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The Idea of Space and the Imaginary

"Awakening is perhaps the synthesis of the thesis, represented

by the dream consciousness and the antithesis, constituted by the

waking consciousness?"

W. Benjamin, Passagenwerk, 1927-1940


The notion of Space is within itself extremely stratified: it relates to our existence within environments, and our interactions with objects and images, it finds its examples in the expressions, along human history, of the devotions to gods, throughout the edifications of temples and cathedrals; it has been studied by Renaissance humanists and investigated by Dutch painters. The convention of perspective, which is unique to European art, and which was established in the early Renaissance, centres everything on the eye of the beholder. Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world (Berger, 1972). Looking at this prospect with a philosophical approach, one is forced to turn it into an epistemological matter and analyse it as a significant phenomenological issue: how does the I, or consciousness, relate to the external world? Do images possess a real existence, or are they just the medium between real objects and the Self? How does “the single eye” structure reality? The aim of this article is to look at the matter in a multidisciplinary way, through photography, art, architecture, and cinema. The fil rouge between these different fields would be a reflection of the concept of imaginaire, as theorized by the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre in his work L'imaginaire. Psychologie phénoménologique de l'imagination, published in 1940.

Figure 1: The Ideal City of Urbino (Laurana, 1470-1472).

The link established by Jean-Paul Sartre in L'imaginaire. Psychologie phénoménologique de l'imagination between the dimension of consciousness and the real thing, the world of perception, is the theoretical knot within which this essay will move. Consider this: the object always exceeds consciousness. The illusion of immanence is thus the structural route to the oneiric, transferring the characteristics of the real (spatiality, temporality, etc.) into the dimension of consciousness. Such content does not possess the qualities of the thing (Sartre, 1940). It represents them, in its own way. Images have an intentional nature, they are therefore based on some form of knowledge, that is, imaginative knowledge. It consists of a consciousness that tends to go beyond itself, creating content that transcends its own boundaries. The consciousness aims to produce an object, an object endowed with a symbolic nature: the image, precisely.

Sartre rightly points out that concepts such as "symbol", "symbolic", and "imaginative knowledge"(Controversial phenomenological theory, according to which “consciousness directly reaches a real,in-itself object of perception. The imagination is then conceived as the freedom to surpass this reality” (Clayton, 2011), under the influence of psychoanalysis, are now the subject of a vast intellectual production, and at the same time, of an extreme theoretical underestimation, which tends to reduce their "media" functions (Sartre, 1940). Jean-Paul Sartre argued the importance of not separating the image from its symbolic function, by making a distinction between knowledge, as a pure understanding, linked to signs, and an understanding through images, separated by a supposed functional difference. This is symbolic thought: Sartre speaks of it as a sum of kinaesthetic and affective analogon. Analogon is a hybrid concept endowed with a certain level of "movement" and intrinsically linked to the psychic dimension, despite the fact that the content is, in the end, an unreal object. This is of fundamental importance when applied to the role of the imaginary in the arts, as Sartre pointed out in discussing Matisse's "Reds":

"We are led to recognise that in the painting the aesthetic object is unreal [...] we often hear that the artist first has an image that he then realises on canvas. The error here stems from the fact that the painter can actually start from a mental image, which as such is incommunicable [...] Then, it is thought that there has been a transition from the imaginary to the real. But this is not true [...] What is beautiful, on the contrary, is a being that could not be given by perception and that, in its very nature, is isolated from the universe. [...] In fact, the painter did not realise his mental image at all, but simply constituted a material analogon [...] there is no realisation of the imaginary, at most, we could speak of an objectification.” (Sartre, 1940)

Figure 2: The Red Studio (Matisse,1911).

