Castoriadis on Culture
By David Ames Curtis

Author's Note to the Free Associations Expanded Version

"Cultural studies," which is often reliant on the presuppositions, biases, and jargon of what Castoriadis has termed "the French Ideology," has become one of the more popular fads in "left-wing" academic circles. As a recent announcement for a Graduate Student History Conference at New York University put it, "Many intellectual and cultural historians argue that discourse, ideology, and narrativity ought to be privileged categories of social analysis. To what extent has this view challenged or supplanted an older view that society is to be studied as a realm of competing structures, contending classes and groups, and conflicts over material resources?" It would seem that we are being presented with another of the tiresome, false dichotomies so characteristic of academia today. One thinks immediately of the supposed alternative of "communitarianism or liberalism"—as if one could or should make a choice between "the community" and "the individual"! The "humanism versus antihumanism" debate also comes to mind, where one is counseled to reembrace some vague "humanist" values as the appropriate response to Louis Althusser's outrageous "criticism" of a residual "humanism" in Stalinism or to Jacques Derrida's reprehensible claim that a "humanism" deemed still "metaphysical" lies behind Heidegger's Nazi-inspired Rektoratrede.

The present article is based on the entry on Cornelius Castoriadis which appears in the new Dictionary of Cultural Theorists edited by Ellis Cashmore and Chris Rojek, to be published in January 1999 by Arnold, London. As translator and frequent presenter of Cornelius Castoriadis in the English-speaking world, my unambitious ambition is, here again, not to offer ready-made conclusions about his work but to establish a few benchmarks, note some relevant references, highlight a number of basic terms, and guide the interested reader where she can go to familiarize herself further with this work so that she herself might extend, elaborate, refine, and, if need be, challenge and go beyond Castoriadis's views. I believe that this approach is in keeping with Castoriadis's own, as well as with his broad and far-reaching conception of the topic under consideration here: culture. "On the intellectual level," former Socialisme ou Barbarie member Daniel Blanchard wrote recently apropos of Castoriadis, "to be revolutionary means to try to understand the system of domination as a whole in order to be able to combat it under all its forms and not under this or that particular aspect."1 Allow me simply to add that it is not only a negative matter of "combating" the existing system but also of a positive effort to help bring about a vast "reconstruction of society," to employ a phrase Castoriadis borrowed often from Grace Lee Boggs.2 Keeping an eye on that whole in order to elucidate it and to advance the project of an autonomous self-transformation of society lies at the heart of Castoriadis's thoughts on culture, as we shall see below.

Paris, September 1998


Cornelius Castoriadis offers one of the most thoroughgoing and comprehensive cultural theories extant today. This interest in culture began early. The "collapse of culture" in Stalinist Russia was already a concern in 1946,3 on a par with political and economic oppression. A first thematic articulation came in "On the Content of Socialism, I" (1955).4 There he argued that the cultural and sexual functions are as important as the economic one for understanding and transforming society. In the Imaginary Institution of Society (1964-5, 1975), which marked his definitive break from Marxism, he developed a theoretical basis for this insight by drawing on work by Freud and cultural anthropologists.

Castoriadis's distinctive approach to culture appears in his question concerning the ontological status of society. What makes a society one? What makes it capable of change? His basic proposition in accounting for a society's unity and alteration is that, in its simultaneity and succession, the domain he calls the social-historical has (is) its own mode of being, a being-for-itself that is irreducible to physical, biological, or psychocorporeal existence. Society is instituted; it institutes itself, instead of being a product of Nature, Reason, God, etc. It thereby creates its own world—usually unknowingly, by incorporating into its world a religious (heteronomous) occultation of this very creation. Each time, the social world is other and thus arbitrary in relation to another institution of society.

