Thursday, February 15, 2007

The formal norm for human beings

In the text Psychoanalysis and Philosophy (1993), Castoriadis calls the subjectivity characteristic of autonomy - a reflective and deliberate subjectivity - "the formal norm for human beings" (The Castoriadis Reader, trans/ed. D.A. Curtis, Blackwell 1997). This statement of a certain philosophical anthropology, indicates that autonomy is seen by Castoriadis to be the realization of human nature; autonomy is the cultural life form that allows human beings to flourish. As such, this passage goes against the interpretation of autonomy as something that we invented, and then kept striving for because we liked it - i.e. mere perspecitivsm. See earlier discussions on this topic here - post called Three levels of autonomy ...

I furthermore have found more reasons to relativize the stark opposition of heteronomy and autonomy (confer discussion opened by Suzi here), in that traditional "heteronomous" societies are in many ways reproducing themselves by stories whose meaning and significations are rather open-ended. Cf. myths, which are rather more stimulative to the creative imagination than atheist imagery. I think CC might agree on this.

Ingerid S.


At 4:08 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

At the 10-year memorial conference in Paris recently, Robert Legros (Université Libre de Bruxelles) held a talk called «Castoriadis et la question de l’autonomie». Legros is a phenomenologue, much inspired by Castoriadis. He pointed out that religious imagery is much more stimulating to the imagination, hence much more opening, than Castoriadis admits. Confirming my point above.

At 12:45 AM, Blogger F.Theodoridis said...

I admit that Castoriadis’ formulation in the above quotation referred to by Ingerid is quite unsuccessful. However, an unsuccessful expression (to which he never returned) cannot overthrow the totality of his ontology. As is usually the case, this formulation has to be interpreted within it context. Briefly, he addresses the question about the task or the end of the psychoanalytic activity. A question he also posits in relation to two other practico-poetic activities, namely politics and pedagogy. His central argument, that these three activities cannot be a science, implies exactly that their subject lack any “normal” state or nature to be achieved or realized.

So, what is the target end of psychoanalysis? It can of course no be to “normalize” the human subject to the current norms of his/her society! And still, psychoanalysis, like any activity, presupposes an end in order to be exercised – a kind of “normal” state to strive for. It is obvious for me that Castoriadis, in the article in question, say the following to psychoanalysts: given the emergence of the project of autonomy (of which psychoanalysis is partially a part), the only acceptable end of psychoanalysis is to enhance the autonomy of the subject – its capacity to reflect upon its unconscious wishes (letting them in that way emerge on the face) and deliberate upon the whishes (old and new ones) its wands to pursue. So, this end has to be treated by psychoanalysts, in pursuit of their activity, as “the formal norm for human beings”. It is a “formal”, not natural norm.

Is autonomy “the realization of the human nature”? It is a realization of a human nature – one form of subjectivity among uncountable others encountered in human history and of indefinite (which is not the same as infinite) others possible. But it is absolute not the realization of the human nature. Rather to the contrary, heteronomy is the most probable and the most “normal” state of the human subjectivity – the closure of the psyche into unconscious fluxes of meanings/pleasures that hold sway over the subject’s live. And heteronomy is also the most probable and most “normal” state of the human society – its institutional and significative closure in an imaginary world of social meaning. That is also way autonomy, in Castoriadis’ account, both the individual and the collective one, can never be a state but a project – something that we will for ever have in front of us to strive for…

However, this closure, the psychic and the social, is, ontologically speaking, always a pseudo-closure (in contrast, for example, to animal psyche, where closure is almost absolute). This is the case because both what is closed and the foundation of the closure are imaginary signification, the meaning of which is a magma, that is, define indefinitely definable but not defined in itself. It is the same thing to say, indefinitely closeable but not closed in itself – or that it is open-ended… But this fact is only the ontological condition of autonomy (if the psyche and the social-historical were definitely closeable, autonomy should have been neither possible nor even conceivable).

