7-2 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.VOS.7-2.10 | Sil­vaPDF

Abstract | What is the rela­tion­ship between visu­al images and the social imag­i­nary? The fol­low­ing arti­cle argues that the social imag­i­nary is built on aes­thet­ics and that this fact cre­ates con­di­tions of per­cep­tion belong­ing not to art but to the social realm. It also means that it is pos­si­ble, there­fore, to con­struct a tri­adic mod­el of social per­cep­tion, accord­ing to whether an empir­i­cal fact or an imag­ined event dom­i­nates in any giv­en phe­nom­e­non. How then is visu­al per­cep­tion cre­at­ed through the pro­duc­tion of the imag­i­nary? If an imag­i­nary is a state of aes­thet­ic cog­ni­tion then there is an epis­temic rela­tion­ship of con­ti­nu­ity between the visu­al image and the con­struc­tion of the social imag­i­nary which pre­cedes all representation.
Résumé | Quelle est la rela­tion entre les images visuelles et l'imaginaire social? Cet arti­cle sou­tient que l'imaginaire social repose sur l'esthétique et que cela crée des con­di­tions de per­cep­tion appar­tenant non pas à l'art, mais à la sphère sociale. Cela sig­ni­fie aus­si qu'il est pos­si­ble de con­stru­ire un mod­èle tri­par­tite de la per­cep­tion sociale selon qu’un fait empirique ou un événe­ment imag­iné domine dans un phénomène don­né. Com­ment la per­cep­tion visuelle est-elle donc créée en fonc­tion de la pro­duc­tion de l'imaginaire social? Si l’imaginaire est un état de con­nais­sance esthé­tique, il existe une rela­tion épistémique de con­ti­nu­ité entre l'image visuelle et la con­struc­tion de l'imaginaire social qui précède la représentation.

Arman­do Sil­va | Uni­ver­si­dad Exter­na­do de Colombia
Geral­dine Baran­di­arán | Translator


Imaginaries Built on Aesthetics

I begin with the propo­si­tion that what we iden­ti­fy as an imag­i­nary has the social capac­i­ty of “caus­ing aston­ish­ment” (Sil­va, Imag­i­nar­ios). I thus iden­ti­fy the con­struc­tion of imag­i­nar­ies as those instances in which the aes­thet­ic func­tion is dom­i­nant, not, I must clar­i­fy, as art, but rather as part of social inter­ac­tions which, inso­far as they are instan­ti­a­tions of affect, devel­op with­in a group set­ting and, as such, in an inter­ac­tion of affects.

The group set­ting implies that which is com­mon; it involves an inter­play between close­ly relat­ed oth­ers, the “nos-otros” [Span­ish for “us”, lit­er­al­ly, “we-oth­ers”], which des­ig­nates myself and the oth­ers. We are refer­ring here to the psy­cho­log­i­cal force of a col­lec­tiv­i­ty, their per­cep­tions large­ly eman­ci­pat­ed from any ver­i­fi­able or log­i­cal argu­men­ta­tion, assum­ing form through social cir­cu­la­tion with the result that the sen­sa­tion of aston­ish­ment dom­i­nates the ref­er­en­tial dimen­sions of the object which has gen­er­at­ed it. In art, the imag­i­nary is free to rep­re­sent social coex­is­tence, so the artis­tic work presents var­i­ous kinds of explic­it­ly polit­i­cal con­tent, as in per­for­mances or works of pub­lic art which seek to spur cit­i­zens to take action. In social imag­i­nar­ies, how­ev­er, aes­thet­ics is part of the liv­ing body of each sub­ject with­in the col­lec­tiv­i­ty; its truths are assim­i­lat­ed as part of exis­tence and, as such, we react to them as if faced with a cer­tain­ty of iden­ti­ty. At play here are the ways in which the words or images which a sub­ject employs in order to cre­ate imag­i­nary cat­e­gories mate­ri­al­ize into action and become pro­grams for urban liv­ing, the cen­tral con­cern of schol­ars in this par­tic­u­lar field. Our object of study can be described thus: through imag­i­nar­ies, we study those social process­es in which the aes­thet­ic func­tion becomes dom­i­nant as the means by which a col­lec­tiv­i­ty per­ceives and behaves. In Fig­ure 1, for exam­ple, one can see some­thing amaz­ing: sud­den­ly a horse enters the urban scene and turns the moment into a phan­tas­mat­ic illu­sion that makes the cit­i­zens who per­ceive it par­tic­i­pate in an aes­thet­ic event.[1] Along these lines, then, if we want to under­stand the mate­ri­als from which imag­i­nar­ies are made, we must look for our expla­na­tion in aes­thet­ic feel­ing, inso­far as we take this to be a con­sti­tu­tive part of social perception.

