The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society


Michel Maffesoli

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It will also publish theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new intellectual movements.

    editor: Mike Featherstone, University of Teesside

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    Jonathan Friedman

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    Global Modernities

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    Undoing Culture

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    For Raphaële, Sarah-Marie and Emmanuelle

    Foreword: Masses or Tribes?

    Earlier in this century, Herman Schmalenbach used Tönnies and Simmel's preoccupation with the forms of social interaction to critique the division of urban and rural or traditional society. Breaking apart the dualism of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Schmalenbach noted the endurance of networks of acquaintances and circles of friends which stabilized the social worlds of individuals who experienced the trauma of rapid urbanization in nineteenth-century Europe. A similar importance of these ‘bunde’, Schmalenbach argued, would mark any decline in the reliability and central role of a society dominated by sociality associated with labour contracts and job-based social interaction. These ‘elective affinity groups’ (Weber) form a transversal structure largely ignored by the class-oriented categories of modernist sociology. While Maffesoli is intensely concerned with ‘interaction in public’, he transcends Goffman's focus on the interpersonal to consider the sociological implications of the plethora of small groups and of temporary groupings which we are members of at different times during our day. Between the time one might leave one's family or intimates in the morning and the time when one returns, each person enters into a series of group situations each of which has some degree of self-consciousness and stability. While the passengers of a commuter bus are hardly a group, the ‘regulars’ know and may well salute each other as well as the regular driver. Sports clubs, friends at the office, coffee ‘klatches’, associations of hobbyists, the crowd of fans at a sports match, the local level of a political party, ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ community policing, and single-issue pressure groups are all examples of neo-tribes.

    Maffesoli develops the concept of neo-tribalism beyond Schmalenbach's ‘bund’. The tribus are more than a residual category of social life. They are the central feature and key social fact of our own experience of everyday living. This ‘underground centrality’ of tribus persists despite the sociological fetish of abstractions, and of more (and often less) realist categories. While the power of class to influence outcomes is not in doubt, it is less significant in everyday social interaction than might appear from the abstractions of sociological statistics. Like other French theorists such as Michel De Certeau and Jean Baudrillard, Maffesoli takes up an engaged position within the flux of social life rather than at a cool distance. The effect is to produce an internal analysis of the ‘sociality within’ European societies too often known only through the simulacra of statistical demographics. The Weberian perspective of focusing on the meaning of social interaction for participants is foregrounded, but given a new twist in that the affective neutrality of the sociologists – an alienation effected through the abstraction of quantitative data and the reification of social science concepts – is problematized.

    Michel Maffesoli is a theorist of the break-up of mass culture. Le Temps des tribus – the time of the tribes – can also be translated as ‘the time of the masses’. The ‘little masses’ of Maffesoli's analysis are heterogeneous fragments, the remainders of mass consumption society, groups distinguished by their members' shared lifestyles and tastes. Tribus are thus not ‘tribes’ in the traditional anthropological sense, for they do not have the fixity and longevity of tribes. Nor are they neo-tribes; they are better understood as ‘postmodern tribes’, or even pseudo-tribes. The ‘Time of the Tribes’ is a time when the mass is tribalized.

    Over a series of works spanning a decade Maffesoli's work moved from Marxist sociological categories to the anomalies of everyday life. As a postmodern sociology, this work proceeds from the premise that the modernist categories and the foundational narratives which ‘explain’ and thereby buttress the social order of nation states are facing profound challenges. Nonetheless, this work has been seen as ironically reproducing a neo-modernism. Maffesoli refuses to give up the role of the sociologist and the tradition of sociological theory. While he condemns social science dogmatism, these are the jibes and blandishments of a suitor.

    Against the theoreticism of lifeless groupings imposed by sociologists, Maffesoli exploits Bergson's vitalism to argue for the power of the basic sociality – the ‘being together’ – of everyday life. This is married with Durkheim's conceptualization of collective consciousness (conscience collective) and the life-affirming, Dionysian quality of the transcendent warmth of the collectivity (divin social). This transcendence is, in Maffesoli's word, ‘immanent’. In its simplest terms, the Durkheimian insight into idolization and defence of the social group as the most primitive form of religiosity is important because tribus become the highest social good for their members. Out of the ethos of these tribus emerge ethical orientations and a form of natural law which challenges the legitimacy of traditional morals.

    Maffesoli makes a unique contribution by contesting the moral basis of politics in the classic sense. While one might speak of a contingent politics (Finn 1989), or simply ignore the universal and transcendental quality which political principles share with moral dictates, Maffesoli detects the existence of an ethical aesthetics, and art of living which emphasizes ‘getting along’ and getting by so as to maintain the solidarity of tribus and facilitate everyday social interaction. This is not a Fascistic ‘aestheticization of politics’ but rather aesthetics as the operationalization of situational ethics (Shields 1991). If one wishes to keep close to the etymological meanings of the words, this is an appropriate use of the classical notion of aesthetics (aesthesis) which focuses on questions of beauty and correctness as defined by collective experience, not transcendental principles of beauty (a relatively recent corruption of the long history of aesthetic judgement). Rather than questions of universal right or wrong, one deals with questions of appropriateness and ‘fit’ within situations.

    This is far from an abandonment of politics. Instead it indicates the shortcoming of the terms in which politics is normally discussed. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the ‘counterculture’ movements of the 1960s was to apply the political to every sphere of life. However, this may obscure as much as it reveals, for the diversity of politico-aesthetical action at the level of personal engagements in everyday life exceeds the merely political. The situationist slogan ‘the personal is the political’ must be supplemented by an insight that the personal is the ethical and aesthetic centre of social relations.

