Risked democracy

Foucault, Castoriadis and the Greeks

RP 166 () / Article

The delay involved in the publication of lectures or seminars has strange effects: what comes late and in a different time to its own is research and words which were caught up – more so than the books – in the historical circumstances of their elaboration; and the text that is finally published, with the reflections of the author and the remarks of the audience, carries something of the historical situation that produced it. This documentary dimension is sharper still when there appear together works undertaken in the same period by two thinkers between whom, at the time, no debate took place, and who appear to have been totally unaware of each other. An outline appears, in the background of their preoccupations and intellectual trajectories, which we could call, following Frédéric Worms, a specific ‘moment’ in which political history and the history of thought are mixed.

Thus, in 2008, the traces of two research paths that were very unlikely to meet were published, and their conjunction is strikin the title The Government of Self and Others;1 and, on the other hand, we have the seminars conducted by Cornelius Castoriadis between 1983 and 1984 at the ƒcole des hautes Žtudes en sciences sociales (EHESS), in the context of his vast cycle ‘what makes Greece’, entitled The City and Laws.2 The pure coincidence of the publications brought to the surface what might seem, over twenty-five years later, also to be a coincidence: that two French thinkers should, in the same period, have felt the need to explore, each in his own way, the Greek corpus and the question of democracy; and that they should have returned to neighbouring texts (the tragedy of Ion in Foucault, and of Antigone in Castoriodis), and to common figures (first of all, and above all, that of Plato, the proclaimed adversary of democracy, which the one and the other question, as we shall see, in a roundabout way).

So, we have a number of coincidences. It is obviously possible to reconstruct for each philosopher the different path that brought him to the vicinity of Athens. In Castoriadis, the reflection gathered in The Imaginary Institution of Society (1975) is continued from 1979 in an examination of the link between the Greek polis and the creation of philosophy as the opening of a space of thought linked to the experience of a particular relation, in the human world, between the imminent organization in the city and the disorder that continues to underlie it, which it knows it cannot entirely avert. Foucault’s bringing to light of the motif of governmentality would, from 1978, involve a vast restrospect, from the period which was most familiar until then (between the classical age and modernity) back towards medieval thought, towards the Church Fathers, and then towards Classical Greece. Nonetheless, these different returns only reinforce the suspicion that there is meaning in the coincidence – the impression, to use a Greek expression, that the latter is as much blind automaton as it is tukhè – a concept which Aristotle used to describe coincidence, inasmuch as it allows human activity and agrees with it, in politics in particular, and weaves with them a sensible practice…

Notes 1. Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1982–1983, trans. Graham Burchell, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2010, cited in the text as GSO. 2. Cornelius Castoriadis, La Cité et les lois, Le Seuil, Paris, 2008, cited in the text as CL.

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