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Cornelius Castoriadis, Autonomy, and Occupy Movement

Dimitris Eleas | 29.02.2012 17:06 | Occupy Everywhere | Culture | Education | Social Struggles | Sheffield | World

I wrote this (funny and "very serious") text about the French philosopher of autonomy Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997), who would have supported Occupy Wall Street Movement, and Occupy Movement around the world.

For David Ames Curtis, and the writers
from whom I borrowed a few Stones


The work of the French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (Coca
between us) is always a challenge for people, who would one day like to see
a more just and democratic society. This portrait here is on the concept of
autonomy, and how Coca arrived at this, and his ideas on autonomy. Is there
any usefulness in the idea of autonomy for today’s world (and the Occupy Movement)?

The idea of ‘the imaginary institution of society’ and ‘the idea of
autonomy’ are the two crucial pillars of wisdom in his work. The concept of
autonomy, as it was developed by Coca, allows man the capacity to see
himself as the autonomous human being and the creator of history. This is
interesting stuff, which kept this splendid fellow busy for years in his Paris
apartment, running from one room to another, looking outside from the
window, and having cold showers, I imagine.

‘The strength in what I am doing, is that only recently in the Anglo-
Saxon public, Coca’s work has become known and starts having an
audience.’ A few books have been translated from the original French by Mr.
David Ames Curtis, which I have read to understand Coca.
Thus, there are a few commentaries on his work. On the other hand,
the few resources, as it is understood, limit my research for his portrait. We
need to use a lot of imagination to understand Coca (we may need to take
some coca also, I mean drinking lots of coca-cola).

Coca, lived in three cities: Istanbul, Athens and Paris. He was born in
the first in 1922, he grew up in Athens, and at the age 23 he left for Paris. In
the last city, he educated himself and died in 1997. Three cities with a
symbolic meaning. As someone wrote in a Greek newspaper “Istanbul was
once Greek and the capital of the theocratic Byzantine Empire, Athens was
the place which gave the twin births to Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s
Lyceum, and Paris the Mecca of the arts and thought.”

In Athens he studied law and philosophy before his departure for Paris
in 1945. From an early age, Coca was interested in many fields of thought.
He was inspired by the work of Max Weber on bureaucracy. He was also a
brave young man. At the age of 13 he lost all his hair, and his mother went
insane and died some months later. The loss of his hair gave him strength at
a very tender age.

In Paris, in 1948, Coca, with a few mates, formed the group and
journal Socialisme ou Barbarie and in this journal under nicknames Coca
(one more nickname from here) published many theoretical texts. Coca also
started working as a professional (non-Marxist) economist, and his texts
(non-Marxian also) were another reason to be written under nicknames.
Coca liked nicknames. His analyses are now being published in various
paperback formats. His work is a permanent critical one, on which can be
given a critical interpretation. Coca contributed to many fields, from
psychoanalysis to modern science, and from philosophy to mathematics.

His magnum opus is the book The Imaginary Institution of Society
which has influenced European political and social thought. The book was
published in 1975 in Paris, and the newspaper Le Monde dedicated an article
on its first page (the same newspaper did the same thing when the man died
in 1997), by writing that the whole book is a new May 1968. Within his
thought, philosophy, politics, and psychoanalysis have a common
dimension, and this is to help ‘the individual human subject’ to become
more autonomous, and help us see the human subject more clearly, and more
bravely.

In Coca’s work two periods of thought can be seen. In the first period,
he wrote a critique on bureaucratic totalitarianism, the modern forms of
capitalism and on representative democracy. He made an important critique
on Soviet Russia without being a right thinker, but from a unique left
perspective. From Weber he understands the significance of bureaucracy as
an oppressive mechanism. The Weberian explanation of Soviet Russia was
unthinkable for Sartre and others then. In the second period, there is a pure
philosophical work and psychoanalysis. The second period is the one that
will make this splendid fellow well known in the future (here, we make a
reference by borrowing a small stone, 1).

Coca developed the idea of the ‘radical imaginary’, which at the level
of the human being is expressed as ‘radical fantasia’, and at the social-
historical field acts as instituted, ‘social imaginary’ (here, reference, and
borrow a small stone, 2).

From this point, no one can say there is an early and late Coca, above
all there a unity in itself. The focus in both periods is the human being and
their relation to social structures, religion, bureaucracies, parties, trade
unions, culture, law-making bodies and the institution of society(here,
reference, and borrow a small stone, 3). The human being that now finds himself
in the Occupy Wall Street Movement!

Coca’s intellectual road was lonely but at the same time unique for
intellectual environment in Paris. Many times he wrote against philosophers
like Sartre, post-modernists like Derrida, but he recognized as well the
influence in his work by people like Bachelar, Riceaur, Tom (here, reference
and borrow a small stone, 4).

Joel Whitebook, wrote that Coca lived in Paris for 50 years, the city
which gives birth to intellectual fashions; though Coca himself remained
outside these fashions. For Joel, Coca’s life can be compared only with
Hanna Arendt’s (Arendt’s life Joel? Hope not the time she was sleeping with
Heidegger), (here, reference, and borrow a small stone, 5).

Coca had a very strong personality and for his road outside the
intellectual fashions three hypothesis were made. The first is that Coca
begun to read philosophers very early and identified with them. The great
amount of knowledge he absorbed helped him throughout his life to keep his
independence. The second is the sensation of all powerfulness (which can be
found in the centre of his psychoanalytic theories). This helped him to stand
up for himself when his ideas differed from other thinkers (even within the
Socialisme ou Barbarie group). The third was the great will for an
autonomous life (here, reference, and borrow a small stone, 6).

He was a very active man, doing a lot of things in a single day. I saw
him swimming in the Greek sea; he could easily swim from island to island.

Coca developed a very important social theory by avoiding the
construction of another great social theory which would be able to explain
everything. Above all social theory is not needed: ‘This was the most
significant illusion of Marx’ Castoriadis said to the Italian journalist of Unita
(here, reference, and borrow a small stone, 7).

For Castoriadis, human beings should avoid any future orthodoxy,
because orthodoxy leads to the Gulag, the Nazis, the Iranian Revolution of
1979, and heavy Holy Books. In every single sentence Coca wrote during
his life, the concept of creation always plays a role. It plays the A to Z role in
a 26 letters English alphabet. It plays the same role in a 24 letters Greek
alphabet.

Coca had a love for dialogue and every new thought that entered his
mind. He loved ideas and he said to me in our meeting “when a new idea
comes in my mind I feel a big surprise.” He was a kind of Homo (Coca)
Universalis, critical spirit and intellectual. He believed that we must say the
truth with boldness. He was thinking ‘the Man, not Humanity’, because the
latter cannot mean the uniqueness that every human being deserves.

For the philosopher of autonomy, we must always say the ‘truth with
boldness’, and we must place our trust upon ‘the Man, not Humanity.’ This
Coca text (with stones from Coca, and with stones borrowed by others)
is nothing more than a small lamp-post built for the work of this splendid fellow.

(Yes, there it is then, a great usefulness for the idea of autonomy in
today’s world and in all the future worlds! The new worlds that will come out
from the Occupy Movement around the world.)

Dimitris Eleas
- e-mail: dimitriseleas@gmail.com
- Homepage: dimitriseleas.wordpress.com

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