Saturday, November 08, 2008

Nordic Summer University: Winter Symposium in Athens, March 27-29, 2009

The Ancient Greek and the Modern Western Imaginary

From the late 70’s Cornelius Castoriadis turned towards a deeper study of ancient Greek philosophy and culture. His seminars at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, held from 1980 to 1995, were in the first years devoted to the Greek imaginary and its creations. Recently, these seminars have been published in French, and partly translated into Greek. His theme was the emergence, in ancient Greece, of social imaginary significations that enabled societies to question their own institutions, and the co-emergence, out of that questioning, of philosophy and politics. Furthermore, connected to the political "project of autonomy" were the institutions of polis and democracy. Some points in Castoriadis's account are worth highlighting, as they open up a series of interesting questions.

First, he traces the origins of the signification of autonomy in Greek mythology and religion, as conveyed by poetry and the first cosmological and anthropological conceptions of the world. This calls for studies of the central role of mythology, religion and culture, and also of education or paideia in the formation of the imaginary world of society. Secondly, he argues that the signification of autonomy emerged within a mythological and, in Castoriadis’s judgment, deeply true conception of the world as a fundamentally undetermined Chaos. Any emergence of order (cosmos), according to that conception, is arbitrary, limited in time and deemed to destruction; something that is equally valid for gods and human beings, their societies and their institutions. This in turn opens up the question about the impact of the ontological conception of the world, as a source of social meaning, upon the thought and the institutional practices of society.

Thirdly, he locates the failure of democracy in ancient Greece in its de facto incapability of self-limitation, defining in that way self-limitation as one of the major principles of democracy. This opens up questions about the sources of self-limitation of democracy, as a kind of guarantee against its own self-destruction. Finally, he makes the interpretation that Plato’s hostility and in fact hate against democracy, which impregnate the whole of his work, was mainly built upon a conviction that the failure of democracy is immanent to its nature, and was due to the inherent inability of the uneducated mob to self-limit itself. Hence his effort to find an extra-social and extra-historical source of limitation of society. This endeavour also runs through the philosophical and political thought of modernity, raising a series of questions about the ambivalent and often hostile relation between democracy and (academic) philosophy.

The imaginary signification of autonomy, according to Castoriadis, re-emerged once again in Western Europe, but its historical trajectory has been shaped by some other significations that distinguish the modern Western imaginary from the ancient one. First, it re-emerged within a reductionist conception of the world as a determined differentiation of a unity. This conception runs through the most dominant strands of Western philosophy and also underlies its two major ideologies, liberalism and socialism, which effectively define freedom as recognition of necessity. This opens up a series of questions regarding the relations between a reductionist conception of the world and the project of autonomy, and regarding also the historical impact of the two Western ideologies and the social movements that they have inspired upon the historical trajectory of the project of autonomy. Second, the signification of autonomy re-emerged in West together with another central imaginary signification, namely the signification of the unlimited expansion of “rational mastery”, which underlies the political and economic institutions of capitalism. This raises a series of questions about the relations between the project of autonomy and the economic institutions of society. Finally, Castoriadis makes the diagnoses that during the last four or five decades we experience in Western societies a retreat from autonomy and a concomitant increasing domination and globalization of the signification of “rational master”. This raises questions about the contemporary state of the project of autonomy, the conditions of possibility of its restoration in the social and political scene and of its globalization.

We call for papers that aim to contribute to the elucidation of the following areas, related to the above questions, or of other related areas, such as:

• The emergence and the historical trajectory of the imaginary signification of autonomy in the thought, the institutional practices and in the cultural creations of the ancient Greece and the modern Western world.
• The state of the project of autonomy and the conditions of its possibility and its globalization in the contemporary world.
• Comparisons and cross-fertilizations with the work of other researchers related to the above areas.

Please send a short abstract to ingerid.straume(a) by December 1st