Car(te) Blanche

by Baptiste Coulmont on March 9, 2015

Readers might know Michel Maffesoli, the French sociologist famous for having been the PhD advisor of a socialite seer, Elizabeth Teissier (who did produce an astrological Ph.D). Maffesoli is the herald of a brand of postmodern, non-empirical sociology mixed with esoteric and masonic references. He was a student of Gilbert Durand (who himself was a promoter of academic astrology) and of far-right political scientist Julien Freund. But he was also full professor in one of the most important sociology department in France (at the Université Paris 5). And after the Teissier affair, he has been selected by several ministers of Higher Education to be a member of the Administrative Council of the CNRS, and to be a member of the prestigious Institut Universitaire de France. His colleagues and peers at the IUF awarded him the highest professorial rank (“Classe exceptionnelle”). He is the PhD advisor of more than 130 students (seriously, you can check the number on www.theses.fr). He is the Editor of two journals, Sociétés (published by De Boeck, a respectable academic press) and Les cahiers européens de l’imaginaires (published by the CNRS).

It has always been difficult to understand the coexistence of the deep contempt of mainstream French sociologists for Maffesoli (he is widely denigrated as a fraud) and of his academic and more wordly successes. One could point to his friendly acquaintance with post-gaullist politicians and to his masonic affiliations, as well as other forms of network connection, but that would not be a full explanation. Recently, Manuel Quinon and Arnaud Saint-Martin, two French sociologists, decided to “Sokal” the Maffesolian band of sociology. Adopting a pseudonym, they wrote an article in postmodern language submitted it to Sociétés. They wrote some gobbledegook and Sociétés very rapidly decided to publish it as “Automobilités postmodernes: quand l’Autolib’ fait sensation à Paris.”

The car in question

The article is about the Autolib, an electric car rental service available on a subscription basis in Paris.

In the article, the “transgender” Autolib is described as the turning point for the modern episteme, as the return to the protection of the primordial matrix, and so on. Being well-versed in maffesolese, they know that “modern” is bad, faustian, promethean, and that “postmodern” is good, comforting and dyonisian. In less than 10 pages, they use half a dozen languages: French, English, German, Latin, Greek (in Greek and Latin alphabets), and various typographic affectations (italics, parentheses, slashes in the middle of words). The vocabulary is often complex—”glyschomorphous”, “phallogocentric”, “diairetico-schizomorphous”—but lacking any particular definition. At the center of the article lies a pun. “Essence”, in French, is both essence (as in essential), and gasoline (as in oil). Thus our fictional author writes that the Autolib is “an open car, but not in essence because it is an electric car”. They also insist that postmodernity is “gaseous”, because Zygmunt Bauman’s modernity is “liquid”. The Autolib reveals itself in conclusion as the origin of a “new directing myth for a new epoch (postmodernity)”.

One month after the publication of their article Saint-Martin and Quinon disclosed their hoax in a long article Le maffesolisme, une sociologie en roue libre : Maffesolism, a freewheeling sociology, where they describe the planning of their article, the swift “evaluation” process and their goal (the ultimate academic destruction of Maffesoland). But their article is also a comprehensive and thorough analysis of Maffesoli’s texts and metaphysics. It is on the basis of this analysis that they have written their pastiche, which is, in some respects, better than what Maffesoli and his students write themselves.

{ 40 comments }

1

Bloix 03.09.15 at 4:24 pm

Once again reality trumps satire.
http://xkcd.com/451/

2

Glen Tomkins 03.09.15 at 4:32 pm

I dunno…

That Maffesolistic method must be pretty damned good if you can use it without any faith in its validity and still produce an article that captures the true episteme of our times.

3

Dr. Hilarius 03.09.15 at 5:21 pm

Auto de fe?

4

TheSophist 03.09.15 at 5:47 pm

Foucault’s Pendulum leaps to mind as related to this, but I can’t come up with a pithy, witty way to express the relationship…

5

Hob 03.09.15 at 5:51 pm

For anyone whose French is pretty bad, like me, it’s still worth the effort to read that whole long article because it is hilarious. I know you’re not supposed to explain a joke, but I really enjoy seeing someone lay out the construction of a joke that they put a lot of thought into and explain the ground rules for it (for instance, it had to be very clear that the pseudonymous author had never used Autolib’).