Such an "institution of society" is embodied in its institutions, which are composed of—are—its social imaginary significations. Free creations of the anonymous collective—though internal, external, historical, and intrinsic constraints upon such creations do exist—these significations are social, because shared by all; imaginary, since neither reducible to nor deducible from "real" or "rational" referents ("reality" and "rationality" are their products, instituted differently each time); and significations, for they are not just "ideas" or "representations" but the cement of social life, that which holds together ideas, representations, acts, etc. A society posits its own representations but also its intentions and affects. Things, ideas, subjects; norms, values, orientations, tools; fetishes, gods, God; polis, citizen, nation, party; contract, enterprise, wealth; these and myriad other social imaginary significations are unmotivated (their creation is ex nihilo though not cum nihilo or in nihilo), " magmatic" as opposed to ensemblistic-identitary (this "ensidic"—or functional-instrumental—element of the determinate is nevertheless "everywhere dense"), and exist in a relation of indefinite referral to a society's other imaginary significations. Such significations must be coherent (even if fragmented or conflictual) and complete for the society concerned. They are, however, beyond logical "classes," "properties," "relations," since they posit—each time otherwise—a society's classes, properties, and relations. Nor are they "hypotheses" about a world in itself (science also has socially subjective conditions) or an "interpretation" thereof (hermeneutics is ruled out). While some social imaginary significations may have physical correlates ("automobile" as physical correlate of the invisible signification "commodity"), other ones—God, par excellence—do not. They thus possess an unprecedented, sui generis mode of being: effective and "acting" ideality, the immanent unperceivable. Yet, these social significations are not to be confused with psychical meaning. The true opposition, as Castoriadis reiterates time and again, is not "the individual versus society," mediated by "intersubjectivity," but psyche and society as mutually irreducible poles, for the original psychical monad cannot by itself produce social signification. The work of the radical social instituting imaginary is to create, reproduce, and alter itself by instrumenting itself in fabricated social individuals, thereby socializing the radical imagination of the singular psyche via an imposed internalization of the society's imaginary significations.

Within this overall view of society and of its institution via the invention of imaginary significations that are proper to each society and that its individuals make their own as they make themselves, Castoriadis offers an extremely broad, but not unbounded, definition of "culture."

I take . . . the term "culture" as intermediate between its current sense in French ("œuvres de l'esprit" and the individual's access to these works of the spirit) and its meaning in American anthropology (which covers the entirety of the institution of society, everything that differentiates and opposes society, on the one hand, [man's] animal nature and nature [in general] on the other). I intend . . . by "culture" everything, in the institution of society, that goes beyond its ensemblistic-identitary . . . dimension and that the individuals of this society positively cathect as "value" in the largest sense of the term: in short, the Greeks' paideia.5

His expansive understanding of what is encompassed by the term culture is accompanied by an equally extensive effort to revolutionize society: "The revolutionary movement ought to appear as what it really is: a total movement concerned with everything people do and are subject to in society, and above all with their daily life" (1961).6 In addition to the democratic transformation of work7 and a revised critical relationship to the "development of technology,"8 and passing by way of a new questioning of "relations between the sexes or between parents and children in the family," Castoriadis wrote in 1964 apropos of the tendency toward autonomy, "[i]t is equally important to show the similar contents that appear in the most radical currents in contemporary culture (tendencies in psychoanalysis, sociology, ethnology, for example)."9 Paraphrasing Castoriadis, Maurice Merleau-Ponty had already suggested at the end of his Epilogue to Adventures of the Dialectic (1955) that the limited, traditional idea of revolution must be replaced with people's "unpredictable ingenuity."10 Thus do we understand, in this conjunction of psychical and social conditions that constitutes an individual's access to the cultural sphere, Castoriadis's life-long love of jazz, the admiration "free jazz" composer Ornette Coleman repeatedly expressed for Castoriadis's work,11 and the "excess of emotion Castoriadis released from himself" during the Hungarian Revolution by playing "long improvisations on the piano."12 Indeed, improvisatory creation is perhaps one of the best metaphors for describing the type of activity he most admired and tried so passionately to encourage.13

Difficult to grasp at first and far from current fads (poststructuralism, deconstructionism, etc.), Castoriadis's radical theoretical renewal offers a wealth of conceptual tools to anyone interested in doing cultural theory with a global political relevance. He does not wade through the detritus of a consumer society to find micro(counter)powers, interpret real social events as (timeless) expressions of a Lacanian unconscious misrecognized as a "language" (which can only be social), become bogged down in identity politics, or succumb to the "generalized conformism" of postmodernism (e.g., of ex-Socialisme ou Barbarie member Jean-François Lyotard). Modernity is understood as a divided whole whose main contending imaginary significations are: the project of autonomy—expressed in revolutions, workers', women's, and students' movements, and liberation movements of racial and cultural minorities, as well as in philosophy, politics, psychoanalysis, and a transformative civic pedagogy—and a capitalist project for the unlimited expansion of (pseudo)rational mastery over nature and humanity. This view of the dual institution of modernity offers a more complex and conflictual cultural account of the West than Habermas's communicative rationality theory of an "unfinished project of the Enlightenment."

