Issue 161, December 2020 Castoriadis Ex Nihilo

Zebra and Parachute (1930) Christopher Wood, Tate Collection

Guest Editor: Vrasidis Karalis (University of Sydney)


Forty years ago today – Thesis Eleven, a bookmark

Peter Beilharz

8 December 1980. With this issue, Thesis Eleven is 40 years old. Who would have thunk? The day John Lennon was murdered, we picked up the boxes in Julian Triado’s Renault 12, news on the radio, axles groaning, us, I suppose, otherwise elated, but also in shock. What were these new times?

Forty years is a long time. This is a lot of editing, learning, planning, writing, initiating, reviewing, fundraising, culture building. What have we achieved? We will spend some time over the next year celebrating our fortieth birthday, taking stock, looking back and forward. Thesis Eleven is a slow journal: this is not a process that needs to be rushed.

For today, for this moment, let us thank you, and all our readers and subscribers over four decades. Let us offer thanks to those who have written, and rewritten, reviewed, licked stamps and sealed envelopes, carried boxes, unfurled the banner, maintained all the everyday life functions of the journal. Let us thank those who had faith in us, who were able to affirm our purpose as well as to offer criticism.

This issue, guest edited by Vrasidis Karalis, takes us back by our line in the labyrinth to Cornelius Castoriadis, who was always among our keenest supporters. Many of those who offered us inspired support then are now gone, and our seniors are also often retired or departed. Our elders are gone, and we too are older. Hourly, daily. We continue to think with them, and with many younger folk who now make the journal happen. They bring energy, enthusiasm, amazing capacity to build, to cultivate and to innovate. The best recent monument to this new wave is the recent Covid-19 online series on Watch this space: the best is yet to come!


Remembering Castoriadis

Peter Beilharz

I met Castoriadis only twice, once in Paris in 1979, and then repeatedly in Melbourne in 1991 over the time of the Thesis Eleven Conference on Reason and Imagination. Both these encounters, in different ways, were transformative for me. As it happens, I remember them very well. As the distance risks clouding memory, I take time in this paper to reconstruct and share these stories. They take us back to the world through which we first encountered Castoriadis, as Paul Cardan, via the efforts of London Solidarity and its emblematic hedgehog – small and prickly, doesn’t like being interfered with; known to pop up in ways that might just be revolutionary. This was Castoriadis as I first encountered him, and this was the culture I likely never got past: Socialisme ou Barbarie, en anglais.

Between Athens and Paris: The life and intellectual contribution of Cornelius Castoriadis

Timothy Andrews

This paper presents a biographical outline of the life of Cornelius Castoriadis and the intersections between philosophy, politics and experience that shaped his vibrant and prolific intellectual contribution. Castoriadis grew up in Athens, at a time when Greece’s internal differences came to the fore as a result of the movements of wider European history. This was a symbolic beginning that set up his migration to Paris and shaped the trajectory of this thought. In Castoriadis, we discover a fiercely independent character fixated on contributing to a more just society. In this, and in his passion for knowledge and discourse, we can detect both an Athenian citizen and a champion of the Enlightenment. In this amalgam, his location in Paris and commitment to politics are both the choices and conditions of his life and character. This paper plays on this pendulum between Athens and Paris as well as between politics and philosophy and positions Castoriadis as an Enlightenment thinker with an eye and an ear for the quotidian pulse of the social historical.

From ‘capitalism and revolution’ to ‘capitalism and managerialism’

Peter Murphy

Seventy years ago James Burnham (1905–1987) was a well-known American intellectual figure. Burnham’s 1941 book The Managerial Revolution, a cause célèbre, provided some of the conceptual framework for George Orwell’s 1984. Cornelius Castoriadis (1922–1997) at the time was an obscure Greek-French political intellectual, writer and small-group organizer. He co-founded the left-wing Socialisme ou Barbarie in Paris in 1949 while Burnham was already on a rightward intellectual trajectory. The two, though, shared certain traits. Both emerged from Trotskyist milieus as critics of bureaucratic collectivism. Both were anti-communists. Both were gifted writers and thinkers who were distinctly unorthodox in their approach, notably their scepticism about 20th-century managerial society and bureaucratic forms of capitalism. Then there were the divergences. At its inception in 1955 Burnham joined National Review, the principal organ of modern centre-right conservative opinion in the United States. Castoriadis became a leading figure of the French self-management left. Based on his Christian Gauss Seminar at Princeton, Burnham’s 1964 book Suicide of the West offered the most potent intellectual critique of left-liberalism ever produced. In ‘Proletariat and Organization 1’ (1959), Castoriadis referred to Burnham’s ‘pseudoanalysis’ of bureaucracy. Burnham was not a self-management advocate. As he abandoned Marxism his social philosophy drew on Vilfredo Pareto and other Machiavellian social theorists. The paper explores the affinities and the divergent political trajectories of two of the 20th century’s most interesting anti-bureaucratic thinkers.

