Social Imaginaries: A Journal and a Project

Social Imaginaries Book Cover Social Imaginaries
Suzi Adams, Jeremy Smith (Coordinating Editors)
Zeta Books

Reviewed by: Angelos Mouzakitis (University of Crete)

Not long ago, Social Imaginaries (Vol. 1, Issue 1, Spring 2015) appeared, with a volume that is both imaginative and ground-breaking. The journal aspires to open up a discursive space for different branches of the humanities, the social sciences, and philosophy. And at the same time it aspires to contribute to the further development and enrichment of an emergent field of research, presenting itself as a “paradigm in the making” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 7). Drawing primarily on the works of Castoriadis, Arnason, and Charles Taylor, as well as on (post-) phenomenological currents of philosophy, the journal aims, as its very title suggests, to rekindle interest in the elucidation of the enigmatic field of collective and individual imagination, this “field of intersecting labyrinths,” of human creations and doings (Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 7). It is also devoted to the study of “the intertwined problematics of modernity, multiple modernities, and the human condition,” while it promulgates “an understanding of society as a political institution, which is formed – and forms itself – in historical constellations, on the one hand, and through encounters with other cultures and civilisational worlds, on the other” (Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 7). The first volume of the journal is organized in such a manner that it does justice to both the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural character of the project, and to the need to delineate the journal’s and the project’s subject-matter and theoretical origins.

Although the editorial note duly announces the purpose and the aims of the journal, the objectives of the whole project and the delimitation of the field of study takes place in a systematic and thorough manner in the introductory article entitled “Social Imaginaries in Debate,” which is co-authored by Suzi Adams, Paul Blokker, Natalie J. Doyle, John W.M. Krummel, and Jeremy C.A. Smith. In their attempt to theorize the field of the “imaginary,” the authors draw explicitly on Castoriadis, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, (Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 18-19) and Charles Taylor, whom they merit with the distinction of having published the most comprehensive study in the field of social imaginaries. See the 2004 work Modern Social Imaginaries (Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 24).   

With Castoriadis as one of the main influences behind the social imaginaries project, it comes as no surprise that the authors consider the links between the formation of meaning and creative imagination as “a central innovation of the social imaginaries field,” while they wish also to account for wider dimensions of the social, such as “power,” social action, or praxis. (Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 20). At the same time, central to the social imaginaries field is the concept of the “world” as it emerges from both the writings of Castoriadis and the phenomenological tradition, especially Husserl’s notion of the lifeworld and Heidegger’s understanding of the co-emergence of “world” and Dasein. The brief historical overview of the way in which imagination has been treated in the course of the philosophical tradition is also invaluable, as is the discussion concerning the various forms of modern imaginaries.

Castoriadis’ essay on the “Imaginary as Such,” a seminal text that prefigures Castoriadis’ so-called “ontological turn,” is also a precious addition to the contents of this issue. Apart from translating the text from French and rendering it amenable for publication, Johann Arnason authors a brief, yet enlightening introduction to this text and to Castoriadis’ project in general. Arnason’s presence in the issue is actually even more pronounced, as he has also contributed an article on “The Imaginary Dimensions of Modernity,” an essay on Castoriadis’ understanding of imagination, translated and introduced by Suzi Adams.

The same strategy is followed in two more instances, as the articles by Nakamura Yusiro and Marcel Gauchet are translated and introduced by John W. M. Krummel and Natalie J. Doyle, respectively. Nakamura’s contribution has the merit of bringing into dialogue the philosophical tradition of the West and modern Japanese philosophy, as he advances interesting interpretations of the notions of “common sense” and “place,” drawing on the works of Nishida Kitaro. As someone who is rather unacquainted with modern Japanese philosophy I found this article indispensable both as a guide to the way in which this great civilization has received and appropriated western philosophy and for the unique manner in which it attempts to transcend the subject-object bifurcation with the introduction of the notions of place and common sense.

Gauchet’s article, “Democracy: From One Crisis to Another,” attempts to come to terms with the widespread feeling of crisis that has befallen contemporary democracies and culminates in a plea to shed light to the very notion of human rights as a remedy to the various disorders of modern democratic regimes. The issue also contains Peter Wagner’s essay “Interpreting the Present: A Research Programme,” which inquires into the experiences of time and space in the period following the end of “organized modernity” and which in my view is quite informative also in relation to Wagner’s most recent research on progress. Finally, the issue concludes with a vivid discussion on “Modern Social Imaginaries,” between Charles Taylor, Craig Calhoun, Dilip Gaonkar, Benjamin Lee, and Michael Warner.

The second issue of the journal (Vol. 1, Issue 2, Autumn 2015) is equally rich and compelling in its scope and aims. The phenomenological element is again quite strong.  Two of the articles address issues related to Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenology, another couple of the contributions draw their inspiration from Levinas, while Husserl and Patocka are also in the center of two essays. The volume also comprises an article by Fred Dallmayr with the telling title “Man Against the State” and Johann Arnason’s “Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilization.”

