Meet the Book Author: Constitutional Imaginaries: the last part of a trilogy on social theory of European constitutional semantics

Jiří Přibáň, Cardiff University

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Jiří Přibáň, whose new book Constitutional Imaginaries: A Theory of European Societal Constitutionalism was published in May 2023 with Routledge.

What is the book about? 

The book completes a trilogy on social theory of constitutional semantics starting with the monograph Legal Symbolism (2007) and following with Sovereignty in Post-Sovereign Society (2015) which was awarded the SLSA Socio-Legal Theory and History Book Prize in 2016. It focuses on social imaginaries as part of law’s symbolic communication which can represent modern functionally differentiated society as one community of shared and meaningful collective life. Because of this capacity, imaginaries define what is considered legitimate and illegitimate in modern society. The question of imaginaries, therefore, is profoundly linked to the constitution of societal power beyond law and politics. The book combines Michel Foucault’s conceptualisation of power as societal normalisation and Charles Taylor and John Searle’s background power of knowledge and analyses imaginaries as societal potentia within and beyond political power and legal authority which equally draw on political consensus and dissent, respectively societal unity and difference. Gunther Teubner’s theory of societal constitutions is used to show that these distinctions are not limited by the classic imaginary unity of a nation living on its territory under the rule of law (topos-ethnos-nomos) and specific constitutional imaginaries are possible to identify in European and global legal systems and regimes. The second part of the book, therefore, focuses on European constitutionalism in which general imaginaries of the common market, universal rights and democratic power are accompanied by specific imaginaries of European integration through legal pluralism, administrative rationality of calculemus, economic prosperity and democratically mobilised non-state community. These imaginaries invite scholars of transnational constitutionalism to rethink the juridical concept of constitution and employ sociological social theoretical perspectives of constitutionalism within and beyond the state. 

Why did I write it? 

My academic monographs are typically introduced by a simple question and conclude by a list of complex questions to be considered in further research. In Sovereignty in Post-Sovereign Society, I explored a question of the paradoxical persistence of sovereignty as a concept of legal and political communication in post-sovereign European society. I argued that constitutional and political theorists, philosophers and sociologists needed to rethink the concept of constitution as the normative legal limitation and control of political power and had to draw their attention to the societal forces impossible to contain by legal norms and political institutions. Constitutional Imaginaries are then a monograph focusing on these forces and their expansion in the form of social imaginaries constituted by the systems of positive law and politics. I believe that social imaginaries are relevant for constitutional theory, constitutionalism and constitutional practices because they bring out ideational and socio-cultural dimensions of law, economy, administration and politics. I wanted to write a book which offers a new theoretical approach to the legal constitutions as societal power formations evolving at European transnational level and would be of interest for scholars and students interested in constitutional and European law theory and philosophy as much as interdisciplinary and socio-legal studies of transnational European law and society.

How did you go about doing this research?

The book draws on debates and polemics related to the historical process of European integration which has been informed by two most general political goals, namely economic prosperity and social stability. Its core argument can be summarised as follows: European constitutional imaginaries are specific forms of societal power which is impossible to limit and control by political institutions and ideologies and needs to be theoretically analysed in the context of transnational societal constitutionalism evolving in post-national and post-sovereign Europe. For this argument, I needed to combine my social systems theoretical approach with other theories and philosophies analysing the functional power of social imaginaries. Rather than normative theories favoured by critical scholars, I used Taylor’s seminal work on modern social imaginaries and reformulated it from Foucault’s philosophy of power as societal functionality. Drawing on Teubner’s theory of societal constitutionalism, I subsequently analysed polysemy and polyvalence of the European constitutional imaginaries to formulate the sociological meaning of the concept of imaginary as background power of both national and transnational legal and political systems. While engaging in this theoretical enterprise, I also encountered a paradox of the community of values claiming transcendental validity but depending on their immanent enforcement and legitimation. Using the methodology of social systems theory and its radical constructivist perspective then helped me to eliminate a typical mistake of perceiving imaginaries as the meaningful opposites of systemic rationality which reveal the authentic human existence in the otherwise alienating modern society. Instead, Teubner’s theory of societal constitutions has opened for me a research route analysing constitutional imaginaries as expanding the potential of functional rationality of different social systems and contributing to their legitimation beyond efficiency.

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