The secessio plebis, or ‘withdrawal of the commoners’, was an informal strategy of resistance deployed by the plebeian citizens of Ancient Rome against the city’s ruling elite. On at least five occasions between 494 and 287 BC, the mass of the Roman populace left the city en bloc and withdrew to the surrounding hills, leaving the patrician order to their own devices. By bringing the city to a standstill, this quiet act of revolt afforded the disempowered de facto power of veto over the ruling class.
While to some perhaps merely an interesting footnote from classical antiquity, to certain authors of the postmodern philosophical canon the image of the secessio has appeared an instructive metaphor for understanding the day to day social realities of a world after modernity. In the work of the French sociologist Michel Maffesoli, from whose reading of the plebeian secession this review takes its name, the image of the Roman walkout appears an apt illustration of the prevailing spirit of the contemporary social world.
Among the scholars whose ideas form the pantheon of French intellectual life in the humanities, Maffesoli remains, to an Anglophone readership, one of the more obscure. Since 1981 he has been a professor at the Sorbonne, holding the Emile Durkheim chair of Sociology, and in France he enjoys a certain notoriety as something of a ‘maverick’ public intellectual. He appears from time to time in the mainstream media and writes in ‘quality’ newspapers such as LeFigaro, but it is the various academic ‘affaires’ in which he has been involved that have brought him to the attention of the general populace, and made him both a celebrated and divisive figure in French intellectual life.
The most well-known of these concerned his role in the award of a doctorate to Francois Mitterrand’s court astrologer Élizabeth Teissier in 2001 for her dissertation on the sociology of astrology. The Teissier affair, which earned Maffesoli widespread condemnation from the scientific community, made the national press, and continues to be raised against him by his detractors in the French academy. Maffesoli on his part responded to the furore in 2004 in an article in m@gm@, rather gnomically entitled ‘Quelques considerations sur la grippe avaire’ (‘Some Considerations on Avian Flu’; [m@gm@ vol. 4, no.2. 2004]). Something of the aftermath of the Teissier affair is perhaps also felt in the tone of his 2008 book La République des Bons Sentiments, a biting polemic against received opinion in French academic circles. The following passage gives a flavour of the book, and helps us appreciate how Maffesoli situates himself and his intellectual project. Regarding the French academic elite, he writes of
“[a] voice that returns, ad infinitum, to those glorious ideas that were, in their time, revolutionary, and which have become the obsessions of senile old folk, guardians of the Official Thought of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. In this PRI, there are many, left and right mixed together, who participate in celebrating in never-ending praise democracy, work, the belief in progress, politics and other litanies to which no one pays any attention any more. All this constitutes the philosophia recepta, ‘received’ thought, but which is completely out of touch.” (République, p.54)
This swingeing assault on the contemporary French intellectual scene gives some idea as to what Maffesoli is against, but his notoriety (or in the Anglophone world, the opposite) should not obscure the fact that he has some very serious things to say about the nature of the social reality of today’s world. Indeed, the perennial controversy that surrounds him in France belies the fact that Maffesoli is unquestionably one of the leading sociologists of postmodernity. His work centres on the link between imagination and the communal experience in a context in which the collapse of the intellectual, social and political monoliths of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has given rise to new modes of thinking and being that move beyond the individuating rationalism of modernity. The collective experience of the postmodern world is an aestheticized experience, Maffesoli argues, expressed in the social realm in multiplicities of ephemeral, emotionally-bound social groupings, or ‘tribes’. This reflects a fundamental realignment both in social life (the displacement of the rationalised ‘social’ by an empathetic sociality expressed by ambiences, feelings and emotions – a ‘subterranean centrality’ or puissance), and on the political plane: rejecting the sacred cows of modernity, with its ideals of salvation and future perfection, politics today is not a question of the distant, but of the close. In short, to quote the title of one of Maffesoli’s more recent articles, postmodernity has witnessed an empirical shift from the political to the domestic.
The secessio is for Maffesoli the defining characteristic of this new world. The concept is dealt with in detail in his 1992 book La Transfiguration du Politique, and it endures throughout his more recent work (La part du Diable , Le Rythme de Vie  inter alia). The following passage from La République des Bons Sentiments intimates just how important this metaphor is for Maffesoli’s understanding of present social realities:
“The ambiance of the epoch is secession. This is the symbol that we need to understand. Whether it pleases us or not, whether it suits our values or not, it is a symbol of the end of illusions concerning the theories of emancipation elaborated in the XIXth century and which, more or less consciously, continue to torment Official Thought. The end, equally, of the myth of continuous Progress and triumphant Reason. The age of quantitative values gives way to a diffuse desire for the qualitative.” (République, p.113)
The secessio, in short, is symbolic of the relationship the postmodern ‘person’ maintains with ‘official’ society. It denotes a life lived at a distance from the established and the official, a veneer of acquiescence to the edicts of power belying the more relevant reality that, for the mass of society, real life happens elsewhere. All the signs, Maffesoli argues, “point to the retreat of the people onto their Aventine” (Apocalypse, p.45).
To echo the words of the American filmmaker Richard Linklater, however, withdrawal is not the same as apathy. Indeed, while the saturation of social and political discourse may mean that to continue trying to understand current realities through the prism of the intellectual shibboleths of modernity is pointless, this paradigm shift does not mean that issues around values have vanished. In his 2003 book Notes sur laPostmodernité Maffesoli remarks: “[w]ho says tribe, speaks, in effect, of new forms of solidarity, of the development of the charitable, of the multiple generosities of which the young generations, in particular, give flagrant examples” (p.98). Maffesoli is one who most definitely does say ‘tribe’, and these issues of solidarity and generosity in its diverse new forms are at the heart of his work. Older values and worlds may have atrophied and disappeared, but new ones are here.
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Four of Maffesoli’s books were translated into English in the mid-1990s, and his work – especially The Time of the Tribes– thereafter made something of an impact, particularly in the field of the study of youth subcultures. Since then there has been little direct attention paid to him in the English speaking world. The Anglophone reception of his ideas accordingly misses his earlier work, and perhaps more importantly, his continued intellectual output. Some attention to his later work has been paid by the Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, and an indirect impact of his ideas is starting to be felt in the field of Business Studies, as can be seen in the collection Consumer Tribes, edited by Bernard Cova, Robert Kozinets and Avi Shankar. Bernard Cova, Professor of Marketing in Marseilles, has presented at the annual colloquium ‘Socialités Postmodernes’, organised every June by Maffesoli’s institute at the Sorbonne (CEAQ). This type of approach is now spreading outside the academy and reaching into practitioner-authored business books, two examples being Mark Earls’ Herd, which references Cova, and Seth Godin’s Tribes. It is fair to say that in books such as Earls’ and Godin’s we see a more or less distant impact of Maffesoli’s ideas, but clearly via writers such as Cova, they have entered this field.
To some extent the overall direction and meaning of Maffesoli’s work can be gathered from the books that were translated in the 1990s, but the way that his ideas were received in Youth Studies and are being received in Business Studies, though perfectly valid in itself, means that the substance of his more general message has rather got lost along the way. Maffesoli is a social thinker with much more to say than has really been appreciated in the Anglophone world to date. A maverick he may be, but he is a writer with a keenly serious edge. His ideas are of importance to an understanding of some of the most important social problems of our time, and it is our belief that the Anglophone world should at least give them a hearing.
Manchester, Spring 2012