1. Walter Benjamin

The pragmatics of the image

A concept somewhat akin, at least in terms of theoretical weight within the system, to the analogon, is the Medium theorised by Walter Benjamin (Benjamin, 1935). The three examples that the early writings of the 1910s bring to bear on the term constitute the basis for the development of the term itself. In A Short History of Photography (Benjamin, 1931), the Medium is defined as the aura. But it is only with the well-known The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (Benjamin, 1935) that the term is evoked to define "the way in which human perception is organised", the set of conditions and techniques (Apparatur), whether productive or social, which in their historical development determine structural changes in the sensory experience of individuals and the collective:

"Over long historical periods, along with the overall modes of existence of human collectivities, the modes and genres of their perception also change. The way in which human perception is organised - the medium in which it takes place - is not only conditioned in a natural sense, but also in a historical sense." (Benjamin, 1935)

Working on the architectural suggestions of Alois Riegl, such as the analysis of space in antiquity, focusing in particular on what one might call the "pragmatics of the image", since the years of the Viennese School of Art History, architecture had been theorised by Benjamin as a paradigmatic case of collective and habitual fruition. The function of the pragmatics of the image, and its theoretical development, remains a constant theme throughout his production: it is inherent to the attractive dynamics of the image, the dynamics of vision (the near/far dichotomy, later linked to studies on auratic reality in works of art, photography, and cinema), the subject of recent studies in physiological optics and psychoanalysis.

Figure 3: Capriccio (Ricci, c. 1730).

Many readers of Riegl and Heinrich Wölflin had taken care not to unite the sphere of man's physical perception and artistic representation, partly rejecting the theory of the historicity of vision on which Benjamin was based. However, the author was aiming to move beyond the canonical theories of art history, towards a more "materialist" view (to be understood, however, also in connection with the Greek sense of the term aisthesis, "doctrine of perception") linked to the study of the "historical-perceptual' role of "media".

The complex relationship with Surrealism

It is in the controversial Passagenwerk (Benjamin, 1982), a collection of writings about the city of Paris, written between 1927 and 1940, that Benjamin developed his relationship with the artistic and literary currents of his time, that is, Surrealism, psychoanalysis, Proust's Recherche. The author is caught wandering through the numerous passages couvertes, reflecting on different literary and artistic topics, in a rather idiosyncratic manner. The project in itself is utterly provocative and to be considered as an expression of the times: T. Adorno and M. Horkheimer reproached Benjamin for the absence of a critique in the key of historical materialism; he responded to this criticism with a critical reading of Marxian Kapital. Despite his and Andrè Breton’s efforts (Breton, 1924), the relationship between Surrealism as a political current and Marxism never fully developed itself in a coherent theorisation. But it is only with the small pamphlet Surrealism. The Last Snapshot of European Intellectuals (Benjamin, 1929) that the author addresses Surrealism more directly and critically.

Among the avant-garde's most committed to the demolition of classical aesthetics, Surrealism was above all the movement that attracted Benjamin the most. He thus grappled with the theoretical writings of Breton, Aragon, and Èluard, and came to the conclusion that the "anarchic libertarianism" with which its exponents were nourished was ultimately incapable of passing on to the "practical gesture", an impotent "leftist melancholy". In the author's system, the categorical sleep-wake pair, both experientially and metaphorically, have a role whose evolution can be seen as directly proportional to the varying depths of Surrealism, psychoanalysis, and Proustian work. In order to penetrate "the enigmatic of the enigmatic", a dialectical viewpoint would be required, capable of unlocking profane illumination, for which the use of drugs such as hashish and opium play a propaedeutic role (Benjamin, 1929). The access to the surreal dimension, the estrangement is also perhaps to be detected through optical phenomena; both intoxication and dreaming, therefore, should not be stiffened in their opposition to wakefulness: the dimension of awakening must also be added:

"Is awakening the synthesis of the thesis, represented by dream consciousness, and the antithesis, constituted by waking consciousness?" (Benjamin, 1929).

Figure 4: Woman, Old man and Flower (Ernst, c. 1923).

And where might one place the role of the imaginary? In being linked to opium, its enhancement, and its expressive possibilities. Benjamin argued it was to be found artificially by taking drugs: in the spatiotemporal alterations produced by them, a more "spontaneous" mode of natural perception is opened up. It opens up the possibility to access aspects of reality that are difficult to access in a waking state: this is the "mimetic faculty" typical of children, poets, and primitives. This is what Benjamin discussed in the essay Honiric Kitsch (1927). If it is the prerogative of psychoanalysts to investigate the subjective side of the dream dimension , that of Surrealism is to delve into its technical application. The dream is an inexhaustible source. Dreams and the oneiric are powerful media, gateways to the "imaginal space", which, however, must not be experienced simply, but assisted in "corporeal space" (realisation of the creative act in the form of poetry, painting, sculpture, architectural works, etc.). Benjamin himself had suggested on more than one occasion that the work on Surrealism was directly connected to his titanic project, the Passages. Moreover, the passage itself as an urban spatial medium at once architectural and imaginative was thought by Benjamin to be directly related to the birth of Surrealism: "The father of Surrealism was Dada, its mother a passage." (Benjamin, 1927).

