Michel Maffesoli: Serious Maverick (Part II)

by Michael Tyldesley
Vol. 1, No. 2, Autumn 2012


Having looked at Maffesoli’s early intellectual development, we can now move on to consider a rather different set of sources which have informed what we might call his ‘mature’ vision. It is useful to begin this discussion by revisiting the two books that have already been looked at in order to start to build an understanding of Maffesoli’s development beyond his earlier unorthodox leftism. (This development has not, of course, been into any sort of orthodox leftism). By the time of La Violence Totalitaire he had begun to draw on a selection of sources that had not been used to the same extent in Logique de la Domination, and which have marked his subsequent work.

Although we see some appearances of the key sources for the later work in Logique, it is clear that in many ways that book is situated in another intellectual universe to those which come after it. For instance, it often makes reference to Louis Althusser, though admittedly often in a rather sarcastic manner that many of those who read the texts of the late Parisian theorist in the 1970s and early 1980s might applaud: “the publications of Althusser and his disciples are of an astonishing schematism and simplism, the boredom exuded by their argumentations having no equal outside of the places where their authors teach. The rue d’Ulm and the juries of the aggregation not being, at least until now, places reputed to see the development of a gaya scienza – the necessary corollary of a weighty thought” (Logique, p.95). Logique also makes frequent reference to the works of Freud, without any attention to those of Carl Gustav Jung, who features significantly in the later work, and who is, along with Heidegger, Simmel, Weber, Tarde and Meister Eckhart, one of Maffesoli’s self-professed favourite authors. Perhaps, however, the key point about the Logique is the scant attention paid to Gilbert Durand. Cited there about as frequently as French Marxist – indeed, council communist – Maximilien Rubel, and significantly less than, say, Georges Sorel or Herbert Marcuse, Durand becomes in La Violence Totalitaire the dedicatee, and in glowing terms: “Au maïtre et à l’ami Gilbert Durand, professeur. En témoignage de fidélité”.

A brief glance at Festschrift, Dérive Dutour de l’Oeuvre de Michel Maffesoli is enough to indicate the signal importance of Durand to Maffesoli’s thought, both in terms of intellectual influence and of personal bonds. We find in Dérivean introduction by Durand that warmly recalls his first meeting with Maffesoli in 1974, at Maffesoli’s thesis defence in Grenoble. We also find a couple of photographs of the pair from November 2003, one relaxed, the other more formal, showing the ceremony at which Durand presented Maffesoli with his Légion d’Honneur. As Hélène Strohl-Maffesoli makes clear in her contribution to the book, Maffesoli and Durand have worked closely around the theme of the ‘Imaginaire’ since the 1980s, especially in the Centre de Recherche sur l’Imaginaire which Durand founded. In 1980 Maffesoli directed the book La Galaxie de l’imaginaire,dérive autour de l’œuvre de Gilbert Durand. It is clear that this connection is an extremely important one for Maffesoli.

In some ways this poses a problem for Anglophone readers wishing to probe the background of Maffesoli’s thought. Durand, although a prolific author and an important figure in French cultural anthropology, has had little translated into the English language.His key work, however – The Anthropological Structures of the Imaginary – was published in an English version by Boombana Publications of Brisbane, Australia, in 1999, around the time of its twelfth French edition. This major study of myth, symbol and image, as Professor J.P.Clark calls it in his back cover comments, admits of no short summary. Aside from this dense masterpiece there appear to be only three other pieces of Durand’s work available to English-speaking readers.

One of these is an article on “The Implication of the Imaginary and Societies”, included in an edition of Current Sociology on “The Social Imaginary” (Vol. 41, No.2, 1993. Maffesoli was guest editor of this edition). Here Durand makes a number of points that are useful in understanding his thought, and thus, a fortiori, that of Maffesoli.

