Beware: Labyrinth Ahead

20130516-165206.jpgThe world that we inhabit today is tangled up in such a convoluted manner that we can only give it its proper name by calling it a labyrinth. This world of ours is no longer a limitless world of indefinite expansion and sustained growth, nor does can it appeal to another perfect world from which we can extract the pure forms and make sense of it. Yet these activities account for most of the activity that goes on day to day in labor, production, and thought whether we admit it or not. The labyrinth has grown so difficult to navigate that the tools, conceptual and otherwise, received by history and culture are no longer are up to the task; and the task is quite simple: to prevent self-destruction, which will entail shifting both ourselves and our worldview into new beginnings.

Disentangling the labyrinth is not possible at the moment and no quick and easy answer will get us out of it; each answer is twisted and contorted to increase the scope and complexity of the labyrinth. The way forward is not simply to become fixated on an object or an end and strive toward it but, first and foremost, the way must be walked, the path moved along, one must stay alive. Dead ends, black holes, red herrings all conspire to attract towards them and direct the flow of movement inwards as heavy objects offering sanctuary and satisfaction. These dead ends conspiring together patternize bewildered bodies undergoing the experience of moving through the labyrinth. If one is to avoid these traps and snares, if one is to keep moving with the hope of the future held safely in one’s hands, if we are to survive, then the logic of the labyrinth – its rationality – must be understood and its construction seen in full view. This will involve an entire culture of beginnings and ends in science, philosophy, myth, and history to elaborate, but this involvement by no means implies a comprehensive view or assured knowledge of its object – an impossible endpoint within a task only concerned with beginning.

Guidance through the labyrinth is better equipped when one understands the place one occupies not as a vector point in a field of space but as mythical place with strange processes and spells being casted systematically without clear precision. A map and a GPS will help you get from point A to point B by drawing a zigzag line showing the way to your destiny (the destination), but we are not concerned with destinies and ends but creation and beginning. The act of creation cannot rely on a history of predictions whittling down chance and error to a minimum with their accompanying theories and devices while it also cannot avoid the place that this history has brought it to: it must be on one hand self-composed and on the other hand grateful for the gifts of history. To get through the labyrinth and not be drained of one’s creative capacities or excessively burdened by the sheer size of the world bearing down, recognizing the immense intricacy and complexity in the form of a singular name like ’the labyrinth’ will be of considerable utility. This word represents a place meant to induce the confusion, contradiction, and paradox: which is exactly the term needed to relieve an individual of this duress and reaffirm the quest for beginnings. For experience of being inside of the labyrinth is a common experience localizable in a given place, yet the effect of its walls and tricks is to remove this common element. Myth has a way of taking a problem and offering a fantastic reference for avoiding the frequent mistakes in handling socially relevant decisions pertaining to those problems. The labyrinth will be a touchstone for its invocation of confusion and frustration as a mind-state but also as a place-ground conspiring against the mind that seeks an object or a state to arrive at. There will be no such object-savior or tranquil state, however, skills will be sharpened as we make our way through this meticulously laid out place.


Enter Cornelius Castoriadis and his book Crossroads in the Labyrinth. Or, rather, enter the labyrinth. The gate appears suddenly and then disappears after the first step. “Was that a gate back there we just went through? Can’t be sure anymore.” If we could just retrace our steps back to the entrance we could leave the very same way in which we first came inside, but this has already become an illusion, for our questions demand answers and not mere rhetorical tricks of entertainment. Sophistry will no longer do for us after passion has entered the scene, a passionate love for wisdom has taken over us. Wisdom intoxicates with an ambiance we cannot see as an object before us and in our perception, yet it propels us farther than anything hitherto has been able to. It will sometimes feel as though this jolt of energy came from within us and was there all along, or that it was imbued in us from another world perfectly arranged and never ending. Allowing these thoughts to be our guide will plant us between two sturdy walls and make us stare upward at the lazy sky with only clouds and storms passing by to observe (with luck), or even worse: we will end up staring at one of those walls. One wall could be labeled ’inside’ the other ’outside’ and staying in the middle will not help us move forward to the next convergence if those
are our only options. They will not appear as walls constraining our motion and within which we navigate if they are our only points of reference: they will fill us with awe and admiration, these beautiful walls, these answers.

The love of wisdom undeniably demands answers, but we mock our lover by grabbing hold of it and holding it up to the sky. Soon wisdom will become disinterested and simply leave us behind as we try in vain to maintain our grip, and then the whole relationship simply falls apart to neither party’s benefit. To think with wisdom there needs to be some mutual agreement of coadaptation between the knowledge wisdom holds and our activity and our contribution to it. This knowledge has already come a long way, split off into many disciplines, and seeped into nearly every facet of social life whether one decides to enter into the amorous relationship or not. So in order to join up with its path of motion and influence its trajectory it is necessary to dip into the history knowledge that such wisdom has inspired. Only then does the path open up towards a convergence that strengthens both wisdom and ourselves:

“To think is precisely to shake up the perceptual institutions of the world and of society, and the imaginary social significations born by this institution. What is akin to perception in this case, is that when we consider thought which is already achieved, we confront the schema of background/figure, and the necessity of such a schema… original thought posits/creates other figures, brings about the existence a figure of that which could not previously so exist; and this involves, inevitably, a tearing apart and a recreation of the existing background, the given horizon.”

