The extraordinarily generous and kind Glenn Russell has just posted a super review of Ivy Feckett is Looking for Love over at Goodreads, accompanied by a lovely imagining of Ivy. Give it a gander!
In the July 4, 2009, edition of the BBC World Service’s discussion programme The Forum, Nobel physics laureate Frank Wilczek, author of The Lightness of Being, gave listeners a succinct description of the nature of the universe:
Close to the core of quantum mechanics is that you learn that seeing is a very active process. There are limitations to how much you can know about an object without disturbing it. This is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and when you get into the really subatomic realms, that becomes even more extreme. To observe the spontaneous activity in space, in a sense you have to create it. An analogy might be, beneath the surface there is lava boiling, or magma boiling. To get it out, to bring it to the surface, you have to actively intervene. And then it comes out, and in a sense you’re creating it on the surface.
These ideas—the conception of the universe as a seething, boiling magma, and the idea that we actively participate in the creation of the world we perceive—play a significant part in the philosophy of Greek-born Francophone thinker Cornelius Castoriadis, one-time Marxist, co-founder of the group Socialisme ou Barbarie, and the so-called “philosopher of autonomy.”
Castoriadis both read and wrote on a broad range of topics—mathematics, physics, biology, the social sciences, linguistics, the arts and humanities, popular culture—and did his best to stay abreast of the latest developments in the hard sciences, so we should perhaps not be surprised to see such ideas so conscientiously applied in the construction of his philosophy. However, the encyclopaedic nature of Castoriadis’s oeuvre makes him a challenging thinker to summarise, and it is to Jeff Klooger’s immense credit that he successfully manages to do so here, ably tracing the pathways of Castoriadis’s thought and presenting them in a condensed but coherent form, choosing as his starting point Castoriadis’s theory of self-creation and pursuing its implications first for our understanding of society and history and then for our ideas about identity, the human body and psyche, the nature of Being and beings, and the meaning of meaning.
Partly on the basis of the formal implications of a wholesale rejection of determinism but also because of his detailed examinations of the diverse materiel comprising human reality and existence, Castoriadis advances a radical and provocative approach to questions about the nature of being, incorporating an unequivocal acceptance of indeterminacy as an intrinsic characteristic of “being” in the human realm. As far back as Zeno, Parmenides, and Heraclitus, philosophers have been aware of the paradoxes inherent in the application of an identity logic (A=A) to being: the logical impossibility of change, motion, and creation. Faced with the reality of change, creation ex nihilo, and impermanence, we are forced to either accept that the appearance of change is illusory, as Parmenides concluded, or else accept an indeterminacy at the heart of being (A≠A) that traditional Western logic-ontology rejects as inconsistent with its definition of being. Castoriadis’s solution is to introduce the concept of magma, a mode of being in which indeterminacy is never absent. Wilczek’s comment above thus offers a useful metaphor for thinking about being in general, as Castoriadis conceives of it. Both Being as a whole and individual beings, including human beings, are magmas, seething, boiling “masses” in which entities, ideas, and forms are constantly being created, forcing their way to the surface, and then disappearing like a burst bubble into the ether. This metaphor can be usefully applied to the quantum physical world, to the biotic world of living animals, to the human psyche, and even to history.
This does not mean that the universe is characterized by chaos. A universe in which indeterminacy was ubiquitous would lack any kind of stability or permanence, the ontological equivalent of white noise, with no discernible forms at all. Indeed, the traditional Western logic-ontology would not be conceivable were it not for the fact that beings exhibit some semblance of permanence and stability; the mistake is to assume that the appearance of such permanence and stability is the reality. Rather, at different levels of being, entities persist, are stable, and endure for periods appropriate and relative to their scale: As evolution shows, the persistence of entities and our perceptions of them as such have to be adequate for our survival needs. An inability to perceive predators as enduring, stable entities in their environment would undoubtedly place animals at a distinct disadvantage in the survival stakes. And mathematics becomes possible only because we are capable of extrapolating or abstracting from semi-permanence to create concepts with the appearance of permanence.
