Giorgio Baruchello and Ingerid S. Straume (eds), Creation, Rationality and Autonomy: Essays on Cornelius Castoriadis. København, Denmark: NSU Press and Nordiskt Sommaruniversitet, 2013; 273pp. ISBN 978-87-87564-99-1.

Reviewed by Antonio Calcagno, King’s University College

Given the influence and impact of Cornelius Castoriadis’s work on post-World War II philosophy, psychoanalysis, politics, and economics, especially in France, one is surprised to find little scholarship on his work today. One notable exception is Lorraine Code’s recent work, Ecological Thinking: The Politics of Epistemic Location (Oxford University Press, 2006), which makes significant use of his notion of instituting and instituted social imaginaries. The lack of recent attention may be tied to the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989, which resulted in a lack of interest in so-called “failed” Marxian-inspired philosophies and political movements. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Castoriadis’s work only has relevance within a larger framework of Marxist thinking and critique. If anything, his ideas are more than relevant to us as we witness the rise and dominance of neoliberal financial capitalism. His analyses and work can be deployed to understand how our new global capitalist paradigm has come to establish and rule our lives; they can help us resist what the new global economic model demands of us as human beings living in a highly technologized world. Giorgio Baruchello’s and Ingerid S. Straume’s new edited collection, Creation, Rationality and Autonomy: Essays on Cornelius Castoriadis, draws us back to the originality and wisdom of Castoriadis’s philosophy.

Castoriadis consistently reminds us that the social world that we create projects and is a projection of our own imaginaries. The essays in the first part of the book explore this social construction from various angles. In their Introduction, the editors poignantly remark,

One of his [Castoriadis’s] central concerns was to flesh out the full implications of the fact that social-historical reality is a created reality, a meaningful “world,” which implies thinking the social-historical as itself and not in terms of something else, be it “human nature,” the “laws of the market,” social “functions” or similar constructs. The insight that the social-historical world is a created world does not mean that the world has no independent existence outside of a given social subject, but that the world, such as it exists, is organisable and that it is always represented as a specific world. This ontological conception transgresses the crude subjective-objective divide that informs the larger part of the Western philosophical tradition. As a result, Castoriadis was able to elaborate his philosophy into one of the most original, stimulating and open-ended oeuvres in the history of philosophy. (11)

Though the book undertakes a reassessment of diverse aspects of Castoriadis’s oeuvre, it also has the unique feature of touching upon themes, figures, perspectives, and debates within Nordic philosophy.

Part One focuses on the theme of creation, understood in the sense of construction. Angelos Mouzakitis’s essay, “Chaos and Creation in Castoriadis’s Interpretation of Greek Thought,” opens the book by taking us back to an important source of inspiration for Castoriadis’s philosophy, namely, Greek thought. Mouzakitis argues that Castoriadis’s radical rethinking and critique of Marxism would not have been possible with a particular understanding of Greek philosophy as offering us the first formulation of the “political proper.” It is the institution or creation of the political domain that begins to separate the social from the political, ultimately highlighting the unique capacities of the political. Mouzakitis convincingly shows:

More specifically, in the Greek polis Castoriadis traces the birth of the first political community that actively engages not in the deliberation of action within the horizon of an always already established, fetish-like legal order, but in the radical incessant creation, destruction and recreation of its laws and institutions. Importantly, the polis is explicitly acknowledged as both the foundation and the guarantor of this legal order….Thus, Castoriadis’s interpretation of Greek civilisation in all its guises aims at the uncovering of the elements that made such an understanding of the world, of nature, of the sacred and the profane, of society and of the human being possible in the first place. Castoriadis maintains that the primary imaginary significations characterising the Greek conception of the world from Homer to classical antiquity, rest on the fundamental disclosure of the world as chaos. Or rather, the Greeks seem to conceive of a unity of chaos and “world,” which entails that the “world,” i.e. the sum total of ordered elements, is possible only as a partial order, emerging out of—and ultimately depending on—chaos. (32–33)

Catharina Gabrielsson’s “Origins as a Sign of Pathology in Architectural Thinking” looks at architecture not only as a discipline but as a domain of creation, of authorship. (51) Reflecting on Castoriadis’s distinction between heteronomy and autonomy, Gabrielsson challenges the construction of architecture as a discipline, rethinking its history while laying out the implications of reframing the discipline of architecture, especially for interdisciplinary research. She investigates the mythological foundations of architecture and offers an alternative reading of its beginnings and its history:

