Fighting the Wrong Enemy?

Comments on Wolfenstein’s Critique of Castoriadis

David Ames Curtis and Andreas Kalyvas, Political Theory, Vol. 26, No. 6 (Dec., 1998), pp. 818-824

JOEL WHITEBOOK’S Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory (1995) provides one of the most serious and in-depth presentations published to date of the work of Cornelius Castoriadis. Unfortunately, “Psychoanalysis and Political Theory,” Eugene Victor Wolfenstein’s review of this volume in Political Theory (vol. 24, no. 4 [November 1996], pp. 706-28), offers such a misleading and distorted account of Castoriadis’s original and creative contributions to psychoanalytical and political thought that it cannot go unchallenged. Indeed, it is our contention that behind Wolfenstein’s discussion of Whitebook’s volume lies a postmodern attack aimed at Castoriadis’s seminal work, work which only now is beginning to gain recognition for its promising efforts to bring together psychoanalysis, critical social theory, and democratic politics within a fresh framework firmly rooted within the emancipatory tradition of modernity.1

Wolfenstein, faithfully following Habermas, criticizes Castoriadis for holding to a traditional concept of the unconscious, what he calls the “prelingusitic, monadic forerunner of selfhood” (p. 717). He draws four critical conclusions about this alleged “impermeable shell” of the psyche (p. 717).

To begin with, and although he correctly surmises that a confrontation between Castoriadis’s and Habermas’s views on psychoanalysis lies at the heart of Whitebook’s volume, he is unable to express their differences accurately. Instead of discussing the opposition between monadic isolation and communication, he distorts it: “Thus we have, in virtually its purest form,” Wolfenstein claims, “the antinomy of individual and society” (pp. 717- 18). Not only does the old and quite false dilemma of the “individual versus society” have nothing to do with Castoriadis’s views, but it is formally excluded from his conceptual apparatus and explicitly contradicted in his substantive arguments. Even a casual reader couldn’t miss it. In one of his early psychoanalytical essays ([1968] 1984, 39-40), his first in a psychoanalytic review, Castoriadis argues that “psychoanalysis would have nothing to think, nothing to work on, in the absence of society, production, and labor. To abstract from this consideration is to reproduce ‘the abstraction which separates and opposes the individual and society’ (Marx).” He reiterates this point in an abundance of texts, including his most recent, as yet unpublished, one “On Psychoanalysis, Talmudism and Anything-Goesism”: the “true polarity is not between individual and society but between psyche and society.” Eliding all difference between Castoriadis’s original psychical monad, the psyche after the breakup of that monad, and the human individual, which only exists as socialized, Wolfenstein distorts Castoriadis’s views beyond recognition. Curiously, he omits all mention of Castoriadis’s key distinction between three “regions of being” of the self: the psyche, the social individual, and the subject.2 With misrepresentation accompanied by negligence, Wolfenstein finds it easy to attribute to Castoriadis any faults he claims to find in Whitebook (pp. 717, 718, 720).

The import of Castoriadis’s powerful triple distinction is crucial and requires some comment. It implies, among other things, a rejection of the liberal belief in the existence of a presocial, prepolitical individual endowed with “natural” rights and claims. Far from postulating the primacy of an unspoiled individual essence confronted with the alienating and oppressive mechanisms of a hostile society that threatens its “negative” liberty, Castoriadis has been an incisive critic of the political implications of this liberal fiction of individualism ([1986a] 1997). His own approach, which opposes psy- che and society, acknowledges instead that not only is society necessary for the socialization of the original monad but also the individual is a social fabrication, a social imaginary institution.

One further comment. Despite his emphatic dismissal of liberal individualism, Castoriadis has successfully escaped the traps laid by “death of the subject” discourses. He was one of the first to denounce the dangerous consequences of the “constructivist” thesis. The attack on modern subjectivity was interpreted by Castoriadis, and rightly so, as an attack on the concepts of responsibility, reflective and deliberative agency, creativity, and, ultimately, of autonomy itself (ibid.). This is not the place to pursue Castoriadis’s innovative and pathbreaking interventions in the debate between modernism and postmodernism or to explore their normative ramifications for a critical social theory. Suffice it to note that his simultaneous avoidance of liberal individualism and the “death of the subject” has tremendous implications for democratic theory today. The scope and depth of these implications for contemporary political theory are completely lost in Wolfenstein’s misleading, superficial reading.

