someone could guide them

Through these murky roads.

Abruptly skies lightened up

Resembling bliss of hope

That’s when they realise

There were only few left

Who haven’t negotiated with their hope.

Eyes full of ebullience

And smell full of smoke

Carrying lighters to lighten paper lanterns

Which could bring back other’s lost hope….

©Yusuf zeeshan All Rights Reserved

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The Fragility of Being Human and the Power of Poetry to Mend

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Subliminal Spaces

blue word cloud composed of poet names and recurring words

The Power of Poetry

In a recent BBC2 documentary on W. H. Auden and ‘The Age of Anxiety’, Poet Paul Muldoon reflected that Auden’s work reveals the ‘fragility’ of human societies, indeed of what we think of as ‘civilisation’. It was this insight that struck me as one of the reasons for the intensely therapeutic nature of poetry, both reading and writing it. For if poetry and poets help us understand the human condition and our own experience in the world, or as Muldoon has it, in the ‘moments’ in which we find ourselves, then it can help us to fully engage with the world, with our lives and with our authentic selves.

To do this, I am convinced we need to work with all shades of existence, including, as Jung maintained, the realm of shadow. For again it was Jung’s contention that denial of the shadow gives it tremendous destructive…

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The Myth of Cable Street

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From:  http://historytoday.us1.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=57d6536789e4868b23723aa54&id=0513909006&e=747add9ffb

I really didn’t know this! Thanks to “Working-class Heroes 🙂

 

The Battle of Cable Street still holds a proud place in anti-fascist memory, considered a decisive victory against the far right. In fact, the event boosted domestic fascism and antisemitism and made life far more unpleasant for its Jewish victims, explains Daniel Tilles.

Demonstrators are chased by police past East End shops daubed with antifascist and Communist slogans, October 4th, 1936. Photo / GettyDemonstrators are chased by police past East End shops daubed with antifascist and Communist slogans, October 4th, 1936. Photo / GettyOn October 4th, 1936, following days of frantic, last-minute organisation, a crowd of over 100,000 protesters congregated in London’s East End. Their single aim was to prevent the passage of 5,000 black-shirted supporters of Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), who a week earlier had announced plans to march through the area to mark the fourth anniversary of his party’s formation. Despite the best efforts of the police to clear a path for the procession, the protestors stood resolutely firm. Left with little other choice Mosley conceded defeat and disbanded his followers. Around 80 anti-fascists had been arrested, at least 73 police officers injured – but most importantly, the Fascists did not pass.

The demonstration has come to be seen, particularly on the political left, as the moment London’s working class united en masse to reject fascism’s hateful ideology once and for all: ‘The spectacle of the workers in action gave the Fascists reason to pause’, claimed Ted Grant, a participant in the demonstration and later an influential socialist thinker. ‘It induced widespread despondency and demoralisation in their ranks … [and] the East End Fascist movement declined.’ Cable Street is still invoked in today’s fight against the extreme right, with the Unite Against Fascism pressure group describing it as a ‘turning point in the struggle against Fascism in Britain’. The battle also holds a proud place in the collective memory of the Anglo-Jewish community, described by one historian as ‘the most remembered day in 20th-century British Jewish history’.

Video: Archive footage from the Battle of Cable Street

Like Mussolini’s Fascist Party, upon which it was modelled, the BUF had initially paid little attention to what it described as the ‘irrelevant’ Jewish question. Although the movement contained individuals who favoured an antisemitic policy, Mosley’s aim was to create an outwardly reputable political party. As such, he permitted violence only when it was ‘defensive’ and eschewed racial prejudice. His approach reaped some success, with party membership reaching 50,000 within two years.

This all changed over the summer of 1934 when a wave of organised anti-fascist disruption struck BUF events around Britain, prompting a violent response. Disorder at a mass meeting in June at London’s Olympia Hall, where Mosley’s stewards brutally ejected hecklers, was especially damaging to the Blackshirts’ reputation. With its façade of respectability stripped away and Britain’s gradual recovery from the Great Depression rendering Mosley’s sophisticated economic programme increasingly obsolete the BUF collapsed, its membership falling to around a tenth of its peak. The party was left in desperate need of a new ideological impetus. Following discussion with his senior lieutenants, Mosley resolved to incorporate antisemitism into official policy, announcing the decision in late September. This proved particularly popular in the East End, a district with a long history of tension between Jews and Gentiles. It had been the principal point of first settlement for the 150,000 or so Eastern European Jews who had arrived in Britain since the 1880s, increasing competition for housing and jobs in this deprived part of London. By the 1930s, with Britain’s largest concentration of Jews still to be found in the area, it proved fertile territory for the BUF’s racial incitement and between 1935 and 1937 the party committed the majority of its resources to campaigning there. In addition to the offensive and inflammatory language employed by his street-corner orators Mosley’s followers were also responsible for a growing number of physical attacks on Jews.

