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Orgy: An Overview

ORGY: AN OVERVIEW

Work, progress, and convention are no longer essential requirements. Economists, philosophers, and sociologists all agree that, even within a linear view of history, these structures have had their day. Prometheus is under suspicion.

Unproductive Play

There is no point in going back to Prometheus except to find support for a description of what will replace the defunct god. The themes of liberation and energeticism have become questionable. They will doubtless reemergetheir birth and death occurs many times throughout human historybut for the present, as a result of saturation, there is a new dawn and other constants are now being proposed; their outlines remain unclear, but the observer of society cannot remain indifferent to them. Thus the return of what has been repressed: unproductive exertion, in other words orgy, is set to replace energetic progres-sionism.

It is in this sense that one may say that the body as a means of production or reproduction is giving way to the erotic body. Is this a rebellion in the classical sense of a release mechanism? Not necessarily. Instead, we are faced here with a positive power that is found beneath the surface of all social structures and sometimes asserts itself irresistibly, like an unstoppable groundswell. What was once the privilege of the avant-gardeof artists; of proud, solitary geniusesflows through the entire body of society. Enjoyment of the present and the idea of carpe diem become colossal, unassailable values. Thus we can understand what Octavio Paz calls "the rapturous joy of orgiastic values," in which the feelings, passions, images and situations of the moment express themselves.

To emphasize the effectiveness of orgy, it is helpful to refer to the concept of ludism, which modern rationalism has demoted to the status of a secondary activity. A detailed analysis of the importance of play is unnecessary, since classical studies, including those of Johan Huizinga and Roger Callois, have already done so competently and comprehensively. Play is the irreducible kernel around which so many institutions are arranged. Economic struggle, financial competition, and political theater exist to remind us that nothing in the world is unaffected by games, that societies are molded by them, and that to take this into account is not aesthetic bias but rather the recognition of a constant that cuts across the whole of human reality.

The antithesis of utilitarianism, the orgy is the clearest possible sign of the will to live and of the persistence of sociality. Mystics, whose message is heeded or disregarded depending on the period, have seen this clearly. For Jacob Boehme, for example, there is a "joy of the eternal act of creation" which allows what exists to continue to do so. Following this route is not irrationalism but rather hyperrationalism as described by Charles Fourier (17721837), who includes previously excluded criteria in his social analysis. The imagination, the oneiric, and collective play are these neglected criteria.

Loss and Letting Go

It is such clarity of vision that has returned orgy to its position and perceives in the various festive forms, whatever they may be, an expression of the erotic body, which knows how to escape from the imposition of productivity. Manifestations of this Dionysiac ludism cannot be classified under the rubrics past or future. With amazing consistency, they express the desire for loss in a world that has a constant tendency to be positive about everything. It is in this context that the unproductive and nonfunctional nature of orgy must be understood.

The rites whose religiousor more precisely, orgiasticbasis is understood consist of fantasy incarnate. The word incarnate here carries its full semantic force: it indeed refers to aggressive, caressing, colliding, loving bodies. And before they were sanitized in the familiar political and religious rituals, these rites were truly and intimately a violent or tender confrontation, involving fantasy, exertion, lossin a word, the unproductive. There are many perfect examples of this process in contemporary society, including rave parties. Each involves losing oneself within the group, pushing to its ultimate conclusion the logic of unproductive exertion. The group expression, used repeatedly by young people, is illuminating in this respect: it is about letting go, getting out of oneself, even if this involves using various ad hoc substances, harking back to a kind of religious ecstasy. It is necessary to connect to the other, to the greater whole that is the group. It is not without significance that one of the products used is called ecstasy, a metaphor if ever there was one for the loss of self in the infinite of collective desire.

The Rationalization of Existence

What Max Weber called the "generalized rationalization of existence" has come to encompass every aspect of existenceconsumption, sex, speech, leisure: everything is liable to be measured. In the name of ever greater security, areas of life that had hitherto avoided restriction have been dealt with by particularly efficient specialized institutions. Such a sterile arrangement of life has a tendency to place everything in an accountable and productive system. To play, to love, to enjoy the sun, to make the most of passing timethe entire existential experience, all this is recorded by a specific structure in a system of moderation, of economy. Yet can one be economical with the irrepressible social desire to live?

