Friday, December 01, 2006

autonomy and 'pseudo' rational mastery

castoriadis elucidates modernity as the dual institution of autonomy and the infinite pursuit of rational mastery. for him, these imaginary signfications are not just different (or other!) but polar. yet is there not an overlap of the autonomist imaginary in that of rational mastery?


At 8:44 AM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

Definitely. But what are polar concepts? In my academic field, pedagogy, polar concepts means concepts that gain their meaning from each other, that is, you cannot leave out one side of the polarity without the other losing its central meaning. For instance, freedom and authority are considered to be polar concepts. Some think that polarity is an analytically weak term, poor thinking. Its' implication is that two phenomena are opposite and dependent on each other, but just how are they related? The notion of polarity does not seem to grasp this.

Another option is dialectics. I have often asked myself whether one could use this term for CC's concepts, for instance the individual and society. Aren't these cast in dialectic terms in Castoriadis's thought? I have never seen him use it. Do you think he used the term polarity instead for dialectics to avoid the Hegelian ring? (Or: chime).

Do you have a quote where he uses the term polarity; maybe we could investigate it together?

At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

When searching blogger for Castoriadis-hits (which seem to be booming; too many to mention here), I found the page linked below, stating the simple point that Castoriadis's political concept of autonomy would render 'heteronomous' a tribe of Indians in the Amazonas who live by the laws of the ancestors, whereas many other thinkers would use the concept autonomy for such a community. This once more poses the question: What's so great about autonomy? In this case, it seems that heteronomy is preferable yet untenable in the face of the colonizing imagery of rational mastery (and 'autonomy')?

At 12:31 AM, Blogger F.Theodoridis said...

I’m not sure that Castoridis uses the term polar in defining the relation between the two central imaginary significations of the West, autonomy and rational mastery. If they are “polar”, as the term is defined in Ingerid’s contribution, they cannot by different (in the sense of “other”), since they should then (logically and ontologically) presuppose each other. That they are “other” means that they do not presuppose each other, neither logically or ontologically, and this is the way I think they are conceived by Castoriadis. It just happen that they emerged together and this very historical fact also means that they have supported each other – as the rational reason that underlies the project of rational mastery supported the advance of (individual and collective) autonomy which, in turn, supported the advance of rational reason. And still, they contradict each other, although the contradiction is not between autonomy and rational reason as such, but between the autonomy and a rational reason that is based on the idea of the determination or the reductive foundation of the world – then also (logically and factually) of autonomy and its domains of action (private and public). The project of (pseudo-)rational mastery of the world emerged upon the illusion of determinacy or reductionism. The contradiction is between autonomy and a reductionist reason.

This contradiction is not dialectical, for the notion of dialectics, like the notion of polarity, presupposes a necessary and determined relation between the polarities, which, moreover, are unified and simultaneously struggling each other (with predetermined origins and destiny). Dialectics is just a version of the reductionist reason that underpins the project of rational mastery (isn’t that the essence of The Dialectics of the Enlightenment?).

Generally, I think, Castoriadis rejects any kind of predetermined relations between the imaginary significations of a society. These relations (like the significations themselves) are neither chaotic nor determined but magmatic, that is, indefinitely (i.e. irreducibly and inexhaustibly) determinable. That is way a society has to determine them explicitly or implicitly and in a sufficient degree in order to create itself – and every existed society has managed to do that, but always only in a stratified and fragmented way. This involves historical processes of significative (and institutional) closure which constitute the political dimension of society – there is politics because there is indeterminacy. The task of thought is then to elucidate these historical processes of closure. In stead of asking about the true relation between autonomy and rational master we have to elucidate what the western civilization have done with these significations.

The alternative approach is the reductionist one, or what Castoriadis sometimes also call the speculative one: we construct a rational (idealtype) definition of the true relation and then juxtapose it to the “empirical reality” in order to find correspondences and deviations in an endeavour to verify or falsify our definition – or in order to find reality lacking and then develop political project of intervention to bring it in congruence with truth. In trying to find a true relation between, far example, autonomy and rational mastery, we are engaged in that kind of (speculative, reductionist) rational reasoning that underlies the very project of rational mastery. As a matter of fact, such approaches are aspects of the very historical processes of closure and have to be subject matters of an elucidative research.

