Monday, April 06, 2009

Castoriadis, Foucault, Deleuze and Others?

I have been invited to be a respondent to a paper that is to be presented at Congress in Ottawa, Canada. The session titled Foucault and the Sciences of the Soul. One of the papers is a comparison of Foucault and Castoriadis [2]. Although I'm hardly an expert on either Castoriadis or Foucault I have a much better grasp on the former and no clear idea how the two might relate.

However, I have been thinking about Castoriadis as a figure of 'contemporary French philosophy.' Generally, that term is meant to include Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard.... As more people become aware of Castoriadis's work his name seems to be appearing in the lists of such figures, often improperly identified as a postmodernist or a poststructuralist. Do the readers of this blog believe that there is much, if any, common ground between Castoriadis and these theorists or others of the era? If so, who, which concepts or ideas, and why? Further, why were Castoriadis's few mentions of his contemporaries largely dismissive?[1]

My limited familiarity with Deleuze makes me believe that there are many conceptual crossovers with Castoriadis. Given that both Deleuze and Castoriadis moved at the fringes of the Lacanian movement and ultimately rejected Lacan would seem to be one important commonality. I recently asked David Curtis why Castoriadis never made reference to Deleuze, when it seemed he must be familiar with him. Curtis directed me to a footnote in the book On Plato's 'Statesman'. The footnote accompanies a remark in the translator's afterword (written by Curtis) about what was to become of Castoriadis's unpublished writings. Castoriadis said they were not to be published as he didn't want his unfinished works to become someone else's fashionable book. The footnote reads:

The name he cited, seemingly out of the blue, was Gilles Deleuze's. Only later did I form the hypothesis that Castoriadis may have felt that Deleuze/Guattari's book on capitalism and schizophrenia may have taken over, without attribution or the same depth of revolutionary purpose, his own ideas on the contradictory nature of capitalism, which simultaneously excludes worker's participation and solicits it.

I asked Curtis if he is familiar with Deleuze's work and if he thought this to be a fair belief on Castoriadis's part, if indeed it was his belief, given that this is a supposition by Curtis, and he notes he never followed up on Castoriadis's remark. Curtis provided another couple anecdotes that seemed to demonstrate that Castoriadis had little regard for Deleuze or Guattari.

Reading 'Movement of the Sixties,' I cannot help but notice the absence of Deleuze and Guattari from Castoriadis's assessment of how off-base more post-68 theorising about the month long uprising is. If there were any two thinkers who may have carried the mantle Pensée '68, it would seem to be them with their best-selling Anti-Oedipus, although they certainly weren't claiming that '68 somehow represented an individualist turn, which is the position that Castoriadis challenges in the article. I cannot help but think that one of the few thinkers acknowledged as having influenced the actions of '68 - although not under his own name, as he wasn't a citizen at the time - wouldn't be bitter that others would, after the fact, see their theories rise the charts, in part on an attempt to understand the event. I wouldn't blame Castoriadis if he were, but at the same time, I'm not prepared to psychoanalyse him.

If a suspicious attitude toward his contemporaries was one of Castoriadis's 'oedipuses,' then it's up to us to surpass them and determine if there are those among this group that may usefully inform Castoriadis and the project of autonomy, or who would be especially dismantled by having his concepts and analysis brought to bear on their theories. I'd like to hear the thoughts of others on this issue. I'm including the abstract for the paper I'm to respond to below (see [2]).


[1] Many of my friends make great use of Foucault, so I took much notice of the few times Castoriadis makes mention of him. He clearly did not think highly of the man. In 'State of the Subject Today' he lots him in with the structuralists, whom he takes apart (WIF, p. 144). In 'Movement of the Sixties,' he takes an unsubstantiated swipe at him: "Foucault did not hide his reactionary positions until 1968, although he spoke less, it is true, of the way in which he put them into practice during a students' strike in 1965 at Clermont-Ferrand" (WIP, p. 51). In 'The Retreat from Autonomy' Foucault feels the full weight of Castoriadis's derision for his claim that from Kant onward, philosophers makes no longitudinal value judgment, but merely thinks in "sagittal relation to their own actuality" (quoted in WIP, p. 34). As it is this exact notion of philosophy that Castoriadis is refuting in this essay, he clearly regards Foucault as an intellectual 'enemy.'