A second conclusion stems from Wolfenstein’s accusation that Whitebook takes “no note of the Eurocentrism, especially of Castoriadis’s social theory. It seems a little late in the day to valorize ancient Greece and modern Europe, celebrating their openness and autonomy, while casting all other societies in the dark night of closure and heteronomy” (p. 726). Again Wolfenstein evinces no knowledge of Castoriadis’s actual views. Castoriadis approaches Greece neither as a prototype nor as an ideal but simply as a “germ” ([1983] 1991, 84, 105, 123). If it deserves our attention, that is because of its distinctive, indeed unique, social-historical creations (ibid., 82-4). Unknown to Wolfenstein, however, Castoriadis has a complex, nuanced, rich understanding of modernity which emphasizes its dual, contradictory, mutually contending aspects.

Instead of a naive or reactionary “Eurocentric” endorsement of Occidental civilization, as Wolfenstein misrepresents it, Castoriadis articulates a conflictual theory that retrieves the emancipatory dimension of modernity, embodied in the “project of autonomy” (and advanced over the centuries through the struggles of workers, women, students, and racial and cultural minorities), as against the capitalist project of the “unlimited expansion of ‘rational’ mastery.” Perhaps it is a nasty “Eurocentrism” to state unpleasant truths—that democracy as a social movement that shatters inherited hierarchies and relations of domination, philosophy as a critical questioning of the tribe’s instituted representations, and autonomy as the struggle for the appropriation of ever greater amounts of the instituting ground-power of the anonymous collective, for the transformation of the individual, and for the self-institution of society have their origin in Greece and Western Europe. But then it would be terribly “Eurocentric” to point out as well that psychoanalysis as an effort to aid people in attaining a lucid self-understanding of their unconscious was born in the West and developed there.

Wolfenstein goes on to accuse Castoriadis of promoting a “characteristically masculine” and “gendered” concept of the psyche that culminates in a “phallocentric” social theory (pp. 716, 718). Here, he not only unimaginatively adopts and repeats a post-Lacanian version of feminism that is today contested even in its own terrain of feminist studies,3 but he is the one to essentialize gender and brand masculinity, in particular, as “schizoid,” “narcissistic,” self-enclosed (p. 718). Castoriadis, by way of contrast, has been one of the earliest advocates of the women’s movement in France and a long-time critic of patriarchal heteronomous relations.4

Finally, Wolfenstein concludes his attack on Castoriadis by asking rhetorically, “How do the productions of the unconscious relate to those of consciousness?” (p. 718) Here he might have profitably studied Castoriadis’s definition of individual autonomy (quoted by Whitebook) as the lucid and deliberative attempt to establish “another relation” with one’s radical imagination, “another attitude of the subject with respect to himself or herself…. Desires, drives, this is me, too, and these have to be brought not only to consciousness but to expression and existence” ([1964-65] 1987, 104). He could also have informed himself about Castoriadis’s insistence that the breakup of the original monad-the opening up of the psyche via its socialization and the constitution of a “monadic pole”—while always a violent process, is also induced by the psyche’s own search for meaning. This is a quest that only society can satisfy, a meaning that only society can provide (Castoriadis [1989] 1997). Castoriadis’s claim is that the psyche always remains an ineliminable and irreducible element, even after its socialization, not that it would be forever “impermeable” to all social influence (“communication”) !

It is worth asking why Wolfenstein’s book review of Whitebook turns into an assault on Castoriadis. What motivates Wolfenstein’s unfounded, even bizarre critique? What is he aiming at? A quick look at Wolfenstein’s references indicates that he may not have ever read Castoriadis (two Habermas volumes are cited), and his familiarity seems limited to what he has been able to glean from Whitebook’s pages.6 Why then this willingness to discuss (and dismiss) an author of whom one appears so ignorant? More than raising issues of scholarship, this choice reveals hidden, unacknowledged intentions. Given the fact that at the end, Wolfenstein reluctantly recognizes Castoriadis’s contribution to psychoanalytic studies, albeit not because of his seminal rediscovery and elucidation of the imagination7 but merely because of being “sensitive to the imaginative aspect of being human” (p. 718), we legitimately ask why Wolfenstein chooses Castoriadis as his main target.

