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


Peter Watts on rumors, memes, and apocalypse

I’ve been reading through Peter Watts’ novels of late: pretty dark ‘hard’ sci-fi of a sort that really appeals to me.  In doing so I came across the following excellent phrases, which seemed almost like the beginning of a theory of rumors and their life-cycle. Some readers will know I accord a high importance to the exemplary study of rumors as an exercise in studying culture, so for my purposes, these quotes also seem like the beginning of a theory about culture. Which brings us to the final quote, where a culture seems to believe, against all reason, in an apocalyptic end; it believes this not because it is true, but because the culture itself – the selecting mechanism – appears to want it to be so.

Sound familiar to anyone else? All following quotes from Watts’ Maelstrom, book 2 in the tetralogic Rifters series, which is available for free reading and downloading on his own site, via a creative commons license, which pretty seriously rocks.

It didn’t make sense. Even the wildest rumors had to come out of the gate somewhere – how could all these people have started trumpeting the same thing at the same time? (237)

Rumors had their own classic epidemiology. Each started with a single germinating event. Information spread from that point, utating and interbreeding – a conical mass of threads, expanding into the future from the apex of their common birthplace. Eventually, of course, theyd wither and die; the cone would simply dissipate at its wide end, its permutations senescent and exhausted.

There were exceptions, of course. Every now and then a single thread persisted, grew thick and gnarled and unkillable: conspiracy theories and urban legends, the hooks embedded in popular songs, the comforting Easter-bunny lies of religious doctrine. These were the memes: viral concepts, infections of conscious thought. Some flared and died like mayflies. Others lasted a thousand years or more, tricked billions in the endless prorogation of parasitic half-truths. (241)

[In these cases i]t was as though someone or something had offered the world myriad styles, and the world had chosen the one it liked best. Veracity didn’t enter into such things; only resonance did.

And the meme that [announced and defined the] angel of the apocalypse wasn’t prospering because it was true; it was prospering because, insanely, people wanted it to be. (242)


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

Myths, Imaginaries, and Closure

The archdruid has an excellent post today about how frequently he runs into people who seem to want the apocalypse to come (and we’re not talking about the rapture ready crowd): they seem to assume that whatever happens, whatever happens afterward will necessarily be better.

He dissects this shortsightedness very elegantly, in a way that resembles Castoriadis’ work on imaginary closures (claustration). Noting that these apocalypse-fans usually base their hopes and fears in their belief in science (n.b., the archdruid is no enemy of science, and has written a few very scientific articles which are increasingly widely read and cited by ‘real scientists’), and oppose their beliefs to those of ‘primitives’ who belief in ‘myth.’ One brief quote to wet your whistle:

Only from within the myth of progress – the belief that all human existence follows a single line of advance leading straight from the caves to today’s industrial societies, and beyond them to the stars – does it make sense to treat the belief systems of the past as inadequate attempts to do what we do better. The notion that other mythologies might have other purposes, and accomplish them better than ours does, is practically unthinkable these days. Yet many traditional belief systems have done a fine job of enabling the people who hold them to live their lives in harmony with their environment for millennia, while modern industrial cultures have proven hopelessly inept at this basic and necessary task.

Now of course there are plenty of people nowadays who use arguments such as this last to stand the myth of progress on its head, and insist that these traditional cultures are more advanced than ours. As I see it, though, the predicament we are facing demands something subtler. Rather than swapping one narrative for its mirror image, it may be time to step back and look at our mythic narratives as narratives, rather than imposing them by force on the world around us.

This backward step has a useful if uncomfortable effect: it reveals the awkward fact that the cultural narratives we use to make sense of the world today, however new they look, are generally rehashes of myths that have been around for a very long time. The anthropologist Misia Landau pointed out some years ago, for example, that contemporary scientific accounts of the rise of Homo sapiens from its prehuman ancestors are simply rehashed hero myths that follow Joseph Campbell’s famous typology of the hero’s journey, point for point. In the same way, those like Ray Kurzweil who argue that the perfect human society is to be found in a hypertechnological future, just as much as those who argue that the perfect human society is to be found in a return to the hunter-gatherer past, are simply projecting the myth of paradise onto one or another of the very few locations a secular worldview offers for it.

