Instituting the Institution

Simon Sheikh

Toward the end of his life, the French-Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997) wrote a very pessimistic text called ‘Imaginary and Imagination at the Crossroads’, where he claimed that we were in a state of crisis that had to do with both the singular human imagination and the instituting social imaginary.1 We were witnessing the end of a great period of creation and innovation, which effected – equally – four designated areas of the imaginary: politics, philosophy, science, and, singled out as privileged, artistic and cultural production. Art is here seen as the vector for measuring both social and singular imagination and institution. Castoriadis dated this demise back to the 1950s, and saw the subsequent period as one of growing conformism and preservation as opposed to invention and revolution, and he meticulously goes through each of these four categories searching for evidence. Now, it would be easy to dismiss this as a typical lament for historical modernism, and indeed the text has its fair share of cultural pessimism and bitterness, and can even be said to contradict his own theories of the imaginary and of the instituting of society as an everlasting process, which would mean that imagination could not really be measured as high or low at any given period.

Cornelius Castoriadis’ theory is, of course, that of society as an imaginary institution. For Castoriadis, society is an imaginary ensemble of institutions, practices, beliefs and truths that we all subscribe to and thus constantly (re)produce. Society and its institutions are as much fictional as functional. Institutions are part of symbolic networks and, as such, they are not fixed or stable but constantly articulated through projection and praxis. Any society must be instituted as symbolic constructions, held together by specific social imaginaries and institutions, that solidify imaginary signification into what he termed ‘instituted social imaginary’. But, by focusing on its imaginary character, he obviously also suggests that other social organizations and interactions can be imagined. Societies are not created through a natural rationalism or through historical progressive determinism but are instituted through creation, through imagination(s):

That which holds society together is, of course, its institution, the whole complex of its particular institutions, what I call ‘the institution of a society as a whole’ – the word ‘institution’ being taken here in the broadest and most radical sense: norms, values, language, tools, procedures and methods of dealing with things and doing things, and, of course, the individual itself both in general and in the particular type and form (and their differentiations: e.g. man/woman) given to it by the society considered.2

These institutions and ways of instituting (meaning, subjectivity, legality, and so on) appear as a more or less coherent whole, as a unity, but appear so only through praxis and belief. But as an ontological proposition it means that a society must always be instituted through creation, and that there cannot be more or less creativity. If a particular social imaginary comes be viewed as inaccurate or obsolete, false even, it will mean the collapse of that given society, the way that historical empires have crumbled and fallen, only to be replaced, in turn, by another imaginary order of society. Perhaps this is what Castoriadis meant when he spoke of the decline of Western civilization, of standing at a particular crossroads? Social imaginaries can thus be actively redefined through other instituent practices, and existing ones collapsed when no longer viewed as adequate, just, or true. Social change thus occurs through discontinuity rather than continuity, either in the form of radical innovation and creativity (such as Newtonian physics) or in the shape of symbolic and political revolutions (such as France 1789) that can never be predicted or understood in terms of determinate causes and effects or an inevitable historical sequence of events in the way, say, that most liberalist commentators view the fall of communism as brought about by some natural law of economics. Change emerges, then, through the establishment of other imaginaries without predeterminations, through praxis and will that establishes another way of instituting. This requires a radical break with the past in terms of language and symbolization, and thus of ways of doing.

In effect, it is about creating a new language with which to say things, not just saying the same things with new words. Autonomy and striving for autonomy is therefore the crucial theme in Castoriadis’ political thinking. He defines autonomous societies in contrast to heteronomous ones; while all societies make their own imaginaries – institutions, laws, traditions, beliefs, behaviors, and so on – autonomous societies are those whose members are aware of this fact and explicitly self-institute. In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies attribute their imaginary order to something outside, to some extra-social authority, such as God, tradition, progress, or historical necessity, or also, we could argue today, democracy as a fundamental and historically inevitable category. Which would be another way of understanding the crossroads, as well as our world-making through institutionalization that we are gathered here to discuss and assess.