Unsurprisingly local Jews felt compelled to retaliate. They came to play a central role in Britain’s anti-fascist movement through growing participation in existing organisations opposed to the BUF, such as trade unions and the Communist Party, and via newly formed Jewish defence bodies, most prominent of which was the Jewish People’s Council (JPC), founded in mid-1936. Mosley’s announcement of the October procession, which was to include many Jewish neighbourhoods on its route, caused particular outrage. With the Communist Party’s leadership initially reluctant to support a proposed counter-demonstration for fear of association with the inevitable disorder – only relenting at the very last minute  – much of the responsibility for its coordination fell on the JPC and other Jewish organisations.

Memoirs of the period attest to the pride felt among Jews at their participation in the occasion, a sense that they, standing side by side with their non-Jewish neighbours, had driven the Fascists out of east London: ‘The sound-hearted British working-class had given … a clear message,’ Morris Beckman, at the time a teenager living in Hackney, later recounted; Jews had shown ‘they were sick and ashamed of keeping their heads down’. Like Ted Grant, he remembered that day as ‘the high water mark of the British Union of Fascists’ hubris and arrogance, the very moment that … the tide began to recede’. Bill Fishman, then a 15-year-old witness to the protests and subsequently a prominent historian of East End Jewish life, recalled that ‘Oswald Mosley’s popularity began to wane after his setback in Cable Street.’

An immense impetus

Yet such perceptions bear little relation to the actual repercussions of the event. Contemporary records, in contrast to the romanticised recollections of those on the anti-fascist side, tell a different story. Far from signalling the demise of fascism in the East End, or bringing respite to its Jewish victims, Cable Street had quite the opposite effect. Over the following months, the BUF was able to convert defeat on the day into longer-term success and to justify a further radicalisation of its anti-Jewish campaign.

Within days the party’s newspaper, Blackshirt, was boasting that the incident had given Fascism ‘an immense impetus’. The BUF regularly exaggerated the strength of its support, but this particular claim was more than spurious bravado. In its monthly report on extremist political activity Special Branch observed in October ‘abundant evidence that the Fascist movement has been steadily gaining ground in many parts of east London’. Its sources suggested an influx of over 2,000 new recruits in the capital, a considerable boost given that party membership in London had stood at less than 3,000 earlier in the year.

In the week after Cable Street, the BUF ‘conducted the most successful series of meetings since the beginning of the movement’, attracting crowds of thousands and little opposition. Mosley made an ‘enthusiastically received’ address to an audience of 12,000 at Victoria Park Square, which was followed by a peaceful march to nearby Limehouse. By contrast, the Communists’ efforts to consolidate their victory had ‘met with a very poor response’. ‘A definite pro-Fascist feeling has manifested itself’, the Special Branch report concluded: ‘The alleged Fascist defeat is, in reality, a Fascist advance.’

The reason the BUF was able to profit so handsomely from what had initially appeared a setback was that, at this stage, it thrived off the publicity that violent opposition produced. The national media, under pressure from the government, largely avoided reporting on Fascist activity other than when disorder occurred. A leading Mosleyite lamented the ‘total silence’ in the press when BUF events passed without incident, complaining that only after disruption by opponents did newspapers show any interest.

When such incidents took place the party was able with some success to portray itself as a victim. It claimed that its efforts to exercise free speech legally, through organised meetings and police-approved processions, were being systematically suppressed by left-wing extremists. Whatever the truth of such allegations – and it was certainly the case that anti-fascists were responsible for the majority of disorder, albeit often in the face of Fascist provocation – the Blackshirts elicited a degree of sympathy in certain quarters. After the Olympia meeting, for example, although respectable supporters abandoned the BUF in droves, there was also a short-term influx of new recruits angry at attempts to silence Mosley.

A propaganda advantage

In many ways, the Fascists came to rely on the interaction with their opponents to sustain interest in the movement. One member in the south-west expressed his optimism that, ‘now we have active opposition in Exeter I think we shall make great progress there’. In this context Cable Street simply thrust the BUF back into the limelight after two years of relative national obscurity and provided it with a stage on which to play out its claims of victimhood. This, Mosley argued, had been a perfectly lawful procession, sanctioned by the authorities. The East End housed the core of his supporters. They had every right peacefully to express their political beliefs, yet had been forcibly prevented from doing so by a disorderly mob. This portrayal of events clearly struck a chord with many locals. In an internal document, the Fascists observed that the ‘strong sense of local patriotism’ in the East End had been ‘gravely offended by the rioting of Jews and Communists last October … [which] was felt as a disgrace to the good name of east London’.