Fig­ure 1

The ear­ly years of the new mil­len­ni­um saw the emer­gence of art works that spoke of rela­tion­al aes­thet­ics, cul­tur­al ecol­o­gy, emerg­ing aes­thet­ics, or of an art of social processes.

These involved var­i­ous kinds of expan­sions of object-cen­tred envi­ron­ments for sit­u­at­ing and sta­bi­liz­ing indi­vid­u­als, defin­ing their iden­ti­ties “in the same way that com­mu­ni­ties and fam­i­lies used to” (Lada­gana 56). Out­side of art, peo­ple have gen­er­at­ed col­lec­tive forms of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, focused not only on spe­cif­ic demands but around par­tic­u­lar expres­sive forms. The ques­tion we ask is this: “Can the aes­thet­ic dimen­sions of cit­i­zen par­tic­i­pa­tion be con­sid­ered a part of cul­ture, or are they, more rad­i­cal­ly, con­tex­tu­al­ly appro­pri­ate means for com­mu­ni­cat­ing the ‘con­tent’ of cer­tain affec­tive demands?”[2] The lat­ter cor­re­sponds to an aes­thet­ic sense of imag­i­nar­ies, one in which cit­i­zens engage in polit­i­cal acts by pro­duc­ing images and aes­thet­ic forms based on their com­mon desires.

The fig­ur­al, then, des­ig­nates both the object and the rela­tion­ship between sub­ject and object. As a result, the func­tion of those fig­ures per­ceived as images in social con­texts is not only that of insti­tut­ing dis­tinc­tions but also those of intro­duc­ing val­ues and shap­ing behav­iour. Every­thing is inscribed in a con­stel­la­tion of rela­tion­ships with oth­er sym­bols, and the sym­bol­ic forms, which range from the reli­gious to the mag­i­cal, and from the aes­thet­ic to the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal thus con­sti­tute, as Baczko has shown, “a (fig­u­ra­tive) field in which images, ideas and actions are artic­u­lat­ed,” thus ensur­ing that social imag­i­nar­ies will be the force reg­u­lat­ing social life in every col­lec­tive orga­ni­za­tion (30).

How­ev­er, if we accept as true that imag­i­nar­ies are con­sti­tut­ed by aes­thet­ics, we must empha­size that both the cog­ni­tive and the emo­tion­al fit in the lat­ter, and that an imag­i­nary vision is based in feel­ings. That is, it does not orig­i­nate in knowl­edge, but rather springs from ways of know­ing in which feel­ings dom­i­nate. Accord­ing­ly, there are cer­tain feel­ings in social life that con­struct dom­i­nant imag­i­nar­ies, such as fear, revenge, hope, hate and yearn­ings for the future. Of all these feel­ings, the one marked by great­est con­sis­ten­cy in con­tem­po­rary urban cul­ture is per­haps fear, which is itself a residue of oth­er feel­ings moti­vat­ing peo­ple to act. If we exam­ine its modes of exis­tence, we will bet­ter under­stand the trig­ger mech­a­nism of an imag­i­nary which, in any giv­en moment, can come to dom­i­nate social perception.

An exem­plary case of media-induced fear, which I wrote about in 2004, took shape around what was called “swine flu”, which was first detect­ed in Mex­i­co in 2009, and then spread to the whole world, mov­ing more quick­ly in the media, and espe­cial­ly through tele­vi­sion, than did the actu­al pan­dem­ic itself.[3] In Mex­i­co, dur­ing the sec­ond half of that year, tourism fell by 80% in cities such as Can­cún, and in oth­er “infect­ed coun­tries” it wors­ened because of pho­tos show­ing cit­i­zens using oxy­gen tanks and masks to pro­tect them­selves from the fatal virus that besieged them. Images like these, shown around the world, por­trayed Mex­i­cans as extrater­res­tri­als oppressed by the ill­ness. In actu­al fact, the virus was the result of an avian strain com­pound­ed by two more strains of the swine flu virus. The ori­gins of this new strain were not known and the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion (WHO) declared at the time that it was eas­i­ly trans­mit­ted among humans because of a muta­tion that was yet to be iden­ti­fied. The fear increased even more when it was announced that it could be trans­mit­ted “through sali­va, by air, by close con­tact between mucous mem­branes or by hand-mouth trans­mis­sion involv­ing con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed hands.” This ter­ri­fy­ing descrip­tion, put for­ward by an inter­na­tion­al sci­en­tif­ic author­i­ty, pro­duced an imag­i­nary of fatal­i­ty with unpre­dictable chain reac­tions, and led to the estab­lish­ment of new behav­iour­al rit­u­als. Peo­ple no longer want­ed to shake hands on greet­ing each oth­er; they stopped eat­ing pork, whose price fell, to the point at which it was being giv­en away for free in many places; hand san­i­tiz­ers were placed every­where, first in all the arrival and depar­ture gates of air­ports, and then in all pub­lic places such as schools, offices, and homes. Coun­tries with cas­es of infec­tion were dis­crim­i­nat­ed against, and the cri­sis reached such heights that there were diplo­mat­ic protests and inter­na­tion­al alter­ca­tions (as in the case of Argenti­na and Mex­i­co, when the for­mer closed its gates to flights com­ing from the lat­ter), while tele­vi­sion joy­ful­ly tal­lied up the num­ber of deaths and new infec­tions, and the world began to fill up with signs of the apocalypse.

