Cornelius Castoriadis: An Introduction

AVT_Cornelius-Castoriadis_2317.jpegCornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997) was an Economist, Psychoanalyst, Philosopher and social thinker, a founding and leading member of the French revolutionary journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, and author of numerous books and articles. In his The Imaginary Institution of Society,  Castoriadis (1987) puts forward a highly original theory of history as society’s self-creation through institutionalised imaginary significations and emancipation as individual and public autonomy. Throughout his multidimensional intellectual biography, one discerns as his major themes the issues of culture, art, education and democracy, the psychoanalytic significance of the tension between the self and society, and the false dilemmas posed by capitalism and bureaucratic socialism. He has also studied the Greek polis and modern public sphere, philosophy of science and chaos theory, and epistemological problems related to validity, truth and identitary logic.

Castoriadis‘ political thought is characterised by his unrelenting critique of Stalinism (which he called ‘bureaucratic capitalism’), Western capitalism (or private capitalism in his own terms) and socialist reformism. Some critics’ emphasis on the growing anti-Marxist tone of his writings often obscures his commitment to socialism and his innovative attempts to reformulate it into an ideal of a self-reflective institution/^ society and free subjectivity. For Castoriadis, socialism should aim to organise a collective, socialised management of production and administration, and as such, it should be the continuing and conscious self-managerial activity of the working classes. This presupposes that the distribution of power will be directly democratic, accessed by all, that the public sphere (termed ekklesia) will be empowered, and that a massive simplification of social organisation will be achieved. Like the early Frankfurt School, Castoriadis relatesalienation and reification to modern complexity.

As he departs all the more markedly from Marxism, his account of socialism becomes increasingly attached to democracy. The proletariat ceases to be seen as the subject of history and revolution, while the old binary opposition between worker and employer gives way to the thematisation of the division of society in directors and executants. Hence, in political-economic terms, socialism means the collectivisation and socialisation of the functions of direction. In socio-theoretical terms, socialism must promote the autonomy and self-direction of people’s; lives that capitalism negates, it must eliminate externally imposed forms of life. It must realise democracy for the first time in history. Democracy — not representative but only in its direct, decentralised form — establishes a genuine public sphere. Together with philosophy, democracy is the antidote to social heteronomy. A truly democratic society does not immunise its institutions from critical consideration, and unlike mythic and religious traditional societies, it does not occlude the perpetual vis formandi of thought, its desire to search for new meanings and give new shape to reality. Truly autonomous subjectivity signifies a rare being in history: reflective and deliberative subjectivity. What makes it possible, however?

It is praxis that assists the subject in the effort to accede autonomy. As a modality of human action, it combines voluntarism and reason and transforms the self critically. To Castoriadis, critical reflection has not been an omnipresent given of all cultures. He traces two moments in history where reflection was allocated social space: ancient Greece and modernity. But once reason is created and enlarges the rupture in social heteronomy, it acquires a potential universality, since ‘every human being can reimagine what another human being has imagined’. Reflective and deliberative subjectivity is also possible due to the psyche’s centrifugal relation to society. Institutions guarantee the preservation of humanity as a living species. In their network, those significations that are constitutive of a social ‘being-with’ can be found consolidated. In a society, however, there is a ‘magma’ of social imaginary significations that includes not only those embodied in institutions but also a surplus that can be reduced to neither consciousness nor natural/biological functionality. What it is given as physis for humans is the psyche’s radical imagination at the individual level and the social instituting imaginary at the collective level. Psyche is physei meaningseeking. Now, society forces it through socialisation to limit its search for meaning in the socially available imaginary significations and norms. But society never succeeds completely in this. The surplus of imaginary significations that do not become institutionalised at the collective level, and the surplus of subjectivity that cannot be canalised through socialisation at the individual level, both in their conflicting relation to the settled and fixed world-interpretations, create the potential for autonomy, philosophy and democracy.

Be that as it may, can autonomy and philosophy be meaningful without some account of validity? What is the position of truth (epistemologically and ontologically) in a universe where the imaginary element and representational pleasure are granted primacy over the functional element and organ pleasure and the encounter with reality is never unmediated? Castoriadis distinguishes between de facto validity and dejure validity. The former refers to social currency, the latter to truth. But this does not amount to a concession to a correspondence theory of truth that would cause an internal and serious contradiction in his philosophy, which as we have seen, relies heavily on the mediated and imaginary character of the construction of meaning and knowledge, be it descriptive or normative. Ontologically, Castoriadis connects the being of each society with its modes of creating a world of its own. The world created by the social actor is called ‘the proper world of the for-itself while the outside one is named ‘world tout court7. There is no direct access to the outside world, because for the psyche the external reality is the social world. But that does not mean that the ensemblistic-identitary (ensidic in Castoriadis’s terminology) action of the psyche is always arbitrary or illusory. There is in both, i.e. the ‘real’ world and the human symbolic reconstruction of it, an ensidic dimension and it is that one that allows the latter to create the former in a replica of sufficiently analogous traits to the original. Here lies the ultimate ontological justification of Castoriadis’s non-relativist epistemology: the world tout court not only lends itself (a dimension of it) to ensidic organisation but also corresponds to it.

Despite his political pessimism about the future and the type of person conditioned by contemporary societies, Castoriadis‘s anthropology together with his philosophical emphasis on the potential of autonomy, democracy and creation of reflective/deliberative subjectivity has added a new meaning to emancipation and hope.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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