Autonomous Politics

Alexander Stagnell

Autonomous Politics

Imaginary and Imagination in Doxology


Ingår i: Shadows in the Cave. Revisiting Mats Rosengren’s Doxology. Erik Bengtson, Karl Ekeman, Mirey Gorgis, Louise Schou Therkildsen & Alexander Stagnell (eds.), Retorikförlaget 2022.
Artikel s 277-295.

Om skribenten

Alexander Stagnell is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Rhetoric at Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, and Södertörn University. 0000-0002-0847-2024



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In Homer, the word πόλις seems to simultaneously refer to two aspects of communal living. On the one hand, it signifies the physical space where a community has erected its dwellings, a meaning exemplified in the habitual question posed to every newly arrived traveler: where is your polis and where are your parents? But polis also signifies an imagined community, such as when “the whole city of the Troyans [Τρώων δὲ πόλις] has come out against them fearlessly”. And although these two significations of the concept are usually understood as inseparable sides of a whole, the ancient Greeks did nonetheless leave us with tales of how a polis could be brought along to a new location if necessity called for it. What makes possible the idea of bringing a polis along, even though one is fleeing from its material foundations, is the human ability called φαντᾰσία by the Greeks, signifying not only ‘appearing’ or ‘appearance for consciousness’, but also the more active capabilities of consciousness to ‘re-present’ or ‘creatively imagine’. Phantasia could thus be said to constitute (together with logos) that which, according to Aristotle, makes humans into the foremost among the zōon politikon: while many animals construct communal living quarters (anthills, meerkat burrows, beehives, etc.), only humans supposedly pair (and perhaps even strengthen) their physical protection from the elements and other ­threats with an imagined community.


The concept phantasia has a long and dwindling history, both in philosophy and in rhetoric. Most often philosophers, such as Plato and Descartes, have warned us about imagination’s proneness to errors, how it produces imperfect copies impeding reason, and how truth can never be reached through imitation. In rhetoric, on the other hand, phantasia is often presented as central to the persuasive process. Discussing the role of emotions in persuasion, Quintilian for instance writes:

But how can we come to be moved? Emotions, after all, are not in our own power. Well, I will try to explain this too. The person who will show the greatest power in the expression of emotion will be the person who has properly formed what the Greeks called phantasiai (let us call them “visions”), by which the images of absent things are presented to the mind in such a way that we seem actually to see them with our eyes and have them physically present to us.

As the quote from Quintilian illustrates, these ‘images’ or ‘appearances’ bring about feel­ings and desires from which audiences are incapable of protecting themselves, even though these images appear moldable in the hands of the skilled orator. In other words, when the images brought forth (evidentia) by the orator’s words take hold of the listeners, these phantasiai inevitably produce in them a certain mood. And since, as Quintilian notes, the most effective use of images must find its roots in an emotion experienced by the orator as well, further limiting our ability to consciously manipulate them, this power cannot appear as anything but an inescapable threat for those who believe that humans should be guided by reason alone.

In Quintilian’s reflection on phantasia it is possible to detect a certain ambiguity regarding the status of the concept. This issue is not unique to a rhetorical consideration of image-making, rather one finds the same indistinctness regarding to what register phantasia should be assigned already in Plato’s Sophist, in which this concept plays a crucial part in the Stranger’s distinction between the philosopher and the sophist. One way to understand the problem to which phantasia corresponds is to highlight its epistemological nature, that the “visions” that move the listener’s emotions also undermine our rational understanding of the “absent thing” treated in the speech. Or, as Plato puts it, the phantasiai that the sophist employs are only “a mixture of sensation and opinion”, indicating a text-book Platonic epistemology in which false opinions are opposed to true knowledge which cannot be reached through the senses but only by those who are in possession of a soul capable of “gazing upon truth” in the heavens. A similar depiction of an age-old epi­stemic struggle between philosophy and rhetoric can be found in Mats Rosengren’s Doxologi wherein he for instance claims that

the knowledge that rhetoricians work with and that the advice and warnings of rhetorical handbooks deal with is hardly impersonal, unchangeable, and, from an epistemic point of view, true knowledge. […] Th[e] rhetorical doxa is not imagined as showing reality as it is in itself, but the way it seems to be for us humans – which sometimes means that the reality related to and presented by doxic knowledge is constantly changing, it is not always uniform or free of contradiction, and in many ways, it is a product of ourselves.

However, Rosengren goes on to point out that doxology is not just an epistemological per­spective, it is also a politico-ethical position. The latter is tightly bound to an idea of autonomous democracy, shown for instance in how Rosengren, reusing many of the phrases from his description of doxology, speaks about it as the “possibility for creating truly democratic, autonomous, and self-governing collectives today, which act together and make use of the conditions for communication offered by global connection”. Thus, when knowledge is understood not simply as received or given (either from the external world around us or from some higher metaphysical plane) but rather as constructed collectively, it seems as if a doxological perspective on knowledge is intrinsically linked to a democratic politics wherein all members of a polity deliberate and take collective decisions, both with regards to what should be accepted as true and upon what knowledge the community should act collectively.

