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L’autonomie en pratique(s)

Philippe Caumières
Sophie Klimis

Re-entering the labyrinth: An attempt towards a politics of bios

Theofanis Tasis

Texte intégral

1Politics of bios describes a way of thinking about the political that can resist the identification of what happened with what must be. It combines elements from the tradition of romanticism with the tradition of pragmatism aiming at a radical philosophy that challenges a conception of philosophy as an exclusively theoretical activity. Politics of bios is a phenomelogical approach towards politics which includes re-reading certain aspects of ancient greek philosophy in a framework of an existentialist ethics of self-improvement.

2In this paper I will attempt to sketch a very brief outline of this approach on the basis of my reading of Castoriadis. I will argue that there is a different way of thinking about power relations on the basis of autonomy which lies mainly in the incomplete evaluation of the notion of work, which Castoriadis perceives almost exclusively in the sphere of production. Hoping to exploit this potential I propose the term εργασία εαυτού (ergasia eautou, “work on oneself”) to describe an activity of forming ways of living via the elucidation of structures of powers the subject finds itself within and the elucidation of its self-creation. Εργασία εαυτού is delimited by the mortality of the subject and contributes to its self-government which is a precondition for its participation in the public production of truth and exercise of power.

  • 1 Castoriadis did not fully ignore the issue of mortality, but failed to take his original observatio (...)

3More specifically, I claim that there is a depreciation of death and a lack of a systematic discourse on it in the castoriadian work, seen in a) Castoriadis’ psychoanalytical writings where the importance of mortality in the development of therapy and the growth of the autonomy of the patient is underestimated, and also b) in the castoriadian ontology where the destruction of beings is underrated. I explore the possibilities that are presented if one moves along the direction of discussing the notions of elucidation and self-creation of an autonomous subject after having pointed out the lack of a theory of power in the castoriadian œuvre due to the absence of a problematic on death1. In the syllogism that I develop, elucidation is considered an essential component of an εργασία εαυτού which is a fundamental condition for the self-government of the subject. By the term self-government of the subject I mean the creation and cultivation of practices that contribute in transforming life as zoe into life as bios. Considering the self-government of the subject as an essential term for the participation in the collective exercise of power, I regard it not as a private affair of idiots, in the Greek sense, but as an emancipating activity of an autonomous subject which is deeply interwoven with the political action. Starting from this point of view and combining it with the self-government of the subject on the basis of an εργασία εαυτού I argue that in this context the project of autonomy is not only supplemented, but essentially enriched hence opens the way for the creation of a politics of bios.

4Let us begin with the castoriadian ontology. Although Castoriadis perceives Being as the creation and destruction of beings he focuses mainly on the creation of beings, while he neglects their destruction. Thus, decreatio in nihilum, which is simply unthinkable in the context of the ensemblistic-identitary logic constitutes no field of elucidation for Castoriadis. Given the incomplete discussion of radical destruction in the castoriadian ontology we can pose the following questions: a) Can we reflect on destruction as we reflect on creation and, if this is feasible, what consequences would it have for the subject regarding death? b) Which changes would such a reflection imply in psychoanalysis, pedagogy and politics as domains of the project of autonomy? c) Could mortality as an essential condition for the individual self-creation lead us to a new questioning of the autonomy of the human subject?

  • 2 Tassis (T.), Castoriadis: Eine Disposition der Philosophie, DMV Verlag, 2008, and Τáσησ (Θ.), «Σοσι (...)
  • 3 Tassis (T.), Castoriadis: Eine Disposition der Philosophie, DMV Verlag, 2008.

5I have shown elsewhere2 that in the castoriadian criticism of bureaucracy, as well as in the political proposals for the autonomous society one can notice the lack of a theory of power, as respectively at the level of subject the absence of the notion of self-government. Furthermore, I have pointed out3 the inadequate evaluation of mortality in Castoriadis’ psychoanalytical theory. One might ask if the above mentioned are just arbitrarily selected shortcomings or if they somehow fit in a broader context. First of all we know that, according to Castoriadis, reflection presupposes representation (die Vorstellung), however death is not representable (unvorstellbar). Does this mean that we can’t reflect on death? Perhaps death as radical destruction constitutes a counter pole to the radical imaginary? But we are conscious of our mortality exactly due to our imagination. So, does an elucidation of the radical imaginary presuppose a reflection on death? Despite those aporias the decreatio in nihilum, the absolute destruction of beings remains for Castoriadis unexplored.

  • 4 Castoriadis (C.), Ce qui fait la Grèce. Tome 1. D'Homère à Héraclite. Séminaires 1982-1983. La créa (...)
  • 5 Castoriadis (C.), Ce qui fait la Grèce, op. cit., p. 98-99.
  • 6 Idem, p. 100-104.