    Typical examples of tribus are not only fashion victims, or youth subcultures. This term can be extended to interest-based collectivities: hobbyists; sports enthusiasts; and more important – environmental movements, user-groups of state services and consumer lobbies. Affinity-based political groups may arise around access to services (for example, Canadian senior citizens lobbying to use national park facilities which normally close in the fall and winter because of a lack of holidaymakers when children are in school). One example of the political mobilization of a tribus can be found in the case of the National Riflemen's Association (NRA) in the United States. This group of gun collectors, owners of guns (from sidearms to shotguns and assault rifles), and hunters is a key voice in what is popularly called the ‘gun lobby’, a group that has successfully campaigned to defeat numerous gun control bills and legislators who are in favour of limiting free access to weapons within the United States and more recently beyond its borders in Canada. Consumer protection and other lobbies may appear unpolitical, but a reflection on the power of the NRA in the United States will quickly dispel this view. Extending the theory of tribalization to such far-flung groups is a bold move which requires more theoretical comment than is possible here. However, the hypothesis that people with the same lifestyle and affinity of habitus may share the same politics of everyday life appears fruitful. One may note, for example, that in the United States the NRA even functions as a surrogate political party which amplifies the voices of poor, disenfranchised white men.

    Unlike, for example, Adam Smith's almost metaphysical notion of the invisible hand of the market, Maffesoli's argument that ethical rules emerge from collectivities is strongly buttressed by philosophical analysis and social theory. While they have weak powers of discipline (for example, their only option is to exclude or shun members), they have strong powers of integration and inclusion, of group solidarity. These powers are displayed and actualized in initiatory rituals and stages of membership. As the highest social good, the members of tribus are marked by it, wearing particular types of dress, exhibiting group-specific styles of adornment and espousing the shared values and ideals of the collectivity. From the perspective of a sociology of consumption, Maffesoli's work takes on great importance, for tribus focus and segment processes of both individual and collective consumption.

    Maffesoli is well aware of the potential for this work to be adopted as a new romanticism which eschews the effort to achieve a higher level of communicative rationality and an accessible and open public sphere. He himself calls this a ‘new barbarism’, but in line with Hegel and Kierkegaard's warnings on the dangers of sollen (ought) warns against the hectoring tendencies of social scientists. The power of tribus is inscribed within a thoroughgoing relativism. Unlike anthropological tribes, our contemporary social life is marked by membership in a multiplicity of overlapping groups in which the roles one plays become sources of identity which, like masks, provide temporary ‘identifications’. Social status thus acquires an ambiguous edge.

    What is required is not only a defence of the tribus in terms of its realism in contrast with the hopeless idealism of theories such as communicative rationality. An analysis of the implications of tribalization, and in particular its negative and corrosive impact on modernity as a dominant form of social organization, is needed. The focus on the liberatory quality of the tribus, the flexibility of identity and the dis-alienating potential of everyday life needs to be expanded to take in the negative tribe-like forms of ethnic nationalism, the Fascistic exploitation of tribus and subsequent reification of identity by governments facing simultaneous legitimation and restructuring crises. This text, therefore should be viewed not so much as setting an agenda as opening up an arena of research.

    Maffesoli's work undertakes a critique of academicism and dogma within sociology. Here one should note the avoidance of elaborate structuralistic analytical frameworks which stand in for everyday life, such as in the work of Bourdieu. However, Maffesoli's work will still appear to the English reader highly academic because of its essayistic format. Yet the tone of formality and classicism so well preserved by Don Smith in his translation masks the initiatory structure of this work. At first its pretension excludes and intimidates, but this breaks down very quickly into the warmth of a shared vision, for this is truly an intimate sociology.

    Finn, Geraldine (1989) ‘The politics of contingency: the contingency of politics: on the political implications of Merleau-Ponty's ontology of the flesh’. Paper presented at CRCS Symposium, Carleton University, Ottawa, Fall 1990.
    Shields, Rob (1991) ‘Introduction to “The Ethics of Aesthetics”’Theory Culture & Society, vol. 8, no. 1, 1–5.
  • Appendix: The Thinking of the Public Square*

    The Two Cultures

    The existence of a ‘savage thinking’ is now taken as a given; fortified by experience acquired through contact with primitive societies, anthropology is turning its attention to the everyday life of contemporary societies, even to what has been called the ‘enterprise culture’, or other spheres that used to seem too close to be successfully analysed. It is the same for the culture of knowledge, which is beginning to admit the existence of another culture, that of collective sentiments. We can agree on this emergence; many analyses testify to this;1 however, a certain distance remains between these two cultures which at times risks becoming an unbridgeable gulf. There is no question, of course, of trying to get around this difference, or even of denying the genuine consequences, whether in the realm of knowledge or the everyday; rather it must be acknowledged in order to master its effects. It is a matter of experiencing the paradoxical tension produced by the existence of these two cultures, a tension which can be summarized thus: how to combine into a thought perspective – a very general perspective – that which can be qualified as evanescent, ad hoc and ephemeral. It is a question of ‘everyday knowledge’ which, without losing any of its reflexive aspect, tries to remain close to its natural foundation, that is, the basic sociality.

    On all sides, moreover, we can see the resurgence of many issues related to this natural foundation; this is what we could call, taking a famous precedent, the ‘Nature Question’. However, as opposed to what was, from the grottos of Umbria to the communities of the Ardèche, the ‘Franciscan’-thematic, such a question is no longer seen in cut and dried terms. There can no longer be a case of culture on one side and nature on the other, with all the consequences such a dichotomy implies. It must be seen that the essential consequence is the constant relativization of the natural pole. In various forms – popular, folklore, common wisdom and so on – it was for the most part marginalized. At best, it was seen as a stage to be passed through; the infancy of humanity, always reborn, which had to be completely eradicated, a task to which the great thinkers buckled down with relish. Thus, before demonstrating, or at least indicating the synergy that is becoming clear these days between the natural pole and the cultural pole, an analysis, however brief, should be made of the constant scorn or neglect of popular thought: whether in the realm of mythology or the everyday.2 This is a procedure stated a contrario which can be of enormous help to my arguments.

