America, a Fantasy


William Blake, Plate 2, Title Page, fromĀ America. A Prophecy, 1793. Color-printed relief etching in green black with pen and black ink and watercolor on paper. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about fantasy. I don’t mean unicorns and elves and orcs and mystical castles; these fantasies are the sort that can take root in our minds and communities and create visions by which we order our worlds.

That’s not a bad thing; we could argue that this experiment we call America* is one mass-produced and sustained fantasy, a series of land masses filled with beings who elect to bind themselves together (and remain bound together) by their acceptance of a long-ago written document that begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. Our ancestors bought into this narrative, this fantasy, and they shared it and organized their lives (and the lives of those to come after them) around it. The fantasy of America demands tacit acceptance of and agreement with fundamental ideas/ideals/beliefs/concepts in order for the grand experiment to continue. Over time, our communal understandings of and agreements about those ideas/ideals/beliefs/concepts change or become sites of conflict, and we find ways to reach some sort agreement or understanding about them that allows the experiment to continue.

This is how we work: mass-acceptance of a fantasy of how individual lives can best be lived in community to ensure “liberty and justice for all.” I keep using the word “fantasy” because it’s central to several questions I’ve been turning over in my head for no small period of time:

  • when a shared communal fantasy breaks down, what are the consequences to the life of the community?
  • when one part of the community begins to alter the meaning(s) of key ideas/ideals/beliefs/concepts and those alterations are rejected by another part of the community, what happens to the communal fantasy?
  • when the community is so split on these fundamental elements of the shared fantasy as to decrease the community’s ability to function efficiently and effectively toward shared goals, what can be done to bridge the divide?
  • how, if desired, can we intervene in and disrupt fantasies that threaten to do tremendous harm to the community?

These are questions I want to explore more formally this summer, beginning with a refresher on Ernest Bormann’s theory of symbolic convergence, a communication framework that relies on fantasy-theme analysis as a key element of understanding how we form community through the fantasies we spin out together about our world. We are currently multiple Americas–always have been, in some senses–and some of those Americas have become so prominent as to threaten a shut down of the whole enterprise.

I’m far from the first person to consider these questions/issues, and I won’t be the last. I won’t even be close to the most competent. What, though, is the purpose of the platform if not to give space to share the work of the mind using it? I need a place to put the stuff that’s rambling about my head and maybe that will lead to some fruitful pathways for connection.

Feel free to share your thoughts; comments are screened but welcome.

*I use “America” here to reference the United States of America; I am in no way trying to speak for or about two continents.