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Creativity and Its Limits, Encounters With Social Construction Ism and the Political in Castoriadis and Lacan

Creativity and Its Limits, Encounters With Social Construction Ism and the Political in Castoriadis and Lacan

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Creativity and its Limits: Encounters with Social Constructionism and the Political in Castoriadis and Lacan
Yannis Stavrakakis
I The lack of any serious dialogue between Lacanian theory and the work by or inspired by Cornelius Castoriadis is perhaps one of the most striking characteristics of contemporary “non-conventional” political theory. After distancing himself from the Ecole Freudienne, Castoriadis embarked on a vicious attack on Lacan which can hardly be justified on any grounds (clinica
Creativity and its Limits: Encounters with Social Constructionism and the Political in Castoriadis and Lacan
Yannis Stavrakakis
I The lack of any serious dialogue between Lacanian theory and the work by or inspired by Cornelius Castoriadis is perhaps one of the most striking characteristics of contemporary “non-conventional” political theory. After distancing himself from the Ecole Freudienne, Castoriadis embarked on a vicious attack on Lacan which can hardly be justified on any grounds (clinica

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Creativity and its Limits: Encounters with Social Constructionism and the Political in Castoriadis and Lacan

Yannis Stavrakakis
I The lack of any serious dialogue between Lacanian theory and the work by or inspired by Cornelius Castoriadis is perhaps one of the most striking characteristics of contemporary “non-conventional” political theory. After distancing himself from the Ecole Freudienne, Castoriadis embarked on a vicious attack on Lacan which can hardly be justified on any grounds (clinical, theoretical, even personal). How is it possible to accept as plausible arguments sentences or views like the following: “Yes, Lacanianism is a monstrosity”; descriptions of Lacanianism as “psychosis, abasement, contempt, enslavement, perversion” which, following Roustang, Castoriadis uses without even placing them in inverted commas – whatever that might mean. And what about the idea that certain of Lacan’s “sophistries” take “psychoanalysis back sixty-five years”?1 Aside from this avalanche of ad hominem arguments, both Castoriadis and some of his supporters or commentators have persistently failed to engage in a constructive way with Lacanian theory and remain stuck in reiterating the same old – unfounded, I fear – criticisms. To give only one example, let me just refer to a recent article by Joel Whitebook in which he reiterates Castoriadis’s views on the supposedly crippling structuralism which robs Lacanian theory of any theoretical plausibility and political relevance:
His [Castoriadis’s] theoretical critique of le maître follows more or less mutatis mutandis from his criticisms of classical structuralism. If we disregard the ad hominem considerations – namely, that Lacan was aristocratic, authoritarian, antidemocratic, misogynist and openly contemptuous of the idea of emancipation – his theories were also intrinsically anti-political on their own. For, like classical structuralism on which he drew, they systematically denied the possibility of anything new emerging in history and excluded the margin of freedom necessary for any sort of autonomous political action. More specifically, his hypostatization of the determinative powers of language – conceived as a machine-like ‘circuit’ – was every bit as ahistorical as the most biologistic doctrines of Freud.2

Whitebook is neither the only one nor the most violent in rearticulating such a view of Lacanian theory; in fact, in the third chapter of his Perversion and Utopia
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he articulates a very intelligent and thorough reading/criticism of certain aspects of Lacanian theory.3 No doubt, the standpoint expressed in the quote is consistent with Castoriadis’s views; he was the one to argue that “linguistic structuralism, an illegitimate extrapolation of some aspects of the organisation of language as a code, was pressed by Lévi-Straus into the service of ethnology, and by Lacan into the service of psychoanalysis.”4 Nevertheless, it can only be based on a rather selective reading of Lacan’s teaching, a reading which ultimately fails to take into account some of the most simple and well-documented principles of Lacanian theory. In fact, Lacan’s project can be seen as radically reformulating classical structuralism as well as the Saussurian picture of signification: he introduces a conceptualization of the symbolic which is not that of a closed circuit but that of an always lacking and incomplete ensemble. This is what he describes as “the lack in the Other.” This is what he has in mind when, in his seminar on The Logic of Fantasy, he points out that language cannot constitute a closed set, that there is no Universe of Discourse.5 The structure typical of structuralism is coherent and complete, while Lacan’s structure is antinomical and lacking.6 Furthermore, it is this lacking character of sedimented meaning that makes possible the emergence of the subject7 and the continuous (partial) recreation of “identity” (individual or collective) through new identification acts. Besides, the last twenty years of Lacan’s teaching were consistently devoted to what accounts for this lack in the symbolic; hence the importance of the register of the “real” (le réel) and of “enjoyment” (jouissance) in Lacanian theory, both of these (interconnected) concepts making abundantly clear the huge distance between Lacan and the structuralist omnipotence of closed linguistic structures. In fact, it is this constitutive and unbridgeable gap between the symbolic/imaginary nexus (the field of social construction and institution) and the always escaping real which also makes history possible: if it were feasible for a particular social construction to fully symbolize the real, then history – the unending play between human creativity (desire) and social dislocation (lack) – would come to an end. This is not to say, however, that most Lacanians took a more open attitude towards a dialogue with Castoriadis or his followers. Unable to bypass Castoriadis’s deleterious comments and misconceptions, they decided to condemn him to oblivion, surrounding his work with a veil of silence. It is the starting point of this paper that something important was missed in this unfortunate reciprocation. A dialogue between Lacanian political theory and the social theory advanced by Castoriadis and his commentators is possible and might even prove to be quite fruitful. What I will try to argue here, then, is that Castoriadis’s insistence on the creative role of imagination should not be considered as something alien or antithetical to Lacanian theory, particularly to the Lacanian conception of desire and to Lacan’s theory of signification. In fact, it is possible from a Lacanian point of view to interrogate and illuminate further this creative/instituting dimension and its ethico-political implications. It is
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also possible to articulate a coherent account of the limits to imagination (the alienating side of human construction), limits which should not be ignored as is usually the case with a naïve, more or less romantic, reading of Castoriadis’s work. In the course of this paper I also hope to show the surprising proximity of the two projects while at the same time highlighting the distinct character of each. Castoriadis himself, in the same text that constitutes his most virulent attack on Lacan, does not refrain from acknowledging the latter’s important contribution in breaking up the conformism, rigidity, and intellectual poverty of official psychoanalysis:
Although his undertaking already bore the signs of the deep ambiguities which were to be resolved, as time passed, in the manner which has been described, nonetheless it has been his merit not only to have been the stone which broke up the stagnation of the pool, not only to have disturbed institutionalised drowsiness and shaken up pseudo-‘specialist’ cretinism by his appeal to disciplines ‘external’ to psychoanalysis, but also to have revitalised the reading of Freudian texts, to have restored to life their enigmatic movement, and to have introduced some substantial extensions into psychoanalytic research. Lacan’s decisive contribution, during this early period, was that he forced people to think. . ..8