George H. Taylor’s essay “The Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy of Imagination” is an excellent attempt to open up Ricoeur’s philosophy toward the problem of collective and individual aspects of productive imagination and their transformative potential. Taylor’s interpretation relies on the one hand on Ricoeur’s best known works like The Rule of Metaphor and Time and Narrative, but on the other hand it owes much of its subtlety to a combined reading of Ricoeur’s series of lectures at the University of Chicago during the 1970s, especially the well-known Lectures on Ideology and Utopia and the less famous Lectures on Imagination (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p.14). Central to Taylor’s argument is Ricoeur’s concept of iconic augmentation, which the author masterfully links both with praxis and with the need to explore the space between language and lived experience, sense, and vision.

Timo Helenius’s “Between Receptivity and Productivity: Paul Ricoeur on Cultural Imagination” draws on Ricoeur’s essay Ideology and Utopia as Cultural Imagination in order to establish that cultural imagination provides the “basis for a sociocultural poetics of human action and, therefore, a condition for the birth of a situated subject in the positive fullness of belonging” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 32). Importantly, through the employment of the notions of ideology and utopia Helenius offers yet another challenging interpretation of the role of productive imagination in Ricoeur’s works and argues that “l’ imagination culturelle” is the very core of productive imagination that informs human action (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 49-50).

Adam Konopka’s “Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach” is a fine study of Husserl’s attempt to understand the Natur-Geist distinction and his theory of world-constitution. This article aspires to refute Merleau-Ponty’s thesis that Husserl was ultimately unable to move beyond the nature-spirit dichotomy. The notions of the Umwelt and of “embodied experience” are central to his argument, which also involves the consideration of Husserl’s “engagement” with the relevant debate between Dilthey and the Baden School. As the author shows, this “culminated in Husserl’s later articulation of the life-world in the Crisis writings of the 1930s” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 58).  The great merit of Konopka’s essay is that it underlines Husserl’s acknowledgment of the existence of pre-reflective, embodied elements that actively contribute to sense-making processes (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 68). In other words he traces in Husserl’s works a theory concerning the formation of individual and collective habitus before this notion became available in the vocabulary of the social sciences.

“The Problem of Morality in a Mathematized Universe: Time and Eternity in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and the Concept of ‘Love’ in Patocka’s Last Essay” is a quite interesting attempt to conceptualize the possibility of ethics in the post-Kantian era, when the universe and the social world and human have lost their divine grounding. The author, Lubica Ucnik, reads Dostoevsky’s masterpiece as a response to the Kantian conception of morality and as a critique of the utilitarian conception of ethics, while she argues that Patocka’s reflections on “Masaryk’s Theological Philosophy” pave the ground for a conception of love and openness towards the Other that is not grounded on the existence of a supreme being but on the sort of responsibility that emanates from the acknowledgment of human finitude.

In a way, there is an affinity between Ucnik’s essay and Kwok-ying Lau’s contribution entitled “War, Peace and Love,” as they both turn to a vulnerable element in the constitution of the human being in order to ground ethics and politics. In Lau’s essay this vulnerability is best exemplified by what – expounding on Levinas’s Totality and Infinity – he calls the “pathetique cry for love and peace” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 122). Since the adjective “pathetique” is used as the author explains in line with “its Greek origin ‘pathetikos’, which means emotional with a strong power of affectivity” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 125, n. 1), it becomes clear that the heroic “logic” of violence that according to Levinas governs human history is here denounced – in Levinasian fashion – in favour of the only kind of love that the author finds worthy of its name: a love that is vulnerable to the presence of the Other, that has the Other as its very origin.

Bernhard Wandenfels’ essay “The Equating of the Unequal” (translated by W.M. Krummel) draws in a wide spectrum of philosophers, thinkers and novelists in order to attack what the author perceives as being the two “extremes,” i.e. on the one hand “any sort of normalism fixed on functioning orders” and on the other hand “any sort of anomalism dreaming of mere events and permanent ruptures” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 92).

Fred Dallmayr’s contribution “Man Against the State: Community and Dissent” conceptualizes the intricate relationship between individual freedom and communal solidarity as it argues against egocentric conceptions of liberty, promulgating instead “ethically grounded conceptions of individual freedom, civil disobedience and dissent” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 127). Dallmayr’s essay starts and closes with quotes from Nietzsche.  In the opening paragraph, a quote from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra presents the state as a cold monster (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 127), exemplifying from the outset the author’s concern that totalitarianism is always present in new – perhaps subtler or even almost unperceivable – guises. The final quote from Nietzsche’s “The Wanderer and His Shadow” shows the essay’s true spirit: “rather perish than hate and fear” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 143), a call for a sort of resistance that refuses to succumb to ressentiment.  Dallmayr’s examples of resistance to totalitarian – or blind – authority are as telling as the key thinkers that inform his own position, for instance Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Albert Camus. Indeed, Socrates’ condemnation by the Athenians, Antigone’s tragic figure, the resistance of Germans against Hitler, are all examples of resistance inspired by belief in the common good, not by a narrow conception of securing one’s well-being.

