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The Radical Imagination

Imagining the future in financial capitalism

Architectural fantasy stimulates the architect’s activity, it arouses creative thought not only for the artist but it also educates and arouses all those who come in contact with him; it produces new directions, new quests, and opens new horizons.

Iakov Chernikhov (1933), ‘101 architectural fantasies’

Why the radical imagination? Today more than ever we need a theoretical debate on the potentialities as well as the vicissitudes of imagination — the capacity of economies and societies to produce ideas and visions of the future that materially condition the present. We argue that while dominant future projections serve to quietly construct the ‘radical dystopias’ of today’s financial capitalism, radical imagination also contains the much-needed alternative visions that are able to challenge such dystopias.

It is precisely this generative function of the imagination that makes it ‘radical’ — its crucial yet under-recognised role in producing, mediating and structuring our lived realities. Radical imagination must therefore be understood as a ‘steam engine’ — rather than a ‘mirror’ — of reality. Correspondingly, our project is both conceptual and practical: as 2017 marks 100 years from the October Revolution, numerous exhibitions, conferences and symposia worldwide call for renewed attention to the radical futures imagined and produced by the Bolshevik vision (often focusing on the gaps between what was ‘imagined’ and what was ‘realised’). How such imagined futures were (and can be) constructed is key to the question of ‘radical imagination.’ Artists and architects working in the wake of the Russian revolution developed a unique idiom for channeling a radical and productive imagination into political reality, encompassing a desire to offer future projections that were no mere illusionary escapes from reality — but the blueprints for a radical future. Iakov Chernikhov’s ‘101 architectural fantasies,’ from which our project’s image is borrowed, capture powerfully this radical imagination of the time: a point of contact rather than separation for fantasy and reality.

Scholarly engagements with utopia increasingly strive to overcome this separation between the practical-real(ised) and the fantastical-imagined: from Ruth Levitas’ ‘Utopia as Method’ to EO Wright’s sociology of ‘real utopias,’ to Rutger Bregman’s ‘utopias for realists,’ a string of arguments call for taking utopianism seriously against an ever more dystopian present — a present that is often actually experienced as a real re-turn to fascism .

The imagination driving our dystopian present is nowhere more prominent than in the fictitious operation of financial capitalism. Science fiction is no longer the playground for utopian experimentation of daring film-making; rather it is the ‘enchanted world’ of Finance that has come to represent a very ‘real’ and powerfully imaginative ‘science fiction.’ Innovative financial modelling and high-frequency trading are continuously expanding domains of investment and imagined value, paving the way for limitless growth. The question of controlling the future and taming its uncertainty is guiding the operation of today’s financial capitalism, where speculative capital and fictional expectations work tirelessly to imagine future states that orient economic as well as social and cultural values (Beckert 2016).

Our ‘Radical Imagination’ project is an attempt to consider this formidable work of imagination in the operation of today’s financial capitalism in tandem with the possibilities for imagining and articulating radical alternatives. To do so, we take inspiration from the works of Cornelius Castoriadis, a brilliant theorist of the human and social imagination, who still remains surprisingly unacknowledged in anglophone scholarship. No other philosopher has perhaps investigated the space of the radical imagination as deeply and as systematically as Castoriadis. Yet, paradoxically, the investigation of the notion of the radical imagination can in his view only be done through a parallel investigation of the notion of the social-historical imaginary. In particular, Castoriadis’s (1987) Imaginary Institution of Society decisively contributed to the passage from the paradigm of imagination as an individual faculty to that of the imaginary as a social context. Despite the inspiration that he draws from both Aristotle and Kant, his shift toward the notion of the social imaginary stems precisely from the perception of an insufficiency in the vocabulary available. By looking back to the history of philosophy, he emphasized how much, and to what degree, most theorists tried to cover over or at least limit the radical character of imagination. In contrast to such tendency, only Aristotle and Immanuel Kant had rightly emphasized the constitutive role of imagination — so much so that Castoriadis attributes to them nothing less than the “discovery of imagination” (Castoriadis 1997c). However, they both remain entrapped in an ego-logical philosophy of the subject that prevents them from perceiving the intrinsically social nature of imagination. Such a conception is what Castoriadis tries to convey with his notion of social imaginary. As he writes in an emblematic passage,

[T]here is nothing more deprived of imagination than the transcendental imagination of Kant. And, of course this position is inevitable so long as the problem of imagination and of the imaginary is thought solely in relation to the subject, within a psycho-logical or ego-logical horizon. Indeed in so far as one remains confined within this horizon, recognition of the radical imagination as creation could only lead to universal dislocation. If the transcendental imagination set itself the task of imagining anything whatsoever, the world would collapse immediately. This is why, later on, the “creative imagination” will remain, philosophically, a mere word and the role that will be recognized for it will be limited to domains that seem ontologically gratuitous (art). A full recognition of the radical imagination is possible only if it goes hand in hand with the discovery of the other dimension of the radical imaginary, the social-historical imaginary, instituting a society as source of ontological creation deploying itself as history. (Castoriadis 1997c: 245)

