It Takes a Tribe

Source & Fluence

Rachel Howard


Top: “Why do we gather? We want to feel, look each other in the eye, tell our stories, connect to our hearts, and play.“ – The Laboratorio (a community dedicated to inner exploration and outer impact, based in Tulum, Mexico)
Bottom: Neotribalism looks for guidance to organizational principles of the distant past and the lifestyles of peripheral cultures for inspiration. Photo: Wodaabe tribe during Gerewol (a yearly courtship ritual), In-Gall, Niger; by Alfred Weidinger, 2014.

It is no coincidence that our music program at Scorpios is called Rituals, our Inner Gardens sessions are arranged as Ceremonies​, and our restaurant menu refers to ​Alchemy​. The near universal currency of this anthropological vocab – and the ancestral lore that underpins it – is largely due to the influence of ​The Time of the Tribes​, written by the French sociologist Michel Maffesoli in the late 1980s. In this book, Maffesoli sets out his theory of micro-communal formations – nomadic, dispersed, open-ended, apolitical, unofficial, aesthetically organized, empathetically intertwined; all antithetical to the centralized, hierarchical social totalities feeding and prospering on religious and political dogmas, which in the end divide more than unite.

Maffesoli argued that with the system of ethical values and interpersonal relations, the operations of bureaucratic machinery and the power structures of modernity in decline, we would have to find new ways to reconstitute our social world in greater harmony with natural processes. We would, perhaps, look for guidance to the principles of the distant past and the lifestyles of peripheral cultures. The age of postmodernity would be the era of ​Neotribalism.

Neo-tribes are not tribes in the traditional anthropological sense, such as those populating the Amazon, the ancestral home of one million Indians divided into some 400 groupings, each with its own language, culture and territory. Neither are they distinct social units such as our families, political parties or professional associations, which have some clear membership criteria, purpose, rules of conduct, and continuity. Rather, they are affinity groups with an ephemeral, tenuous nature. We ambulate between these groups, participating in them not to reach some abstract goal, but role-playing according to our fancies, for the sake of play itself. A neo-tribe takes shape when one signs up for a group meditation session at Scorpios, or an interactive theme camp at Burning Man, in which everyone is at once an author, actor and spectator.

“Neo-tribes are nomadic, dispersed, open-ended, apolitical, unofficial, aesthetically organized, empathetically intertwined. The accent is on what unites, rather than what divides.”

“There is a strong tradition of creative thinkers ditching constrictive society. The Romantic poets. The Explorers, too. You had the Beats. Then of course the Hippies,” says Julia Chaplin, author of Gypset Style. What Julia dubs gypset is a nomadic, yet sophisticated cadre of travellers: “It is like a floating group. People who all belong to one place, but are not of any place – people who want to do it their way.” Photo: Mignot family on the beach in Sayulita, Mexico; by Anne Menke, featured in “Gypset Style” by Julia Chaplin (published by Assouline).

As a prism for imagining the world anew, the theory of Neotribalism is predicated on the view that modernity is over. This grand project, conceived way back in the 17th century, heralded the age of pure reason, infinite progress and total order. Today, we cannot pretend that we share many of the ideals formulated in the wake of the Renaissance, which in many aspects was just an extension of the Middle Ages.

The first glimmerings of postmodernity appeared in the 1950s, but radical social change really took hold in May 1968 with the student uprising in Paris, an iconic symbol of countercultural vitality. Paradoxically, the 1960s was a period of peace and prosperity in France. The rioters were mostly well-adjusted youths from bourgeois families who attended prestigious schools. Although the rebels could not quite articulate their interests, grievances and demands, their energetic protests against the establishment – hurling rocks at the police and being tear-gassed, clubbed, and jailed for weeks on end – was sufficient evidence that modernity was on fire, the cathedral of reason, progress and order was burning down, and not even the furniture could be saved.

It was suddenly all too clear that the bourgeois ideals of the past had lost their hold on the future. The predominant socio-political doctrines of liberalism and socialism essentially shared the same conception of the world: to economize, produce, consume. The new generation no longer recognized these values and norms, opting for creativity instead of work, the present instead of deferral, imagination instead of reason, expression instead of decorum, effervescence instead of stability, peculiarity instead of normalcy, vitality instead of power, integrity instead of prestige, generosity as a new form of solidarity.

Modern production methods required highly specialized and machine labour; but the youth of this new era were hardly the cohort to fulfill the requirements of that robotic scenario. Returning from the barricades to become cogs in the wheels was the least of their grandiose ambitions. This new generation was more inclined to keep their identities fluid, plural, cross-cutting and ever-expanding. They would have rather opted for everything, than ​something. They would certainly not have settled for some pre-ordained role – marital status, class, gender, ethnicity, profession, job title... They would have rather been ​nothing​ – as empty and implosive as the void of Zen.

This attitude explains why the concept of identity is obsolete in postmodern tribes. The question: “Who am I?” is no longer about discovering essential truth. Identity is replaced with personality. Who you are is now a matter of style. Your personality becomes a perpetual masquerade. Your life is an ongoing performance calibrated for a variety of aesthetic effects. Neo-tribes offer empathetic support for those who "wear many hats", who are always eager to try on new masks, strange clothes and infinite personas.