Counting and limiting results in denial. To allow no place for the forces of pleasure is to expose oneself to the fierce retort of what is repressed. Letting go is like violence: restraining it results in encouraging its exaggerated expression. The wisdom of the ancient world is of real worth in this regard; it allowed for a certain shadowy part, which it ritualized and thus mastered. The sole objective of the Greek Dionysia was to give free rein to wild passions. Plato, in the Laws, expresses this ancient realism clearly. Dealing with the Spartiate, a moralist and boring theoretician, the ancient equivalent of the contemporary technocrat, who is giving a management lecture on how to ensure a sober city, Plato recalls that such a policy is like playing with fire: "Spartan stranger, this is all laudable as long as one retains the strength to resist, but once this is relinquished, then this is disastrous." Repression is laudable in a heavenly city, but in our earthly city we should not forget everything that links us to the dark earth. In the last analysis, calculated moderation always entails an even greater immoderation. And like a sorcerer's apprentice, a society that does not know how to use the coincidentia oppositorum leaves itself open to a disastrous eruption of the very element that it denies and is unable to control. The fantasy of productivity, the absolute positivism of rationalism, and unidimensionality all are suits of armor that will cause explosions because they are so rigid.

This is, then, the problem. Faced with the hard-working Prometheus, one must demonstrate that the boisterous Dionysus is also an essential character in human society. The question is no longer how to control life but how to spend and enjoy it. As Max Stirner wrote, "It is no longer a matter of making my true self flourish within me, but of harvesting the vintage and consuming my life". This is an excellent way of looking at things, which provides a good summary of everything that contrasts mere productivity and exertion.

Fertilization and Production

It could be said that postmodern values push the logic of consumption to its limits. Perhaps it would be better to use the term consuming. It becomes the point of living. Things are good; they provide the good life. This is not harmful to working life, but complements it, but its complementary nature is only of use if adults do not, for the sake of outdated moral principles, restrain the natural expression of youthful excess. This unproductive aspect of youth recalls the "creative joy" spoken of by the mystic Jacob Boehme.

It might be worthwhile to contrast production and fertilization to reach an understanding of the will to live and the persistence of sociality. If a principle of reality were to deny any pleasure principle, would it not be denying itself?

Orgy exists to demonstrate to us that erotic opportunities are not confined to (re)production. It is an endless interplay of contradictory elements, which as a result of their combination and construction allow us to understand how the fertilization of the world is carried on in a clandestine manner.

Mythic Roots

The play of the world and the world as play: There is the very heart of the return of mythical figures in the festive contemporarya celebration of roots, a frantic search for symbols, the desire to join with otherness through prototypes that are not representative but are lived here and now.

There is a particular energy there, energy that is not being spread in the body politic, energy that seeps through the intense banality of everyday life. The collective imaginationone might call it the collective unconsciousdraws its power from this orgiastic treasury. Objective reality ensures that, without knowing it, the publicity photo, the choreographed pose, even the obscenity of reality TV, show that which unites with that which cannot be portrayed. Hence the need for analogy, a non-causal link, a description like that of a painting, a mosaic construction, in the search for a way to understand this. These are all things that, linked together, cause a nonprojective, essentially present sense, or meaning, to reemerge.

One can interpret a television series as a production involving mythological figures from the Greek pantheon. Similarly, in techno gatherings or love parades, just as in fashion shows, ancient prototypes may be paroxystically rediscovered. Yet it is a repetition that makes them immanent. In Western transcendence, this is far from theological or political. With the figures under discussion, being is Being-in-the-world. Yet the energy exerted to do this, which is close to the Will of Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), is most concentrated and crystallized.

Being-in-the-world would therefore be, if not an explanation, at least an avenue of approach, in a strict sense, to the modern orgy. There is no backdrop; everything is set at the front of the stage. Yet, that being the case, everything is factual and to the point. This being is immediate. It forces us to go beyond the concept of being, which we tend to use with a nominal sense: being a man, a woman, leftwing, rightwing, in short being something with an identity. Whereas the post- and premodern theatrical being is an infinitive much more encompassing, more part of a matrix, a form of being in which one shares in an almost magical way. This allows one to understand the feeling of belonging: belonging to a group, to a person, to a place, with particular sporting, religious, musical, or sexual tastes.

Encompassing being: that is, no longer being given legitimacy or rationalized by a supreme being, be that God, the State, the Institution, the Individuala supreme being which offers meaning, but an encompassing being, which establishes that one is something or someone only to the extent that one shares with others an eponymous figurea star, a guru, an animal, a place. Strictly speaking, this figure provides a name and thus leads to existence. This is the orgiastic revolution: existence is only in relation with, in communion with, others, and the renewed contribution of mythological figures, of archetypes, of fantastic forms (sorcerers, fairies, mythical heroes), makes this relationship apparent.