The WHO decid­ed to start over, remak­ing the image of the virus by ren­der­ing it more abstract and thus more dif­fi­cult for the mind to visu­al­ize, chang­ing it from the fig­ure of a pig, whose malig­nant image spread as the virus’ pri­mor­dial and fatal sym­bol, to the more sci­en­tif­ic label “H1N1.” Very soon there­after, the same media began to report that it was not as dan­ger­ous as it had been thought to be at the begin­ning and that there would be no more fatal out­breaks. In a third phase of anti-media sen­ti­ment, the WHO was crit­i­cized and even cursed for its exag­ger­a­tion, accused of want­i­ng to ben­e­fit labs that were gear­ing up to pro­duce a vac­cine against an unstop­pable pan­dem­ic, as if its own behav­iour was worse than that of any imag­in­able and hor­rif­ic virus.

In this stun­ning episode, we see how the capac­i­ty for ratio­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tion was absent in the face of emer­gency, as a con­ta­gious ter­ror spread among the cit­i­zens of the world, demon­strat­ing that it is pos­si­ble to cre­ate real­i­ties both real and arti­fi­cial whose glob­al effects can­not be addressed or con­trolled. Truths com­pet­ed with the fan­tasies about them, but, in this case, it appears that, social­ly at least, imag­i­nary per­cep­tions gained greater cred­i­bil­i­ty. Sit­u­a­tions that were heav­i­ly charged with emo­tion were resolved in group con­texts through emo­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions, fears, and col­lec­tive hys­te­ria, while the media’s vorac­i­ty ulti­mate­ly swal­lowed both sci­ence and the acad­e­my. Fear, because of its intrin­si­cal­ly chang­ing prop­er­ties, took the form of a kind of urban dust.

Hav­ing intro­duced the above as an exam­ple of the “incar­na­tion of feel­ings” in col­lec­tive behav­iour, let us exam­ine the modes of their social pro­duc­tion, using a mod­el that assumes three dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions, each of whose pos­si­ble man­i­fes­ta­tions can be viable in the con­struc­tion of an urban space, one not bound to the phys­i­cal city itself but rather to cul­tur­al inter­ac­tions and to the ways in which cit­i­zens use and per­ceive their phys­i­cal sur­round­ings. As I have argued in Imag­i­nar­ios: el asom­bro social, the phys­i­cal city as per­ceived and used rests on an imag­ined city.

The Incarnation of Urban Imaginaries: Modelling Social Perception

I have come to the con­clu­sion that our mod­el for the social pro­duc­tion of urban imag­i­nar­ies may be based on three mod­el sit­u­a­tions. These are pre­sent­ed here, along with the for­mu­la used in field work car­ried out in sev­er­al major cities.[4] This work was under­tak­en under my direc­tion as part of the Urban Imag­i­nar­ies project, which was car­ried out between 1998 and the present in 26 cities of Latin Amer­i­ca, the Unit­ed States, and Europe using the same method­ol­o­gy. The results are orga­nized as a series of “Imag­ined cities,” from which I have tak­en the exam­ples which follow.

In method­olog­i­cal terms, one might won­der what “Imag­ined Cities” means to the read­er of this text. This term was used in the attempt to define the place of social per­cep­tions in the use and expe­ri­ence of cities, and to evoke cit­i­zens’ desires for a form of urban­ism that they them­selves con­duct­ed. To be even more spe­cif­ic: the “Imag­ined Cities” are works of urban­ism, but they are not so much stud­ies of cities per se as of the ways in which a cit­i­zen urban­ism shapes the ways in which cities are built. This is the dif­fer­ence in our approach: the mate­r­i­al resides in the cit­i­zens because it is they who are con­cerned with the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the city. And this is what makes our focus unique: its mate­ri­al­i­ty lies with the cit­i­zens, in their per­spec­tives and ways of think­ing and feel­ing urban rep­re­sen­ta­tions rather than the phys­i­cal city.