Johann Arnason’s “Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilization” is a fine conclusion to this issue. With unfailing scholarship and great insight, Arnason brings the works of Elias and Eisenstadt into a fruitful dialogue by revealing their common Durkheimian-Maussian origins, while showing that Weber’s influence in their works is less significant than it is commonly assumed.

Johann Arnason features also in the third published issue of the journal (Vol. 2, Issue 1, Spring 2016), in a long and very informative interview with Suzi Adams that concludes the volume. Readers are sure to find interesting points for reflection both regarding Arnason’s own intellectual trajectory and their own projects.

This last volume opens with John W. M. Krummel’s “Introduction to Miki Kiyoshi and his Logic of the Imagination.” As the title suggests, this essay serves as an introduction to Miki’s philosophy and it gives a brief account of his life and major ideas, as well as serving as an indispensable introduction to Miki’s article that follows. It is obvious even to someone as unfamiliar with Japanese philosophy as myself that Krummel is perfectly at ease with the Kyoto School. I sincerely believe that readers should read his introductory essay before delving into Miki’s text, which is translated by Krummel himself. Miki’s Kiyoshi’s text, “Myth,” is in effect the first chapter of his book The Logic of Imagination. In Krummel’s essay readers can get a glimpse of the main points advanced in the other chapters, such as “institution,” “technics,” and “experience.”

Miki Kiyoshi’s chapter on “myth” is in effect a daring attempt to re-conceptualize “imagination” and it draws both on Japanese and Western sources, while Kant plays a pivotal role in the construction of the argument. It could be said of this first chapter that it is on the way to the construction of a logic of imagination, and in this respect it precedes Castoriadis’s explicit acknowledgement of the need for the advancement of a logic of magmas in The Imaginary Institution of Society. Like Castoriadis, Miki explicitly links imagination with creation and social action (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 28) and questions the relationship between subjective and collective manifestations of imagination with the aid of anthropological accounts available at his time and with Durkheim’s notion of collective representations. Importantly, Miki argues that the creation of “historical forms” is the outcome of “the unity of things in terms of logos and pathos.”  With this definition Miki brings to the fore the psychical, emotional, tactile, and kinetic aspects of the psyche as preconditions of socio-historical praxis.  Among the many interesting points raised in this article, readers won’t fail to notice Miki’s discussion of the connections between myth, utopia, and science (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 44) and his insistence that “imagination is at the root of the human will” (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 43).

Guanjun Wu draws on Lacanian psychoanalysis and its appropriation by Zizek in his attempt to reveal the hidden “psychical mechanism” that underlies modern discourses in the field of Sinology. In his “The Lacanian Imaginary and Modern Chinese Intellectuality,” the author identifies a striving for social harmony at a very early stage in the formation of Chinese civilization and argues that the fundamental fantasy of Confucianism “attempts to suture the ontological gap between the real [in the Lacanian sense] and reality.” It goes without saying that the promise of this realization “is always deferred” (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 79). Contemporary Chinese intellectuals are also seen as “projecting fantasmatic visions” (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 82) and their academic debates are said to represent “a clash of fantasies” (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 92), as Wu draws a vivid and quite interesting picture of Chinese academia.

Craig Brown’s “Critiques of Identity and the Permutations of the Capitalist Imaginary” is an investigation into the antinomies of the capitalist imaginary through the comparison of Adorno’s and Casoriadis’ critiques of instrumental rationality, or “identity thinking.” Brown finds in Weber a common source of influence for both Adorno and Castoriadis and argues that in spite of their differences and their limitations, Adorno’s and Castoriadis’ critiques of “the logic of identity remain relevant and that the capitalist imaginary can be recognised in domains that were sometimes thought to be separate from it and oriented by other values” (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 115).

Finally, Werner Binder’s “Shifting Imaginaries in the War on Terror: The Rise and Fall of the Ticking Bomb Torturer,” takes Niklas Luhmann’s “Ticking Bomb” dilemma as its point of departure, as it explores the impact of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and that of the Abu Ghraib scandal in the shaping of the American social imaginary.

I am well aware of the fact that it was impossible to do justice here to the richness and complexity of every single contribution that features in the three first issues of Social Imaginaries. However, I sincerely hope that I did manage to point to some of their merits and to convey to the reader the feelings of pleasure and intellectual gratification that the texts generated in me. Social Imaginaries is certainly not just another journal; it rather is a space open to new and challenging ideas about the social world(s), and I do hope that it will get the warm reception it clearly deserves by academics and the wider reading public alike.


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