Reconstituting the Subject of Political Discourse: from Lacan to Castoriadis

  • Caroline Williams


This essay proposes to enter the space occupied by a number of intersecting levels of thought and analysis: philosophy, psychoanalysis and aspects of Marxist political theory. It will do so in order to consider the possible shape or form that the subject of political discourse may take. Conceptions of subjectivity are always the product of a constellation of concepts and critical questions which, in turn, furnish a philosophical and political perspective. It is perhaps the reframing of these questions which ceaselessly reconstitutes social and political criticism. The critical thought of Cornelious Castoriadis has certainly reconstituted the question of the subject, not by announcing a wholesale rejection or transcendence of past conceptualizations, but rather by reconstituting the framework within which the question concerning the constitution of the subject may be posed.


Political Discourse Social Signification Radical Imagination Symbolic Order Social Subject 
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  1. 1.
    In 1969, Castoriadis broke with the École Freudienne, along with Luce Irigaray. As members of The Fourth Group, both produced critical works which contested the psychoanalytic perspective of Jacques Lacan. Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman [1974] trans. G. C. Gill (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985) and Castoriadis’s Crossroads in the Labyrinth, [1978] trans. K. Soper and M. Ryle (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1984) both offered readings which emphasized the political dimension of psychoanalysis eschewed by Lacan.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Castoriadis, ‘Merleau-Ponty and the Weight of the Ontological Tradition’, Thesis Eleven, 36 (1993) 1–36, p. 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 5.
    The posing of this dilemma repeats certain Kantian themes and has most fruitfully been elaborated by Michel Foucault as the ‘empirico-transcendental doublet’ in his book The Order of Things, trans. A. Sheridan (London: Routledge, 1989).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    See, for example, Castoriadis, ‘Power, Politics, Autonomy’ in D. A. Curtis (ed.) Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) p. 153.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    On the distinctive use which Castoriadis makes of the concept of institution, see his ‘The First Institution of Society and Second-Order Institutions’, Free Associations, 12 (1988) 39–51. This term Castoriadis takes from Merleau-Ponty, see ‘Merleau-Ponty; and the Weight of the Ontological Tradition’, p. 6.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. A. Sheridan (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977) p. 154.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in his Essays on Ideology, trans. B. Brewster (London: Verso Books, 1984) p. 36Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Castoriadis distinguishes between at least two orders of perception: a first variant of perception which is tied to imagination — what we could call a primary ontological category — and a second variant where perception is reduced to representation and representation is reduced to perception. This distinction is crucial to Castoriadis’s analyses. Whilst use of a category of perception may offer rich insights into modes of social institution, it is not, for Castoriadis, the source of our ontological existence as human beings. See Crossroads in the Labyrinth, Preface, and The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. K. Blamey (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987) pp. 329–39. An investigation of this differentiation and delimitation of perception is an important work. It also takes us back to the question of what it is for something to appear, to manifest itself as a phenomenon of the social-historical, that is, for institution in the world.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Lacan argued that the gap of the unconscious does not lend itself to an ontology; it is preontological — what the unconscious can know about the affectivity of the drives is always mediated by the linguistic signifier. See his Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. A. Sheridan, (London, Peregrine Books, 1984) pp. 29–30.Google Scholar
  10. 16.
    Castoriadis, ‘Merleau-Ponty and the Weight of the Ontological Tradition’, p. 7. The cited quotation is from Maurice Merleau-Ponty The Visible and the Invisible, trans. A. Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), p. 158.Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    Castoriadis’s use of the concept of imagination has distinct Aristotelian and Kantian roots. According to Castoriadis, both philosophers developed, then systematically occluded, the fundamental, creative dimension of the imagination. For further discussion see his ‘Logic, Imagination, Reflection’ in A. Elliot and S. Frosh (eds) Psychoanalysis in Contexts: Paths Between Theory and Modern Culture, (London: Routledge, 1995) pp. 15–35 and ‘Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary’ in D. A. Curtis (ed.) The Castoriadis Reader, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) pp. 319–37.Google Scholar
  12. 19.
    Joel Whitebrook notes the similarity between Castoriadis’s notion of radical imagination and Hannah Arendt’s notion of natality in The Human Condition. See his ‘Intersubjectivity and the Monadic core of the Psyche: Habermas and Castoriadis on the Unconscious’, Praxis International, 9 (1990) p. 362ff. Castoriadis has begun to pursue the political repercussions of this link in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy.Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    See Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. F. Lawrence (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987), pp. 327–35. A similar criticism is levelled by Axel Honneth who accuses Castoriadis of an irrationalism akin to that present in Bergson’s ‘life-stream of the élan vital’. See ‘Rescuing the Revolution with an Ontology’ in his The Fragmented World of the Social: Essays in Social and Political Philosophy, C. Wright (ed.) (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995) pp. 168–83, 180. I would argue that any parallels drawn with a Bergsonian perspective are more complex and finely drawn, and certainly not usefully subsumed under any philosophical banner of irrationalism.Google Scholar
  14. 28.
    Etienne Balibar appears to make this mistaken conflation in his The Philosophy of Marx, trans. C. Turner (London: Verso Books, 1995) p. 79.Google Scholar
  15. 32.
    This must be seen in terms of what Castoriadis calls the project of subjectivity which is at once political and philosophical. See ‘The State of the Subject Today’ Thesis Eleven, 24 (1989) pp. 5–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1999

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  • Caroline Williams

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