Public Culture 14.1 (2002) 1-19
TThe idea of a social imaginary as an enabling but not fully explicable symbolic matrix within which a people imagine and act as world-making collective agents has received its fullest contemporary elaboration in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis, especially in his influential book The Imaginary Institution of Society (1987). Castoriadis was drawn to the idea of the social imaginary in the late 1960s as he became progressively disillusioned with Marxism. Reacting against the deterministic strands within Marxism, which he regarded as both dominant and unavoidable, Castoriadis sought to identify the creative force in the making of social-historical worlds.
The authors of essays in this issue, while familiar with the work of Castoriadis, are drawn to the idea of the social imaginary for a different set of reasons. Writing more than a quarter century after the publication of The Imaginary Institution of Society, they are responding to a radically different intellectual and political milieu signaled by the cataclysmic events of 1989 and their aftermath. A majority of these authors were brought together in a working group nearly two decades ago by the Center for Transcultural Studies (CTS), a Chicago-based not-for-profit research network with close links to the Public Culture editorial collective, to investigate how globalization of culture and communication is transforming contemporary societies.
The intellectual mood at that time was optimistic. There was a renewed interest in the concept of civil society and its political counterpart, the public sphere, precipitated by political developments as well as intellectual interventions. In the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe, the Leninist model of governance (i.e., the state-directed total mobilization of society to achieve revolutionary ends) was collapsing under its own weight. Here the idea of civil society seemed to offer an alternative that was neither confrontational nor partook of the usual Cold War anticommunist rhetoric. Minimally, civil society refers to the existence of free associations that are not under the control of state power. But in a stronger sense, as Charles Taylor (1995: 208) notes, civil society is said to exist "where society as a whole can structure itself and coordinate its actions through such free associations" and, further, whenever those "associations can significantly determine or inflect the direction of state policy." It was hoped that the Soviet bloc countries could gradually reform themselves structurally by nurturing and expanding the institutions of civil society and thereby paving the way for democratization.
At the same time, democratic movements were also resurgent in much of Asia and Latin America and authoritarian regimes seemed to be on the defensive everywhere. New social movements with demands that ranged from human rights and cultural recognition of minorities to gender equity, public health, and ecological protection were spreading across the globe. Here the idea of the public sphere became highly relevant. It seemed to capture something that was missing in earlier discussions of civil society by pointing to institutions such as coffeehouses, salons, publishing houses, journals, and newspapers that could nurture public discussion on issues of common concern that would ideally have an effect on public policy. The idea of the public sphere, as elaborated by Jürgen Habermas, also drew attention to the fact that new forms of subjectivity necessary for the development of democratic public criticism arise in and through circulation of discourses in multiple genres, such as epistolary novels, literary magazines, and newspapers. If civil society was made up of nongovernmental institutions that create a buffer between the market and the state, the idea of the public sphere seemed to identify and promote those institutions that were crucial for the development of democratic debate and will formation. The CTS working group's discussions of these issues drew upon advance copies of the English translation of Habermas's The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989).
The tumultuous events of the late eighties and early nineties -- the downfall of the Soviet Union, the liberation of Eastern Europe, democracy movements in Asia, Tiananmen, and the Rushdie affair -- not only confirmed the centrality of these two concepts but also gave them a global inflection. The initial impulse was simply to extend the terms...