2. Gaston Bachelard and the Poetics of Space

Another significant theoretical contribution to the question of the relationship between the imaginary and the space-time dimension is made by the French epistemologist Gaston Bachelard. In 1957, Bachelard published La poétique de l'espace. This text lies between Le matérialisme rationnel, an epistemological work from 1953, and La poétique de la rêverie, from 1960. La poetique de l'espace has as its object an interesting phenomenology of space, unity with a study of the imaginative component, which, as in Sartre (1940), is approached from a "trans-subjective" point of view: it consists in a consciousness that tends to go beyond itself, "positing its own content as existing through". Consciousness aims to produce an object, an object endowed with a symbolic nature: the image, precisely. "The space grasped by the imagination cannot remain an indifferent space, left to the measure and reflection of the geometer: it is experienced and is experienced not only in its possibility but with all the partiality of the imagination." (G. Bachelard, 1957).

Figure 5: Concert Hall project, Interior perspective (van der Rohe, 1942).

A phenomenology of the image, but of the poetic image: a dimension of topophilia, based on the particularity link of individual consciousness - lived space, characterised by a certain "affectivity of perceptions": "it emerges to the consciousness as a direct product of the heart, of the soul, of the being of man captured in its actuality" (Bachelard, 1957). The temporal space of actuality is to be considered linked to the hic et nunc of the imagination, devoid of historicity and extremely tied to its productive and therefore instantaneous dimension: in the first place, as is the duty in research on images of intimacy, we pose the problem of the poetics of the home. Place par excellence, the home, as it is clear from the first two chapters: Bachelard, in the wake of recent developments in psychoanalysis, Jungian in particular, chooses to decline the concept of topophilia in its literal meaning, in a relationship between the intimate and space. The imaginary is as present as ever: it is nothing but its intimate and naive "felt" externalisation, with all the baggage of subjective experience. The home is then "an instrument of analysis for the soul" (Bachelard, 1957):

"The sign of the return underlines infinite rêveries, since human returns occur on the great rhythm of human life, a rhythm that surpasses the years, that struggles through the dream against all its absences. On the juxtaposed images of nest and home, the retentissement of an intimate component of fidelity is poured out." (Bachelard, 1957).

One cannot help but think of the images of Proust's Recherche, of the timelessness of the dimension of the imaginary, of its capacity to render the space and time of memory fluid. Bachelardian phenomenology, like Benjaminian phenomenology, knows how to use categorical dichotomies in its favour: near/far and, in this case, inside/outside, linked to an extreme circularity.

Figure 6: Tugendhat House Interiors (Van der Rohe, c. 1930).

3. Edgar Morin and the fluid space in the cinematographic dimension

The sociologist Edgar Morin, in the writing The Cinema or the Imaginary Man (1956), explicitly recalls Jean-Paul Sartre's thought and the theories on the function of the image contained in The Imaginary. The cinema is the terrain in which a convergence between the image in itself, a photographic double in this case of concrete reality, and the identifying projection produced by the spectator, naturally subject to "affective participation", sharpened by its non-practical, but purely aesthetic connotation, can be fully realised. Concepts proper to primitive imagery such as the double and metamorphosis are amplified, in the contemporary age, by cinema and the techniques of visual montage. The cinematic system and psychic flow, in symbiosis, lead to a meta-dreamlike dimension (union of dream and reality). The result is the filmic experience, an upheaval of space and time (Morin, 1956).