It is certainly meaningful to relativise the opposition between heteronomy and autonomy…, but heteronomy neither implies absolute closure (which furthermore is ontologically impossible) nor lack of stimulation of the imaginary. In the same way, open-endedness of a society’s world of meaning and lively activity of the (individual and collective) imaginary does not imply autonomy. The interpretation of the ends defined for humans by the god of the Bible or the Koran was and still are open-ended, and different interpretations can wage war against each other and replace each other even during a generation – but this is not an evidence for autonomy. One heteronomous source of significations compete another – this is rather the “normal” state in human history… On the other side, the very idea of an omnipotent god may provide an immense source for the stimulation of the radical imaginary (individual and collective). I can’t see why such a stimulation must necessary imply openness but it can occasionally do that. So, what? It is not openness that is the source of autonomy but questioning – and not questioning of one heteronomous source of foundation by another, but of any foundation whatsoever.

I don’t know if the religious imaginary is much more stimulating for the creative imagination than the atheist imaginary but I guess that what the Modern Western imaginary produces every year exceeds in quantity and in liveliness the totality of myths produced by traditional society in human history. Isn’t this very blogg a creation of that imaginary?

At 10:14 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

Thank you for your nice comment. Without contesting your reading of Castoriadis, I just have one remark concerning your claim that our current Western culture produces more - and more vivid - imaginary creations (or whatever we call these products) in one year than the entire bulk of myths produced by traditional societies throughout history.

Well, aren't you overrating current Western societies here? How creative are we really, how free is our creative imaginary? I think we are rather more enrolled in technical production - Arendts poiesis - than in creating something new and hitherto unseen. Just look at the art scene, music etc., where nothing really new has emerged for a long time. Remix is all very well, concept art too, but it is mostly about making commentaries. This blog too is just made of comments on other comments. We are, let's face it, more than anything, consumers and commentators.

Last fall I saw Firenze (Florence). The mass of art work was more creative than I can ever dream of becoming, representing very original and outstanding art - all inspired by religion (Greek mythology and Christian divine mystery). Yet these religious creations are also about ourselves, human beings. Religion is that; about our relation to ourselves. We should not mystify it, but rather turn the religious glance back upon ourselves, and get inspired.

This is my comment, anyway.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger F.Theodoridis said...

OK! I was exaggerating, just to make my point. But what is your point? That the production of the modern imaginary is certainly enormous but not “free” or “creative”? And in contrast to that, that the religious imagination is (more) free and creative? I don’t think so. First, I can’t see how it can be free in any sense. It cannot break with the established religious norm, except for the penalty of death. And the believer cannot break with his/her own belief, except in dreaming and daydreaming. Second, it is usually creative of new forms in the beginning, during the establishment of the new religion (as a new social form in itself). For the rest of the religious regime, it is basically reproductive and rather preserving and standardizing (it becomes “dark” or “medieval”).

I’m less then an amateur in those questions, but I don’t think that the main inspiration of the art in Florence (which is an accumulation of many centuries’ creations) was the “Christian divine mystery”, although it might partially have been the Greek mythology. On the one side, Florence is the city of Renaissance, the re-birth of the ancient world. This world contained its mythologies, but these where not basically religious, in the Christian sense of the term: the ancient gods did not created the human being and they did not had any destiny for them to be believe – the imaginary significations of “faith” which is a Christian (or rather Jewish) creation was, as Castoriadis argues, unknown to the ancient world. But mainly, this world was a world of philosophy, of politics and of arts which where fundamentally a-religious. Nothing of what we today account as the great Greek creation was religious. Occasionally, it uses myths, but not in a religious sense or aim. On the other side, Florence was during the same period (15th century) a self-govern city that underlies the mergence of the project of autonomy and of the modern West. It was the ancient and the modern imaginary that inspired the creative imagination of people during this period, not the Christian divine mystery (which have thrown Europe in darkness for centuries, darkness from which Eastern-South Europe, reigned as it was by the Greek-orthodox Church, still tries to recover from). It was the freedom of consciousness and subsequently the freedom to question religion, inaugurated in and partially safeguarded be the self-governed cities of bourgeoisies that made this creative period possible.

