In the late 1970s, Michel Maffesoli began using the metaphor of tribalism to describe what he identified as a telluric movement within the social body. Maffesoli acknowledged the breakdown of social communities into clouds, constellations and clusters, increasingly free from any abstract universalism (nation, church, ideology and so on). Instead, he noted the gathering, in the context of this social implosion, of groups anchored to sensitivity and imagery shared within a community, as banal and everyday as can be, as well as within the vertigos of dreams released by mutual contact, by proximity, or in fashionable terminology, by empathy.
We must bear in mind, however, that this kind of imagery – “the tribal dream” – is no longer “utopian”, but “ucronic”, in that it does not imply the eradication of the people from whom it derives, but is rather an expression of the “here and now existence”, integrated and amplified by its imaginary dimension. In other words, this lifestyle is not about escaping time and space. It is a quasi-pagan celebration of a mystical ground where the immaterial fills and molds space in its own image. If we consider drugs and the substances highlighting the excesses of the contemporary social body (cocaine, MDMA, Viagra, even Red Bull), we can clearly understand the trend and the sentiment privileged by the emerging social relationships within the intangible substance that constitutes their identity, which is simultaneously festive and subversive.
Indeed, to some extent we can say that it has always been this way. Imagery has always been the phreatic skin of life. Parmenides, Shakespeare, Max Weber and André Breton, in different ages and ways, have taught us so. However, it is absolutely necessary to be attentive to the ways in which our own era is marked by a prospective reversal of hierarchies between the visible and the invisible. Never before has life been like this; we experience life first on the immaterial level of imagery and imagination, and then transpose those images onto the physical stuff of the world. We are online before we even enter the room, and once in the room we reproduce sensitivity processed and refined in the electronic landscape.
For example, we actually meet when an event is created on Facebook. In the electronic landscape, not only do we visualise and immediately concretely express the content of our imagination, we also share it, manipulate it and recreate it together. That is, with the other, with a machine, within a wider techno-social body which both exceeds and precedes ourselves, where the subject is only an elementary particle and where the technical aspect is less and less distinguishable from the social one, the mystic from the rational.
Therefore, space is pervaded by another sensitivity. Space imposes itself over time. It’s a change of balance, another fracture of modernity, and with it comes the processing of a topos different from its own. Stars fall to the ground. The pyramid collapses. We are inside the rhizome, to use Gilles Deleuze’s expression. The centre is everywhere and nowhere, as Jean Baudrillard suggested. In the 1960s and 1970s, after the final leaps of the avant-garde, the intangible continuity holding together the head and the body of society (writers and readers, authors and audience, representatives and represented) finally ruptured.
From the end of the 1960s, the explosion of tribes and the springing up of tribalism have thus overturned the pyramidal structure of society and its vertical system, the axis upon which all modern culture has been based since its Hebrew and Christian origins. It’s no accident that Georg Simmel used the phrase ‘trickle-down’ to describe modernity. The trickle-down theory was elaborated and applied purposefully by Simmel to the dynamics of fashion, testifying to a form of dependence, and, perhaps, expectation of the hierarchical character of social relationships. The tribalisation of the world overturns these dynamics. Starting from fashion. Within pleasure, but not without violence, as we learned in Walter Hill’s 1979 movie The Warriors:
Here, aesthetics immediately becomes ethics, trends, a lifestyle, the playful assertion of a group, its celebration spurting from multiple rifts. These forms of expression show us that the tribes refuse the distant, the exterior, that which is beyond the tightly knit bonds of the here and now. We no longer belong to the Nation, the State, nor even to the City; we belong to this or that crowd. It doesn’t matter whether this crowd is physical, whether it’s right at our door, or whether it’s immaterial, where a passion takes form beyond space and time. The ethics of a group, the ethics of a warrior, takes shape within a diaspora from another law which is not internal. This is the law of an expanding body discovering and chasing the spaces of urban life as a wound on its body and an injury upon the other. Looking at contemporary social networks, we tend to forget the urban and post-urban roots of this crowd. We tend to omit the great diasporas that have introduced all of the connections and disconnections of electronic landscapes. Urban cultures have turned from bellicose to hedonistic, still remaining secretly bellicose despite — and most of all within — their hedonism. They have experienced this transformation operating, and I would say playing, on the alteration of feelings from sight to tactility, from the point of view to shared emotion.
Before Maffesoli, it was Marshall McLuhan who stressed the importance of the dawn of Gutenberg Galaxy and then the arrival of electronic media, and who spoke of the re-tribalisation of social existence. McLuhan noticed how the global village, supported by new media, placed human beings in a condition of sharing someone else’s life, of sharing a destiny. The Canadian genius belonged to the alphabetical culture, yet he nonetheless had the courage to observe its saturation, its obsolescence. In his writings, McLuhan also highlighted the fact that the global village and its tribes involved forms of violence that were intensified from tribe to tribe.
Postmodernity (and I am not referring to postmodernism: this I believe is the biggest theoretical mistake of the clumsy and showy recent exhibition on postmodernism at the Victoria and Albert Museum) stands upon the ruins of modernity, radicalising what had been its edges, its frills, i.e., the wicked effect of what should have been used, according to elites, as entertainment, as recreation and a way to regenerate work, production and progress: conquering the future. I say ‘wicked’ because it did not limit itself to the purpose for which it was conceived, organized and set out. Should we linger on the basic movements and dynamics of contemporary culture, we could observe the centrality of spectacle, of fashion, of consumption, of recreation. These are secondary elements of the modern spirit and have been conceived as functional to its triumphal and progressive acceleration. Indeed, it is the depths of the soul, as well as the superficial dress, that contemporary society uses to adorn itself. Right after the urban rebellions, the brutality of the crashes with the State and its machinery, the refusal of gerontocracy, of the Church, of established morality, western warriors have hidden the knife by showing off their diamonds like dandies. I am referring to E. A. Poe’s image of the stranger chased by the crowd. As Claudia Attimonelli stated in her book Underground Zone (2011), we cannot understand contemporary dandyism and hedonism without acknowledging that they have cultural roots in the impact, the craziness and the darkness of punk. The late semiologist Omar Calabrese defined our time the neo-baroque era. The media expert Alberto Abruzzese suggests we should take note of the transit from “being fashionable” to “being fashion”, and Maffesoli believes we are experiencing “becoming the world’s fashion”.