    Dedicated to Franco Ferrarotti.

    To return to a concept of Gilbert Durand's, it was not until recently that the ‘anthropological trajectory’ (which Berque called ‘trans-subjectivity’) between the aforementioned poles was called into question. Thus, in the cabbalistic tradition, alongside the ‘tree of knowledge’ grows the ‘tree of life’. It is the schism between the two trees that, according to Scholem, allows evil to gain a foothold in the world.3 In a metaphorical way, one can surely say that this is one of the sources of the separation between life and philosophy, their profound antagonism and the enormous difficulty the latter has in integrating the rich experience of the former. Very early on, we see the emergence of an important distinction between a ‘philosophic-rationalist’ culture and a ‘populo-mythological’ culture, a distinction which, like a thread, weaves its way through the fabric of humanity.4 I have no intention of writing their history, which is worth doing, however; but rather of highlighting that, in the words of a well-known expression, there are various ‘knowledge interests’ (Habermas) which are bound to confront each other. One might also stress the fact that the popular sensibility has always provoked the discontent of the clerics.

    This is an ancient paradox between that which attempts to explain (return to square one), to regulate life, and that very life itself which forever resists explanation. The first sensibility proceeds by distinction and by subsequent analysis; the second favours conjunction and the overall comprehension of various elements of the worldly reality. Historians and sociologists have often contested the equivalency (ideal-typical) established by Max Weber between the spirit of capitalism and Protestantism. In fact, in this book he stylized the essential characteristics of what can be called bourgeoisism. In particular, with respect to his episteme: to master nature (social and natural) through the rational and systematic application of the disjunctive attitude. Moreover, this can be summed up by what Mehl states with regard to the Protestant outlook which, as opposed to what seems ‘at times to characterize Catholic thinking’, proceeds by ‘rupture, by refusing conjunctions’.5 In this sense, bourgeois society and its Protestant ideology, or even the Anglo-Saxon attitudes which are its vectors, push the logic of distinction and separation to its extreme. These are things which characterized modernity in its best as well as worst aspects. By favouring the demonstration of a rational order of ‘ought’, it simply forgets to show [monstrare] a real order that is much more complex – something modern thought has often been incapable of understanding. Witness this warning by an historian of Russian populism, concerning intellectuals who ‘lead the people in the name of abstract, bookish, imported ideas, but adapt themselves to the people as it was’.6 But this transition from a logic of ought to an embodied logic is not a given when one remembers the scholar's scorn of the ordinary, everyday life which, despite differing political sympathies, continues to form the basis of a good number of analyses of social reality.

    For the People's Happiness

    We shall not return to an old problem which has been the subject of many studies for over a decade. At a time when it was unfashionable to do so, I myself made a contribution to this debate. One must remember, however, that the people must always be brought to consciousness from the outside. Leninism took this perspective and, as we know, very few intellectuals escaped its grip.7 And all those who, even today, distrust spontaneous sociology, everybody's sociology, take their inspiration from the same philosophy: that of scorn for anything which cannot be explained conceptually; perhaps for anything that is lived.

    One may remember the Hegelian expression, ‘The people does not know what it wants, only the Prince knows.’ Bit by bit, this privilege of the Prince's was passed on to the upholders of the logic of politics, the intellectuals, as carriers of the universal and the founders of collective responsibility. From the princes of the mind from centuries past enacting laws or the royal march of the Concept, to their pale reflections today in the form of contemporary buffoons, builders of a media infrastructure, the mechanism is exactly the same: in all places and at all times it is a question of ‘answering for’. In this respect, it is enlightening to see that, whether in a scholarly study or in the multitude of newspaper articles, the moral preoccupation remains the basis of much of intellectual analysis. As for those who refuse to go along with this trend, they are classified under the shameful heading of aesthetes!

    It would be instructive to compile an anthology of the expressions of the scornful attitude with respect to the idiocy and the idioms of the people; in short, with respect to its attachment to particularisms. Whether in the case of Gorky observing that Lenin had the barine's* scorn ‘for the life of the masses’ or the type of populo of whom Sartre stated ‘they always notice the bad in things’ when it is equally possible to see the good, there are many who cannot let go of their critical a priori in order to seize the values which make for the quality of life above all concerned with ‘proxemics’. This outlook can best be summed up in a quip of Paul Valéry: ‘Politics is the art of preventing the senses from getting involved in what concerns them.’8 Indeed, the above-mentioned failure to comprehend resides in the propensity of the moral-political logic to concern itself with the far-off, the plan, the perfect; in a word, with the ‘ought’. On the other hand, what for lack of a better term we shall call the people or the mass can be characterized by that which is close by, by that structurally heterogeneous, monstrous everyday; in short, by being the centre of an existence it is very difficult to summarize. This explains its quasi-conscious refusal to be anything.

    * Transl. note: a nobleman of pre-revolutionary Russia.

    To account for this, I have proposed the metaphor of the underground centrality, in order to underline the fact that many social phenomena, while not finalized, have their own specificity. Thus, in the hypothesis of neo-tribalism I am setting out, one can say that within a multiform mass there is a multiplicity of micro-groups that escape the normal predictions or commands to identity of the social analysts. Nevertheless, these tribes' existence is conspicuous; the existence of their cultures is no less real. Naturally, these cultures are not part of the politico-moral order; any analysis starting from such a premise is condemned to silence or, what is unfortunately more often the case, to verbosity. As I have said, it is impossible to summarize; even less is it possible to be reductive, or to make sociality subject to some form of determination, be it of the highest order. We are living through some of the most interesting times, in which the efflorescence of the lived gives rise to a pluralistic knowledge, in which disjunctive analysis, the techniques of separation and conceptual apriorism are giving way to a complex phenomenology which can integrate participation, description, life narratives and the varied manifestations of collective imaginations.

