Imaginary Constitution of Society

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* Book: L'institution Imaginaire de la Société. Cornelis Castoriadis.



This is a summary of part III only, from the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, in 2005:

- Part III: L’imaginaire et l’institution, premier abord

Context: There are 3 sources of symbolic thought:

   - 1. the perceived
   - 2. the rational
   - 3. the imaginary

For example: when a slave is considered an animal, or a worker as a commodity , then this is neither caused by perception nor reason, but by the social imaginary.

Thus the social imaginary is the source of meaning, but cannot itself be represented.

- "L'aliénation n’est ni l'inhérence à l’histoire, ni l'existence de l’institution comme telle. Mais, l'aliénation apparaît comme une modalité du rapport à l'institution et à l'histoire. C’est cette modalité qu’il nous faut élucider, et pour cela mieux comprendre ce qu’est l’institution."

Alienation appears as class domination but goes beyond, and so emancipation must go beyond it as well. In class society, institutions are alienated from society, and mystify it. There's a process of autonomisation of the institutions. In his search for explanations, Castoriadis rejects the functionalist hypothesis (i.e. that institutions fulfill a social function), not as 'wrong', but as incomplete. The key for him, is that institutions exist in the symbolic order. Castoriadis uses different examples from religion and law to show that institutions are not rational / functional! He also explains how the imaginary can add or transform the meaning of symbols. Imagination is seeing things that are not there, not 'given' by reality.

Symbolism thus at the same time contains real-rational elements, which 'represent' reality, and imaginary elements. The imaginary creates something ir-reducable, and which 'creates' realities, that mere functional-rational interpretations cannot explain.

   - “L’institution est un réseau symbolique, socialement sanctionné, ou se combinent en proportions et en relation variables, une composante fonctionnelle, et une composante 
   - "L'aliénation, c’est l’autonomisation et la dominance du moment imaginaire dans l’institution, qui entraîne l’autonomisation de l’institution.”

This is so because it means that people do not recognize that the institutions are produced by themselves. The imaginary, says Castoriadis, is not created, the result of, because humanity has unresolved needs, and is frustrated. People in Scandinavia have food and security, and yet, they do not constitute autonomous societies. There exists some basic kind of social imaginary, which does not signify and refer to a signified, but itself creates a wide field of meaning. It is only measurable by its effects (like God in a traditional society). It is certainly NOT reducible to an individual consciousness, though that may be a partial aspect of it. (“La psyché individuelle ne peut être isolé d’un continuum social.”)

The social imaginary, which can only be built on already existing symbolism, answers the basic questions of human life in the particular society: who are "we" ? what are we to each other ?, etc ... Answer that cannot be produced by the real or the rational. These questions and answers are not explicitly given in language but emerge from the doing. Marxism is wrong to deduce these things without regard to the meaning given and the experiences by the actors themselves. This symbolic identity is to be found in the name given to a community, and today expressed in the 'nation'. Nothing is human society is purely functional: food, clothing, etc ... all have 'values' attached to them, beyond their utility.

Importantly, in a aside, Castoriadis rejects the Marxist explanation for the origins of the class society. What is meant by this is the scheme that sees:

   - first, a primitive penury without surplus
   - Second, a surplus with class society
   - Third, abundance without classes

For Castoriadis, the existence of a surplus cannot explain class society, it also could have been used for the whole community. But it did not, why is that ?

The different explanatory scheme, to correlate a given level of technique to a specific class configuration, while observable, does not prove a cause-effect relationship. Technique can explain differences, and the division of labour, but not class antagonism and inequality of power and social condition

So, why and when did the differences become a-symmetrical ? The key transformation, from neolithic 'egalitarianism' villages, to the Sumerian class societies of the 4th millenium BCE, is hidden from our view. There and then, a shift took place from seeing humans as allies or rivals, to 'objects' that one could own. The only possible answer is 'constitutive'. Some men have 'constituted' slavery.

In conclusion: "L'institution de l'esclavage est surgissement d'une nouvelle signification imaginaire." (p 233).

If we cannot truly understand it by going back to its original creation, what can we do today is to discover its actual "in-significance", its "valuelessness" for us today (just as in psycho-analysis, we can without, and 'discover' the in-significance of our neurotic 'problem').

Class society also institutes conflict and resistance within society. Institutions can be contested. Man is no longer a prisoner of his own creation: these are the first stirrings of autonomy, co-created with the class division.

- At first, contestation takes place within the same imaginary (aiming for a reversal of roles) but soon, the imaginary will be questioned, as will be the case with the workers movement.

Section: L'imaginaire dans le monde moderne, p 235

The modern world thinks it has liberated itself from the imaginary, but its rational exterior forms are still based on choices driven by the imaginary, foremost amongst them the choice for Reason itself. The process of commodification of the human can properly be characterized as a delirium. What is true for the capitalist market was/is just as true for bureaucratic institutions. But " l'imaginaire social moderne n'a pas de chair propre", as it looks to found itself in the rational, and hence becomes pseudo-rational. As Castoriadis has argued, the imaginary is what 'constitutes society', what constructs its reality. It is primary.

How then could the rational emerge ?The two categories imaginary/rational can in fact only be opposed in our societies. For this other societies, the symbolic-rational constituted the organisation of their world. At the same time, we cannot but use our categories to understand other worlds!!

The project of 'total history' advocated by the West is illusory, since we cannot impose our categories on the lived meaning of older other cultures. It will always be a 'history for us'. But this is no problem if we know that we are not there to say 'what is', but rather aim to inspire our own creative praxis. We feed on the past to more lucidly change our present."