6As a consequence he has not elaborated enough the question of the individual death and in order to be more precise he didn’t explore the link between one’s own mortality and the self-constitution of the individual subject. Of course Castoriadis stresses the fact that the collective recognition of mortality is the condition for democracy. For example he argues that the lack of eschatology, of any hope or retribution afterlife, in the archaic representation of death, is central for the development of the project of autonomy.4 He also points out the importance of the signification of Death for Homer saying that the consciousness of mortality is what makes the epics “more tragic than tragedy5”, and it is the recognition of mortality that gives the impulse for self-creation6. But let us move one step further and ask: Is there any connection between the absence of a reflection on death and the lack of a theory of power?

7I propose the following hypothesis as a starting point: if something is formable (Gestaltbar) it is limited. Thus human life (zoe) is possible to form, because it is not infinite. Which means that mortality poses the ultimate limit on human creativity. But the project of forming life (zoe) into bios, the project of elucidating self-creation, of the establishing of relationships with others constitutes the question of power. Hence, the absence of a theory of power in Castoriadis’ work is due to the lack of a systematic reflection on death. This is easily understood because a questioning of power, that is to say, the self-government of the subject presupposes a recognition of mortality, in other words the elucidation of the ultimate limit of human existence. An elucidation of mortality makes the self-government of the subject possible through an εργασία εαυτού. At this point I want to underline that εργασία εαυτού (ergasia eautou) should be distinguished from the ancient concept of επιμέλεια εαυτού (epimeleia eautou) for the following reasons: a) εργασία εαυτού is mainly creative, while επιμέλεια εαυτού despite its creative elements is mainly administrative; b) εργασία εαυτού aims at the creation of an έργο, which is the production of a bios, recognizing the political aspect of this task. Now, the self-government of the subject constitutes the condition and one essential component of its political activity. In order to realize the importance of the εργασία εαυτού as a form of political activity one might simply recall the lives of Alcibiades, Marcus Aurelius or Mahatma Gandhi as examples of an exceptional self-government.

8I argue that the absence of an explicit reflection on mortality has two burdening consequences in the œuvre of Castoriadis:

9Firstly, work is analyzed only inside the sphere of capitalistic production. The role and the importance of work on our self remain invisible. This different kind of work allows, for example, via the cultivation of a friendship, the raising of children or the establishing of concrete practices of communication, the resistance to power manifested in everyday life and the constitution of collectives that would oppose it by questioning the dominating imaginary significations. Due to this limited notion of work the informal organisation of production by the workers is presented by Castoriadis in an idyllic way. In this portrait of everyday life in capitalist mode of production there is no room for antagonisms, envy or conflicts between the workers. Furthermore, the importance of gender (the exploitation of woman workers) and age (the conflict between elder and younger workers) are not mentioned in the works of the Socialisme ou Barbarie period. Hence, the self management of society which is based on worker’s self-organization will be problematic since the question of power on the level of the subject is not raised.

10Secondly, although Castoriadis recognizes the imaginary institution of society, that is to say, its self-creation, surprisingly he fails to mention the explicit self-creation of the autonomous subject. But it is simply meaningless to speak about an autonomous subject without describing an explicitly self-creating human being. Self creating of course not cum nihilo or in nihilo, provided that the cultural environment, in which it is given birth and grows determines him/her, but ex nihilo. By ex nihilo I mean the emergence not only of a new anthropologic type, the autonomous subject, but also the concrete each time individual. In his effort to self-constitute, the concrete real autonomous subject is obliged to elucidate the ensemblistic-identitary dimension of its self-creation, which includes the gender, the social class in which it was born the cultural environment it was raised, its family history and, in connection with this, the relation dynamics between family members inside the family and finally in connection with all the above mentioned, its personal professional, erotic, existential course in life. The self-creation of the subject remains unseen by Castoriadis the same way his break with Freud remains unconfessed. Although Castoriadis criticized Freud for not recognizing the radical imagination just as he criticized Marx for not recognizing the social imaginary he never declares the end of Freudism the way he declared the end of Marxism. Castoriadis rightly highlights the political dimension of psychoanalysis and even redefines its aim as the autonomy of the patient but without rejecting Freud as he rejected Marx. After all Castoriadis never abandoned Marx’s thesis of changing the world instead of interpreting it. Freud on the other side makes no effort at all for a politicization of psychoanalysis. Castoriadis’s project of transforming Freud’s theory is such a way is ingenious but lies outside of the Freudian framework.

