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Introducing Castoriadis for Religion and Anthropology. A First Attempt

ImageI’ve often been frustrated by the lack of prior attention to Castoriadis’ thought in anthropology: good work has been begun by Alain Touraine (sociology) and Nancy Munn and David Graeber (anthropology), but nothing really systematic and explicit has been done.[1]  That’s not a criticism, just a complaint that the work’s not already done.

Here are some thoughts I’m working through today, from Castoriadis’ foundational The Imaginary Institution of Society, all from Chapter Three: “The Institution and the Imaginary. A First Approach” (Castoriadis 1975, 114ff.)

If you’re not familiar with Cornelius Castoriadis, I highly recommend becoming familiar. He was a founder of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, a Greek Communist who fled Greece chased by both the Stalinists (for his then-Trotskyism) and the Fascists, and who was one of the very first marxists to mount a critique of the USSR, a critique he made by criticizing its bureaucratization and its alienation from the revolutionary social groups that attempted to institute it. Often called either the “Philosopher of the Imagination,” or the “Philosopher of Autonomy,” his influence has been deep in some fields (radical political thought, psychoanalysis) but negligible in its reception in other fields and disciplines, including my own. He is sometimes credited with inspiring the 1968 worldwide rebellion, though it is certainly both more accurate and more modest to say rather that his writings influenced some of those revolutionaries in way that significantly altered their approach. Here’s a Wikipedia article, and here’s a link to the Cornelius Castoriadis/Agora International Webpage.

A first word of introduction: Castoriadis’ use of the word ‘institution’ refers to any shared object created by society, ranging from concepts, gestures, and symbols, to organizations and governments, those things which we more commonly use the word to refer to in everyday American English. These institutions are created by groups of people – that is, they are instituted, and, in a way that replicates much of Weber’s analysis of routinization and the creation of bureaucracies, become alienated from these groups, an alienation that signals the institution’s autonomy from society: the institution has gained its own life, its own force in the social world. One might almost call this the creation of a form of social agency, or as David Graeber wrote of the concept of the fetish in an essay that references Castoriadis, “Gods in the process of construction” (Graeber 2005)

More after the jump….

Thus, societies are simultaneously instituted by people, and institutions that shape and channel their lives, life-worlds, and everyday experience of the world. They are imaginary, for Castoriadis, not in the derogatory sense that they ‘don’t really exist,’ but in the sense that they are, like most aspects of human culture – the results of creative human genius, the imagination. In Chapter Three, Castoriadis is interested in exploring the processes by which alienation takes place, and he usefully concentrates on symbol, ritual, and the sacred.

Castoriadis begins this chapter by discussing alienation, by which he means the alienation of institutions (ranging from organizations to symbols), created by societies, from the purposes for which they were created. In many ways, this argument recapitulates the famous ‘death of the author’ thesis, by arguing that institutions are not limited by the intentions of their authors. The major difference in Castoriadis’ alienation and autonomy argument is that the institutions are not lifeless things. Instead, institutions have a tendency to become autonomous from the society that created them, and in fact to begin to structure the society itself.

Alienation, however, appears as a modality of our relation to the institution and, through its intermediary, as a modality of the relation to history….Alienation appears first of all as the alienation of a society to its institutions, as the autonomization of institutions in relation to society. What becomes autonomous in this way, why and how? – this is what we must try to understand (Castoriadis 1975, 115).

He then begins with an analysis of the symbol, and its importance in social life.

Everything that is presented to us in the social-historical world is inextricably tied to the symbolic. Not that it is limited to this. Real acts, whether individual or collective ones – work, consumption, war, love, child-bearing – the innumerable material products without which no society could live even an instant, are not (not always, not directly) symbols. All of these, however, would be impossible outside of a symbolic network. (Castoriadis 1975, 117)

Having identified the symbol as central to, but not coterminal with, society, Castoriadis proceeds to challenge functionalism’s treatment of the symbol as having a clear or transparent meaning, equivalent to its ‘function.’ Castoriadis doesn’t deny that symbols have functions, but argues that it doesn’t matter whether these purposes were intentional, accidental, etc. The point is that this sort of structural-functionalism, as Diana Taylor writes in her book The Archive and the Repertoire, cannot account for novelty or agency, since it sees social practice as merely the agency-less enactment of social norms (where or how these norms originally emerged is rarely considered, or naturalized in a symbolic way, such as in Freud’s murder of the father) (Taylor 2003, 7-8). Instead of seeing embodied enactments as merely the reification of norms, they become key moments in which to examine social agency, and creativity.

Castoriadis’ first example of a social institution in this discussion of alienated, autonomous social institutions is that of ritual. “[A] ritual,” Castoriadis writes, “is not a rational affair.” If it were, we would be capable of distinguishing between the most important parts of a ritual, and those that were less central, but we cannot:

The fact that all the elements comprising a ritual are placed on the same plane with respect to their importance is precisely the indication of the non-rational character of its content. To say that sacredness does not contain different degrees is another way of saying the same thing: everything the sacred has taken hold of is equally sacred (Castoriadis 1975, 119)

But ritual and religion are not special examples of irrationality for Castoriadis. This is made clearer by his subsequent example– a millennium of development of Roman Law. In his examination of the history of modern European law from Roman law, he points out that the history of law is not the history of the enactment of a function, but instead, ten centuries of attempting “precisely, to attain this functionality starting from a state that was far from possessing any such thing” (Castoriadis 1975, 120) Thus, he characterizes this history as one of constant attempts to transform existing law into something more perfect with regards to function, and thus as a history of acts of human creativity and agency.

But here, again, we see formalism and ritualization in the law.