The above reasoning can be applied to the very signification of freedom and autonomy. There is not any true or real determination of freedom. The real truth of freedom is what the societies that have created this signification have actually made with it – and this is of course always a matter of interpretation that simultaneously participates in that making. In interpreting then what in its history the Greco-western civilization has made with the notion of freedom, Castoriadis claims to have discern that, in that history, freedom has been emerged, posited and partially instituted as a project of individual and collective autonomy – thereby he himself positing it as such in the current historical scene. And this autonomy has been effectively pursued by individuals and collectives as a project (always in front of them, never achieved and never achievable), whereby they have tried to posit for themselves the laws of their own self-limitation. A positing that was partially explicit, based on their reflective and deliberate activity, and therefore partially conscious. We may ask if this interpretation is true – just in order to realize that we are thrown in an historical magma of significations. But the very fact that it has been articulated by Catoriadis and that it makes sense also for us (and that it is also encountered in Pericles’ Funeral Oration) is part of its truth.

So, is a tribe of Indians in the Amazonas who live by the laws of the ancestors an autonomous society? Of course one can argue, highly convincingly, that this is a contradiction in terms – by the laws of the ancestors is not the same as by the laws of the self (autos). But this concerns only etymological formalities. The point made in the above question is deeper and concerns the “relations” between autonomy (freedom) and different forms of power or authority (in the Weberian sense, of legitimate power). It is assumed that the Indian tribe referred to above is not hierarchically organized and that power is therefore not exercised as coercion, and this may be the case even if we encounter in this tribe the rule of elders. Clasters, in his “Society against the State”, refers to these elders as “chiefs without power” and argues that the very idea that someone should have the right to give order and someone else the obligation to obey was unknown (unthinkable) in the tribe societies of South America that he studied. Moreover, he defines these societies as the first societies of “affluence and freedom”.

Is he wrong? The very question risks throwing us back to the speculative/reductionist reason: according to which criteria of truth? Clasters uses one of the definitions of freedom that have inspired individual and collective struggles in western history and elsewhere – as lack of coercive/arbitrary power or structures of domination – and in that sense it is of course correct (or rather, it makes sense for us). Bu at least for the Western societies, Castoriadis claims, the struggle against coercive power was also partially infused by an additional signification (qualification of freedom): the object of struggle was not only a particular form of power, aiming to replace one constellation by another, but also the very law of exercise of power, the source of its legitimation (the infra-power of society), aiming to posit the explicit power of society in the scrutiny of the public sphere, as object of individual and collective reflection and deliberation (then also, potentially, as object of ceaseless and limitless interrogation). And in that Castoriadis “reads” the seeds of the signification of autonomy, which posit themselves as a political project: to render the laws underlying the explicit exercise of power (that is, the political dimension of society) to a subject matter of the reflective and deliberate will of citizens.

By positing itself in those struggles, the signification of autonomy also posits the question about its relation to freedom and to power – a relation that is neither chaotic (for any form of power cannot be associated to freedom and autonomy) nor determined (there is not any true or ideal form of power that should correspond to a true ideal of an autonomous society). These very relations are (to be) subject matters of the reflective and deliberate activity of citizens and are (to be) indefinitely defined each time by that activity.

But one thing can we say for sure: the tribe societies that lived by the laws of their ancestors where deeply immersed in social heteronomy, for the simple reason that they could not (as far as we know) actually question and much less change these laws. And that not because they where prohibited by any coercive power, but because question was not part of their world of meaning. Is that an expression of Western cultural colonialism? Absolutely not! In fact, it is exactly the opposite assertion that is an expression of a Western ethnocentrism. The very question about the status of a tribe or any other society as regards freedom and autonomy is completely meaningless for the members of that society, to the extent that it is not instituted upon the signification of freedom. This question is meaningful only for those societies and those individuals who are confronted with the choice of freedom and that only in the following sense (as part of the deliberative activity of citizens): can we imagine ourselves as free and autonomous individuals and collectives while living by the laws (of any conceivable kind) of our ancestors (of any conceivable origin) – without being able to change or question these laws? I don’t think so. Should that life be preferable? Not for me.

At 9:57 AM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

The question concerning the Amazon tribe was: Does Castoriadis's theoretical framework provide any arguments against intruding on this tribe with our autonomous ways of thinking?

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