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Imagination and the Symbolic, Castoriadis and Lacan

Imagination and the Symbolic, Castoriadis and Lacan

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Published by radical_imaginary
Imagination and the Symbolic: Castoriadis and Lacan
Peter Dews
I only met Cornelius Castoriadis once, when he visited the Philosophy Department at Essex University in the spring of 1990 to give a series of lectures and seminars over several days. The impression he made was unforgettable. Here was clearly one of the last of a venerable line of philosopher-militants – someone whose political commitment to the deepest kind of thinking made the usual round of academic debate pale into insignificance
Imagination and the Symbolic: Castoriadis and Lacan
Peter Dews
I only met Cornelius Castoriadis once, when he visited the Philosophy Department at Essex University in the spring of 1990 to give a series of lectures and seminars over several days. The impression he made was unforgettable. Here was clearly one of the last of a venerable line of philosopher-militants – someone whose political commitment to the deepest kind of thinking made the usual round of academic debate pale into insignificance

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Imagination and the Symbolic:Castoriadis and Lacan
PeterDews
I only met Cornelius Castoriadis once, when he visited the Philosophy Depart-ment at Essex University in the spring of 1990 to give a series of lectures andseminars over several days. The impression he made was unforgettable. Here wasclearly one of the last of a venerable line of philosopher-militants – someonewhose
 political
commitment to the deepest kind of thinking made the usual roundof academic debate pale into insignificance. I have frequently found the polemi-cal tone of Castoriadis’s writing, even when dealing with abstract theoreticalissues, one of the least comfortable aspects of his work, a stylistic residue of theLenin of 
 Materialism and Empiriocriticism
. But one has to acknowledge also theimmense strengths which this passionate engagement implied. Castoriadis’s oftencaustic dismissal of his opponents – what one of the other distinguished speakersin our final-day conference at Essex described as the “piss and vinegar” – waspart of the whole extraordinary package. It was the style of someone for whomphilosophy was
still
connected to the idea of changing the world.This personal and political commitment helps to explain the immense weightwhich is put on the concept of the imagination in Castoriadis’s work – a weightwhich increased over the years. For it is the unforeseeable creativity of the imag-ination which forms the core of his notion of autonomy as a revolutionary goal.Asubsidiary motive for this stress on imagination was undoubtedly Castoriadis’sneed to distance himself from the influence of Lacanian thought, which was sopervasive in France in the 1960s, when he turned towards psychoanalysis. Butthis is not to say that his attitude to Lacan was unremittingly hostile. On thecontrary, he pays tribute to him on a number of occasions, in particular for hisreformulation of the significance of the Oedipus complex, with its clear detach-ment of the symbolic paternal function from the actual person of the father. ButCastoriadis does take strong exception to the Lacanian notion of the “symbolicorder,” because of what he regards as its threat to the ideal of autonomy:
The “Law” and the “symbolic” (just like the idea of structure in ethnology and soci-ology) erase the instituting society and reduce the instituted society to a collectionof dead rules, indeed Rules of Death, in the face of which the subject (in order to be‘structured’) must be immersed in passivity.
1
As we know, Castoriadis rejected the idea of an immutably given symbolicstructure or order, and proposed instead the notion of an “imaginary institution of 
Constellations Volume 9, No 4, 2002. ©Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, Uand 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
 