    Such a procedure, which takes life into account, may go some way in explaining the contemporary throng. As I have said before, we are far from an abdication of the mind – on the contrary! Indeed, it is possible that in so doing we are able to see a particular order at work in our own day. Thus, corresponding to a logical vitalism would be a societal vitality, in other words, a logic of passions (or of confusion) would replace the politico-moral logic to which we have become accustomed. In the words of Saint Athanasius, ‘ou kairoi alla kurioi’, which could be translated as: ‘not that which is present; but rather the gods’. Martineau proposes inverting the proposition: ‘ou kurioi alla kairoi’, which we might translate as ‘not overarching authority; but rather that which is there’, the occasions, the moments experienced jointly.9 This inversion is useful in understanding our own time. Religious or profane monovalency has had its day; it may be that the aforementioned tribes are more concerned with the time that passes and its true nature, with the occasions that arise, rather than overarching authorities, whatever shape they may take. It is no less possible that these occasions define an order which, for all that it is more stochastic or more latent, is no less real. These are the stakes claimed by the underground centrality: to be able to comprehend a differentiated architectonic, based on an internal order or puissance and which, while not being finalized, possesses an intrinsic force that must be acknowledged.

    The vitalism produced by the approach I have just laid out is not an ex nihilo creation. This perspective recurs regularly, and has inspired important works. To cite but a few names from modern history, one might refer to Schopenhauer's ‘will to live’, to Bergson's élan vital, Simmel's Lebensoziologie or Lévi-Strauss' vouloir obscur. In each of these, the accent is placed on the system of conjunctions. Or, to employ a term in use to refer to the various cultural, social, historical and economic elements, the social whole [tout social]. This conjunction seems to be equivalent to the great sociological characteristics of the moment. One may discriminate, separate, reduce a world dominated by the object and the objective; it is not the same when one is confronted with what I would call the ‘return of life’. This theme can be found recurrently in Weber in the highly formalized form of Verstehen. It is appropriate that we have been able to underline the central role that this notion has played between knowledge and everyday life. ‘Despite the mystique with which the concept of Verstehen has been infected, there seems to be no reason to suppose that historical or sociological understanding is different from everyday understanding.’10 In fact, there is a certain amount of the mystical in the notion of understanding, in the sense that it is founded on knowledge that is at the same time direct, intuitive and global. It gathers; it keeps together the various elements that the analytic moment had separated.

    Let us consider the term ‘mystical’ in its widest sense: that which tries to understand how things stay together, even if in a contradictory way. This accounts for the conflictual harmony that is the attribute of every society. In short, it is this glutinum mundi that makes something exist. Mystical is the astonishment of the member of the populo who, confronted with Sartre's critical spirit, sees, smells, tells the ‘good at work in all things’. The affirmative ‘yes’ is in opposition to the dissociative ‘no’. Remember that the disjunctive procedure is the flip-side of the principle of individuation. The critical individual who separates is the same one who divides. While his entire oeuvre is part of this tradition, Adorno, when he lets go, remarks with lucidity that ‘no one has the right through elitist pride to be opposed to the mass of which he or she is also a moment’, or ‘in many people it is already an impertinence to say “I” ’.11 In fact, the mystical attitude of understanding takes into account the discourse of the mass; it is just, the truth be told, a specific expression of it. In these fine words: ‘Our ideas are in everyone's head.’ In contrast to the exteriority mentioned earlier, understanding encompasses the whole and is itself situated within this whole.

    This is a specific ambience which encourages interactivity, whether communicational, natural or spatial. By putting forward in a previous book the notions of correspondence and analogy as approaches adopted by our discipline, I sought to highlight the pertinence of the global perspective in a world where, precisely because nothing is important, everything is important; in a world where, from the largest to the smallest, all elements fit together. This was also a matter of emphasizing that, just like a monochrome painting, social life is founded on a subtle overlaying of experiences, situations and phenomena, one on top of another which are interrelated in an analogous way. Without going into the reasons behind it, one can describe such ambiguity. In his own way, Berque uses the notion of ‘mediance’, which connotes ambience while evoking the multiform effects mentioned earlier. There is a back and forth movement between the objective and the subjective, and between the search for conviviality and the metaphoric procedure. To be more precise, it is possible to speak of the contamination of each of these registers by the other. All of these things, if they do not invalidate, at least relativize both external scrutiny as well as any conceptual and/or rational monovalence.12

    The Order within

    The surpassing of rational monovalence as an explanation for the social world is not an abstract process; in fact, it is tightly aligned with the heterogenization of this world, or what I have called social vitalism. According to Renan, the ancient god ‘is neither good nor bad; it is a force’.13 This power has nothing moralizing about it, but is expressed through a variety of characters, which should be understood in the strongest sense of the word, and which all take their place in the vast symphony of the world.

    Such a pluralization forces social thought to break through the constraints of a one-dimensional science. This is the essential lesson of Max Weber: the polytheism of values creates a causal pluralism. Within the conceptual framework imposed by the nineteenth century, I have shown how a value was recognized as good, and the intellectual's goal was to ensure that this principle became law. This is the politico-moral perspective. The few ideologies that shared (conflictually) the market functioned according to the same mechanism. It can no longer remain so when totally antagonistic values burst onto the scene, relativizing, at the very least, the pretension to universality, just as this gives nuance to the overall influence of a particular morality or politics. This eruption is the foundation of conceptual relativism.