“The theory that serves as a framework for these methods and this research rests on the fundamental axiom […] according to which all human thought and activity are representation. […] This ensemble of past and possible representations in sapiens is what we call the ‘imaginary’  … [T]he imaginary is the ‘implicate order’ through which all understanding necessarily passes, and even all explanations  of individual or collective human behaviour as well. Thus for us, in the beginning there is no longer a logos annexed to the famous ego cogito, but a sermo mythicus depending on a collective, primordial cosmic ex-cogitamus.” (p.17. Durand is well aware that the term ‘implicate order’ derives from the work of the physicist David Bohm.)

Starting with these brief and sparse summarisations, Durand proceeds to lay down some markers about how he developed his approach and how it operates, in particular outlining his notion of the semantic basin – a concept which Maffesoli has, with generous acknowledgement, used in his own work.

A consideration of the third piece of English language work by Durand can build upon some of the impressions conveyed in our quotations from “The Social Imaginary” above. Entitled On the Disfigurement of the Image of Man in the West, this is a condensed version of the central portion of a lecture given at the Eranos conference in August 1969, and published in French that year in Eranos-38. Among those who worked on the condensation was James Hillman, and the copyright is noted as being that of the Analytical Psychology Club of New York. This beautifully-produced pamphlet was published in 1977 by Golgonooza Press of Ipswich, England, a publisher closely associated with the poet Kathleen Raine, to whom we shall return later. The whole concatenation of facts connected with this pamphlet signals that it derives from a background of Jungian and neo-Jungian psychology (more precisely, perhaps, we might highlight the school of Archetypal Psychology around James Hillman) and an intelligent but sympathetic interest in spiritual, perhaps even ‘occult’ issues.

Such an impression is rapidly reinforced by a reading of this text, which is strikingly acerbic about the mainstream of the Western intellectual and academic tradition. It points to three ‘metaphysical catastrophes’ that overtook the intellectual life of the West. The first was in the thirteenth century, when the Church established a temporal hegemony and the philosophy of Avicenna was replaced by that of Averroes. (Durand’s work in French shows that he was clearly following the lead of Henry Corbin here. See Durand 2003, pp. 74-5; p. 84. ) The second was the sixteenth century objectivism that emerged from reform movements ranging from Galileo to Descartes. The result of this was the giving of official status to the dualism of Western philosophy. The third catastrophe was the development of historicism in the nineteenth century, “which meant that man, having sacrificed everything to ‘history’ found himself more alienated than ever” (Durand 1977, p.4). These catastrophes resulted in the occlusion of man’s traditional image; it became clandestine and occult. So it had become “the first task of anthropological hermeneutics to study everything that was disregarded by official academic thought, or disdained as anti-philosophy” (ibid.). One might suggest that with CEAQ, which he founded at the Sorbonne in 1982, Maffesoli has shown some loyalty to this programme. In his 2004 book, Le rythme de la vie – and indeed elsewhere – Maffesoli writes with disdain of “official and institutionalised knowledge” (2004 p.128), a term recalling Durand’s pamphlet.

Durand’s 1977 pamphlet provides a vivid delineation of the two sides – official and unofficial – in the conflict between accepted academic thought and ‘anti-philosophy’ (which, one need hardly add, is for him the real repository of philosophy). If we go back far enough we find figures in whom the official and unofficial sides are united – Scotus Erigena, the Venerable Bede, Bernard of Clarivaux, and Albertus Magnus. Moving forward we find Descartes opposed by Angelus Silesius, Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Pico de la Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino inter alia. In the age of Kant, the opposition included Goethe, Novalis, Hamann, William Blake, and – especially – Swedenborg. Among those pitted against Hegel we find Nerval, Schlegel, de Maistre and Eliphas Levi. In our day the official side includes Satre, Merleau-Ponty, Marcel and Ricoeur, opposed by the less official views of Mircea Eliade, Gaston Bachelard (Durand’s teacher), Jung, Fritjuof Schuon “and even Rudolf Steiner” (Durand 1977, p.5.)

