I suspect only a handful of people know of my admiration for Cornelius Castoriadis, the remarkable Greek philosopher, psychoanalyst and political activist. Even some of my closest friends haven’t been persuaded to spend time with my faltering attempts to acquaint them with his thinking. Yet, across the years, his simple, yet profound proposal continues to resonate.
I ask to be able to participate directly in all the social decisions that may affect my existence, or the general course of the world in which I live. I do not accept the fact that my lot is decided, day after day, by people whose projects are hostile to me or simply unknown to me, and for whom we, that is I and everyone else, are only numbers in a general plan or pawns on a chessboard, and that, ultimately, my life and death are in the hands of people whom I know to be, necessarily, blind.
Indeed back in 2010 I contributed an article,’What has Cornelius Castoriadis to say about Youth Work?’ to Youth & Policy – see more below. In the ensuing years I have drawn on my understanding of Castoriadis, especially in a critique of neoliberalism’s overwhelming behavioural modification project, its goal being to turn us in on ourselves, to privatise our existence. Yet, in truth, I have ducked using explicitly key motifs in his work, notably the idea of the ‘imaginary’ as a way of shedding light on what’s going on in the world. Without doubt this reluctance stems from my long-lasting experience of an anti-intellectual and anti-theoretical tradition in youth work, little affected, it seems, by the shift in its full-time garb to being a graduate profession. I am on record as recognising this hostility to theory as not being at all simply bloody-mindedness. A significant amount of theory, as Castoriadis himself argues, is an effort to impose a template on reality, which often fails to convince. In this context it’s no wonder that practitioners fall back on ‘common-sense’.
However, as a New Year, hardly glowing with radical optimism dawns, I am motivated to have a fresh dialogue with youth workers [and perchance others] as to whether Castoriadis connects with our contemporary concerns. In seeking to do so I continue to be indebted to David Curtis, his tireless advocate, who maintains the Cornelius Castoriadis Agora International Website, which contains a recently updated version of his exploration of ‘the rising tide of insignificancy’, a dominant theme in the later writings of Castoriadis.
I’m inspired too by the discovery that two Australian social work academics, Phillip Ablett and Christine Morley, have published recently a piece, ‘Social work as revolutionary praxis? The contribution to critical practice of Cornelius Castoriadis’s political philosophy’. At the moment it is to be found in the November edition of the journal, Critical and Radical Social Work. The abstract goes as follows:
Social work is a contested tradition, torn between the demands of social governance and autonomy. Today, this struggle is reflected in the division between the dominant, neoliberal agenda of service provision and the resistance offered by various critical perspectives employed by disparate groups of practitioners serving diverse communities. Critical social work challenges oppressive conditions and discourses, in addition to addressing their consequences in individuals’ lives. However, very few recent critical theorists informing critical social work have advocated revolution. A challenging exception can be found in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis (1922‐97), whose explication of ontological underdetermination and creation evades the pitfalls of both structural determinism and post-structural relativism, enabling an understanding of society as the contested creation of collective imaginaries in action and a politics of radical transformation. On this basis, we argue that Castoriadis’s radical-democratic revisioning of revolutionary praxis can help in reimagining critical social work’s emancipatory potential.
Hopefully we might spark together an engagement across youth, community and social work about the import of Castoriadis.
In the meantime I’ll begin my return to Castoriadis with two offerings. The first is this absorbing interview with the man himself from 1989.
The second is the stumbling effort I made back in 2010 to introduce Castoriadis to a wider audience. It appeared in Youth and Policy, 105, November 2010. Other thinkers featured in this series were Paolo Freire and John Holt.
For over 30 years Cornelius Castoriadis has done my head in! In the mid-70’s, being a pamphlet junkie, I could not resist his ‘History as Creation’, written under the pseudonym of Paul Cardan. Inside a few pages my head was throbbing. At the time I was a recent Marxist convert, bowled over by the sweeping explanatory power of Karl’s grand theory. To be honest, the last thing I desired was some little known dissident revolutionary sowing uncertainty just as I had discovered certitude. Here was Castoriadis casting doubt as to whether any social theory or political programme could hold the key to understanding humanity’s past, present or future. I was torn from his dangerous embrace by the damning verdict of my Trotskyist group’s leadership. He was condemned as being little better than a liberal, a revisionist undermining the historical mission of the working class. This scathing put-down touched the raw nerve of my own liberal wavering in the face of Leninist orthodoxy and discipline, so I internalized my misgivings. To my shame, for most of the next decade, Castoriadis was consigned to a cardboard box under the stairs. For my part I strove to be the dedicated Marxist youth worker, armed with the correct scientific analysis, committed to politicising work with young people.
