CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 1. The Crowd (The Fear of Being Touched)

23 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[1]. This is the third entry in the series, and the first that addresses Canetti’s Part 1 (The Crowd), which begins:

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching toward him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through to the naked, smooth, defenceless flesh of the victim. ¶ All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear (15, emphasis in original).

My intention is not ever and always to reproduce the full text of Canetti’s book, but here, at the very outset of the text, some key points bear pointing out. With respect to the first sentence, for instance— “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown”—I can readily imagine how the rhetorical function of generalization here may serve (by accident or design) to attract (by an appearance or actuality of profundity, truth, insight; i.e., precisely that kind of generalization Canetti is said to drop in the reader’s lap, leaving him or her to decide if it is true or not) or to repulse (by an appearance or actuality of crassness, inaccuracy, short-sightedness, that has the further consequence of eliminating that reader as a reader; i.e., the reader is nonplussed by the stupidity of the book and tosses it aside).

The significance of this kind of generalization, then,  is not whether or not it might be true (or in what way it could be true) but rather to self-select the desired reader of the text (and eliminate the undesired reader). This may be deliberate or merely consequential. For it is obvious enough that one could, with equal seeming veracity, insist that there is nothing that man desires more than the touch of the unknown; or even deeper still, that whether a man fears or desires the touch of the unknown, these are but two sides of the same coin. What I notice, then, is not merely how this lends itself to becoming a shameless and unreflective preaching to the converted (e.g., the self-avowed cynic from examined in the first post in this series), but how it more or less ensures that those who most stand to lose from the promotion of this point of view in society will tend to feel irked or disinvited or impelled to opt out of listening to, and so participating in, this dialogue.

What is most charming (or insidious) about this is how it effectively shifts blame onto the reader for “abandoning” the discussion. Canetti (or arguments in the same form he presents) is simply making a point; it’s your fault for not hearing him out. But this is an inaccurate statement. This kind of generalization, perhaps even in its unintentional forms, precludes countervailing dialogue—except that someone (psychologically quoting Aloysha from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov) simply says, “That can’t be so,” which (by definition) hardly counts as a dialogue. Imagine a monotheist (judeochristian or islamic) and an atheist having a conversation—the monotheist begins with the usual salvo, presuming that some kind of singular deity exists, &c. The atheist might be a good sport and go along with this dubious (or, from the atheist’s point of view, false) thesis, in order to demonstrate the internal fallacies of the monotheist’s arguments, but from the atheist’s point of view, the entire endeavor is masturbatory at best. Or perhaps one is trying to converse with a eugenicist, who wants to begin with the premise that Africans, or Jews, or Arabs, or Greeks, or any other so-called race of people is inferior to another. Or one can be in the presence of an (unintentionally ignorant) educator who, not knowing the history of eugenics lurking in the background of both IQ and standardized testing, wants to discuss the necessity of standardized testing.

The point here is that the premise of the would-be dialogue is fucked up. I’m not describing or advocating some blanket refusal to engage in dialogue—that seems more to have been the strategy of the Right particularly aggressively since 9/11 in the US—but rather to note that certain premises, from the outset, are not socially tenable. The inferiority of “other races” is not a conversation anyone should have to take seriously—although there are obviously enormous socioeconomic forces at work to dignify this overt and covert bigotry. The non-ambiguity of this particular example makes it seem inapposite when applied to the premise “a monotheist god exists” but in fact very few people actually want to live under a theocracy in the US. Putting this point in a generalized way, the question is whether the premise under examination and the consequences of it predominating are desirable—which naturally demands we also get down to the brass tacks of determining our criteria for what constitutes desirability in society, but that is for other essays. Meanwhile, are the premises of IQ and standardized testing desirable in our culture? Is the premise of inferior races desirable in our culture? Is the premise of intolerant monotheism desirable in our culture? Is the premise that only an elite cadre of powerbrokers should be permitted access to answering these questions desirable?

Or, in a theoretically more modest guise, is the premise that man fears nothing more than the touch of the unknown desirable in our culture? For the purpose of this series, one has to at least allow that perhaps Canetti answers “yes.”

I want to remind any readers, I’m not interested in psychologizing about Canetti’s reasons for writing what he wrote. And in general, I intend to make myself deliberately blind to “other texts” and whatnot that might add or detract from the specific meaning of this text. So the discursion below will be rare, and is included solely for the help of contextualizing what we encounter here at the very outset of Canetti’s book. Specifically, in Auto-da-Fé (1935), Canetti’s protagonist notes, “You draw closer to truth by shutting yourself off from mankind” (15).