    Such relativism is not necessarily a bad thing. In any case, its existence is clear, and one might as well take note of it. In order to better understand its effects, one might recall a statement of Brown's, in which he says that the history of mankind therefore is marked by ‘a constant tension between theistic and polytheistic ways of thinking’.14 For my part, I would say that there is a constant swing back and forth. According to Sorokin's law of saturation which he so capably applied to cultural entities, there are paradigms that favour that which unifies in terms of political organizations, conceptual systems and moral representations; there are others that, on the contrary, encourage explosion, effervescence and proliferation. From a purely spiritual God, powerful and solitary, we have moved to bodily idols, disordered and pluralistic. However, as opposed to a simplistic linearity which can only envisage the path from ‘poly’ to ‘mono’, it is easy to observe that human histories provide many examples of a back and forth movement between these two modes of social expression.

    Many studies have underlined this phenomenon: Durand, an expert on mythology, has shown how Christianity itself, in its monotheistic intransigence, is incomprehensible without its syncretist substratum.15 Even in our own day and age, the development of sectarianism, charismatic movements, charitable initiatives, fundamental communities, the many forms of superstition, can be interpreted as the manifestation of our old pagan, populist roots that have lasted, more or less, within popular religion and which have undermined the unifying shell developed by the institution of the Church over the course of centuries. In fact, it would be interesting to show how the unified aspect of the doctrine and the organization is less solid than at first appears; that it is still vulnerable to fracturing and is above all ad hoc. The varied schisms and heresies are a good illustration of this phenomenon. Even the doctrines which prove later to be the most solid supporters of monovalent positions, since they are opposed to intolerance, because they confront the unknown and because they are based on the thirst for freedom, are in their founding moments the most solid defenders of pluralism. Thus, if we follow Strohl, a great expert on the young Luther, we can see how Luther contrasted a macroscopic, institutional Church with an ‘invisible Church … that acts through its witnesses’.16 Thus he found that the essence of the ecclesia was constituted of small local entities mystically united in the communion of the saints. For him, against the institutional Church serving up an established doctrine there exists an essential instituting force: puissance versus power.

    It is interesting to note that this pluralistic vision of the Church has as its corollary an intellectual framework that dissociates itself from scholastic rigidity. Luther learned to ‘combine fragments of the Aristotelian system with those of the Augustinian, without worrying about the principles of these two systems … he could easily adopt ideas derived from foreign principles, but which could be assimilated to his own’. In both these aspects, Luther's example is illuminating, for the success of Lutheranism resides in the intuitive understanding of the pluralistic foundation which characterizes the masses. Strohl, moreover, goes on to highlight that Luther ‘son of the people … has both his good and bad qualities’.17 We shall leave the responsibility for such claims to himself; what is sure is that in his own time the popular levels of society were not wrong in following him enthusiastically and, taking his teachings to their logical conclusion, revolted against the established powers, until Luther, having achieved his goal of getting rid of the vizier to become the new vizier, called upon the nobility for help in quelling the disorder of the rabble. But the ‘circulation of elites’ is another story!

    Above all, it is critical to bring out the fact that there is a refractory social foundation to unity: refractory to any representational or organizational one-dimensionality. This foundation seems to be functionally manifest at moments in which massification occurs together with an explosion of the values underlying this mass. As I have just shown for the Reformation, the same can also be said of the Renaissance during which, alongside a general tendency for the ‘amalgamation of different levels of society’, as Jacob Burckhardt, the great historian of this period remarks, there is a vitalist explosion in all domains: doctrines, arts, sociability, political structures, etc. This effervescence constitutes a new social deal, usually inviting other forms of interpretation. Durkheim also noted it in the case of the French Revolution (in underlining its religious aspect), and, more generally, in the case of any form of religion which, he says, ‘is not reduced to a unique cult, but rather consists of a system of cults invested with a certain degree of autonomy’.18

    What becomes clear through these few examples and quotes is that there are times when societies become more complex by making use of procedures that are themselves complex. Refined classicism is followed by the luxuriant baroque. Just as the classical is linear, visual, closed, analytical, and liable to be clearly analysed, the baroque is evolving, complicated, open, synthetic and evokes a relative obscurity, or at least an approach based on the chiaroscuro. Such research arguments put forward in art history by Wölfflin19 can easily be applied to these epistemological considerations. In this case, the accent will be placed on the latter of these two groups of notions. The baroque sociality that is being born requires that we know how to decipher the logic of its internal mechanism. I repeat, there is a specific order to the underground sociality, an internal order that occasionally blossoms at times of fracturing, disturbance or effervescence, given that these may be completely silent, or at the very least very discreet, to the extent that they may escape the close analysis of the experts. Let us remember the adage of ‘keeping one's ear to the ground’.

    Jünger noted with astuteness that there is no allusion in Egyptian writing to Exodus.20 This event must not have played a significant role in the internal politics of that country. Nevertheless, we know what impact this small escape by slaves had on the course of history, or, and it amounts to much the same thing, on the mythological construction underlying our history. Thus, there are times during which the supposedly unimportant, the unobserved, considered marginal, is both a place of real investment for the protagonists, as well as being consequential for social evolution. The order to which I am referring is an attempt to come to terms with this phenomenon.