The aestheticization of existence, from displaying intimacy to its articulation as a narrative plot, the greed of pleasure, the extension of style within daily life, these are all symptoms of a culture that disperses and throws itself into the carpe diem (seize the day), the ‘eternal instant’ as Maffesoli calls it.
The viscous, seductive, mobile roots of contemporary everyday life are ephemeral. The ephemeral has been a huge whim, but also a political instrument of the modern, in the same way as fashion. However, the ultimate ambition of the movements that have been the motive-power of such an era, every soteriological ideology, is that of perfection. Whether this is based on salvation, or on an earthly or heavenly paradise to be conquered tomorrow is largely immaterial. Both capitalism and the numerous socialisms aimed at stirring up fashion worship, or worship of the “new”, in the name of becoming, of colonization, of marching towards this perfection. The distortion of this principle operated by contemporary cultures, within the electronic landscapes of web 2.0, as well as in every form of carnival in contemporary society, celebrates the instant for the instant’s sake, fashion for fashion’s sake, and the body for the body’s sake.
Innovation therefore no longer serves the future or progress. It is merely a game to satisfy a pleasure. Praising the ephemeral to celebrate an existence that is consecrated to dissipation. Energy no longer accumulates, “elle se dépense”, as Georges Batailles says: it burns out, it dissipates, it is wasted. This “gift”, as Jean Duvignaud wrote, the gift of the void, is the beginning and the end of a common eroticism, of a porn culture according to which flesh is word. Thus; innovation without progress. There no longer exists a project that is not simply the act of living. Within this scene of living, the aesthetic gesture, shared emotion, embodied imagery are the elementary forms of transpolitical feeling, on this side and the other side of politics. The oneiric, oneiric living and the praise of everyday life are microphysical practices and the imaginary substances which deprive established power of its traditional sacredness to restore the sacred fire to the established puissance. Puissance is different from power (pouvoir), in that it is not consolidated within institutions, but rather is the substance of performance and the ‘being-together’ of social groups – Maffesoli’s ‘tribes’.
In this scenario, every blogger network, human tribe, electronic community or flash mob generates a “communicracy”. This, in my view, is a form of puissance, and not power, that emerges today whenever a community vibrates in unison, in communion around an act of communication. This configuration acts within an ongoing “situation”, inside a precise experiential and imaginary origin. It is thus limited in time and space, as well as suspended in its way of living. It is so intense as to impose upon the law of the State or the laws of economy the group’s agreements, a pact of blood and also of images filled with high emotional density. In this way, the subversion nurtured in the interstices of everyday life, in the shadow of politics, or in the undernet, takes nourishment from the symbolic and affective dimension. As a result of this “transpolitical” sensibility, the thick barrier of modernity crumbles. Seemingly banal and trifling phenomena like pokes, tagging, chat lines, role playing games, or new jokers’ jests and pranks release into the ether the ghosts that haunt the collective imagination and ultimately urge it to mold physical reality in its own image.
So, we have come to a fork in the road. These are no longer just the simple scenes of the spectacle; they do not limit themselves to the realm of recreation; they actually become the expanded territory of the world by playing to the drift of the collective imagination, and succeed in turning it into flesh, life and experience. The immaterial is more and more the fabric and flesh of the world. Indeed, the course of the cultural industry allowed us to draw our attention from the triumphal march of History to the multiple, small, event-based stories, and to focus on the unwritten poetry of everyday life. In 1936 Walter Benjamin brilliantly argued that the technical reproducibility of the work of art triggers a process of “becoming art of the public”. In the same way, the digital reproducibility of the political sphere is now leading to the “public becoming political”.
Here we are then, before the fulfillment and overcoming of artistic avant-gardes who, at the beginning of the 20th Century, constituted the apogee of modernity and at the same time the announcement of the end of modernity. If avant-gardes take root in the ground of art and are strictly tied to political ideals and programmes, contemporary cultures do not then grow up in artistic studios, do not organise gallery exhibitions or directly participate in political competition. In the natural effervescence of their connections, communication and aesthetic gesture correspond to the unconscious development of a new power/knowledge regime, above and beyond politics, in eternal carnival revelry, in the party and the atmosphere of jubilation – anywhere – they are everyday life.
With the social web and the forms of carnival that beat the rhythm of daily life we see a crucial turning point in culture: that is, an important shift from resistance to “re-creation” (in the double meaning of the term: to rebuild ground zero and to have fun). Therefore, in the realm of entertainment and the imaginary, a sort of political consumption and the delineation of a new sensibility takes place. Through a magical circle of passions, symbols and affections, this sensibility establishes new social forms, beyond society, and prepares the ground for transpolitical relationships. This culture might be seen as the dawn and the first draft of a transpolitical sensibility which is cause and effect of the “recreation of the world”.
Carnival wisdom. Yesterday’s warriors dance within an erotic fusion of subversive breath. The crowd becomes avant-garde, the avant-garde of pleasure.
Translation by James Horrox