[2] This is the abstract for the paper. If you have any comments or things you think I should consider in my response, please email me at dtc[at]
“Foucault with Castoriadis: transformative processes from ‘psyche’ to‘subjectivity’”

The paper will focus on Foucault’s analyses of processes of subjectivization and self-subjectivization, and will link these to Castoriadis’s analyses of the “social imaginary” and its relation to “psyche” (as the representative, affective, and intentional fluxes), “individuality,” and “subjectivity.”

Relying particularly on L’Herméneutique du Sujet and Le Courage de la Vérité: le Gouvernment de Soi et des Autres II, the paper will study Michel Foucault’s late focus on bios as a process of living constitutive of an indeterminate and constantly changing “self” subjectivized through discursive and non-discursive social practices—where the transcription of power relations reflects various forms of governmentality and different relations and effects—as well as through processes of self-subjectivization, such as those associated with parrhesia.

The possibility of an indeterminate “self” has been elaborated in similar ways by Cornelius Castoriadis, particularly in L’Institution Imaginaire de La Société and Sujet et Vérité Dans le Monde Social-Hisotrique. Castoriadis relies not on the “social imaginary,” but on (the ensidic representations of) legein (social saying or representing) and teukhein (social doing or practicing) to socialize, acculturate, and subjectivize “psyche”—from “radical imaginary” to “individual” then “subject.”

Both philosophers highlight a social and political ontology relying on multiplicity, becoming, and indeterminacy, and while they have different analyses, they both highlight something inherently irreducible in their ontology of (self-)transformation—where fluxes or processes constantly interact with contingencies becoming necessity. Their contribution to the “Sciences of the Soul” is first and foremost methodological: the methods, as well as the objects of study, of these sciences need to be able to account for processes in their singularity and multifarious forces and to study indeterminate sites of transformation.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Call for papers: The Modern Problematique - Transformations and Tensions, Openings and Closures

Tyrifjord, Norway July 19 - 26
Key note speakers: Peter Wagner and Steven Shaviro

Modernity: one or many?
Modernity has traditionally been thought as one phenomenon – a break with traditional society, or a development there from (cf. Durkheim, Habermas, Lévi-Strauss, Weber). Over the past decades, however, scholars have voiced concerns about this agreed unity. Modernity conceived as a unity is, in many ways, a Western idea, carrying the sigils of the hegemon. An alternative would be to regard modernity as a multiple, or as a successive phenomena (Eisenstadt, Arnason, Wagner). Modernities take diverse forms in both space and time.

What is modern society?
In order to discuss modernity, we need a conception of society. Cornelius Castoriadis has an original take on what a society his. To him, society is first and foremost described in terms of imaginary significations.

To understand a society, then, means to understand its social imaginary significations, and the meaning they embody. The central social imaginary significations in modernity are, to him, "rational mastery" and "autonomy". These significations contradict each other, but at the same time, provide support for each other. Socialization in Western societies, then, means to invest emotional energy – belief, meaning, secondary values – in these significations.

In response to the emergence of a modern society, a social philosophy and a social science arose, which aimed at understanding the ongoing transition from “traditional” to “modern” societ[b]y[/b] and the many social problems (anomie, alienation, disenchantment, inequality, exclusion, etc.) based in this groundbreaking social transformation. The distinction between “tradition” and “modernity” became fundamental. Many contemporary scholars, however, are convinced that such a distinction is not sufficient to capture the basic social conditions of the present. The distinction implicates that the last, major transformation of Western societies occurred more than a hundred years ago, and that social change since then is only about gradual transitions. This assumption - which has been very influential not only in academic thought, but also in politics and everyday life during the 20th century - sits under the heading of “modernization theory”. The idea is that that more and more institutions, individuals and communities are turning more and more modern; i.e. social change is unilaterally interpreted as the realization of modernity.

Contemporary sociologists now suggest that recent transformations of social institutions, and of cognitive and normative convictions, are so fundamental that the history of modern societies itself must be divided into different epochs.

One, two, many modernities
Distinctions between “early” and “late” (or “high”) modernity, modern and “postmodern” society, “first” and “second modernity”, “solid” and “liquid” modernity have become widespread (cf. Lyotard, Giddens, Sennett, Beck and Bauman).