    It has already been analysed by way of notions such as the ‘soft underbelly’, ‘aloofness’ and ruse; I even proposed the category of duplicity21 to account for the process of abstention. It must also be noted that this thematic, aside from its inherently prospective interest, opens up an epistemological line of inquiry. Thus, as Poirier remarks, the life narratives, which ‘try to make the people of silence talk, in the words of their most humble representatives’,22 can be seen as belonging to this perspective. He notes the fact that there is an eloquent silence, and that it is not a matter of rushing it, but rather of interpreting it in order to bring out all its richness. Silence is very often a form of dissidence, of resistance or even internal distance. If we interpret this in the context of positivist norms, which can only see the positivity of things, then this silence will be seen as ‘less’, as a non-existence. As opposed to this attitude, one must say that such a procedure has its own strong points: the ‘nothing’ which serves as a foundation for a meaningful life. This is the Weberian expression: understanding reality from the characteristics of the unreal. In fact, the categories of opacity, ruse, duplicity, the mechanisms of silence and the chiaroscuro are above all the expression of a vitalism which assures the long-term preservation and self-creation of sociality. This leads us to the aforementioned epistemological situation.

    Behind the practice of silence lies, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the question of survival. By survival I mean that faculty of adaptation which allows one to accommodate constraints without being overwhelmed by them. Therein essentially lies the problem of force or puissance, which must not be confused with power. I would also note that, in its sociological dimension, the survival of the Jewish people can be seen in the context of the strategies I have just explained. Its jokes, its puns, silences and consequent ruses are accompanied by a great respect for and love of life, as many commentators have not failed to remark.23

    In the same order of things, one may pursue the detailed analysis of a polemical dialogue of everyday life and how only loving relationships that escape the injunction of speech, the therapy of confession, have a chance to survive.24 I am intentionally using illustrations from a broad spectrum. They have nothing to do with one another, but they are able expressions of how all sociality is based on communion and reserve, attraction and repulsion, and by paying too much attention to the first of these pairs we risk losing sight of the richness of the second. In the nineteenth-century zeal to explain everything in terms of reason, to require explanations for everything, we have forgotten, in the lovely words of Silesius, that the ‘rose knows no reason’. From an epistemological point of view, relying too heavily on the ‘spoken’ portion of social relationships has caused us to forget that they are also founded on the unspoken. Such empty space is a storehouse worth exploring. This perspective, well represented by the ancient wisdom of the secretum meum mihi, can form the basis of a concrete sociality which is more than the simple reflection of our ideas, but has its own consistency. This may be common sense, grudgingly recognized by academics who feel relativized, but it regularly re-emerges both in everyday life and in the world of ideas.

    Experience, Proxemics and Organic Knowledge

    Contrary to what is typically acknowledged, the end of the great narratives of reference is not the result of a lack of great thinkers. The quality of intellectual research is not necessarily worse than at other times. In fact, if there is a disenchantment with overarching and distant ideologies, it is because we are witnessing the birth of a multitude of ideologies which are lived from day to day, based on close, familiar values. Experience and proxemics: this sense of the concreteness of existence can now be considered as an expression of good health, of particular vitality. This vitalism secretes in a way an organic thinking with, of course, all its inherent qualities, that is, an insistence on intuitive perception – seen from inside; on comprehension – seen overall; the holistic appreciation of the varied elements of the given and on the common experience, which is felt, along with others, to constitute a lived knowledge. Some authors, few and far between, it is true, have emphasized such an organic way of thinking. One might refer in this instance to Dilthey, of course, but also to any thought inspired by Nietzsche which prefers the dionysiac and its tactile, emotional, collective and conjunctive aspects. One might also quote G.E. Moore and his Defense of Common Sense while insisting on the truths he nurtures. Moore notes with finesse that ‘most philosophers … go against the common sense which they still practise in their daily lives.’25 One could cite more authors who take the same line by focusing their investigations on a similar thematic, such as sociological phenomenology, whose epistemological and thematic interest can be seen in the work of Schutz, Berger and Luckmann. Indeed, what may be called vitalism and ‘common-sensology’ are linked, and their conjunction allows us to highlight their intrinsic hic et nunc quality, and the value of a presentism whose richness has yet to be fully explored.

    It remains true, however, that this is something that is difficult for the intellectual procedure to admit, since its natural inclination (a structural bias?) compels it towards the distant, the normative, the elaboration of the general rule. These can all be subsumed in the expression ‘the logic of the ought’, with all tendencies taken together. In order to bring this to a close, we might say that all of these explanatory procedures are centrifugal – always in search of what lies beyond the object under consideration. Opposed to that is a comprehensive approach which is deliberately centripetal, which thus takes its object, even the most minuscule one, very seriously. Every thing is examined in and of itself, and there is no wish to go beyond its contradictions to an illusory synthesis. In the perspective initiated by Lupasco and Durand, there is what may be termed a ‘contradictory logic’.26 History, distance and explanation combine centrifugally, resulting in the ‘ought’; myth, the nearby and comprehension are combined centripetally, to produce the contradictory.

    It is interesting to note that the impulse to reconsider the categories of social knowledge comes in large part from those who are emphasizing the significance of space. I am thinking in particular of Berque's work which showed on the one hand how ‘the inhabitant lives as such and not for an external viewer’; he develops the hypothesis of an areolar or cellular theory which operates on the collective, in the strictest sense of the term, rather than on the individual. This, on the other hand causes him to speak of an indistinctness between subject and object, the I and the other,27 which is somewhat reminiscent of the procedures of metaphorical or analogical correspondence. Whatever the case, this conjunction permits one to isolate an immanent order linked to the ‘physical milieu’ and the ‘concrete field’ in which social life takes place.28 This is the major element of these remarks: to understand the existence of a societal logic which, while not obeying the simple rules of mono-causalist rationalism, is no less real. To be more precise, one can say that there is an open rationality which makes coherent the various elements of social reality without reducing them to any sort of systematic vision. That is, to paraphrase Pareto, the logical and the ‘non-logical’ at work in these elements enter into synergy to create the familiar architectonic.

