Review: Imaginaire et Postmodernité

by Michael Tyldesley
Secessio Vol. 2, No.1, Autumn 2013

Michel Maffesoli’s latest publication, Imaginaire et Postmodernité (Éditions Manucius, Paris, 2013) is a short book published as part of a series entitled Modélisations des Imaginaires, directed by Professor Pierre Musso of Université Rennes II and Télécom ParisTech. The series picks up from a seminar programme of the same name held at Télécom ParisTech. Musso’s academic interests, which include the thought of the 19th century utopian socialist Saint-Simon, and what he has termed ‘Sarkoberlusconisme’ (see his 2011 book Sarkoberlusconisme: la Crise Finale? L’Aube, Paris), clearly take him into the sort of territory that has been explored by a number of Secessio contributors, including Maffesoli himself (notably in Sarkologies) and Vincenzo Susca (in, for instance, Joie Tragique). From all this we can infer that this latest piece by Maffesoli, as well as being significant in terms of his own thought, is also part of an ongoing process in which ideas from what we could call the ‘Sociology of the imaginary’ school are increasingly being brought to bear on developments in the political aspects of western European societies, even if this is a rather indirect contribution to that development. (I have, in an article published online at Iconcrazia, attempted to start the process for British politics, with an examination of two now forgotten aspects of recent Conservative politics – the ‘Big Society’ and ‘Red Toryism’).

We might begin by considering Imaginaire et Postmodernité in the overall context of Maffesoli’s thought. In many ways it serves as a sort of summary of his view on a number of issues that have been concerning him recently. (That said, there is no real ‘break’ with the trajectory that his thought has taken since roughly the late 1970s; simply, certain issues and social phenomena – some of which were unknown in the late 1970s – are now exercising his attention.) Because of its size – 40 pages – the book performs its summarising task in a fairly brisk and concentrated way, presenting any reviewer with the problem that an adequate review might actually end up simply reproducing the text, or indeed actually being longer than the piece itself. It is easy simply to say: ‘go away and read the thing’. Or, perhaps more pertinently in this case, ask someone with the tools and the time to translate it into English. That said, it is worth picking out one or two aspects of this work and commenting upon them.

The book’s subtitle – ‘Synergy of Archaism and Technological Development’ – picks up a theme that Maffesoli has reiterated in a number of books since his 2004 work Notes sur la Postmodernité. None of these books has been translated into English, so this theme – almost a leitmotif in Maffesoli’s recent work – is, from the point of view of the Anglophone reader, rather difficult to trace, but it is a theme that has been particularly important (and for obvious reasons) in Maffesoli’s work on the role of the internet in postmodern society. Again, this is recent, and with the exception of a few short pieces here and there it is unavailable in English, but to reiterate, there is no real break in Maffesoli’s work since around 1980 or so. His recent work on the role of internet is an organic development of themes that we find in books like The Time of the Tribes, and indeed arguably in some material that preceded that.

The seriousness with which Maffesoli applies his formula of Archiasm/Technical Development can be shown in a striking image that he uses to illustrate his interpretation of what have become known as ‘social media’ sites – Facebook, Second Life, MySpace and so on. These sites, he says, are “the postmodern form of the premodern Potlatch” (p.22). Social forms that went into the background during modernity – they never wholly vanished, just as some of the typically modern forms are still there today, but in the background – have returned with a vengeance. (The ‘return of the repressed’ as the Freudians might have it?) One of them of course is the phenomenon of ‘tribalism’. To make that connection is to show just how important this Archaism/Technical Development analysis is in developing and deepening Maffesoli’s earlier contributions.

The analysis of technology in the early part of the book is striking in the way in which it shows how there has been a ‘flip’ in the role that technical development has played in society. One can discern two different sets of connections that Maffesoli points to in this early part of the work. On the one hand, in the modern period we can see a series of connections between technology, rationalism (“rationalism as exacerbation or systematisation of rationality, pushing all other human parameters out of the public sphere”) and the disenchantment of the world. In postmodernity, by contrast, technology in the shape of the internet and related aspects of cyberculture participates in the re-enchantment of the world (a fairly long standing theme in Maffesoli’s work) and the return of the Ludic. Maffesoli is pointing to the different ‘feels’ of modern and postmodern sociality. If ‘ludic’ is the word for postmodernity, modernity is expressed in an image: the Golem – technology escaped from the intentions of its creators and subordinating all to its logic – education, sport, free time, all under the domination of technical reason (p.12.).

There’s a great deal more in the pamphlet, and if you can read French, you can get hold of it from one of the usual outlets.