“Your life is an ongoing performance calibrated for a variety of aesthetic effects.”

Apollo (bottom), one of the most complex figures in Greek mythology, is the god of arts and music, but also of rational thinking and order; he appeals to logic, prudence and purity. His character is traditionally contrasted to that of Dionysus (top, photo by Derek Key), his eternal rival and the most delightful of all the Olympian deities. The god of wine and dance, of irrationality and chaos, he tempts humans by appealing to their emotions and instincts.

But the foundations of neotribalism go back way deeper than the 1960s. They are rooted in cultural traditions which stretch – through Nietzsche – all the way back to ancient Greek mysticism. Neotribalism addresses the age-old opposition between the rational and the instinctive, personified by two mythical characters: Apollo, who represents the power of the conscious mind, and Dionysus, who epitomizes the psychodynamic forces of unconsciousness. This opposition, as originally conceived in the mystic tradition, is not negative but restorative: one part balancing the other to create a cultural entity that is dialectically complete, be it a single person or an entire civilization.

In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus, the ruler of all the gods on Mount Olympus. Apollo is the god of discipline, rational thinking, sober calculation, detailed planning and meticulous order; whereas Dionysus, who is the most delightful of all the gods, is the deity of intoxication, revelry, ecstasy and chaos, but also of inspiration and enthusiasm, without which all art sinks to the level of drudgery. Where the Apollonian (law abiding) principle limits and simplifies, the Dionysian (transgressive) principle overflows boundaries and strives for all-encompassing unity. The god of many joys, Dionysus appeals to passionate emotions and basic urges. This makes his exhortations more persuasive and widely absorbing when it comes to shaping and maintaining communities. Neuroscience offers ample evidence that human behavior – especially collective behavior – is governed largely by emotions and less by rationality.

No wonder neotribalism holds Dionysus in high regard. The god of rapture, an emblem of the pleasures lived in the here and now, he plays the role of a liberator when life – all too scrupulously planned, over-managed and excessively controlled – begins to stagnate and decay; when one finds oneself in chains, self-imposed or otherwise. The god of many faces, the embodiment of versatility, Dionysus revitalizes the life that is in danger of losing its ecstatic dimension. He appears as a savior when social relations become unbearably structured, mechanical, predictable, oppressive.

Dionysus carries within himself and exudes theia mania​ (“divine madness”), which fuels all manner of spiritual and artistic pursuits. This divine madness also nurtures communal relations, blurring individual boundaries and differences. It is this spirit that feeds into the mysteries of ecstatic cults, the rituals of ancient Greece and Rome (where they were called ​bacchanalia). Intoxicants such as wine (believed to embody the living god) were used along with other trance-inducing techniques, such as music and dance, shaking off personal inhibitions and removing social constraints; liberating and returning human beings to their natural state, to the cosmological whole from which humanity and everything else originates.  

“Dionysus shows up to revitalize and replenish the life that is in danger of losing its ecstatic dimension.”

One finds this spirit in the desert of Nevada during the annual Burning Man festival, dedicated to art, community, aesthetics and ethics in equal measure. All social distinctions vanish at some point, when the participants abandon themselves to emotions that run much deeper than the ego – to openness, inclusion, and prosociality (behavior that benefits others, or society as a whole). In this deeper state of consciousness, helping, sharing, donating, and co-operating with one another is elevated to the status of a ritual. In spite of the diversity of their individual circumstances, in spite of the plurality of their characters in the real world, the burners become one tribe, a social configuration that goes beyond individualism.

In this apolitical atmosphere, the distinction between ​pouvoir and puissance is crucial. Pouvoir refers to the power of institutional politics, as exercised by the ruling elites, whereas puissance alludes to the inherent energy of the people, which the French philosopher Henri Bergson called elan vital​. Puissance is a collective effervescence generated in everyday encounters – be that in a pub, in a gym, on a journey, at an illegal rave, a football match, a group therapy session, or a coworking scenario, or even when shopping. This type of power originates when people come together for the sheer pleasure of being together. Puissance gives one and everyone the feeling of combined potentiality.

Puissance gives you goose-bumps. It’s a subconscious energy that intensifies during rituals and ceremonies, such as those at Scorpios, where wealth, social position, erudition, fame, exceptional capabilities and merits do not play any significant part. It thrives on the premise of ​aesthetic ethics – the shared emotional experiences that serve as the bedrock of community, reinforcing solidarity within the tribe and facilitating human-to-human interactions in the world outside of it. Puissance is a pure interpersonal impulse, which gently propels radical social change.

“Neither subversive, nor conformist, neotribalism is a holiday from routine life and the everyday self.”

Neotribalism postulates that society is essentially tribal. Evidence in support of this claim can be found in Sebastian Junger’s book ​Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.​ Junger relates stories of soldiers returning from the trenches to the tranquillity and comfort of their homes and finding one element missing – immaterial, yet vital. Its absence intensifies with explosive consequences: some soldiers commit suicide; others swiftly return to the mud and blood of the battlefield. It is not that they are mud and bloodthirsty. It is their tribe that is missing and their tribal nature is calling them back. Tribal life exerts an almost gravitational pull on us and one finds the centre of that gravity deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species.