[T]he will and intentions of the parties entering into an agreement, which is the functional core of any transaction, plays for a long time only a minor role with respect to the law; what predominates is the ritual of the transaction, the fact that certain words were uttered, certain gestures made….The lesson of Roman law, considered in its real historical evolution, is not the functional character of the law but the relative independence of formalism or of symbolism with respect to functionality at the outset, followed by the slow and never complete conquest of symbolism by functionality. [2]

Note that Castoriadis has compared the irrationality of religious ritual with the irrationality of legal ritual, and attributed the irrationality of both to the independence and autonomy of “formalism or of symbolism.” Society itself is an irrational institution, and it is on the basis of autonomous symbols that we first encounter this irrational world, and in reference to which we attempt to perfect the world as we find it. As such, it is difficult to imagine a perfectly autonomous agent at all; autonomy really is a less a state of being than a modality of a relationship between a human subject, or a human society, and the symbols and practices it institutes.

This is partly so because each new generation is introduced into the imaginary institution of its society, already instituted.

Every symbolism is built on the ruins of earlier symbolic edifices and uses their materials – even if it is only to fill the foundations of new temples, as the Athenians did after the Persian wars. By its virtually unlimited natural and historical connections, the signifier always goes beyond a strict attachment to a precise signified and can lead to completely unexpected realms. The constitution of symbolism in real social and historical life has no relation to the ‘closed’ and ‘transparent’ definitions of symbols found in a work of mathematics (which, moreover, can never be closed up within itself) (Castoriadis 1975, 121)

Because these symbols are relatively autonomous, they can be constantly reinterpreted and placed into new services. It is precisely on the basis of ongoing human interaction with, and enactment of, these autonomous imaginary institutions of society, that humans most frequently make change.

If Castoriadis has given ritual a centrality of place in his explanation of the imaginary institutions of society, it is perhaps because, like many anthropologists – stretching back prior to Durkheim but perhaps clearest in his famous exposition – that ritual is a key component in the reproduction of a given society’s most central values. Where Durkheim saw this as religion ruling over society in a way that diminished the agency and imagination of the actual living people living in that society, and failed to account for historical change, we can interpret Castoriadis to see ritual as the event where the creative imagination of living people confronts the instituted imagination of society. Or at least, that’s how I have interpreted Castoriadis, and that is in fact my own position.

May I sum up?

  1. Societies are instituted by human groups, at the level of the imagination.
  2. The imagination is populated with such instituted symbols.
  3. Such instituted symbols frequently become autonomous from the groups that instituted them in the first place: they begin to travel through time and space, and gain a power that is independent. They are no longer merely ‘references’ to ‘referents,’ but complex, polyvalent, and resistant to simplification.
  4. We are introduced to the imaginary institutions of our societies in everyday practice. We are introduced to the most central imaginary institutions of our societies in important religious rituals, which gain durability and consistency as a virtue of their sacrality (what Castoriadis identifies as the irrationality of the sacred).
  5. There is no perfectly rational place on which to stand, because real social relations cannot precede their institution in the imagination. This is the meaning behind his metaphor of a cities built out of the ruined components of older civilizations, a metaphor perhaps particularly apt in Cambodia. That is to say, there is no way to encounter another person outside of an already-instituted way of imagining them, even if that imagination is that of the “stranger,” or the “alien” (Castoriadis 1975, , 124).
  6. Finally, the autonomy and persistence of symbols requires an individual capacity of imaginative work – the “elementary and irreducible capacity of evoking images” – in order to enact themselves in ritual and daily practice. This basic capacity of the human individual is what Castoriadis terms the “Final or radical imaginary,” and sees as “the common root of the actual imaginary and of the symbolic” (Castoriadis 1975, 127).
  7. Human history is often – indeed, most commonly – the history of people attempting to transform their institutions in ways that cause them to more perfectly accord with their stated purpose, a sort of history of symbolic reform.
  8. But human history also includes moments of imaginary revolution, when an attempt to transform the symbolic basis of social life meets attempts to transform their material basis, and institute a new set of social imaginations, many perhaps repurposed from previous constructions.

Works Cited.

Asad, Talal. 1993. Pain and truth in medieval Christian ritual. In Genealogies of religion: discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Castoriadis, Cornelius. 1975. The imaginary institution of society. Translated by K. Blamey. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Graeber, David. 2005. Fetishism as social creativity. Or, fetishes are gods in the process of construction. Anthropological Theory 5 (4):407-438.

Munn, Nancy D. 1986. The fame of Gawa. A symbolic study of value transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) society, The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Taylor, Diana. 2003. The archive and the repertoire: performing cultural memory in the Americans. Durham (NC): Duke University Press.

Touraine, Alain. 1977. The self-production of society. Translated by D. Coltman. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.


[2] (Castoriadis 1975, 120-121). Compare this to the similar argument, proceeding from different principles, in (Asad 1993)

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3 thoughts on “Introducing Castoriadis for Religion and Anthropology. A First Attempt

  1. Thanks a lot for that Erik. I grew up Nanterre – one of the ‘last communist strongholds’ in the Paris area – and studied in its university where the 68 movement was born. Yet I had never heard of him, and I think that’s a shame. So, again thanks for sharing this.

    And: ”They are imaginary, for Castoriadis, not in the derogatory sense that they ‘don’t really exist,’ but in the sense that they are, like most aspects of human culture – the results of creative human genius, the imagination”. Really liked that…

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Emiko. were I able to contribute to the beginnings of a genuine imaginary anthropology influenced by the rigor of Castoriadis’ thought, I would be very pleased indeed!

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