chapter  4
The Social Imaginary, Unspoken in Verbal Art
ByBruce Mannheim
Pages 18

Central to social life is the construction of a “social imaginary,” a set of interpretive images, figures, and forms that project an implicit social ontology, sanctioning everyday understandings and making sense of them in deeply institutional terms. In a passage that recalls Sapir’s (1929: 162) observation that grammatical categories project a compulsive reality for speakers of a language, Cornelius Castoriadis (1975: 293) argues that the social imaginary is radically compulsive, such that “society could not recognize itself as making itself, as institution of itself, as self-institution.”1 It is in analogy with Sapir’s view that what there is – social and otherwise – is built up out of the compulsory categories with which everyday interactions are structured that I find Castoriadis compelling; analogously, the roots of the social ontology are to be found in everyday practices, some apparently inconsequential from a material standpoint, such that even the most inconsequential are imbued politically (Canessa 2012). Where I find Castoriadis less than compelling is the sense I have that the social imaginary is, for him, a substitute for what North American anthropologists traditionally called “culture,” and that, for all that, he is simply proposing another arch-cultural view of social life decades after we anthropologists gave them up. I am unsettled by the claim that – according to Castoriadis – the social imaginary functions beyond any semiotic means, much as I sympathize with his observation that the language of 1960s French sémiologie was incapable of encompassing it. Finally, the social imaginary seems to me to be much more fragile than Castoriadis imagined it to be, much more susceptible to conjunctural events, and much more contested. Consider the following: seven years into a bloody and seemingly unshakeable military dictatorship, designed to “reorganize” Argentine society and remake the Argentine person (Feierstein 2014), when the military abruptly returned to barracks after losing the war over the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands; the cry of “saqueo popular”

(“people’s looting” – in contrast to the looting carried out by elites) as residents of the marginal slums of Caracas descended on the shops of central Caracas in February 1989 (Coronil and Skurski 1991: 316-22); and two seven-year-olds in Lima, Peru in the 1980s talking about a nearby car-bomb with the same matter-of-factness that two seven-year-olds in San Francisco would talk about – what, a temblor? – to get a sense of the fragility of the social worlds that we take for granted.