The Savage Mind of Michel Maffesoli

Professor of sociology at the Sorbonne, member of l’Institut Universitaire de France and author of a hefty catalogue of books, Michel Maffesoli enjoys a certain notoriety in France as something of a maverick public intellectual. Several of his works were translated into English in the 1990s, and his ideas have since made an impact in Anglophone academia, in particular in the fields of youth subcultures, business studies and marketing. They are also crucial in understanding the rise of identity politics and the ‘tribalisation’ of Western societies. The following interview appeared in French in issue 42 of the journal Rebellion — this translation by yours truly.


R / You were born in the South of France and grew up in the mining region of Graissessac (Hérault). What influence has this background had on your work and on your perception of academia?

MM — Indeed, my youth in the working-class village of Graissessac has certainly had an influence on my work, and on what we might call my perception of the world.

As far as my work is concerned, I’ve talked about this in several of my books (see in particular the book of interviews with Christophe Bourseiller: Qui êtes vous Michel Maffesoli, Bourin Éditeur, 2010). The working-class milieu where I grew up taught me a sense of pride in one’s work — even a certain ‘addiction’ to it. It’s this, incidentally, that leads me to be so harsh in my judgment of those I call ‘pensioners of the Republic’, all these ineffective intellectuals and so-called researchers who never actually find anything.

At the same time, the atmosphere of the mining village gave me the sense of celebration and the ‘tragic’. So for example, the festival of Saint Barbara on December 4th was a paroxysmal moment, where effervescence in all its forms expressed itself with vigour over the course of an entire week. When I wrote L’ombre de Dionysos [The Shadow of Dionysus] (1982), I was trying to demonstrate the importance of passions and collective emotions in the organisation of the social bond.

These festive phenomena, in every society, are corollaries of a sense of the tragic. It’s because of our ‘embedded knowledge’ that accident, death and finitude are always present that it’s possible in these moments to experience a heightening of the senses and a desire to fully enjoy the present.

I would also point out that this atmosphere also enabled me to get a sense of the hypocrisy of political and trade union leaders, real dames patronnesses of social life who dedicated themselves to doing good while demanding the subjection of those to whom their charity was addressed. This is what I’ve referred to as ‘totalitarian violence’. From there, a libertarian sensibility developed that became an essential component of all my work.

R / You had occasion to cross paths with the political scientist Julien Freund, whose works are currently attracting a renewed interest. What do you remember of him? And who were the other intellectual figures who influenced or made an impression on you?

I met Julien Freund in Strasbourg in 1968, and at that time we stood on opposite sides of the divide, in that he bravely questioned the motivations of the students involved in the uprising of which I was a part. The difference between him and many other university professors was that he had the courage to come out and say it. He later co-directed my work on ‘Marx, Heidegger and Technology’ and participated in the juries of my two theses. Ultimately, in 1978, he called me back to Strasbourg to take over from him at the Institute of Polemology.

This was a man of integrity, a free spirit, and even though there were a lot of things on which we disagreed, there was a mutual intellectual respect between us. I remember him as a quality academic, a true teacher — which I have to say is a dying breed. There are of course other intellectual figures who have influenced me, notably Jean Baudrillard, Edgar Morin and Gilbert Durand, but as I’ve suggested, I was only drawn to people who respected my intellectual freedom and who were essentially engaged in helping us think for ourselves. It’s precisely this model that for forty years I’ve tried to apply with my own students.

R / It’s to you that we owe the creation of the term ‘tribe’ to describe the new social groupings born in the urban spaces of the West in the 1980s. With the benefit of hindsight, how do you look back on this term you forged and the way it’s been used by the media?

It was actually in the 1970s that I began using the metaphor of ‘tribes’. The aim was to demonstrate that beyond the great institutions created during the 19th century, as Michel Foucault had shown, there was a new social bond emerging, the essential element of which was a feeling of belonging and shared ‘taste’, or to take up a Heideggerian term, a common ‘mood’.

