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International Affairs, Ruosi Wang

Imagination from Stonehenge to Salisbury

This semester, one of our contributors, Ruosi Wang, is studying in London. Here’s her first post on her travels abroad. Stay tuned for more updates from across the pond! 

After a week filled with rainy forecasts in London, I savored the rare sunbeams that appeared on the day of my Stonehenge and Salisbury trip. I gazed and snapped photos of the beautiful scene of stony monuments, erected between circa 3000 BC and 1600 BC. Pretending that I was a prehistoric person who knows the site’s ancient mysteries, I imagined that the stones mean something significant, and that this place has a sacred purpose. Imagination is something of a requirement on these excursions hosted by NYU London, because only through imagining is there deeper appreciation for the past and its remnants.

These trips have sparked my mind’s imagination, causing the philosopher in me to wonder why we obsess over theories about the past. Why do we wonder how people may have lived, how they may have felt and what they may have seen? What is imagination’s purpose if we cannot ascertain the truth of our imaginations? Was my impromptu imagining on this visit to Stonehenge really worth the 2 hours arduous-early-morning bus ride?

After visiting the gothic Salisbury Cathedral, home to one of the few surviving originals of the Magna Carta, I reflected that perhaps it is not the true realization of our imagination that is important but rather the content of a collective community’s imagination, which can even be responsible for holding together the political fabric of modern society.

The Magna Carta, first signed in 1215, is seen as the foundation of English Common Law. Similar documents, such as the American Bill of Rights, were adopted when English colonial settlers imagined a society based on liberty with defense against arbitrary and unjust rulers. These ideals, laid out in ink on paper, created a social order for communities of many nations including the United Kingdom and the United States. The historic document is treasured in the UK for its history, but contrary to the purpose of the Magna Carta—which sought to unify a group under a consensus—the UK will soon face a referendum on Scotland’s independence. The topic currently occupies the attention of British media, politics, and many of my academic discussions.

Linda Colley in Forging the Nation 1707-1837 references Benedict Anderson’s definition of a nation as “an imagined political community” to explain Britain’s gradual devolution into the modern era.  She claims that the Act of Union (signed in 1707 joining Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland at a later date) was effective due to mass allegiance to British-ness forged by threats to national security during incessant war with France, widespread protestant faith, and the affinity of being able to share in the ownership of a massive overseas empire. The absence of these unifying factors in the modern era has left the UK eagerly searching for a unified political or cultural consensus to establish itself against the predominantly Catholic Europe and its power in the European Economic Community. Britain’s identity crisis threatens their national unity and has important implications for the future of the country.

Although the conflict is complex and rooted in deeper socio-economic and political tensions, I wonder if the UK identity crisis can be summarized by the reality that fewer Britons have the motivation to continue imagining themselves as a single nation. After all, if Benedict Anderson defines a nation as “an imagined political community,” getting their imagination started may be the most important move to preserving the union.

How powerful is the imagination? From my childhood memories, PBS kids programing repeatedly reminded us to “use our imagination.” Now, as a 20-year-old college undergraduate, I am just starting to understand the significance of the simple message. The contrast of the UK’s ancient Magna Carta with their present devolution shows how a single group’s imagination is capable of bringing together nations but also potent enough to threaten multiples centuries of unity. The imagined political community that defines the UK as a united nation ceases to exist when factions begin to imagine a separate independent state. A community’s imaginations for the past and future can affect every aspect of our social order and national identity; however, if a consensus is reached, imagination can give unity and purpose to a nation.

Looking back at the pictures I took of Stonehenge and Salisbury, I see ancient peoples who have come together imagining and finding significant meaning in their collective unity. The stones are merely dull rocks in a pasture, but more significantly, they are marks left by an ancient people’s imagination. The Magna Carta is a derelict piece of paper, but its written words are the footprints left by a group’s imagination for a specific kind of social order.  Imagination—what would the world be like without it?

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