society.” His emphasis was on the creativity of any such institution (the fact thatit cannot be subject to any deterministic principle). But we could also say that, forCastoriadis, we need to be able to give a genetic account of the emergence of social order, since unless we understand the forces which bring a social order intobeing, we will not be in a position to bring about change.At first sight, there is indeed a major contrast between Lacan and Castoriadishere. Following Lévi-Strauss, whose version of structuralism was equally hostileto genetic questions, Lacan insisted on a radical break between the “symbolicorder” and the material – and even biological – levels of reality. “The symbolicorder,” Lacan affirmed in his second
Seminar 
, “is rejected by the libidinal order.”
2
And in the same text he put forward the hypothesis that:
This symbolic order, since it is always posited as a whole, as forming a self-contained universe – and even as forming the universe as such, as distinct from theworld – must also be structured as a whole, in other words it forms a dialecticalstructure which is complete.’
3
Significantly, Lacan does not demur when Jean Hyppolite, who was in the audi-ence for this seminar, back in 1952–3, remarks: “The symbolic function is foryou, if I understand correctly, a transcendent function [
une fonction de transcen-dence
].” He merely responds that the transcendence he has in mind is that of animplacable ideal machine, rather than some Platonic guiding notion of the Good.Castoriadis, on the face of it, would have rejected any notion of the institutionof society as transcendent. But, at the same time, many if his formulations mightlead one to wonder whether, on his own account, the social order is ultimately anyless constraining. For example, in his essay “The Imaginary,” Castoriadis states:
The institution produces, in conformity with its norms, individuals that by construc-tion are not only able but bound to reproduce the institution. The ‘law’ produces the‘elements’ in such a way that this very functioning embodies, reproduces andperpetuates ‘law.’
4
Castoriadis frequently stresses that this stamping of social form on the psychemust be regarded as a “violent imposition” (in his own phrase). Thus, his accountof the relation between psyche and society seems to involve a permanent clashbetween the
social
order of imaginary significations and the spontaneous “flux of representations” which forms the creative core of the individual mind, a fluxwhich must be regimented and controlled. Although the
terms
of this account arevery different from Lacan’s description of a “transcendent” symbolic order, it ishard to see how it could be regarded as more
 politically
optimistic. Our puzzle-ment is likely to increase when we read Castoriadis’s assertion that “Neitherpermanent biological ‘needs,’nor eternal psychical ‘drives,’‘mechanisms,’or‘desires’can account for society and history.”
5
For is this not transcendence underanother name? The short answer to this question is “no” – but only because
© 
 Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002
 Imagination and the Symbolic:Peter Dews
517
 
Castoriadis traces the process of social institution back to an origin which lies“behind,” prior to biology, drives and desire, an origin which he calls “radicalimagination.”In other words, Castoriadis can reject the notion, dear to Lacanians, of aninevitably “alienated” relation of the individual subject to the social order – butonly because, on his account, both the imaginary of the individual, the creativepower manifested in the ceaseless unconscious flux of representations, and thesocially instituted imaginary, have their roots in the “radical imagination.” So, ina typical passage from
The Imaginary Institution of Society
, Castoriadis writes of “the question of the psyche which, in truth, is inseparable from the question of thesocial-historical, two expressions of the radical imagination – here, as radicalimagination; there, as social imaginary.”
6
However, skeptical readers might wonder whether this is any more than anominal solution. For arguably what Castoriadis has done is to extend the conceptof the imagination to describe three discrete processes or realities. Indeed, thesethree different processes – and their related ontological levels – can be discernedquite clearly in his essay “Merleau-Ponty and the Ontological Tradition.” Firstly,there is the imagination as “primary ontological region.” This Castoriadis expli-cates as “
Vorstellung
... that is not placing-something-in-front-of-someone, butis rather that by which and in which every placing and every place exist,” or asan “originary positing starting from which every position – as ‘act’of a subject or‘determination’of an object – has being and meaning.”
7
From this “originarypositing” there emerges a subject of the flux of representations, but this emer-gence is itself correlated – in a paradoxical structure of reciprocal inclusion – with“the creation and social-historical institution of a language and of a publicworld.”
8
The affinity of Castoriadis’s thinking with the speculative models of the“identity of identity and non-identity” which are central to German Idealism – andespecially the affinity with Fichte – is unmistakable here. One notes the strongresemblance between Castoriadis’s three forms of imagination – let us call them“radical,” “social,” and “subjective” – and the three principles (absolute “I,” “not-I,” and limited “I” confronting “not-I”) of Fichte’s 1794
Wissenschaftslehre
.My worry about Castoriadis’s thought is not that it takes up again theseprofound problems of 
how
the very distinction between the subjective and theobjective worlds comes into being. Despite Lacan’s attempt to declare geneticquestions intellectually “off limits,” an attempt which parallels Lévi-Strauss’sdismissal of any inquiry into the origin of language, these questions will alwaysforce themselves back onto the philosophical agenda in one form or another.Rather, my concern is that the concept of imagination in Castoriadis’s writing is– on the one hand – over-extended, and – on the other hand – insufficiently flex-ible and differentiated to capture the emancipatory processes to which, as a polit-ical thinker and activist, he was so committed. To put this in another way, Ibelieve we need to hold onto a distinction between imagination and symbol, orperhaps it would be better to say: between the imaginary and symbolic dimen-
© 
 Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002
518
Constellations Volume 9, Number 4, 2002

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