I stand by that, and it seems to me that we’re still only at the very beginning of the ‘time of the tribes’. Of course this term has been commodified in various ways; the media have seized upon it, and it’s sometimes used indiscriminately, but for me it suffices as a metaphor (not a concept), a metaphor which well describes the renewed role of ‘elective affinities’ in social life.

R / The emergence and development of the techno movement and raves in the 1990s was one of your fields of research. What do you make of this current and the lifestyle associated with it?

At CEAQ (Centre d’Études sur l’Actuel et le Quotidien), which I founded with Georges Balandier in 1982 at the Sorbonne, and which I still direct, we’ve done a great deal of research on various music crowds — techno movements, ‘raves’, ‘goths’ and so on. I see these musical effervescences as an expression of what I’ve called ‘orgiasme’: the sharing of passions, the need to regroup, and to live out collective emotion together in a paroxystic way. In more familiar terms, it reflects what the young generations express in saying “I’m having fun”. This allows us to point out that, contrary to the supposed individualism constantly talked about by second division journalists and thinkers, what’s in play in our societies is actually the renewal of community desire.

R / Tattoos, piercings and bodily modifications of all kinds, yesterday the preserve of ‘marginals’ and ‘outlaws’, are now commonplace in the Western world. What do these things awaken in terms of our perception of the body?

One of the tracks of my work has been to look at the importance of the body. Perhaps we could speak of corporeisme. In 1990 I published a book entitled Au creux des apparences, pour une éthique de l’esthétique [In the Hollow of Appearances, For an Ethics of Aesthetics], in which I discussed how, beyond simple reason, the senses, the sensory and sensations were regaining a privileged position in personal and collective life.

This phenomenon of bodily augmentation is becoming more and more common, and certainly tattoos, piercings and other bodily modifications play an increasingly important role and constitute an essential part of urban theatricality. They are no longer the preserve of the marginalised and outlawed, but a common practice which cuts across all classes, generations and strata of society. In short, and this is what I referred to as an ‘ethic of aesthetics’, the body is no longer merely a tool of production or reproduction, but a structural element of life in general. Retail and the media help us to see how this corporeisme, for better or worse, is developing in our societies.

R / Your analysis of the ‘postmodern tribes’ emphasises the subversive aspect of their practices. But do we not see a recuperation of these behaviours (by consumerism) and their assimilation by the system? Aren’t the new communalisms a means for the State to fragment society in order to better control it?

It seems to me that there’s an important subversive dimension in the post-modern tribes. I would first of all point out that the word ‘communitarianism’, often used by an intelligentsia in distress, or at any rate completely out of touch with social reality, is not in itself capable of describing the strong communal ideal in gestation. That said, these new tribes are no longer situated in relation to the State. They care very little about politics and the organisations that relate to it, but this is difficult for us to understand in view of our colbertism, or native statism, which makes it hard to accept the idea that there can be a social ordering without an overarching body.

It’s thus that Élisée Reclus described anarchy: “an order without the state”. This idea is found in Hakim Bey when he speaks of the famous TAZ, or “Temporary Autonomous Zones”. What’s in play in postmodern tribalism, if I may use a topographical image, is the replacement of the verticality of the law of the father by the horizontality of the law of the brothers. And here again we note that technological advances in the online domain allow us clearly to grasp the importance of such a shift.

R / There is an undeniable disaffection towards politics, but at the same time, in your recent writings you note that this is by no means the end of ‘togetherness’. What are the new forms taken by this movement overtaking established elites? Are we looking at a final break between the people and their representatives?

All of this is an expression of disaffection with the political, of disenchantment with politics. Note from a semantic point of view that, in its etymological sense, politics was the shared management of the ‘polis’, the proximity that I lived with others. But through an antiphrasic process, politics — and this was how Julien Freund defined it — has today become a question of the distant. At the same time, new ways of ‘being together’ are emerging. We might call this an ecological sensibility, or even what I referred to in my last little pamphlet as ‘Ecosophy’ (CNRS Editions 2010).

