The Strange Afterlife of Cornelius Castoriadis

The story of a revered European thinker, a literary legacy,
family squabbles, and Internet bootlegging.

As a student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor during the early 1980s, Bill Brown began publishing Not Bored!, a photocopied journal of small circulation inspired by what Mr. Brown calls "the ultra-left milieu": revolutionary thinkers and organizations considered too extreme by orthodox Socialist and Communist parties. You can still subscribe to the hard-copy edition, but today most readers discover it through Many of them seek it out for the site's impressive archive of classic ultra-leftist texts.

Mr. Brown's Web site is prominent enough within a certain political subculture. But it is hardly the place one would expect to be the first English-language publisher of a book that would normally be issued by a major academic press. Then again, the circumstances behind The Rising Tide of Insignificancy (The Big Sleep), by Cornelius Castoriadis, are anything but normal.

A Greek philosopher, psychoanalyst, and revolutionary theorist, Mr. Castoriadis moved to Paris after World War II. By the 1960s, his analysis of the Soviet economy as a form of "bureaucratic capitalism" was a subterranean influence on radical activists around the world. His later work on questions of social theory, philosophy of science, and ecological politics has appeared in English translation from Blackwell Publishing, the MIT Press, and Stanford University Press. Mr. Brown calls The Rising Tide an "electro-samizdat" publication -- but Mr. Castoriadis's estate regards it as a pirate edition of the thinker's work.

Last fall, according to Mr. Brown, he was offered The Rising Tide of Insignificancy by an individual who called himself Paul Cardan -- a name he immediately recognized as one of the pseudonyms used by Mr. Castoriadis when publishing his early work. The volume included essays on psychoanalysis, ancient Greece, the third world, and the Persian Gulf war, among other topics, most of which appeared during the 1980s and 1990s. It was not just a translation but a scholarly edition -- with footnotes explaining obscure references and nuances of translations, as well as cross-references to previous works by Mr. Castoriadis.

"A lot of people in the [radical] milieu who contact me don't want to use their real names," says Mr. Brown. "So hearing from someone using the pseudonym Cardan really wasn't that unusual." And yet it was a surprise, even so, because Mr. Castoriadis had died in 1997. The cover page of the new book (which has been available as a PDF file at the Not Bored! Web site since December) states that The Rising Tide was "translated from the French and edited anonymously as a public service." The author is listed as Cornelius Castoriadis -- which, as a footnote jokes, "is here a pseudonym for Paul Cardan."

As convoluted as that may sound, it is only part of a knotty tale involving an interdisciplinary thinker, his widow, a controversial translator, and charges of bootlegging usually associated with the world of pop music, rather than philosophy. A long preface to the collection describes conflicts within the Cornelius Castoriadis Association, the French nonprofit organization overseeing the editing and publication of the philosopher's posthumous works -- and in particular between his widow and David Ames Curtis, an American translator living in Paris. Of the nine previous volumes by Mr. Castoriadis available in English, Mr. Curtis has translated and edited seven of them. When asked about the online publication of the new book, Mr. Curtis says he will "neither confirm nor deny any involvement" with it. "But I am delighted," he says, "that the work of Castoriadis is appearing under the pseudonym of Paul Cardan once again, and that it is now available to the whole wide world."

Notes From the Underground

Mr. Castoriadis's life combined high intellectual seriousness with intense political infighting. When he arrived in France from Greece in 1945, at the age of 23, he had already translated the work of Max Weber into Greek. He was also a veteran of the Trotskyist movement, which both the fascists and the communists were seeking to "liquidate," to use their polite term for "exterminate."

In 1948 Mr. Castoriadis found work at what would later become known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, while also leading a small post-Trotskyist group called "Socialism or Barbarism," which published a journal by the same name. (Thus, Mr. Castoriadis was conducting statistical analyses of capitalism while preparing at night and on weekends to overthrow it.) "S. ou B.," as its comrades called it, never had more than a hundred members. It published a newspaper, Workers' Power, that circulated in some factories, but much of the group's energy was devoted to theoretical debates. As Mr. Castoriadis grew critical of Marxism itself, for example, he was opposed within the organization by a young philosophy professor named Jean-Francois Lyotard. (Ironically, Mr. Lyotard would later become prominent as a postmodernist who rejected Marx's "grand narrative" of history.)

