Social Theory Seminar Final

Joseph Reagle Jr.

1. Explain what you understand as the kind of shift Castoriadis is seeking to make away from Marxian orthodoxy with his argument about the imaginary institution of society. Briefly indicate the productivity of his insights for a non-functionalist account of the force of the symbolic.

The Marxists who believe that Marxism accounts for the birth, the the function and raison d'etre of classes are at a level of understanding on a par with Christians who believe that the Bible accounts for the creation and the raison d'etre of the world. (Castoriadis 1998:151)

Castoriadis and Sartre shared a pedestal from which they critiqued Marxism in the 20th Century: they both criticized the rigidity of its orthodoxy. Yet this is also where they diverge. In Search for a Method, Sartre claimed that Marxism was the philosophy of time that we cannot “go beyond” (Sartre 1968:xxxiv). Consequently, he attempted reformation by integrating existentialism and emphasizing totalization in the Marxist context. In The Imaginary Institution of Society, Castoriadis used the pedestal not only to criticize the orthodoxy, but as the first step towards a more radical departure that challenged much of Marx's theory on the dialectic, historical materialism, and determinism.

The different paths these two authors take can be demonstrated when one considers Sartre's statement that "Marxism in the nineteenth century is a gigantic attempt not only to make History but to get a grip on it…" (89) I expect Castoriadis would agree with the initial sentiment of making history: like Sartre, he appreciated Marx's integration of philosophy, politics, and praxis (Castoridis 1998:62).  Yet, perhaps, it's when Marxists try to “grip” history they lose it, for one can not capture the social imagination, a critical aspect to Castoridis, in the palm of one's hand.  To understand society and history, one must “go beyond” Marxism and explore the depths of the imaginary.

Castoriadis' incrimination of Marx's inversion of the Hegelian dialectic is provocative: one can not simply replace logos with matter, “A revolutionary surpassing of the Hegelian dialectic demands not that it be set on its feet but that, to begin with, its head be cut off”  (55). Furthermore, “Historical materialism is untenable because it makes technology the motor of history, relies upon capitalistic categories, and is based on presumptions about fixed human nature” (29). Marxists' preoccupation with the economic, and inattention to the cultural superstructure, fails to recognize that society is an “uninterrupted circular feed-back between the methods of production, social organization and the total content of culture” (20). A history predicated on production presumes an exclusive economic motivation. Yet men exceed their biological needs and consequently such a history is then only a history of capitalism and Castoridis refuses the “technical-economic” as determining, in the past and present (27). Not only does Marxism fail in its scope, by remaining bound to the philosophical form of the dialectic and focusing on the economical, but the very notion of determinacy itself is challenged.

First, there is the matter of contemporaneous and historical recognition. In The Control Revolution, Beniger (1986:2) noted that the widespread acceptance of the Industrial Revolution did not arrive until Arnold Toynbee popularized the term in 1881, a century after the invention of the steam engine and Spinning Jenny. Likewise, Castoriadis noted that the meaning of an identified historical period is not fixed over time: was the meaning of the Russian Revolution the same in 1918, 1925, and 1936 (40)? Castoriadis recognized the contextual interdependency of an epoch, and identifies a uniqueness,  “. . . for the fact that every civilization and every epoch, because it is particular and dominated by its own obsessions, manages to evoke and to unveil new meanings in the societies that preceded or surrounded it” (34).  One can not presume the we are on the verge of any transitory phase, nor that there is any ordinality to the subsequent stages of historical development (39). We are embedded in a complex structure that includes predictable dependencies as well as wild evocations.

Second, there is the future. In Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, Asimov posited a form of predictable historical determinism known as psycohistory. Yet its founder's predictions are ruined when “The Mule”, a brilliant human genetic mutant, exceeds the bounds of calculation.  This corresponds to Castoridis' recognition of the “deviations presented by the real behavior of individuals in relation to 'typical' behavior” (44). However, this is the lesser of a pair arguments against determinism: beyond simple unpredictability, there is also the role of creativity (44). Consider the example of Web cookies. Cookies were an innovation for managing “state” for a user on a single Web site, so that, for example, the status of one's shopping basket might persist while one browses the site. That was the intent; they came to be used as a way of tracking users across multiple sites for advertising purposes. This led me, during a lecture in 1998, to propose a sort of paradox of technology in a policy context:

Definition: Good technology, often created through simple processes, lends itself to applications unforeseen by its designers. Paradox: The unforeseen applications often have highly contentious issues associated with them that the original process is incapable of addressing.