The latter does not recognise established elites, who, on their part, naturally have difficulty grasping what is coming into being. While this is a very contemporary phenomenon, it should be noted that this is not the first time we’ve seen such a genuine ‘Secessio plebis’. It suffices to see, in what Vilfredo Pareto called the “circulation of elite”, that it is they who will be able to find the appropriate words to describe what is experienced. This is the essential problem of the times in which we live.

R / Reflection on the nature of violence was one of the starting points in your sociological research. How is this phenomenon expressed?

My reflection on violence is both old and current. The basic idea that I developed, in particular in Essais sur la violence banale et fondatrice (first ed. 1976; CNRS 2010) is that a society only develops when it knows not to banish, but to ritualise, to ‘homeopathise’ violence.

Modernity in the nineteenth century typically sought to ‘pasteurise’ or sanitise social existence. The ideology of zero risk, or the securitisation of existence, is the ultimate expression of this. Such an ideology could not be more dangerous, in that it can only favour paroxystic and therefore perverse forms of non-ritualised violence.

We can see in the burnt-out cars on the edges of our big cities, in sporadic explosions of revolt and rebellion, in car rodeos, violent playground games and other paroxysmal phenomena — we can see in all of these things that when you don’t know how to deploy what the medieval philosophers called the de usu, that is, the correct use of violence, it is exacerbated and becomes completely uncontrollable. If this ideology of security prevails, it is reasonable to assume that more and more explosions will emerge.

R / Hedonism and malaise are paradoxically linked in our world today. How would you explain this ‘social malaise’?

I don’t think there’s a malaise in civilisation at all. To always see — to paraphrase one late sociologist — “the misery of the world” is perhaps an expression of the misery of the intelligentsia, who, as I’ve pointed out, are completely disconnected from what’s actually going on. There is in fact an ambient hedonism, but as I suggested earlier, hedonism always goes hand in hand with the tragic. In this ‘tragic hedonism’ we see the expression of a ‘plus être’, not a mal être. The thing about hedonism, however, is that it lives in the present and is aware of its own finitude.

R / The period since the 1970s has seen the emergence of countless new forms of spirituality. This explosion of religious need has led to a return of quasi-Pagan religious forms. Is this phenomenon sustainable or will it disappear before the rise of ‘fundamentalisms’?

The finitude of the tragic in both the premodern and the postmodern is inherently linked to the return of a certain ‘paganism’. Paganism is the thing that binds me to this land, that is, to what makes one a ‘peasant’ of this world that is our ‘countryside’. The development of contemporary ‘New Age’ spiritualities is an expression of this; beyond established religions, there is a return to idolatry, the manifestations of which are numerous.

I discussed this in my book Iconologies [Iconologies] (Albin Michel, 2008). A Paganism that signals the end of the two millennia of monotheisms will not be without reactions, of which Christian or Muslim fundamentalisms and moralisms are clear expressions. These are rearguard battles however — battles which, as we know, may be bloody, for they feel that the cause is lost.

R / The ‘Shadow of Dionysus’ has a strong presence in your work. What does this figure from the ancient Pantheon represent to you?

The figure of Dionysus is indeed a central figure in my work. In short, to borrow from a historian of religions, Claude Mossé, Dionysus is ‘an arbustive deity’, even ‘chthonian’, ‘aboriginal’ —i.e., from the land. This is what makes him the emblematic figure of postmodernity.

R / Our vision of the future is darker now than ever. How do you see the possible evolutions of our postmodern society playing out?

Contrary to conventional wisdom on the sombre period in which we live, Dionysus emphasises the chiaroscuro in all existence. There’s no such thing as a man without a shadow, as novelists like Chamiso intelligently illustrated, and the same can be said of society. It’s precisely such an ambivalence that should be informing our thinking, and which gives weight to a mode of reflection focused on demonstrating the importance of the ‘humus’ in the human, which is my claim, or my ambition.

Interview by Rebellion
Translation by James Horrox