I also learned a couple of phrases that weren’t original to this piece, but that I can’t believe I had been doing without, like “prêt-à-penser” (ready-to-think = received ideas) and “je-m’en-foutisme” (I-don’t-give-a-shit-ism). And it occurred to me that I didn’t know why a hoax or prank is called a “canular” in French, so I looked it up, and allegedly it is from the medical meaning of “cannula” as a small tube that could be used to administer, for instance, an enema— so, not far from “blowing smoke up someone’s ass.”

6

Luke 03.09.15 at 5:54 pm

I had no idea academic postmodernism was now associated with the far right, but it makes sense. I’ve encountered a lot of far-right cranks in the internet who loved to talk about, for example, how they were being ‘colonised’ by a ‘privileged discourse’ (I got that one from a gamergate supporter, I kid you not).

My impression as a student was that pomo language was mostly a stick with which to beat the left, usually in the hands academics trying to rehabilitate Roman slavery or deeply privileged fellow students who liked to talk about how they were being oppressed by Marxist grand narratives about ’cause and effect’ (with actual air-quotes). That said, I’ve since warmed up to the likes of Foucault, and I wonder whether it is really fair to judge theorists by the quality of their adherents.

7

Donald A. Coffin 03.09.15 at 6:25 pm

“But their article is also a comprehensive and thorough analysis of Maffesoli’s texts and metaphysics.”

In other words, it was *good* sociology? Does it not follow that it should have been published?

8

Hob 03.09.15 at 6:30 pm

@7: Different article. That sentence is referring to the piece where they explained the hoax.

9

Hob 03.09.15 at 6:35 pm

At least, I’m pretty sure it is, although the construction of that paragraph is a bit confusing as it refers to both pieces as “the article.” But the explanation piece does discuss Maffesoli’s rhetorical approach in some detail, and it sounds like the hoax piece does not.

10

ben w 03.09.15 at 6:35 pm

So, this is not the direct topic of the post, but the suggestion that masonic connections might account for some of this person’s success caught me quite off guard.

The masons? Really? What century is this?—being my reaction.

Are they really that influential in France?

11

Roger Gathmann 03.09.15 at 6:54 pm

I’m suspicious of the suspicion of technical vocabulary. If the car’s potential popularity was described in terms of hedonic decision making on the rational expectations model -with two utility coefficients – and a suitable number of nonsensical equations were produced the two estimaters being unbiased with a given variance-covariance matrix, etc., I can imagine coming up with a text that one doesn’t understand at all and that would fit very well in some econometric journal. Or economics journal – one remembers the Reinhart Rogoff article about deficits which was full of absurd decisions and subpar math, and yet seemed to be accepted by a large section of the economist community. So I guess I’m thinking this is Sokalizing very trivial game.

12

LFC 03.09.15 at 7:14 pm

Hob:
I also learned a couple of phrases that weren’t original to this piece, but that I can’t believe I had been doing without, like “prêt-à-penser” (ready-to-think = received ideas)

I like that phrase too (hadn’t heard it before). Also hadn’t heard of Maffesoli.

13

JRLRC 03.09.15 at 7:24 pm

“Typographic affectations” are not a problem… And they are not postmodernist per se.
(And parentheses are punctuation marks, remember?).
One more thing: “Complex” and “bullshit” are not the same.

14

Glen Tomkins 03.09.15 at 7:24 pm

@10

Can’t say I know any French masons, but anywhere the Catholic church is prominent, masonry is going to remain relevant. Back when I lived in Louisiana (a while ago, admittedly), masonry was the polite way to be anti-Catholic, the Klan being the impolite way to be anti-Catholic.

15

Phil 03.09.15 at 7:31 pm

I came across Maffesoli for the first time a few days ago & decided quite quickly that he wasn’t interesting enough to investigate further. Learning that his speciality postmodern, non-empirical sociology mixed with esoteric and masonic references makes me more inclined to actively avoid him.

I’m not sure how surprised the OP is that a parody of Maffesoli should be a comprehensive and thorough analysis of Maffesoli’s texts and metaphysics, but I don’t find it too surprising; effective satire needs to get inside its target.