This passage is of crucial importance and deserves a detailed analysis. To begin, let us note that Castoriadis’s notion of the imaginary has nothing in common with Lacan’s, despite the hegemony that the latter maintains in most academic debates. Castoriadis distances himself very early from Lacan by observing that the latter reduces the imaginary to the specular, to the “image of something” (Castoriadis 1987:3), as rooted in the mirror phase, and thus also as constitutively alienating. On the contrary, Castoriadis’s notion of the imaginary is not the “image of something.” As he puts it at the beginning of The Imaginary Institution of Society, the imaginary “is the unceasing and essentially undetermined (social-historical and psychical) creation of figures/forms/images, on the basis of which alone there can ever be a question of ‘something’” (Ibid.; emphasis in original).

The imaginary is by definition social-historical, since for Castoriadis society is nothing else than alteration, time, and, thus, history itself (Castoriadis 1987:167–215). Inherited ontology and logic have always tried to cover over this fundamental identity between society and history for one fundamental reason: every society needs to present itself as a given, as always already instituted and cannot recognize its own being as always instituting because this means accepting the possibility of pure chaos, of social order perpetually standing on the fringes of the abyss (Ibid., 167). The inherited modes of thinking have displayed only forms of logic incapable of thinking the undetermined. “Society is not a thing, not a subject, and not an idea — nor is it a collection or system of subjects, things and ideas” (Ibid.). This may be a banality, but one that is worth remembering as it shows how our inherited language is incapable of thinking the undetermined and thus the social-historical itself — here expressed by the fact that we always speak of “a” society or of “this” society (Ibid.).

Accordingly, Castoriadis prefers to speak of the “social-historical” (in particular, see Castoriadis 1987: 167–215). Society is nothing but history itself, which in turn is temporal alteration produced in and through society. The question of history, for Castoriadis, “is the question of the emergence of radical otherness or of the absolutely new” (Ibid., 172). As a result, Castoriadis, who had been a leading figure of libertarian Marxism in the 1960s, distances himself from orthodox Marxism. He goes so far as to say that, by starting from revolutionary Marxism, he finally faced a situation where he had to “choose between remaining Marxist and remaining revolutionary” — between faithfulness to orthodoxy and faithfulness to a project of radical change of the society (Ibid., 14).

How crucial the experience and the militancy within Marxism were for Castoriadis is clearly seen in the structure of his major work, The Imaginary Institution of Society, in which the concept of the social imaginary is developed through a critique internal to Marxism. Castoriadis perceived in Marx — and in Marxism more generally — a fundamental tension between two perspectives and modes of explanation that are irreducible to each other. On the one hand, the emphasis on the class struggle points to the possibility of making history, in the deep sense of creating something new. To a degree, through this emphasis on the need for struggle, Marx pointed out that human beings literally make their own history. However, on the other hand, his economic determinism, which reduced history to the conflict between the material productive forces of society and the existing relations of production, endangers the possibility of thinking history as the radical creation of something new (Castoriadis 1987:30–31).

What Castoriadis ultimately perceives in the historical evolution of orthodox Marxism is not a synthesis between these two tendencies, but rather a “triumph of determinism over class struggle” (Castoriadis 1987:30). Castoriadis asks,

Is the essential factor in the evolution of capitalism the technological revolution and the effects of the economic laws that govern the system? Or is it the struggle of classes and social groups? In reading Capital we see that the first response is correct. Once its sociological conditions are established, once what can be called the “axioms of the system” are posited in historical reality (that is the degree and specific type of technical development, the existence of accumulated capital, and of a sufficient number of proletarians, etc.) and under the continuous impetus of an autonomous technical progress, capitalism evolves solely in terms of the effects of the economic laws it contains, and which Marx had formulated. Class struggle nowhere comes in (Castoriadis 1987:30).

In this respect, Marx’s economic determinism does not differ from all other philosophies of history which, by reducing history to a pre-given logic — dialectical, divine or natural — destroy the possibility of thinking history as alteration and emergence of the new. “The Marxist knows where history must go,” observes Castoriadis (1987:31), and in this regard, he does not differ much from any other philosophical attempts at covering over the instituting dimension of society — the fact that society itself is history, i.e. alteration. However, we believe that this emphasis on alteration is, paradoxically, a great Marxist heritage in Castoriadis’s own thinking. The idea of a “revolutionary praxis,” of “a conscious transformation of society by the autonomous activity of men” is indeed, by Castoriadis’s own admittance, the “most profound and durable contribution made by Marxism” (Ibid., 62), although one that was potentially curtailed by some of Marx’s followers and their economic determinism.

