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Contributors: Johann P. Arnason, Jean-Luc Amalric, François Dosse, Johann Michel, George Taylor
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Dialogue on History and the Social Imaginary
Paul Ricoeur and Cornelius Castoriadis
Cornelius Castoriadis: Needless to say, how happy I am to speak with you, Paul Ricoeur, and how honoured that you have invited me to speak with you on Le Bon Plaisir. You know this quite well, moreover, because I came to see you shortly after 1968 to propose a doctoral thesis topic on the imaginary element, which remains as it was then: elementary and imaginary ...
Paul Ricoeur: You have published more than a few elements. And I have referred many times to the 'imaginary production of society', because this issue of the imaginary foyer of social relations and of social production is, I believe, our shared interest.
C. C. Yes, indeed, but for my part I do not speak of production but of 'institution'. Deliberately, of course. And I wanted to ask you about this, about this word 'production'. This could have the air of a scholastic dispute, but I'm not looking to quarrel with you. Kant, when he speaks of the imagination, calls it 'productive' ...
P. R. That indeed is my lineage.
C. C. He only calls it 'creative' once, in passing, in the third Critique. This is surely no accident inasmuch as Kant, in the Critique of Judgment, is inspired by eighteenth-century literature and makes many references to English authors. But for me, this term 'production' is too closely linked to Marx, of course, but also to Heidegger.
P. R. Let me make this interjection ... Actually, I return to a pre-Marxian moment of the word, its Fichtean moment. Produzieren, that is Fichte. What drew me to the concept of the productive, rather than the creative imagination, is that I attached something infinitely more primordial to the idea of creation, something that would have a relationship with the order of a foundational sacred, whereas on the human scale, we are always in an institutional order. That is where I encounter a producing that is not a creating. The word 'production' should be paired with the word 'reproduction', it seems to me. In contrast with an imagination that only reproduces a copy of something that is already there, production is essentially a production of new syntheses and new configurations. This is what got me interested in metaphor on the level of language: We produce new meanings through the intersection of different semantic fields. Now that I'm working on narrative, I see the production of a story in terms of the production of narrative configurations by the plot. That is how I use the word 'produce'.
C. C. We have immediately entered into what, at the same time, unites us and divides us the most. And I would like to take advantage of this programme to better understand you. You say production, reproduction – and reproduction even when it comes to the combination of things that aren't already there! However, it is impossible for me to think of the polis, the Greek city, for example, or philosophy, which emerges in the sixth century BCE, as mere recombinations of elements that were already there. What institutes the polis as a polis is a meaning that it creates and through which it creates itself as a polis.
P. R. But we never experience production in this form! There you are presenting us with the myth of production. Let's set aside the question of the Greek city in order to consider an experience that we can actually have, namely that of a production in the order of language. We do not know any other type of production than regulated productions, which is to say that we do not produce everything in what we produce. I completely agree with you that we cannot speak about 'elements that were already there'. In my current analysis of narratives, I show that there are no prior elements in the sense that the events that are combined and compose the story do not exist as the variables of this story. For example, consider the different ways in which one can tell the events of the French Revolution: The event varies each time according to the story, depending on whether it is taken from the plot of Tocqueville, someone like Augustin Cochin or someone else like Furet. That is why we cannot speak of a combination of pre-established elements, which would be some type of associationist view.
C. C. But that is the structuralist view. Lévi-Strauss wrote it in black and white.
P. R. This is not my view, because it would imply that there are types of atoms that get combined differently ...
C. C. And each society throws the dice.
P. R. That is only the case in a static view, but not a productive one. By a static view, I mean the view that considers a combination as a set of fixed 'elements' which it redesigns, resulting in static structures that are discontinuous with each other. In contrast, in what I call emplotment, a process is set in motion where the 'elements' are reshaped by the lesson learned from an event. An event is determined by its role in the story that one is telling. Something might be an event for one story, but not for the other. In one plot, the storming of the Bastille is not an event; in another plot, it is an origin. Consequently, there are no elements that are somehow fixed in advance. But this is what I maintain: We can only produce according to rules; we do not produce everything that we produce, if only because we already have a language before we can talk. Others have spoken and have established the rules of the game. What we can do is to put them back into what Malraux called 'coherent deformations'. We can proceed by coherent deformations, but this always takes place within a pre-structure, within something already structured that we restructure. That is why we are never in a situation that you would call creation, as if form could be derived from the absolutely formless.