    Indeed, except in schoolbooks, no part of social life is one-dimensional. In many aspects it is monstrous, explosive, forever escaping the grasp of our analysis. Pluralism is what drives it from its very core. This state of affairs must be understood for what it is. Such is the aim of a sociology of everyday life. Nevertheless, nothing could be more difficult than the intellectual work that this requires. As Outhwaite indicated with respect to the comprehensive ambition of Simmel, ‘ this is … merely to say that everyday understanding is a highly complex activity’.29 This is because everyday life, outside of various rationalizations and legitimations, is studded with affects, with ill-defined feelings, in short, with all those obscure instants which cannot be put aside and whose impact on social life is increasingly significant. These are also things which accept with difficulty the simplicity of the ideal, the simplification of perfection, or the simplistic fantasy which reduces existence to what it ought to be.

    It is indeed easy to reflect on or in the intelligible world. It is unfailingly malleable and capable of acrobatics, reversals and other conceptually violent acts. There is brutality in the pure act of the mind, and I will not tire of repeating that the logic of ought is the easy way, a stop-gap, a truncated version of knowledge. Knowledge is much more respectful of the complexity of life and thus refuses a priori definitions while creating the intellectual conditions of possibility which allow one to bring out (epiphanize) the various elements of this complexity. As I have already explained, these are the stakes of ‘formism’: to put into place a rigorous descriptive procedure which is in congruence with the heterogeneous appearance of societal life and which, at the same time, is able to show its epistemological pertinence.

    One must remember above all that it is the given (cf. Schutz: taken for granted), the manifest that constitutes the basis of intellectual constructions, whatever they may be. We could take the example of the proverb which Durkheim sees as ‘a condensed statement of a collective idea or sentiment’, or everyday conversation, which sometimes contains a greater philosophy of existence and sense of the problems to come than many discussions among academics.30 These are cultural manifestations, strictissimo sensu, i.e., that which founds society, and it is surprising that scholarly culture is so impermeable to such manifestations. Moreover, it may be supposed that this impermeability is the principal cause of the sterility which characterizes a large part of the social sciences.

    In fact, what makes culture is opinion, ‘the thinking of the public square’, all things which constitute the emotional bond of sociality. It is only a posteriori that scholarly culture develops. I will use a distinction proposed by Fernant Dumont, who speaks of ‘first culture’, which surrounds us imperceptibly, and ‘second culture’, which ties me to a particular group.31 In the context of these reflections, I would say that the former is in a way the ambience, the amniotic fluid of all life in society, and it gives birth to or at least permits the flourishing of various traditions which cannot last outside the common matrix. There are thus as many specific traditions as there are groups; the intellectuals are one such group, but it is only in an abusive way that it presents its learning as the most legitimate. In fact, we would be better advised to note the correspondence, the synergy and the complementarity that unites these diverse scholars than to establish prevalence and hierarchies. In so doing, we would be more aware of the richness of such learning. Naturally, to accomplish this it is necessary to diversify our criteria of evaluation. Indeed, if in order to judge the validity of a given statement or practice we employ the sole criterion of formal coherence or simple causalist logic, we are condemned to provide tautological analyses. As far as French sociology is concerned, Pierre Bourdieu is certainly the most significant example of this when he elaborates (or theorizes, according to one's point of view) on ‘practical beliefs’. There is no point reiterating the scorn induced by such an attitude. It can be judged for itself and is above all an admission of impotence. In my opinion, it is no more fitting to speak of a ‘popular theoretical sense’, since here once more the common sense is judged by the sole yardstick of the theoretical perspective.32 In both cases, one is dealing with a ‘centrifugal’ perspective whose reference lies beyond the object with a more or less explicit judgemental attitude.

    Modernity's strength lay in having situated everything in the framework of History and historical development. ‘Centrifugation’ is nothing more than the intellectual translation of such a perspective. But what was once a strength has inevitably become a weakness. Indeed, History deprived histories of their place; it relativized experience. And these once-repressed experiences are resurfacing today with a vengeance. Their modulations are of all types, but with the common thread of favouring empiricism and proxemics. This is forcing us to reorient our analyses, to focus our scrutiny on ‘the most extreme concrete’ (W. Benjamin) that is everyday life. The complexity of everyday life, the ‘first culture’, deserves special attention. I have proposed calling this everyday knowledge.33 The stakes are high, since this proxemics increasingly determines, in the simplest sense of the word, the relationship to others. Whether it is the ‘lived social world’, the lived experience, relationism or reciprocal interrelationships, there have been many expressions, from Dilthey to Schutz by way of Mannheim, which take natural sociality and its architectonic as their a priori for all sociological categories.34 Is this pre-scientific? Spontaneous sociology? Speculation? The status of such a procedure is of little importance in as much as it sketches out the plan, if only provisionally, of a configuration in progress. Stable structures were well defined by the logic of identity and the moral judgement that accompanied it. Undefined constellations require that we highlight successive identifications and the aestheticism (common emotions) which translate them. The evaluation that gradually imposed itself throughout modernity was in perfect congruence with its object: the political order. It is less certain that it can continue to apply to the throng which, from tribes to masses, will serve as the matrix for the evolving sociality. However, this throws down for us a new intellectual challenge, above and beyond political morality: what will be the socio-anthropological structures of the passional order?


    1. Cf. F. Dumont, ‘Cette culture que l'on appelle savante’ in Questions de culture, Québec, Institut québécois sur la recherche culturelle, 1981, p. 19.

    2. As applied to a specific domain. Cf. the analysis done by C.G. Dubois, L'Imaginaire de la Renaissance, Paris, PUF, 1986, p. 959.