Let’s see, then, whether Lacan can still make us think; let’s see whether, in the first instance, he can make us think productively vis-à-vis some of Castoriadis’s ideas and insights. II We can start this exploration with something very basic from Castoriadis’s and Lacan’s ontological apparatus, an element which seems to be common to both of them and which explains to a certain extent the topicality of their work. I am referring to what could be called their social constructionism. In Castoriadis’s work, for example, it is clear that the human world, reality itself, in all its different forms, is socially constructed. According to his view, “society creates its world; it invests it with meaning; it provides itself with a store of significations designed in advance to deal with whatever may occur.”9 Everything that constitutes our human world – society – is the product of social construction.10 The selfinstitution of society entails the construction of the human world including the creation of “things,” “reality,” language, norms, values, ways of life and death, “objects for which we live and objects for which we die.”11 Furthermore, this process of social creation or construction is a radical process (it is a creation ex nihilo – something to which we shall return), thus being directly related to what Castoriadis calls the radical instituting imaginary. It is also continuous: “Society is always historical in the broad, but proper sense of the word: it is always undergoing a process of self-alteration.”12
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Two further points are extremely important here. First of all, this process of social construction is also what creates the individual. The social-historical is what “shapes” individuals.13 Second, society always attempts to cover over the traces of its contingent social institution. One of the ways it tries to do so is by presenting itself as the product of a presocial or extra-social, and thus eternal and unchanging or foundational, source: Gods, heroes, or ancestors are the likeliest candidates,14 and, more recently, the so-called “laws of nature” or the “laws of history.” What would be Lacan’s position here? Is Lacan articulating a similar constructionist argument? In Lacan it is also the case that reality is always precarious and not some kind of presocial given,15 although this is usually repressed in a variety of social forms. From a psychoanalytic point of view, reality, the human world, is “upheld, woven through, constituted, by a tress of signifiers.” Reality always implies the subject’s integration into a play of significations;16 the whole of human reality is nothing more than a montage of the symbolic and the imaginary,17 an articulation of signifiers which are invested with imaginary – fantasmatic – coherence and unity. As is very clearly pointed out in Encore, “every reality is founded and defined by a discourse.”18 Furthermore, in his seminar on The Psychoses (1955–6), it is made abundantly clear that this Lacanian constructionism is not only of psychoanalytic, that is clinical, relevance, but, like Castoriadis’s, implies a more general ontological standpoint. Here the psychoanalytic theorist reveals something that should have been clear to every philosopher:
On reflection, do we need psychoanalysis to tell us this? Aren’t we astounded that philosophers didn’t emphasize ages ago that human reality is irreducibly structured as signifying? Day and night, man and woman, peace and war – I could enumerate more oppositions that don’t emerge out of the real world but give it its framework, its axes, its structure, that organize it, that bring it about that there is in effect a reality for man, and that he can find his bearings therein.19

It follows – and this is another crucial similarity between Lacan and Castoriadis – that the social individual, the social subject, is also something emerging within the field of social construction. The subject of the signifier, the social subject, is surely one of the nodal points of the Lacanian problematic, a particular aim of which is to register the signifying dependence of this social subject.20 Any identity is constructed through a variety of identifications with socially available objects, that is to say, images and signifiers. Both subjective and social reality are articulated at the symbolic and imaginary level.21 It becomes plausible to conclude, then, that a certain social constructionism (both as far as it concerns social reality as well as individual identity or individual identifications) seems to be shared by Lacan and Castoriadis. However, what are the specific characteristics of their respective constructionisms? Let’s have a closer look. My impression is that what is also shared is the idea that constructionism cannot be absolute.
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Castoriadis, for his part, is very keen to stress that the social creation or construction of reality through human signification should not be perceived as an intellectualistic view. As he points out, whenever he speaks about “social imaginary significations” he is not speaking about “intellectualistic” or “noematic” contents. These significations organize, articulate, and invest with meaning the world of each and every society by leaning each time upon the “intrinsic” ensidic organization of the first natural stratum22:
The construction of its own world by each and every society is, in essence, the creation of a world of meanings, its social imaginary significations, which organize the (presocial, ‘biologically given’) natural world, instaurate a social world proper to each society (with its articulations, rules, purposes, etc.), establish the ways in which socialized and humanized individuals are to be fabricated, and institute the motives, values, and hierarchies of social (human) life.23