11Hence I argue that elucidation should not only establish a new and different relation with the unconscious, but should also include a) a self-reflective activity, which aims at a different relation with the “I”, that is to say the establishment of a reflection on the personal history of the subject that would include the social and cultural conditions of its history and as a consequence of a); b) the creation and the cultivation of an εργασία εαυτού. If elucidation is reduced in the transformation of the relation between conscious and unconscious without including the personal history of the subject, which constitutes a sine qua non condition for the self-government then individual autonomy becomes doubtful while at the same time participation in the public exercise of power problematic. One cannot practice public power, if one cannot govern him/herself. For example in Plato’s Alcibiades self-government is a necessary precondition in order to wield power over others. In this context εργασία εαυτού via practises which allow the forming of zoe into bios constitutes a necessary condition of the political praxis. Astonishingly Castoriadis is not paying any attention at all to the self-government of the subject and limits elucidation in to a theoretical activity instead of considering it as an integral part of an εργασία εαυτού. So it should come as no surprise that Castoriadis underestimated hellenistic philosophy or the relation of politics and philosophy in Rome where the επιμέλεια εαυτού and the question of power were interwoven. Like Aristotle, who detaches επιμέλεια εαυτού from politics, Castoriadis fails to recognize autonomy as an ability of explicit forming (gestalten) of our lives.

  • 7 More about this term later on.
  • 8 Καστοριαδησ (Κ.), Η γραφειοκρατική κοινωνία 1, Ύψιλον, Αθήνα, 1984.

12Summarizing, I argue that the project of autonomy for the subject is not simply the establishment of a different relation with the unconscious, a necessary but not sufficient condition, but with its entire self, where questions as its attitude against pleasures, solitude, Eros, power and death are elucidated in a network of communication7 aspiring a different forming of everyday life. In this context elucidation constitutes a founding of εργασία εαυτού and at the same time the condition, but also the content of individual autonomy. Castoriadis himself wrote already from 1974: “The revolutionary movement should from now on deal not with abstractions but with everything men and women do and endure in today’s society, and first from all with the problems that they face in their real, daily bios8.” With this notion of elucidation it would be possible to address a crucial point of the castoriadian critique of capitalism. Castoriadis argues that the elementary antinomy of capitalism is that the capitalistic system attempts to exclude the people from their activities and at the same time engage them because without their engagement it cannot survive. In this antinomy Castoriadis sees the possibility for the project of autonomy. But there is also a different way of reading this antinomy. In the capitalist organization of society workers which just do their job contribute to the stability of the system and workers who fight against it revive it because they force it to be inventive and to evolve further. So the antinomy becomes a paradox which threatens to confine us in apathy and despair. At this point a notion of work as εργασία εαυτού might show us a way out of this depressing situation.

13Including the network of communication and through elucidating the relations of the individual with others, relations that constitute the intermediary link between the individual and social autonomy, we ensure the political dimension of the εργασία εαυτού, and this should be underlined once more, is by no means a private affair as forms of work such as the management of the household or the upbringing of children indicate, forms that remained invisible from the traditional approaches of work which focus mainly at labour i.e. work inside the production.

14Some brief remarks now about the term network of communication that I used earlier on. We can imagine the network of communication as a sphere including successive homocentric spheres like family, friends and lovers, colleagues at work, the neighbourhood, the city and the society, but also the planet in its entirety. For an autonomous subject it is explicit that its autonomy, that is to say the possibility of forming his/her life in to bios, according to his/her one will, presupposes not only the recognition of the other as an autonomous individual, but also the elucidation of the structures of power degrading the network of communication. Therefore an autonomous individual has to pose following questions: a) What kind of power am I exercising on my self? b) Who and what kind of power are others exercising on me? c) What kind of power am I exercising on others? d) How are the structures of power in the existing society work influencing my own life?

15An autonomous subject recognizes that the minimization of power over him/her, that is to say the deformation of the network of communication due to society’s heteronomy, maximizes his/her freedom and allows a different type of freedom of choice, and consequently his/her possibility of achieving autonomy, in other words the ability of forming and transforming his/her life in to bios. This minimization of power is achieved, when politics becomes an activity that aims at collective autonomy. Thus the explicit self-instituted society, as described by Castoriadis, is the necessary condition which ensures maximal possible and equal for all possibility of forming bios not only for each individual separately, but also for the society. Therefore the broadening of elucidation at the level of the individual in form of elucidating relations of power isn’t essential only for a theory of power, but because it constitutes the base for an εργασία εαυτού, which is critical for the completion of the project of autonomy.