Thus, whereas within some Marxist frameworks, the problem of imagination and of the social imaginary is treated in terms of the function that it performs within a society, Castoriadis turns this perspective upside down: to speak about a function presupposes the work of imagination/imaginary, and not the other way around. Along with Marxism, Castoriadis distances himself from all forms of reductionism that tend to veil the instituting dimension of society — functionalism being the very first to fall under his attacks (Castoriadis 1987:115). Against the latter, Castoriadis points out that every act, both individual and collective, without which no society could survive — labor, consumption, love, war, etc. — is impossible outside of a social imaginary (Ibid., 117). All functions performed within any society are, in fact, “functions of something,” i.e., they are functions only insofar as their ends can be defined. But these ends, which vary from society to society as well as from one epoch to the other, can be defined only at the level of those social significations without which no social function or need could ever be defined: this is the level at which the “social imaginary” operates. Every society continually defines and redefines its needs, and no society can ever survive outside of the imaginary significations that constitute it and are constituted by it. The institution of a society presupposes the institution of imaginary significations that must, in principle, be able to provide meaning to whatever presents itself.

There are, Castoriadis notes, limits to the social imaginary. First, it must always start from the material that it finds already there. Therefore, the limits posed by nature are primary. For example, societies define the meaning of nourishment, but they must start from the need for it. Second, some limits are posed by rationality, by the coherence of the symbolic edifice. Finally, other limits are imposed by history, by the fact that every symbolism is built on the ruins of the preceding symbolic constructions, so that even to break radically with such constructions, one must begin with them as premises (Castoriadis 1987:125).

The way in which Castoriadis addresses the question of the limits to the social imaginary demonstrates that his view does not imply too general a conception of imagination. The idea that there are limits intrinsic to the social imaginary derives from Castoriadis’s creative re-appropriation of Freud’s notion of “leaning on” or An-lehnung (or anaclisis in Greek), thus pointing to the intrinsic anchorage to any work of the imagination. In sum, one could say that Castoriadis’ imaginary is not everything, despite the fact that it is what provides a meaning to whatever may present itself.

Furthermore, Castoriadis also tries to make space for the individual within this theory. He explicitly observes that the major threat to the instituted society is its own creativity: the society that created the individuals is at the same time created by them. As we have seen in the passage quoted above, the radical imaginary has two dimensions: the social-historical imaginary and the radical imagination. Indeed, the merit of Castoriadis’s approach is to point out that the instituting social imaginary is always at the same time instituted, which means that no society could ever exist if the individuals created by the society had themselves not created it and reproduced it.

Society can exist concretely only through the fragmentary and complementary incarnation and incorporation of its institution and its imaginary significations in the living, talking and acting individuals of that society. Athenian society is nothing but the Athenians, Castoriadis points out; without them, it is only the remnants of a transformed landscape, the debris of marble and vases, indecipherable inscriptions, and worn statues fished out of the Mediterranean (Castoriadis 1991:145). But the Athenians are Athenians only by means of the nomos of the polis. In this relationship between an instituted society, on the one hand — which infinitely transcends the totality of the individuals that “compose” it but can exist only by being “realised” in the individuals that it produces — and these individuals, on the other, we experience an unprecedented type of relationship that cannot be thought of under the categories of the whole and its parts, the set and its elements, and, even less, the universal and the particular (Castoriadis 1991:145).

By speaking of a “radical imagination” together with a social imaginary, Castoriadis (1986, 1987) suggests that these categories reciprocally imply each other. Even more so: as he puts it in the passage quoted before, the full recognition of the radical imagination implies the recognition of the other dimension of imagination, that is, of the social imaginary. The concept of “radical imagination” has the function of stressing that, as Aristotle maintained, together with an imitative and reproductive or combinatory “phantasia,” there is also what can be called a primary imagination. This consists in the faculty of producing “images in the largest possible sense of the term (that of ‘forms,’ ‘Bilder ’), that is images without which there would not be any thought at all, and which, therefore, precede any thought” (Castoriadis 1987:336; 1997d:320–321).

As a consequence, Castoriadis’s notion of a radical imagination helpfully emphasizes that imagination does not imply the non-existence of the objects of imagination, even though we can also have images that do not correspond to anything in the external world. Images are our way of being in the world, so that one could even say that no world is given for us that is not imagined. According to Castoriadis, the reason why imagination came to be associated with the idea of fictitiousness is that it can create ex nihilo — not in nihilo or cum nihilo (Castoriadis 1987:221).