In other words, Castoriadis’s constructionism is not of a relativist or solipsist kind. Not only is extra-discursive, presocial nature the subject matter of social institution; it also poses limits and creates obstacles to human construction.24 A similar argument can be put forward from a Lacanian point of view focusing on the crucial distinction between “reality” and the “real.” Here, reality corresponds to the socially constructed identity of objects, whereas the real names what is not part and parcel of discursive institution, what is impossible to inscribe in its totality into any discursive articulation. Reality is what societies construct utilizing their symbolic and imaginary resources. “Cancelling out the real, the symbolic creates ‘reality,’ reality as that which is named by language and can thus be thought and talked about. The ‘social construction of reality’ implies a world that can be designated and discussed with the words provided by a social group’s (or subgroup’s) language.”25 The real is what remains outside this field of representation, what remains impossible to symbolize. “What cannot be said in its language is not part of its reality . . . The real, therefore, does not exist, since it precedes language; Lacan reserves a separate term for it, borrowed from Heidegger: it ‘ex-ists.’ It exists outside and apart of reality,” both in the sense that it is there before the articulation of social reality, before the socialization of the human infant, and in the sense of something which “has not yet been symbolized, or even resists symbolization” and thus exists “alongside” our socially constructed reality.26 In fact, the gap between the real and reality is unbridgeable, but this is also what stimulates human desire, the unending (ultimately failed) attempts of reality to colonize and domesticate the real, to fully represent it in discourse. We can conclude, then, that both Castoriadian constructionism and the constructionism characteristic of the Lacanian field are very cautious not to collapse into solipsism. In fact, it seems that they also propose a very similar articulation or interaction – in actual fact, a relation of tension, incommensurability, or gap – between real and reality (Lacan), the natural world and social imaginary significations (Castoriadis).
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The importance of constructed reality and meaning in general for humans is what accounts for what Castoriadis calls the “defunctionalization” of the human psyche, a defunctionalization which makes possible “the detachment of the representation from the object of biological ‘need,’ therefore the cathexis of biologically irrelevant objects.”27 For Castoriadis it is clear that human societies are marked by this priority of meaning over biological need. In The Imaginary Institution of Society he asks the following:
Is it not obvious that, once we leave the company of higher apes, human groups provide themselves with needs that are not simply biological? . . . A dog eats to live, but one could just as well say that it lives to eat: for it (and for the species, dog) living is nothing but eating, breathing, reproducing and so on. But this is meaningless with respect to a human being or to a society.

