Shattering the perceived hegemony of the imaginary

(Note: This post discusses sensitive issues such as lack of consent and sexual assault)

Often it can seem as though the shared imaginary is one homogenous mass – The sense that most of the public share the same views and perspectives is systematically perpetuated though media narrative. However, what can be observed, is that speaking out and challenging certain public discourses actually serves to fracture that illusion of hegemony.
In recent weeks, from the US, there has been a surge of anger towards Judges for imposing a lenient sentence on perpetrator Brock Turner. This has manifested in a lot of interest on social media, criticising the way in which court proceedings further victimised the female, who had already suffered at the hands of Turner. In court, she was subjected to complete interrogation of her demeanour leading up to the attack – feeding into the sense of the imaginary that is suggestive of the view that if there was alcohol involved, that somehow the woman holds some culpability. The culture of alcohol and campus party culture was pointed to as a instigative factor in the attack. She was not only forced to answer irrelevant questions such as “What were you wearing?” “How much did you have to drink” – thus conferring the responsibility to her to maintain moral codes surround female behaviour – but it was also inferred that because she was unconscious, there was no way to prove that she hadn’t consented and it was left to Turner to “fill in the gaps”
Both of Turner’s parents wrote pleading letters to the judge that have been published within the public arena.

The father’s attempt to make sense of his son’s crimes describing “20 mins of action” – harking to imaginary notions of the simplicity of a promising young man sowing his wild oats. The impact on Brock Turner’s sports career is given great prominence. There is no secret made about their fears for their son. A white, male college kid who would struggle in prison.
But missing from both letters is any reference to the girl their son raped. Her invisibility is utterly striking. At no point is the impact that this has had on her life ever mentioned.
This recent example goes some way to show how the imaginary feeds into shaping perceptions around the sensitive issue of rape and sexual assault. Furthermore what this could suggest however, is that cultural understandings of rape and rape culture require examination.
Within the popular imagination, rapists are often represented as a ‘savage other’ – not a middle class, white, college jock. Moreover, when the issue of rape is framed within tensions of power rather than sex, as well as the discourse of “no- is – no” there is a tendency to ignore some of the more subtly pernicious ways in which forms of power condition the imaginary. Playing into ‘rape myths’ such as the role of alcohol being an excusable causative factor, or the emphasis on the impact that the trial had on Turner and his life chances(!) all play into cultural myths configured through the imaginary.
The role of social media in this is to shift the discourse from one geographical location in America –, to a global platform whereby the situation can be understood for it’s wider implications. The intention isn’t to minimise or exploit the impact of rape, rather to highlight what this tells us about the role of the imaginary in this instance.
A focus on the more subtle forms of power can lead us to a better understanding of how ‘rape culture’ manifests in society. Instead of focussing on rape as a physically coercive event, (such as the image of a stranger in the bushes, who ignores the pleas to stop) – it is perhaps more useful to understand how for conditions for “rape culture” are structured and facilitated.
One possible avenue for understanding is to examine the side effects of the proliferation of pornography – ever pertinent in the digital age of quick and easy internet porn. Internet porn has a tendency toward a world of false image, a symbolic melt down of the barest iconics of sexuality. And the darker side – an arena in which submission and brutality are glorified and normalised and the culture of entitlement to women’s bodies becomes manifested in the imaginary. For it is the generation that are becoming adults that are the ones whose first sexual contact was offered through the screen, long before the real event, by which time a set of false norms and schemas have already embedded themselves.
It is this imaginary that needs to be challenged, as it is the threat posed by this culture of entitlement that needs breaking down. By drawing attention to “rape myths” we can act to disrupt the illusion that these ideas are naturalised within everyone’s consciousness.


Schemas and the Imaginary

British psychologist Bartlett understood the notion of a “schema” as being that which creates a cognitive structure for us to make sense of what is around us – Taylor also discusses this and conceptualizes the idea of “prototypes” – or as Bartlett or Baudrillard (and perhaps many others) would understand as a ‘paradigm’ – that is, the shared expectation of how a something should present itself. So, the prototype of a kitchen would have to include a source of heat for cooking on, or else it would not be a kitchen and would instead fit into another structure.

Schemas are useful for helping us understand the world around us, but what happens when this imaginary gets a bit ‘too real’?  Discourse, social practise and the imaginary can be seen to compose our understandings of the world, Taylor saw it as people  ‘imagining their social surroundings’ in their day to day life, as articulated through expressions of the self, such as the narratives we create and the stories we tell  – as well the images and symbols that hold meaning for us. (This is separate from theory as theorists are immersed within their own specialist knowledge systems.)

As Strauss points out, “paradigmatic examples repeated in popular culture may carry more weight.”  So the repetition of particular media tropes, messages and ideas can very well form a schematic understanding, or if you like, an “imaginary”. This is a concern because even though we may not fully internalize everything, indeed we may well reject much of what we are fed – we still may hold some contradictory and incohesive values as a result. So in this instance we could draw attention to Strauss’ example of a feminist woman, fully aware of the implications of the ‘glass ceiling’ who has still managed to internalize negative discourses around the idea of  the “welfare mother” and is able to view these as completely separate from each other.

I’ve been thinking about to what extent do these shared practises, that become ‘common sense’ understandings of the world, constrain and limit our own agency in how we are able to think about certain things? What actually lies underneath discursive practise? And how possible is it to reach what Saussure believed as a fixed ‘objective’ reality buried beneath layers of signification?