This inevitable schema of figure/ground factors into the current quest as the given monuments left over from history and which constitute the solid structure of the walls of the labyrinth we wade through. These walls are figures firmly placed in the traversable ground directing our movement and any creation of ours will inevitably recreate the same structure. But the movement and composition of flows that follow from such a creation that radically unearths a new figure is not so determined:

“A true relationship with such a thought strives to retrieve this moment of creative tearing apart, this new and different dawn in which at a single stroke thing take up another configuration in an unknown landscape. This in turn implies that, for us, this thought of the past becomes a new being under a new horizon, that we create it as object of our thought, in another relationship with its inexhaustible being.” (p.xxv)

Both the figure erected and the ground surveyed become newly minted only as the reproduction of a prior “tearing apart” exercised already before the act but always different from the old act. The act of creation summons all that is lying around and constructs something truly new on both a new ground and as a unique object. Though it be new in both figure and ground, we only add to the labyrinth, even if we cannot see beyond this slice of it. The labyrinth by itself is no figure or ground, no work of creation either, and is thought futilely if as a exclusively a figure as well as exclusively a ground; it is a place not to be mistaken for its concrete walls or floor which account for the lot of its material, but is nothing without them. It is a forest bewildering our sensibilities and wreaking havoc on our ideas, but it is a place nonetheless – a place we are undoubtably inside and within which we must construct.

The labyrinth is theory itself, and theory must always take into consideration the extending of thought to its limit while acknowledging the particularity of this act here, or that perception there. But as soon as one catches wind of these questions and the difference that distorts the certainty claimed by an experience or a true statement, doubt itself carries one to its limit in a skeptical stance of defensive parrying like an aikido warrior. As sure a substitute for knowledge as this internalized doubt may sound, it risks falling into disrespectful boasting against its opposition without which it would devoid of response for it only reacts to and channels away from. Truth must be admitted in circumstance *and allowed to push outward beyond historical contingency or else collapse – swallowed by the labyrinth. The intense desire for knowledge that compels actors to jog through it and to construct pieces of it is as inescapable as the labyrinth. Even if our desired object becomes a negative destruction of the labyrinth as its creative act of “dehiscence”, such a force will remain impotent without properly navigating it towards a convergence – the crossroads in the labyrinth. Once again, this means assuming the theoreticians mode of practice to link up with other actors likewise stifled by the labyrinth to build a contrary edifice in the opening.

We need not throw on his (and it almost always is his) robes and become fitted out to a priestly comfort in order to navigate through the labyrinth though. However protection will be needed. It’s better to thing of one’s appearance walking through the labyrinth as armor with an agonistic functionality: call it your arg-garments. Skillful rhetoric and sound tactics are only as good as conveyed to a collective group of some kind, and this necessarily involves visibility and showing up. Of course, neither appearance nor a concise plan will save you alone and only assuming the proper surface garments along with latching on to the proper flows within the labyrinth will together let way forward open.

“Theory exists neither as a ’view’ of that which is, nor as a systemic and exhaustive constitution or construction of that which may be thought, whether arrived at a single definitive moment or a process of gradual elaboration. No breach opens suddenly within the walls surrounding us, so that we can at last see the light of the sun which has always been there. And no more is there an harmonious edifice whose overall plan we shall progressively discover as we work on its construction.
There is theoretical activity, the making/doing of theory, which emerges only at a given historical moment. This human activity or undertaking is a social-historical project: the project of theory. To give an account of, and a reason for – logon didonai – everything: the world, the objects surrounding us, their ’laws’, ourselves, this activity itself… This is a pure fact: we can do no otherwise. We can do no otherwise, once the question has been raised. And we know that it has not always been raised, since the beginning of time, but that it happened at ’a given moment’.
If this is so, are our questions and our projects perhaps contingent? Yes, but for whom? For an absolute Spectator. But to speak or think this way, this absolute Spectator must himself be doing theory, a theory dependent on the categories of the necessary and the contingent. We are not and never shall be this absolute Spectator. Yet at the same time, and despite what has sometimes been said, we cannot prevent ourselves from adopting his fictitious standpoint, even if only to declare that he does not exist, or that he cannot be conceived without contradiction. This which we are speaking of as contingent – this which is neither contingent, nor necessary – this is our reality. Can we get out of it? It is obvious that we can’t. It is obvious that we can. Unless I succumb to delirium, I cannot but think that thought is a social-historical creation – and that this thought is true. And, unless I succumb to delirium, I cannot think either that all thought is true, or that, when it is, it is capable of accounting for its own truth; I cannot think either that thought is founded upon itself, or that it is transparent to itself.” (p.xix)

Delirium, absolute Spectator, a given historical moment, the activity of theory: our guide’s harassment of our intellect is the expression of tough love. For we can only follow him up to a point before that point disappears and we are left to make our own way. We assume the role of spectator only to learn how to abolish such passive receptivity, we learn the from the privileged volumes of history chalked full of mistakes and self-congratulation to imagine the blood-soaked result of victories, we learn to rationalize in the logos of our culture bearers to achieve gradual metamorphosis, we go into delirium to experience ourselves the raw form of Dionysian exuberance; but we can never sit comfortably again.

So strap on that armor and sharpen those arguments because now that the labyrinth’s illusions, traps, and blockages are better visible we must meet perhaps our most formidable agents of anti-theory: Modern Scientists.



2 thoughts on “Beware: Labyrinth Ahead

  1. Have to admit I’ve never read Cornelius Castoriadis. Now, among other things, I’ll have to acquire the Crossroads book… dang you make it sound interesting and worthwhile! thanks….

    • I had never heard of him before a friend started dropping his name over and over again. Picked it up and was instantly entranced. His grasp of the philosophical underpinnings of modern science is of staggering genius. On top of his writing skills, he led a turbulent life with various revolutionary groups and psychoanalytic societies – lots of breaks with Marxists and also Lacan. Always critical of himself and his projects, he avoided dogmatism while simultaneously seeking revolutionary modes of practice:

      So yeah, he’s worth a read.

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