The rel­e­vance of each sit­u­a­tion will be shown through the rela­tion­ship between two terms, which I iden­ti­fy as I (Imag­ined) and R (Real). The tri­ad is rearranged in three mod­els for the “per­cep­tion of real­i­ty”, such that either one of the three access points of the mod­el will dom­i­nate at any giv­en time. In this way, and in order to demon­strate the log­i­cal foun­da­tions of my argu­ment, visu­al images become nec­es­sary. In turn these images come to con­sti­tute an imag­i­nary in themselves.


This occurs when an event, an object or a sto­ry does not exist with­in an empir­i­cal real­i­ty, but is imag­ined by a col­lec­tiv­i­ty that expe­ri­ences these things as tru­ly exist­ing and caus­es a ges­ture of cit­i­zen­ship.  These are the most evoca­tive and less empir­i­cal­ly ver­i­fi­able sit­u­a­tions, those most like­ly to be marked by the erup­tion of urban phantoms.Reality 1: The first type of real­i­ty is con­struct­ed when the Imag­ined dom­i­nates and the Real ele­vates it to a cer­tain pow­er, so I is raised to the pow­er of R.

In Mex­i­co City, Hidal­go Avenue was known for its foul smell because of open sew­ers that had not been prop­er­ly chan­neled. The gov­ern­ment fixed this prob­lem in 1999 and the foul smells dis­ap­peared, but only in objec­tive real­i­ty inso­far as cit­i­zens con­tin­ued to per­ceive the smell for some time there­after. In order to rem­e­dy this olfac­to­ry prob­lem, the author­i­ties decid­ed to install a great yel­low sculp­ture, the “Cabeza de Cabal­lo” (pop­u­lar­ly known as “the lit­tle yel­low horse”) by sculp­tor Enrique Car­va­jal, com­mon­ly known as Sebas­t­ian. The eye-catch­ing sculp­ture was placed right at the place at which the ter­ri­ble smells had orig­i­nat­ed. Only then was the offen­sive olfac­to­ry per­cep­tion replaced by a grand, mod­ern eques­tri­an image. This exam­ple shows that per­cep­tion, in this first instan­ti­a­tion of our mod­el, is gen­er­at­ed through an imag­i­nary, lack­ing any sort of empir­i­cal base, and that it takes time for this new real­i­ty (the change from a foul smell to the image of a sculp­ture) to be accept­ed and per­ceived as a new image and thus a new reality.

Fig­ure 2

Val­paraiso is a city sit­u­at­ed in the cen­tral region of Chile’s coast­line (92 km north­east of San­ti­a­go, the cap­i­tal of Chile). In 2002, the city built a bridge which served as an over­pass over the beach­es of the Pacif­ic to facil­i­tate a pedes­tri­an route. How­ev­er, it was nev­er brought to com­ple­tion and so remains as visu­al tes­ti­mo­ny to a bare­ly “imag­ined bridge” (see Fig­ure 2) which peo­ple vis­it and pho­to­graph to imag­ine how it would have looked if it had been completed.

Fig­ure 3

In Fig­ure 3, we see I raised to the pow­er of R. The image depicts a scene in Buenos Aires’s Aveni­da 9 de Julio, where a large imag­i­nary tear is pro­duced by an adver­tise­ment that tries to tell us, ever so sub­tly, what might take place inside these apart­ments. The beau­ti­ful mod­el is lit­er­al­ly embed­ded with­in the apart­ment build­ing. This scene could very well be enti­tled sex and archi­tec­ture. At the same time, in Mon­tre­al, Cana­da, a young woman with her back to the view­er (Fig­ure 4) is car­ry­ing around her waist a bul­let belt as part of her aggres­sive attire, with which she intends to draw our atten­tion to the real ghost of vio­lence. In Fig­ure 5 we see a Mex­i­can con­struc­tion work­er in New York City in the cos­tume of the hero­ic TV char­ac­ter Cha­pulín Col­orado, which pow­er­ful­ly con­fers upon him the role he imag­ines for him­self: the cos­tume is sup­posed to give him the real strength with which to per­form his demand­ing job on a dai­ly basis.