Wolfenstein’s circuitous attack on Castoriadis, strategically inserted in his discussion of Whitebook’s volume, aims, we want to argue, at the project of autonomy as such, and in that sense its importance transcends the limits of a simple book review. Launched from a postmodern position, Wolfenstein’s attack attempts to discredit Castoriadis’s autonomous individual. He portrays it as the Western, White individualistic male who, opposed to society, represses his unconscious. With this caricature, Wolfenstein dismisses one of the most fertile theoretical attempts to reinvigorate an emancipatory political theory with a critical content against the cynicism and the “generalized conformism” unleashed by the postmodernists’ offensive.8 Indeed, Wolfenstein tacitly sees in Castoriadis—”the person who has done the most sustained and creative work… with his notion of the ‘project of autonomy,’ ” as Whitebook rightly notes (p. 267)-an opponent who threatens the aspiration of postmodernism to appropriate and monopolize the radical tradition of social criticism. In fact, Wolfenstein’s self-proclaimed goal of redefining the role of psychoanalysis for “critical social theory” (p. 726) sounds very much like Castoriadis’s.9 On the opening page of his last book, he announces that, motivated by “an interest in human emancipation,” he wants “to construct a groundwork for a psychoanalytic-marxist theory” (1993, p. 1). A parallel interest has animated Castoriadis’s work for five decades now. But, unlike Wolfenstein’s “aim . . . to hew a psychoanalytic-marxist path between Hegelianism and postmodernism” (p. 423), Castoriadis not only has broken with Hegel’s and Marx’s inherited philosophical tradition and their ensemblistic-identitary logic (here, ironically, Wolfenstein appears more “Eurocentric” than Castoriadis) but has avoided the dead-end path of postmodernism. Wolfenstein, on the contrary, by aligning himself with post-Lacanian feminism as well as the now exhausted movement of antipsychiatry, and by unabashedly attacking Castoriadis, deprives himself of the conceptual and normative resources, abundantly found in the latter’s work, that would be necessary for this reconstructive project. Ultimately, because of his strong postmodern loyalties, Wolfenstein truncates his own options.10


1. Moreover, despite the fact that eight of Castoriadis’s books have now appeared in English translation, Political Theory has yet to publish any substantive discussion of his work, even though he is one of the leading political thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century, so it is all the more important to set the record straight for this joural’s readers.

2. See Castoriadis ([1986a] 1997). It is on this question of the regions of the being of the self that Whitebook lets Wolfenstein, and his other readers as well, down. Whitebook objects that Castoriadis’s strong claim that the psyche can neither be reduced to the social nor derived from it sets up a “metaphysical opposition” Yet, Castoriadis had already responded to Whitebook before this objection was published in book form: “If it is a question of the idea of irreducibility as such, the remark is absurd ” Castoriadis explains. “One should ask oneself, rather, what metaphysics is hidden behind the idea that every affirmation of irreducibility is ‘metaphysical.’ The answer is obvious: a unitary and reductionist metaphysics” ([1989] 1997). It should be noted that Whitebook has written a new appreciation of Castoriadis’s work since his death (Whitebook 1998).

3. See, for example, Andrea Nye, “Woman Clothed with the Sun,” Signs 12, no. 4 (1987); Dorothy Leland, “Lacanian Psychoanalysis and French feminism,” in Revaluing French Feminism: Critical Essays on Difference, Agency, and Culture, ed. Nancy Fraser and Sandra Barky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 199 1); Alison Weir, “The Paradox of the Self: Jessica Benjamin’s Intersubjective Theory,” Thesis Eleven, no. 32 (1992): 141-53; Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson, “Social Criticism without Philosophy,” in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1993); Seyla Benhabib, “Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism,” in Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange, ed. Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, Drucilla Cornel, and Nancy Fraser (New York: Routledge, 1994); Johanna Meetham, “Autonomy, Recognition and Respect: Habermas, Benjamin and Honneth,” Constellations 1., no. 2 (October 1994): 270-85; and Nancy Fraser, “Structuralism or Pragmatics? On Discourse Theory and Feminist Politics” and “False Antitheses: A Response to Seyla Benhabib and Judith Butler,” both in her Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition (New York: Routledge, 1997).

