The imaginary (or social imaginary) is the set of values common to a particular social group and the corresponding society through which people imagine their social whole. The concept of the imaginary has attracted attention in sociology, philosophy, and media studies.
For John Thompson, the social imaginary is “the creative and symbolic dimension of the social world, the dimension through which human beings create their ways of living together and their ways of representing their collective life”.
For Manfred Steger and Paul James “imaginaries are patterned convocations of the social whole. These deep-seated modes of understanding provide largely pre-reflexive parameters within which people imagine their social existence—expressed, for example, in conceptions of ‘the global,’ ‘the national,’ ‘the moral’ order of our time.
In 1975, Cornelius Castoriadis used the term in his book The Imaginary Institution of Society, maintaining that ‘the imaginary of the society creates for each historical period its singular way of living, seeing and making its own existence’. For Castoriadis, the central imaginary significations of a society are the laces which tie a society together and the forms which define what, for a given society, is ‘real’.
In similar fashion, Habermas wrote of ‘the massive background of an intersubjectively shared lifeworld, lifeworld contexts that provided the backing of a massive background consensus’.
The imaginary is presented by psychoanalyst Lacan as one of the three intersecting orders that structure all human existence, the others being the symbolic and the real. Lacan was responding to L’Imaginaire, which was the title of the ‘phenomenological psychology of the imagination’ published by Sartre in 1940, where it refers to the image as a form of consciousness. Lacan also drew on the way Melanie Klein pushes back the limits within which we can see the subjective function of identification operate, in her work on phantasy—something extended by her followers to the analysis of how ‘we are all prone to be drawn into social phantasy systems…the experience of being in a particular set of human collectivities’.
The imaginary as a Lacanian term refers to an illusion and fascination with an image of the body as coherent unity, deriving from the dual relationship between the ego and the specular or mirror image. This illusion of coherence, control and totality is by no means unnecessary or inconsequential (as something that is illusory). The term ‘imaginary’ is obviously cognate with ‘fictive’ but in its Lacanian sense it is not simply synonymous with fictional or unreal, on the contrary, imaginary identifications can have very real effects.
We can also talk about Media Imaginary and Serial Imaginary through art.
This is a deep analysis of the concept by Jorge Martinez Lucena:
Existing in the current zeitgeist, we can actually use the same tools with a different purpose, to trend the right values, a different metanarrative, the one that connect us with our real history, to create new foundational myths.