If these listings are, for the sake of brevity, incomplete, they give a strong feel of where Durand’s sympathies lay. The more modern ‘official’ side has a strongly French feel, but it shows that Durand was not especially sympathetic to a set of figures that might be seen by other commentators as an alternative to, for instance, Anglo-American analytical philosophy.

Moreover, in the text we find Durand citing – approvingly, we might venture – material from the Traditionalist French writer René Guénon. In La Violence Totalitaire Maffesoli uses the phrase ‘reign of quantity’ several times. This is the title of one of Guénon’s most famous and influential books – the one, indeed, to which Durand refers. Although he uses the phrase Maffesoli does not explicitly refer to the author or the book (though in fairness, in several later books he does make reference to Guénon). With Guénon we are clearly in a very different intellectual territory than we were with Gyorgy Lukacs, Anton Pannekoek and the councilists. Perhaps in La Violence Totalitaire we see Maffesoli emerging from his earlier affiliations and maybe still not entirely sure of his ground. Guénon’s intellectual reputation and political affiliations would definitely put him on the ‘dark side’, even for rebel marxists of a councilist bent. This, along with the other points made, indicates the strong intellectual impact made on Maffesoli by Durand in the mid to late 1970s; hardly something Maffesoli has hidden.

This impact points to the connections in Maffesoli’s work with the ideas of the Traditionalist school, to which a number of the figures mentioned so far belong. Put crudely, Traditionalism suggests that there are a number of authentic traditional religions that are emanations of the perennial philosophy. The task for intellectuals is to attach themselves to one of these traditions in order to fight against the dark age – ‘kali yuga’ – in which we are now living. Guénon, along with a fair number of his followers, took the path of linking to Sufi Islam, perceived as one of the genuine traditions. Of the writers mentioned in the foregoing account of Durand’s work, Guénon and Schuon are arguably the two most important figures within the Traditionalist school. Kathleen Raine – whom Durand describes in his introduction to Maffesoli’s 1979 La conquête dupresent as “mon amie” – features in Mark Sedgwick’s seminal study of Traditionalism, Against the Modern World, and offers an interesting point of contact between Traditionalism and the present Prince of Wales, even if she was not a ‘card-carrying’ Guénonist. Mircea Eliade is also seen by Sedgwick as an important Traditionalist, and perhaps indicates the potential political thrust of the movement, inasmuch as he is identified as having had connections with Rumanian Fascism (though these were apparently abjured in later life), and also because he was in part inspired by Italian Traditionalist and Fascist Julius Evola. In his consideration of Eliade, Sedgwick introduces a distinction between ‘hard’ (or overt) and ‘soft’ (covert) Traditionalism in reference to the extent to which a writer makes clear their connections and inspiration by writers such as Guénon. Interestingly, a writer frequently cited by Maffesoli in La Violence Totalitaire – Louis Dumont – also appears to have been a ‘soft’ traditionalist in this sense.

The final piece that of Durand’s that has been translated into English is a contribution regarding the “Exploration of the Imaginal”. This originally appeared in 1971 in Spring, a journal associated with the development of Archetypal Psychology. It was republished in a 2000 collection of essays, Working with Images edited by Benjamin Sells, which also included essays by James Hillman and Henry Corbin. The essay by Durand is useful perhaps as an expansion of themes in the Disfigurementpamphlet. It makes very clear the impact on Durand on three particular figures; Carl Gustav Jung, Gaston Bachelard and the French expert on Islam mentioned above, Henry Corbin. Durand suggests that Bachelard’s merit was to have shown that there was a third way between Existentialism and formalistic structuralism – namely “the royal path of the creative imagination” (Durand 2000, p.62).

