|Session 4: History and Social Imaginary Significations
and the Comparative Analysis of Civilizations.
J. P. Arnason, La Trobe University, Australia
Civilizations in the sense of macro-cultural and macro-historical units (such as those
we have in mind when speaking of Chinese, Byzantine or Western Christian civilization) are
a specific and significant, but still notably under-theorized aspect of human diversity.
They were not central to Castoriadis' theoretical project, but the paper will argue that
he introduced basic concepts and opened up analytical perspectives which can be developed
into a distinctive approach to the field.
Castoriadis' most significant contribution is the idea of imaginary significations as
the main sources of meaning in social and cultural life; in that capacity, they can also
be seen as the constitutive cores of civilizational patterns. This line of argument will
be based on closer examination of the text where the problematic of imaginary
significations was first tackled, i.e. the third chapter of The Imaginary Institution of
Society, but some use will also be made of other texts.
In the 1965 discussion, the comparative perspectives (which were, in any case, less
important for Castoriadis than a new framework for the critique of modern society and for
the question of alternatives to it) are on the one hand linked to the general issue of
cultural diversity among human societies, on the other hand focused on singular features
of the Greco-Occidental tradition. Apart from a few interesting allusions, the main theme
of civilizational analysis - the ways of defining, distinguishing and comparing major
civilizational complexes - are left untouched.
If we want to draw on Castoriadis' insights for the purposes of civilizational theory,
the problematic of imaginary significations should be reconsidered from two complementary
angles. Castoriadis notes both the constitutive role of imaginary significations and the
recurrent factors which constrain their autonomy. On the one hand, they provide frameworks
for interpretive and evaluative orientation in the natural world, as well as basic
articulations of social reality and patterns of collective identity; on the other hand,
they must adapt to the imperatives of social reproduction, compromise with inherited
traditions which may be transcended but cannot be discarded en bloc, and take account of
the cognitive constraints built into the basic realities which they encounter. A more
specific analysis of civilizational patterns would involve further considerations on both
sides, i.e. with regard to formative meanings as well as conditioning factors, and the
problematic of power seems crucial on both counts. Cultural interpretations of power - an
underdeveloped theme in Castoriadis' work - are particularly central to civilizational
complexes and trajectories; at the same time, the dynamics of state formation and imperial
expansion, as well as geopolitical constellations, interfere.
Autonomy and Mastery, Democracy and Capitalism. Reflections after Cornelius
P. Wagner, European University Institute, Florence, Italy
Between a comprehensive social philosophy, based on concepts such as 'radical
imagination', the 'psychical' and the 'socio-historical', on the one hand, and a diagnosis
of our present time, starting out from a concept of 'fragmented bureaucratic capitalism'
and working with observations about 'generalized conformism', on the other hand, only few
elements of a coherent social theory of modernity can be found in the writings of
Cornelius Castoriadis. This paper will argue, following Johann Arnason (1989), that such
an approach could be elaborated on the basis of the postulate of the two imaginary
significations of 'autonomy' and 'mastery' being characteristic of social configurations
of modernity. Such a social theory, however, would need to develop further the underlying
social philosophy and it would identify Castoriadis' diagnosis of the present as seriously
The Imaginary Institution of Work and the New Spirit of Capitalism.
H. Wolf , University of Kassel, Germany
The paper deals with the relevance of the social theory of Cornelius Castoriadis for
the interpretation of the institution of work (part 1) and for the current developments in
the sphere of production (part 2). Part 1 begins with a discussion of the notion of a
"dual institution of modernity" and applies it to the realm of work. It examines
how the two main imaginary currents or cultural complexes - the bureaucratic-capitalist
project of an unlimited expansion of rational mastery and the project of autonomy - are
shaping the institution of the modern firm and the production process. Because of this
dual institution the organization of work is characterized by contradictory tendencies: a
kind of double bind of exclusion and inclusion, a permanent - sometimes explicit, often
implicit - struggle about organization structures and working conditions, and something
what one may call "necessary spontaneity" on the side of the producers. Part 2
discusses the crucial changes of contemporary capitalism in the sphere of production and
the management of work. Central imaginary significations of the new spirit of capitalism -
network, self-organization, and flexibility - are analyzed. It is asked in how fare these
new elements of the imaginary institution of work are transforming the whole character of
the capitalist labour process. The considered developments can in part be interpreted as
an extensive instrumentalization of the "necessary spontaneity" of the producers
and an emphasis of their inclusion - but within the boundaries of the
bureaucratic-capitalist project. This results in new organizational contradictions and
conflicts in the labour process of which the contours are sketched. Finally, the paper
sums up how the new spirit of capitalism and its consequences can be elucidated with the
help of Castoriadis's concepts.
Social Imaginary Meanings Calling Societal Institution Building into Question.
A. Theodoridis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
Modern society seems to be sinking deepr and deeper into the lack of will for
questioning its institution building, and into its inability for undertaking such an
endeavour. Nevertheless, excellent theoriticians for the sake of their own powers could
readily assure one that precisely the opposite is true. After all, if those two ends
(which, in fact, meet somewhere in the middle) are the crystallization of the current
situation, then the escalation of its terrifying consequences is only to be expected.
C. Castoriadis contributed decisively in elucidating this problem, because he managed
to highlight the necessary and sufficient conditions for this calling into question by
standing up for putting (personal and social) autonomy in a context where the claim for
freedom and the claim for truth are considered to be inextricably related.
Questioning this institutionalised social imaginary meanings which make up the fabric
holding the capitalis universe together can only be embarked on by an autonomous society
and an autonomous person breaking away from their institutionalised heteronomy, and
accepting that it is society itself which raises the issue of meaning, that is the source
of its own institution building, that it does have the ever-present potential for changing
it, and that the democratic way ios the only way to invalidate any transcendental
guarantee of meaning.
For Castoriadis this alteration of the anthropological aspect of the human being
brought about by modern society undoubtedly requires an ontological shift. If we do accept
to change our mindset, we should also open this vast research field further, and strip the
post-modernist situation of the possibility to monopolise the future of humanity.