Intellectual history

Mbembe reads Castoriadis: Notes from the Postcolony

By Victor Galdino

By Victor Galdino

Almost 50 years after the publication of L’Institution imaginaire de la société [1975], Cornelius Castoriadis’ concept of the social imaginary continues to prove useful: it draws our attention to situations where imaginary forms do not just map onto the distinction between true and false. Going beyond the imaginary as mere reflection of a supposedly underlying “true” reality, his philosophical framework can guide our understanding of social institutions and of the lived experiences within them. We now read about urban, rural, religious, scientific and many other parts of the imaginary, each specific to variable social contexts, and Castoriadis’ work has had a lasting influence on efforts to grasp the imagined and lived worlds of local and national communities in all corners of the planet. This influence, of course, could be even stronger, as Castoriadis’ has only recently returned to the center of scholarly attention. But the disenfranchisement of “the imaginary” in the tradition of Western philosophy still dominates our inherited epistemologies. One of Castoriadis’ strongest contributions, the “passage from the paradigm of imagination as an individual faculty to that of the imaginary as a social context”, or “from a subject-oriented research paradigm to a context-oriented one”, as Chiara Bottici has put it, thus remains a difficult theoretical movement, but one, I argue, that speaks to the most pressing debates across disciplines and has been productively taken into new directions (pp. 35, 47).

One of these directions is to be found in Achille Mbembe’s writings on the institution of societies through colonialism and the survival of colonial significations in what he terms “the post-colony”. Mbembe first encountered Castoriadis through his “philosophical training in postwar French traditions of intellectual life,” and he listed him as one of the influences for De la Postcolonie, essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporaine [2000], (p. 180). In this work, Mbembe uses the concept of social imaginary significations to present Africa as instituted not by African societies – for there was no Africa before colonization –, but as a “world of significations” which would be part of the “universe the West constitutes for itself” [3]. Following Castoriadis, Mbembe does not see the imaginary nature of what is created and imposed – including race – through colonial power relations as a mark of falseness or unreality. Of course, as Castoriadis would say, what becomes real was once merely imagined and non-real, but the institution of a society is the institution of what people in this society daily experience as real and unreal, true and false, necessary and impossible. Race and other colonial significations are not unrealities mistaken to be real, they were made real for those who lived the colonial social imaginary. No work of enlightenment was ever able to dispel such imaginary forms as “false” representations, as something people used to have before “progress” came around. For Mbembe as for Castoriadis, imaginary forms remain operative beyond truth and falsehood.

Colonization is hence not to be understood as the dominion of appearance over reality, but as a brutal transformation of both the imaginary and what was experienced as real in African societies. As mentioned above, the kind of theoretical passage Castoriadis offers his readers is far from becoming consensual, but it seems to be fundamental for any serious understanding of colonialism and the making of race, even if such matters demand we make the passage in slightly or significantly different ways than Castoriadis himself did. This is particularly urgent when we consider Castoriadis’ failure to move beyond a provincialist political imagination. In Mbembe’s case, the use of Castoriadis’ concepts depends on expanding the very scene of institution: the reality lived in the colony is brought about in a relation between societies, which means the already instituted European societies institute Africa as its Other, setting up a new “system for interpreting the world” to be shared differentially by both sides of the relation (p. 50). If, as Castoriadis claims, this system always carries within itself some kind of self-representation, offering the possibility of imagined cohesion and unity in a society, then who is being self-represented? The colonized live in a situation of extreme heteronomy, which is to say that they are not the authors of images initially made available for them. But, as Mbembe writes, the colonizers imagined a new cohesion for themselves by fabricating a radically different Other. That is to say that colonial significations are not to be found exclusively in the colonies: the metropole, too and perhaps above all, is a product of the imaginary institution of colonial order.

But that is not the end of the story. The colonization of African natives creates ethical dilemmas and political issues to be dealt in the struggles of the colonized for autonomy, not only because of the alien provenance of colonial significations; there is also the fact that becoming a subject in the colonial scene depended on making such significations familiar and desirable in everyday life. Mbembe considers this “assujettissement” (subjection/subjectivation) of the native by their own desire the very secret of colonial success (p. 54). In a sense, De la Postcolonie and Mbembe’s subsequent works – Nécropolitique, Sortir de la grand nuit, Critique de la raison nègre, Politiques de l’inimitié and Brutalisme – all deal with the lasting effects of this familiarization in “the aftermath of colonialism stricto sensu,” (p. 179) when the “struggle between Father and Son” (settler and native) is partially converted into “violence of ‘brother’ towards ‘brother’” (ibid. p. 181) in the post-colony, and societies of enmity are instituted all over the globe, extending what once was colonial violence to non-Blacks and non-Africans, in a process he calls “the becoming black of the world.” Castoriadis is not explicitly mentioned in all of these works, but his conceptual vocabulary and influence are hard to miss in Mbembe’s account of the imaginary for those who have studied L’Institution imaginaire de la société.

Mbembe offers us an original view of the very movement of instituting a society – the sources of many significations, their circulation and inculcation, the gradual loss of their strangeness, their articulation with local/native significations etc. It thus becomes visible how forms that had already been created and crystalized in Europe violently came into being on other continents. Colonial enterprises and wars radically transformed borders, nations, collectives, relations and many non-physical entities. But these imaginary significations are precisely what constitutes our reality as it is lived. Castoriadis’ important intervention consists in overcoming the philosophical disenfranchisement of the imaginary, inherited from early modern epistemologies, in an attempt to do justice to the central role that it plays for our lives. As Mbembe’s work suggests, Castoriadis provides generative ways of understanding creation and institution that can be appropriated and adjusted when dealing with the social-historical dynamics of colonialism: dynamics that organize and articulate the pre-colonial, the colonial and the post-colonial in the imaginary of contemporary societies.

Victor Galdino is a graduate student and substitute professor at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) whose interests span postcolonial theory, political theory, political imagination, colonial heritage and the phenomenology of race, metaphilosophy and philosophical uses of language, philosophy teaching.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

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