And this because human societies have to articulate all these needs and can only deal with them within “a symbolic network” which is first encountered in language.28 Moreover, this symbolic dependence is also what creates new “afunctional” or even “antifunctional” needs.29 Such a picture is definitely congruent with our everyday experience. For example, we know that procreation presupposes sexual intercourse, but that does not reveal much about the vast alchemy of desire and sexuality marking human history. As was pointed out in a recent title for the Observer Review, “Birds do it, bees do it, and rabbits are at it, well, as rabbits. But none of them dress up in rubber.” One cannot but be struck, furthermore, by the proximity of the Castoriadian view to the well-known Lacanian distinction between need, demand, and desire. In Lacan, the level of need and of its unmediated natural, instinctual satisfaction is initially shared by all – human and non-human – animal life. Humanity, however, by virtue of the symbolic character of society, is forced – or privileged – to lose this direct, unmediated relation to need. Entering into the symbolic, the world of language, the speaking subject forever loses all unmediated access to a level of “natural” needs and their quasi-automatic satisfaction. Every need has to be articulated in language, in a demand to the Other (initially the mother). As is revealed in “The Signification of the Phallus” and “Subversion of the Subject and Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious,” it is this difference between need and demand that introduces the dimension of desire: “desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction [need], nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the phenomenon of their splitting (Spaltung).”30 In Lacanian theory desire is thus constitutive and not secondary, human life is structured around this desire. In fact, human reality itself is articulated around desire in the sense that the emergence of reality (as incommensurable with the real) presupposes the loss of our unmediated access to real need; it presupposes the imposition of the symbolic. By imposing a gap between pre-symbolic need and demand, symbolic castration permits or, better, forces humans to pursue their
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desire within socially constructed reality. This also explains why, according to Lacan, desire is the essence of reality – but not the essence of man, as Spinoza thought, since, as Lacan points out, this reference to man cannot be retained in an a-theological discourse.31 This is crucial because it leads directly to Lacan’s rejection of humanism, psychologism, and subjective essentialism: desire is always the desire of the (lacking) Other; it is conditioned by its symbolic dependence – the implication being that it is, by definition, unsatisfiable and alienating. Desire as such can never be satisfied in the sense that desire is always structured around the quest for the pre-symbolic real, our pre-symbolic real enjoyment (jouissance) – something which is irretrievably lost as soon as we enter social life. The price for gaining access to reality (symbolic reality, socially constructed reality) and to socially sanctioned pleasure is the sacrifice of this real (jouissance). No identification, no social construction or relation, can restore or recapture it for us. But it is exactly this impossibility which keeps desire – and history – alive. We never get what we have been promised, but that’s exactly why we keep longing for it. Alienation is revealed as the other side – but also, and more crucially, the condition of possibility – of desire, of human creation and historical action. It is here, I suspect, that Lacan and Castoriadis start parting company. Starting from analogous versions of constructionism, they are led to quite different conclusions. Although they both acknowledge the gap between real and reality, natural stratum and social imaginary significations, the conclusions they draw from this are very different: Castoriadis is led to celebrate the moment of creativity, while Lacan is led to stress the constitutive alienation of human experience. How can we account for this paradox? And what are its implications for contemporary ethico-political thinking? These questions will animate the final and most extensive part of this essay. III First of all, it has to be stated very clearly that for Lacan creativity, construction, and alienation are two sides of the same coin. In actual fact, Lacan was very interested in exploring questions of creativity. Everyone knows, for example, that he often used literary and artistic creation in order to open new avenues for psychoanalytic research; some of his most famous seminars deal with the works of Sophocles, Poe, Joyce, Shakespeare, etc. Of course, the objection usually is that he understood this creative force of humanity as secondary, severely limited by some kind of structuralist conformism. What is Lacan’s reply, for example, to the ex nihilo creativity put forward by Castoriadis? Well, it might surprise some people, but Lacan would probably agree with this ex nihilo character of human symbolization (after all he devotes a whole session, 27 January 1960, to discussing this topic – a session which is entitled “On Creation ex nihilo” and which forms part of his seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis).32 He seems, however, much more careful than Castoriadis to also take into
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account the price involved in human creation. He does so by avoiding a simple replacement of the religious conception of creation ex nihilo with a subjectivist conception. As Chaitin has observed, Lacan’s view on creativity “differs from that of romanticism and humanism in that, instead of transferring the creative power from God to the autonomous subject, Lacan has moved it onto the signifier itself.”33 Yes, for Lacan human creativity is the only way we can attempt to recapture the lost/impossible real – the jouissance sacrificed upon entering the social world of language, upon articulating need in demand. But since this attempt can only take place through symbolization, through symbolic articulation (and imaginary representation); and since, furthermore, the symbolic is not a closed order but an inherently lacking space, ultimately incapable of bridging the gap between symbolic and real, then human creativity also entails a profoundly alienating dimension.34 There is no creation without alienation – no creation that is not, to some extent, alienating – which is, however, to be distinguished from a position stating that there is “no alienation without creation.” In this sense, there is no point in glorifying creativity: by its own measure, by the mere fact that creation relies on a medium which is unable to realize our fantasies of wholeness, creativity loses its romantic and humanist gloss. This is why, instead of the creative psyche, Lacan stresses the subject of lack. The subject is lacking exactly because it is unable to recapture its lost/impossible real fullness through symbolic creation or imaginary representation. It is this constitutive impossibility, however, that keeps desire alive and historical creation open.35 Castoriadis, on the other hand, seems to be determined to ignore or downplay this alienating dimension of creativity, of social construction. Although at first he seems conscious of the fact that every new social creation is quickly transformed into a new – alienating – establishment (this seems to be one of the possible meanings of his distinction between the instituting and the instituted), the importance of this distinction is compromised by the ambiguity of his position and by the fact that he eventually seems to understand meaning – and also creativity, radical imagination in general – as emanating from some kind of overdetermining source identified with the psychic monad. As Habermas has put it, “the psychic streams of the imaginary dimension have their source in the springs of each’s own subjective nature.” Castoriadis’s explanation of social praxis is “compelled to begin from the premise of isolated consciousness.”36 It is possible and instructive to trace both the origins and the theoretical side-effects of such a strategy, and here, I suspect, our argument will be quite different from the one put forward by Habermas. Our starting point will be Castoriadis’s view of socialization. The same pattern we saw in the last section in fact repeats itself now. Castoriadis starts with a series of observations and insights which are remarkably close if not originating directly from Lacanian theory – or from an interpretation of Freud very close to the Lacanian one. Consider the following quote:
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From the psychical point of view, the social fabrication of the individual is the historical process by means of which the psyche is coerced (smoothly or brutally; in fact, the process always entails violence against the proper nature of the psyche) into giving up its initial objects and its initial world (this renunciation is never total, but almost always sufficient to fulfil social requirements) and into investing (cathecting) socially instituted objects, rules and the world.37