At the psychological and social levels, magmas and our involvement in self-creation are again central to Castoriadis’s ideas. Castoriadis draws on the not-uncontroversial work of the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in particular their concept of autopoiesis, to explain the human capacity for self-creation and autonomy. Castoriadis’s background as a psychoanalyst left him with a Freudian conception of the human psyche that we might today regard as somewhat quaint; a seething, undirected collection of urges and drives, the wilder impulses generated by the lustful, aggressive, self-seeking id managed and controlled only by the conscious mind, the superego, the socialized, self-disciplined part of the psyche. In the traditional Freudian framework, the containment and control of urges constitute the source of our neuroses, our dreams, and our fantasies, but also our creativity. Such a framework fits in well with Castoriadis’s overall ontology, albeit a framework that no longer holds up so well in light of what we know now about cognitive development, particularly in children. Nonetheless, there are obvious overlaps in their conception of the human mind. Here’s neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás discussing human creativity:
The neural processes underlying that which we call creativity have nothing to do with rationality. That is to say, if we look at how the brain generates creativity, we will see that it is not a rational process at all; creativity is not born out of reason.
Let us think again of our motor tapes in the basal ganglia. I should like to suggest to you that these nuclei do not always wait for a tape to be called up by the thalamo-cortical system, the self . . . In fact, the activity in the basal ganglia is running all the time, playing motor patterns and snippets of motor patterns amongst and between themselves-and because of the odd, re-entrant inhibitory connectivity amongst and between these nuclei, they seem to acts as a continuous, random, motor pattern noise generator. Here and there, a pattern or portion of a pattern escapes, without its apparent emotional counterpart, into the context of the thalamo-cortical system.
In other words, the constant firing and sparking of creativity goes on even while our conscious mind is otherwise engaged. When the “spotlight” of the conscious mind dims or goes out, when we sleep or drift into semi-consciousness, we can access those noises, that bubbling of ideas that is always there beneath the surface. While this might not be the creation ex nihilo that Castoriadis has in mind, it keeps intact his idea of the human psyche as magma. In any case, the deficiencies in Castoriadis’s Freudianism do not significantly undermine his case for indeterminacy or for the role of autonomy in human affairs, and Klooger prudently devotes only a limited amount of space to this aspect of Castoriadis’s thought. Of greater significance is the “imaginary,” an aspect of the human condition, and of society and history, that traditional thought has always ignored, neglected, or failed to understand or appreciate. Acknowledging the importance of the imaginary, and of the imagination, means acknowledging true creation as an essential part of the human condition; creation, that is, as the emergence of forms that are in no way determined by what preceded them.
For Castoriadis, society is, in its essence, a process of self-creation. Societies bring themselves into being by the creation of “social imaginary significations,” which they embody and around which they organize themselves. This is true of all societies but, says Castoriaidis, only those societies that recognize themselves as self-creating, who understand that their institutions and structures are not given from on high by the gods or pre-ordained by Nature but created by humans, can be characterized as autonomous. Its members have the capacity not just to reflect on, question, and challenge the legitimacy of their institutions; they can also go about actively formulating and trying to construct their own alternatives.
Such a demystification of society took place in ancient Greece, Castoriadis argues, where a transformation in consciousness gave rise to the birth of philosophy and the democratic polis. It also occurred later, in the modern West, beginning around the 12th century in autonomous city-states but attaining its peak in modernity proper, when what Castoriadis calls “the project of autonomy” engaged in a radical critique of the existing organization of society and pursued the goals of individual and collective self-determination.
Castoriadis has been criticised for the supposedly ethnocentric underpinnings of this theory, for privileging Western culture and Enlightenment thought over alternative conceptions of philosophy and society, but as Klooger points out, identifying the project of autonomy with particular societies does not necessarily entail equating it to the concrete cultural and institutional expressions of it within those societies. Moreover, and as Klooger acknowledges, Greece was not alone in undergoing such transformative experiences. Karl Jaspers identified several “axial civilizations” (including Greece) that underwent revolutions in understanding at around the same time:
What is new about this age, in all three of these worlds [i.e., China, India, and the Occident], is that man becomes aware of being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terrible nature of the world and his own impotence. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void, he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognizing his limits, he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences unconditionality in the depth of selfhood and in the clarity of transcendence.
Or perhaps we might say, more prosaically, in the Old Testament, God is going around speaking unto everyone, whereas by the end of the Gospels not even Jesus is on speaking terms with him.
Klooger draws on the work of sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt on axial age civilizations to explore the challenges that their history poses to Castoriadis’s concept of heteronomous societies (i.e. those societies unaware of their own self-creation) and to contrast Eisenstadt and Castoriadis’s conceptions of the history and nature of self-reflexivity. The distinction is fine, but essentially Castoriadis’s definition of self-reflexivity entails the active questioning of established truths and norms, and not just mere incredulity towards them. It was only in ancient Greece, he contends, that this challenge takes place; it was there that the two fundamental questions of philosophy—How ought we to live? and What, and how, ought we to think?—are asked for the first time.