This point is perfectly mirrored in Castoridis' comment that, “What appears to us today in technical progress not only is ambiguous, but even underdetermined with respect to its social significance . . .” (60).  The constituents of historical movement, including technological evolution, can not be cleaved and delineated from the complex past, perfectly understood in the context of the present, nor used as a basis for predicting the future.

While  Castoridis and Sartre might have agreed that Marxism decays when activity devolves into a closed theoretical system (68), Castoridis, as shown, argued that Marxist theory itself is lacking. Into this vacuum he proposes the Imaginary Institution of Society (IIS) wherein he identifies the (inseparable) role of symbolism and the imaginary to social life and history.

A “first approach” to understanding the role of symbolism and the imaginary is to consider alienation.  Castoridis noted that alienation does not arise simply from class conflict. Alienation no doubt existed in societies without much class structure or even distinction (115). Instead, alienation arises from one's relations to the institutions of society. Granted, an institution can be understood by its functional role in society and overall economy, and the functional characteristic of capitalist institutions may be particularly alienating, but  Castoridis argued that they can not be reduced as such, for they are also creatures of the symbolic. Yet, while institutions can only exist in the symbolic, they cannot be reduced to the symbolic either.

What then, is the imaginary and symbolic? Castoridis wrote the the symbolic is bound up with nature and history (125), that, “A symbol never imposes itself with a natural necessity, but neither does it ever lack all reference to reality” (118). Futhermore,

Functionality borrows its meaning from outside itself; symbolism necessarily refers to something that is not symbolical and that is not simply real or rational either. This element - which gives a specific orientation to every institutional system, which overdetermines the choice and the connections of symbolic networks, which is the creation of each historical period, its singular manner of living, of seeing and of conducting its own existence, its world, and its relations with this world, this originary structuring component, this central signifying-signified, the source of that which presents itself in every instance as an indisputable and undisputed meaning, the basis for articulating what does matter and what does not, the origin of the surplus of being of the objects of practical, affective and intellectual investment, whether individual or collective - is nothing other than the imaginary of the society or of the period considered. (145)

Yet, even this text fails to directly define the symbolic and imaginary, instead it dances a circumference within which these can be found. The evasion is perhaps appropriate. Later, when discussing imagination and dream, Castoridis relied upon Freud's conception of the “dream navel”, “'a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unraveled'. The densest, the richest place, the most important place of the dream is 'unplumbable'; the exploration of its central point cannot reach a conclusion . . .” (280). Simply, the radical imagination makes the "first representation" out of nothing (283). It is with this “big bang” that the co-evolution of the social imagination and institutions begin, forming a “symbolic network in which a functional component and an imaginary component are combined in variable proportions and relations” (132).  The social world is constituted from the significations of this network as constituted in the imaginary.

3. Drawing on Anderson and Jameson, outline their arguments for postmodernism as representing the overarching cultural logic corresponding to the economic forms of late capitalism. What implications can you deduce for the pursuit of media studies from these arguments?

I have consistently argued, over the last few years, that the conjuncture is marked by a dedifferentation of fields, such that economics has come to overlap with culture: that everything, including commodity production and high and speculative finance, has become cultural; and culture has equally become profoundly economic or commodity orientated. (Jameson 1998:73)

Postmodernism can be characterized by a weakening, if not collapse, of many of the ideals of modernity. Boundaries have blurred and “dedifferentation” punctures the membrane between the culture and economy. The “death of the subject” indicates the end of the independent and stable person on a self-directed path of determination and improvement. Furthermore, the conceptualization of the subject, now fragmented, can no longer support the weight of a unified understanding of society: the legitimacy of the collective modern enterprise is suspect. Science is not progress, merely a problem solving technique of the privileged. History has no past nor future, instead they are conflated in a present that feeds in the historical archives and on the foreign-exotic so assuage its nostalgia and entertain – and be entertained by –  the utopian, still present but now lost amongst the pastiche of images.