The acerbic nature of Durand’s thought is emphasised by a comment made early in the essay: “The basic disease from which our culture may be dying is man’s minimization of images and myths, as well as his faith in a positivist, rationalist, aseptized civilization” (ibid., p.53). A further pointer to a theme in Maffesoli’s work is found in several extremely interesting references to iconoclasm. Durand writes of the “hypocritical façade of official iconoclasm” (ibid., p.54) and of “the typically iconoclast Western way of thinking” (ibid., p.64). Readers with French may wish to follow this up by looking at the chapter in Durand’s book L’imagination symbolique entitled “La victoire des iconoclastes ou l’envers des positivismes” (“The victory of the iconoclasts or the flip-side of positivisms”, which forms Chapter 1 of Durand 2008). This vision of Occidental thought as essentially – and problematically – iconoclastic is one that we will encounter in Maffesoli’s thought, most notably perhaps in his approach to utopianism.

The last two pages of Durand’s essay are testimony to the esteem in which he held Henry Corbin, a writer whose name also appears from time to time in Maffesoli’s work. Indeed, Durand’s essay is followed in the book by Corbin’s “Mundus Imaginalis, or the Imaginary and the Imaginal”. Corbin was not a formal Guénonist Traditionalist, despite following lines of inquiry and taking positions suggestive at times of such an affiliation. According to Sedgwick, Corbin, who worked with Mircea Eliade and the Iranian Traditionalist Seyyed Hossein Nasr, had a distinct aversion to the writings of the main Traditionalists, especially Guénon. Corbin’s organisational base in Paris was called the International Centre for Comparative Spiritual Research. This also went by the name of the University of St. John of Jerusalem. From references in La conquête du present it seems that Durand contributed to the Cahiers of this organisation in 1976. Durand himself tells us that he was the Vice President of Corbin’s organisation.

In summary, it is worth reiterating the importance of Durand’s On the disfigurement of the image of man in the west. It goes to show that the intellectual tradition Maffesoli started to take on board in the mid-1970s saw itself as being as far outside the academic mainstream as his earlier council communism. This was true in different ways, obviously. But a reading of the pamphlet reveals Durand to be a strong and convinced opponent of the academic and general intellectual mainstream.

My purpose here is not to argue that Maffesoli had become a Traditionalist of any type (and nor, for that matter, that Durand is or was one, though his friendship with Raine suggests interesting connections and that the possibility of such a designation might be considered an open question). Rather, it is to suggest an openness on Maffesoli’s part to considering arguments derived from the Traditionalist school, and to broad approaches such as those of Corbin or Jung, which, while not Traditionalist in the narrow sense (Guénonism), nonetheless had points of connection. With Jung and the Traditionalists we need to be clear that this meant a willingness on Maffesoli’s part to work with concepts and material emanating from thinkers that orthodox leftists, and indeed even perhaps unorthodox ones, would be uneasy with. Sedgwick’s book contains a whole chapter simply headed “Fascism”, and one can easily find sources arguing that C.G.Jung compromised himself with the Nazis – although, of course this would be disputed strongly.

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Maffesoli’s willingness to take on board insights from Jung, via Durand, suggests that we might want to consider another connection in the sphere of Analytical psychology. This is with James Hillman, founder of Archetypal psychology and a towering figure in post-Jungian thought. Maffesoli quotes Hillman in his Shadow of Dionysus, published in French in 1985, a book in which he also refers to a number of Jung’s works. The Hillman connection is remarked on by Ginette Paris in her contribution to Pour cesser de haïr le present, a book of ‘miscellanies around the work of Michel Maffesoli’, edited by Brigitte Purkhardt. Paris’s essay – “Correspondances” – consists of three pages in which the similarities between the work of Hillman and Maffesoli are set out in two parallel columns. (A brief glance at Durand’s Eranos papers, Structures, shows the intellectual connections between himself and Hillman). The book Maffesoli quotes in TheShadow of Dionysus appears to be a French version of Hillman’s The Myth of Analysis. It is worth noting that a substantial portion of this latter work is directly concerned with the figure of Dionysus.