16

Phil 03.09.15 at 7:44 pm

The extreme Right is an intellectual force to be reckoned with in France in a way that isn’t matched in any other country I can think of. I don’t follow the scene very closely, but I think it’s still true to say that there’s a distinct segment of the extreme Left which is Holocaust denialist & openly anti-semitic. (This is a difficult combination of ideas to sustain, even if you’re an intellectual, so by now it may just be that there’s a distinct segment of the extreme Right that used to be on the extreme Left.)

17

LFC 03.09.15 at 8:09 pm

Phil @15
I’m not sure how surprised the OP is that a parody of Maffesoli should be a comprehensive and thorough analysis of Maffesoli’s texts and metaphysics, but I don’t find it too surprising; effective satire needs to get inside its target.

As I read the OP, the parody is not the comprehensive analysis; rather, it’s a separate article they published explaining the parody (i.e. the hoax piece).

18

The Other DSCH 03.09.15 at 9:18 pm

@Phil, I think you’re correct. Alain Soral is perhaps an example of what you’re talking about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Soral

19

Main Street Muse 03.09.15 at 11:43 pm

“…Michel Maffesoli, the French sociologist famous for having been the PhD advisor of a socialite seer, Elizabeth Teissier (who did produce an astrological Ph.D).”

???? Is this for real?

And then… “One month after the publication of their article Saint-Martin and Quinon disclosed their hoax in a long article Le maffesolisme, une sociologie en roue libre : Maffesolism, a freewheeling sociology, where they describe the planning of their article, the swift “evaluation” process and their goal (the ultimate academic destruction of Maffesoland).”

Wow – that’s one way to drag down an academic you loathe.

French academia seems Monty Python-esque as related here. Sadly in my state, these shenanigans would result in further budget cuts to the public university-system budget…

20

LFC 03.10.15 at 12:19 am

from the English Wiki page for Maffesoli, apparently translated from the French page:

Maffesoli’s appointment to the board of Directors of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique caused an outcry in the scientific community.[19] The decree of 5 October 2005 by which the appointment was established stated that the appointment was justified “because of [his] scientific and technological competence”.[20]

A petition entitled “Un conseil d’administration du CNRS doublement inacceptable!” was launched after Maffesoli’s appointment.[21] The petitioners protested both against the non-respect for parity and the appointment of Michel Maffesoli, deemed as disrespectful of “the need for scientific credibility of the board”.[22]

Not sure what “non-respect for parity” refers to, but anyway there’s a footnote quoting the petition in French:

il est pour le moins étonnant de voir nommer comme représentant des disciplines « Homme et Société » Michel Maffesoli, un universitaire bien connu pour ses prises de position anti-rationalistes et anti-scientifiques. Pourquoi nommer quelqu’un qui a suscité, il y a peu, la réprobation de l’ensemble de la communauté scientifique en commettant une grave faute : l’attribution du titre de docteur en sociologie à une astrologue, Elizabeth Teissier, dont la thèse faisait l’apologie de l’astrologie ?”

roughly:
“It is, to say the least, astonishing to see appointed as a representative of the disciplines ‘Man and Society’ Michel Maffesoli, an academic well known for his anti-rationalist and anti-scientific stands. Why appoint someone who not long ago aroused the criticism of the entire scientific community by committing a serious mistake: bestowing the title of doctor of sociology on an astrologer, Elizabeth Teissier, whose thesis was a defense of [apologia for] astrology?”

21

LFC 03.10.15 at 12:27 am

“a serious offense” perhaps better than “a serious mistake”. (whatever)

22

Roger Gathmann 03.10.15 at 1:03 am

one should throw in her Feyerabend’s little polemical bomb about astrology.
http://digilander.libero.it/astroitalia/cialtrones.pdf

23

john c. halasz 03.10.15 at 2:36 am

Roger @22:

Or maybe Adorno’s take-down in “Minima Moralia”.

