Michel Maffesoli : piaculary rites (english)

Michel Maffesoli, Le Point, 12 janvier 2015. Translated from french by C. Bosqué.

Durkheim, by means of a somewhat obtuse expression, « piaculary rites », reminds us of the necessity, in any society, of collective weeping in order to strengthen the social body. Shared emotions regularly consolidate our feeling of belonging.

Pretexts may vary : sporting competitions, natural catastrophes, bloody events (the football world cup, a tsunami, the accidental death of an English Princess…). The outcome is always the same : a reminder to us, political animals, that our essence lies in being together. Even though our sociality – and I will come back to that further on – may undergo some deep changes.

We need to bear this in mind if we are to understand clearly the large-scale spontaneous popular reactions to the murderous madness (massacre of Charlie Hebdo, killings in Montrouge and in a Kosher supermarket, elimination of the terrorists) that has struck France recently.

First, we ought to avoid the ignorant levity of most commentators, content with a few uncertain invocations in the name of an abstract truth. This magical talk is deprived of any relevance to life as we live it. We also need to acknowledge that thinking is difficult, which is why most commentators would rather judge – hence the deluge of moral discourse : words, words, words…

Piaculary rites are the cause and effect of founding communions. As a mourning process they also remind us in times of distress dominated by fear and trembling that the decadence of a civilization always points to a rebirth. Nothing is ever completed, everything transforms itself.

Such a process of mourning is of course unconscious. Through the burying of those few antiquated figures of an obsolete world, what is underlined is that « atheist fanatism and devout fanatism join in their common intolerance » (Rousseau, Confessions, Part II, book 11). So we will have legitimate laments expressed by some figure of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and politicians that attempt to distort. That is the order of things.

What is most important about those emotional gatherings, though, is the prescience of a profound societal metamorphosis that, every three or four centuries, moves the deep foundations of our coexistence.

Thinking is difficult, which is why most commentators would rather judge – hence the deluge of moral discourse : words, words, words…

It cannot be stressed enough that the « emotional » is a lot more than a simple psychological characteristic. It is an atmosphere that drags everyone in, and belies the official simpletons who still dare to talk about our supposedly « individualist » society.

And indeed, without it being conscientized, let alone verbalized, in its spontaneous aspect, and beyond or below political or moral distortions, that type of emotional turmoil is a sign that social « consensus » is taking another shape. In its strictest sense : « con-sensus », as in shared feelings, the return of common passions and fantasms, collective fantasies and phantasmagoria. All things which make both atheist and devout fanatism irrelevant.

It has been said that modernity started with the end of angels of demons. Yet here they come back again, for better of worse, in our emerging postmodernity.

The return of the religious, or rather diffuse religiosity, is happening. So we may well keep on jumping around yelling « laïcité, laïcité, laïcité » (separation of church and state, TN) ! Such an injunction amounts to a mere « laïcisme », quite the contrary of « laïcité » – some kind of antiphrasis. We should remember that in the Middle Ages, the « lay » brothers in monasteries were not, precisely, priests. Yet the priestly spirit of dogmatism seems to prevail in the reactionary « laïciste » intolerance!

Therefore, instead of launching into the pious tunes of a simultaneously daft and dated laïcisme, in the denial of what there is, we ought to integrate, to ritualize, to homeopathize this new, religious-based spirit of the times. A new cycle begins that goes beyond the priestly spirit of « atheist fanatics », to bring back the qualitative to its former glory, attentive to the price of priceless things, to symbols – in a word, to what Regis Debray calls the « sacral ». Likewise, piaculary rites and other mourning processes are evidence that one cannot harp on endlessly about the « indivisible Republic », or perpetual « republican values ». The « Res publica » is taking another form, that of a mosaic maintaining the cohesion of diverse communities. No longer reducing the other to the same, but accepting the other as such as the source of an undeniable enrichment. Consequently, faced with the emergence of communitarian ideal that, in effect, constitutes the life of postmodern cities, whining about « communitarianism » and other such nonsense seems quite out of place.

Eventually, the emotional instinct ought to alert us to the fact that, in the organisation of social life, we can no longer be satisfied with a rationalism we inherited from the Enlightenment, that was once prospective, but has become morbid. The fictionalized, nuanced assessment of Houellebecq bears witness to it. Shared emotions and passions are becoming the foundations of our social coexistence. Instead, we need to resort to what I call « sensitive reason » – one that is capable, beyond any stigmatization, of accompanying such a process, proof of an undeniable existential vitalism.

This is what our mourning processes are about. This is what secretly moves the crowds in France and elsewhere, composed as they are of a mosaic of tribes, communities and other groups, inspired by an common feeling of belonging. These very diverse groups demonstrate the plurality of cultures and the possibility of their accomodation – the polytheism of values being a hallmark of postmodernity. Only as long as we assess and accept such a diversity will we be able to forestall the various fanatisms and fight against their bloodthirsty perversion.

Relativism inherently knows that, as Horace wrote, « multa renascentur quae jam cecidere… » (many things will fall, that are already fallen and are now glorified).

Indeed, popular wisdom understands that another time has come, that has brought people in the streets to shout it out loud.

Obsessed by the diffuse totalitarianism that is the fantasy of the One, what Auguste Comte called rightly the « reductio ad unum », the elites as a whole do not understand much about the groundswell that shakes our society.

In a pitiful rearguard struggle, conformism even tries to seize upon it. But the manœuvre cannot be taken seriously. Because true laughter laughs at those who lament on the effects, while they cherish the causes : an « indivisible Republic », dogmatic secularism, and hardened rationalism.

Michel Maffesoli

Member of the Institut Universitaire

In a few weeks, these points will be developed in a new book entitled Lettre ouverte aux Francs-maçons et à quelques autres (éditions Léo Scheer).


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