Lacan could – and indeed has – very well put in very similar terms his view of the alienating imposition of the socio-symbolic field. The fact that they both use terms like “imposition” or “superimposition” to refer to socialization is indicative in this respect.38 He would definitely agree totally with Castoriadis’s point that “the social side of this process concerns the whole complex of institutions in which the human being is steeped as soon as it is born and, first of all, the Other – generally, but not inevitably, the mother – who, already socialized in a determinate manner, takes care of the newborn and speaks a determinate language.”39 This sentence, with its explicit reference to what seems to be Lacan’s Other, could easily originate from one of Lacan’s seminars. In general, Castoriadis’s view of socialization is very close to the Lacanian view of the (social) process in which the pre-symbolic real, “the infant’s body before it comes under the sway of the symbolic order,” “is subjected to toilet training and instructed in the ways of the world: In the course of socialization, the body is progressively written or overwritten with signifiers; pleasure is localized in certain zones, while other zones are neutralized by the word and coaxed into compliance with social, behavioural norms.”40 The differences emerge when one inquires into the proper nature of the psyche in Castoriadis’s terms and the implications of what he calls the never total imposition of the symbolic. What Castoriadis understands as the proper nature of the psyche is a monadic core, a unitary and self-enclosed subjective circuit pre-existing socialization, a psychic monad which, as we shall see, “is far from being immune from criticism.” 41 Castoriadis’s description of socialization can very easily lead to the conclusion that this original pre-symbolic state is radically different or incommensurable with the socio-symbolic field, the field of (social) meaning. This is Whitebook’s interpretation when he stresses the fact that “owing to this monadic core, all socialization comes from the outside and is necessarily violent.”42 If one considers Castoriadis’s view of socialization together with the fact that, at one point, he accepts that the monad is unsayable or unrepresentable,43 that nothing is lacking in this stage – which is almost identical with definitions of the pre-symbolic real in Lacan – one is easily led to the conclusion that what exists before the imposition of the symbolic is something radically different, “heterogeneous” to use Castoriadis’s exact phrase, from the symbolic, the forces of language and socialization. This is what leads Habermas to argue that Castoriadis posits a metaphysical opposition between the psyche and society, and therefore “cannot provide us with a figure of the mediation between the individual and society.”44 Without agreeing entirely with the
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premises of Habermas’s criticisms, Whitebook also considers Castoriadis’s position ultimately incoherent.45 The problem, however, is where exactly the incoherence lies. From a Lacanian point of view, contra Habermas, the radical gap between the pre-symbolic real state and the subjective identity as conditioned by socialization is far from being a source of incoherence. In Lacanian terms, this presocial state of the infant’s body can only be approached by means of the concept of the real; it is impossible to describe it in any positive way precisely because any description can only take place through language and discursive meaning and this real state is located before the imposition of the symbolic. We suspect that the incoherence, the essential ambiguity of Castoriadis’s work lies in the fact that, although at first the psychic monad and the social meanings imposed through socialization seem radically incommensurable, on the other hand, there is something very important linking the pre-symbolic psychic monad and socio-symbolic meanings, something almost ignored or downplayed by both Habermas and Whitebook. It is here that Castoriadis follows a course radically different from the one chosen by Lacan. All this is evident in Castoriadis’s reply to Whitebook: although he insists that there is “ontological alterity” between the monadic universe and the “diurnal universe of signs,” of shared significations, he nevertheless accepts that there is something in the psyche that renders it capable of language and amenable to socialization, something associated with the fact that “from the outset, the psyche is in meaning.”46 Paradoxically, then, although the psychic monad exists before the imposition of meaning (insofar as meaning is a social dimension), it is nevertheless already in meaning. As Castoriadis puts it, “this mode of originary being of the psyche . . . is the first matrix of meaning.” The paradox is, of course, as even Castoriadis himself recognizes, that this “proto-meaning realizes by itself, just where meaning obviously cannot yet exist, total meaning.” 47 This “meaning of meaning,” as Castoriadis calls it, refers to “the coincidence of self-image with the representation of a satisfied desire and with the representation of all that is.”48 The proto-meaning is what characterizes an inherent and irreducible ability to create representations: “the radical imagination pre-exists and presides over every organization of drives, even the most primitive ones.” 49 In this original monadic state, then, this proto-meaning as radical imagination is “all that operates within a psyche totally enclosed upon itself.” 50 This selfenclosed monadic core is ruptured by the pressure entailed in somatic need and by the presence of other human beings (the Other in Lacan) as the psyche’s continued existence in this monadic state is antagonistic to biological and psychical survival. 51 The “initial, monadic meaning” is disrupted through socialization and replaced by the meaning supplied by society: “Socialization is the process whereby the psyche is forced to abandon (never fully) its pristine solipsistic meaning for the shared meanings provided by society.” 52 In order for the psyche to be socialized, it has to abandon its own meaning and assume
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the meaning (orientations, actions, roles) of society. 53 This is how Castoriadis summarizes his own position:
What, then, is there ‘in common’ between psyche and society, where is the ‘mediation’ or the ‘point of identity’? For both, there is and there has to be nonfunctional meaning. . .. But this meaning is . . . of another nature in each of the two cases. Psyche demands meaning, but society makes it renounce (though never completely) what for the psyche is its proper meaning and forces it to find meaning in the [social imaginary significations] and in institutions.54

It is here that a fundamental difference from Lacanian theory emerges. While in Lacanian theory the two states are incommensurable, marked by the constitutive gap between the real and the symbolic, Castoriadis seems to disavow this gap, to disavow the constitutive alienation marking subjectivity (including all human creations) within the social world. He introduces a subjective continuity – continuity of meaning – which becomes in his schema the (undoubtedly essentialist) ground or source of creativity. According to Castoriadis’s view – an admittedly ambiguous view, which explains why Whitebook can offer an opposite interpretation to ours – the replacement of primal representations by those acquired through perception and the external, socially constructed environment, “is facilitated by the fact that the two levels of representations are considered as sharing essentially the same modality.”55 From a Lacanian perspective, the incoherence here is obvious: by stressing the continuity between pre-symbolic and socio-symbolic meaning, in fact by introducing the essentialist idea of a paradoxical original (pre-symbolic) proto-meaning and positing it as the source of creativity, of an originary radical imagination, Castoriadis is led towards a romantic and vitalist Cartesianism which fails to account in a coherent way for the dialectic of desire marking human life. By highlighting his “meaning of meaning,” the prototype of creativity that is the psychic monad, Castoriadis seems to be revealing the true face of “the Other of the Other,” the lost prototype to which every meaning refers, the guarantee of truth in the real (our lost but possible jouissance?). Although – to be fair to his argument – he falls short of providing a complete positivization (imaginarization) of the pre-symbolic real, there is little doubt that, starting from a quasi-Lacanian account of socialization, he is eventually led to exactly the opposite conclusions from Lacan, contaminating at the same time his theory with a strong metaphysical and essentialist element. This conclusion can be further corroborated by an examination of the Castoriadian account of the state of affairs following socialization. From a Lacanian point of view, the fact that the imposition of the symbolic is never total can only mean that the real, being ultimately incommensurable with the symbolic, resists symbolization and persists alongside our socio-symbolic identifications. In fact, it not only persists but also interacts with the socio-symbolic field. It returns through the resurfacing of negativity, through the dislocation of subjective and social identities. By encircling these encounters with the real, Lacan seems to
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register the importance of a moment that, in social and political theory, could only be described as the moment of the political par excellence. Thus, far from entailing anti-political implications, Lacan’s insistence on the persistence and irreducibility of the real, a real which poses limits to human construction, to our creativity, but at the same time constitutes the condition of possibility for any creative political reconstruction, constitutes an opening towards fully acknowledging the constitutivity of the moment of the political. The political here is crucial in relating creativity to alienation, construction to dislocation. It refers to the moment of failure of a given identity or social construction, a failure which not only dislocates the identity in question but also creates a lack stimulating the desire for a rearticulation of the dislocated structure – stimulating, in other words, human creativity, becoming the condition of possibility for human freedom.56 Unable to accept the argument that desire and creation are conditioned by dislocation and by the lack of the real, Castoriadis posits a metaphysical protocreativity:
Castoriadis maintains that the answer to the paradox of representation cannot be found ‘outside representation itself’ and that an ‘original representation’ must be posited that, as a schema of ‘figuration,’ would ‘contain within itself the possibility of organizing all representations’ and, as such, would be the condition of possibility of all further representations in the psyche.57