The Jung connection is especially important in respect of Maffesoli’s longstanding interest in the subject of violence, an interest clearly evident in work such as La Violence Totalitaire. Early in his career, in collaboration with A. Bruston he produced Violence et Transgression(1978), and in collaboration with A.Pessin La Violence Fondatrice (1979), the latter subsequently partially reworked and added to in 1984’s Essais sur la Violence, Banale et Fondatrice. Significantly, the index to the latter shows no entry for Jung. Later in his career, in the years after 2000 in particular, Maffesoli has made a particular argument about violence, regarding society’s need to homeopathise it through the use of rituals. This is alluded to in his chapter in the edited collection of responses to the suburban riots of the mid-2000’s, La République brûle-t-elle? (ed Draï and Mattéi). It was put perhaps most succinctly put in an interview for a magazine produced in connection with a Summer School in 2005, in which it was put to Maffesoli that he had said that, for a society to be viable, it has to know how to rehabilitate a certain type of violence. Maffesoli’s response was to note that he was not being normative, but rather making a long-term observation, that from an anthropological view those societies which had achieved some equilibrium were those that had succeeded in integrating ‘la part du diable’ (the devil’s share), which was to say the ‘part d’ombre’ (the shadow’s share) – a reference to Jung’s argument about the shadow in the human personality.

He went on to point out that for Jung we are not simply ‘light’. In our make-up there is aggression, and hence violence; part of our shadow side. There is no point in denying this or in valuing it. “Societies in equilibrium are those that have succeeded in homeopathising violence”. He suggested that there had been a problematic tendency in the Western tradition to deny this aspect of human reality. “In denying something that exists, it always reappears, like the return of the repressed, and it thus becomes unmasterable.” He went on to argue that the bloody violence, fanaticism and youthful explosions of the present day were the result of a society denying (in psychoanalytical terms) a reality. The need was to find ways to integrate this violence in masterable doses – hence the term homeopathisation (Interview for Le Mag de’l’Université d’été, p.10).

The article on the riots, which includes thoughts on how to ‘make good use of violence’, shows clearly that ritualised uses for this latent violence need to be found. In an interview published on the internet Maffesoli referred to the existence of rituals in antiquity that allowed for the exorcism of violence, and suggested that the word to define this process is catharsis. Interestingly, he suggested that the internet itself can be seen as having such a function today, and that it responds to the need of all societies for an outlet (See Maffesoli, “Au nom du frère…”).

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Another member of the jury in Grenoble, along with Gilbert Durand, was the French political scientist Julien Freund. Freund is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world as a key French Weberian. He was also, as is made clear in Pierre-André Taguieff’s magisterial study “Julien Freund, Political Thinker” (2002) a follower of the German political scientist, jurist, and – for a period – Nazi, Carl Schmitt. Bearing in mind that Maffesoli both studied and taught at the University of Strasbourg, which was Freund’s university base, Taguieff’s article points to a number of intriguing shared interests.

Taguieff shows that Freund was interested not only in Weber and Schmitt, but also Machiavelli, Georg Simmel and Vilfredo Pareto. All of these feature prominently in Maffesoli’s work – Schmitt until recently perhaps mainly in La Violence Totalitaire, but the others have been featured in Maffesoli’s writings throughout his career. Two of Maffesoli’s recent books – Le rythme de la vie(2004) and La part du diable (2002) – both contain references to Freund. La République des bons sentiments (2008)contains a large number of references to Schmitt, most notably to his post-World War Two work Ex captivitate salus. Maffesoli was interviewed on Freund by Le Figaro in December 2008. The author, Paul-Francois Paoli, suggested that there seemed little basis for an intellectual friendship between the admirer of Schmitt on the one hand and the theoretician of a dionysiac postmodernity on the other. Maffesoli, noting that he had met Freund at Strasbourg, ended the piece by saying: “I do not forget that he [Freund] led me to discover the philosopher and sociologist George Simmel. It is thanks to all that that I was enabled to engage my research on postmodernity. That is what I retain from the work and thought of such a master, who mocked ‘freethinkers’ and who qualifies above all as a ‘free thinker’” (Paoli 2008). This quotation shows the importance of both Freund and Simmel in Maffesoli’s intellectual formation.

