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

SOUNDING on Random Theoretical Notions, July 2, 2010

Some things that have crossed my wires (in all senses) recently, that I’m keeping track of:

Delanda Delanda Delanda

So, long-time readers of this blog know that I’m a fan. Although I work pretty strictly within the framework instaurated by Cornelius Castoriadis, I have often found Manuel De Landa‘s interventions (and innovations) with Giles Deleuze‘s thought some of the most brain-reformatting stuff around. It’s been profoundly useful to me. I only recently discovered the excellent blog by English Professor Steven Shaviro, and a short review he wrote of De Landa’s most recent book, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. I haven’t read this one yet, so I’m grateful to have someone else do a little pre-digestion for me. Continue reading

Genealogy: Imaginaire. 2. When is the Imaginaire?

Below, a very old post that I never got around to publishing. Archive fever, I guess.

It is a commonplace that the imagination, in Western philosophy, plays a mediating function. What does the imagination mediate? According to Plato, the imagination was a distorted and distorting form of cognition, from which reason held itself completely apart. Reason untainted by imagination was the sufficient and necessary condition for contemplation of the Eternal Forms, which he thought of as eternal and separate from the world of perceptible reality, the latter being reflections and distortions at second and third hand of the Forms. Plato devalues the imagination by ascribing to it the function of distortion and deception at the level of the image, which makes up our experience of perceptible reality. This understanding of the imagination presupposes a breach between a ‘real’ ontology and a symbolic or perceptible one. Reason discovers the former, and imagination makes the perception of the latter possible. For Plato, memory plays the motive force in the cognition of the real and eternal Forms: one ‘unforgets’ the distortions interposed between us and reality through the process of anamnesis. What one is remembering, according to Plato, is the eternal forms with which we co-existed in a previous life. Continue reading

Caring for the dead and a silly mode of production argument

Choeung Ek has slowly been experiencing a proliferation of different types of commemoration. It used to be the case that Choueng Ek was strongly controlled – but never truly monopolized – by the Cambodian People’s Party, for the benefit of the reproduction of the CPP message – “We saved you people from Pol Pot – We’re all that’s protecting you now.” But once the May 20th commemorations were restarted, enough morbid interest began to accumulate in the international press that Phnom Penh began to grow its tourist numbers. Instead of flying into Angkor Wat from Bangkok and then turning straight back around, tourists were now starting to visit Phnom Penh as well. But where they saw temples in Siem Reap, they saw Choueng Ek and S-21 in Phnom Penh. Cambodia, the land where a nation sells views of its past in one city, and sells memories of its past in another. Anyway… Continue reading

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.

Mourning in Groups, Mourning Alone

I’m reading a difficult text now, and it gives me good excuses to take a moment here and there to write up some thoughts that have been running through my mind. With news that another friend has died in another land, I’m struck by the enormity of what so many people have called the ‘labor of mourning.’ ((for only one example, see what is perhaps Derrida’s best work, Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the new international. New York: Routledge.))
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