But let us take one step at a time. At first it seems that Castoriadis himself is moving in a direction similar to that of Lacanian theory:
Considered in itself, therefore, the instituting ground-power and its realization by the institution should be absolute and should shape the individuals in such a fashion that they are bound to reproduce eternally the regime which has produced them. . . . We know however, that this is not true. . . . Seen as absolute and total, the ground-power of the instituted society and of tradition is therefore, sooner or later, bound to fail.58

Every instituted social form, the symbolic, is always limited. Limited by something which seems to resemble the Lacanian real:
the world qua ‘presocial world’ – a limit for any thought – though in itself signifying nothing, is always there as inexhaustible provision of alterity and as the always imminent risk of laceration of the web of significations with which society has lined it. The a-meaning of the world is always a possible threat for the meaning of society. Thus the ever-present risk that the social edifice of significations will totter.59

What Lacan would call an encounter with the real, what we would call the moment of the political, takes in Castoriadis the form of a “shock.” If encounters with the real can dislocate our constructions of reality, leading at the same time to new symbolizations, shocks, according to Castoriadis, create the need for
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new representations, representations of what Lacan would call the unrepresentable real, and which Castoriadis calls the “ultimately indescribable X ‘out there’”: “The ultimately indescribable X ‘out there’ becomes something definite and specific for a particular being, through the functioning of its sensory and logical imagination, which ‘filters,’ ‘forms,’ and ‘organizes’ the external ‘shocks’.”60 Up to here, then, Castoriadis and Lacan seem to be once more in agreement. From now on, however, they again part company. And this because Castoriadis introduces something else, a supplement contradicting the logic exposed up to now. While Lacan views the inside and the outside as two intertwined dimensions (thus coining the term extimité), Castoriadis introduces a sharp distinction between the “inside” and the “outside”: according to his view, “we do not have to do only with representations provoked by external ‘shocks.’ In relative (and often absolute) independence from these, we do have an ‘inside’.”61 Whereas when speaking about the outside Castoriadis seems to accept the Lacanian schema of an unbridgable gap between the real and the symbolic, a-meaning and meaning, when discussing the inside Castoriadis sees no gap. The inside is homogeneous; it is described as “a perpetual, truly Heraclitean flux of representations cum affects cum intentions.”62 There is no a-meaning here; everything is reduced to a field of (different) representations. This homogeneity is sustained despite the fact that this inside comprises two completely different moments. It comprises, first, what constitutes the human infant before the imposition of the symbolic, what Lacan would describe as a pre-symbolic real state – a real which, in opposition to Castoriadis’s view, should be taken in its totality, “both the real of the subject and the real he has to deal with as exterior to him.”63 Second, it comprises the subject as it is produced through socialization, through, that is to say, the imposition of the symbolic order. It seems that, for Castoriadis, despite the crucial differences between these two states, there is also a crucial continuity. As we have already seen, both states are related to the level of meaning. While in Lacanian theory the two states are incommensurable, marked by the constitutive gap between the real and the symbolic, Castoriadis annuls this gap whenever it comes to relations of interiority. There he introduces a subjective continuity – continuity of meaning – which becomes in his schema the undoubtedly essentialist ground or source of creativity. Although he sees socialization as entailing the replacement of the original monadic meaning by social meanings, he argues that the “constitution of the social individual does not and cannot abolish the psyche’s creativity, its perpetual alteration, the representative flux as the emergence of other representations.”64 As we saw, the subject’s original monadic creativity cannot be eliminated, wholly replaced by social meanings; the monadic meaning, the source of creativity, is never fully abandoned or repressed; the imposition of the symbolic is never total; the renunciation of the psyche’s proper meaning never completely effected. As Urribarri has put it, “the idea of the monad as original mode of being of the