Fig­ure 4

Fig­ure 5

As we can see, this first instance of the pro­duc­tion of urban imag­i­nar­ies, fol­low­ing our pro­posed mod­el, is locat­ed out­side of the mar­gins of empir­i­cal proof and comes to per­cep­tion with­in an extreme social sub­jec­tiv­i­ty which does not admit any proof accord­ing to the tra­di­tion­al meth­ods of the social sci­ences. It is pre­cise­ly in this first sit­u­a­tion that the most fun­da­men­tal ele­ment of the col­lec­tive Imag­i­nary, the ‘urban phan­tom,’ emerges. This is the unde­ci­pher­able pres­ence of a sym­bol­ic mark of the lived city, and as such, it sus­tains a rela­tion­ship which has more of an imag­i­nary than an empir­i­cal char­ac­ter. The phan­tom under­girds the subject’s sense of real­i­ty as a basis for this very imag­i­nary con­struc­tion, “since real­i­ty is the phan­tom of the real, not the real” (Lafont 22). One may observe that the pro­duc­tion of the phan­tas­mat­ic increas­es when the evoked object does not exist in a tan­gi­ble or ver­i­fi­able real­i­ty, but is imag­ined and even seen and experienced.

Real­i­ty 2: The sec­ond type of real­i­ty is con­struct­ed when the Real is dom­i­nant and the Imag­i­nary ele­vates it to a cer­tain pow­er, such that R is raised to the pow­er of I.


In this case we are deal­ing with an object, event, sto­ry or image that pos­sess­es an empir­i­cal and ref­er­en­tial exis­tence that is not used or evoked in social fash­ion in an urban con­text, either by the gen­er­al col­lec­tiv­i­ty or in any part there­of. As opposed to the pre­vi­ous exam­ple, this cat­e­go­ry includes the most empir­i­cal and real­is­tic of sit­u­a­tions, ones dis­tin­guish­able by their sta­tus as for­got­ten places, objects erased from our mem­o­ries, his­tor­i­cal events that no one remem­bers and places no one visits—in oth­er words, by urban invisibility.

The above applies in the case of down­town Mon­te­v­ideo, which the authors of Mon­te­v­ideo imag­i­na­do have proven “only exists in real­i­ty” ( Álvarez and Hubert 39) and not in the col­lec­tive imag­i­nary of the major­i­ty of res­i­dents, who do not even vis­it or refer to it. When Montevideo's down­town began to lose its recog­ni­tion val­ue in the minds of the cit­i­zens who used it, vis­it­ed it or drove through it, its cen­tral­i­ty passed onto the Paseo de las Ram­blas, which came to be seen as its mod­ern exten­sion, a place and pas­sage which bet­ter con­densed the pos­i­tive qual­i­ties of the Mon­tivideo imaginary.

Fig­ure 6

Fig­ure 7

Fig­ure 8

In cer­tain cities of Latin Amer­i­ca where Indige­nous peo­ple con­sti­tute a minor­i­ty, as is the case of Bogotá, they became invis­i­ble to the major­i­ty of urban res­i­dents. This aban­don­ment cre­ates invis­i­bil­i­ty, as shown in Fig­ure 6, where this per­son appears as a an ele­ment of urban décor in a social dis­place­ment typ­i­cal of those which gov­ern visu­al sys­tems. In Fig­ure 7 we can see what, to every­day soci­ety, is an “invis­i­ble real­i­ty” that the image nev­er­the­less makes obvi­ous: the social divi­sion between the wealthy and the work­ing class­es evi­dent in the rela­tion­ship between the East and West ends of a large avenue in the city of Cara­cas. Some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pens in Fig­ure 8, an image of Buenos Aires in which two women trav­el in the metro, both absorbed in their own inner world of indif­fer­ence; it seems like each one of them lives their own lone­li­ness with no inter­est on their social environment.

As we can see, real­i­ty 2 of our tri­adic mod­el describes a fac­tu­al event that a col­lec­tiv­i­ty does not con­sid­er as wor­thy of artic­u­lat­ed speech, lead­ing to its per­cep­tu­al aban­don­ment on the part of a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of urban dwellers.[5] There is a denial of sorts con­cern­ing a par­tic­u­lar part of the city or social fact, while that which is denied con­tin­ues to exist only in reality.


La Paz, Bolivia, is one of the cities that most uses its streets as a medi­um of aes­thet­ic and polit­i­cal expres­sion. This pro­found rela­tion­ship between the real and the imag­ined, between the per­for­mance of art and protest, between a fes­tive­ness both real and evoked, is described by Car­los Vil­lagómez in La Paz imag­i­na­da (2007). Year after year, he writes, the rhythms and ances­tral dances re-enact­ed dur­ing the var­i­ous reli­gious or cul­tur­al folk­loric events con­tin­ue to be heard, lit­er­al­ly “tak­ing over the city”. Musi­cal groups and dancers per­form or rehearse their dances all year round, cre­at­ing a per­ma­nent sense of fes­tiv­i­ty. Irre­spec­tive of social class or eco­nom­ic stand­ing, the folk­loric cel­e­bra­tions [Fig­ure 9] form a con­tin­u­ous move­ment, a sound con­stant­ly per­cep­ti­ble in the atmos­phere of the La Paz, and along with the topo­graph­ic folds of its moun­tains also show the folds of the skirts of the choli­tas that con­sol­i­date our col­lec­tive imag­i­nary of inter­ac­tion between nature and festivity.