As with the writers we noted when thinking about Gilbert Durand, this work that connects to Freund, and indeed, as Taguieff makes very clear, Freund himself, are most definitely not the sort of sources that we might envisage being drawn upon by a council communist inspired Marxist. Freund in his latter decades wrote for the publications of the French New Right connected with Alain de Benoist and spoke at their conferences, though without becoming a formal member of their associations, and indeed perhaps having significant issues of difference from them.

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We can see in Maffesoli’s work since 1979 a sort of ‘pantheon’ of writers who are cited as references and who show the breadth upon which Maffesoli draws. Other than those already mentioned, and of course Weber, Durkheim, Simmel and Mauss, we might also mention a few here. Maffesoli has a concern for the aesthetic dimension of contemporary social reality, and he indicates the extent to which in his view we can identify links to the Baroque period for illumination of our present situation. In this context he refers to writers such as Eugenio d’Ors, Heinrich Wöllflin, Jacob Burkhardt and Wilhelm Worringer. As may be gathered from the list of his favourite writers cited above we find frequent reference to the ideas of Machiavelli, and often the reference is to the Florentine Histories, perhaps the most obscure of Machiavelli’s major works but the one that we might speculate that Maffesoli holds in the highest esteem. The work of Phillipe Pons on Japan, D’Edo à Tokyois referenced in several books, as it that of Werner Jaeger, Paeideai: the ideals of Greek culture. We also find a strong usage of the work of the Belgian social theorist Marcel Bolle de Bal, with his term ‘reliance’ (sometimes translated as ‘linkage’) of some importance to Maffesoli.

In an interview in the Brussels journal Antaios in 1996 Maffesoli was asked directly “Who are the great figures in your personal pantheon?” His response was “Your question is difficult because these figures are numerous”. This may by now seem a statement of the obvious, but in addition to reiterating his debt to Durand and Weber, he also mentions in this interview certain other names that we should perhaps consider. He suggests that without being “inféodé” to him, he has stayed loyal – in ways not true of other sections of the Parisian intelligentsia – to Martin Heidegger. He notes the ‘subversive’ Foucault as someone he read – though he was not meaning what he called the ‘established’ Foucault. Finally Nietzsche, a name not previously mentioned is given an important role. “Nietzsche has strongly marked me, even if, like all authors who mark us deeply, it is not always explicitly apparent” (Antaios, 10, Summer solstice 1996). This interview also contains a useful self-description of Maffesoli’s intellectual position; “I situate myself in effect at the antipode of a diffuse Hegelianism or Marxism, which is a form of doxa. My position is not easy, because it contravenes this doxa, revered both by the left and the right” (ibid.).

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The purpose of this essay has been to give a feel for the way in which Maffesoli has moved from being an unusual type of Marxist, producing Marxist – or perhaps Marxisant – books such as Logique de la domination, to an academic producing a series of books that draw upon a rather distinct, but wide ranging set of sources. From Maffesoli’s own words it is clear that in the formation of his analytical approach, Gilbert Durand was and remains of central importance. This essay cannot, of course, replace the experience of actually reading Maffesoli and then following up on some of the writers he cites. For English-speaking readers without French this can be a difficult task. However, it can be ventured that it is a task worth undertaking given the quality of some of the writers that Maffesoli has drawn upon, more than one of whom are victims of unjustified neglect. Finally, note that my purpose in considering the Traditionalist writers and others that are important for Durand and Maffesoli has not been in any way to suggest that Maffesoli has made some sort of switch to the right (as a counterbalance we might note his engagement with some of the recent work of Toni Negri in La part du diable [2002] and the equally heterodox anarchist Hakim Bey in several of his post-2000 books). The salient point here is the sheer breadth of sources that are grist to Maffesoli’s mill, and it is arguably this intellectual catholicity that makes him such an interesting writer to read. Reading his books takes us to places we may not otherwise have journeyed to.