The group's impact on radical students and activists around the world was disproportionate to its size. And its influence continued to grow even after S. ou B. dissolved in 1965. In the late 1970s, it became fashionable in some circles to claim to have once been a member. It was a development that amused Mr. Castoriadis. "If all these people had been with us at the time," he said, "we would have taken power in France sometime around 1957."

Emerging from the political underground, Mr. Castoriadis became a psychoanalyst, and also began teaching a seminar on philosophy at the ecole des Hautes etudes en Sciences Sociales, in Paris. He published numerous books reflecting an encyclopedic range of interests and an unblinking skepticism toward the "generalized conformism" of contemporary society. After decades of denouncing the Soviet Union as a monstrosity, he never became enthusiastic about the existing Western order. At a 1997 conference organized in Prague by President V‡clav Havel of the Czech Republic and the writer Elie Wiesel, Mr. Castoriadis described capitalism's "expectation of an unlimited expansion of material so-called well-being" as "obviously the most absurd of all Utopias ever formulated by the most sanguine Utopians." He also urged the adoption of a "new type of human life ... a frugal life, as the only means to avoid ecological catastrophe and a definitive zombification of human beings, endlessly masturbating in front of their television screens."

When he died at the end of that same year, Mr. Castoriadis left an apartment filled with manuscripts, including an enormous mass of lectures from his seminars on philosophical and psychoanalytic topics -- material indispensable to understanding his thinking on the question of human creativity. He left a widow, two daughters, and a network of comrades and admirers around the world.

What he did not leave, unfortunately, was a will.

Faithful and True

Mr. Castoriadis, who read English fluently, said many uncomplimentary things about the translations of his work, at least until David Ames Curtis came along. Mr. Curtis, who studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Harvard University and worked as a union organizer at Yale, has lived in Paris since 1985. He specializes in translations of work by contemporary French thinkers. His first major project, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1988, was a two-volume collection of Mr. Castoriadis's writings from the S. ou B. era. Since then, Mr. Curtis has edited and translated another 10 volumes by various authors -- usually prefaced by his own long essays exploring what he describes, by e-mail, as "the self-reflectiveness of the translator, who is to give an account of how s/he has been transformed as the first reader of a book in a new language."

Of all the figures he has translated, Mr. Castoriadis was clearly the one who had the strongest effect on Mr. Curtis himself. His knowledge of the thinker's work verges on total recall. For several years, he has been working with an international team of bibliographers to prepare a comprehensive listing of works by and about Mr. Castoriadis in 14 languages. And his attention to detail won the older man's praise. Shortly before his death, Mr. Castoriadis wrote that Mr. Curtis was "the kind of translator one encounters rarely: He is extremely conscientious, tirelessly verifying everything he does, never hesitating to ask the opinion of the authors about what might pose a problem in the texts on which he is working."

In an interview, Mr. Curtis says that following Mr. Castoriadis's death, in 1997, he vowed to remain silent in public about any problems that might emerge regarding the handling of the estate. By the summer of 1999, the thinker's widow, Zoe Castoriadis, and his eldest daughter, Sparta, had joined with some of his political associates and students to form the Cornelius Castoriadis Association to create an archive for Mr. Castoriadis's papers, transcribe recordings of his seminars, and edit his unpublished works for publication.

Before long, the group was wracked by personality clashes and resignations, including tensions between Mr. Curtis and members of the Castoriadis family. An account of some of the corridor intrigue appears in the online foreword to The Rising Tide of Insignificancy, whose anonymous author appears to have a very detailed knowledge of Mr. Curtis's experience and opinions. Sources close to the association but not sympathetic to Mr. Curtis -- who, seeking to keep their distance from the fray, have asked not to be named -- confirm that severe conflicts have emerged within the group, including litigation.

Mr. Curtis's personality may have exacerbated the situation. The rigor that Mr. Castoriadis himself admired in his translator strikes even some of his friends as a kind of rigidity. Those who are less amicable use expressions like "self-righteous" and "controlling." When asked about one critic's characterization of him as "a bit of a fanatic," Mr. Curtis is sanguine. Responding by e-mail, he writes, "I thought at least some people viewed me in far worse light!"

