Sunday, June 15, 2008


I desire and I feel the need to live in a society other than the one surrounding me. Like most people, I can live in this one and adapt to it, at any rate, I do live in it. However critically I may try to look at myself, neither my capacity for adaptation, nor my assimilation of reality seems to me to be inferior to the sociological average. I am not asking for immortality, ubiquity or omniscience. I am not asking society to ‘give me happiness’ I know this is not a ration that can be handed out by City Hall or my neighborhood Workers‘ Council and that, if this thing exists, I have to make it for myself, tailored to my own needs, as this has happened to me already and as this will probably happen to me again. In life, however, as it comes to me and to others, I run up against a lot of unacceptable things, I say they are not inevitable and that they stem from the organization of society. I desire, and I ask, first that my work be meaningful, that I may approve what it is used for and the way in which it is done, that it allow me genuinely to expend myself, to make use of my faculties and at the same time to enrich and develop myself. And I say that this is possible, with a different organization of society, possible for me and for everyone. I say that it would already be a basic change in this direction if I were allowed to decide, together with everyone else, what I had to do, and, with my fellow workers, how to do it

I should like, together with everyone else, to know what is going on in society, to control the extent and the quality of the information I receive. 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.

I know perfectly well that realizing another social organization, and the life it would imply, would by no means be simple, that difficult problems would arise at every step. But I prefer contending with real problems rather than with the consequences of de Gaulle’s delirium, Johnson’s schemes or Krushchev’s intrigues. Even if I and the others should fail along this path, I prefer failure in a meaningful attempt to a state that falls short of either failure or non-failure, and which is merely

I wish to be able to meet the other person as a being like myself and yet absolutely different, not like a number or a frog perched on another level (higher or lower, it matters little) of the hierarchy of revenues and powers. I wish to see the other, and for the other to see me, as another human being. I want our relationships to be something other than a field for the expression of aggressivity, our competition to remain within the limits of play, our conflicts—to the extent that they cannot be resolved or overcome—to concern real problems and real stakes, carrying with them the least amount of unconsciousness possible, and that they be as lightly loaded as possible with the imaginary. I want the other to be free, for my freedom begins where the other’s freedom begins, and, all alone, I can at best be merely ‘virtuous in misfortune’. I do not count on people changing into angels, nor on their souls becoming as pure as mountain lakes—which, moreover, I have always found deeply boring. But I know how much present culture aggravates and exasperates their difficulty to be and to be with others, and I see that it multiplies to infinity the obstacles placed in the way of their freedom.

I know, of course, that this desire cannot be realized today, nor even were the revolution to take place tomorrow, could it be fully realized in my lifetime. I know that one day people will live, for whom the problems that cause us the most anguish today will no longer even exist. This is my fate, which I have to assume and which I do assume. But this cannot reduce me to despair or to catatonic ruminations. Possessing this desire, which indeed is mine, I can only work to realize it. And already in the choice of my main interest in life, in the work I devote to it, which for me is meaningful (even when I encounter, and accept, partial failure, delays, detours and tasks that have no sense in themselves), in the participation in a group of revolutionaries which is attempting to go beyond the reified and alienated relations of current society—I am in a position partially to realize this desire. If I had been born in a communist society, would happiness have been easier to attain—I really do not know, and at any rate can do nothing about it. I am not, under this pretext, going to spend my free time watching television or reading detective novels.

-- Cornelius Castoriadis (all credit for the excerpt goes here).

I have been skirting a bit in and around Castoriadis this weekend and it's been refreshing. The above excerpt (I have not read Imaginary... so I can't comment on its source) hardly "comes off" in a critical sense. It moves me, though, in a way not unlike that of great religious writers and mystics. When I was younger, a practicing Catholic, my favorite prayer was Thomas Merton's. Castoriadis strikes something of the same rhetorical tone—as though this normative speech instills meaning, via performance utterance, in one's own life, this moment. The acknowledgment of potential failure (Even if I and the others should fail along this path, I prefer failure...) is simply clearheadedness, but it is also a trope, a gesture, whose predetermined rejection makes the enunciating sing. (Castoriadis is doing what I think art often does, as I've said before: he is testifying to our promised lives, our stolen lives.) This all relies on sentiment, of course, emotion. On one hand emotionalism is not a substitute for rationality, it will not replace any other tools for social change we have at our disposal. At the same time, what people would seek to change society in a way that excludes emotion (in both the struggle and the end result) as an afterthought, as mere biochemical pap determined by other instances. (Because if emotions are mere biochemical pap, so is everything else, in which case what is the point?) This can be tricky: can anyone recommend good writings on the emotional content and character of revolutionary social change? There's been a lot of writing on utopianism and the utility of 'the utopic impulse,' but beyond this not much has been springing to mind.

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