One of the most successful examples of "live-play" tabletop roleplaying game streaming, the web series Critical Role’s success is due, at least in part, to its ability to cultivate and sustain a core fanbase through the cast and show's engagement with fan-created media. The centrality of fan art in particular, authorized by “art dad” Liam O’Brien, created a communal space that fostered dialectic creativity, encouraging Critters to draw from one another for inspiration and leave their own marks on character designs. I want to discuss how the rhetorical concept of phantasia can help scholars understand how communal, curated, spaces such as those fostered by Critical Role enable and direct communal imagination.
Phantasia, or phantasiai (φαντασίαι), is the ancient Greek term for imagination, or the mind’s eye. In the dialogue Sophist (264a), Plato describes phantasiai as “seemings” brought about “not independently, but by sensation.” In On the Soul (3.3), Aristotle clarifies that not all images brought about by sensation are imaginative: “That imagination is not sense is clear from the following … Sense is … an activity, e.g. sight or seeing: imagination takes place in the absence of both, as e.g. in dreams.” Sensation receives and interprets stimuli, while phantasia re-presents those stimuli, absent the original, in sometimes creative ways with the help of memory.
While memory is an important element in this process, philosopher Robert Pasnau clarifies that “When you call to mind the generic image … of an elephant you are using phantasia. When you call to mind an image … of an elephant that you associate with some particular past experience … then you are using memory” (2002, 281). Memory recalls specifics and provides the raw material for the imaginative process of phantasia. That is, phantasia needs memories to work. For example, in the command “think of a white elephant,” you are only able to “imagine” this animal because you have past experience of the color “white” and the animal “elephant.” Your imaginative capacity, directed through phantasia, creates a new, composite image that unites these concepts into one.
The white elephant also clarifies how phantasia can be employed rhetorically; it can be “activated” through language. By describing things in the right ways, you can “transport” your audience to distant locales or “bring before the eyes” of a jury an image of a criminal. Historian of rhetoric Michele Kennerly speaks to how phantasia has been understood in scholarship. Rhetorical scholarship typically foregrounds phantasia as a unidirectional process in which a rhetor activates an audience's imaginative capacities through language (I tell you to think of a white elephant and you do); or an individual capacity facilitated by the memory (having seen the color white and the animal “elephant,” you conjure a white elephant in your mind’s eye). As Kennerly writes, “phantasia in its self-directed mode promotes a wandering mind, while phantasia in its other-directed mode promotes a journey of judgment” (2010, 270).
While both models are useful, I am interested in how phantasia can help scholars understand communal invention and creativity. I want to try to articulate a model of "Accretive Phantasia," a process by which mimetic representations are internalized and re-presented at the level of the community rather than the individual. Through Accretive Phantasia, individuals remember and rearticulate the imaginative representations of others, shaping a communal imagination that evolves independently of any individual’s agency.
To illustrate, I will examine a moment of accretive phantasia within the fan art community of Critical Role, showing how one element of an artist's representation of the character Vax'ildan was integrated into the community's collective imagination through accretive phantasia. This detail (colored beads woven into the character's hair) found its way into many other artists' depictions of the character.
The artwork in question is a portrait of Vax'ildan (Vax), played by O’Brien. The image, created by long-time Critical Role fan artist Casey Bieda, (@sketchingsprw), shows Vax posing with his animate-snake-belt, Simon, and was included in the The World of Critical Role to highlight Bieda’s contributions to the Critical Role community. Author Liz Marsham writes: “some of the early artists became a recurring integral presence in the Critter community,” and that Bieda herself “added a string of colorful beads to Vax’s hair in what became an often-adopted signature look for the character” (252). The inclusion of Bieda’s addition to Vax’s character design speaks to the influence this aesthetic choice had among Critters and the cast. It is so ubiquitous that the official art for “Mighty Vibes Vol 6: Lofi Beats to Study with Your Twin to,” includes Vax’s beads.
While phantasia is concerned with the movement of images between memory and imagination within individuals or between a speaker and audience, accretive phantasia works communally. Bieda’s inclusion of the beads in Vax’s hair works is phantasia—an imaginative addition to a character design that Bieda herself had “seen” (through official and fan art) and later represented. Accretive phantasia occurs when other artists perceive, internalize, and re-imagine the character, integrating and iterating upon Bieda’s initial imaginative addition (adding the beads).
What is interesting to me is how in this form of phantasia, the imaginative workings of an artist become the remembered raw material for others. Once Bieda’s addition was shared through the stream’s art reel, Vax’s beads became inventional material for othes, who may or may not include or alter them in future work. As others take up this detail, more artists view, remember, and reinterpret this choice. A previously solitary mental process of imagination and representation becomes significantly more complex, chaotic, and communal.
Assitant Professor of Communication and English
Mount St. Mary's University