However, my simple categorization, if I wish to be true to Anderson and Jameson, skirts the precipice of misunderstanding.

First, I do not mean to imply that these are negative changes, no more so than they are positive. While the modernity and enlightenment project are in some sense prescriptive, Jameson's articulation of postmodernity is descriptive, a periodization for the “emergent social order of late capitalism” (Jameson 1998:3). As an ideology, postmodernism “is better grasped as a symptom of the deeper structural changes in our society and its culture as a whole, or in other words, in the mode of production” (Jameson 50). For example, the deprecation of “high” aesthetes and the priority now afforded to the popular might be democratic or demagogic, but in any case it is still the state of affairs in the world. As stated by Anderson:

The temptation to be avoided, above all, was moralism. The complicity of postmodernism with the logic of the market and of the spectacle was unmistakable. But simple condemnation of it as a culture was sterile. Again and again – to the surprise of many, on left and right alike – Jameson has insisted on the futility of moralizing about the rise of the postmodern. (Anderson 64)

Second, “post” does not connote a break from modernism, but a consequent thereof. Anderson characterized Lyotard as arguing that the postmodern is “a motion of internal renewal within it [modernism]”  (Anderson 1998:31). While Anderson does not find much satisfaction in this response, calling it lame in the context in which it is uttered, I find it compelling because it parallels Lyotard's recognition of capitalism, also characterized by Anderson as “the outcome of a process of natural selection that pre-dated human life itself. . . . trouncing communist or islamist competitors, and moderating ecological dangers” (Anderson 33).

Jameson, too, recognized the emergence of this “late” capitalism, and relied upon Saul Landau to characterize it as neutralizing “all the threatening forces it generated against itself in the past – labour movements and insurgencies, mass socialist parties, even socialist states themselves” (Jameson 48). Deleuze (Deleuze 1992), Hardt (Hardt 1998), and Negri (Hardt and Negri 2000) identified the emergent and self-reforming character of post-modern (market) power and located it within the “control society” or “Empire.” Castoride's spoke of it as such:

. . . for the past 25 years, the productive forces have known a development that far surpassed anything that could have been imagined in the past. This development was, of course, influenced by modifications in the organization of capitalism, and it in turn has led to a number of others, but it has not put into question the substance of the capitalist relations of production. What appeared to Marx as a 'contradiction' that was to destroy the system, has instead been 'resolved' within the system. (Castoridis 1998:18)

Yet late capital does not destroy its opposition. Raymond Williams insisted that hegemony is a dominant rather than a total system, one that coexists with its “residual” and “emergent” forms of resistance. For Jameson, “Postmodernism was a dominant of this kind, and no more” (Anderson 64).

What else is a characteristic of the “non-human logic” of late capital? What implications does it have for media studies? While postmodernism theory has much to say directly on visual culture and its production, as  does Jameson's film analysis (155-161), I will try to restrict my answer to the production of media resulting from this capitalistic form and the process of dedifferentiation: the impetus that drives the production of culture as commodity.

In addition to the emergent, hegemonic and self-correcting character, Jameson noted that postmodernism is to the intellectual, as “globalism” is to the world market. To understand the “free-floating” character of capital in the global market, Jameson relies upon the Delezian neologism of “deterritorialization” and Arrighi's treatment of Marx's M-C-M cycle:

So it is that in any specific region of production, as Arrighi shows us, there comes a moment in which the logic of capitalism –  faced with the saturation of the local and even foreign markets – determines an abandonment of that kind of specific production, along with its factories and trained workforce, and, leaving them behind in ruins, takes its flight to other more profitable ventures. (Jameson 153)

So we now have a global media, but we do not constitute a global audience of like minds. In semiotics context is key; the image of the  American soldier as broadcast on CNN is likely to mean something quite different to the “NASCAR dad” as it does to the Arabian teenager.  In the marketplace, as media venues proliferate they must differentiate, requiring content tailored to specific demographics. T o sate the need for differentiation while limiting production costs content is repurposed. The show “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge” on Spike TV (tailored to the “mook” demographic) is an edited and translated version of a 1980s Japanese game show called “Takeshi's Castle.” The purported translation includes too many contemporary references to be authentic to the original Japanese, and consequently it's a bewildering phenomena to behold: a distorted shadow cast from our own perception of the other.