Judgment, normativity and the subject

Andrew Cooper

One of the fundamental questions in post-Fregean philosophy is how to account for the normativity involved in assertoric claims once the traditional subject-object view of thinking is rejected. One of the more productive lines of inquiry in the contemporary literature attributes normativity to second nature, which is presented as a sui generis space of reason giving and receiving distinct from the space of nature studied by the natural sciences. In this paper I suggest an alternative account by drawing from Castoriadis’s philosophical interpretation of autopoiesis. For Castoriadis, the idea of second nature protects the modern conception of nature from undergoing the radical critique it requires, for it restricts normativity to the anthropic sphere. In contrast, he proposes an autopoietic account of the subject that grounds the capacity to know that one knows in the activity of the living being. Castoriadis demonstrates that the normativity of assertoric claims is not a vertical break from nature but rather a horizontal transformation of the biological capacity for self-referentiality.

The antinomies of the modern imaginary and the double dialectic of control

Craig Browne

Cornelius Castoriadis made a significant and distinctive contribution to the development of the notion of the dialectic of control. In the first instance, Castoriadis formulated an important reconceptualization and restatement of the Marxist conception of the central contradiction of capitalism. He argued that capitalism depended on the creativity of workers while excluding them from effective control. Similarly, Castoriadis sought to extend the Marxist analysis of those tendencies present within the structuration of the labour process that may prefigure a socialist reorganization of production. Castoriadis’s analyses of capitalism during the phase of his involvement with Socialism or Barbarism are likewise informed by his assessment of state socialist regimes. In particular, this assessment provided important insights into the modalities of control in modern society and the complications of transcending forms of institutional domination in modernity. It will be argued that some of the distinctive intentions of Castoriadis’s later elucidation of the social imaginary can be traced to his interpretation of bureaucratic capitalism and that this is evident in his subsequent accounts of the capitalist imaginary. In his later theory, Castoriadis interprets the problem of the dialectic of control in terms of the relationship between instituting and instituted society. Castoriadis’s analysis of capitalism during the period of Socialism or Barbarism will be situated in the wider debates over capitalism at that time. Similarly, Castoriadis’s departure from some of the philosophical sources that influenced the development of the notion of the dialectic of control will be explored.

Castoriadis, racist and anti-racist ontologies

Toula Nicolacopoulos, George Vassilacopoulos

Castoriadis explains racism as a mode of hatred of the other and as a feature of the self-institution of heteronomous societies built on ethnocentrism. At the level of the psychical human being he identifies two forms of racist fixation on others: hatred of the other as the flip-side of self-love and as the other side of self-hatred, which he analyses, respectively, as a mode of pseudo-reasoning and as unconscious desire. We argue that attention to the ontology that underpins the modern European subject’s epistemological deployment of racism in the context of coloniality reveals the limits and a blindspot of Castoriadis’s analysis.

Burrowing a way: Plato’s cave and the labyrinth of creation

Jeff Klooger

Plato’s simile of the cave has for over two millennia been the model for a particular understanding of the limitated nature of human knowledge. Castoriadis’s understanding of human knowledge differs from Plato’s in that the artificiality of knowledge, and by extension of culture and society in general, is seen not as a barrier to true knowledge but as a necessary precondition for any knowledge whatsoever. Plato dreams of leaving the cave and encountering the world in the clear light of day; Castoriadis contends that the labyrinth of human creation is our only means of encountering the real. Plato tries to use philosophy to design a way out of the traps humans find themselves in, traps they build for themselves. Castoriadis seeks no such escape and believes that to make such an ultimate escape the business of philosophy or politics is misguided, if not dangerous.

Castoriadis before Castoriadis: How did Paul Cardan become Cornelius Castoriadis?

Peter Beilharz

This memorandum offers some incomplete thoughts on the process through which Paul Cardan became Cornelius Castoriadis. This involves some examination of the connection, alignments and dissonances between the Johnson-Forest Tendency in Detroit, and Socialisme ou Barbarie in Paris. Special emphasis is placed on the pioneering work of Stephen Hastings-King and the notion that these intellectual movements centred their energies around the search for the proletariat. Cardan spent more time with Marx; Castoriadis, professionally, spent more time with Freud, and after. The spectre of Freud is as central to these inquiries as is the ghost of Marx. If the spectre of the Worker needs to be dispelled, after Socialisme ou Barbarie, then the dynamics of suffering and creativity also need yet to be maintained in tension.

Sixty years of Sartre’s Critique: Revisiting The Critique of Dialectical Reason today

Robert Boncardo

Despite being the work of one of the 20th-century’s most famous philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason has never been fully integrated into our collective philosophical consciousness. None of the book’s key concepts, from seriality to the group, have come to play an important role in other philosophers’, sociologists’, or political theorists’ work. Amongst Sartre scholars, while work on the Critique has increased steadily in recent years, in particular in France and Belgium, no critical consensus exists about the book’s overall meaning or value. On the occasion of the Critique’s 60th birthday, in this article I provide a summary of its main aims and concepts with a view to establishing a new basis for reading and discussing the book. I will argue that the Critique is a coherent and unique work of social theory that speaks to a world suffering an overwhelming wave of what Sartre calls ‘counter-finality’ in the form of climate change.

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