The experiential deformations of space-time are presented as the basis of that fluid universe of which one of the fathers of cinema Jean Epstein also spoke: "By its construction, in an innate and ineluctable way, the cinematograph represents the universe as a perpetually and everywhere moving continuity, far more fluid and agile than directly sensible continuity [...] nothing separates matter and spirit... a profound identity circulates between the origin and the end, between cause and effect, the cinematograph holds the power of universal transmutations." (Epstein, 1946). Just as chronological time is replaced by psychological time, so space is subject to universal transmutations. Through camera movements, "cinema operated the metamorphosis of space by putting the camera in motion and endowing it with ubiquity." According to the film theorist Henri Agel, this spatial ubiquity combined with temporal ubiquity is "what is most fascinating about cinema" (Agel, 1976). The optical effect of "fluid space" is the metamorphosis of objects, achieved in particular with the cinematic technique of fading ("cross-fading compresses space just as normal fading compresses time"). All these mutations open up the magical universe of metamorphosis: "space moves, changes, turns, dissolves and crystallises again", and "time becomes a dimension of space" (Agel, 1976).

Figure 7: An Andalusian Dog (Buñuel, 1928).

Analysing the fantastic in the French film director Méliès, Morin proceeds to investigate the universe of fiction, a concept that underwent an evolution in the transition from the cinematograph to cinema proper: the transition to the modern cinema dimension saw the overcoming of the more theatrical and therefore "imaginary" dynamics inherent in the mechanisms of the old cinematographs. Despite this, fiction remains dominant in the cinematographical dimension, which is not only the subject of the film, but also the subject of the cinema itself. In spite of this, fiction remains dominant in the cinematographic dimension, as to some extent the fantastic is the first form of imagery through which this transition has taken place (Morin, 1956). The image of the cinematograph is the imaginary; the image of the cinema is fiction. It will be noted that the cinema (which is in fact "the sum of kinaesthetic and affective analogon"; Sartre, 1940), is particularly suited to Sartrean ideas, insofar as it is capable, by being spatiotemporally modifiable, of being a synthetic realisation of the imaginary of the creator (in the sense of the point of coincidence between image and imagination), and to attract and modify that of the spectator, by visually and psychologically projecting it, and transporting it into the a-chronological and a-spatial fluid universe.


After analysing the application of the concept of imaginative knowledge as developed by Sartre (1940), it is possible to conclude that its main aim is to be achieved not with plastic arts, or architecture, as these spheres still deal with objectuality and material. It’s through photography, but mostly cinema, that irreality can become movement and not still images: the ubiquity of space and time enables that synthesis between imagination and its production, as reality is reproduced in another dimension, immaterial but feeble, and the “single eye” structures its own irreality. About the role of the machine and the I in this dynamic, the debate is still open. On a phenomenological level, one may argue that in fact Sartre is not contradicted nor surpassed, as mental images are produced as photograms invested with psychological significance. The debate is still well open, as in the contemporary world especially, and Marshall McLuhan studies are thus directed; the I and the machine find themselves in a rather controversial philosophical impasse, as hoped, in a rather futuristic manner, by the revolutionary Soviet film director Dziga Vertov:

“I’m an eye, a mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility. I’m in constant movement. I approach and pull away objects. I creep under them. I move alongside a running horse’s mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising of bodies. This is I, the machine, manouvering in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations. Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.” (Vertov, 1923).

Figure 8: Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929).

Bibliographical References

Agel, H. (1976). Métaphysique du cinéma. Petite bibliothèque Payot.

Bachelard, G. (2004). La poétique de l'espace. Presses universitaries de France. (Original work published 1957)

Benjamin, W. (1931). A Short History of Photography. Literarische Welt.

Benjamin, W. (1935). The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. Grey Room(39), MIT Press.

Benjamin, W. (1982). Das Passagenwerk. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt. (Original work published 1927-40)

Benjamin, W. (1990). Surrealism. The Last Snapshot of European Intellectuals, in Critical Theory and Society. Routledge. (Original work published 1929)

Benjamin, W. (2012). Aura e choc. Saggi sulla teoria dei media. Einaudi.

Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. Penguin Books.

Breton, A. (1924). First Manifesto of Surrealism. Simon Kra.

Clayton, C. (2011). The Psychical Analogon in Sartre's Theory of the Imagination. Sartre Studies International, 17(2).

Epstein, J. (1998). Cinéaste, poète, philosophe. Cinémathèque française. (Original work published 1946)

Morin (2016). Il cinema o l'uomo immaginario. Cortina. (Original work published 1956)

Sartre, J.-P. (1940). L'Imaginaire. Gallimard.

Vertov, D. (2011). L'occhio della rivoluzione. Scritti dal 1922 al 1942. Mimesis.

Visual Sources


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Sara Spelta

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