Interview with Michel Maffesoli on Postmodernity

Michel Maffesoli (Photo by Simon Dawes)

Before Michel Maffesoli gave his talk on ‘Le Temps Revient: Les Formes Elémentaires de la Postmodernité’ in Montpellier (France), Simon Dawes met him at his hotel to discuss postmodernity, the state of sociology in France, and letting the burning house of modernity burn.

Simon Dawes: To begin with, you’re going to give a talk this evening on the elementary forms of postmodernity. What are these elementary forms?

Michel Maffesoli: The phrase ‘elementary forms’ is a reference to Durkheim, of course. But although I work at the Durkheim Centre, I’m no Durkheimian.

I wanted to set out, in the least academic way possible, the new values of this society which, for want of anything better, we call ‘postmodernity’, so I used this expression, ‘elementary forms’. I’ve been trying for 40 years to explain these basic elements, to split them into something easy to understand, rather like bricks of Lego. In my books, I have three particular bricks of Lego: tribalism, nomadism and Dionysus. And in my new book, Le Temps Revient, I add another; that these forms are ancient, archaic, and that they are advanced by new technological developments such as the internet.

SD: And what about the term ‘postmodern’ itself? Over the past 20 years or so, a number of concepts have been proposed, particularly in Anglophonic literature, to counter ‘postmodernity’: hyper, second, late, liquid, reflexive, métisse, and even the idea of multiple modernities. How would you defend ‘postmodernity’ as a relatively more valid concept for describing contemporary society?

MM: We can take a very simple historical example: the ‘modern’ world was named in France under the pen of Baudelaire in 1848; before that we spoke of ‘post-medievality’. As Weber shows well, the three grand values around which modernity was constituted were those of reason, progress and work.

If I stick with French examples, modernity produced Descartes, Cartesiansim, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, Rousseau, Voltaire, etc, and then the great social systems of the 19th Century that elaborated these three values, these three keywords. It was only in the mid-19th Century that we named this society that had started in the 17th Century, so these things takes time.

And it’s something like this that is happening now; there is a slow degradation of these three values, and the emergence of something else. We can see clearly how in the 1950s there was a more aesthetic conception of the world, through design and architecture; and we can see clearly with the student protests of 1968 that work is no longer an essential value; and we can see clearly how progress too cedes its place to something else.

We are in a moment now where these are no longer the guiding values (though officially they still are, of course; they still have some attraction); we are in a period after that in which these values were dominant. For want of a better word, I’m among those who call this moment postmodernity; that is, after the ‘modern’ values.

Now, I don’t like all these expressions you’ve just used; second, advanced, automodernity, etc. I know a number of my colleagues in France prefer using these words. Deep down, this attitude of searching for such words shows that we want to save modernity. These words show that we are scared of the fact that something else is being born, that the young generation (and that’s something that interests me a lot) no longer recognise these three values.

And intellectuals (I’m speaking only of those in France, not of others that I don’t know well enough) are fixed on these modern values, so they find these words (‘other modernity’ etc), but simply deep down it’s because this class, this elite, share these modern values. And they’re scared that these values will disappear. ‘The house is burning, so we must save the furniture’, we say in France – and they’re trying to save the furniture with these words. But I say, no; if the house is burning, it must burn. Let it burn.

Rather than being scared, we have to accept that amongst this young generation, instead of work, there is creation; instead of the future, there is the present; instead of reason, there is imagination. These for me are the three keywords (creation, the present, the imagination) of the moment that we call, until we find the correct term, postmodernity. That’s my position, how I see things; but it’s just a position. I don’t want to fetishise the word ‘postmodernity’. But we’re no longer in modernity and we have to accept it, and we shouldn’t be scared of what’s being born.

I had a debate on this with Anthony Giddens in June – we’re both winners of the European Prize for the Social Sciences, and this time the debate they organised was between us. He’s very conservative; he’s now Lord Giddens, of course, and no longer has any intellectual preoccupations – he’s a politicist, I’d say. But deep down he doesn’t disagree with me. At the same time, his position is more political than intellectual – I don’t say that nastily, he recognises it himself.

Another person I esteem enormously is Zygmunt Bauman; we’re much closer. He cites me in his books; I don’t cite him because I don’t really read his books. But I think that his idea of a ‘liquid modernity’ isn’t essential for him. This liquidity, this suppleness, he recognises in ‘postmodernity’, but he created this idea (this merchandised object) of ‘liquid modernity’ because it sells well. Each to his own. But fundamentally I think he is more postmodern than anything else, and when we discuss these things between us orally (he’d never write it, of course) he recognises it himself.

SD: And what about people who no longer use terms like modernity (or postmodernity), and who use terms like neoliberalism or biopolitics instead? Are they perhaps trying to be more specific, to describe something more concrete, to perhaps emphasise the role of the economy? Aren’t terms like this more helpful for understanding changes than more abstract and vague concepts like post/modernity?