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psyche remains, even after its breakup, the background polarizing subsequent psychical life.”65 The problems with maintaining such an – ultimately inconsistent – position must have by now become clear. The difference with Lacan is not only that in Lacanian theory this original state belongs to the register of the real, the presymbolic real, while for Castoriadis it has to do with an original meaning (“the protomeaning of the psychic monad”), a primordial symbolization, the “Other of the Other.” It is also that what in Lacan ultimately remains in the field of impossibility and can only thus function as the (absent) cause of desire and creation becomes in Castoriadis a lost (but, in principle, retrievable?) possibility. Only thus it can function as a meaningful prototype. Only thus it is possible to prioritize an essentialist, subjectivist creativity and avoid acknowledging the constitutive alienation marking human life. What is taking place here is a disavowal of the real which is at the same time recognized as the limit in relations of exteriority but is suppressed when dealing with relations of interiority. The only explanation for this inconsistent and contradictory position seems to be Castoriadis’s desire to retain the continuity of the subjective space as a space of meaning, a space marked by the proto-meaning of the psychic monad which is transformed into the source of radical imagination par excellence. In Castoriadis’s schema, the ontological moment of social construction is not related to our encounters with the political, to the moment of social dislocation and subjective lack, but to a primordial source of human creativity associated with the presymbolic psychic monad. Thus Castoriadis is ultimately led to adopt what seems like an essentialist and subjectivist view: “Castoriadis’s notion of imagination remains within the existentialist horizon of man as the being who projects its ‘essence’ in the act of imagination transcending all positive being.”66 Only the Cartesian tradition could lie behind such an imaginary “super-subject” of the selfinstituting society, and this Cartesian association is pointed out even by supporters of Castoriadis’s views.67 The moment of the encounter with the political, the moment when the limits of human creativity become visible, limits which are due to the fact that we are always attempting to recapture the impossible real through our inadequate symbolic means, is disavowed by Castoriadis in favor of an essentialized subject. Does that mean, however, that the radical politics promoted by Castoriadis are reduced to a mere impossibility? Is the only political option left to us some kind of reactionary conformism? More specifically, what could be the future of radicalism after recognizing the real limits to creativity? Lacan’s answer to these questions is his elaboration of the category of the point de capiton, the nodal point in Laclau and Mouffe’s vocabulary. The point de capiton, a concept which originates from the Lacanian understanding of psychosis, is used to describe the signifier which, in every chain of signification, serves as the point of reference, the “anchoring point” uniting a whole set of signifiers. For example, it is always a point de capiton which puts together an ideological discourse: “class” in Marxism or “nature”
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in Green ideology. The new in politics is always related to the emergence of a new signifier, a new ideal which comes to occupy the place of the organizing principle of a discursive field and of associated subjective identities.68 For Lacan, then, in opposition to any structuralist or other conformism, “radical rearticulation of the predominant symbolic order is altogether possible – this is what his notion of the point de capiton (the ‘quilting point’ or the Master-signifier) is about: when a new point de capiton emerges, the socio-symbolic field is not only displaced, its very structuring principle changes.”69 This rearticulation is radical because it involves “the intervention of the Real of an act.”70 It does not, however, spring from any subjective essence or source. This rearticulation becomes possible due to the contingent dislocation of a preexisting discursive order, due to a certain resurfacing of the traumatic real which shows the limits of the social; the moment of the political qua encounter with the real creates a lack in the discursive structure and stimulates the desire for a new articulation.71 It is also something that surprises its agent itself. After an act of this sort, the reaction is always: “I myself do not know how I was able to do that – it just happened!”72 For Lacanian political theory, ex nihilo does not mean springing from the remnants of primordial subjectivity, from the supposed protomeaning of the psychic monad, but something radically transforming both for the symbolic order and for subjectivity itself. It follows that, within such a context, the role of political theory can only be to encourage the creation and institutionalization of political arrangements which make possible the continuous rearticulation of the socio-symbolic field, the real acts of capitonage. These arrangements can only be associated with the democratic revolution. If today the radicalization of democracy is perhaps the most pressing task for a progressive politics, this radicalization can be founded neither on some kind of romantic foundationalism nor on any kind of subjective essentialism. If democracy is marked, in Lefort’s classic definition, by the emptiness of the locus of power, an emptiness making possible the creative rearticulation of the social order, then the radicalization of democracy can only pass through what today emerges in a variety of politico-theoretical projects as a self-critical, anti-essentialist, and pro-democratic ethos. Paradoxically, certain aspects of Castoriadis’s view of autonomy and democracy seem to be directly associated with such a project, together with the Lacanian ethics of psychoanalysis. Exploring this exciting angle, however, would require another paper.73

NOTES I would like to thank my student and friend Alexandros Kioupkiolis who has read this draft and offered me his feedback. Many thanks are also due to Jason Glynos and Andreas Kalyvas for their valuable comments.