But the concept of imagination is not exclusively tied to questions concerning knowledge, it also evokes another ancient battlefield on which philosophers and sophists have fought their wars: ontology. Hence, by claiming that the things that exist around us are part of a “human world”, as things created by “our human measurement, logos”, Rosen­gren adds to his arguments against rigid epistemologies an ontological dimension. Yet, this change of scenery might not only complicate the simple equation of a doxic understanding of knowledge with democratic politics, but it also potentially alters the very perception of the political as such. Toward the end of his Doxologi, Rosengren himself takes notice of the consequences emanating from this subtle shift in perspective. With a reference to Cor­nelius Castoriadis use of the conceptual duo of imagination and imaginary, the English (and French) equivalent of the Ancient Greek phantasia, Rosengren highlights the pressing issue for doxology to think through the consequences that arises from the idea that we, as humans, create the world around us. In other words, doxology is in need of confronting a set of ontological questions. By explicitly turning to phantasia in this context, one central issue becomes how to explain the genesis of the human world, i.e., how are we to understand the relationship between the external world out there and a human world always already formed by logos since, as Quintilian puts it, our imagination produces images of absent things? By approaching questions such as this one, doxology would also swerve closer to the latest so-called ontological turn in political philosophy, which, by overcoming a certain reticence concerning ontological questions that finds its origins in the middle of the last century, has aspired to take back a field in which the natural sciences have reigned supreme. And although an understanding of the political (and ethics) does not automatically proceed from a specific set of ontological tenets, these principles will still influence (regardless of if they are explicitly professed or just implicitly assumed) the ways in which we think our human life-world. Hence, this article will follow down this path of ontolo­gical questions, trying to understand the consequences brought about by this shift in focus (from epistemology to ontology), and how it might impact a rhetorical doxology’s notion of the political and its potential relation to democratic politics. But before arriving at this more general question, we need to further specify the problem by teasing out some of the implications that might arise out this move as it is connected to the question of imagi­nation.

As mentioned, a doxologic understanding of knowledge poses little threat against a call for democratic politics. But since an epistemology, at least in the doxological sense, can limit itself to treating the register that Lacan referred to as the symbolic, i.e., the system in which different beliefs or truths relate to each other, creating a network which constitutes a specific doxa, it can also treat the political as just designating the realm in which this system is created, negotiated, and upheld. However, since Rosengren has already identified the need to develop an ontology, doxology must now confront the task of investigating the relation between the symbolic and the external world beyond it, a move which, as Rosengren has pointed out, might be achieved by working through the thought of Castoriadis and, in particular, his concepts of ‘creation’ and ‘imagination’. Hence, we are in this nexus of concepts provided with an outline of how to approach the inevitable ontological question from a doxological perspective. Most importantly, this seems to put emphasis on imagination as the stage in-between the natural world and a symbolic world of logos, as well as the site of autonomous creation of a human world endowed with logos. But Castoriadis’ ontology is not unproblematic, something Rosengren himself briefly has touched upon by emphasizing both a lacuna and a problem in Castoriadis’ thought: firstly, that he never explicitly motivates why an autonomously organized society is preferrable to one defined by heteronomy, and secondly, how a certain ontological limit seemingly haunts two of Castoriadis’ most central metaphors, ‘being downstream’ and the ‘germ’, and how these might skew our perception of the possibility for autonomy today. Rosengren is not alone in his critique, as the issues surrounding Castoriadis’ notions of creation and autonomy has been formulated by everyone from Jürgen Habermas, via Jean-François Lyotard famous “parenthesis of hate”, to Yannis Stavrakakis. But while this critique has often honed in on Castoriadis’ notion of “the psychic monad” as a remainder of both an unreformed Cartesian Ego and a Romantic notion of human creation, the criti­cal literature has given no real attention to the role that Castoriadis gives to imagination and the imaginary within his ontology. From out of the rhetorical tradition, the notion of imagination also actualizes what we might call the problem of autonomy from another perspective: while Castoriadis points to the creative and autonomous nature of imagination, the rhetoricians, as we could see in the earlier quote from Quintilian, have often highlighted the power that images have over us, evoking strong emotions that we cannot protect ourselves from. Providing a proper treatment of the opposition between freedom and coercion, raising issues surrounding how to understand the possibility of autonomous creation in the face of heteronomous forces that form us as individuals, is yet another deficiency that Rosengren has identified in Castoriadis’ thought. Thus, in an effort to heed to the importance that Rosengren ascribes to the concepts of imagination, and to the role it has played in ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical theory, this article will investigate the possibilities of developing a doxological ontology on the basis of phantasia and its consequences for a doxological understanding of the political.