MM: No, I think ‘postmodernity’ is more pertinent in the scientific sense of the term because of the prefix, ‘post’. In France (I don’t know about England), when historians talk of ‘modern history’ it’s something that starts after the Renaissance and that finishes at the end of the 19th Century. After that there’s ‘contemporary history’. The term ‘modern’ is very precise – after the Renaissance, up to the end of the 19th Century. So we shouldn’t use the word ‘modernity’ for now; we should say ‘contemporanity’.

But why is ‘postmodernity’ useful? It’s difficult to say and to understand, and for my part it’s something I’ve tried to describe in all my books over the last 40 years, to show how the keywords of modernity no longer work; in particular the economy. So there is this debate over liberalism, which is a valid debate on modernity, with the 19th Century difference between socialism and liberalism, which wasn’t really a difference because they shared the same conception of the world; that is, to economise, to produce, to consume.

We’re no longer in a society of economise/produce/consume, we’re in a society of consumption (in the sense of ‘exhausting’ or ‘using up’ rather than simply ‘using’ – ‘consummation’ pas ‘consommation’). We can say ‘I prefer socialism’, or ‘I prefer liberalism’, or ‘I prefer statism’, but it’s still economic; it’s fundamentally an economic conception of the world. And I think that it’s the economy that no longer works. That’s postmodernity. And this economic conception of the world – which gave us good things, our modern society (I don’t want to spit in the soup [or be ungrateful]) – doesn’t work anymore. That’s the economic crisis. That’s the subprime madness, the madness of financial regulation – a madness which is logical. When we look closely at what happened with subprime and the traders etc, what is it? It’s simple. I’ve thought a lot about Jerome Kerviel, the trader with La Societé Generale who lost 4 or 5 billion euros. He didn’t benefit personally. What motivated him was a playful motivation, adrenalin, the sense of playing a game. It shows that Madoff, Kerviel, traders, are no longer in a logic of the economy, but in a logic of madness; where one can get vertigo. Fundamentally, it’s the notion of the economy that’s saturated, and we have to pass on to something else.

It serves no intellectual purpose to stay stuck in an economic model; there’s something else going on. These young generations are no longer interested in politics or work. I often say ironically that their life ideal is not the PEL – le plan d’epargne logement – to save to buy a home. They don’t want to own a house. Because it’s ultimately a tomb. For the simple reason that they’re married today, divorced tomorrow. There are successive marriages and loves in one life. So the grand idea of the economy, which was that of saving and investment, either macro or micro, doesn’t work anymore; at the macro level, we see it clearly with deregulation; at the micro level, in the fact that we consume (to exhaustion) more than we consume (to use). So I stand by the word ‘postmodernity’ because it shows well that the house is burning, and that something else is happening, and we can’t save the house by continuing to think in economic terms.

SD: Just to finish quickly with this word ‘postmodernity’ before going on to discuss something else – does the fact that you insist on using this word, composed as it is of the word ‘modernity’, show that you yourself are scared of the end of modernity, that you’re still trying to save the burning house?

MM: It’s true that it could be interpreted like that. But me, I’m not scared. The word ‘post’ is a word that is strong. It’s a very different logic to talk of ‘second modernity’ or to talk of ‘postmodernity’ – we are somewhere else. It’s just that I haven’t found the right word. That’s all.

I’ll be even more specific. We can only name something once it’s beginning to end. When Baudelaire named modernity in 1848, modernity was already on its way out. The great century of modernity was the 19th. When we name, we know we’re near the end. A couple never speak about love unless they’re about to separate. When the couple is going well, they have no need to talk about love. We only chant or sing something when we’re not convinced. So when we talk about modernity it’s because these grand values have been exhausted or don’t work well anymore. And we’re now in this period after modernity. We don’t know its name. When we can name it, it’ll be because it’s finished.

There’ll be a word, but it won’t be found within my generation. There’ll be a more pertinent word to describe what we’re living through, what we’ve lived through; there was a word to describe what modernity was, and there’ll be a word to describe whatever it was after modernity; as the ‘Middle Ages’ was an expression found to describe what came after the Roman Empire.

So for the moment it’s necessary to have a provisional term – ‘postmodernity’ – there’s no fetishism.

SD: OK, moving on to something else…you’ve written about the end of individualism and the return of a collective ideal. Do you think that ideas like communism will return as a force of influence as a result of the current economic crisis (what others call the economic crisis), and how effective will it be if it is just another modern concept designed to stop the house from burning?

MM: Obviously we’re a bit trapped by terms. They’re always a bit difficult. I was very influenced by Foucault, especially Les Mots et Les Choses (The Order of Things); you have to always find the words that correspond with the things. It’s not easy, because words are like fake money. This term ‘collective’ isn’t really the suitable term. The term I wanted to use, and which I now use more and more, is ‘community’. I preferred to use ‘tribal’, which seemed to be a metaphor that was easier to use. I’ll tell you why – because in our French intellectual tradition the word ‘community’ had a Catholic or Christian connotation that I didn’t want to use. So ‘tribe’ was a metaphor to show a return to what we thought was behind us.