Such a dependence, at times shocking to modern thinking which is so used to individuality, is all in all simply another means of approach, which the East has used, stressing the similarities, the common features of all the elements, all the aspects of an undivided life.

Transformation

In play involving orgiastic theatrical masks, a process of transformation, even transfiguration, occurs, in which the humble individual self is raised to a generic Self. There is a discursive search here, real rather than verbalized, which forms the basis for developing the large number of groups or tribes that make up the social body.

This should raise questions for the social observer, who all too often is satisfied with results drawn from modern philosophical systems that have epistemological individualism as their sole common denominator. In empirical terms, the individual and individuality are inclined to be lost within the longing for tribalism that becomes more and more delirious. Tribes come into being, they reinforce themselves, they express themselves through aggregative figures. Symbolic figures, which, as Emile Durkheim has shown, have a role in establishing "logical conformism."

By reconsidering the term Einfühlung as it is used in art history, one can demonstrate that the defining characteristic of our times is empathy. It is useful to observe and understand, as a phenomenon, the tendency to lose oneself in the other, to exist only commensurate with the other. Subjectivity becomes objective through its relationship with a counterpart, whether that counterpart is an object, an animal, a human being, or an element of nature. These are all characteristic of the pre- and postmodern orgy.

Empathy

Religious and political fanaticism, the huge number of fan groups, and in all these spheres the varied social hysteriaeven in the possession of everyday objects that people think they ownis made clearer by means of empathy. We need only look at the relationship with the mobile phone or even with the laptop computer to understand that here we have a return to the magical object of premodern civilizations.

This recognition of self via the other is instructive in that it emphasizes a vital emission, a philosophy of life that is symptomatic of cultures at the moment of their birth, before rigid intellectual restrictions develop.

Empathy possesses, then, a certain resourcefulness and open-mindedness, which can be seen in the various forms of generosity, the acts of mutual assistance, the development of charity and benevolence, that run throughout the body social alongside economic dominance. The individual is engrossed in these alternative forms of behavior, arranged more or less wildly, which take shape around symbolic figures, whether political, religious, musical, sporting, or intellectual.

Thus in the orgy, the subject is above all transcendental, that is, collective, but subsequently focuses on individual changes. It is complementary, and not alternative to, transcendental reason, distinguishing the scientific advance that has characterized Western thinking. It is a transcendental fantasy, which is in action in the archetypal figures that are expressed in social life. Such eros energumene have their roots in the ancestral power of poetry. Not abstract, disconnected poetry, lived in isolation, but connected directly with the power of the orgiastic life.

Masks

Without necessarily being aware of it, the figures that typify the daily carnivalesquethe masks the persona assumes in his or her professional or love life, the caricatures of various social fluctuationsdemonstrate, in a somewhat exaggerated manner, the illusion of individualism that characterizes historical ideology. On the other hand, these phenomena remind us that what predominates is a virtual shared destiny. Postmodern masks are influenced by figures, by ancestral problems. They serve to translate that impersonal, underground force that comes from far away and sometimes emerges in broad daylight.

In various spheres of life, one pays more and more attention to what lies beneathto cultural substrata, to the ghosts that stir collective dreams, to the persistence of legendary figures. All this has a long-term effect, but it is nothing if not personal. And this is the thing that is undergoing a revival, expressed in the totems around which the many postmodern tribes gather. These renew the link with premodern paganism, reminding civilized humanity of its archaic animism. Indeed, it is a fundamentally pagan reaction that can be found in phenomena as diverse as deep ecology; the growth of alternative medicine; the influence of clairvoyance, astrology, and the paranormal; and the many New Age systems, not to mention demonism and Goth and techno music.

The common denominator in these varied orgiastic phenomena is a new relationship with natural and social otherness, with an emphasis upon correspondence. Unknowingly, one is linked to the Other and thus shares in a common destiny. In this way, it is possible to understand the astonishing mimicry that is everywhere prevalent. It is no longer distinction but rather indistinction.

Orgy is indeed the union by which we are linked to the common spirit of the tribe, and to the common animal nature of our species.

See Also

Agriculture; Earth; New Year Festivals; Sexuality.

Bibliography

These themes are developed in my L'Ombre de Dionysos, contribution à une sociologie de l'orgie (Paris, 1982), translated into English as The Shadows of Dionysos: A Contribution to the Sociology of the Orgy (Albany, N.Y., 1993); and in Le Temps des Tribus, le déclin de l'individualisme dans les sociétés de masse (Paris, 1988), translated into English as The Time of Tribes: Decline of Individualism in Mass Society (London, 1996).

Michel Maffesoli (2005)

Translated from French by Paul Ellis

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