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Social imaginaries and the limits of differential meaning

A cultural sociological critique of symbolic meaning structures

Das soziale Imaginäre und die Grenzen differentieller Bedeutung

Eine kultursoziologische Kritik symbolischer Sinnstrukturen

Abstract

Elaborating on theories of the social imaginary, this contribution addresses the shortcomings of a differential conception of meaning, which is widespread in the social and cultural sciences. After a brief literature review, a preliminary concept of the social imaginary and its sociological relevance will be outlined drawing on the works of Taylor and others. The theoretical argument of this article, the fundamental difference and complementarity between the differential logic of the symbolic and the fuzzy logic of the imaginary, will be developed in a discussion of structuralism and one of its most fervent critics: Castoriadis. The latter developed his account of the social imaginary as a critique of Marxist reductionism, of the structuralist analysis of language and totemism, and of “ensemblistic-identitarian logic” in general. The implications of Castoriadis’ “imaginary significations”—a “magma” of meaning not exhausted by the differential order of signs—will be demonstrated discussing two contemporary sociological theories informed by structuralism as well as poststructuralism: Luhmann’s system theory and the cultural sociology of Alexander and Smith. The social imaginary, as a reservoir of meaning and condition for the emergence of new meanings, not only illuminates the blind spots in these theories, but also has the potential to transform our thinking about culture and society.

Zusammenfassung

Dieser Beitrag setzt sich, im Rückgriff auf Theorien des sozialen Imaginären, mit den Unzulänglichkeiten einer – in den Sozial- und Kulturwissenschaften weit verbreiteten – differentiellen Konzeption von Bedeutung auseinander. Nach vorläufiger Bestimmung des Begriffs des sozialen Imaginären entwickelt der Text seine Hauptthese, die grundlegende Verschiedenheit und Komplementarität zwischen der differentiellen Logik des Symbolischen und der „fuzzy logic“ des Imaginären, in Auseinandersetzung mit dem Strukturalismus und einem seiner Kritiker, Castoriadis. Dieser entwickelte seine Konzeption des sozialen Imaginären als eine Kritik des marxistischen Reduktionismus, der strukturalistischen Analyse von Sprache und des Totemismus sowie der „ensemblistisch-identitären Logik“. Die Implikationen von „imaginären Bedeutungen“ als einem „Magma“, das sich nicht in der differentiellen Ordnung von Zeichen erschöpft, werden am Beispiel von zwei zeitgenössischen soziologischen Theorien aufgezeigt: Luhmanns Systemtheorie sowie der Kultursoziologie von Alexander und Smith. Das soziale Imaginäre, Bedeutungsvorrat und zugleich Bedingung für die Entstehung neuer Bedeutungen, vermag nicht nur die blinden Flecke dieser Theorien zu erhellen, sondern auch unser Denken über Kultur und Gesellschaft grundlegend zu verändern.

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Notes

  1. Similarly, the journal “Social Imaginaries is concerned to elucidate the trans-subjective, or a‑subjective, aspect of cultural meaning, action and power as the precondition for inter-subjective modes of being in the world” (Editorial Collective 2015, p. 8).

  2. For a critique of the phenomenologically inspired sociology of knowledge from the perspective of a theory of the social imaginary, see Binder (2016b).

  3. Castoriadis’ conception of “social imaginary significations” in distinction to the symbolic and the real can be illustrated by Saussure’s theory of linguistic meaning: According to Saussure, there exists a continuum of sounds as well as meanings, which the symbolic medium of language transforms into a discontinuous field of sound images and a corresponding plane of mental concepts (cf. 2011, pp. 112 f.). Although language itself is “form, not substance”, there is a material substance, “the vague plane of sounds”, as well as an analogue mental substance, “the indefinite plane of jumbled ideas” (ibid., p. 112). The concept of the social imaginary refers to the latter, a socially shared reservoir of mental images without clear boundaries—a “magma” in terms of Castoriadis (1997b[1983], 1998[1975], pp. 340–344).

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Binder, W. Social imaginaries and the limits of differential meaning. Österreich Z Soziol 44, 17–35 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11614-019-00371-2

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Keywords

  • Cultural sociology
  • Cornelius Castoriadis
  • social imaginary
  • Niklas Luhmann
  • structuralism

Schlüsselwörter

  • Kultursoziologie
  • Cornelius Castoriadis
  • Soziales Imaginäres
  • Niklas Luhmann
  • Strukturalismus