Another friend of mine put it more briefly in a recent meeting: “The end of the world’s been coming since I was a young man. Still waiting.”


New Publication on Cambodia: At the Edge of the Forest

At the edge of the forest book cover
I’m thrilled to announce that a new book in the field of Cambodian studies has just been published by Cornell University’s Southeast Asian Program. That book is (from the Cornell Webpage):

At the Edge of the Forest. Essays on Cambodia, History, and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler.
Anne Ruth Hansen and Judy Ledgerwood, eds.

David P. ChandlerInspired by the groundbreaking work of David Chandler on Cambodian attempts to find order in the aftermath of turmoil, these essays explore Cambodian history using a rich variety of sources that cast light on Khmer perceptions of violence, wildness, and order, the “forest” and cultured space, and the fraught “edge” where they meet. Taken together, the essays offer a post-colonial analysis of Cambodia’s emergence from genocide that explores the relationship between narrative, history, and perplexing problems of meaning.

Anne Ruth Hansen is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Comparative Study of Religion Program at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Her work focuses on the history and development of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia and on Buddhist ethics.

Judy Ledgerwood is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Southeast Asian Studies and Chair of the Anthropology Department at Northern Illinois University. Her work has examined gender, migration and diasporic communities, politics, human rights, and more recently, religion in contemporary Cambodia.

Also exciting is the fact that the final essay in the book is by yours truly. The essay is titled “Imaginary conversations with mothers about death.” Sounds intriguing, no? I have yet to hear if I’m allowed to distribute the PDF via this webpage, but will put it up as soon as I hear positively. Until then, you are welcome to buy the book (I get no royalties, so it’s not that kind of plug).



Maurice Bloch on Religion and Imagination

Maurice Bloch remains one of the world’s most important anthropologists. His refusal to countenance silliness, his willingness to consider positions opposed to his own (and to endorse them when they are right) is stunning and rare in the academy, and his work continues to evolve.

A recent article by Bloch in Philosophical Transactions (via Anthropologi) points out the importance of the imagination to Bloch’s conception of religion. For Bloch, religion is the product of the human imagination; it is inconceivable and impossible without it.

But Bloch argues that religion is only one manifestation of this unique ability to form bonds with non-existent or distant people or value-systems.

Article in the New Scientist [link]

“Religious-like phenomena in general are an inseparable part of a key adaptation unique to modern humans, and this is the capacity to imagine other worlds, an adaptation that I argue is the very foundation of the sociality of modern human society.”

“Once we realise this omnipresence of the imaginary in the everyday, nothing special is left to explain concerning religion,” he says.


Knowledge, Power, and Institutional Imaginaries

As with much of my life and work, I find inspiration in the least acceptable places. That’s not to say that I feel these sources of inspiration ought to be unacceptable, but merely that advertising them as the sources of one’s inspiration is commonly thought a ‘bad thing.’ Whatever.

Robert Anton Wilson (RIP) remains a huge inspiration on me and my work – I think his model of consciousness, as elaborated in Prometheus Rising, is more convincing than a lot of more mainstream ones, and at any rate, he commonly puts me in my place. That’s a good thing.

So, here’s the quote I’ve been trying to find for a while now, on the relationship between the production of knowledge in different people, predicated on their position in a hierarchical relationship, and the degradation of useful knowledge as a result of that hierarchy. Brilliant.

Every authoritarian structure can be visualized as a pyramid with an eye on the top. This is the typical flow-chart of any government, any corporation, any Army, any bureaucracy, any mammalian pack. On each rung, participants bear a burden of nescience in relation to those above them. That is, they must be very, very careful that the natural sensory activities of being conscious organisms—the acts of seeing, hearing, smelling, drawing inferences from perception, etc.—are in accord with the reality-tunnel of those above them. This is absolutely vital; pack status (and “job security”) depends on it. It is much less important—a luxury that can easily be discarded—that these perceptions be in accord with objective fact. Continue reading