The reference to Jews was particularly telling, for their prominent involvement at Cable Street was also eagerly exploited by the Blackshirts. Mosley’s adoption of antisemitism in 1934 was from the outset portrayed not as a choice but as a move forced upon him by Jews themselves. ‘Small’ Jews had attacked the Blackshirts in the street and invaded their meetings, while ‘big’ Jews financed the anti-fascist movement and used their wealth and influence to turn the media and government against the BUF. It had also become clear, Mosley alleged, that Jews were the power behind Fascism’s two chief adversaries: international finance and Communism.

Mural depicting the Battle of Cable StreetMural depicting the Battle of Cable Street

By adopting an anti-Jewish stance, therefore, the BUF was simply taking up ‘the challenge thrown down by Jewry’. Moreover, it was doing so on behalf of the real British people, who were also suffering at the hands of Jewish economic and political oppression. Such claims were, of course, disingenuous; some Jews had been involved in the early anti-fascist movement, but the vast majority were not, while a handful even joined the BUF. But they became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Fascists’ growing antisemitism prompted an increasingly hostile response from the Jewish community, which was in turn used to vindicate and harden the BUF’s position.

Cable Street – the most substantial manifestation of Jewish anti-fascism to date – fitted the BUF’s narrative perfectly. The internal publication mentioned above noted with satisfaction that ‘the imprudent use of violence … to deny east Londoners the right to walk through their own part of London … [had] sent a wave of anti-Jewish resentment’ through the area. Speakers were advised that propaganda should take advantage of this fact.

The demonstration was immediately branded by the BUF as ‘Jewry’s biggest blunder’, while the police were accused of ‘openly surrender[ing] to alien mobs’. It was claimed that ‘financial democracy’ and ‘Soviet-inspired Communists’ had colluded to inhibit legitimate activity by ‘British patriots’ in the East End. As a result, the district had in effect been ‘handed over … as the Jews’ own territory’. It was time, the BUF declared, for the true British people to reclaim their land. Such appeals were well received. Special Branch recorded that among the cohort of new Fascist recruits were a ‘large number of gentiles with grievances against the Jews’.

Antisemitism intensifies

However Cable Street did not merely reinforce Blackshirt antisemitism – it exacerbated it. Just as Jewish involvement in anti-fascist activity had been exploited to justify the introduction of antisemitic policy in 1934, so it was now used as an excuse to elevate it to a new, more radical phase. A source within BUF headquarters – who, appalled by the BUF’s increasingly extreme direction, had begun leaking information to the Board of Deputies, British Jewry’s representative body – revealed that the party was intent on using the events of October 4th as the basis from which to embark on ‘a renewed antisemitic campaign’. This was in any case made abundantly clear in propaganda, which rapidly became saturated with crude anti-Jewish rhetoric. In the six months leading up to October, around 21 percent of articles in Blackshirt included antisemitic content; in the subsequent half-year, the figure almost doubled to 39 percent.

Even more worrying, words were increasingly being translated into action. In the immediate aftermath of Cable Street a Blackshirt speaker promised ‘by God, there is going to be a pogrom … [and] the people who have caused this … are the Yids’. The very next weekend saw the most serious antisemitic violence of the interwar period, as a gang of 200 youths, some armed with iron bars and hatchets wrecked and looted Jewish shops, set alight a car and threw an elderly Jewish man and young child through a window. This marked the beginning of a sustained period of harassment. The JPC noted with concern that early 1937 had witnessed ‘an intensification of Fascist Jew-baiting and hooliganism’. Over the summer this developed into full-scale ‘terrorism which appears to increase week by week’. Numerous Jews were assaulted and shop windows smashed, antisemitic graffiti proliferated and Fascist speeches became more vitriolic.

This fact was confirmed by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Philip Game, who observed, eight months after Cable Street, that the ‘abuse of Jews by Fascist speakers has shown a tendency to increase’. Compounding the problem, the BUF now increasingly held its events in localities inhabited almost exclusively by Jews, meaning that even those who attempted to stay away were ‘compelled to attend the meetings because the loudspeakers used are such that every word spoken percolates into the houses’, as Neville Laski, the president of the Board of Deputies, complained to Game.

The focal point of this campaign was two sets of local elections in 1937. At the London County Council polls in March Mosley put forward six candidates, all of East End constituencies. From the outset, this was advertised as a choice ‘between us and the Parties of Jewry’ (meaning every other party), an indication that the BUF’s first ever election campaign would be fought on a primarily antisemitic platform. Its manifesto mentioned Jews or ‘aliens’ 22 times in two pages of text. Playing on the longstanding antipathy towards Jews in the area, the BUF claimed that it had come seeking the ‘expert opinion’ of local residents as ‘no one knows better than the people of east London the stranglehold that Jewry has on our land’. It wished to obtain from them ‘a mandate to carry through our National Socialist policy, especially as it concerns the Jewish question’.