Imagination and Imaginary in Castoriadis

No contemporary ontology can be constructed as a mere repetition of its classical philosophical counterpart. In other words, an ontology of today cannot take as its basis the identity of being and thinking or proclaim its intention to capture the nature of substance and the absolute. Rather, as we see also in the work of Castoriadis, a contemporary ontology must be evental in some form, highlighting the human capability of creation, and in particular the creative moment, as central to any conception of the world. But although being and thinking can no longer be treated as one and the same (since, as already Gorgias once noted, just thinking a flying man or chariots driving on the water will not bring them into existence), an ontology must still confront the relation between them. In other words, it seems as if an ontology of human creation must take into account a world which, since it cannot be simply expressed, somehow resists this evental act, leaving behind its own spectral traces in the world we create for ourselves. This problematic will become central as we approach Castoriadis work on the concepts of the imaginary and imagination and how they relate to his development of an ontology, hoping to highlight, in difference to what he calls traditional philosophy, how we should understand the claim that our image- (and therefore sense-)making is primarily productive rather than reproductive. Further­more, this fleshing out of an understanding of imagination and the imaginary as productive forces in human creation constitutes the foundation for Castoriadis’ conception of autonomy and autonomous (democratic) politics. But given that autonomy, as Castoriadis himself writes in The Imaginary Institution of Society, is defined by “consciousness’s rule over the unconscious”, how is its actualization possible? If an autonomous politics only can be achieved when humans are aware of the fact that society and history are created by and for ourselves, while human creation of a world at the same time seems inevitably haunted by some spectral remainder of a “beyond”, demonstrating how thinking and being are not one and the same, can true autonomous politics really be achieved? Or must the chain that binds an ontology of the imaginary to autonomous democratic politics be unceremoniously severed? This is the question that a doxology venturing into ontological territory must ask itself.

Although the conceptual couple imaginary/imagination occupies a central place in the commentary literature on Castoriadis’ thought (and rightly so), very few highlight the importance of Aristotle and the notion of phantasia for Castoriadis’ development of these concepts. Rather, most commentators seem to focus on how the notions of imaginary/-imagination relates to modern thinkers, in particular Kant, Marx, and Merleau-Ponty. Although there is, undoubtedly, a significant divide separating the modern, post-Kantian, notion of imagination (its creative or spontaneous role) from its ancient counterpart (mainly focused on imitation), Castoriadis’ own lengthy comments on Aristotle harbors within it the fundamentals of how he conceptualizes the ontological function of the imagi­nation/the imaginary. But before we move into Castoriadis’ reading of Aristotle, it is perhaps important to offer at least a tentative distinction between these two terms.

It is clear that Castoriadis’ rendering of these notions carries with it a considerable psychoanalytic, and more precisely Lacanian, influence. For Lacan, the imaginary famously constitutes one of the three essential registers (together with the symbolic and the real) of psychoanalysis. Developed already in Lacan’s early work during the 30s and 40s, the imaginary, at its most fundamental, concerns the ego’s image of itself. But, as Lacan continuously points out in his essay on the mirror stage, the imaginary is not confined to the inner life of the subject as it struggles to differentiate itself as a thinking being. In order for the little child to develop an image of itself, it must also achieve an act of external separation from the Mother (who often induces this act) as well as from its immediate environment. Thus, the fact that the separation is at once external and internal (perhaps Lacan’s later neologism extimate would be relevant here) means that it is performed in relation to both the symbolic (through the distinction between ‘you’ and ‘me’) as well as in relation to the real (the ambiguous line between the inner ‘I’, tied to a material body, and the rest of the world). In the Imaginary Institution of Society, often viewed as the starting point of Castoriadis’ development of his own ontology, the distinction between the imaginary and the closely related concept of imagination, remains at best, vague. When discussing the “fundamental phantasy” he for instance claims that it “stems from what we have termed the radical imaginary (or the radical imagination)”, seemingly treating the two terms as interchangeable. The reference to fantasy, which for Lacan functions as a frozen image intended to protect the subject, also implies that we are here dealing with the subjective level in a manner similar to that of Lacan. Despite the ambiguity present throughout IIS, it is still possible to perceive, between the lines, a distinction which will become much more refined in Castoriadis’ later work. In a late text on the two concepts he defines imagination as “the radical imagination of the singular human being, that is the psyche or soul” and the imaginary as “the radical instituting imaginary”. In other words, radical imagination is the individual’s ability to create images, concepts, ideas etc., while the imaginary is the joining together of individual imaginations in order to create the institutions of a society (and thus history). The aim with this distinction is, he claims, to show that although philosophy, throughout its history, has attempted to hide the radicality of the imaginary (i.e., the collective creation of society) in favor of heterogenous sources of the law such as Truth, God, or the Good, it has not been able to avoid acknowledging the radicality of imagination, the psychological dimension of human creation, thereby also implicitly admitting the force of the imaginary. However, through this move, Castoriadis reintroduces the distinction between the subject’s inner self and the outer world that Lacan, in his work on the imaginary, tried to overcome.