The traditional Western ensemble logic, which is based on the identity assumption ex nihilo nihil, could not, as a consequence, but conceive of imagination as essentially non-existence. To this identity and set logic, which could never account for the fact that when “x = x” it is always “x = non x,” Castoriadis counterposes the logic of magmas. The concept of magma points to the fact that significations are not “determinate beings,” but webs of references or bundles of referrals ( faisceaux de renvois) (Castoriadis 1987:347). These are certainly always determinable, but they are never completely determinate (Ibid., 221). Hence, to investigate the nature of the radical imaginary in its two constitutive dimensions we need an alternative logic that is able to think the undetermined.

Radical imagination moreover points to the question of power as fundamental in the constitution of autonomous society. In additional to the ex nihilo creative capacity of imagination, its radicality lies in the recognition of indeterminacy. This is a key issue for our understanding of radical imagination today — and indeed a further point of departure from Marxist orthodoxy. In an era of prescribed solutions to crises and tired emancipatory narratives, a Castoriadian imagination points to a truly alternative way of engaging with the future’s indeterminacy, that is, as a first step to acknowledge its openness (an endeavour familiar to many of those writing within utopian studies) but perhaps more importantly, to take ownership of this radical openness: our future may be indeterminate but it is nonetheless ourown indeterminate future (Komporozos-Athanasiou, 2015).

In sum, the expression “radical imagination” has the function of conveying two key ideas. In the first place, “radical” points to the generative and material function of imagination, its capacity to produce reality ‘in the present’ through projecting visions/meanings of the future. In so doing, the radical invokes here the concept of creation, or the fact that imagination is prior to the distinction between “real” and “fictitious.” In other words, it is because radical imagination exists that “reality” exists for us and that it exists as it exists — and, therefore, one can add, it exists tout court(Castoriadis 1997b:321). Second, and relatedly, ‘radical’ refers to the modern project of autonomy (Castoriadis 1987, 1991). Castoriadis recovers such a project but tries to address it within a theory of imagination informed by psychoanalysis and, thus, by the observation that individuals are the imaginary products of socialization. Psychoanalytically, imagination is said to be radical in the sense that it can always potentially question its own products, since it can never be completely mastered. Far from being a source of errors and falsity, imagination is seen as a means for critique, and critique is identified as the condition of autonomy, of the possibility to give oneself one’s law (Castoriadis 1987:101–107). What is more, the question of power offers here an important avenue for considering the question of openness or ‘indeterminacy’ in Castoriadian terms. At uncertain times, when the tide of realist/technocratic politics is revered more than ever, radical imagination points to the recognition of ‘authorship’ in the construction of open futures — the ‘taking ownership’ of the present’s radical indeterminacy, contra ‘menus’ of pragmatic alternatives (e.g. austerity versus austerity light, centre-left nationalism versus centre-right nationalism, etc.).

These ideas have extremely important implications for our understanding of financial capitalism and its increased dominance though all aspects of public and private realms of life. Nowhere else is the false distinction between the fictional and the real more evident than in the operation of financial markets. Financial capitalism’s fictitious operation moves further than ‘unrealised fantasies’, projections of an eerily real future reigned by risk speculations and debt dependencies. Herein lie the core questions of our Radical Imagination project: how is the radical imagination of finance transforming our lived realities? How do the worlds of fiction and reality coalesce to produce dominant valuations of the future? What are the implications of financial imagination for articulating radical alternatives to such dominant future projections?

In exploring these questions we suggest that it is necessary to keep in mind the inseparability of the imaginary and the real, the imaginal and the social, the utopian and the dystopian. More attention should be given to the latent links between financial capitalism’s imaginative renewal, its foreclosure of (alternative) future imaginaries, and the possibilities for developing new solidarities against the intersections of neoliberal, financial and colonialist imaginations. The task ahead of us is no other than reclaiming the ‘radical’ in ‘imagination’ itself.


Beckert, J. (2016). Imagined futures. Harvard University Press.

Bregman, R. (2017). Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World. Hachette UK.

Castoriadis, C. 1976. The Hungarian source. Telos 76(29):4–22.

Castoriadis, C. 1987. The Imaginary Institution of Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Castoriadis, C. 1991. Power, politics, autonomy. In Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy. Essays in Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 143–174.

Castoriadis, C. 1997b. Institution of society and religion. In D.A. Curtis, trans./ed., World in Fragments. Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis and the Imagination . Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 311–330.

Castoriadis, C. 1997c. The discovery of the imagination. In D.A. Curtis, trans./ed., World in Fragments. Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis and the Imagination . Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 246–272.

Castoriadis, C. 1997d. Radical imagination and the social instituting imaginary. In D.A. Curtis, ed., The Castoriadis Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 321–337.

Chernikhov, I. (1933). 101 Architectural Fantasies.

Komporozos-Athanasiou, A. (2015). Alternative futures emerging from the debt crisis: the sociological imagination of the Greek ‘OXI’ . The Sociological Review.

Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as method: The imaginary reconstitution of society. Springer.

Wright, E. O. (2010). Envisioning real utopias (Vol. 98). London: Verso.

Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou

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