CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 0. Describing the Framework

13 July 2012

The intent of this series is ambitiously to address, section by section over the course of a year, the celebrated Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti. This is the second entry in the series.

The purpose of this post is to provide an introduction to a framework for encountering Canetti’s text[1]. It is expected this framework will evolve over the course of the series.  As a starting point, opening the book twice to a random paragraph, we can read:

No political structure of any size can dispense with order, and one of the fundamental applications of order is to time, for no communal human activity can take place without it. Indeed one might say that the regulation of time is the primary attribute of all government” (397, emphasis added).

It is unnecessary to point out that a crowd of spermatozoa cannot be the same as a crowd of people. But there is undoubtedly an analogy between the two phenomena, and perhaps more than an analogy (247).

I do not pretend that every sentence of a work must be worthy of its whole praise (as “revolutionary” or “breathtaking”, of Iris Murdoch’s or Susan Sontag’s admiration, as providing “dazzling insights and audacious intellectual leaps, some more convincing than others, [that] are startling, shocking–and maybe even true” or even “something brilliant but counterintuitive, and [left to] the reader to figure out both why he said it and whether it’s really true”)—the point here is merely to grab ahold of text not only to compare receptions of it but also to begin framing the framework for encountering it general.

The object here in any case is not yet to engage the specific content of the text, but only to point out qualities of the text, as it were. In the first paragraph above, the extreme generalization (i.e., “no communal human activity can take place without [the regulation of time]”[2]) easily invites contradiction. In the second paragraph, the text acknowledges the innecessity of its analogy in the first sentence, and then insists upon (and even reinforces) it in the next. A friendly reading might call this a reasonable acknowledgment on Canetti’s part; an unfriendly reading might call it duplicitous or a merely rhetorical move in the face of easily imaginable counter-evidence. Ultimately, the question of whether this analogy is apt (any imaginative analogy might be more or less apt) involves assessing the social consequences of it, and less any definitive or speculative analysis why Canetti resorted to this analogy—thus, it is not so much the reader’s task (as Canetti’s fans insist) to determine whether his observations are “really true,” but whether his description of phenomena is one that does desirable social work for us. In principle, this is not always easy. It takes precious little imagination to read mere reductiveness into Canetti’s notion that crowds consist of spermatozoa; the fact that this explicitly excludes female participation (as part of the social fabric) seems an important part of the analogy[3]. So, quite apart from whether it is “really true” that crowds can be analogized with seminal discharges, we can ask if we want to live in a social world where that is taken as true.

In attempting to assess the social desirability of the idea, it becomes tempting (and easy) to seek an explanation for why Canetti resorts to this analogy in his biography, but this misses the mark. To be sure, an artist (a writer) provides a vision of some sort, which is offered to the world (once a publisher decides it can and should be published). Whatever that vision purports, its social consequences may on the one hand be dismissed or defended (by fans or critics) as merely reflecting the idiosyncrasies of the writer. On this ground, Mein Kampf can be called simply the author’s personal vision—seemingly not much of an adequate or desirable stance, even if one isn’t willing to go so far as to insist that the book’s publication should be suppressed[4]. On the other hand, the argument runs that the use an author’s work is put to cannot be “blamed” on the book. In the world of music, this has been tested in court multiple times; Richard Ramirez blamed his murderous rampages on AC/DC’s Back in Black unsuccessfully. Similarly, certain kinds of outdatedness can wane an author’s fashion; Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice tends to be unproduceable these days (one wishes the same were true yet of Taming of the Shrew, but the backlash against sexism hasn’t reached such a proportion yet).

