Monday, 29 January 2018

Why I like Castoriadis: politics and philosophy from ancient Greece to our age of ‘insignificance’

Postscript on Insignificance is a useful addition to the Cornelius Castoriadis oeuvre available in English, consisting of a series of interviews in which the Greek philosopher introduces us to some of his main intellectual preoccupations  – in ontology, political theory, art, psychoanalysis, mathematics, the philosophy of science, the state of modern society, and so on.

Here are some of the ideas that you will find in the book and are most attractive to me:

Castoriadis’ assertion that ‘being is creation’ amounts to a fundamental
rejection of any kind of determinism (religious, historical, scientific) and places politics – collective activity aimed at establishing the rules of society – at the heart of human endeavour and, indeed, of human existence, which is always social. ‘Being is creation’ provides flesh to the bones of Protagoras’ ‘man is the measure of all things’ and Aristotle’s ‘man is a political animal’, as well as his, ‘he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god’.

Even if we accept that societies always create themselves, this does not necessarily tell us anything about the form this creation will take; if, indeed, a society will overcome the pretense that extrinsic forces (gods, tradition, physis, etc) are responsible for shaping its laws and precepts. In fact, most human societies are what Castoriadis calls ‘heteronomous’, enthral and reliant on extrasocial explanations and sources for their laws and rules. Very few societies in human history have made the breakthrough that allows them to recognise that their laws and rules can be made and re-made by themselves.

The first societies that consciously took over from the gods, physis and so on, the role of instituting  laws and social precepts, were in classical Greece, and it is no coincidence that this is where philosophy and politics emerge.

Politics and philosophy go hand in hand. If philosophy is about questioning the existing representation of the world; then politics is about questioning and altering the existing representation of society. When philosophy challenges religious and other heteronomous explanations of the cosmos, when it removes the artificial limits on what is thinkable, it reveals a vacuum that, in terms of the ordering of society, politics steps in to try and fill.

If religion and the supernatural cannot explain the cosmos, then they cannot explain society or purport to be the foundation for its laws either. In this scenario, laws are not immutable, the impeccable will of the gods or of a God, to apply for all time and in all circumstances, never to be challenged or changed; but the responsibility of humans, who now must judge and choose for themselves the laws by which to govern their relations in society.

The more a society understands that it and it alone can affect its laws and rules, deciding what is a good and bad law; the more a society interrogates itself and overcomes heteronomous restrictions on what it can and cannot say and do about itself; the more implicated citizens are in shaping their society’s laws; the more citizens feel ownership of their society’s laws; then the more Castoriadis is inclined to identify such a society as ‘autonomous’. The creation of autonomous society is the project that Castoriadis, the radical social and political theorist, seeks to explain and is committed to.

However, this project of autonomy begun 2,500 years ago in Greece (revived in the ‘first Renaissance’ in 11th century Europe and, again, in 17th century England, followed by the American and French revolutions, the Enlightenment, the workers’ movement and by Modernism and the avant-garde, which prevailed in Europe from the 1870s to the 1950s) is now in crisis. And this is not because contemporary society is threatened by a return to a belief in gods and tradition, or the veneration of nature (although there has been a growth in religious fundamentalism, regressive forms of nationalism and anti-modern, back-to-nature ideologies – as in aspects of the Green movement); but, more profoundly, the project of autonomy is under threat from trends that want to transform citizens into consumers; that induce apathy and conformism; and reduce politics from a democratic endeavour of the many to a preserve and activity of the few, a liberal elite, comprised of professional politicians and pseudo political experts.

For Castoriadis, the term that captures this nihilistic spirit in contemporary politics, art and philosophy is ‘insignificance’; and, indeed, even if Castoriadis was describing the world as he saw it in the 1980s and 1990s (Castoriadis died in 1997), the lacklustre, ineffectual response to the post-2008 crisis from radical politics – we’re thinking of the feeble occupy and indignant movements – shows there is nothing to suggest that such a pessimistic characterisation would not be applicable to today’s politics and society.