The decay of imagination in a decade of memory

Reimagining the cover page of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.

Thomas Hobbes said that imagination was the synthesis of decayed memories. Everything that you can imagine comes from experience. Close your eyes and you will see the image of the world albeit fading.

Hobbes wrote about memory and imagination while England and Scotland were at war. He wrote a whole book on that war called The Behemoth, but that book was published after he died. During the war, however, he wrote The Leviathan. That’s the book with the famous cover image of a giant rising over the hills with a body made of people. Hobbes clearly wanted to strike deep with these book names. The monsters are images of power drawn from one of humanity’s oldest stories, the story of Job.

The two books are opposing takes on political power. The Leviathan was a vision of the ideal political order. The leviathan is a good monster of sorts. It is an “artificial man… of greater stature and strength than the Naturall” says Hobbes. It is the state, a body politic made of the people to overcome and regulate our inclination to conflict and disorder. The Behemoth is also a picture of the political order, but a description of the mess that can be made by corruption and an abusive government.

A vision of the effect of good government seen as if through a window of the city below the hall of power.
Credit: Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Stacked together, the contrast of the ideal and real political orders in Behemoth and Leviathan reminds me of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 14th Century fresco The Allegory of Good and Bad Government that cover the interior walls of a meeting room in Siena’s medieval city hall. One wall depicts the ideal city that Siena could become and the other wall a city given over to corruption.

Like Hobbes’ books, Lorenzetti’s frescoes were made as a vision for political life. The frescoes are on the interior walls of a room high in city hall and map directly on to the city below. Tear away the walls and the vision will give way to the reality of the city below. Does the city hold up to the picture of good governance or of bad? This was the frescoes’ purpose for the law makers that held council in this room – it was a guide of sorts for their political imagination. Time has torn at these walls. It was kinder to Lorenzetti’s fresco depicting the ideal city. The fresco to Bad Government is peeling and fading. So too maybe the memory of Hobbes’ Behemoth fades.

I think of Thomas Hobbes and wonder if he ever had the experience of gazing at a stained glass window. Staring at it in an ill lit hall, the light of the sun shining through, sometimes animated by a cloud breaking or birds passing. He stares at it and then closes his eyes to watch the imprint of the vivid image warmly fade and fold. The synthesis of all the images projecting on the mind possibility born of memory.

Detail from the cover page of Thomas Hobbes Leviathan. Cleaned up by Chris Tolworthy.

Pressed from the dark, white forms fade into view between black inky lines. No color, just copies and copies of forms, of bodies. Many bodies all pressed together. I imagine the medieval mind sees chainmail armor and then in seeing the forms, realizes the meaning: we are the security of the political order. The modern imagination as medieval images decayed by the trauma of war.

Eyes closed again. This time tiny pictures like stained glass windows appear everywhere. There’s a crowd of heads I see in the dark, the light of their faces are individually lit pale blue by one of these little glass surfaces. My medieval mind sees a candle before each face, but who stares so vacuously at the flicker of a wick? Why is this color so much colder?

I wonder if my failing imagination has to do with all these images that fail to fade. My phone, a handheld window baring glassy pictures, just keeps bringing back all the images, over and over. These habits, the screen time, are a rehearsal of sorts. Sunlight exposes and sanitizes, because it also takes and fades everything. In artificial light, the scene is held, time paused, and the memory rehearsed over and over.

It is a funny word, rehearsal. From medieval French, it is to go over something again and again. As a noun, hearse is old French for a rake, a tool to use to break up the soil. By the time of Thomas Hobbes, the hearse enters English as a vehicle for carrying the dead.

I think of rehearsals as always coming before a performance. The actors go over their lines, again and again, not just to remember, but to eventually put on a show. What am I preparing for by rehearsing these memories?

Nathan coaching a rehearsal in The Rehearsal, 2022, HBO

The Rehearsal by Nathan Fielder is a show from 2022 where Nathan helps everyday people rehearse for an important event in their life. To help them prepare, he creates a realistic set of their circumstances, hires actors to play their community, and coaches them through the possible scenarios.