However, my cry of ‘get thee behind me, Castoriadis’ did not spare me the questions posed by life to anyone arguing for the radical transformation of society:
- To what extent do we have a real grasp of why people think and act in the ways they do? What do we mean by notions of individual and collective consciousness, by the very idea of personality?
- And, given that ‘personalities’, amongst other things, are black, white, straight, gay, women and men, born into contending classes, how might they discover and act upon a common sense of purpose in all their interests?
- How indeed might revolutionary social and political change come about? As Castoriadis puts it, “to what extent does the contemporary situation give birth in people the desire and capacity to create a free and just society?” [1988a:33]
As a would-be agent of change, inside and outside of work, I wrestled with these fundamental dilemmas. Neither Marxism nor Youth Work provided convincing answers. Both fell short of comprehending the whole picture. Of course Marxism’s supposed commitment to class struggle as the motor of history seemed to resolve the matter. However, its singular failure to appreciate the individual in all her idiosyncrasy weakened its collective aspiration. As for Youth Work, its claim to be person-centred was built on the shakiest of foundations, an eclectic mix of generalisations drawn from a social psychology devoid of any sense of exploitation and oppression. Confronted with this divide I rushed from pillar to post, arguing in Marxist circles for the importance of individuality, ranting in the Youth Work milieu about the centrality of class conflict. Neither side was won over. It was the late 1980’s before I began to renew my acquaintance with Castoriadis and his fix on this mess of contradictions.
Ironically, whatever its rhetoric, state-funded Youth Work seems to have embraced with few tears the prescriptive agenda espoused until its recent demise by New Labour. In tune with the times, reflecting the widespread fatalism felt by so many, youth workers seem to be shrugging their shoulders in resignation at their situation. And yet, the struggle is not over. We do not need to accept the prevailing heteronomous view that human beings are the objects of history; that somehow we are nothing but pawns in the hands of a destiny determined either by God, Nature or the Global Market. In the spirit and pursuit of autonomy we must reaffirm that human beings create history. In doing so, therefore we know that the task is to nurture our striving to be individually and collectively autonomous. This never-ending process of mutual education will take place wherever we decide to give it a go – in the family, in school, in the workplace, within the community. It will be at its most intense in the collective passion of political struggle. Without doubt Youth Work can be such an arena, but it will be tough. Practitioners such as me have wasted perhaps more promising circumstances, but we can learn from the past if we are self-critical together. What’s certain is that isolated individuals will not reforge a creative and questioning youth work practice. For this task we need each other’s energy, analysis, experience, warmth, wit and humanity.
In his earlier writings, for instance, ‘On the Content of Socialism’, Castoriadis [1988b: 90-193] attempted to map out in detail the character of a future society, but over the years his work became more abstract. Nonetheless, David Curtis, his indefatigable translator, is right to stress the presence in his writings of the evocation of a way of living together that is cooperative and improvisatory, like the best kind of jazz or the finest moments in Youth Work! It is “a kind of life that does not deny rationality, planning and organising, but does not confuse the plan with living nor does it live for the plan.” [Foreword, 1988a: xviii] It is a kind of life that requires the passionate commitment of its participants. In his fondness for Greek sources Castoriadis quotes from the great chorus in ‘Antigone’, ‘there are many amazing phenomena, but none as amazing as the human being’. His emphasis on the heights to which humanity can climb contrasts with the sullen or complacent routine passivity prevalent today, summed up in the absurd adage, ‘nothing ever changes and nothing ever will’. As citizens and youth workers we must keep aflame a belief in the possibility of creating together a world that truly belongs to us all, the autonomous society of Castoriadis’ and our imagination. Indeed, in the last year or so the embers of resistance have been poked into life by the emergence of the In Defence of Youth Work Campaign, which asserts in the name of democracy and emancipation, ‘the essential significance of the youth worker, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious, yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people’ [IDYW: 2009 ]. I will leave the last word with Castoriadis himself.
“It is not what is, but what could be and should be, that has need of us.” [ 1997:130]
If anyone has time, energy and interest enough to pursue these offerings your critical thoughts would be deeply appreciated.