When asked by The Chronicle to respond to the account given in the foreword to the The Rising Tide, Zoe Castoriadis, speaking on behalf of the association, answered by e-mail with a simple but firm "No."

The Not Bored! translation, she writes, "has not been in any way authorized, nor checked for accuracy," and its publication online constitutes "the bootlegging of texts the rights to which belong to Le Seuil," Mr. Castoriadis's French publisher. She confirmed that a new book, providing the transcript of his seminar from 1982 to 1983, would appear in France this month. And she stated that "a number of volumes" were now in preparation "in the U.S.A., for which the publishing house is Stanford University Press."

Contract Chaos

Despite the tensions within the association overseeing Mr. Castoriadis's legacy, several volumes of his work have appeared in France. And in 2002, Stanford published the first English work from that body of posthumous material: the seminar On Plato's "Statesman," translated by Mr. Curtis. But what had been a difficult relationship between the Castoriadis family and the thinker's favorite American translator appears to have become impossible in November 2002. That was when Stanford laid off Helen Tartar, the acquisitions editor who had brought Castoriadis to the press and arranged for the publication of a hefty collection of his essays, The World in Fragments, shortly before his death.

With Ms. Tartar's departure, several projects were left hanging -- with a considerable amount of material translated but not quite ready to go. Mr. Curtis says there were discrepancies between the contracts the press had negotiated with him and with the literary executors. In the course of trying to work out new contracts, he attempted to incorporate language requiring that suggestions from the executors must "be constructive and not be based upon any animus against me personally." Mr. Curtis appears genuinely surprised that Ms. Castoriadis did not agree to this clause.

Late last year the impasse was not so much resolved as thrown open to the public when the Not Bored! edition of The Rising Tide of Insignificancy appeared online, shortly before the sixth anniversary of the philosopher's death. The online file runs to 444 pages, not counting its scholarly apparatus and its long, intrigue-filled introductory matter. According to Mr. Brown, somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 people have downloaded at least part of the book.

A notice on the first page suggests that anyone making use of the book make a donation of $5 or 5 euros "to those who have presented themselves as the legal heirs of Cornelius Castoriadis." It also proposes that "each user contact, by electronic mail or by other means, at least ten other persons or organizations" -- thereby creating a "nonhierarchical and disinterested 'pyramid scheme' designed to spread Castoriadis's thought without further hindrance."

A House Divided?

The response from Stanford University Press to this "bootleg" edition has been somewhat contradictory. "It gives us some concern," says Norris Pope, the press's humanities editor. But according to Alan Harvey, the publishing director, the appearance of The Rising Tide of Insignificancy "actually doesn't involve us, because we don't have any rights for electronic material (by Mr. Castoriadis) and we're not currently planning to publish a translation of The Rising Tide of Insignificancy." Much of the anonymously translated edition does overlap with material originally scheduled for publication by Stanford, however, according to Mr. Curtis's account of his previous arrangements with the press.

Mr. Harvey says the French publisher of Mr. Castoriadis's work contacted him about the online text in mid-February. "My response was, 'Well, I hope you're going to do something about this,'" he says. In early March, Jennie Dorny, responding on behalf of Editions de Seuil, told The Chronicle by e-mail that the press had "referred this case to the proper instances [authorities] in order to insure the legal protection of our author's rights, as it was our duty to do."

Meanwhile, recent developments promise to keep tensions high. According to Mr. Harvey, Stanford will publish Figures of the Thinkable, another collection of essays by Mr. Castoriadis, next spring. A translation of the book has been listed as forthcoming on Mr. Curtis's vita for several years, but the press has now made arrangements with another translator.

"A lot of circumstances led to that," says Mr. Harvey. Stanford had no reason to expect a translation from Mr. Curtis "in a timely manner that would be suitable to the French publisher or the Castoriadis family," he says. "So we were left with no alternative but to find another translator, which we did."