4. For early references, see, for example, Castoriadis ([1955] 1988, [1960-61] 1988, [1962] 1993-in which Castoriadis first advocated women’s consciousness-raising sessions in his revolutionary group, Socialisme ou Barbarie-[1963] 1993 and [1964] 1993).

5. Castoriadis’s emphasis of the irreducibility of the singular psyche’s radical imagination distinguishes his theory of the social fabrication of the individual from the “constructivist” thesis, according to which the subject, viewed as a blank slate, is merely a product or effect of society.

6. In Wolfenstein’s latest book Psychoanalytical-Marxism Groundwork (1993), one would have expected to find at least some references to Castoriadis’s work. Alas, although Wolfenstein’s research interest falls within the domain of Castoriadis’s central investigations, there is not even a footnote. This neglect increases our suspicion that Wolfenstein may not have ever read Castoriadis.

7. See Castoriadis ([1964-5] 1987, [1975] 1987, [1978] 1997, [1988] 1997, and [1986b] 1997).

8. See Castoriadis ([1986a] 1997) and ([1991] 1997) for his critique of postmodernism.

9. Wolfenstein’s “seven principles” of human emancipation, as stated in his last book (1993,424-25), have already been, in one way or another, comprehensively discussed and dealt with by Castoriadis.

10. For example, Wolfenstein would not have advanced a slapdash theory of “the defensive origins of Castoriadis’s monadic self-enclosure” (p. 725), for he would not have fallen into the easy trap of positing (from the outside) an ever-evolving “defensive” experience of the outside from the inside even before “inside” and “outside” are psychically distinguished. No amount of talk about “sensuously encoded residue of interuterine experience” (p. 717), “the characteristic bipolarity of infantile experience, the mother-infant experience of nutrition” (p. 718), or any subsequent “emotional porosity” (p. 725) will ever convince us that psychical representation can be derived from a nonrepresentational “experience” or tell us why the human psyche creates an imaginary world different from that of other members of the mammalian kingdom. Just as much as Habermas’s notion of the psyche, Wolfenstein’s entails a gross biological reduction as well as a blind denial of the very existence of the radical imagination of the singular psyche.


Castoriadis, Cornelius. [1968] 1984. Epilegomena to a theory of the soul which has been pre- sented as a science. In Crossroads in the labyrinth, translated by Martin H. Ryle and Kate Soper. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

-———. [1964-65] 1987. Marxism and revolutionary theory. In The imaginary institution of society, translated by Kathleen Blamey. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

-———. [1975] 1987. Imaginary institution of society, Part 2. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

-———. [1955] 1988. On the content of socialism, I. In Political and social writings. Vol. 1. Translated by David Ames Curtis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

-———. [1960-61] 1988. Modern capitalism and revolution. In Political and social writings. Vol. 2. Translated by David Ames Curtis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

-——— . [1983] 1991. The Greek polis and the creation of democracy. In Philosophy, politics, autonomy, edited by David Ames Curtis. New York: Oxford University Press.

-——— . [1962] 1993. For a new orientation. In Political and social writings. Vol. 3. Translated by David Ames Curtis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

-——— [. 1963] 1993. Sexual education in the USSR. In Political and social writings. Vol. 3. Translated by David Ames Curtis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

-——— . [1964] 1993. Recommencing the revolution. In Political and social writings. Vol. 3.Translated by David Ames Curtis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

-——— . [1978] 1997. The discovery of the imagination. In World in fragments, translated by David Ames Curtis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

-———. [ 1986a] 1997. The state of the subject today. In World in fragments, translated by David Ames Curtis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

-———. [1986b] 1997. Merleau-Ponty and the weight of the ontological tradition. In World in fragments, translated by David Ames Curtis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

-———. [1988] 1997. Logic, imagination, reflection. In World in fragments, translated by David Ames Curtis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

-———. [1989] 1997. Done and to be done. In The Castoriadis reader, edited by David Ames Curtis. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

-——— . [1991] 1997. The retreat from autonomy: Postmodernism as generalized conformism. In World in fragments, translated by David Ames Curtis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Whitebook, Joel. 1995. Perversion and utopia: A study in psychoanalysis and critical theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Whitebook, Joel. 1998. “Requiem for a Selbstdenker: Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997),” Constellations, 5, no. 2 (June 1998): 141-60.

Wolfenstein, Eugene Victor. 1993. Psychoanalytic-Marxism groundwork. New York: Guilford.

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