For if architecture is to be understood as something other than building, it cannot escape the ambiguity of interpretation, the uncertainty of meaning and the fluctuations of use. If we truly are to understand architecture as a social art, the only foundation for its production lies in what Castoriadis conceptualises as the social imaginary—by which we would be free to imagine architecture differently, as a creator of a different world, perhaps not even as structure primarily. But in so far as architecture forms a significant part of the material world created by each society, the pathology I have set out here is ultimately a case in point for the power of social institutions; for the slow-moving forces of magma and the ossification processes that turn acts of self-institution into solidified Law. In that sense, it stands for what Castoriadis denotes as tragedy: a perpetual reminder of mortality, the most radical and ultimate limitation of humankind. (71)

In the final chapter of Part One, Suzi Adams brings Castoriadis’s thought into dialogue with the cultural and social thinking of Johann P. Arnason. “Castoriadis, Arnason and the Phenomenological Question of the World” explores the phenomenological concept of the world, especially in light of Heidegger’s idea of world and worlding. Castoriadis saw the world as all that is, whereas Arnason develops a more culturally inflected view of the world, which, at least on first sight, could better account for the individuation and differences of peoples in the world as well as the plurality of things that exist in some kind of interrelation. Adams sums up the difference between the two thinkers in the following way:

[T]he problematic of “the world” appears at different junctures and with different emphasis in Arnason’s and Castoriadis’s respective works. For [Arnason], “the world” may remain enigmatic, yet it is also central to elucidations of culture—or civilization—humanity, as a shared and therefore interpretative horizon. Amongst other things, his articulation of “culture” as an element of “the world” is an attempt to provide a culturological response to an ontological question, and thereby to transform the ontological field tout court. For Castoriadis, however, “the world” appears not only as a philosophical problematic but as an insoluble theoretical problem. Ultimately, Castoriadis could not fully reconcile the ontological creativity of the social-historical with the phenomenological insight that we are always already in-the-world. But in pursuing reflections on the ontological creativity of the living being, Castoriadis brings new insights into the problematic of the world and the frontiers of anthropology, fleshing out and problematising lacunae in Arnason’s phenomenology of the world. By so doing, Castoriadis invites further interrogation concerning the lines of continuity and discontinuity between the human condition, its anthropological preconditions, and the world of the living being. (94–95)

Part Two features three articles that focus on Castoriadis and rationality. Giorgio Baruchello’s essay, “Odd Bedfellows: Cornelius Castoriadis on Capitalism and Freedom,” offers a sharp critique of the neoliberal claim that democracy and capitalism are compatible and necessary for one another. Following Castoriadis’s insight, Baruchello shows that democracy and capitalism have different historical and geographical origins and are, therefore, incompatible, even contradictory, especially when understood from philosophical, political, economic, and even psychoanalytic perspectives. Baruchello poignantly remarks,

there appears to be no necessary link between the democratic aspirations of political liberalism and liberal or “classical” economics. History has shown repeatedly why and how this can be the case, in Latin America, Europe and Asia, whenever illiberal regimes have had no difficulty in promoting “free trade.” Moreover, political liberalism, though democratic to some extent, is not the only form of democracy possible, nor does it guarantee a priori a high degree of autonomous self-determination, which Castoriadis takes as the defining element of any actual democracy. (108)

Also, following Castoriadis, Baruchello rightly points out that, if freedom (and equality, I would add) is to be considered the essence of democratic rule, then large-scale globalised economic systems cannot function efficiently in such democratic regimes as they would not encourage free discussion and questioning. Globalised economic regimes and machines need order and stability, which are acquired through limiting freedoms and even repression. (110–111) To argue that capitalism and democracy inextricably and rationally belong together is to negate the historical fact that both stand in a contingent and often-instrumental relationship with one another. (119)

Sophie Klimis’s “From Modernity to Neoliberalism: What Human Subject?” explores Castoriadis’s critique of contemporary capitalism, which is typified by a “general conformism” and fragmentation. For Castoriadis, democracy in its historical meaning is necessarily tied to autonomy and the collective’s will to negotiate that autonomy. The usurpation of democracy by liberal capitalism is not concerned with autonomy; rather, in practice, most western liberal capitalist systems are “Liberal oligarchies.” (134) Klimis focuses on the question of the subject and what it is to be a subject in a modern liberal economy (i.e., Cartesian subject) and what Castoriadis proposes as an alternative. She remarks, “the ‘true’ subject is not the abstract, absolute and monadic subjectivity created by modern philosophy, but ‘the actual subject traversed through and through by the world and by others.’” (137) Through Castoriadis, Klimis maintains that the core (solipsistic) individuality developed by modernity has been exploited by capitalism, ultimately undermining the possibility of genuine collective action and autonomy. She remarks,