The new translator, Helen Arnold, "has worked closely with the Castoriadis family, and with Zoe Castoriadis in particular," says Kim Lewis Brown, an associate editor at Stanford. "She came to us on their recommendation." Ms. Arnold is an American living in France who joined Socialism or Barbarism in 1961 and remained friends with Mr. Castoriadis until the end of his life. "I'm looking forward to translating Figures of the Thinkable," she writes in an e-mail message. "Castoriadis writes clearly, directly, and powerfully, with no academic circumlocutions, a true blessing from a translator's viewpoint."

Asked about The Rising Tide, she says that her response to its appearance online is mixed. "If some people who wouldn't buy the book for lack of money or out of revolt against the capitalist system take it from the Net, I think that's an excellent thing," she writes. "What I feel is extremely objectionable is the appending of a slanderous foreword, the only object of which can be to defend David Curtis's interests, parading in political attire." Mr. Curtis responds to the news that Ms. Arnold will translate Figures of the Thinkable with anger. He calls her "a scab." In any case, the English-language reading public may be in a position to read the book well before it appears in Stanford's catalog. The foreword to the online edition of The Rising Tide hints that Figures will soon be available in the same format. "Other volumes," writes the anonymous translator and editor, "are now in the planning stages."

Outside the Teapot

The fury of the tempest raging in this Parisian teapot may prove difficult for an American to understand, for the work of Mr. Castoriadis remains little known in the United States, even among scholars interested in political and cultural theory. "He is a philosopher who Jeffersonians and populists, progressives and radical democrats, would in fact find deeply sympathetic, if they read him carefully," says Benjamin R. Barber, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland at College Park. He points to the constant emphasis by Mr. Castoriadis "on the imagination as a faculty of dissent and rebelliousness, always at odds with institutionalization. But his metaphysical paraphernalia and the ideological quarrels make him seem remote and esoteric to most Americans."

Well, perhaps. But academics here have displayed an abiding appetite for French thinkers whose work is far more obscure in its language and allusions than anything Mr. Castoriadis ever published. Indeed, in the first essay in The Rising Tide of Insignificancy, he writes that "general ideas" emerging "at the intersection of the 'human sciences,' philosophy, and political thought" had become one of the country's best-selling export goods -- "expendable commodities that are consumed one season and then thrown away (forgotten) with the next change of fashion." What American academics in the humanities call "theory," and consider necessary for a radical critique of the dominant culture, struck Mr. Castoriadis as simply another element of what he called "the generalized conformity that reigns around us."

"When you look at what he writes," says Dick Howard, a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, "you see that Castoriadis is always trying to put his finger on the emergence -- the struggling emergence -- of something new." Mr. Howard, who began writing about the S. ou B. circle in the 1970s, devotes several pages to Mr. Castoriadis in his most recent book, The Specter of Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2002). He recalls Mr. Castoriadis as a man "who was, intellectually, extraordinarily fast on his feet. It never ceased to amaze me. He seemed always to be rereading the ancient Greeks and the German idealist philosophers."

When asked about the unauthorized edition of The Rising Tide of Insignificancy, Mr. Howard seems exasperated by the whole affair. A footnote in the translator's preface lodges a complaint about Mr. Howard's role in preventing Mr. Curtis from translating a work by the S. ou B. co-founder Claude Lefort. "I'm not sure I want to reply to an anonymous attack," he says.

Another scholar criticized in the same footnote, Joel Whitebook, is an assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University's Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, who had planned until recently to edit a volume of Mr. Castoriadis's writings on psychoanalysis for Stanford University Press. "My impression is that it is in limbo now," Mr. Whitebook says. "I've become involved in other projects, and I'm trying to stay somewhat distant from all the machinations."

But all the conflict and complications do not come as a surprise, he says: "As an analyst, I've observed it over and over again, every time I've seen a death in a family. All the feelings from childhood -- who got enough, who didn't, and who never will -- all come up."

The same dynamic works itself out, he says, in an extended family. "The fact that this was an important thinker doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter if what people are fighting over is a million dollars or grandma's cookie jar. It's always the same."

(Written by Scott McLemee and published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (26 March 2004, Volume 50, Issue 29, Page A14). Copyright 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education.)



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