Real­i­ty 3: This refers to the third type of con­struc­tion of real­i­ty, one that takes place when I, the imag­ined, is equiv­a­lent to R, the Real, which in the dynam­ic of the imag­i­nar­ies means that I’ has seen its mean­ing enriched by R. I’ is used to indi­cate that we are deal­ing with some­thing that is sim­i­lar to, but not the same as the ini­tial I, which has been affect­ed by a new inter­pre­ta­tion of the Real which brings about a re-sig­ni­fi­ca­tion of I.[6]


Fig­ure 9

In this same situation—no. 3—we can include the col­lec­tive per­cep­tion of cer­tain places as unsafe in ways that con­form to empir­i­cal sta­tis­tics. That is, cit­i­zens know about cer­tain dan­ger­ous places in the city, and their per­cep­tion coin­cides with actu­al facts, with every­day sta­tis­tics gen­er­at­ed by the police, as shown in Bogotá imag­i­na­da (Sil­va, “Imag­ined Bogo­ta”). This hap­pened dur­ing the term sof cer­tain city may­ors (1992–2002) who based their admin­is­tra­tion on these per­ceived cer­tain­ties in order to insti­tute suc­cess­ful pub­lic safe­ty plans for the city.[7] How­ev­er, when we tried to apply this mod­el to the city of Cara­cas, that is, to com­pare per­cep­tions as to where crime and dan­ger exist­ed with the real places in which crimes were tak­ing place, we found that there was no cor­re­la­tion between them. This means that the peo­ple of Cara­cas at the time (2005) were unable to iden­ti­fy those places where the high­est num­ber of mur­ders were hap­pen­ing such that, wher­ev­er they thought they were tak­ing place, they actu­al­ly were not. Theirs was only an imag­i­nary per­cep­tion, fit­ting the mod­el already pro­posed, when the Imag­i­nary is dom­i­nant and raised to the pow­er of the Real as described in Я1= IR, the domain of the urban phantom.

We can bor­row anoth­er exam­ple from the city of Bogotá, one which allows me to spec­i­fy rela­tion­ships between the mod­ern Impres­sion­ist move­ment and what we under­stand today as a con­di­tion of aes­thet­ic aston­ish­ment in the imag­i­nary per­cep­tion of the city. The city dwellers’ per­cep­tion of time coin­cides with the dif­fer­ent times of day as these are reflect­ed on the night-time emblem of Bogotá’s skyline—the Col­pa­tria build­ing. The pho­tog­ra­ph­er Lopez Restre­po cap­tured this image [see Fig­ure No. 10] right at the moment at which the moon appears above this build­ing. This con­trasts with the next image, when the moon has dis­ap­peared and dawn is break­ing (see Fig­ure 11). In this case city res­i­dents per­ceive impres­sions, on whose basis they col­lec­tive­ly recre­ate the rep­re­sent­ed object. The Impres­sion­ists argued that it was not the Paris cathe­dral they were paint­ing, but rather the effect of the sun’s light on it at noon. We might say, refer­ring to our pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sion of aes­thet­ic facts, that in this case, as well, it is not the object, the Col­pa­tria build­ing, but rather its sta­tus as noc­tur­nal emblem of the city which makes us see it in all its shades and degra­da­tions of colours and form depend­ing on the time of the day. This exam­ple shows how the tem­po­ral dimen­sion of imag­i­nar­ies may be sus­tained over their own spa­tial­i­ty. I would reit­er­ate that while the anthro­pol­o­gy of a place is based on the space of a city, as that which is the­o­rized, its imag­i­nary is found­ed on time, move­ment and cir­cu­la­tion, not on the place per se, but on posi­tion. City dwellers are not fixed to a place, but rather locate or posi­tion them­selves with­in it.

Each new urban sit­u­a­tion can recon­fig­ure the exist­ing “city blue­print” because the line between the real and the imag­ined is very thin, espe­cial­ly when an affec­tive tur­moil is present. How­ev­er, sit­u­a­tion No. 3 occurs when cit­i­zens achieve a pos­i­tive equi­lib­ri­um between the real and the imag­ined: it is real because the col­lec­tiv­i­ty imag­ines it as such. Through this tri­adic mod­el we may bet­ter under­stand that imag­i­nary states of embod­i­ment, with their cor­re­spond­ing social aston­ish­ment, allow for a gra­da­tion and that the col­lec­tiv­i­ty may be “inhab­it­ed” by these states to the extent that the aes­thet­ic dom­i­nates perception.