For Castoriadis, the current, unprecedented crisis of culture is the crisis of our society. Through privatization, depoliticization, and withdrawal, a destruction of meaning in work and an emptying of value, a refusal to want itself as society (as a society that can change itself), contemporary society is rapidly desocializing itself even as it experiences a hypersocialization through ubiquitous mediatization. The basis, history, contours, and countertrends of this overall crisis are delineated in such essays as "The Crisis of Modern Society" (1965),14 "Social Transformation and Cultural Creation" (1978),15 "Institution of Society and Religion" (1982),16 and "The Crisis of Culture and the State" (1986),17 as well as in the sections of Devant la guerre devoted to "The Destruction of Significations and the Ruination of Language" and "Ugliness and the Affirmative Hatred of the Beautiful" (1981).18 In these texts of a decidedly antifoundational bent, he examines the role Chaos (the Abyss, Groundlessness) plays in the institution of society, in its self-occultation via religion—as well as in art, where Being as Chaos can be presented without being covered up. In "Culture in a Democratic Society" (1994),19 Castoriadis anticipates that "just as the current evolution of culture is not wholly unrelated to the inertia and the social and political passivity characteristic of our world today, so a renaissance of its vitality, should it take place, will be indissociable from a great new social-historical movement which will reactivate democracy and will give it at once the form and the contents the project of autonomy requires."

Winchester, Massachusetts, November 1997/Paris, September 1998

* Originally published as the Cornelius Castoriadis entry for the Dictionary of Cultural Theorists, ed. Ellis Cashmore and Chris Rojek. Copyright © 1999 Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. An expanded version of this article, with a short Author's Note, was published in Free Associations, 43 [1999]: 367-73 <>. Republished here with permission.


My thanks to Andreas Kalyvas and Warren Breckman for their thoughtful comments and suggestions.

  1. Daniel Blanchard (known as P. Canjuers in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group), "Castoriadis et ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie,'" Courant alternatif, February 1998, p. 30.
  2. Ria Stone (Grace Lee Boggs), "The Reconstruction of Society," part two of Paul Romano and Ria Stone, The American Worker (Detroit: Bewick Editions, 1972; originally published as a pamphlet in 1947 by the Johnson-Forest Tendency of C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya—which later became the Correspondence group—the first part of this book was translated for the first eight issues of Socialisme ou Barbarie). Grace Lee Boggs seems to have had a considerable influence on Castoriadis's positive attitude toward the burgeoning "woman question" in the early Sixties; some her ideas can also be seen to be expressed in the key 1962 internal Socialisme ou Barbarie documents known as "For a New Orientation" (Political and Social Writings, trans. and ed. David Ames Curtis, 3 vols. [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, 1993], vol. 3, pp. 9-26.)
  3. "The Problem of the USSR and the Possibility of a Third Historical Solution," Political and Social Writings, vol. 1, p. 52.
  4. Political and Social Writings, vol. 1, pp. 290-309.
  5. "Social Transformation and Cultural Creation" (1978), Political and Social Writings, vol. 3, pp. 301-2; cf. "The Crisis of Culture and the State" (1986), Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, ed. David Ames Curtis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 220.
  6. "Modern Capitalism and Revolution," Political and Social Writings, vol. 2, p. 306.
  7. Given classic form in "On the Content of Socialism, II" (1957), Political and Social Writings, vol. 3, pp. 90-154.
  8. This theme, originally presented in "On the Content of Socialism, II" (see preceding note), was later generalized and contextualized in "From Ecology to Autonomy" (1980), The Castoriadis Reader, ed. David Ames Curtis (Oxford, England and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 239-52.
  9. "Recommencing the Revolution," Political and Social Writings, vol. 3, p. 49; reprinted in The Castoriadis Reader, p. 123.
  10. Trans. Joseph Bien (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 232.
  11. Coleman provided the cover art for the last two Castoriadis books published in English: The Castoriadis Reader and World in Fragments, ed. and trans. David Ames Curtis (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1997).
  12. As reported by Daniel Blanchard, "L'idée de révolution et Castoriadis," Réfractions, 2 (Summer 1998).
  13. See my foreword to the first volume of the Political and Social Writings, esp. pp. xvii-xx.
  14. Political and Social Writings, vol. 3, pp. 106-17.
  15. Political and Social Writings, vol. 3, pp. 300-13.
  16. World in Fragments, pp. 311-30.
  17. Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, pp. 219-42.
  18. Devant la guerre (Paris: Fayard, 1981), pp. 257-68.
  19. The Castoriadis Reader, pp. 338-48.