I really don’t understand the point of your argument that “religious creations are also about ourselves”. So what? Any social creation (civil society, the “cultural revolution” and concentrations camps) says something about ourselves (as human beings generally). If your argument is that we have to elucidate these creations in order to enrich our insight in human multiplicity, I definitely agree. And certainly, we can be inspired by that. Is it not exactly what happens today? Is there any inspiring myth in human history that (with some exaggeration) has not been a Hollywood film yet? Inspiration does not mean something good (and according to what criteria of goodness, any way?).

On the other side, I definitely and loudly disagree with the argument that religion is “about our relation to ourselves”. Religion, like any social creation, says something about ourselves and our relations to ourselves and to others, but basically, it is the source of foundation of the infra-power of society (the “nomos”, the law or the central imaginary significations that circumscribe its world of meaning) and it is also the institution that legitimizes or, most of the time, even itself conveys and embodies the very explicit power of society (its decision-making instances). Thereby, religion has always been the source of social heteronomy: the law that institutes the infra-power of society is external to it and unquestionable. And it has always been the source of individual heteronomy (although not the only one – the other source being the unconscious): whatever it says about ourselves and about our relations to ourselves and to others is related to that external and unquestionable law.

Autonomous society is a society that explicitly and consciously founds the source of its infra-power on the reflective and deliberate will of its citizens. And autonomous individuals (citizens) are subjects that have developed a reflective and deliberate relation to the infra-power, explicit power and the instituted imaginary of their society (and to the desires of their unconscious, which is the second source of individual heteronomy). Does autonomous society and autonomous individuals inspire a free and creative imagination? Certainly yes, to the extent that the institutions of society facilitate the reflective and deliberate activity of citizens and to the extent that citizens can mobilize “free psychic energy” for that activity. But this is not the “normal” state of society and human beings. So autonomy will for ever be a (rather precarious) project. And any way, what is at stake really? What inspires a vivid and creative imagination (religious or secular one) or an imagination that keeps alive and enhances the project of autonomy?

From that point of view, I cannot see how we can get inspired by turning “the religious glance back upon ourselves”. Is there something good about the “religious glance” that we have lost during modernity and should now have to return back to? I don’t think so. The Lutheran transformation of Christianity partially directed the religious glance to the subject, imposing upon it the imperative to develop an individual relation to god. Simultaneously, modern democracy emerged by relegating religion to the private sphere of live, as a relation to ourselves. Did those changes of the status of religion facilitated the emergence of the modern project of freedom? Probably yes, but only in a negative sense: the source of change came from the outside of religion and against it – from politics, which expelled religion from the public sphere, and from the emergence of individuals which in seeking for a subjective relation to god, realized that they don’t need god as source of subjective meaning.

At 4:04 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

Phew - I'll need some time to study your comment and answer to all your remarks. In the meantime, let me just mention that it seems to me as if your notion of the religious is heavily coloured by monotheism. To me, religion is not only that.

We were talking about myths above -- where atheist imaginary was supposed to be more rich than traditional mythology - would your conclusion here have been the same if you substituted "religion" with "myth"? When you talk of religion, it's all about subjection and subversion, whereas I think this is too simple. CC has done better analyses than the one on religion, in my view. Arnason and the Thesis Eleven group has written something on this, I might be able to dig up something.

Is autonomy about getting rid of myths?

Oh, and one more thing. Renaissance art in Firenze, the little I've seen, was very much about the baby Jesus and Maria - plus the Greek gods and other mythical and imaginary "historical" characters.

More later!

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Ingeird S. said...

Don't you know that almost all great art is religious; think of Bach and the whole history of Western church music up until today ... the most beautiful music was for the glory of God and man's interpratation of himself in a divine universe.

Well, even the concept of divinity is in itself articstic, viz. spiritual. Whereas die-hard communist ahteism is among the ugliest periods in the history of style and art.

At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S said...

I'm sorry I do not have the energy to take up a systematic discussion on all the points raised by FT above. Just let me make a few comments.

