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…. Continue reading


Religion (and knowledge) are Social, and Created by Interaction

Just in case someone wanted to claim they had ‘their own private religion,’

“The object of sublimation, an imaginary object or a non-object, is essentially social; there can no more be individual money than there can be individual religion, no more individual language than individual knowledge.”
Castoriadis, Cornelius. 1984. “Epilogomena to a theory of the soul which has been presented as a science,” in Crossroads in the Labyrinth. Cambridge [MA]: MIT Press, p. 38

Eurozine – What is postcolonial thinking? An interview with Achille Mbembe

A fantastic interview with the great Achille Mbembe in Eurozine. The interview is (contrary to almost any interview you’d get in a similar magazine in the States) lengthy, in-depth, and unafraid of appearing…’intellectual.’ Similarly, Mbembe is unafraid of making clear what so many American appropriators of continental thought are always unwilling to acknowledge, that whatever the successes or failures of most modern continental philosophy, the most important movements have been “chiefly concerned with the issue of self-creation and self-government.” He then goes on to quote my man Castoriadis, who deserves far, far greater recognition and discussion in the anglophone world than he has yet received….

Indeed, colonization never ceased telling lies about itself and others. As Frantz Fanon explains so clearly in Black Skin, White Masks, the procedures for racializing the colonized were the driving force behind this economy of duplicity and falsehood. In postcolonial thinking, race is the wild region, the beast, of European humanism. To borrow Castoriadis’s terms on racism, I’d say that the beast puts it more or less this way: “I alone possess value. But I can only be of value, as myself, if others, as themselves, are without value”.

Postcolonial thinking aims to take the beast’s skeleton apart, to flush out its favourite places of habitation. More radically, it seeks to know what it is to live under the beast’s regime, what kind of life it offers, and what sort of death people die from. It shows that there is, in European colonial humanism, something that has to be called unconscious self-hatred. Racism in general, and colonial racism in particular, represents the transference of this self-hatred to the Other.

via Eurozine – What is postcolonial thinking? – Achille Mbembe An interview with Achille Mbembe. Check out the rest of the interview, which includes, among many other topics, important discussions on ‘memory’ and on Fanon and Marx’s reception by the ‘non-West.’


Adoration of the Fait Accompli

In my quest to finish reading everything Castoriadis has published in English, I’ve started his book Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, translated by the omnipresent David Ames Curtis, which also happens to be a pseudonym used by the ‘anonymous’ translator of some of Castoriadis’ final works, available here. In a section in the first essay (“Intellectuals and history”) titled “The adoration of the fait accompli,” I found this gem of a quote.

Let us be done with this ecclesiastical, academic, and literary ‘respectuosity.’ Let us finally speak of syphilis in this family, of which half the members are clearly suffering in general paralysis. We should take by the ear the theologian, the Hegelian, the Nietzschean, the Heideggerian, bring the to Kolyma in Siberia, to Auschwitz, into a Russian psychiatric hospital, into the torture chambers of the Argentine police, and require that they explain, on the spot and without subterfuges, the meaning of the expressions ‘There is no power but of God,’ ‘All that is real is rational,’ ‘the innocence of becoming,’ or ‘releasement toward things. (9-10)

I have said little about Castoriadis thus far on this page, and promise to start writing more on him soon.


The relationship to the relationship

just a quick note that the history of post-enlightenment considerations of autonomy and ethics are shot through not so much with considerations of the relationships in themselves, but with the individual’s relationship (IR) to the relationship (R). The individual’s relationship to the relationship (IRR) constitutes the basis of Kant’s notion of transcendental idealism, in which atomized individuals act in concert in ethical ways, inasmuch as they attune their practice to certain universally legitimate norms which regulate behavior via the IRR.

Castoriadis’ idea of autonomy, drawing as it does from Kant, preserves this combination of Kantian skepticism and ethical orientation, and proposes that the autonomous individual exercises control over the functioning of the relationship through an exercise which moves with the force of desire. This emphasis on desire is my own, but can be found through Castoriadis’ work. ‘The force of desire’ refers to the desire, in turn based on previous social imaginaries, to make a change in the relationship to the relationship, or even to the relationship itself, when one is not subject to the relationship, but the relationship is subject to oneself.


The contradictions of capitalism, according to Castoriadis, applied to Cambodia

In a recent post I noted that the landlessness problem in Cambodia is at least partly a result of the penetration of the countryside by the formerly resisted tentacular manipulations of Capitalism. Capitalism’s ‘universal gearbox’ ((Galéano, Eduardo. The open veins of Latin America: five centuries of the pillage of a continent. . Translated by Cedric Belfrage. 25th anniversary edition ed. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997 [1973].)) has harnessed the desires of farmers for the self-sufficiency that emerges from isolated agricultural smallholding, and yoked those desires to the depredations of mutant capitalism, which use the clearing of protected forests not only for the timber and gems, but also for the planting of plantations and eventually the building of factories. The factories built do not lift the level of Cambodian subsistence much more than the practice of agriculture, since there is no real domestic market, which means that the factories are merely the public face of Cambodia as a export-processing zone.

In a review of Cornelius Castoriadis’ (aka Paul Cardan) work in Solidarity, Maurice Brinton wrote that

The fundamental contradiction of capitalism still remains in the necessity for capitalism on the one hand to reduce workers to simple executors of tasks, and on the other, in the impossibility for it to continue to function if it succeeds in so doing Capitalism needs to achieve mutually incompatible objectives: the participation and the exclusion of the worker in production – as of all citizens in relation to politics. (( Brinton, Maurice. For workers’ power: selected writings of Maurice Brinton. Edited by David Goodaway. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004, 218))

This seems like a useful description of the process in current attempt in Cambodia, as elsewhere: to achieve action within the subject – a relationship of command or control – without compromising the subject’s basic autonomous processes that do the ‘magic’ that gets the goal done. In the wild capitalism that exists now this appears to be accomplished and reconciled in capitalism by the creation, a la Wallerstein of different spheres in the Modern World-System, or as I like to think of them, “Theaters of Capitalism” (in the military sense of ‘theater’). In Zones like Cambodia, the highest fraction of the ruling elite are controlled via their desires to consume and preserve their privilege, while the lower fractions, especially in the lower class itself, are controlled more by fundamental need and force. It is in the attempts to imagine forms of withdrawal which do not lead successfully to autonomy that the problem really becomes interesting. As I noted earlier, it is the desire for autonomy that drives smallholders to clear forest on behalf of plantation owners who own the land and allow the farmers to farm it as a means of preparing the earth, even going so far as to build them cheap homes.