In neocapitalist societies, we can observe the true and effective power of this tendency in individuals to be self-centred, all-mighty, searching always more instinctual satisfactions and pleasures, living only for the present moment. This means that society somehow fails to limit the desires of the monadic core that still remains in the depth of each psyche. More exactly, the failure of neoliberal societies is not simply to refrain from limiting those desires, but on the contrary to encourage them. Neoliberal societies do not provide any compensatory satisfaction to help the psyche to invest in collective significations, as the unlimited desire for “money” is their only significance, aim, value, institution and even affect. So, as Castoriadis said, we are at a cross-road: we have to decide in which direction we want to investigate the abyssal complexity of human self-creation. (155–156)

In “Artistic Critique? Socialisme ou Barbarie’s and Castoriadis’s Concept of Revolutionary Work Research,” Andrea Gabler investigates Socialisme and Barbarie’s work from the time of its founding in 1948 by Castoriadis and others, including Claude Lefort. This essay provides a glimpse into Castoriadis’s early work and shows the roots of his later thought. The idea or concept of “revolutionary work research” (160) is discussed and mined in order to test its viability as a concept. Gabler demonstrates how Socialisme ou Barbarie helped Castoriadis articulate and develop his own conceptions about the possibility of a true autonomous and participative democracy—a theme that turned out to be constant in Castoriadis’s entire oeuvre.

The last part of the volume focuses on the theme of autonomy, which can be said to typify the essence of Castoriadis’s philosophical and political thinking. Harald Wolf’s essay, “The Power of the Imaginary,” focuses on one of Castoriadis’s fundamental philosophical contributions, namely, instituting and instituted imaginaries/societies. In particular, he looks at imaginaries’ capacities to create power. The article explains how it is that a new dominant imaginary of crisis and loss have destabilized the capacity to resist and create viable alternatives to the dominant neoliberal economic paradigm The author alludes to growing anti-globalisation paradigms as possible alternatives, but he leaves the question open about their viability and power. Ingerid S. Straume’s contribution, “Castoriadis, Education and Democracy,” extends Castoriadis’s critique and political philosophy into the field of education. Though Castoriadis did not give his readers a developed theory of education, Straume demonstrates the implications of his work in this field. Specifically, she argues that Castoriadis understood the Greek notion of paideia as vital for the institution and instituting of society. In order for education to have any force, it must show, against philosophy that seeks always to determine and fix, how change and democracy are possible through political acts. Straume observes,

That a new type of individual and society should emerge, in one and the same stroke, is ”unthinkable” from the traditional viewpoints of philosophy, “the inherited logic of determinacy,” according to Castoriadis. However, this has happened in actual history, and still can, through “the creative work of the instituting imaginary, as radical form of the anonymous collectivity.” The paradox cannot be solved by logic, only acted out as a creation, a political act. This way history is created. (225)

The final essays of the volume, “The Wreath of Subjectivity and Time” by Kristina Egumenovska and “Autonomy and Self-Alteration” by Stathis Gourgouris, investigate the connection between the self and autonomy. The former mines Castoriadis’s notion of time as the emergence of otherness in order to critique more classical notions of time conceived as something given or pure. Egumenovska also discusses Castoriadis’s notion of time in relation to Aristotle’s view of time. The latter essay pursues further Castoriadis’s insight about othering as self-othering: “Strictly speaking, self-alteration signifies a process by which alterity is internally produced, dissolving the very thing that enables it, the very thing whose existence derives meaning from being altered, from othering itself.” (244) Gourgouris maintains that, “self-alteration cannot be conceptualized or articulated if the self remains a notion within the signifying limits of identity. The process of self-alteration is deadly to the sovereignty of identity. It presupposes—it enables and performs—an identicide: the self-dissolution of the self, or in another idiom, the production of non-identity as self-transformative force.” (267) The latter essay addresses the possibility of self- and societal- creation that is transformative and not merely the repetition of philosophical paradigms, thereby demonstrating the richness of Castoriadis’s notion of autonomy.

The essays in this volume are valuable for numerous reasons. First, they highlight and bring to light the importance and richness of Castoriadis’s philosophical and political legacy, which has been largely overlooked in our present time. Second, the authors of the essays not only expose and critique Castoriadis’s ideas, but they also extend and apply them to contemporary social and political issues. This application offers readers and thinkers creative possibilities of response to our present political and economic world. Castoriadis saw and thought long and hard about the world we now live. He feared and fought against the neoliberal model of financial capitalism. Castoriadis’s understanding of autonomy and the imaginary, for example, are alternatives to the poetry and new aesthetics articulated by anti-semiocapitalist thinkers like Franco Bifo Berardi and the event of Badiouans. The essays are excellent, well-written, and provocative: they do much to strengthen and fortify the philosophical arsenal of possible responses to the dominating and oppressive forces of contemporary financial capitalism.