That the party subsequently failed to win a single seat at the election has often been cited as a sign of the BUF’s post-Cable Street collapse. But in fact, this ostensible failure masked a significant show of support. Standing against candidates from the three mainstream parties, the Blackshirts received votes from 7,000 residents (18 percent of the electorate) in Bethnal Green, Limehouse and Shoreditch. This result was achieved despite only ratepayers being allowed to vote, disenfranchising many of the BUF’s disproportionately young supporters. Furthermore, a large portion of the electorate was Jewish (around 20 percent of Bethnal Green’s population, for example), meaning that the BUF may have won up to 30 percent of non-Jewish votes in the constituency. The election indicated that the BUF could still claim the support of thousands in its East End heartland. Later in the year, at October’s borough council elections, the party attained a similar proportion of the vote in the same districts.

The drift towards Nazism

Given that BUF membership had fallen as low as 5,000 in 1935, the idea that the aftermath of Cable Street marked a low point for the movement can be dismissed. In fact, it was a period of relative, if highly localised, success. Moreover, the election results were interpreted by the BUF as confirmation that the people of the East End wished ‘Mosley to proceed with his anti-Jewish policy’. Consequently, antisemitism remained integral to BUF campaigns over the remainder of its existence.

The movement did go on to experience a dip in fortunes in late 1937 and 1938, which some have claimed as an indirect triumph for disruptive anti-fascism. This was because Cable Street and events like it had fuelled public debate on the problem of political extremism, resulting in the passing of the Public Order Act (POA) designed to restrict such provocative activity. Yet its impact on the BUF was minimal. Though the Home Office was now accorded greater powers to prohibit political processions in the East End, this simply displaced BUF marches to other parts of the city. This brought some relief to the Jews of East London, but any benefits were more than offset by an increase in other forms of Blackshirt activity. In August to December 1936, for example, 508 Fascist meetings were recorded in the East End; in the equivalent period a year later, the number grew by a quarter, to 647.

The POA did introduce stricter directives on provocative racial language, which restrained Fascist rhetoric a little. But the new rules were inconsistently applied by police and in any case were often circumvented by the use of veiled terms such as ‘aliens’ or ‘Shylocks’. Additionally, these new legal restrictions were used to substantiate further the Blackshirts’ claims of persecution, with the government once more accused of ‘capitulation to Jewish power’.

Rather than the POA or anti-fascism, it was financial difficulties that accounted for the BUF’s temporary decline. The secret subsidies it had received from Mussolini had begun to diminish as Mosley drifted closer to the Nazis and their model of fascism over the mid-1930s, finally drying up altogether in 1937. This forced the party, in March of that year, to reduce expenditure by 70 percent and lay off a large number of its staff, including many leading figures. Inevitably, its ability to campaign suffered. Candidates standing in October’s elections, for example, did so with no assistance from party headquarters.

Oswald Mosley with four of his followers wearing the blackshirt uniform of the BUF, 1933. Oswald Mosley with four of his followers wearing the black shirt uniform of the BUF, 1933.

However, over 1938-39 the party’s fortunes were dramatically revived. The growing prospect of war with Germany prompted Mosley to launch a ‘Peace Campaign’, arguing that Britain had no interest in joining any European conflict. This tapped into genuine public misgivings regarding the necessity of war, drawing thousands of new supporters to the party. Moreover, Mosley’s claim that international tensions were being stoked by Jews, who were attempting to engineer a ‘war of revenge’ against Germany, guaranteed that antisemitism continued to play a prominent role in propaganda.

The demonstrators at Cable Street, and their successors in the anti-fascist movement, have understandably taken pride in their achievements that day. Yet far from signalling the beginning of the end for fascism in Britain, or even in the East End, the demonstration yielded a significant short-term boost for the BUF and did nothing to hinder it in the longer term. True, it succeeded in demonstrating the strength of hostility to Mosley, confirming that his political ambitions would never be realised. But this had long been clear. By 1936 the BUF was a local irritant but a national irrelevance and destined to remain that way. Instead, Cable Street drew unnecessary attention and new adherents to the party. However laudable the motivation of the Jewish participants that day, the primary consequence of their actions was to make life significantly worse for their fellow Jews in the East End, with their involvement used to justify the commencement of the most intensive phase of anti-semitic activity in modern British history.

Daniel Tilles is a doctoral candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is co-editor of the collection Fascism and the Jews: Italy and Britain (Vallentine Mitchell, 2011).