24

Glen Tomkins 03.10.15 at 5:07 am

Hey, if you’re going to go in for a pseudo-science, it might as well be a dignified pseudo-science of long-standing and social cachet like astrology. Astrology has this much greater recommendation, that even its followers tend to at least halfway recognize its pseudo nature, and play along at least partly in irony. I’m not sure the authors of this Maffesoli pastiche will have much effect on their target, as he seems to write quasi-ironic pastiche himself.

In contrast, the latest fad pseudo-sciences, like anti-oxidant diets or other panaceas, or anti-vaxxerism, are the ones that people tend commit to with completely humorless, stone serious, totally unironic intent, and they cause my patients all sorts of problems.

25

John Quiggin 03.10.15 at 6:57 am

I use to imagine Feyerabend as having reached his “anything goes” position in a more or less abstract fashion, taking Kuhn to the logical extreme, but without any particular commitment to the pseudo-sciences he used as examples, like astrology. Then I found out he was a fan of alternative medicine, and was pushing metholodogical anarchism line with the specific aim of undermining mainstream criticisms of faith healers and similar (there’s a reference to this point here)

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feyerabend/

26

Baptiste Coulmont 03.10.15 at 7:48 am

Thanks for all the comments. I now realized that I wasn’t clear : there is indeed two article, first a pastiche (published in “Sociétés” under the pseudonym of J-P Tremblay) and then an explanation of the pastiche (written by Arnaud Saint-Martin and Manuel Quinon as themselves).

27

Soru 03.10.15 at 8:07 am

Never forget, the in the US alone, ‘psychic services’ is a $2 billion industry, with ~80,000 employed[1]. ‘Alternative health’ is considerably bigger.

Since essentially every single person in those sectors is personally involved in marketing them, that quite likely a larger amount of dedicated communication professionals than many larger industries. Possibly only the big three of energy, defense and pharmaceuticals have more.

If anything, it rather surprising how little of academia, outside France at least, is dedicated to servicing the needs of that growing market sector.

[1] ibisworld market research

28

David 03.10.15 at 1:23 pm

Couple of points may be worth making.
French culture has always put a high value on articulacy in speech and writing, and on paradox and irony, as well as intellectually brilliant puns and wordplay (the latter made easier by a smallish vocabulary and many homophones). At its best this can produce genuinely challenging and provocative interventions, at its worst (and that’s most of the time) it encourages a mere superficial brilliance with not a lot behind it. That’s what’s being satirised here, I think.
It’s worth pointing out that French academia is very tribal (even by the standards of academia generally) and that bitter academic and personal rivalries between client groups dominated by major academic figures are common. I don’t know enough about Maffesoli’s work to judge how fair this attack is, but character (and professional) assassination of this kind is not exactly unknown.
I can’t immediately find much supporting evidence for right-wing affiliations – indeed, in a 2012 interview Maffesoli claimed to be an “abstentionist” and to be interested in Sarkozy purely as a “post-modern” President. Anyone know any more?
Couple of points of clarification also. The “parity” issue at the CNRS (@LFC20) seems to be about the requirement (common in France) to have equal numbers of men and women on the Governing Board – i.e. the institution was criticized for nominating a man rather than a woman. And, at least according to Wikipedia, the PhD about which there was so much controversy was not about astrology as such, but a sociological study of how astrology was perceived by the French public. Maffesoli defended it by saying that if 50% of French people read their horoscopes then that was a fact worth studying. The author of the Ph D was an astrologer, and both her intellectual capacities and her thesis were severely criticized by other sociologists.

29

Roger Gathmann 03.10.15 at 5:44 pm

JQ – on the alternative medicine issue, David Wooton has weighed in – his book, Bad Medicine, is a wonderful instance of a demystifying history of science. In particular, I liked the chapter on how the discovery of the preventative for scurvy – limes and fruits -was actively resisted by the british medical establishment well up until the late 18th century, since it contradicted the consensus scientific view of humoral medicine. He’s especially good at showing that lemons were considered an “alternative” medicine, and that the doctor credited with discovering the cure for scurvy in the standard histories, James Lind, did no such thing. After stumbling on the solution used by the sailors in the Spanish and Dutch fleets, lemons, he then retreated from this discovery and began to boil lemon juice – thus dissipating the vitamin C in it – before giving it to sailors. The experiment showed that lemons didn’t cure scurvy, which corresponded to the medical establishment view, which prescribed bleeding. He satisfactorily killed his patients according to the best views of medical science thereafter.
Wooten’s book is beautifully written, by the way. An excellent reference.