Klooger does an excellent job of identifying the lacunae in Castoriadis’s work and spares no effort in teasing out the smallest of contradictions in what remains an impressive, coherent, and powerful intellectual edifice. Some of his objections, over terminology, for instance, may strike the reader as hair-splitting, but it’s also clear that he has laboured intensively to make sense of Castoriadis’s thought and to render it comprehensible for his readers. In his later writings, Castoriadis explored the threats posed to contemporary society by our declining awareness of its, our, self-creation and by the dominant social imaginary of our time, the unlimited expansion of rational mastery. These are topics outside the scope of Klooger’s work but provide a logical extension to it and, what’s more, are the basis for much of the rediscovery of Castoriadis’s writings in recent years, especially among social movements. Interested readers can find The Rising Tide of Insignificancy and Figures of the Thinkable available as free pdfs online. I highly recommend them.
Undergraduates who’ve paid attention in class, postgraduates under a certain age, and non-academic readers of an inquisitive bent and with an enthusiasm for philosophy will find this book invaluable as a challenging, provocative, and genuinely enjoyable introduction to a thinker whose ideas remain extraordinarily relevant and useful. Before engaging directly with Castoriadis’s own works, which can be intimidating in their intensity and vocabulary, students would do well to read Klooger’s introductory text. It is to be hoped that Brill can be persuaded to bring out a paperback edition in the near future. No one can realistically expect individuals to fork out 200 bucks for a book, and this particular one is too important to be confined to the libraries of academic institutions.
Castoriadis: Psyche, Autonomy, Society, by Jeff Klooger. 2009. 368 pp. Brill.
I was predisposed to regard Lynsey Hanley’s book favourably, having very much enjoyed her previous work, Estates, and finding that we had a similar background, albeit separated by a decade or so. While Hanley was raised on the Chelmsley Wood council estate in Solihull, I was fortunate enough to grow up in the slightly more salubrious Shirley: my parents were both born into poverty but benefited from postwar employment levels, so that by the time I was born my father had been promoted to foreman in the factory where he worked, enabling my mother to work only part time and the pair of them to take out a mortgage on a house beyond the boundary of Birmingham itself, albeit only barely. The similar backgrounds and biographies are germane to my enjoyment of Hanley’s book, not because they generate a sense of solidarity or recognition, or not only because of that, but also because they go some way to explaining our mutual interest in sociology and our fascination with the issue of class.
Whereas Hanley recounts discovering the middle class for the first time at Solihull Sixth Form College, my first encounter took place at a younger age, 14, when I joined the local tennis club. It was there that I first met not just the middle class but also snobbery, as well as contempt, and disdain, both for me and for ‘my people’. Having been fortuitous and privileged up to that point, it was not until my teenage years that I became conscious of not being good enough, of being observed from the outside and judged negatively, as wanting. It was at this point that class became for me a reality, a lived experience. When I subsequently moved to Manchester and found sociology was an A level subject on the local college curriculum, I took to it like a duck to water.
It was sociology that allowed me – and Hanley – to make sense not just of our place in the world but also of the world itself. And this brings me to the most striking revelation I experienced while reading Respectable: That those who find themselves growing up in the heart of their class rarely have to give their social location a second thought because everyone surrounding them reaffirms the same set of values; they never have cause to doubt nor need to reflect upon the intrinsic merit of their own class habitus (they are “working class and proud of it” or else they are “born to rule,” the “creme de la creme” as one of my schoolfriends – the son of two teachers – put it before going off to work for Lehman’s and DeutscheBank). For other specific class fractions, however – those on the boundaries between two classes, those who have moved between classes (up or down) – class becomes an obsession. Indeed, it is fair to say that this obsession with class and the concern with self-worth are in themselves part of the habitus of these particular class fractions; these are the benighted folk who comprise what may be called the “anxious classes,” that part of the middle class worried about falling into poverty, those upwardly mobile from the working class concerned about keeping up appearances, and those who engage in conspicuous consumption, the nouveaux riches, keen to demonstrate their social mobility. And, of course, Sociologists! It is class as these groups experience it, which is to say, self-consciously, that is really at the heart of Hanley’s book. Not that the book is any the worse for that. The arguments and observations are well supported, making good use of the canonical texts in the Sociology of Class (Paul Willis, Wilmott & Young, Pierre Bourdieu, etc.). But because it uses Hanley’s own experiences anecdotally as a way of introducing topics, it really only provides a phenomenology of the class migrant’s experience of class. Those who have spent their entire lives within their own class may have an entirely different view of class than that described here.
