Thursday, July 10, 2008

La Brèche

Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort and Edgar Morin's book from June 1968, La Brèche, has been republished this year on Fayard, with an additional section called Vingt ans après (twenty years after). Here, the three authors comment upon the students' revolt and the question of organization for a would-be revolutionary movement. I have recently read Castoriadis's texts in the new volume (in the original volume, he used the pseudonym Jean-Marc Coudray). His ideas on the question of organization are not less interesting today, especially as a critique of the alterglobalization movement, the "movement of movements" (Negri & Hardt).

When giving advice to the – possibly – revolutionary movement, Castoriadis in particular warns against existing dichotomies, posed like mutually exclusive options. For instance, when there is either the imagination or the organization; creativity or reality, etc. As we know, politics is often, in ordinary discourse, perceived as something dull, hardened, set, signifying doxa, bureaucracy and non-creativity (well illustrated by Jacques Rancière’s concept la police). But also: hard reality, that which in the end must have a final say, the non-eligible. Political institutions and their keepers seem “real” in a commanding way: “You can play all you like, but in the end we all have to grow up and face reality, i.e. that which the grown-ups have decided”.

If we, correspondingly, limit our political repertoire to the other side of the dichotomy, e.g. happenings, the event and the carnivalesque (Bakhtin) – or worse, if we regard our commitment to politics as leisure time activities, something offered to us, something to fill our lives, providing “identity” and meaning – we are actually feeding the existing system, Castoriadis argues.[i] To accept the dichotomy – and hence, restrict our political activities to just one side of it out of fear of being captive to the other – means to submit our power to the existing hierarchy: bureaucratic capitalism. It also means saying that only one part of the dichotomy can be real, whereas the other becomes purely imaginary in the sense of fictional, non-real.

Accepter cette antinomie comme valable, c’est accepter l’essence de même de l’idéologie capitaliste bureaucratique, c’est accepter la philosophie et la réalité qui existent, c’est refuser la transformation réelle du monde, c’est intégrer la révolution dans l’ordre historique établi (Castoriadis 2008:136).

The point to remember is that it will always be in the interest of the powers in place to facilitate change in order to swallow it – or use it to renew and refine its own, existing power structures. Hence, if we accept the dichotomies offered by the existing social order, and choose one side against the other, we are already playing the game of the powers in place. It is therefore imperative, says Castoriadis, that the would-be revolutionary movement gives itself form. It must organize itself, give itself a “face” and articulate something to which it is willing to commit itself, albeit temporarily. By giving itself a new form, the revolutionary movement leaves behind the old ground with its definitions, dichotomies and dilemmas. This will also make the movement immune to cooptation. Furthermore, such self-positing is the only way to transgress hierarchy and divisions in society. Otherwise, the hierarchy will only reproduce itself in ever new versions.

Ingerid S.

[i] In my view, Hannah Arendt comes very close to accepting this dichotomy, in refusing to include the making of institutions in her notion of the term politics (Arendt 1990 [1963]). Similar claims can be made against Jacques Rancière.


I have been told that there is a discussion group on Castoriadis on Facebook called Magma. Apparently, it is very active. I have not checked it out, since I do not (want to) use Facebook.

Ingerid S.