In this sense, while not explicitly stated as such, our mediated selves correspond to the  disjunction between the physical body and its built environment. In his chapter on the consumer, Jameson considers architectural forms and the placement/relationship of the human within them. In his discussion of the Bonaventura hotel, an exemplar of the “postmodern hyperspace,” he notes that these spaces have finally exceeded the ability of the individual human to locate herself within the space, “the great global, multinational and decenterred communicational network” (Jameson 16).

The global scope of the cultural logic includes not only many (decentered) persons, but the many aspects of each person: the fragments of one's post-modern self represents additional consumers. In a discussion about privacy with a marketer I argued that because I was bombarded with advertising that was completely irrelevant to me (e.g., motor vehicles, animal food products, alcohol products, feminine products, etc.) I should have more effective means of shielding myself from marketers. His response was that I had it exactly wrong, the marketing was failing because they did not have enough information about me: if they knew me very well, I would never have to see another McDonald's commercial. This sort of logic does have a certain consistency.

Should we welcome or decry the implications of this economic/cultural logic for our media? Like Jameson, I abstain from immediate judgment. The first task is to understand the logic and its relationship to ourselves such that we can then posit and discuss the relative benefits and detriments in its applied form.

4. Drawing on Paul Stoller's work, present an argument for the importance of an anthropology of the senses as extending the empirical and theoretical reach of media studies.

MAUDE: I then became infatuated with these – my "Odorifics" . . . "Snowfall on 42nd Street." Put it on. (She helps him put on the oxygen-type mask.) Now I'll pump it up ... and you just turn the handles. Okay. What do you smell?

HAROLD:     Subways... Perfume... Cigarette... (gradually becoming more excited) ... Cologne... Carpet... Chestnuts! ... Snow!

In the 1971 film Harold and Maude, a young man is exposed to the potency of the senses by his first lover, a woman in her seventies. In The Taste of Ethnographic Things , Paul Stoller ( Stoller 1989 :1989) wrote of his own growth as a young anthropologist coming to appreciate the depth of experience and the salience of the senses in understanding the Songhay people. His Songhay mentor, Adamu Jenitongo, told him, “Today you are learning about us, but to understand us, you will have to grow old with us” (6). How might an “anthropology of the senses” extend the empirical and theoretical reach of media studies? I am not sure, at this point I can offer many questions, and perhaps a few cautious suggestions.

In his first trips to Niger to study its people, Stoller was an “ethnographic realist” following a tradition of the omniscient-objective third person, generalizing the studied culture in functionalist/structuralist terms (26) and privileging the visual (36). When he realized that the responses to his 20 item survey were fabricated he despaired; an elder recommended that he first gain the trust of the people: “You must learn to sit and listen” (128). However, the average American sits and watches nearly four hours of TV a day ( FCC Factsheet ). When studying the alien, Stoller seemingly recommends one become alien. However, when studying the media saturated culture of one's self, what must one become?

In a later trip Djebo, the wife of his host, served Stoller, and many of the male neighbors, an unsavory sauce. Yet, she is not simply a bad cook. Stoller realized that the sauce is a symbolic expression of her discontentment, expressed in one of the few ways available to her in that culture, “That night Djebo's horrible fukko hoy expressed sensually her anger, an anger formed from a complex of circumstances. She wanted her sauce to be disgusting,” (22) “. . . for Djebo's bad sauce is gloriously disgusting; it reeks with meaning” (25). Stoller calls for a more sensual ethnography, and if media studies are “overly textualist,” as suggested by Arvin Rajagopal in a class discussion, what might the remedy be?

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser wrote of visiting scientists who can recreate the smell of meat or strawberries on a small slip of paper. And, our aural receptivity is certainly appreciated by advertisers: consider the laugh-track, or advertising “jinglets” (the brief, branded, sound-mark at the end of a television commercial) of Intel, PlayStation and Sega. Yet those senses stressed by Stoller (taste, touch, and smell) as a new anthropology of the senses are for the most part evoked, not directly experienced, in media today. Absent the invention of a widely deployed media of “odorifics,” the media itself is predominately textual/visual.