    3. Cf. G. Scholem, La Mystique juive, Paris, Cerf, 1985, p. 86.

    4. On this distinction, cf. G. Scholem, Sabbatai Tsevi, La Grasse, Editions Verdier, 1983, pp. 25. and 29.

    5. R. Mehl, La Théologie Protestante, Paris, PUF, 1967, p. 121.

    6. R. Pipes, quoted by Venturi, Les intellectuels, le peuple et la révolution. Histoire du populisme russe au XIXe siècle, Paris, Gallimard, 1972, p. 49.

    7. On this point, I refer to my books La Logique de la domination, Paris, PUF, 1976, and La Violence totalitaire, Paris, PUF, 1979. Also cf. B. Souvarine, Stalin, a Critical History, London, Secker and Warburg, 1940, p. 48. One may remember that only a few anarchistic groups, such as the workers councils and the Situationists, resisted conceptual Leninism.

    8. M. Gorky, Pensées intempestives, Lausanne, L'Age de l'homme, 1975, quoted by Souvarine, Stalin, p. 196; Lettres de Sartre, in Temps, 3 (1983), p. 1630; P. Valéry, Oeuvres complètes, Paris, La Pléiade, 1957–60, vol. 2, p. 615.

    9. Cf. the preface by E. Martineau to Heidegger's text, Editions Authentica, p. 14.

    10. W. Outhwaite, Understanding Social Life: The Method Called Verstehen, London, Allen and Unwin, 1975, p. 13. On the notion of conjunction, cf. G. Durand, ‘La notion de limites’ in Eranos 1980, Frankfurt, Insel Verlag, 1981, pp. 43 and 46.

    11. T. Adorno, Minima moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life, transl. E.F.N. Jephcott, London, New Left Books, 1974, p. 50 and Notes to Literature, transl. Sherry, Weber and Nicholson, New York, Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 244.

    12. On correspondence and analogy, I refer to my book La Connaissance ordinaire. Précis de sociologie compréhensive, Paris, Méridiens Klincksieck, 1985. On ‘mediance’, cf. A. Berque, Vivre l'espace au Japon, Paris, PUF, 1982, p. 41, and Le Sauvage et l'artifice, Paris, Gallimard, 1986, pp. 162, 165.

    13. E. Renan, Marc Aurèle, Paris, Livre de Poche, 1984, p. 314.

    14. P. Brown, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity, London, Faber and Faber, 1982, p. 9.

    15. One may refer to G. Durand, La Foi du cordonnier, Paris, Denoël, 1984.

    16. H. Strohl, Luther, Paris, PUF, 1962, p. 294; cf. also p. 308.

    17. Ibid., pp. 200 and 233.

    18. E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, New York, Collier, 1961, p. 41, et seq.

    19. Cf. H. Wölfflin, Renaissance et baroque, Brionne, Editions Monfort, 1985, and Principes fondamentaux de l'histoire de l'art, Paris, Gallimard, 1952.

    20. Cf. E. Jünger, Graffiti, Paris, Editions. C. Bourgois, 1977, p. 35.

    21. Maffesoli, La Conquête du présent, 1979.

    22. J. Poirier, Les récits de la vie, Paris, PUF, 1984.

    23. Cf. W.J. Johnston, L'Esprit viennois. Une histoire intellectuelle et sociale, Paris, PUF, 1985, pp. 26–28.

    24. I. Pennacchioni, De la guerre conjugale, Paris, Mazarine, 1986, p. 79.

    25. G.E. Moore, Apologie du sens commun, in F. Armengaud, G.E. Moore et la genèse de la philosophie analytique, Paris, Klincksieck, 1986, cf. p. 13, p. 135–160. The studies of the Centre d'études sur l'Actuel et le Quotidien (Paris V) and my two books on this theme, La Conquête du présent. Pour une sociologie de la vie quotidienne, Paris, PUF, 1979 and La Connaissance ordinaire, are situated at the crossroads of this perspective and sociological phenomenology.

    26. Cf. the afterword of G. Durand to his Structures anthropologiques de l'imaginaire, Paris, Bordas, 1969. On mythocriticism's usage of the centripetal procedure, cf. G. Durand, Figures mythiques et visages de l'oeuvre, Paris, Berg, 1982, p. 308.

    27. Berque, Vivre l'espace au Japon, pp. 124 and 56.

    28. Cf. Berque, Le Sauvage et l'artifice, p. 267.

    29. Outhwaite, Understanding Social Life, p. 13.

    30. Cf. E. Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, New York, Free Press, 1964, p. 170. Cf. also on the sterility of academic discourse, K. Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1954. Cf. also the richly rewarding remark by E. Renan: ‘it was the halting pronouncements of the people that became the second bible for the human race’ in Marc Aurèle, p. 291.

    31. Cf. Dumont, ‘Cette culture que l'on appelle savante’, p. 27, et seq.

    32. Cf. Y. Lambert, Dieu change en Bretagne, Paris, Cerf, 1985, p. 225. In fact, Lambert's book is very interesting and one might take this statement as an analogy; unfortunately, in my opinion, it is too dependent on the ‘Bourdieusian’ perspective.

    33. Maffesoli, La Connaissance ordinaire. I refer also to the research of J. Oliveira (University of Feira de Santana, Brazil) on the various forms of popular know-how: thèse d'état in progress.

    34. Without being exhaustive, one may cite Dilthey, Le Monde de l'esprit, Paris, Aubier, 1947, Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia; A. Schutz, Le Chercheur et le quotidien, Paris, Méridiens Klincksieck, 1986. Cf. also a good analysis of sociality in J. F. Bernard-Bechariès, ‘Meaning and sociality in marketing: guidelines for a paradigmatic research’, International Review of Marketing Research.

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