I think the problem with our discussion on religion is that FT holds a view, following Castoriadis, that religion and heteronomy is on one side, and atheism and autonomy is on the other. I think the issue is more complex than that. But this is a matter of how we define religion, and I guess we can leave it at that.

Your point about Florence in the renaissance period being a place marked by political changes, the dawn of enlightenment if you like, and a self-governing city, was elegantly made. Yet I think it is very problematic to “explain away” any possible religious motive by changes in the political constitution. This is bad political-scientific reductionism. Now one might say that changes in consciousness, hence art, went together with awakening political consciousness. Still, we should not reduce one set of motives to another in order to do away with them.

My point about religion being basically about ourselves was unclear. It was posed more from a New Age-point of view rather than within traditional heteronomous monotheism or the like. It goes something like this: God, gods, spirits and myths are imaginary significations, symbolic figures that we've made up. But this insight does not necessarily rule out that they can also be holy to us, have a special divine status to us and enrich our insights about ourselves. The latter – insight in ourselves - is about autonomy, although it is not all there is to say about autonomy, of course. For if the divine creations were not also humane, how come we keep making them up? And autonomy must be about knowing ourselves.

From a New Age, or postmodern point of view, we can choose voluntarily whether we want to keep these imaginary significations, or not. Faith then becomes something eligible - and not imposed on us under threat. Here the heteronomy-autonomy dichotomy breaks down, in my view. But I don't expect people who are allergic to religion, to agree. I'm just saying it's possible to hold this position. It is, of course, very different from traditional orthodox monotheism. But not too different from pantheist imagery.

At 8:14 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

PS: I'll stop now, but first this: I guess it must be frustrated for FT to discuss with me because I move outside the framework laid out by Castoriadis, especially here where I use another understanding of religion. The blog is not the format in which to present a long discussion on why I use this and not that definition. The ability to stay very close to Castoriadis, which FT possesses, is very admirable and a great source for thought. I'm afraid I am too impatient and creative for that, though. I always want to explore the edges of his thought, to search for the cracks and possible weak points. I guess you will forgive me :-)

At 12:32 PM, Blogger imaginaire radical said...

I’ll try to be brief. Firstly, I believe that CC talking about “the formal norm of human beings” refers to what we believe that is the normal form of human being. He is talking as an individual who accepts the project of autonomy and not as an ontologist who reveals the essence of human being. There is no law which suggests this normal form. There is only our desire to be autonomous and to live in an autonomous society.
Concerning art, creation and religion: All heteronomous societies (except the contemporary) are creative, but we must examine their creativity. Are the artists, the philosophers and the scientists allowed to break all the taboos and go further? No. The limits are obvious and hardly breakable. Only in the societies which are tending to be more and more autonomous the taboos are surpassed. Can we imagine a medieval society which “creates” Picasso or Cézanne? I don’t think so, unless it overcomes its closure. But then it won’t be medieval society anymore. I have to mention that I use the term “taboo” with a wide sense. There are esthetical taboos too (for example: perspective as Merleau-Ponty believes). Of course, there is a field to express our creativity inside the religious imaginary. But can we write a surrealistic poem inside this imaginary? I don’t think so. Can we admire the esthetic value of a psalm inside an autonomous society? I believe that we can and I believe that we do. That’s the difference. The (political, philosophical, esthetical etc) question is: what kind of society accepts without any conditions the total creativity of human beings and what kind of society accepts without any conditions the true liberation of radical imagination? The answer is: an autonomous society. A society which tries every minute to break its closure, to overcome itself.


At 6:13 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

This is getting rather tangled. I agree, for the most part, sith Thanasis except on his turning around of the "formal norm" to "normal form" of human beings. As F Theodoridis pointed out above, heteronomy is more normal, i.e. common, form than autonomy.

To the long comment by FT above, there is something troubling. He seems to be talking about god and extrasocial laws as if they exist qua extrasocial. But there can be no such thing in Castoriadis's thought: every aspect of the nomos, the infrapower of any given society is that society's own creation. Therefore, it must be possible to maintain myths and a religious outlook in an autonomous society, provided that we know that gods, spirits and the dimension of holiness, magic etc. is a psychological phenomenon of meaning. If you do not agree to this, then you accept that extrasocial sources of meaning exist. All of this well set within the thought of Castoriadis, I think.