First, standing at the crossroads – and I promise to return more precisely to this metaphor in Castoriadis as well its possible actualization, so bear with me a minute – can then be said to be between the route of autonomy or the ways of heteronomy. Now, remember that autonomy meant self-institutionalization, not anti-institutionalization, but what would heteronomy mean today in institutionalized democracy that does not refer to any order outside its own system of electability and accountability? Here the distinction between instituted social imaginaries and the singular human imagination comes into play, since the individual imagination is always circumscribed by the socialization of society’s institutions and ways of instituting, so even when a society might not be heteronomous as such, the individual might still very much be so, since he or she is are making their decisions and judgments based on social criteria rather than their own mind or will, and, as Castoriadis points out, “enormous amounts of people in our societies are in fact heteronomous” since they “judge on the basis of ‘conventions’ and ‘public opinion’” (p. 75). And, as for our society, can the blind faith in the market and global capital not be said to be of a heteronomous nature, even if it disorders rather than orders society?

This distinction between autonomy and heteronomy also has bearings on the makings and workings of cultural institutions, whether state institutions or non-governmental organizations. Does an institution adhere to the logics and demands of the state and governmentality or does it seek another path? Obviously this has not only to do with funding structures but also with articulation of one’s perceived public role. An institution institutes through more than its programming, but does so also in its spatial production, social relations within the workplace, production of subjectivity as spectatorship, and so, in general, in its instituted social imaginaries. Does the institution simply say the same things with new words or invent a new language? Here Gerald Raunig’s notion of instituent practice is useful. He describes it as follows:

“…instituent practices thwart the logics of institutionalization; they invent new forms of instituting and continuously link these instituting events. Against this background, the concept of ’instituent practices’ marks the site of a productive tension between a new articulation of critique and the attempt to arrive at a notion of ’instituting’ after traditional understandings of institutions have begun to break down and mutate. When we speak of an ’instituent practice’, this actualization of the future in a present becoming is not the opposite of institution in the way that utopia, for instance, is the opposite of bad reality. […] Rather, ’instituent practice’ as a process and concatenation of instituent events means an absolute concept exceeding mere opposition to institutions: it does not oppose the institution, but it does flee from institutionalization and structuralization.”3

Still, one of the problems of any revolutionary project is exactly this: how to implement a radical change not just in the significations and sedimentations of institutions but in the very way they institute; that is, how they produce social relations anew. Let me illustrate this with an example of how an institution is caught between its perceived artistic autonomy and radical thinking on the one hand and the heteronomity of the state and its neoliberal demands on the other, namely the now-defunct Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art, with which I was once affiliated. This organization was based in Helsinki, but was responsible for creating projects in the whole of the Nordic region, as well as administering an extensive residency program in the region and beyond. It was funded, and politically monitored, by another organization, the Nordic Council of Ministers, comprised of the five nation-states Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, with the aim of enhancing Nordic cultural collaborations. While this single example cannot constitute any hard, factual evidence, it is nonetheless a fairly typical example of a certain type of international and regional cultural institution and inherent ideology. And, since I was involved with this institution directly, I can at least act as a native informant on this case.

Now, among the programs initiated during my tenure there, was a residency program in the Balkans, where Nordic artists would be awarded a stay and artists from the chosen Balkan countries would go to the Nordic region. However, this program was not started by NIFCA itself, but designed by someone with the Council of Ministers and imposed on the institution by political decree, and, one must presume, following specific political interests. Certainly no particular rationale was ever offered, and the time in which to begin and execute this program was exceptionally short, just a few months. Even so, the program can probably be described as fairly typical in its genesis and reasoning, and perhaps as fairly benign. What was noticeable, though, was the selection of countries from the Balkans and their regional designation: the west Balkans, which was, at least to me, a new concept. Where, then, were these west Balkans, and which countries and territories did they consist of? As it turned out, the west Balkans were shorthand for a number of specific places, or even nations, namely the republics of the former Yugoslavia, although without Slovenia, but with the addition of Albania. This led to some consternation among NIFCA’s staffers, obviously, not only over the ethical aspects but also over what to actually call it: should one, as a cultural worker, accept such new and apparently random designations such as a ‘west’ Balkans, this new geography being solely the invention of bureaucrats to fulfill political and trade interests? Or could it be negotiated and engaged with critically and productively in its implementation, that is, its choice of collaborative partners in the respective countries and the selection of artists participating? Certainly this is what the institution, like most institutions, and indeed most of us as circulating cultural producers, did attempt. Still, this left the question of naming, and since no other name was forthcoming, no geo-political nor metaphorical title was invented, I suggested calling it simply the Ex-Yugoslavia Minus Slovenia Plus Albania Residency Program, which was, needless to say, uniformly rejected by my colleagues. But why couldn’t one use such a name? Would it make fewer artists apply? Would it make artists apply differently? Would it produce difference? Would it make a difference? Perhaps such questions are the ones we should ask ourselves in this context, rather than the usual generic ones about numbers, effectiveness, and usefulness of residency programs?