Yet, I do not think this makes Stoller irrelevant to media studies. His focus on the poignancy and breadth of the senses, while dominate to his text, is an (extensive) example for his theoretical program of “radical empiricism.” Ironically, since the media ecologist is likely to be embedded in the culture she studies, part of Stoller's program has already been implemented. The next question then is if we can't feign omniscience and objectivity with other cultures, should we do so in our own? To further motivate an answer to the questions I've asked so far, I'll ask one more. I wish to study the character of new media (e.g., the Web, messaging, blogs, etc.) in which open and voluntary communities are situated. What would radical empiricism recommend for this sort of work?

First, I should identify my relationship with the community: “We need to acknowledge in the text the presence of an ethnographer who engages in dialog with his or her subjects.” (140) Second, I should avoid objectifying “sludgy” prose (137) and aspire to an artful “recreation for our readers that renders the texture of social life . . .” (151). Third, and this is most relevant when the community of study is not the “other,” I should not give the impression that I'm presenting the only authoritative (on my part) nor genuine (on the subjects' part) representation. These are all laudable guiding principles.

However, does radical empiricism include an advocacy of the subject? Stoller wrote of an experience in which he is awakened from sleep and tested by Dunguri, a woman who could teach him a “great deal about the Songhay world of magic” (43):  

But my lower body lower body did not budge. I pinched my leaden thighs and felt nothing. My heart raced. I couldn't flee. What could I do to save myself? As a sorko benya, I began to recite the genji, for Adamu Jenitongo had told me that if I ever felt danger I should recite this incantation until I had conquered my fear. And so I recited and recited and recited until I began to feel a slight tingling in my hips. . . . The presence had left the room. (46)

I read this text with a concern: advocacy for a magical belief system is present, even if implicit, in the text. Yet, my concern is not because of his adoption of a sorko benya response – I'm interested in a normative approach to my own subject of study – but because of a lack of skepticism about it.  I'm not a simple observer of open communities, but a participant: I wish to understand and articulate their character such they might be appreciated and improved upon by others. However, I can't do this by relaxing the rigor of critical thought. Yet, s leep paralysis is extraordinarily common, and Stoler did not opt to raise this as a possibility.

 I realize and appreciate that Stoler presented this anecdote of reciting the genji to prompt the very questions I've raised. Furthermore, Stoler noted that different anthropological studies have yielded radically different results: Redfield v. Lewis in Mexico, and Mead v. Freeman in Samoa (144). He acknowledged these difficult issues and uses them as the background for a compelling argument via Hume:

Are we left with a subjectivism so laced with imperfections that it, too, is worthless? Perhaps we should be more realistic about the goals of the human sciences and take the sober advice of David Hume, who wrote that "all our reasonings concerning causes and effects are derived from nothing but custom; and the belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than the cogitative part of our nature. . . . Anthropology has one strength: ethnography, the original, albeit imperfect, product of our discipline. Despite its taken-for-granted status, ethnography, rather than cultural materialism, structuralism, or any other "ism," has been and will continue to be our core contribution. It is time to appreciate ethnographers who produce works of art that become power vehicles for exposition. (130)

I appreciate the sentiment and accept that “art and science should complement one another” (138). Even so, I still ask myself “what is the limit?” Striving for “objectivity” in the sciences has arisen for a purpose, to serve some means, even if we do not always like their ends. To fail to appreciate the artful character of humans because we can not easily measure it is not a reason to dismiss or hide it, but I still am not sure of a methodological approach for distinguishing between art and science. In the end, I expect like in many things, the ultimate test of anything is the appreciation of one's community in the fullness of time. Just like the subjects they study, the disciplines themselves are a blend of theory, quantitative analysis, best practices, and personal enthusiasms.  

Cited Works

Anderson, Perry. 1998. The Origins of Postmodernity. New York, NY: Verso.

Castoridis, Cornelius. 1998. The Imaginary Institution of Society. Cambridge,MA: MIT Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. "Postscript on the Societies of Control." October 52:37687.

Hardt, Michael, Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardt, Micheal. 1998. "The Global Society of Control." Discourse 203:139-152.

Jameson, Fredric. 1998. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern. New York,NY: Verso.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1968. Search for a Method. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Stoller, Paul. 1989. The Taste of Ethnographic Things. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.