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The Extent and Limitation of the Imagination

When we were asked to consider different methods and points of view I immediately thought of how I wanted to address Day 9’s “Engendering Technology, Imaginatively” panel in which I was a participant. Although I performed in the panel with an inside-out perspective I found it interesting to add an outside-in perspective to my observations. Combining the two allowed me to see what was missing from the panel as a performer and the overall implications of the panel as an observer. Our fictional visitors privileged us with a living reenactment of an abstract concept. The imaginative panel was a perfect example of the extent and limitations of both our own and the general populace’s imaginations in regards to gender and technology.

Responding to the question presented to the class one day on the subject of the usefulness of a panel of imaginary characters, I would say that this panel was incredibly useful and informative. We, as presenters, had a wide range of characters to pick from. The characters who attended our class that day (mostly white, often contemporary and future oriented, etc.) are a very interesting illustration of preferred selection. Out of a large pool of species, times, places, cultures and races, we picked Barbie, Ken, GI Joe, Kathryn Janeway, Dr. Manhattan, Kaylee Frye, Rosie the Riveter, Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster, Echo, Ariane, the Terminator, Detective Del Spooner, and Trillian. The majority of the class time was spent listening to and addressing the inner and outer perspectives of the three gendered toys: Barbie, Ken, and G.I. Joe, masterfully portrayed by Sugar Spice, Simran, and lparrish, respectively. These three provided an excellent distillation of gendered technology, reinforcing stereotypical roles and body images to the children that play with them. From the debate that Sugar Spice’s portrayal of Barbie elicited regarding the toy’s use in gender propaganda (see Simran’s post here for an example), we can see that the panel’s purpose, creating discussion, was successful. Keeping this in mind, perhaps there are further factors to consider in the presenters’ choice of characters. Not only confined by our personal preferences, the character choices also resulted from each presenter’s interpretation of what would best fit into the topics of the class, gender and technology. I think that this consideration explains the large prevalence of female characters in the panels as well as females in the class. There is still an unconscious/conscious idea that the study of gender is a synonym for women’s studies and this has shaped our predilections, limiting our selections from our imaginations for when we present.

Although sex/gender was the most skewed axes, there were others that were not even mentioned that deserve more attention as I mentioned in my original post regarding the panel. For example, in trying to address a missing axis (non-humanoid) I attempted to bring primates into the conversation. Despite having copious amounts of information regarding primates, their gender roles, and their technologies at the ready, there was very little that I could actually add to the conversation since it was so specifically focused on humans and human-like interactions with technologies. This is just one more example of selective imagination both in possible topics of discussion and my failure to find more openings in the conversation in which to speak out about human’s misuse of the sexuality of bonobos, among other things.

Addressing the missing axes from my role in the individual panels, I could go on forever about the details from Trillian’s point of view, like how with all of the jobs in the universe and in time to pick from, and despite being introduced in the beginning as a brilliant mathematician and astrophysicist, the reader always only gets to see her take up the communication jobs like a peace mediator, a TV anchor, and a radio reporter. You would never see Trillian or Trisha (the or is necessary due to several parallel universes between the books and all of the other media) beating someone up in as a pan-galactic wrestler or as the top level of the management at a law firm or something. Also, Trillian, who “looked vaguely Arabic” according to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was one of the only characters at the panel who wasn’t distinctly Caucasian. But, coming back to the original intent of this paragraph and my paper, the point is exactly that. The endless possibilities.

This panel was made of fictional, imaginary characters, not grounded in fact and the everyday realities of the first panel’s guests. Unlike the historical figures, these characters could be anything, could do anything, could look like anything. But this is how they turned out. What I would emphasize even more than the presenter’s predilections is the creation and selection of the characters’ creators. These characters are the results of an infinite amount of possibilities. Each character was painstakingly thought out and planned by their creator: each of their features, personalities, and plot lines. Because of this each of these features becomes increasingly significant. The first day’s panel was made of people: real, living, breathing people who most likely had as little idea about their ultimate direction, influences, and motives as any of us do. Living in a culture, they are influenced by the gendered technologies of their society, but imaginary characters are not humans bumbling about the world like ourselves. They are the extent and stretch of human imagination and possibility. They are gendered technology. The quintessence of gendered technology without all of the ambiguities and unknowns of human life, the fictional character panel of which I was originally skeptical at its announcement deserves a second, closer look factoring in the previously mentioned omitted axes and our own prejudices. From this panel I have discovered that the abstract and hopeful ideas of imagination and fiction turn out to be very different from their actual practice. In the end, what exactly is the span of the imagination but the amount of deviation from society’s structured thoughts that the author can attain?

One Response
  1. March 13, 2009

    I like the concept of this paper very much. I think your argument would be stronger, however, if you used more examples of how imagination was limited. You do that with Trillian and I find that compelling. I wonder if you could pull out a couple of other examples.

    It seems that part of your argument is that, despite not being constrained, the creators of these characters are indeed limited by their own concepts of gender and technology. And maybe there’s a bit of an argument in there about your classmates’ (and teachers’ 🙂 ) limitations. It seems to me that you’re suggesting in the primate discussion that the kinds of things people chose necessarily limited the discussion and gave you few openings to, as it were, “talk along different axes.”

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