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1. Cornelius Castoriadis, “Psychoanalysis: Project and Elucidation,” Crossroads of the Labyrinth (Harvester, 1984), 48, 104, and 107. 2.Joel Whitebook, “Requiem for a Selbstdenker: Cornelius Castoriadis (1922–1997),” Constellations 5, no. 2 (1998): 153. 3. Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Social Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995). 4. Castoriadis, “Psychoanalysis: Project and Elucidation,” 100. 5. Jacques Lacan, The Logic of Fantasy, unpublished seminar, 1966–7 (tr. Cormac Gallagher), 16 November 1966. 6. Jacques-Alain Miller, “Encyclopédie,” Ornicar? 24 (1981): 35–44. 7. A concept which was deprived of any meaning in structuralism, in opposition again to Lacanian theory within which it is assigned a prominent place. 8. Castoriadis, “Psychoanalysis: Project and Elucidation,” 99. 9. Castoriadis, “Power, Politics, Autonomy,” Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, ed. David Ames Curtis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 151. 10. Castoriadis, “Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary,” The Castoriadis Reader, tr. and ed. David Ames Curtis (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 332–33. 11. Castoriadis, “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy,” Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, 84. 12. Castoriadis, “Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary,” 333. 13. Castoriadis, “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy,” 84. 14. Castoriadis, “Power, Politics, Autonomy,” 153. 15. Lacan, The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955–6, ed. J.-A. Miller, tr. with notes R. Grigg (London: Routledge, 1993), 30. 16. Ibid., 249. 17. Lacan, The Logic of Fantasy, 16 November 1966. 18. Lacan, The Seminar, Book XX. Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972–3, ed. J.-A. Miller, tr. with notes Br. Fink (New York: Norton, 1998), 32. 19. Lacan, The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 199. 20. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. J.-A. Miller, tr. A. Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1979), 77. 21. Needless to say the “imaginary” is invested with quite different meanings in Castoriadis and Lacan. In this paper, largely due to space limitations, we are suspending judgement on the issue of which definition is more plausible. In any case we do not consider this issue of crucial importance provided that one makes the appropriate “translations” whenever necessary. 22. Castoriadis, “The Social-Historical: Mode of Being, Problems of Knowledge,” Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, 42. 23. Ibid., 41. 24. Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (Athens: Rappas, 1978), 336 (in Greek). 25. Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 25. 26. Ibid. 27. Castoriadis, “Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary,” 328. 28. Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge: Polity, 1987), 116–17. 29. Castoriadis, “Culture in a Democratic Society,” The Castoriadis Reader, 357. 30. Lacan, Ecrits, tr. A. Sheridan (London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1977), 287. 31. Lacan, The Logic of Fantasy, 16 November 1966. 32. Lacan, The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959–60, ed. J.-A. Miller, tr. with notes D. Porter (London: Routledge, 1992), 115–127. This theme returns again in other seminars. See for example his seminar on The Object of Psychoanalysis, unpublished, 1965–6 (tr. Cormac Gallagher), especially the session of 8 December 1965. 33. Gilbert Chaitin, Rhetoric and Culture in Lacan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 64–5.

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34. To return to our discussion on need which is relevant here since it is located at the source of this alienating dimension, according to Lacan, it is due to the fact that we speak, due, that is to say, to our symbolic dependence, that we are subject to a “deviation” of our needs, in the sense that “in so far as [our] needs are subjected to demand, they return to [us] alienated” (Ecrits, 286). Alienation, however, is not only linked with the symbolic but also with the imaginary. As it is clear in Lacan’s conception of the mirror stage, the imaginary identity acquired through the identification with the mirror image entails a profoundly alienating dimension (4). 35. We will return to the Lacanian understanding of creativity towards the end of this essay. 36. Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 1987), 333. 37. “Power, Politics, Autonomy,” 148, my emphasis. 38. Castoriadis in Fernando Urribarri, “The psyche: imagination and history. A general view of Cornelius Castoriadis’s psychoanalytic ideas,” Free Associations 7, pt. 3, no. 43 (1999): 385; Lacan, The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 96. 39. Castoriadis, “Power, Politics, Autonomy,” 149. 40. Fink, The Lacanian Subject, 24. 41. Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia, 164. 42. Whitebook, “Requiem for a Selbstdenker,” 143. 43. Castoriadis, “Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary,” 331; Castoriadis, Imaginary Institution of Society (Greek), 425. 44. Habermas, Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 334. 45. Whitebook, “Requiem for a Selbstdenker,” 157n8. 46. Castoriadis, “Done and to be Done,” The Castoriadis Reader, 377. 47. Castoriadis, Imaginary Institution of Society, 299. 48. Urribarri, “The psyche: imagination and history,” 379. 49. Castoriadis, Imaginary Institution of Society, 287. 50. Kanakis Leledakis, Society and Psyche: Social Theory and the Unconscious Dimension of the Social (Oxford: Berg, 1995), 111. 51. Urribarri, “The psyche: imagination and history,” 379. 52. Castoriadis, “Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary,” 331, my emphasis. 53. Ibid., 334. 54. Castoriadis, “Done and to be Done,” 379. 55. Leledakis, Society and Psyche, 132, my emphasis. 56. For a detailed elaboration of this political reading of Lacan with reference to the work of Laclau, Mouffe, Lefort, Beck, and others, see Stavrakakis, Lacan and the Political (London: Routledge, 1999), esp. ch. 3. 57. Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia, 171. 58. Castoriadis, “Power, Politics, Autonomy,” 151. 59. Ibid., 152. 60. Castoriadis, “Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary,” 327. It is very ˇ ˇ revealing that Z izek occasionally uses similar expressions to refer to the Lacanian real. 61. Ibid., 327. 62. Ibid. 63. Lacan, The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 118. 64. Leledakis, Society and Psyche, 113. 65. Urribarri, “The psyche: imagination and history,” 380. ˇ ˇ 66. Slavoj Z izek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London: Verso, 1999), 24. 67. Kostis Simopoulos, “Imaginary autonomy or imaginary nowayout?,” Nea Estia 147, no. 1722 (2000): 583 (in Greek); Whitebook, “Requiem for a Selbstdenker,” 143. 68. For an example of the use of the Lacanian logic of capitonage in political analysis, see Stavrakakis, “Green Ideology: A Discursive Reading,” Journal of Political Ideologies 2, no. 3 (1997): 259–79. ˇ ˇ 69. Z izek, The Ticklish Subject, 262.

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70. Ibid. 71. For an analysis of the emergence of a concrete ideological form along these lines, see Stavrakakis, “On the Emergence of Green Ideology: The Dislocation Factor in Green Politics,” in D. Howarth, A. Norval, and Y. Stavrakakis, Discourse Theory and Political Analysis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000). ˇ ˇ 72. Z izek, “From ‘Passionate Attachments’ to Dis-Identification,” umbr(a) (1998): 14. 73. For the meaning of this ethics of disharmony and the implications of the ethics of psychoanalysis on political institutionalization and the radicalization of democracy, see Stavrakakis, Lacan and the Political, chs. 4 and 5.

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