We may even ask one final ques­tion regard­ing the con­di­tion of social aston­ish­ment: Can there be imag­i­nary pro­duc­tion with­out social aston­ish­ment? In such cas­es, we expe­ri­ence what we might call “fad­ed imag­i­nar­ies” as moments of fac­tu­al cog­ni­tion, as a vision of the world artic­u­lat­ed in tits his­toric­i­ty, as knowl­edge assim­i­lat­ed with­in the pro­to­cols of social behav­iour and cit­i­zen action. The aes­thet­ic func­tion appears with its ghost­ly evo­ca­tions to then bring the col­lec­tive under a spell, fill­ing it with visu­al­i­ty. Once the “col­lec­tive spasm” of the imag­i­nary erup­tion has hap­pened, the aes­thet­ic func­tion will shrink, becom­ing part of a col­lec­tive way of know­ing whose judge­ments are not sim­ply aes­thet­ic. Aston­ish­ment, then, is noth­ing more than a way of express­ing the aes­thet­ic (and, thus, vari­able and hier­ar­chi­cal) con­di­tion of every­day urban life. By speak­ing of urban imag­i­nar­ies as “affec­tive embod­i­ment,” I seek to describe an artic­u­la­tion of lan­guages and objects with feel­ings. This is not to say, how­ev­er, that knowl­edge and feel­ings are per­ceived sep­a­rate­ly; rather, we must under­stand social thoughts on the basis of the emo­tion that pro­duces them. In this way, we do not present two sep­a­rate worlds of sub­jects: the ratio­nal and the affec­tive, instead, the social world is a result of thoughts which are rep­re­sent­ed by feel­ings. And there­in, pre­cise­ly, lies its aes­thet­ic char­ac­ter.[8]

These above argu­ments have served as foun­da­tions for the par­a­digm of the “imag­ined city,” a term I use to refer to the city built through the urban­ism of city dwellers, who imag­ine and use it, and invoke it even when it does not exist: IR; or because it exists but is not imag­ined as exist­ing: RI; or because it exists but is not imag­ined to exist; R(I)=I’. Through these mod­els, we see that the imag­i­nary is not unre­al or only describ­able as belong­ing to fan­ta­sy. The imag­i­nary plays a role in the con­struc­tion of social real­i­ty, and we thus must make explic­it the process where­by social imag­i­nar­ies are ‘incor­po­rat­ed’ into the phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment of the city, and thus pro­ject­ed as an expres­sion of cit­i­zens’ culture.

Works Cited

Álvarez, Luciano and Christa Hubert. Mon­te­v­ideo Imag­i­na­do. Bogotá: Tau­rus, 2005. Print.

Baczko, Bro­nis­law. Los imag­i­nar­ios sociales, memo­rias y esper­an­zas colec­ti­vas. Buenos Aires: Nue­va Visión, 2005. Print.

Gregg, Melis­sa and Gre­go­ry Seig­worth. The Affect The­o­ry Read­er. Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010. Print.

Lada­gana, Reinal­do. Estéti­ca de la emer­gen­cia.  Buenos Aires: AH, 2010.

Lafont, Robert. Anthro­polo­gie de l’écriture. París: Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou, 1984. Print.

Sil­va, Arman­do. Imag­i­nar­ios: el asom­bro social. Bogotá : Silue­ta y Uni­ver­si­dad Exter­na­do de Colom­bia, Bogotá 2013. Print.

---: Atmós­feras ciu­dadanas: grafi­ti , arte nichos estéti­cos. Bogotá: Silue­ta y Uni­ver­si­dad Exter­na­do de Colom­bia, 2013. Print.

---. “Imag­ined Bogo­ta.” Var­i­ous, Cit­tà. Architet­tura e soci­età 10, Mostra Inter­nazionale di Architet­tura, La Bien­nale di Venezia. Venezia : Fon­dazione La Bien­nale, 2006. Print.

---. Imag­i­nar­ios urbanos: hacia el desar­rol­lo de un urban­is­mo des­de los ciu­dadanos. Metodología. Bogotá : Con­ve­nio Andrés Bel­lo y Uni­ver­si­dad Nacional de Colom­bia, 2004. Print.

Vil­laGómez, Car­los. La paz imag­i­na­da. Bogotá: Tau­rus, 2007. Print.