30

Main Street Muse 03.10.15 at 8:46 pm

Soru @27 – “Never forget, the in the US alone, ‘psychic services’ is a $2 billion industry, with ~80,000 employed[1]. ‘Alternative health’ is considerably bigger.”

Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer to determine the most propitious dates for Ronald Reagan’s various scheduling commitments.

Alternative health is a subject worthy of study – the NIH has its own center devoted to “complementary and integrative health” (which seeks to determine the best way to blend alternative and Western medicine) – https://nccih.nih.gov

Using “metholodogical anarchism” to undermine any point of view seems to defeat the purpose of science – but hey, I live in America where “science” today is decided by faith, not facts…

31

Harold 03.10.15 at 8:51 pm

Medicine has never been, and still is not, scientific, or so I have been told by a pretty reputable scientist and historian of science, respectively.

32

Harold 03.10.15 at 8:55 pm

Still, I hasten to add, it’s more scientific than homeopathy and astrology.

33

The Temporary Name 03.10.15 at 10:05 pm

French academia seems Monty Python-esque as related here. Sadly in my state, these shenanigans would result in further budget cuts to the public university-system budget…

This seems to be the case everywhere…

Alternative health is a subject worthy of study – the NIH has its own center devoted to “complementary and integrative health” (which seeks to determine the best way to blend alternative and Western medicine) – https://nccih.nih.gov

It has it because congress made it have it, and the NCCIH is exactly the Pythonesque shenanigan that people should be embarrassed by.

34

Roger Gathmann 03.10.15 at 10:22 pm

33, when did congress make the NIH created the Nccih? in 1991, they appropriated 2 million dollars for a center for alternative medicine in the NIH, but the suggestion seems to have come from Dr. Stephan Groft. Now, if you want to put your credentials up against Groft, go ahead.Two links: http://www.ncats.nih.gov/news-and-events/features/groft.html
http://globalgenes.org/raredaily/introducing-our-champions-dr-stephen-groft/

35

The Temporary Name 03.10.15 at 10:51 pm

They made it right here: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c105:S.2420.IS:

The wikipedia story serves well enough: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Center_for_Complementary_and_Integrative_Health#Organization_and_history

The point is, the Office of Alternative Medicine (which was trying to do decent science) was not flaky enough and this displeased some people. I don’t know Groft’s work at all, but he seems to have made more of a contribution to peoples’ lives than I can hope to, and he seems to have done it by investigating medicine, a perfectly worthy endeavour.

36

Roger Gathmann 03.10.15 at 11:07 pm

Wikipedia is nice, but the timeline that is more precise is the one in the book by Synovitz and Larsen, Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Professionals, which you can look up at Google books. Go to Appendix 6a. So, you think the change in name changed the mission? Looking at Dr. Josephine Briggs’ page, current director of the complemtary and Integrative Health component, I don’t see a lot of flakiness.
https://nccih.nih.gov/about/staff/briggs.htm

37

The Temporary Name 03.10.15 at 11:17 pm

Looking at Dr. Josephine Briggs’ page, current director of the complemtary and Integrative Health component, I don’t see a lot of flakiness.

She’s got an excellent resume and is now head of an agency dedicated to proving nothing. This is woo: http://www.sciencemagazinedigital.org/sciencemagazine/19_december_2014?pg=138#pg138

38

Main Street Muse 03.10.15 at 11:27 pm

So TN @ 37 – the center is dedicated to proving nothing – why? Because you say so? Would love more info on the nothingness at NCCIH… Why is it flaky to look into medicines that are alternative and complementary to that used in western medicine?

39

The Temporary Name 03.10.15 at 11:34 pm

Why is it flaky to look into medicines that are alternative and complementary to that used in western medicine?

It isn’t! The OAM was doing that.

40

James Wimberley 03.12.15 at 8:38 pm

LFC in #20: “Not sure what “non-respect for parity” refers to …”
“Parité” is the standard term in France for gender equality in an institutional context. The objection must have been that the CNRS board did not have enough women members. More than plausible.

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