By Anais Ginori
After the advancement of freedom during modernity, the defining characteristic of the postmodern era is dependence. We exist today only through the eyes of others. The new book by French sociologist Michel Maffesoli, entitled Homo Eroticus, analyses our relationship with emotion in the contemporary world.
The latest stage in the evolution of our species is the homo eroticus, for whom emotion takes precedence over reason, impulse over reflection, pleasure over duty. “Eros now triumphs, both in private and public”, says Maffesoli, whose book is devoted to this new anthropological figure that has emerged in counterpoint to the homo sapiens. For Maffesoli, homo eroticus – the human being driven by desire – is at the centre of what is now known as postmodernity. Our actions are no longer a function of intellectualisation and reason, but of love, the intricate weave of emotion that surrounds us, which Maffesoli calls “emotional communion”.
In his view this is the culmination of a process that began in the West with the liberation of morals in the 1960s, and has since been strengthened by the development of new technologies, the retreat of religion, and finally the crisis of capitalism. Identity is now shaped by the law of desire, with profound repercussions in the body social. From culture to politics, everything is subject to the rule of pleasure. The paradox of this ‘liberated’ love, Maffesoli warns, is that human beings have created even more interdependence. ‘We exist only through the eyes of others’.
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I love, therefore I am?
Deciding on the title of the book I was torn between homo eroticus and ordo amoris. I wanted to emphasise the new order of love that has come to prevail in social life and is one of the characteristics of postmodernity. Whereas the past three centuries saw the emergence of a rationalistic vision of the world, in which feelings were relegated to the private sphere, now they have become public, and contaminate the whole of social life.
In what way does this “contamination” manifest?
In the nineteenth century there was a popular expression that recommended that emotions should always be kept behind closed doors. The ‘door’ has now been shot down. The spaces are communicating. The effects of this are being felt even in political debate, as evidenced by the jealous tweeting of our first lady Valérie Trierweiler – an anecdote that bears witness to a whole new climate, the ordo amoris I talk about in the book. The problem, if anything, is the profound disconnect that exists between institutions, imagined on the basis of values and symbols that have now been superseded, and the body social in rapid transformation.
The rediscovery of emotion is also an antidote to the crisis then, a refuge against uncertainty?
It is something much broader. We are at the end of a cycle. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “It’s a thing of the mind” – a phrase not easily translated[i]. It’s not just the economy that’s in crisis, but the entire economistic conception of the world that made work the most important aspect of human identity and which enclosed love within the confines of marriage and the family, in deference to a notion of ‘utility’, to quote Georges Bataille. Since the liberation movements of the 1960s that model no longer exists. Romances – taking up Bataille’s analysis – instead follow the principle of ‘consuming’”
But also of individualism
I disagree. Individualism in relationships has not increased. Indeed, we’re more outgoing today than before. Of course relationships are different. There are tribes which share moments of emotional communion – ‘elective affinities’ as Goethe put it. Sexual tribes, music tribes, sports, cultural, and so on. But there is an emotional component in recognising each other and choosing to be together. Affections, of which love is one, are the soil from which life springs forth.
Does the continuous presentation of self in relationships not lend itself to citing Narcissus more than Eros?
There is a theatricalisation of love that we can see very clearly on the Internet. It’s a paradox. One element of postmodernity, in my view, is the synergy between the archaic and technological advancement. Seventy per-cent of traffic on the web is dedicated to affections; not just to pornography, but also romantic liaisons and couplings. It’s interesting to observe how new technologies are at the service of that old idea we call love, giving it a new momentum. In the past, as demonstrated by Max Weber, technology disenchanted the world. Today the reverse is true. We are witnessing a new enchantment.
Are you saying that falling in love, or believing in love, has become easier?
There has been a return of ‘love at first sight’, that very coup de foudre theorised by the Surrealists. Back then this was the domain of a literary avant-garde, but today it’s a widespread sensibility. Like André Breton, we believe we can run into Nadja on the corner of the street. It’s an idea found in cinema, even in advertising, with the English term ‘impulse’ – the impulse of a young man prepared to pursue a total stranger, brandishing a bunch of flowers.
A craving, which tends to be quickly exhausted
Love is not ‘consumption’, but ‘consummation’[ii]. The former, the bourgeois conception, was something stable. Now it is a fire that consumes everything. One lives only in intensity – a word which, etymologically, recalls the ‘tension of the moment’. It is ephemeral. Like anything intense, it cannot last. It is the carpe diem. When you attend a wedding, you already know how it ends.
One remains together only in times of good fortune, never in bad?
The couple is no longer based on a contract, such as marriage, because the time of love is not the future, but the present, while the past is never truly behind them. One can spend holidays with ex-husbands or wives, partners from one’s youth, children from other marriages. The contract belonged to modernity. In postmodernity it has been replaced by the pact
An exclusive pact?
Fidelity is evaluated with the sincerity of the moment. There may be betrayal, but this does not automatically signify infidelity. In the book I talk about “successive sincerities” within a relationship.
Is the homo eroticus more or less free?
After the promotion of freedom in the modern era, in its place, in postmodernity, develops dependence. Love is an addiction. It is the other that creates me and destroys me.
How have the rules of seduction changed?
Postmodernity reprises elements of premodernity. This is what I call the postmedievalesimo. Today we are seeing the courtly love of the courts of Provence or Renaissance Florence replayed. Even then, social life revolved around seduction, the amorous dalliances that the French call badinage. Many of the languages and behaviours that we observe today are similar to that period. The only difference is that, at that time, the code of seduction was only for an aristocratic elite, while the contemporary version has become a democratic way of life.
Italian original first published in August 2012 in La Repubblica as “Il teatro del cuore, nell’era del web è tornato il colpo di fulmine.” Translation by James Horrox
[i] “Pittura è una cosa mentale” – lit. ‘Painting is a thing of the mind’ (JH)
[ii] “L’amore non è consumo ma consunzione”. In French Maffesoli counterposes ‘consummation’ and ‘consommation’. Whereas modern society was one of “economise/produce/consume”, postmodernity is in his view a society of consumption “in the sense of ‘exhausting’ or ‘using up’ rather than simply ‘using’ – ‘consummation’, pas ‘consommation’” (JH)