Albino Sea-Cucumber

Glen Newey

  • The Imaginary Institution of Society by Cornelius Castoriadis
    Polity, 418 pp, £14.95, May 1997, ISBN 0 7456 1950 9
  • Les Carrefours de Labyrinthe: Fait et a faire by Cornelius Castoriadis
    Seuil, 281 pp, frs 139.00, February 1997, ISBN 2 02 029909 7
  • The Castoriadis Reader edited by David Ames Curtis
    Blackwell, 470 pp, £50.00, May 1997, ISBN 1 55786 703 8

The first business of government, Confucius wrote in the Analects, is to ‘rectify names’. His point was that rulers should seek agreement on final ends. But reflection on the realities of power takes us from nomenclature to the nomenklatura: names, in the right, or wrong, hands are potent instruments of rule. ‘Words,’ Hobbes noted in Leviathan, ‘are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools.’ Hobbes’s nominalism became the handmaiden of his realpolitik. Terms like ‘justice’ had no meaning apart from the facts of power, in a kind of dominant ideology thesis avant la lettre. Hence Hobbes’s comparison, at the end of Leviathan, between the Papacy and the kingdom of fairies – fictive edifices both, reared on the credulity of the downtrodden. Modern writers like Ernesto Laclau have used a similar idea to explain how the meanings of words are fixed by ‘hegemonic’ power relations.

Hobbes’s ulterior aim was, of course, to defend a form of absolutism, extending John Selden’s thought that, in a household, only one man’s there to buy the meat. But Hobbes’s views about meaning threaten to prove subversive. Counterfactuals – imagined possibilities – can be used to challenge the status quo. Invert hegemony and, handy-dandy, who’s the justice, who the thief? It’s tempting to go one step further, and conclude that the very idea of social rank based on merit is illusory. The recent erratic fortunes of the Ukanian banana monarchy make the point. Recall Alan Clark’s account of gaga party grandees wishfully turning blue the blood of their then leader, a provincial turnip-vendor’s daughter. Recall the September Days, and the tsunami of Diarrhoea which slopped over the nation during that dark time; for a while it seemed the body politic awaited the advent of a bloodied Martius to rescue it from democracy, though in the end it only got poor old Charlie Althorp. Amid this galère, such fantasms as ‘rank’, ‘deference’, ‘estate’ or, if it comes to that, ‘royalty’ itself, are apt to wither. The glories of our blood and state are shadows, not substantial things.

These themes occur throughout Cornelius Castoriadis’s work and especially in his best-known book, The Imaginary Institution of Society. During its composition this article has, regrettably, become an obituary. Castoriadis, who died on 26 December 1997 aged 75, was a wartime Greek Communist, an OECD economist, latterly a practising psychoanalyst, and long-time doyen of Socialisme ou barbarie (mangled in the Guardian as Socialism and Barbarism). He was born in Constantinople in 1922 and emigrated to France with the onset of the Metaxas dictatorship in Greece after the war of liberation. In Paris, Castoriadis joined the Fourth International and soon fell out with the Trotskyists in it, forming Socialisme ou barbarie with a congeries of radicals which eventually included C.L.R. James and the Sino-American, Grace Lee Boggs; free of the French Communist Party, he managed to avoid embroilment in the latter’s dizzying volte-fesses, chronicled by Sartre in Les Mains sales. He sided with the Algerian rebels against his adopted homeland and with the Hungarian uprising, having long since repudiated the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (four words, four lies, as he later told Milan Kundera). His opposition to the USSR and his support of workers’ uprisings in Eastern Europe were bones of contention with Sartre, who later admitted that Castoriadis had been ‘right, but at the wrong time’: Castoriadis riposted, fairly enough, that Sartre had been wrong at the right time. An icon of the soixante-huitards, Castoriadis collaborated with the now Green Danny Cohn-Bendit on From Ecology to Autonomy. Five volumes of his writings were published under the umbrella title, Les Carrefours du labyrinthe, the last, Fait et à faire, last February. This was soon followed by The Castoriadis Reader, edited by David Ames Curtis, Castoriadis’s major expositor in the English-speaking world: a festschrift edited by Curtis appeared last May as an issue of the journal, Thesis Eleven, which has been a major platform for Castoriadis’s ideas.

In later life, Castoriadis wandered from Trotskyism into the ‘bourgeois deviationism’ of psychoanalytic theory and practice. The heteroclite ruminations collected in Fait et à faire take him by way of Aristotle, Leibniz, Kant and Merleau-Ponty, to Freud; the subjects dealt with include the subconscious, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, phenomenology, more on ‘the social instituting imaginary’ first broached in Imaginary Institution, and autonomy as a political project.

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