At 11:17 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

I am not a great fan of Zizek's, but there is one point where I think he's managed to pinpoint a special kind of heteronomy of our time, coined in the expression "ideology with open eyes". This means that we may very well know the way things are, and aren't, but we don't do anything about it. We know that what we do is ideology (in the marxist sense), and still keep doing it. This is not due to lack of reflection or insight - in fact, part of the problem is that we already have too much - but perhaps to lack of psychical energy (I don't know Zizek too well). Castoriadis, too, pointed out that will and emotional investment are necessary for political action, not just knowledge (consciousness).
But then what is autonomy? We know that we are the sources of our laws and significations, but we don't bother to use our capacity for change ... Are we still autonomous?

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My turning around of the "formal norm" to "normal form" of human beings, although I repeated it twice, was just a mistake. I mean formal norm.


At 11:34 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

He-he, funny mistake!

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although it was a mistake, I think that using the interprantation I mentioned above, it makes sense. So, don't laugh at me :P

At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

OK, If you really mean, Thanasis, that autonomy is the normal form of human being, there are quite a few statements where Castoriadis disagrees with you. So I guess you'd have to argue some more ...

At 9:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really mean it talking as a rebel and not as a philosopher, an historian or a sociologist. It is pretty clear in “The subjective roots of revolutionary project” (I’m translating from Greek) of “The Imaginary Institution of Society”. I consider that my desire (maybe our desire) to live in an autonomous society as autonomous individual is legitimate and I want it because I believe that it is or it should have been the normal form of human being. I’m not a fool, I’m not blind. I can see the normal form of human being in history, I can see the psychoanalytical difficulties of autonomy. But I’m not talking about these. Do you really think that any elucidated desire does not really presuppose it self to be the normal form of reality? If you really think so, there is no possibility of any elucidated desires but only of schizophrenic deliriums.


At 6:20 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S said...

Hmmm ... well argued! As far as I can see, you are providing some support for my notion that autonomy has a special normative status for Castoriadis. I'll read the chapter you mentioned again and get back to this. I think it is interesting to investigate what can be said of this normative status. So, thanks!

At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Ingerid S. said...

My bedside lecture these days is a book by Orhan Pamuk called in Norwegian: Mitt navn er Karmosin. In English this translates to My name is Crimson (in Turkish: Benim adim Kirmizi).

This book is about the breakin through of renaissance art and especially the art of portraiting (in Venice) as received in Turkey. The impact of the new, European style was conceived to be very threatening to the miniature painters of the near East, and to the world view of Islam as maintained in this art. And of course, correspondingly, to the reign of the Sultan.

The extremely interesting part concerns our discussion on art and the concept of autonomy above. For to the guild miniature painters, the intriguing, new problem connected to the new European (barbarian) art was the question of "style" - personal painting style and signature. To the islamic miniature tradition, personal style was something to be shunned, it meant to put one self foreward as an individual and thereby contesting the perfect, all-seeing perspective of God. What was to be striven for, was mimesis, copying the great masters of miniature painting (obiously a paradox, as these masters did have their names attached to their specific schools of painting). The temptations of developing a personal style, of painting real people with their less-than-perfect characteristica and using perspective (a false idea, seen from the all-seeing angle of God, which one should favour and pay due respect, yes, not dare to contest), is at least in this book seen as threatening to the whole social order.

Concerning the question of modernity - which this is obviously about - I thought of the idea put forward by Peter Wagner in Liberty and Discipline, that the key modern significations identified by Castoriadis: the idea of expanding pseudo-rational mastery and autonomy, should be completed with a third signification, that of the individual. I think this book, by showing the upheavals in the cultural field, illustrates the importance of this very significance/idea.

I haven't been able to look this up in Wagner's text, though, but will do. Or one of you's could help?


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