But now I prefer to use the word ‘community’ because it has lost some of its religious connotation. If I could start again I would use the word ‘community’ – with the passing years I’ve become less violent!

With communism it’s the same; communism had its grandeur. I was always against the communists, by the way – I was against both the red priest (the communist) and the black priest (the catholic)! So communism belongs in the modern world.

I also used to use the word ‘bourgeoisiste’, a word of French origin, to describe simultaneously socialism and liberalism; those branches of the bourgeois period, both from the same family, both relying on the trinity of modernity (reason, progress, work).

What’s important for me is that it is no longer the individual, because in bourgeoisism, what was essential was the economy of salvation – I’m an individual, you’re an individual, we’re united by a contract; whether in capitalism or communism, it’s the same conception of the individual in a social contract.

Marx and Lenin (and I was a good marxologue when I was young; I studied the occidental tradition, Marxian philosophy and all of that) were fanatical about the French Revolution, the real revolution, the only one that worked, the model; this was bourgeois reason.

But my position is this tribal idea, which means we’ll see more and more little tribes – for me the basic elements of this are the sharing of sexual, religious, cultural, sportive tastes. It’s more about culture than civilisation now. Through trial and error we’ll find equilibrium; we’re no longer in the order of the state, no longer in the uniform schema of the state; and it will bleed – blood will run. My hypothesis, and maybe I’m wrong, is that we’ll have an adjustment, and that it will be a mosaic, where everyone keeps their specificity, but there’s still coherence. So it’s neither collective, nor communism; nor capitalism or liberalism; but it’s the person that’s important – not the individual, but the person; not the contract, but the pact.

SD: One final question. There has been much controversy surrounding you in France, particularly around claims of a lack of science in your work, your various appointments to positions in academic institutes and boards, and your defence of Elizabeth Teissier’s thesis on astrology. Would you say that these criticisms all come from a modern perspective that wants to stop the house from burning? And how do you judge the sociological consensus and the state of sociology in France?

MM: At same time as publishing my new book Le Temps Revient, I’m publishing a new edition of La République des Bons Sentiments (Le Rocher, 2008), a critique of the French idea of the republic and the individual, to which I’ve added 2 or 3 violent pamphlets against these colleagues of mine.

I’ve always thought that it’s my position on postmodernity that doesn’t please my dear colleagues. They argue that my work is not scientific simply because I question the values of modernity.

The Teissier affair and the appointments I’ve received at the height of my career have been used as a pretext to settle a score; they’ve never accepted, in particular, that I’m the Durkheim Chair.

There are two aspects to this. The first aspect is that sociology in France is no longer very competitive. When I started out in my career, there were big names. These big names never criticised me; even Bourdieu never criticised me, not even for the Teissier affair; but this second rung of sociologists used it as an excuse to criticise my position on the emergent postmodernity.

Second aspect: many of these colleagues (you’re beginning to understand that I don’t have much esteem for them), these people had an attitude towards me that was quite simply, in the etymology of the term, one of a pickpocket – they took things from my pockets: ‘everyday life’, ‘the imaginary’, terms like these that I had developed; a few of my colleagues used them a little like Canada Dry, a substitute for the good alcohol I was proposing. So attacking me was also a way of hiding the fact that they’d pickpocketed me. You asked me a question; I’m answering very frankly. Two aspects: I perturbed their manner of thinking in circles, and they pickpocketed my ideas.

The thesis was a golden occasion for them to settle a score. I’m happy to have supervised that thesis, and if I had the occasion again I’d do it again, I’d persist with this thesis in particular. When we know that one in two French people consult astrology we must try to sociologically understand it. I was the first to say, in the context of everyday life, that we should study astrology; now it’s fashionable to do so. When I directed studies of homosexuality around 1980, I was accused of letting homosexuality into the Sorbonne. I supervise studies into exchangist nightclubs etc, that these sociologists are afraid to take. My position is Weberian – a social fact can become a sociological fact. I don’t believe in astrology and I’m not a homosexual, but I don’t believe we can or should ignore these social phenomena. Since about 1980 I’ve deliberatively taken theses that they very probably wouldn’t take.

SD: Adorno also wrote about astrology, of course, but in a very different way…

MM: Adorno was a big influence on me in my youth, but now I think the Frankfurt School is outdated; it’s interesting to see his opinion on astrology, like his opinion on jazz – what would he think of techno today, I wonder! I still read the Frankfurt School, but for me it’s outdated…it’s ‘modern’.

Michel Maffesoli is the Durkheim Chair of Sociology at the University of Paris V, Sorbonne. His new book, Le Temps Revient: Formes élémentaires de la postmodernité was published in France on 25th November 2010 by Desclée de Brouwer

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant for Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

To read ‘The Ethic of Aesthetic’, an article Michel Maffesoli published in TCS in 1991, go here and to read Rob Shields’s introduction to this article and to Maffesoli’s work more generally, go here


  1. Most enlightening interview because I just only recently and by chance too, came to know about Maffesoli. Need to read more about his notion of post/modernity though. I am particularly grateful to him for his honest take on the state of French sociology today. Thank you SD.

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