This is a cross-disciplinary study of ‘digression’ as a social-scientific concept. Two hypotheses are tested:

(1) Social life involves ways of being and acting that are indirect and non-linear; life proceeds not along straight lines but by virtue of diversions; events occur by causal routes that are more tangential than direct.

(2) It is through such diversions, indirectness and tangents, nevertheless, that social life maintains the appearance of being a linear phenomenon so that ’B’ appears to be following ’A’ ’logically’.

Key to the project is a focus on the human imagination. This is understood not only as a primary vehicle for creativity and novelty but also for the apparently non-imaginative practices of everyday life. Significantly, the habits that structure the mundane actually entail series of imaginative departures from apparently straightforward courses of action. The concept of ‘digression’ has a long history spanning the antique rhetoric to modern literary theory and narratology. In this project, however, digression is argued for as a key aspect of human experience and as vital for understanding the process of social life. Anthropology, area and cultural studies meet in four sub-projects to produce fresh empirical data and theoretical insight concerning the human practice of imaginative digression as means by which the everyday assumes its character of apparent straightforward reiteration, of linear or direct structuration.

Digression and the human imagination

Human imagination has long figured as subject of investigation in both the humanities and the social sciences. However, while the former posit transcendent, cognitive and emotional qualities to the imagination, the latter chart its contingent, situated and pre-determined nature. Significantly, in both, the imagination is placed at a distance from the mundane. In this research project such disciplinary differentiation is productively blurred. A focus on digression leads to an addressing of the imagination as a situated practice that enables the normative, structured and institutional character of social and cultural life to maintain itself, but only by virtue of sequences of imaginative forays that continually remove the individual, cognitively and emotionally, from their apparently routinized lives. The linear appearance of social structures that reproduce themselves, of cultural traditions that maintain themselves—of individual lives that are experienced as seamless—are made possible because occurring simultaneously is imaginative activity that entails experiences that are actually non-linear and indirect. The imagination transports human beings along digressive routes; it is these routings that are responsible for the appearance of forward progression and continuity, of processes of a direct or linear kind. Imagination that is digressive effects an experience of society and culture, of an individual life, that progresses straightforwardly.

Project design and methodology

The project design also blurs differentiation between the humanities and social sciences. Each subproject takes as its focus a major genre from the humanities: fiction, mythology, fine art, comedy. Examining these in the context of daily life, as they are imaginatively put into practice, makes visible our deployment of, even dependence on, digression. Each genre further illuminates a specific quality of digression. Reading and writing fiction evinces how our narrational strategies are digressive: our mythology depends on an affective logic that is digressive; our use of art reveals an aesthetic appreciation that is digressive; comedy evinces how our ludic sense is digression. Having as a research team experts in the study of these genres from a social-scientific standpoint enables our comparative methodology: a gathering of equivalent sets of data from each sub-project to be then analyzed together. What results is an identification of digression as a distinct but complex phenomenon instrumental in the imaginative effecting of everyday life.

Aarhus University hosts the project. An international network of collaborators includes Scandinavia, UK and USA; in particular St. Andrews University, UCL and UCSC.