Grants and residencies are, then, not so much a case of money following artists – as they are mostly portrayed by benevolent funding bodies and patrons – since, rather, they force the artists to follow the money. It is not a matter of controlling what an artist makes per se; that would be official art, or even worse, censorship. Rather, it is a case of controlling the field indirectly by setting up residencies for certain people and places, always specified, and by transforming more and more state grants from direct production grants into thematic areas and aims. It is control over, if not the products, then certainly the flow of products and subjects, which returns to the dual sense of the word “subject” mentioned earlier, subjects as persons and subjects as topics. The definitions of both are the means through which the global flow in cultural production, specifically the exhibitions and programs of the artworld, are controlled and measured.

Which brings us back to the question of contemporary cultural production and the imaginary. Which new languages are being created, which new imaginaries are being produced, and which old things are being said with new words? Or, what can be imagined, and what cannot be? Which modes of critique are affirmative and which are transformative? And which artistic creations are illustrative, and sometimes even celebratory, of the “new” immaterial phase of global capital? An aesthetic gesture, like a political one, thus consists in the creation of a new ensemble of things, in a (re)staging of the (perceived) real. This also means that one cannot distinguish between political and nonpolitical works of art (or, in a broader sense, representations), but rather that there lies – in the very imaginings of each specific mode of address – what Jacques Rancière has in a wholly other context called “the politics of aesthetics”. The politics of aesthetic practices lie in how they partake in the partition and distribution of the sensible; that is, of what can be seen and sensed, what can be said and not said. Or, what can be imagined and what cannot be. Whereas the political in works of art is usually described either in terms of a) a sense of use value, or even propaganda, or b) the so-called politics of representation – that is, how and who the artwork represents – we can expand on this notion and analyze artworks through their imaginary character; what kind of horizon they set up, set themselves up against, or are limited or framed by, without these aspects necessarily standing in opposition to each other.

The politics of artworks lie, then, not so much in the intentionality of the artists, nor in the reception of the spectator only, i.e. the politics of reading, nor exclusively within the so-called politics of representation, i.e. how things are shown, who are represented, and who are excluded, but rather in how they imagine we can represent or depresent, think or not think, include or exclude, amaze or shock, entertain or lecture, and so on. And the same goes for the institutionalization and socialization of institutions, whose work can indeed be seen as new modes of instituting, producing, and projecting other worlds and the possibility of self-transformation of the world; as an institutionalization that is produced through subjectivity rather than (only) producing subjectivity. It can, obviously, offer a place from which to see (and to see differently, to see other imaginaries) as much as offering objects to look at. We must therefore rephrase our notions of critical and affirmative artworks in terms of how they attempt to institute their particular imagining of the world and, indeed, of the phantasmagoric. It is primarily in the imaginations (or lack thereof) of the particular cultural production and instituting, and not the intentions of the producer, that the politics of aesthetics are located.

However, at stake is what imagination of future as well as past, or, to put it in Benjaminian terms, past-as-future, is proposed: how the work produces other imaginaries of the world and its institutions rather than merely reiterating already existing ones, even if in so-called critical terms (or what can be termed affirmative critique). It becomes, then, a matter of what horizon can be imagined as well as how to institute it. Taking our cue from Castoriadis and his analysis of society as self-created, as existing through institutions, we can present it as a question of imagining another world, not just another way of describing this one in the phantasmagoric imagination, and thus of instituting other ways of being instituted and imagining. To say that other worlds are indeed possible, to offer other imaginaries, ways of seeing and thus changing the world. Here, the notion of self-institutionalization appears as crucial, not only as an organization of collective experience, as evident in certain artist groups and platforms, but also in the very mode of address in works that politicize aesthetics rather than the other way around. Any “political” aesthetic is not just a representational act that supports politics but is also the mode of address that politicizes aesthetics. One must reconfigure the very mode of address itself and, in turn, its imagined subjects (as audiences, constituencies, communities and/or adversaries): a reconfiguration of both the mental and material conditions of the work itself. Let’s once more turn to Cornelius Castoriadis, who wrote:

[The] supersession [of present society] – which we are aiming at because we will it and because we know that others will it as well, not because such are the laws of history, the interests of the proletariat or the destiny of being – the bringing about of a history in which society not only knows itself, but makes itself as explicitly self-instituting, implies a radical destruction of the known institution of society, in its most unsuspected nooks and crannies, which can exist only as positing/creating not only new institutions, but a new mode of instituting and a new relation of society and of individuals to the institution.4

It is thus not only a question of changing institutions, but of changing how we institute; how subjectivity and imagination can be instituted in a different way. This can be done by altering the existing formats and narratives, as in the queering of space and the (re)writing of histories – that is, through deconstructive as well as reconstructive projects, and by constructing new formats, by rethinking the structures and implementations of the exhibition altogether. Secondly, any institution and its ways of institution should not be seen as unitary but as dispersed – its modes of address need not be uniform, but different in scale, grammar, and reach. The late Danish writer Dan Turèll had the principle of dividing his works into ‘overground’ and ‘underground’ publications, not only to indicate the difference between self-published manuscripts and more widely-distributed books from publishing houses but also to point to different formats of experimentation and articulation. Perhaps such a distinction within institutional production may be more productive to imagine than the traditional distinctions between mainstream and alternative, between culture and counter-culture (not to mention over- and under-the-counter culture)? Rather than thinking in terms of public and non-public, formatting should concern itself with specificity, suggesting different moves of visibility and expectability, but not commitment or importance, even when this implies and demands differences in terms of scale, language, and budget.

In other words, institution-making should be described in terms of its outlook, its scope – its horizon. Here, we can return to the notion of ‘the crossroads’ invoked in the title, which becomes primary in Castoriadis’ critique of his contemporaneity as not only conformist in its lack of imagination but also relapsing into heteronomy in the acceptance of the status quo, whether this be the racing techno-science, neo-liberal economic policies, or the state of the arts. But this is only one possible path at the crossroads, albeit one clearly marked, and one which, he claims, will only lead to loss of meaning, economic disaster, and an overall crisis in societal imaginary significations and institutions. But there is also another path, one which “has not been marked out at all”, and which would be needed to be opened up by the imagination, by the creative imaginary.

This essay was written almost 15 years ago, but today we would seem to find ourselves at a similar crossroads, and have if anything proceeded further down the first path marked out, despite such disastrous events as 9/11 and the current credit crisis, which have so far only been answered by, in the first case, undemocratic policies of security and growing xenophobia and, in the case of the latter, more of the same farcical economic policies that led to the crisis in the first place. Is there really no alternative, and how did capitalism and consumerism become so naturalized? We believe this to be a question of horizons – of the construction of a particular horizon of possibility and impossibility as hegemonic, as well as the perceived lack of other horizons.

In other words, if the horizon is that which establishes a world-view, this is always a specific one that makes others not only invisible but even impossible. Having inherited the apparent endgame of liberal democracy and its adjacent politics of administration, it is an urgent task to attempt to go beyond resignation or empty critique and to insist that it is still possible to imagine another world. If another world is possible, how is it visible, not only in terms of realism but also the imaginary, and how can it be constituted as a horizon? That is, is change, revolutionary or otherwise, an approaching or receding horizon in our actuality? Do we suffer from a lack of alternative visions, of unclear or even non-existent horizons? An institution or institutional production must imagine a public in order to produce it, and to produce a world around it, a horizon. So, if we are satisfied with the world we have now, we should continue to make exhibitions and works as always, and repeat the formats and circulations. If, on the other hand, we are not happy with the world we are in, both in terms of the art world and in a broader geopolitical sense, we will have to produce other exhibitions: other subjectivities and other imaginaries. And we have to be not only resistant or insurgent, but also instituent.


Cornelius Castoriadis, Figures of the Thinkable, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007, pp. 71-90.

Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 6.

3. Gene Ray & Gerald Raunig (Eds.), Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, London: Mayfly, 2009, p. xvii.

Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, London: Polity Press, 1987, p. 373.

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