16The thoughts expressed above may surprise as they represent an unexpected way of approaching the castoriadian questioning, however because the central notion of Castoriadis’ writings is autonomy I consider that many promising research prospects are opened up by further exploring the connection between individual and social autonomy, in particular through the notion of εργασία εαυτού which I propose. In this syllogism the autonomous society as a project of democracy renews the radical forms of political action aiming at the equal possibility of forming bios without accepting the existing capitalistic organization of society. The possibility of forming bios includes the management of time, the freedom of choice of alternative ways of living as well as the equal distribution of the material conditions. Summarizing, individual autonomy as a project of elucidating one self aims at the explicit self-creation of a self-reflective subjectivity and the transforming of bios via an εργασία εαυτού with starting point the elucidation of relations of power a) inside the individual (through creation of a different relation with the unconscious, but also with the “I” via the elucidation of its mortality); and b) in the different roles (parent, friend, lover, worker, citizen) that the autonomous individual undertakes in the network of communication. Thus the possibility of forming bios meets again and inevitably the political question, because the former can take place in the best possible manner only in an explicit self-instituted society, that is to say, a democratic society that ensures maximal possibility of forming bios for all. In this context the revolutionary project includes the discussion of the present situation of an autonomous subject and its capability to form his/her bios under the specific circumstances, which means in modern capitalism. Hence it is now possible to re-approach the question of power via an elucidation of mortality and through the notion of an εργασία εαυτού both opposing the dominant capitalistic imaginary and contributing in the creation of politics of bios.

17By the term politics of bios I mean the creation of forms of self-government, communication with others, that is to say practices of love, friendship, collaboration, family and more generally the creation of forms of participation at the democratic exercise of public power aiming at the unfolding of imagination in order to achieve a richer forming of individual existence and social coexistence. A central characteristic of these politics, whose individual forms and spheres are inseparable from each other while at the same time they presuppose one another, is the questioning of capitalistic institutions and significations and the elucidation of relations of power. I speak of politics of bios using plural, not only because of the different spheres that they include, but mainly because it is possible, on the basis of the previous definition, for the individual and the collectivity as well, to create and cultivate a plethora of them. In spite of their plethora every politic of bios aiming at a democratic in the sense of equal opportunities of forming bios for all individuals is obliged to include two basic axioms, that determine their emancipating core: Firstly, the notion of mortality, that is to say the acceptance of mortality as a) a condition of self-restraint and positive condition for the unhindered Sinngebung of the individual and social bios and b) a source of respect of the autonomy of others. Secondly, the principle of uncertainty, that is to say the recognition of the radical indeterminacy of Being as a condition of our freedom that is to say a guarantee of human creativity.

18In conclusion there are many advantages in thinking individual autonomy as self-government which is possible only through an εργασία εαυτού i.e. an explicit elucidation of the self-creation of the individual. In this sense εργασία εαυτού is a political activity and constitutes a necessary condition and ingredient of the project of autonomy, which now can be described as politics of bios.



Castoriadis (C.), Ce qui fait la Grèce. Tome 1. D’Homère à Héraclite. Séminaires 1982-1983. La création humaine II. Texte établi, présenté et annoté par Enrique Escobar, Myrto Gondicas et Pascal Vernay. Précédé de « Castoriadis et la Grèce ancienne » par Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Paris, Seuil, 2004.

Tassis (T.), Castoriadis: Eine Disposition der Philosophie, DMV Verlag, 2008.

Καστοριáδησ (Κ.), Η γραφειοκρατική κοινωνία 1, Ύψιλον, Αθήνα, 1984.

Τáσησ (Θ.), «Σοσιαλισμός ή Βαρβαρότητα: Ο Κορνήλιος Καστοριάδης την περίοδο 1947-1967», in Θέσεις, Issue 98, 2007.


1 Castoriadis did not fully ignore the issue of mortality, but failed to take his original observations and develop them proper into a theory.

2 Tassis (T.), Castoriadis: Eine Disposition der Philosophie, DMV Verlag, 2008, and Τáσησ (Θ.), «Σοσιαλισμός ή Βαρβαρότητα: Ο Κορνήλιος Καστοριάδης την περίοδο 1947-1967», in Θέσεις, Issue 98, 2007.

3 Tassis (T.), Castoriadis: Eine Disposition der Philosophie, DMV Verlag, 2008.

4 Castoriadis (C.), Ce qui fait la Grèce. Tome 1. D'Homère à Héraclite. Séminaires 1982-1983. La création humaine II. Texte établi, présenté et annoté par Enrique Escobar, Myrto Gondicas et Pascal Vernay. Précédé de «Castoriadis et la Grèce ancienne» par Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Seuil, Paris, 2004, p. 91.

5 Castoriadis (C.), Ce qui fait la Grèce, op. cit., p. 98-99.

6 Idem, p. 100-104.

7 More about this term later on.

8 Καστοριαδησ (Κ.), Η γραφειοκρατική κοινωνία 1, Ύψιλον, Αθήνα, 1984.


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