Hanley expresses her admiration for Richard Hoggart’s mid-20th-century classic The Uses of Literacy and to some extent has succeeded in producing a 21st-century version. While this is admirable, it means the book is accompanied by all the attendant vices of Hoggart’s book, particularly the tendency to wander off-topic for the sake of enumerating or recording particular events. Nonetheless, I found very little to disagree with and much to like, within the confines of the account she provides. It would have been interesting to have heard the voices of the people Hanley left behind in her movement between classes. Did they all fail to make it into the middle class? Are any of them better off financially than she is, and if so, how come? What is their view of class? We don’t know. What Hanley has really given us are the pathologies of a particular way of thinking about class, and the reader may conclude that the importance she ascribes to issue is nothing more than the result of her own upbringing. I’m inclined to agree. For a more comprehensive measure of the role and importance of class, I would suggest the need to add a macroscopic perspective, such as that provided by Pickett and Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level, as well as a historical dimension, such as that given in Conor McCabe’s The Sins of the Fathers. Which is not to say that Hanley’s book is not illuminating and a joy to read, only that vignettes, however beautifully and intelligently drawn, are only windows into a life, not maps of an entire world.
Respectable: The Experience of Class, by Lynsey Hanley. 2016. 240 pp. Allen Lane.
The cover of my edition of Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship features a quotation from the Sunday Telegraph describing it as “A truly magnificent book.” Such is my prejudice that I imagine Telegraph readers coming to Rediker’s work not to be educated about the shaping of race and class in the Western hemisphere by the Atlantic slave trade but to bask in reminiscences about the source of their wealth or enjoy some tales of derring-do among the savages. An education is what they will receive, nonetheless, whether they like it or not.
By now, the basics of the slave trade are well known, including its triangular pattern; ships starting in Bristol or Liverpool carried manufactured goods to Africa, which were traded for slaves, who were carried to the Americas and sold to work on the plantations, where the raw materials-cotton, tobacco, and sugar-were bought to undergo modification in the factories and mills of Lancashire, Birmingham, and elsewhere up North, for sale in, among other places, Africa. The slave trade was thus perfectly integrated into the other new markets generated by the Industrial Revolution. It was a business just like any other, a reality that tends to escape analyses of slavery that focus on the barbarity and captivity endured by the slaves to the neglect of the logic behind both.
Not that there isn’t plenty of savagery and captivity to go around. The genius of Rediker’s book is that he has relied heavily on contemporary accounts of life on a slaver, from merchants, captains, sailors, and the slaves themselves. This lends a clarity, vividness, and depth to the story that, while not for the faint of heart, will leave readers in no doubt as to what went on and why. The answer to the big why, of course, is the pursuit of profit. The pursuit of profit explains pretty much everything. But what Rediker manages to tease out in his account are the nuances, the subtle tensions, the balancing act that capitalists have always had to perform, in order to extract labour from the exploited. Anyone who has worked in a factory will recognize, or at least understand, the wheedling, coercion, and incentivization of behaviour deployed by ships’ captains to get the most from their crew and human commodities, even if the cat o’ nine tails is no longer the instrument of choice.
The journey from England to Africa typically saw the modification of the ship by skilled labourers-carpenters and smiths, for instance-who turned it in to a floating prison, a Guineaman, as the slave ships were universally referred to, before its arrival on the shores of such places as Benin, Congo, and Angola. In particular, this part of the journey saw the construction of the barricado, a barricade, a high, strong wooden barrier that stretched across the entire main deck of the ship and behind which the crew could retreat in the case of insurrection by the slaves; the barricado contained holes and a raised platform for the crew to fire their guns and cannon at the slaves, as well as a door that allowed only one person at a time to pass through. The barricado also turned the main deck into a kind of prison courtyard, so that when the slaves were allowed up onto the main deck for “dancing,” the crew could keep an eye on them and fire down on them if necessary.
“Dancing” was, by and large, a euphemism for exercise. The slave merchant had no use for damaged goods, so it was important in terms of maximizing his profit that the slaves he sold in the Americas be fit for work. This necessitated some sort of “humane” treatment, so slaves were fed and watered, but at the same time, the captain had to ensure that fit, strong slaves were never in a position to revolt. “Dancing” thus took place in manacles and leg irons, with slaves supervised and motivated by crew members, under instruction to keep the slaves both healthy and acquiescent. This was a tall order, as you might imagine. Slaves understood the meaning of captivity, even if the technology was new to them, and would do everything in their power to escape or deprive the slaver of their labour. Suicide was common, either by hunger strike or leaping to the sharks that followed the Guineamen knowing there would be food. The ships were thus also equipped with netting around the sides of the decks to prevent such attempts-because the slaves believed that when they died their souls would return home, many drowned not just defiantly but happily-and with the speculum oris, an instrument used to force open the jaws of those recalcitrant slaves refusing to eat. The slave merchants knew there would be deaths on board their ships-cramming as many bodies as they could onto their ships was a recipe for epidemics-but death was always factored into the equation when gauging likely profits. Merchants had a good idea how many deaths to expect, providing mass suicides could be prevented, hence the expectation that the captain would nip any form of resistance, passive or otherwise, in the bud, pour encourager les autres.
