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
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
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
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 : 367-73 <http://www.human-nature.com/free-associations/index.html>.
Republished here with permission.
My thanks to Andreas Kalyvas and Warren Breckman for their thoughtful
comments and suggestions.
- Daniel Blanchard (known as P. Canjuers in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group),
"Castoriadis et ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie,'" Courant alternatif, February
1998, p. 30.
- 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.)
- "The Problem of the USSR and the Possibility of a Third Historical
Solution," Political and Social Writings, vol. 1, p. 52.
- Political and Social Writings, vol. 1, pp. 290-309.
- "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.
- "Modern Capitalism and Revolution," Political and Social Writings,
vol. 2, p. 306.
- Given classic form in "On the Content of Socialism, II" (1957), Political
and Social Writings, vol. 3, pp. 90-154.
- 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.
- "Recommencing the Revolution," Political and Social Writings,
vol. 3, p. 49; reprinted in The Castoriadis Reader, p. 123.
- Trans. Joseph Bien (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 232.
- 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).
- As reported by Daniel Blanchard, "L'idée de révolution et
Castoriadis," Réfractions, 2 (Summer 1998).
- See my foreword to the first volume of the Political and Social Writings,
esp. pp. xvii-xx.
- Political and Social Writings, vol. 3, pp. 106-17.
- Political and Social Writings, vol. 3, pp. 300-13.
- World in Fragments, pp. 311-30.
- Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, pp. 219-42.
- Devant la guerre (Paris: Fayard, 1981), pp. 257-68.
The Castoriadis Reader, pp. 338-48.