Accounts of this tribal magnetism abound in the colonization of America. Benjamin Franklin lamented that early European settlers constantly deserted to join Indian tribes, emulating their way of life, worshiping their deities, fighting alongside them. Settlers defected in their thousands, while movement in the opposite direction (Indians decamping to settlers’ towns) hardly ever happened. Franklin lamented: “Though ransomed by their friends and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life... and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”

The rigidity of the individual self-image mellows out with the boundaries separating one from another dissolving into a mutual awareness that we are only links in the great chain of being, parts of the macrocosm in which everyone and everything have their perfect place. Photo: Members of the Qagyuhl tribe dance to reclaim an eclipsed moon; by Edward S. Curtis, circa 1910.

One French émigré named Hector de Crévecoeur tried his best to comprehend the allure of tribal life: “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.” Monsieur Crévecoeur was onto something about human nature. Although in many ways very different, neo-tribes share some fundamental characteristics with indigenous tribes. What glues such collectives together and makes them so robust is their size. Membership of a small community means all actions are open to scrutiny. Overly selfish, transgressive or downright destructive behavior is confronted, corrected or discouraged, with other members resorting to ridicule, shunning or expulsion from the tribe. In the rest of the world, one can get away with practically anything.

Traditional tribes are closed systems. You do not choose your tribal affiliation – you inherit it based on kinship and place of origin; both are the sources of your rights and obligations. Membership is not a matter of acquiring a certain identity, but the main condition for your physical survival – if you are rejected or expelled, you simply perish in the outer wilds of nature or doleful chambers of civilization.

Postmodern tribes, on the other hand, are characterized by fluid boundaries and drifting participation with no formalized membership criteria, grand agenda, or commitment to particular beliefs. A new tribe may have an external goal, but this purposefulness is not essential. Sociality for the sake of sociality is what gives neo-tribes their puissance, generating a powerful sense of immanent transcendence. Off-stage, off-centre, off-radar is where things really happen and where these things count most. Away ​is the habitat of neo-tribes. Neither subversive, nor conformist, neotribalism is a holiday from routine life and the everyday self – what the sociologist Antonio Melechi meant by ​the ecstasy of disappearance​.

“Everyone’s style contributes to the emotional palette of a tribe, whose sole raison d’être is losing oneself in the ecstasy of being-together.”

Hailing from Peru, Dengue Dengue Dengue combines native traditional rhythms with modern electronic sounds and tribal imagery, producing the audiovisual form which animates cumbia, a cheerful and highly expressive dance of no single pattern, so popular in all its variations throughout Latin America. Masks are an essential part of Dengue's image: “Wearing masks, we abandon our separate selves to become Dengue Dengue Dengue.” Photo by Hendrik Kussin, 2018, masks by Carol Almeida.

Neo-tribes are distinguished from other social groups by their fascination with style and image, by their celebration of multiplicity, difference and contrast. Fashion is a particularly strong indicator of this aestheticization of experience. In the neotribal paradigm, the question is not how fashion fosters individualism, but rather to what extent fashion facilitates the feeling of togetherness – how one’s style contributes to the emotional palette of a tribe, whose sole ​raison d’être​ is losing oneself in collective being.

Perhaps the most telling example of fashion calibrated for affective sociality is the door policy introduced by Steve Rubell at New York’s legendary nightclub, Studio 54. The unwritten dress code was intended to create a perfect blend of guests, essentially a tribe, for his nightly party. “It is like mixing a salad,” he once explained, “or casting a play.” Whether the guests were dressed festively, or were interesting personalities, or emitted good energy, or were known as good dancers, socialites, celebrities... Everyone in line was expected to bring something to the party, to enhance the overall theatricality of the ritual.

Neotribalism draws together various practices and movements – from Afro-Brazilian cults to New Age practices, from hacker hideouts to co-living communities, from temperance societies to swinger clubs, from eco-settlements to festival camps, from fan clubs to CoLab economic initiatives, clans, secret societies, bands, gangs, consumer groups ... Neotribalism is an expression of successive or overlapping feelings of belonging: “One is a member, one is accepted, one participates ... One is one of us.”

Primordial Harmony Collective, Union of Improbable Being, Golden Outcome Summit, League of Divine Brotherhood, Sorority of Inner Vastness, Mystic Solidarity Movement, Association of Reborn Daughters, Sanctuary for Globetrotting Vagabonds, Washable Tattoo Consortium, Generous Plea Alliance, Convoluted Void Convivium, Custom Conundrum Community ...

These names almost give you an idea what to do with your life, either as recreational engagements or even full-time professions. All these tribes are fictional – the names randomly generated online. But rest assured, for every fictitious “Abyssal Love Coalition” there is a “Family of Love” in the registry of public groups; for every “Temple of Transcendental Empathy” there is a “Union for the Enhancement of Mankind”; for every “Shrine of Concealed Immensity” there is an “Order of the Solar Temple.”

We live in the time of the tribes.

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