 Returning to Aristotle, many, including Castoriadis himself, have noted the ambiguity at play in his understanding of phantasia. For instance, he provides us with different answers regarding whether other animals possess phantasia or if it is something uniquely human, alternating between an understanding of phantasia as a more primitive or fundamental function of perception (to which humans add logos and technê) and one in which it serves a function which is exclusive to human consciousness. It is, therefore, common to point out two different conceptions at play in Aristotle’s thought, something which also complicates the simple distinction between animal sense perception (which must include some form of image making since at least certain animals do possess a memory) and the images of human thought which make logos possible. For Castoriadis, this distinction in Aristotle should be read through the difference between what he calls Aristotle’s notion of a ‘secondary imagination’, “imitative, reproductive or combinatory imagination” and a primary or radical imagination, a creative form “without which there can be no thought and which possible precedes any thought.” Beginning with what he terms the secondary or banal imagination, Aristotle is here dealing with the ability shared by humans and animals to compose images out of raw sense perception, something which is, as mentioned, necessary for the ability to memorize and recognize recurring forms (such as the physical form of a pray or a threat). Without this basic form of imagination, sense perception would only appear to us as a cacophony of colors, sounds, and other sensations out of which we would be incapable of picking anything recurring or stable. Just as is the case in Plato’s writings, Aristotle’s main concern regarding imagination is its potentiality to err, such as when the herbivore flees, spooked by the rustling of the wind, or when the predator mistakes its reflection for an adversary and tries to engage it in combat. As Aristotle also notes, these mistakes are not limited to animals. Humans draw the same erroneous conclusion when we for instance believe that the sun is one foot long simply because it looks that way when we hold our foot up toward the sky. Here, the question of right or wrong does not, at first glance, pose any major difficulties since it is tied to our perception of actual things: a thorough investigation of the sun would probably tell us that although it at first appeared to be no longer than a foot, it is indeed far bigger. Hence, for Aristotle, as Castoriadis also points out, the “secondary” imagination is intimately tied up with, and even dependent on, sensation.

However, Aristotle, as Castoriadis goes on to show, in his ambiguous application of the term phantasia also ties it to opinions (δοξάζειν) and thus to thought rather than sensation. So, although in some sense all imagination rests on the formal retention (eidos) of that which exists in the world (but without the materiality of the actual thing), illustrated by how the secondary imagination retains for instance the form of a predatory bird against the blue sky (allowing for the prey to recognize it), the radical or primary imagination also adds “sensible abstraction, abstraction within the sensible furnishing the intelligible.” Thus, it is not only that we as humans can use imagination to remember a form representing our sensual experience of a sensuous object such as a predatory bird in the sky. Our imagination is also capable of abstracting and combining other elements not immediately derived from our sensual experience. Hence, when we imagine the form of for instance the bird’s tail as a shape (e.g., triangular or rounded), allowing us to speculate more precisely regarding the kind of predatory bird we are seeing, the image upon which the conclusion is based is no longer founded on sense perception alone. Rather, we are imagining shapes (triangularity or roundedness) as such, adding to our perception something which is not immediately there. It is this faculty that Castoriadis names the radical imagination and which he means forms the basis for thought proper: every time we think, we do this on the basis of some abstract image always preceding the images we might create directly from sense perception. However, Castoriadis immediately stresses that this does not entail that we are here dealing with some form of Kantian transcendental imagination capable of organizing our entire capacity to represent something which no longer is present before our senses. Rather it is tied, to use another Kantian term, to the spontaneous capacity of the psyche, i.e., its capability to create ex nihilo. Thought and language are therefore secon­dary, wholly dependent upon a capacity of the psyche to abstract and combine elements on a pre-linguistic level. Although the world, as Castoriadis sometimes puts it, is organizable by nature, it is our radical imagination that performs the act of organization, creating it out of nothing