The dichotomy here is between the (positive or negative) value of a work as an individual’s self-expression as opposed to the (positive or negative) value of the work in terms of its social consequences. Thus, we can argue that Mein Kampf or Merchant of Venice:

  • should be published (and remain in the public/social eye) for the cautionary tale (about a society of people) that we can read from the works, often quite against the authors’ intentions;
  • should be suppressed (and shielded from the public/social eye) since in the balance their social harm is greater than whatever good they provide;
  • should be published because the social good can be reached only by the contribution of individuals (good or bad);
  • should be suppressed because certain individual contributions can only have a socially disintegrative effect;
  • should be published so that the existence of certain kinds of people are never lost sight of; this is the cautionary tale again but directed to the kind of person in society rather than the kind of society of people;
  • should be suppressed because certain kinds of people should not be allowed to have their works produced; more generally, self-expression (as opposed to social expression) is socially detrimental;
  • should be published because individual works are simply that, individual works (good or bad); how other individuals use that work is not the author’s fault or responsibility;
  • should be suppressed because certain kinds of individual expression seem inevitably to be put to use in socially negative ways (c.f., the notion that the limitation of individual liberty increases social freedom)

Jung provides an alternative to the either/or of “self” and “society” (and all that those terms imply and cover) when he writes,

As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation (Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, ¶241 f10)[5].

In one way, this may be taken as a restatement of “the social good can be reached only by the contribution of individuals” above, except that this accent remains still individualistic. Rather than the priority of “self” over “society” or vice versa, Jung may be taken as saying that we are already effectively collective and can only be “saved” from that collectivity by the process of individuation, which is contrary to the (current dominant) tenets of hyperindividualism.

On this view, we can neither reduce private action to an only personalistic interpretation (positively or negatively), particularly when expressed socially (e.g., as a published object) nor dismiss the uses of that social offering in merely personalistic terms either[6]. This means (against John Boswell’s exculpation of Christianity vis-à-vis social attitudes towards homosexuality) that the bible does in fact play a non-negligible role in the social reproduction of such homophobia. It means (against the NRA’s various forms of insistence) that guns cannot be deemed wholly innocent of gun deaths. It means in general (against the doxa of post Industrial Revolutionary social orders) that technology itself is not an innocent tool that is only ever variously used or misused by human beings. As Jung stresses when making a point about obtaining social influence (i.e., “magical prestige”), making a point so obvious that its implications seem easy to overlook,

One could easily assert that the impelling motive in this development [of the desire to obtain magical prestige or social influence] is the will to power. But that would be to forget that the building up of prestige is always a product of collective compromise: not only must there be one who wants prestige, there must also be a public seeking somebody on whom to confer prestige (Two Essays in Analytical Psychology, ¶239).

Thus, as against a one-side notion that “believers make liars,” there must also be those with the “will to power” of to promulgate a lie. And against the one-sided notion of an authoritarian personality, there must also be those with the “will to power” to found or enforce authoritarian states. On this view, the fruitlessness of the “self” or “society”  dichotomy becomes clearer: instead of (only) a Great man theory of history (self) or a sociology of the authoritarian personality (society), Jung underscores the dynamic, interactive dialogue that occurs between any given “will to power” (“self”) and the environment (“society” or “public”) where that will to power occurs. This would be a platitude—in fact, the matter-of-factness of Jung’s remark belies that he views this as a matter of course—were it not for the fact that discourse about these things (self or society) have and are still so divisively drawn.

Without covering this in further detail, my approach to Canetti’s text pays no attention to the “psychological” reasons for the works’ composition. What we have in our hands when we read Crowds and Power is not “Canetti’s vision” (at least not only); we also have whatever “social use” the publisher imagined for it. Whatever “merely autobiographical” elements inform Canetti’s book, those details are of interest only to people who want to understand the author, not the author’s work. Biography can be illuminating, of course, but it cannot be the justification or basis for a work’s value.