The whole setup of the show seems utterly bizarre, but not entirely unbelievable to me. How much is this what we will look like in a few years – Nathan Fielder as an AI helping us replay our memories in a way to process the past, fill in some gaps, assemble a plan, and practice our lines for our next life challenge. I know television today prefers a more dystopian vision of the future of technology, but I think the reality will be more mundane, more Nathan Fielder-like. I suspect we’re going to feel at home with an AI-driven relationship to our memories and imagination.

Phones and social media isolate people in filter bubbles and echo chambers. As a result, it amplifies pre-existing ideas and beliefs. You’ve heard this criticism about social media and mobile phone use, right? What if this idea has it backwards – what if the amplified belief is actually an illusion, an expression of declining belief? In the reflection of all these little screens, we make whimpering screams, but we’re believing less and less, because we don’t have to believe anything other than the rehearsal.

Rehearsing talking points to our friends, family, and strangers, we’re raking leaves more than raising beliefs. Doing it for the likes, retweets, or replies while the storehouse of beliefs are raided. We’re stuck in replay with an imagination that cannot leave the hearse of unfaded memories.

By connecting imagination to memory, Hobbes made imagination out to be similar to artificial intelligence. He wanted us to recognize that imagination doesn’t come from nowhere – the infinite as he called it – but rather from finite, human experience. His fundamental intention, I think, was to form a vision of good government that was based on reality and not superstition, caste, and obfuscation.

The output of algorithms and artificial intelligence is similarly stitched together from all the published content of writing, images, and videos that we have produced. It is the making of a model of collective experience that can generate new writing, images, and videos. It is however constrained by inputs just as Hobbes would have our imagination constrained by experience.

We are finite beings with particular experiences that inform a finite understanding. Our understanding of the past and vision for the future together can be assembled with reason. In Hobbes’ words:

Whatsoever we imagine, is Finite. Therefore there is no Idea, or conception of anything we call Infinite. No man can have in his mind an Image of infinite magnitude; nor conceive the ends, and bounds of the thing named; having no Conception of the thing, but of our own inability

The Leviathan, Conjecture Of The Time Past, Thomas Hobbes

Because of our fear of the future and uncertainty about the causes that will eventually be our death, Hobbes says, we are driven to create gods, powers, and AI (Agents Invisible that is). No one can have in their mind an image of infinite magnitude, but with technology as an extension to our capacity to remember, we gain confidence that we can have a near infinite conception of anything.

Hobbes says that we can resist capture to the inventions of our fear by asserting that god is omnipotent, eternal, and infinite and although we cannot conceive of the infinite we can be assured that all finite movement was placed in order by god, the prime mover of every finite being. Chaos, he says, is a construct, a god of violence and war.

Artificial Intelligence is the Agent Invisible of Hobbes’ time. All our writing, all our images, are offered as prayers and sacrifices to a hungry and resource demanding system that – as many are eager to presume – will be the key to saving us from our sin of rising global temperatures and ill health.

There are solid questions about algorithms and artificial intelligence, particularly concerning bias, training data practices, resource consumption, and amplification of economic inequality, but my argument here is that for us to have a political imagination or vision for the future we need to understand the impact of technology on our experience of memory. As the fade of experience slows and algorithmic mediation of memory increases, we quietly grant consent of technological authority over our lives.

For Hobbes, only humans had the capacity to synthesize language and individual and collective experiences to produce new ideas and a vision for political order. It is a definition of human capability that makes us no different from the artificial intelligence that we’ve created. That faith in technology grows as we practice digitally-mediated memories that detaches us from consequence and maintains a sense of life in perpetual rehearsal.

Go ahead, sculpt yourself a picture perfect life on social media. Write adoring thought leadership pieces. Confess your desires to the chatbot. Store all your personal photos in the cloud. The Agent Invisible is made in our collective images and texts. As it learns and accumulates it will draw closer to us. And unlike Hobbes’ infernally distant infinite and eternal god, this one accepts us as its prime mover. Few know how it works, but we know it is a little less than infinite and a little less than omnipotent. It is something we can believe in, something just good enough to help process painful memories, give shape to our imagination, and to be there for us in the rehearsal.

A new body politic rises. Is it a behemoth or a leviathan? Either way, you might feel safe. The confessions, the prayers, the offerings don’t seem to have any consequence, because this is just the rehearsal. It is safe and we’re safe within. The connection is end-to-end encrypted.

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