Through the separation of the “first” and “second” imagination Castoriadis is also able enforce a claim that is not entirely consistent with Aristotle’s theory. For the former, the radical or primary imagination acts in a realm beyond true and false. This is what Aristotle described as phantasia as a basis for deliberation or bouleitkê, meaning when imagination “calculates and plans for the future in view of the present; and when it makes a statement, as in sensation it asserts that an object is pleasant or unpleasant, in this case it avoids or pursues; and so generally in action.” In other words, the political side of phantasia. But Aristotle’s depiction invites at least two interpretations. We either understand the political as predicated on imagination but taking place on another level. In this interpretation, when we believe that the sun is one foot wide, we have not only created an image in consciousness of the sun as an object with the width of one foot, we have also attached to it a belief, i.e., that what we experience corresponds to reality, and it is this belief that undergirds the political as a sphere. Or, and this is Castoriadis’ perspective, this ability to create abstract images, such as the sun’s measurability, constitutes the human ability of radical imagination or creation ex nihilo. The fact that the world that we experience, mediated as it is by thought and language (i.e., by society), is not caused by something which is beyond us (thought and language is not capable of expressing the objects that we experience around us) but rather “the emergence of a new ontological form – eidos – and of a new mode and level of being.” Therefore, Castoriadis claims, the creations stemming from the radical imagination are beyond the question of true and false, since they are themselves created out of nothing, created by the unity of psyche and body. It is the abstraction and composition of, for instance, the sun as an object which has a shape and can be measured, that offers the necessary foundation for thought and language. The sun’s measurability is not something which can be true or false, rather it constitutes the prerequisite for our judgement of the statement that it has a diameter of one food.

Imagination and the Monad

Castoriadis always tried to distance his theory of the radical imagination from what he termed a phenomenological reading which, in his understanding, inevitably must assume the position that the individual human psyche is trapped in its own life world without any possibility of connecting to the other. Rather it is, as mentioned, the radical imaginary that is intended to capture our capability of not only individually, but also collectively and anonymously create a shared world. If we did not possess this ability, society as an instituted whole would not exist. Furthermore, the radical imaginary is therefore the plane on which autonomous politics can take place, a way of creating the institutions of society defined by “consciousness rule over the unconscious” and “self-legislation or self-regulation”. Fur­ther­ing an autonomous politics entails making the participants aware of the fact that they create their own society as well as allowing for the conscious creation of society to take place. Hence, even though autonomous politics is played out on the imaginary level, it is dependent on individuals being aware of their capacity to freely create. Therefore, creation is not, in Castoriadis’ understanding, a one-way process, originating in the individuals and bringing about the collective as an effect. Rather, he describes a form of dialectic between the influence of the instituted imaginary on the formation of the individual psyche and the individual imagination’s contribution to the formation of an instituted imaginary. This actualizes the problem of autonomy and heteronomy that we pointed out earlier with respect to the rhetorical tradition, namely, how to safe-guard individual autonomy in the face of the heteronomous force of institutions. This issue, as Rosengren has noted, is of the utmost importance in a political situation such as ours, where the faceless machinery of capitalism appears to be impermeable to change. Today we, as its subjects, seem to be coerced into acting in accordance with the logic of financial markets, turning autonomous politics into a gargantuan, if not impossible, task, despite our awareness that the world, globalism, the market, etc., in the last instance are human creations. Rosengren captures this problem in the following way:

One clearly sees it here [in Castoriadis’ theory]; it is society that acts on the individuals. There is a close correspondence between the individuals and society, that is true, and we have discussed it in the beginning of this text – but it is also clear that it is first “the institutions of society in general” that form and create the individuals that later “participate in their imaginary social significations”, in their “norms”, “values”, “myths”, “representations”, “projects”, “traditions”, etc. But, if this is the case […] for us, who are all formed by societies in which the capitalist imaginary reigns, what remains to be done?

Rosengren here appears to be claiming that although it seems as if heteronomous forces of our present society have grown too strong and that an awareness of society’s status as a human creation no longer is enough for us to return the instituting powers in the hands of the collective, it might also be the case that we never possessed any autonomy to begin with (at least not in Castoriadis’ sense). What becomes immediately visible here is a slight shift in Rosengren’s use of Castoriadis’ concepts, which, on a more theoretical level, should force a doxological theory of the imaginary and imagination to ask itself how it is to explain the very possibility of autonomy in the first place.

As has been noted, the manner in which Castoriadis attempted to save autonomy from dissolving under the pressure of society as a faceless machine was his idea of the psychic monad. This psychic monad could be read as part of his later project of distancing ­himself from what he saw as the hermetic theory of the psyche found in Lacanian psychoanalysis. The relation between autonomy and heteronomy also seems to confront us with what appears to be an antinomy: either autonomy is possible, meaning that the individual subject depends, at least to some extent, on retaining a kernel of its psyche which is proper­ly its own and which thus provides the ground for radical imagination as true subjective creation; or, against this, we are forced to accept a vision of society in which every subject, at least in our current situation, is constituted through and through as a consumer, entailing that every creation ultimately can trace its origins back to some source in society. Castoriadis explicitly supports the former position as he writes:

We should posit ‘behind’ or ‘below’ the Freudian unconscious (or the Id) a non-conscious which is the living body qua human animated body in continuity with the psyche. There is no frontier between this living, animated body and the originary psychical monad. The monad is neither repressed, nor repressible: it is unsayable. 