Links to Consult





Image Credits

Feau­tured Fig­ure: Arte urbano, Lau­ra Inés Sil­va Abel­lo, Bogotá, Uni­ver­si­dad Nacional, 2007

Fig­ure 1: Cabal­lo imag­i­na­do, María Ade­lai­da López, Bogotá 2007

Fig­ure 2: Puente imag­i­na­do, Arman­do Sil­va, Val­paraí­so, Chile, 2006

Fig­ure 3: Mod­e­lo en muro, Arman­do Sil­va, Buenos Aires, 2009

Fig­ure 4: Dec­o­ración con balas, Arman­do Sil­va, Mon­tre­al, 2012

Fig­ure 5: Obrero como Cha­pulín, Nue­va York, Dulce Pinzón, 2012, Exposi­ción MAMBO

Fig­ure 6: Indí­ge­na invis­i­ble, María Ade­lai­da López, Bogotá 2008, Bogotá

Fig­ure 7: División Este/ Oeste, Ger­ar­do Rojas, Cara­cas Thing Tang, Cara­cas, 2005

Fig­ure 8: Soñan­do en el Metro, La Nación, com­pi­lación de Lil­iana Albur­querque, Buenos Aires, 2007

Fig­ure 9: Chola bai­lan­do, Nel­son Martínez, La Paz, 2007

Fig­ure 10: Icono noc­turno de Bogotá con Luna, María Ade­lai­da López, Bogotá 2009

Fig­ure 11: Icono noc­turno de Bogotá sin Luna, María Ade­lai­da López, Bogotá 2009


[1] The var­i­ous images used in this research on urban imag­i­nar­ies are doc­u­men­tary ones, which are archived and clas­si­fied in ver­i­fi­able data bases. The orig­i­nal doc­u­ments have not been altered in any way. At this time, we are in the process of employ­ing a vari­ety of dig­i­tal tools to orga­nize them so they may be viewed by pub­licly and at no cost. Some col­lec­tions may be viewed at: http://​datos​.imag​i​nar​io​sur​banos​.net/​e​s​p​a​nol/ www​.imag​i​nar​io​sur​banos​.net

[2] Cf. Sil­va. Atmós­feras ciu­dadanas  where I deal with social aes­thet­ics as aes­thet­ic nich­es anchored to graf­fi­ti and pub­lic art experiences.

[3] See Sil­va, Imag­i­nar­ios urbanos: hacia el desar­rol­lo de un urban­is­mo des­de los ciudadanos.

[4] From the project “Imag­i­nar­ios urbanos,” car­ried out in 26 cities of Latin Amer­i­ca, the Unit­ed States, and Europe between 1998 and the present, avail­able at http://​datos​.imag​i​nar​io​sur​banos​.net/​e​s​p​a​nol/ Also at : www​.imag​i​nar​io​sur​banos​.net and some con­crete exam­ples of the use of images as aes­thet­ic archives may be seen at at http://​bogo​taimag​i​nadaas​.wix​.com/​a​r​m​a​n​d​o​s​i​lva. At this time, we are work­ing with a plat­form called Ome­ka in order to visu­al­ize our data­bas­es for all the imag­ined cities includ­ed in the project. Pre­lim­i­nary results may be seen in Eng­lish at : http://​www​.open​-ing​-source​.net/​i​m​a​g​i​n​a​r​y​-​c​i​t​i​es/ ; and in Span­ish at: http://​ciu​dades​.maylin​.cc/​i​t​e​m​s​/​t​ags

[5] In our sta­tis­ti­cal work, we con­sid­er as sig­nif­i­cant any urban point of view which more that 10% of sur­veyed city res­i­dents have as a shared per­cep­tion. Per­cep­tions may be fil­tered through cat­e­gories such as gen­der, age groups and social class ( ver: Metodología de inves­ti­gación en imag­i­nar­ios urbanos, 2008)

[6] This third locus of the mod­el of social per­cep­tion which I pro­pose here was sug­gest­ed by María Angéli­ca Suavi­ta Ramírez, who holds a degree in Math­e­mat­ics and is a PhD can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­dad Autóno­ma de Madrid. She stud­ies the rela­tion­ship between social imag­i­na­tion and teach­ing and learn­ing process­es in math­e­mat­ics. I am grate­ful for her contribution.

[7] See: http://​www​.laviedesidees​.fr/​L​-​a​p​p​a​r​i​t​i​o​n​-​d​e​-​B​o​g​o​t​a​.​h​tml

[8] This focus has some par­al­lels with stud­ies on affect by Melis­sa Gregg and Gre­go­ry Seig­worth (Affect The­o­ry) at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty, where they study the body as move­ment and rest, speed and slow­ness (2010:10). They pro­vide an excel­lent com­par­isons between aes­thet­ics, ethics, and politics—another impor­tant aspect of our project.

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.