C. C. And that is precisely why the idea of institution, rather than production, is at the centre of my work. The self-institution of society implies that we are always working within what is already established by changing or amending the rules but also by establishing new ones, by creating them. That is our autonomy.
P.R. The idea of absolute novelty is unthinkable. There can only be something new by breaking with the old: pre-established rules exist before us, and we deregulate them in order to regulate otherwise. But this is not a situation ... of the first day of creation.
C.C. That is precisely the whole problem, in the way of thinking about temporality and about being in temporality. According to one view, which is not necessarily yours, everything is predetermined, already logically pre-inscribed in a great book of possibilities. From these essential elements, both physical as well as spiritual or meaningful ones, certain combinations are produced, which allow for other combinations, and so on. But another way to think about temporality is to see the emergence of levels of being. One example that is as empirical as could be: The first living cell on Earth represents something new in relation to the primordial ocean. Of course, it is not absolutely new; it is regulated; it cannot violate a number of rules. The same goes for Wagner composing his operas: He cannot violate certain musical laws, or others concerning his biological metabolism, or his relations to others, etc. Nonetheless, he offers new harmonies that before him seemed absurdly dissonant. When the Greeks created mathematics – and regardless of the pioneering role of the Babylonians or Egyptians – they created the idea of proof on the basis of a minimal number of axioms and according to a set of established rules.
P. R. Ah, but I follow you! Earlier we were talking about what is more near and more distant between us. Here, I find myself very close to you. I never cease to plead in favour of the concept of an event in thought: There are events in thought, there are innovations. But here we have to think dialectically. One can only think about innovation under some conditions: First, there must have been previous configurations. This is not at all what you said when you mentioned an order of possibilities that would be immutable, as if we were going to tap into some sort of great treasure of possibilities. That does not exist. What does exist are the configurations prior to what we reconfigure – and we proceed in this way, from configurations to configurations. You just spoke about Greek rationality, about the Greek miracle ... but you should not go too far! There was something before ... that was done by tests, by trial and error. Around Plato, we see from other schools, the school of Eudoxus, how to find the five regular solids. All of that constitutes small developments that are cumulative but that emerge precisely from a prior set of failed tests and fruitless attempts. One sees that the cosmological representation of Copernicus and Kepler was anticipated ...
C. C. By Eratosthenes.
P. R. One is never in a passage from nothing to something, but from something to something, from one to another – which goes from the configured to the configured, but never from the formless to form. This is what I wanted to say by limiting the excesses of a kind of anarchism of reason. Reason follows after itself, but in a dialectic of innovation and sedimentation. There is the sedimentation of research and thoughts, and of the said, of what has been said before us. It is on the basis of these things that have already been said that we can say something else. Sometimes we say it better, but we remain in a sort of continuity of saying that is self-correcting and cumulative. I do not know if you are close to Michel Foucault, but this is a debate that can be had about his Archaeology of Knowledge10: Can we think of total discontinuity as the leap from one episteme to another? In Foucault's case, this works well when you take three or four registers such as language, biological classifications, the economy, currency, etc. But when there is break in one line, there is continuity in another line. It isn't because we changed an episteme in one of these registers that we would have changed in mathematics or in theology or in the law and especially in continuous existence. Maybe we would no longer be in agreement here, and I would like to discuss this with you because that is the issue with the word 'institute'. It seems to me that, behind all of these ruptures of thought, there is a continual setting which still forms the continuity of human communities. Before the institution, there is a living-together that has a certain continuity, which can be instituted, reinstituted, and constituted by ruptures but against the backdrop of a transmitted and received inheritance, which ensures, if I might say, the 'basso continuo' ...
This analysis gives a certain primacy to the continuity of existence, to the perpetuation of a living-together as the ground for instituting operations, and that allows us to situate the discontinuities of sense against the continuities of existence. There is a relation of sense and existence: It is on the level of sense that there can be ruptures, events, and emergences.
You mentioned biology earlier, but in the end, we no longer have changes of human beings: We are in a biological continuity across generations, which is like the continuity of living beings against the background of the discontinuity of our thoughts. It was in that respect that I wanted to limit the claim (in the English sense of a claim in a truth claim: a claim of truth, of correctness) of the concept of discontinuity in the creation of institutions.
