Antonio Machado’s epigram goes: “in order to write poetry, you must first invent a poet to write it.” I take this as a general rule that crosses genres, and put it in radical juxtaposition with that debauched child of American transcendentalism: write what you know. The latter has always bugged me, on many counts. How do you know that you know is the epistemologically most basic. There is something imagination squeezing, a certain corseting of energy, that is at stake here. You would not advise a tennis player to play the game that she knows, or the plumber to confine herself to only the known, the expected. You’ll never play excellent tennis or do good plumbing that way. All concern acts that are elaborated in contexts full of unforeseen variables, which you bump into and learn from – for instance, you learn what you don’t know. Every time a car mechanic goes, “come on baby, work”, or a cook go, “it tastes done,” what is expressed is the essential duality of work, the fact that the material has a separate essence from the laborer, one that must be respected, must be persuaded to cooperate. To go at things with too much knowing is to go at them blindly, egotistically. Practical knowing is imagining and conjuring.
In this sense, what Machado is saying applies to tennis and plumbing as well. Such is the power of the imagination that organizations are instinctively on guard against it. Engels recorded that factories in Northern England forbade their workers from singing – workers culled from an agricultural world in which singing was a basic working trait. I’m sure the factories came up with many a bogus reason, but the real one was fear – fear and the desire for power. A worker crushed into being an animated ball bearing is a worker who will not resist, who has no power over his or her work. The worker who imagines the better worker, the other worker, is on the road to power. Strip them of their imagination first – that is the social cost of doing business in the world of capitalism that Engels was describing. One that is very much with us.