Recent theories of “successive modernities” claim that there has been two epochs in the history modern societies, and that a third one is in the process of being established (Peter Wagner, Luc Boltanski/Eve Chiapello and Johann Arnason). Peter Wagner describes – in an ideal typical sense - three epochs of modernity: The first one is liberal-bourgeois in character and restricts modernity only to certain segments of the population. This epoch is replaced by a bureaucratic-administrative model, which is more inclusive. The third epoch, which Wagner mentions, is called an “extended liberal modernity”, but it remains undeveloped in his work. Others, like Beck, Bauman and Sennett, divides modernity in only two epochs, but describe certain aspects of the present epoch more in detail than Wagner. Chiapello and Boltanski speak about three “spirits of capitalism”. They do not focus on the institution of capitalism, but – relating back to Max Weber – on the spirit of capitalism. This means that justifications, critiques (social and artistic) and discourses of capitalism are central in their analysis of the transformation. Secondly, they conduct an analysis of discourses in order to capture this transformation. Management literature is their empirical object of research. A political theory of successive modernities can also be developed. Historically, T.H Marshall’s well-known theory of citizenship and its transformation can here be of some relevance. The transformation from civil rights to social rights captures an important part of the transition from a first to a second epoch of modern democracy. The concept “service democracy” has been used by others to capture this later epoch. The citizen turns into a client, while the state and administration - guided by experts - guarantee the constant supply of resources. Today, however, there are clear indications that service democracy is loosing legitimacy.

Society without meaning?
Since modernity's beginning, there has been a struggle for and tensions between the strive for autonomy and rational mastery. The situation today, however, seem more ambiguous than ever. In many spheres of social life we can notice a certain significational void, a state of limbo, where meaning no longer makes sense. In Castoriadis' view, two tendencies can be identified: A lack of investment in past significations (the tradition), and a lack of investment in new ones. Perhaps what we see today is a second crisis of modernity, where a third kind of modernity is developing, or we are finally leaving modernity and its significations alltogether.

Yet, there seems to be a certain contradiction between this diagnosis – generalized conformism and insignificance – and his former sociological thesis, which said that a society exists insofar and through collective investment in certain significations. And correspondingly, that a society ceases to exist as society the minute its members no longer believe in the core significations which hold that society together.

Does this mean that Westerners do not live in a society? Or is "insignificance" in itself a signification? A very strong, dominant one, which trumps all tendencies or attempts to muster political and social action? A cynicism that makes all effort and qualitative investments laughable?

Peter Wagner’s ground breaking work, A Sociology of Modernity, identified two main themes of modernity: liberty and discipline. His latest book, Modernity as Experience and Interpretation, explores the modern problematique throughout Western history. One implication of his perspective is that modernity is - are - phenomenons to be interpreted and problematized, in multiple ways.

The Nordic Summer University invites papers that explore these and related questions from various perspectives, like political philosophy, history, sociology, art and more.

Please send abstract to

Arnason, J. P. (1989) “The imaginary constitution of modernity”, in G Busino et al., Autonomie et transformation de la société Geneva: Dorz
Arnason, J. P. 2005. "Alternating Modernities: The Case of Czechoslovakia." European Journal of Social Theory 8:435-51
Boltanski, L. & Chiapello, É. (2005): The new spirit of capitalism. London: Verso.
Carleheden, M. 2006. "The transformation of our conduct of life: One aspect of the three epochs of Western modernity." Distinktion 55-75
Castoriadis, Cornelius (2007): Figures of the Thinkable. Stanford, Stanford University Press
Castoriadis, Cornelius (2005): Une société à la derive. Entretiens et débats. Paris, Seuil
Castoriadis (2004): Post-scriptum sur l’insignifiance. Entretiens avec Daniel Mermet. Paris, Éditions de l’aube
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1999): Dialogue. Paris, Èditions de l’aube
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1998): The Imaginary Institution of Society. Cambridge, MIT Press
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1997): World in Fragments. Writings on Politics, Society,
Psychoanalysis and the Imagination. Stanford, Stanford University Press
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1996): La monté de l’insignifiance, Les Carrefours du labyrinthe IV. Paris, Seuil
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1995): Filosofi, politik, autonomi. Stockholm/Stehag, Brutus Östling
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1991): Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy. Essays in Political
Philosophy. New York, Oxford University Press
Eisenstadt, S. 2002. Multiple modernities. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.
Habermas, J. (1990): Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am main. Suhrkamp
Habermas, J. (1992): Faktizität und Geltung: Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaats. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Sennett, R. (2006): The culture of the new capitalism. New Haven: Yale UP.
Wagner, P. (1994): A sociology of modernity: liberty and discipline. London: Routledge.
Wagner, P. (2008): Modernity as experience and interpretation: A new sociology of modernity. Cambridge Polity Press