As he is developing this thought as a way of differentiating his own position on imagination from that of (at the time) mainstream psychoanalytic theory, Castoriadis claims that this “originary psychical monad” is the site of radical imagination, the primary form of imagination existing beyond the true and false, within which the very possibilities of an intelligible world are autonomously created. It is, in other words, within this monad, in its direct and unmediated relation to the body’s sense perceptions, that the psyche and body harmoniously and autonomously create images which will come to organize the world experienced by the subject, a kind of “sensory, or more generally bodily, imagination.” And although this monad is battered by the force of the socializing process, the cracks it sustains from this impact are only “partial”, never complete. Hence, his perspective does not exclude the possibility that society not only tries to, but also succeeds in, influencing the development and constitution of individual subjects (Castoriadis himself mentions the existence of Ego, Super-Ego, and Ideal-Ego as proofs of this process), but in the struggle against the psychic monad of each individual, society will always come up short, only partially breaking its original seal. This must mean that in Castoriadis’ on­tology, no thoroughly social subject exists since society’s forces will always lose the struggle against this monad and its radical imagination. Taking such an outlook on subjective autonomy, as based on an irrepressible kernel as the site of true autonomy, Rosengren’s concern appears to be, at least to some extent, unfounded: even though it might be harder to locate today, the monad is always there as a locus of uninterrupted autonomous imaginary cre­ation.  

Although Rosengren ends his article on Castoriadis and autonomous politics with an example of a movement which “goes against the dominant institutions and doxai”, allowing for a reading that follows Castoriadis to the letter, his expressed concerns about our present situation still suggests that we perhaps should avoid assuming that doxology operates on the basis of an idea of the unsocializable monad of the psyche. Likewise, Rosengren’s explicit uncertainty whether his example truly captures any real hope for autonomy, also points to a potential deviation from Castoriadis’ theory. In other words, Rosengren’s expressed doubts regarding the very possibility of an autonomous politics today suggests that we should look elsewhere for an understanding of the relation between the subject and society. So, while Castoriadis imagines a psychic monad acting as a guarantee for autonomous politics, we now need to ask not only where the limits of Castoriadis’ perspective lie, but also what kind of understanding of radical imagination and its relationship to the world around it could better explain the situation Rosengren is depicting.

One way of reading the potential difference here between Rosengren and Castoriadis is that they offer us two incommensurable images of society. Although Castoriadis is highly critical of what he calls the “state of heteronomy”, it remains primarily a state of consciousness: heteronomy exists when the citizens are not aware that they are the de facto creators of society, and the way to combat heteronomy is to raise awareness about the irreducible autonomy of imagination that all subjects possess. Rosengren, on the other hand, seems to assume that the forces of society can achieve at least some level of independence from human subjectivity, meaning that it no longer lies within our own hands to change it (regardless of how aware we are that ultimately, society is not given but created). At the heart of this difference lies, in other words, diverging understandings of ontology.

Fundamental to Castoriadis’ project of developing an ontology, initiated in the IIS, is his rejection of both materialism and idealism. In a section discussing the drawbacks of Hegel’s idealism or “spiritualism” and Marx’s materialism, Castoriadis claims that they are ultimately one and the same since both perspectives assume that matter, although “undefinable”, remain “entirely subject to laws that are themselves consubstantial and co-extensive with our reason”, meaning that we have the capacity, through reason, to “penetrate being” in order to know it. Castoriadis then continues:

A ‘non-spiritualist’ dialectic must also be a ‘non-materialist’ dialectic, in the sense that it refuses to posit an absolute Being, whether as spirit, as matter or as the totality, already given in principle, of all possible determinations. It must eliminate closure and completion, pushing aside the completed system of the world. It must set aside the rationalist illusion, seriously accept the idea that there is both the infinite and the indefinite, and admit, without for all that giving up its labour, that all rational determination leaves outside of it an undetermined and nonrational remainder, that the remainder is just as essential as what has been analysed, that necessity and contingency are constantly bound up with one another, that ‘nature’ outside of us and within us is always something other and something more than what consciousness constructs, and that all of this is valid not only for the ‘object’ but also for the subject, and not only for the ‘empirical’ subject but also for the ‘transcendental’ subject since all transcendental legislation of consciousness presupposes the brute fact that a consciousness exists in a world (order and disorder, apprehendable and inexhaustible), and this is a fact which consciousness cannot produce itself, either really or symbolically.