For example, we can psychologize till the cows come home why someone would write (how someone would come to arrive at writing) “It is unnecessary to point out that a crowd of spermatozoa cannot be the same as a crowd of people. But there is undoubtedly an analogy between the two phenomena, and perhaps more than an analogy” (247), but this would be non sequitur. We can revile or applaud Canetti on various grounds for such an observation, but what are the social consequences—that is what matters to me. What people pick up this thread of an idea and fly their (pessimistic) banner under it? It would be absurd to pretend Canetti’s work does not provide such an excuse—precisely because a socially offered work has consequences in general (both desirable and undesirable). It is absurd to pretend that the National Socialists in Germany did not put Wagner’s music and Nietzsche’s philosophy to a certain use. We might find that objectionable, but objectionableness does not negate the fact (except by killing or silencing those who make the point). That Sontag (on the book’s back cover) reports that “Canetti dissolves politics into pathology, treating society as a mental activity—a barbaric one, of course—that must be decoded” (emphasis added), we are in the presence of a definite kind of use that Canetti’s work has been put, as the reviews studied in the first post also make clear. And whatever salutary smart there might be in taking a view of social mental activity as “barbaric, of course,” the value of the individual’s observations on this point (both Sontag’s and, presumably, Canetti’s) are in light of and as part of the context of a publisher’s decision to add more brutality of interpretation to the social discourse, to include assertions that crowds are (male-only) hordes of sperm that have no object by to outpace everyone else (so they fail to reproduce and die), &c. Publishers, of course, have a vast array of justifications for such activity, but the most predominant one is selling books, of course[7]. To be more precise, to whatever extent prestige is desired by offering a work for sale, the money involved in the transaction never vanishes from the calculus of the transaction. And in that way, everything published may be implicated in the oppression of everyone. And pessimism is a great message for annihilating individual will to action.

So, whatever Canetti might have meant by offering Crowds and Power, an inextricable part of it at this point is its participation in collective oppression. Resisting that is this series’ main purpose.


[1] All quotations are from Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press. (paperback).

[2] The elemental objection here is that prior to any historical invention of means for the regulation of time (or in those current periods where such means of regulation have ceased to work or are unavailable), human communal activity nevertheless has and did manage to occur.

[3]Taking this paragraph independently, the absence of women from the vision is only partial. Except that Canetti further limits the analogy of crowd as wad of sperm-filled semen, then Woman (as the passive object of insemination by the victoriously fastest swimming sperm) is in fact “in the picture” in a significantly non-essential way. “Woman” may be the goal of the sperm-crowd in this case, but She does not participate, she waits—wits to be destroyed, overrun, penetrated by the winning sperm, &c. I suspect it would be few feminists who would see this male-only sperm-crowd as an implicit compliment of some sort to women, as if they do not participate in crowd movements. In general, the absence of women from crowd movements has less to do with an imputed moral superiority (that is above participating in such things). But even were that the case, this would smack altogether too much of the bourgeois fantasy of the separation of the spheres (the world and the domestic), where the figure of Woman (a reclaimed Eve) now is imputed the capacity to save the world by their higher moral nature as a domestic angel. J.M.S. Tompkins’ The Popular Novel in England: 1770–1800 and Kate Ferguson Ellis’ The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology ably expose and dismantle this idealize.

[4] There is something slightly surreal that one may go to “Adolf Hitler’s Amazon Page” at Amazon.com.

[5] This remark is Jung quoting himself from Psychological Types (¶758).

[6] For more details on this, see particularly see Krippendorff’s (2003) “Design of Cybernetics and Cybernetics of Design”.

[7] This is another perfect moment to point out the justness of Jung’s observation about the will to power. With respect to any number of cultural proffered products (books, violent video games, racist music) one frequently heard remark is, “We don’t make the markets; we just sell to them.” The immediate counter-argument is that by offering something for sale, this manufactures a market. So on the one hand, the publishers “blame” the (authoritarian personality of) society for buying the products; they are just the helpless dictator, pandering to the wants of the masses. On the other hand, critics accuse publishers of a will to power—the desire to increase profits, status, social access to resources, &c (particularly in light of corporate personhood). The cyclical resurgence of variations of these arguments points to a circumstance of pseudo-analysis. (A critic once remarked that whereas in science there may be revolutions from time to time, nevertheless there is also a generally consistent forward progress in terms of knowledge gained. By contrast, where pseudo-science prevails, one encounters recurrent resurgences of different sides of a dichotomous argument—as between child-centered or standards-centered education, as between cognitivism or behaviorism in psychology, &c. By analogy, I am suggesting that in those domains where one encounters again and again simply reassertions of the same old claims, albeit dressed up differently, then one is dealing with a pseudo-analytics that has the purpose, by design or by accident, of maintaining the status quo. As opposed to a circumstance where one makes some kind of progress in the deepening of an understanding, even when punctuated occasionally by epistemological revolutions.) So, whatever role we want to impute to a “public seeking [a publisher] on whom to confer prestige,” this does not let the publisher off the hook via various arguments that they are simply “selling to the crowd”.

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