C. C. If you accept discontinuity on the level of sense but not on the level of existence, that suits me perfectly. If I were polemical, I would say that you are granting me what I need. As for me, ontologically, society as history is sense. And it is on the basis of this level that I can establish a discontinuity between the Sudanese president (Nimeiri) or the Ayatollah Khomeini and us. Otherwise, we are all talking bipeds; we live in established societies anchored in a shared Jewish past, that of the religions of the Book. But the discontinuity, the cut, occurs on the level of sense – and is also accompanied with other cuts, the cutting of the hands and of other members for thieves and fornicators. This is something that we cannot accept and that we should condemn, if we were not caught up in a stupid type of self-accusation. This discontinuity alone is what interests me. As for Foucault, I spoke briefly and very harshly about him: His conception of the human enterprise as a staccato of epistemes unrelated to one another is something that I totally reject.
P. R. But you, what do you say? I limit Foucault's claim precisely by the affirmation of a historical continuity of inheritance.
C. C. What continuity?
P. R. Something like the continuity of life, not necessarily from a biological point of view, but the life of the mind, the properly human life, continuous living and living together – the convivial. In other words, we can only think the notion of interruption on the basis of the idea of continuation. I believe that this is also the definition of time in Spinoza. He said that it was the continuation of existence.
C. C. Of course, but let's try to take a little distance in relation to our own history, even if it is what allows us to talk, a condition that is anything but negligible philosophically. While remaining in the course of a Western Greek or European history in the broad sense which begins at least with the Homeric poems, each sense or each new form that emerges is not the result of a combination of pre-existing forms, even if it does retain a certain reference to the past.
P. R. But then we are both on the same side!
C. C. Yes, here we are on the same side. But if I consider the Aztecs, I can no longer say the same thing.
P. R. Me neither!
C. C. And one would have to be a very intrepid Hegelian-Marxist to maintain that the Aztecs were dialectically overcome and surpassed – Derrida would say 'sublated' [relevés] – in being massacred by Christopher Columbus! There is no longer any continuity there. Or else it is a continuity of another order: No human society can do without making sense of the world. And this Sinngebung, as Heidegger calls it, this bestowal of meaning can have little relation, if not trivial, with that of another society. P. R. I can't see where we differ because I grant that each configuration be it narrative, metaphorical, political, or institutional – is, as such, new in relation to every other one: It is qualitatively different from any other. I simply objected that a configuration cannot emerge out of nothing. I see humanity actually proceeding through ruptures, discontinuities, but always within the order of configuration. If we have a great continuity, it is indeed the one that you have stated, in which, through the fibre, the root, the Greek trunk, we recognise ourselves within a certain continuity.
C. C. But that is the case for us.
P. R. Yes, it is the case for us, and also for those who we call the other. But can we conceive an absolute alterity? What language reveals, or more precisely what is manifested in language, is not only that translation has been possible, but also that it has been successful. We will never encounter a language which would be absolutely untranslatable ...
C. C. We will not encounter an absolutely translatable text, either, unless it's a series of mathematical formulae.
P. R. To speak about the limits of translation assumes that one has at least been able to begin and to some extent succeed in this operation. Without translation, there would be no humanity but only human species, as with dogs and cats. What makes humanity exist is this translatability in principle that recreates the continuity of meaning within the discontinuity of productions and efforts of configuration.
C. C. There may be another way to see this. Jakobson has taught us that a successful translation in the domain of poetry is not strictly cognitive and that it is in fact a new creation. I think that the whole problem is there. Look, for example, at everything that the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were able to produce as historical knowledge about the Old Testament, Hebrew history, and Greek history. This is absolutely mind-boggling, it is sometimes said. But what are we talking about? About Greece? About the Old Testament? No, in fact we are talking about the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Where I distance myself radically from Foucault is that for me there is a Greece, there is an Old Testament, and all our interpretations of them are based on a meaning that serves as the referent for the successive creations of various interpretations. They are not absolutely arbitrary. If someone tells me that the Iliad speaks in fact about the battle of Verdun, no discussion or rebuttal is necessary. There is a limit. When the great Gladstone thought that he could establish that the Iliad is a theology derived from the Old Testament, he crossed this limit and spoke nonsense. This nonsense might have been necessary to his politico-philosophical-theological attempt, admittedly, but it was nonsense anyway. It can only interest me for what it says about Victorian England. But other interpretations of Greece, from nineteenth-century France and from our time, are interesting and relevant. Why so? This is a big problem.
Excerpted from "Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion"
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