Class tensions asserted themselves, too, in the relationship between captain and crew. Few sailors appear to have wanted to sign up on Guineamen. The mortality rate was exceedingly high for crewmembers, the captains were notoriously barbaric, and the morality of slavery was naturally an issue. Many sailors signed up either to get out of prison or to avoid prison. Captains would scour the taverns of port cities with a couple of reliable mates, often family, in search of likely crew, who they’d attempt to get drunk and, with the connivance of a tavern owner in on the scam, draw into debts of such magnitude that they found themselves the next day with the options of either signing up or going to jail. This was no way for a captain to generate loyalty and devotion among his crew, but then he only required their obedience, not their love, and he relied upon the perception of a shared interest in survival once the slaves were on board to solicit the crewmembers’ allegiance. Rediker describes how captains’ personalities and attitudes slowly changed during the journey. Sweetness and light to the crew on the way to Africa, he would turn into a brute to slaves and crew alike once loaded and bound for the Americas. Crews did mutiny, but rarely in unison with slaves, and with a view to selling the slaves themselves on occasion. By and large, though, the captains and mates formed a cohesive group dedicated to realizing the profits at any cost, and so to the extent that they depended upon the crew to do this, the captains would do anything in their power to elicit compliance. A ratio of 8 or 10 slaves to every one crewmember was considered sufficient to meet all needs, including repression. However, once the ship had deposited its cargo in the Americas, many crew became surplus to requirements and would be travelling back to England with nothing to contribute to the bottom line; on the contrary, they constituted a cost insofar as their wages would be paid on arrival. Consequently, toward the end of the second stage of the voyage, just as the slaves were receiving improved treatment to ready them for market, the captains would try to alienate those crewmembers who would not be needed for the journey home, so that they’d jump ship in the Caribbean rather than face the final leg under the captain’s command. This persecution of the crew was deliberate and at the behest of the merchants, who sometimes gave explicit instructions to the captain that they dispose of superfluous crew, even though such a practice was illegal. Rediker tells us that the slave ports were crammed with these pitiful wretches, former crewmembers crippled by disease or unable for one reason or another to get passage home.
Rediker demonstrates how the trade played a part in shaping not just the economic relations between Britain, Africa, and America, but also the social relations and the perceptions of race and class of those involved. Captains often tried to purchase slaves who would struggle in mutual comprehension. If they spoke many and different languages, it followed that they would less likely form a cohesive unit, find common ground, and revolt. A lack of common language made insurrection less likely. Nonetheless, the common experience of captivity transformed slaves, for both themselves and the crew, from being members of discrete, sometimes even antagonistic, African tribes, into “Negroes”, pure and simple, and crewmembers into “White Men”, regardless of the colour of their skin. Race relations were simplified, in effect, because of the universal experience of slavery. Slaves became brothers and sisters regardless of origin, by virtue of their shared experience. New bonds were formed in the face of necessity. Hardship produced co-operation. Slaves may well have found themselves in their predicament as a result of capture by other Africans, but on board ship every African became a brother or a sister. And for the plantation owners who received them, the slaves’ origins were of little consequence; they were a source of labour power and nothing else.
The book closes with accounts of the insurrection by sailors in Liverpool in 1775, in which a thousand sailors wearing red ribbons and armed with muskets, blunderbusses, and cannons attempted to destroy the Mercantile Exchange, and of the role of the slave ship in mobilizing forces to ultimately abolish the trade in Britain. It isn’t part of Rediker’s remit to explore the social and economic factors that contributed to the demise of the slave trade in Britain, only to explain how the slave ship itself played a part in shaping the struggles of those who took part. He does so convincingly, engagingly, and perceptively. This is a book in the tradition of “history from below”, and I couldn’t help but compare it to Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch for the way it demystifies social relations and explains the interplay between class, race, gender, and empire. It isn’t really the kind of book you’re likely to buy as a gift, but it’s a compelling read, and you’ll be doing a really big favour for anyone you buy it for, even if it’s just yourself.
The Slave Ship: A Human History, by Marcus Rediker. 2008. John Murray. 468 pp.