Sunday, January 20, 2013

An Introduction to My Reader:

I sincerely hope that this blog will serve me a certain purpose, and it is precisely because I do not want to let that purpose overtake the entire project that I am stating it up front.  Full disclosure: I am involved in the labor of love known as dissertation writing and it is a full-time production process that creates various byproducts: not necessarily unwanted but perhaps unintended efflux that will not easily fit into the narrow stylistic limits of the academic paper.  Therefore, I intend to use this space to clear my desk from time to time, to move those passages and half-wrought ideas into the penumbra of this blog where, with any luck, they might begin to sprout into something bigger.  This labyrinth is a greenhouse, a workshop, a pile of dung.

I have chosen the title in a blatant homage to Cornelius Castoriadis.  While this name is undoubtedly unfamiliar to most of you, my potential future readers, it is one that I would suggest you familiarize yourself with at your earliest opportunity.  In fact, let's not waste any time: Castoriadis (henceforth CC) was a brilliant philosopher, and if you are looking for a starting point then "Crossroads in the Labyrinth" is as good a place to start as any.  The metaphor of the labyrinth is one that emerges repeatedly in CC's work, undoubtedly in part inspired by his Greek heritage but also gesturing toward his larger thesis about the impact of Greek philosophy on our present way of life.  CC argues that what we understand as philosophy and politics were born, in a moment of creative energy, with the culture of the ancient Greeks.  His ideas about philosophy and its relationship to science, and what he called the "project of autonomy," remain some of the most important embryonic eidos that one might come across in any contemporary philosophy.  He has so much to say, and I have so much to say about what he has said, that we must begin with very small steps indeed.  While it may be a bit of megalomania that kindles my desire to walk in his footsteps, I hope that you, my gracious and forgiving readers of the future, will understand that it is the effort that counts here.

I will spare you the bibliographic details, nor will I list his entire body of work.  David Ames Curtis maintains Agora International where you can find a whole host of useful information and a complete bibliography of everything CC ever wrote--and all scholarly references to CC's work as well.  If you speak French, you can visit here for even more scattered bits of information.  There is also a project afoot to scan all the issues of S. ou B. into pdf format here.

But if you want to know why I find his work so interesting, and why I would go so far as to say that CC offers us an invaluable resource to deal with all contemporary political problems--everything from gun violence to environmental apocalypse, from election finance reform to philosophy of science--then you had better stay tuned to this blog.  But, alas, if you are looking for answers to these problems, some template solution handed down in code or divine revelation, then you had best look elsewhere.  In these desperate times, you will find no shortage of outlets for snake oil in this digital hamlet.  But this blog is dedicated to exploring the inside of our condition, the labyrinth that human beings have created and inhabited for as far back as we can remember.  There will be no maps, no pop quizzes, no examination of atomistic facts.  Unlike the phantasms of control and domination that animate so much of science and scholarly pursuit, our animus is draped in cloth of exploration and conversation rather than explanation and conversion. We seek to understand relationships of which we are a part (a very very important part) and we do so through careful thinking and constant scrutiny.  We are cartographer explorers, mapping out an infinitely complex maze as old as humanity itself.  Quite a task!  But we do not go so far as to postulate that we have created the whole kit and kaboodle!  That would be a true phantasy of control and domination if ever there was one.  There was a world before us.  And there will be a world after we fade back into the shadows.  But those mere facts tell us nothing at all!  Our starting point is the imagination: human beings are a part of the world, and we imagine ourselves in relation to that world all the time.  This is the basis of society, the precondition of our communication (me and you, reader) and what makes us human.

Society...what a tainted terminology.  There is no word in the English language that is more catastrophically deployed.

We must establish one thing provisionally, though the details of its topography can remain sloppy for now.  Society is that thing that is not quite an organism unto itself but is not merely the aggregate of individuals either.  Fine.  But what is the nature of our imagination, and where are the lines that we have drawn around ourselves?  Now that is the terrain of the labyrinth explorer!  We shall march forward with the unsettling knowledge that there is a reality out there but that we cannot avoid imposing upon it with our imaginary impostures.  In short, we seek to ask the right questions: for it is only in this way that we can hope to crack into the deepest reaches of the labyrinth, the places that time has almost forgotten and perhaps where we can find that elusive minotaur....

If you are headed in the other direction, trying to head out of the labyrinth, I bid you farewell and wish you the best of luck.  But you should know that I saw a message carved into the wall just around the last corner.  It read: "no one gets out alive."  Harsh?  Hardly.  But if you don't believe me, just go ahead and keep looking for a way out.  In the meantime, I intend to enjoy this spot in all its particularity....

If  you accuse me, rightly, for being "Western-centric" then I applaud your attention to multiculturalism.    Undoubtedly you practice a keen art of tolerance with any who appear to be different.  I will gladly do those things too.  But it is in the West that I was born, and it is in that labyrinth that I call my home: it is from that standpoint that I can be tolerant and understand the many wondrous imaginations that I come across in my wanderings.  But hold on one second... something has just occurred to me.  What a weird idea it is, anyways, to compare cultures to one another.  What a remarkable ability to be able to compare and contrast whole social edifices as a geographer would a mountain range!  CC once pointed out that there is no more "Western" a thing to do than to catalog all the available cultures, to assess their interactions and relationships, to pretend to stand outside of society in order make these objective judgments.  Are you starting to see now?  There is no way out of our imagination.  Our imagination is social-historical.  The labyrinth, like any good metaphor, is apt.

Next time, I will begin with an explanation of this short quote, which will take us to the heart of CC's thought:  "And I call politics the lucid activity whose object is the institution of an autonomous society and the decisions about collective endeavors." (1997: 132)

Until then....

Works cited (so far):

Castoriadis, Cornelius (trans. Martin H. Ryle and Kate Soper). 1984. Crossroads in the Labyrinth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Castoriadis, Cornelius (ed./trans. David Ames Curtis). 1997. World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.