Castoriadis here seems to be promoting an ontology of nonidentity, remainder, and lack. Something always resists our symbolization, not only in the world but even in the subject itself (what we perhaps should call the unconscious). This nonidentity mainly shows itself, it seems, through the fact that human creation, based in our radical imagination, is never complete. As Yannis Stavrakakis notes in his discussion regarding similarities between Castoriadis and Lacan, it is here that the former come closest to the latter’s conception of the real as something which, through its shocks “can dislocate our construction of reality, leading at the same time to new symoblisations […] [which] Lacan would call the unrepresentable real, and which Castoriadis calls the ‘ultimately indescribable x’.” However, as Stavrakakis goes on to point out, the shocks in Castoriadis’ theory do not leave any lasting imprint on the symbolic order which it gives rise to. The lack which characterizes the relationship between the natural and the symbolic world, where the latter “leans on” the former, is only external, never internal. There is, in other words, a fundamental non-relation between the symbolic and the external world. We lack the words to completely describe the world, and sometimes we come upon this limit, forcing us to create things anew. Hence, although always open towards the shock of the world, Castoriadis theory of imagination cannot allow for this lack to be mirrored in the symbolic, since it would make the creation of truly autonomous societies impossible. Instead, he claims that…:

institutions and social imaginary significations have to be complete. This is clearly and absolutely so in heteronomous societies, where closure of meaning prevails.

 But the totality of society must hold also for one based in autonomy, since a lack inscribed into the symbolic order itself would entail that it was not completely of our own making, that something beyond the subjects radical imagination had left its mark in the very core of the world we create, turning it incomplete and alienating. For Stavrakakis, avoiding the incompleteness of the symbolic world is precisely what makes the political, in the sense of the sphere in which the struggle between incommensurable perspectives takes place, impossible from the perspective of Castoriadis’ thought, since the shock of change can only come from beyond, from the natural world, never from an antagonism within the symbolic space, thus never leaving behind an imprint on the world that the shock gives rise to. But if politics were to be possible as the practice of the political, i.e., if we want to think the political as a field marked which through its own incompleteness forces the subject into action, we would also have to accept that lack, an unescapable form of alienation that plagues the symbolic from within, is constitutive of the symbolic, something which can only be ­achieved if we accept the loss of the psychic monad as the site of radical imagi­nation.

The Limits of the Political

As Joel Whitebook has noted, although Castoriadis was in no sense an existentialist (something which the Marxists of Socialisme ou barbarie, after their break from Castoriadis, often accused him of being) it was in the imagined transparency of consciousness to itself that supposedly characterizes the monad (whose principal mode of producing new forms is through radical imagination), that, as Whitebook puts it, a remnant of a Cartesian existentialism shows itself within his thought. These similarities can be shown most clearly when comparing Castoriadis’ notions of creation and imagination to that of another thinker dear to Rosengren’s heart: Jean-Paul Sartre. In Sartre’s early work The Imaginary: A phenomenological psychology of the imagination the similarities between him and Castoriadis become apparent. Although Castoriadis does not share Sartre’s view of how the subject’s imaginary creation of a world is primarily a negation of the real (negation is for the former just one of several operative logics), Sartre’s claim that “to posit reality as a synthetic whole is enough to posit oneself as free from it and this surpassing is freedom itself since it could not be effected were consciousness not free” is clearly mir­rored in Castoriadis’ idea that imagination is the source of the individual’s autonomously created world. The freedom of consciousness needed for true autonomous creation is, however, not experienced as such according to Sartre. Instead, in what is perhaps best described as a precursor to his concept of ‘bad faith’, developed in Being and Nothingness, Sartre constantly, in his discussion of imagination, returns to the fatalism of the world that the subject experiences. Once again, Sartre and Castoriadis share the idea that the subject, as it lives its daily life, is unaware of the fact that the world, which naturally is experienced as given, is actually the creation of the subject’s own power of imagination, and the most important task is to become conscious of this creative ability and to cast off the veil of ignorance. In the final chapter of The Imaginary, Sartre also provides us with the following definition of imagination:

We may therefore conclude that imagination is not an empirical power added to consciousness, but is the whole of consciousness as it realizes its freedom; every concrete and real situation of consciousness in the world is pregnant with the imaginary in so far as it is always presented as a surpassing of the real. It does not follow that all perception of the real must be reversed in imagi­nation, but as consciousness is always ‘in situation’ because it is always free, there is always and at every moment the concrete possibility for it to produce the irreal.

Given the similarities between Sartre’s and Castoriadis’ respective conception of the imag­ination and its relation to freedom/autonomy, the latter also opens his theory up for the same criticism that Lacan (once again in a reflection concerning the imaginary) directed at the “illusion of autonomy” characteristic of what he called “the contemporary philoso­phy of being and nothingness”. Against the attempt to locate freedom and spontaneity “within the walls of a prison”, an inclination which, according to Lacan, runs against the analytic experience, he posited the “misrecognition” constitutive of the ego’s imaginary defensive structures. In other words, although they all agree that the formation of existing society seems to indicate that an enormous external pressure – language, culture, tradition, that which we might call doxa – is exercised on the formation of the subject, Sartre and Castoriadis both fall for the temptation to try to locate, below the layers of socialization, the true remaining and unsocializable core of the subject capable of genuinely free cre­ation. With his reference to the defensive structures of the ego, Lacan instead claims that not only is this true core simply a part of the subject’s fantasy (necessary for the subject’s ability to sustain itself), the subject itself is a proof not of its own inner unity but of the incompleteness of the social order. Lacan does not deny the subject’s ability to create, he rather poses the alienating effects of society as the prerequisite of the creative act. In the seminar “On creation ex nihilo”, part of the seventh book of seminars The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, he explicitly warns us against putting too much emphasis on the individual subject in creation since, “[a]s far as the signifier is concerned, the difficulty is to avoid leap­ing on the fact that man is the artisan of his support system.” And, although the critique of Sartre appears already in the early text on the mirror stage, we can still identify some of Lacan’s most fundamental materialist formulas working behind the scene. Against Castoriadis’ idea that the images created by imagination together constitute a whole world, we should place Lacan’s fantasy formation, related but not reducible to the imaginary, which has the function of a screen protecting the subject. In this sense, fantasy “is the means by which the subject maintains himself at the level of his vanishing desire”, mean­ing that there is a certain inescapable lack at the center of the image and the subject must, through the fantasy, avoid getting caught in it. In other words, the fantasy must ensure that the subject’s desire can function normally by not letting the desired object (which is lack­ing) come too close (causing extreme anxiety) nor letting it get too far away (effectively killing desire). This dialectic must take place precisely because there is no core of the subject to rely on, explaining both the fundamental alienation at play in the symbolic (making true autonomy impossible) as well as the incessant circling around this lack as the mode of sustaining the subject. The subject appears precisely in the inconsistencies of the symbolic and of the real, a creation meant to cover over these antagonisms, but which ultimately fails.

So, as Stavrakakis notes, the main difference between Castoriadis and Lacan is found in their respective understanding of the political (or perhaps the lack thereof in the former’s case), something which finally brings us back to the initial question regarding how a doxo­logical ontology should approach the concept. For Castoriadis, the ontological status of the political is located in the creative act of the imagination, but it also means that any act that attempts to change the present order, only does so out of a moral concern, or out of one of nature’s so-called shocks, since the symbolic order that makes up a specific social imaginary is not the birthplace of the political sphere as such. There can be no fundamental inconsistency in the present order which would present the subject with an inescapable contradiction forcing it to attempt to overcome it through acting politically. All this shock seems to be doing is confronting the subject with what appears as its heteronomic origin, hopefully reminding the subject of how it possesses an autonomous creative capability. For Lacan, on the other hand, the ontological base of the political can be located within the symbolic order, as the lack of the real is mirrored in a lack or inconsistency in the fantasmatic image set to protect the subject from these intrusions of the real. As such, Lacan’s notion of ‘traversing the fantasy’ points to the moment when the political shows itself, when the inconsistency in the fantasy is shown up, allowing for the subject to pass through it in a process that potentially destroys these antagonism and leaves the subject on the other side. It is, in other words, in the anxiety provoked by the inconsistency of any fantasmatic order (unthinkable from Castoriadis’ horizon), that the political appears to the subject. Thus, Rosengren’s claim that Castoriadis is not a revolutionary thinker is a critique which does not go far enough with regards to thinking the limits of his political ontology. Rather, if we understand the political as a sphere of collective autonomous creation, based in the unsocializable (and thus genuine) core of the individual, it seems like we, at best, have to settle for some Habermasian vision of deliberative politics where we try to overcome the radically (and insurmountable) divide that ultimately separates the individual monads from each other. However, without a proper explanation of how opposition appears within the symbolic field (since the instituted societies, as Castoriadis’ writes “have to be complete”), Stavrakakis might even have been closer to the truth when he, in making use of a formula from Paul Ricœur, highlights something fundamentally “anti-political” in the notion of autonomy. Thus, taking a cue from the young Marx’s Paris manuscripts, it is only in alienation that a political awareness of workers can be born.

Although Rosengren is correct with regards to doxology’s need to think both ontology (and the usefulness of doing so through conceptual pairs like imagination/imaginary) and materiality, as well as with regards to what appears as the impossibility of autonomous politics in our present situation, the ability of Castoriadis’ thought to lift us out of this remains, to say the least, problematic. Furthermore, the connection, on an ontological level, between radical imagination as the creative ability of the psychic monad and demo­cracy appears tenuous at best. Being conscious about the fact that the world we experience around us is, by necessity, a human creation does not automatically imply that a need to change it will haunt the subjects inhabiting this world (since acknowledging this fact is what it means to be autonomous), nor does it suggest that democracy is the necessary way to achieve this change. And even though Lacan does not offer us an ontological grounding of democracy either, at least he seems capable of providing the link between imagination and the political as the sphere in which we are confronted with the impotence of both the real and the symbolic world.


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    This work was supported by The Swedish Research Council’s “International Postdoc”-programme [ref. nr.: 2021-00299_VR].

Author profile

Alexander Stagnell är filosofie doktor och postdoktoral forskare i retorik vid Södertörns Högskola och Université libre de Bruxelles. [2023]

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