No mind ever grew fat on a diet of novels. The pleasure which they occasionally offer is all too heavily paid for: they undermine the finest characters. They teach us to think ourselves into other men’s places. Thus we acquire a taste for change. The personality becomes dissolved in pleasing figments of imagination. The reader learns to understand every point of view. Willingly he yields himself to the pursuit of other people’s goals and loses sight of his own. Novels are so many wedges which the novelist, an actor with his pen, inserts into the closed personality of the reader. The better he calculates the size of the wedge and the strength of the resistance, so much the more completely does he crack open the personality of his victim. ¶ Novels should be prohibited by the State.

It is no challenge to place an “=” between the ostensibly literary “You draw closer to truth by shutting yourself off from mankind” (Auto-da-Fé, 15) and the seemingly non-ironic, non-literary (i.e., discursive) “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown” (Crowds and Power, 15).  Nor is it any great leap here to read out of this a neurotic phobia of contact—this has absolutely nothing to do with whatever good or poor reasons Canetti felt, believed, or thought he had for generalizing his experience or his observations of the world and everything to do with whether we should assent to that generalization. This is extra-factual, since Canetti is quite dead and it is a particular variety of social discourse (and publisher book sales) that keep this assertion in social circulation. And if it is true that man fears nothing more than the touch of the unknown, then one arguable consequence of this is we are condemned to the status quo, since we (or, more precisely, our handlers in the domain of the social) must then (1) go out of our way to avoid anything genuinely new as an alternative to the current untenable present, and (2) whatever “unknown” (or new) does come along will be treated in the mode of fear, rather than excitement, &c. In this way, Canetti’s text (by no means the only input to this problem) reinforces the walls of the oppressive labyrinth in which we current find ourselves (even those who think they are most free).

With the first four paragraphs (of the section titled The Fear of Being Touched), assertions point to how the fear of being touched manifest. In public, our repugnance in being touched can be overcome if we are attracted to someone—so already a covert eros comes to the fore in the argument. What becomes immediately clear is that it is not the touch of the unknown, after all, but apparently the touch of the altogether too imaginable that Canetti’s text describes. He points to the “promptness of apology” we offer if we bump into someone on the street. If such contact is already eroticized, then the repugnance has something of a rational base—a man brushing against me amounts to solicitation in this context. But, at the risk of seeming cheeky, such touchiness of interpretation does not align with our reasons for offering an apology. It is not merely a fantasy or piece of sublimation that one is sorry for colliding with another; it is not at all, everywhere and always the case, that such apologies are offered to avoid getting into an argument or physical altercation with someone.

What I feel must be resisted in the tendency here to want to insist on a singular explanation for things. Berlin in Russian Thinkers has written an extensive essay (and Aileen Kelly’s introductory remarks beautifully formulate) that explores why pluralism (as opposed to monism) remains so difficult for human (or at least Western) cultures. It seems to hinge less on a claimed exclusivity of truth per se and more on the social enforcement of that exclusivity—and the 20th century (to say nothing of other eras, including the present) continue to bear witness to the conflagrations that result.

But in the present case, it is not only an insistence on a single meaning (to the apology offered for bumping into someone), but the particularly grossly reductive quality of this explanation.

The promptness with which apology is offered for an unintentional contact, the tension with which it is awaited, our violent and sometimes even physical reaction when it is not forthcoming,, the antipathy and hatred we feel for the offender, even when we cannot be certain who it is—the whole knot of shifting and intensely sensitive reactions to an alien touch—proves that we are dealing here with a human propensity as deep-seated as it is alert and insidious; something which never leaves a man when he has once established the boundaries of his personality (15).

It won’t be stretching things to say this is stretching things, and it becomes child’s-play to see the temptation to resort to cheap psychologizing here. But again, if Canetti is merely neurotic, then why publish the book in several editions. I say, not because these words are “maybe even true,” but because they help to bulwark the status quo in a way that paralyzes resistance to the status quo.

A person might apologize out of a genuine sense of remorse for the collision; they might apologize out of a desire to avoid violence from giving someone offense; they may apologize out of a sense of something deep-seated and alert, &c. Nor must we reduce these three reasons to the “root” one (the deep-seated antipathy, &c). One can say—and any number of grumpy social critics, including Canetti—can insist that the polite gesture of remorse is nothing but a sublimated or well-trained (civilized) avoidance for the older (say, Renaissance-era) punctiliousness about one’s reputation. But we needn’t only go back in time for these things. In prisons, one may often need to be careful about who one jostles, because it is a matter of face, of reputation. Inmates may frequently, and with good cause, be touchy and sensitive to any possible gesture by another to “make him look like a punk”—as someone who can be jostled. Not paying attention to these things can have dire consequences; more pertinently, that the inmate can imagine they may (sooner or later) have dire consequences further drives their touchiness about being jostled.

The reality of this points not to its generality, but rather its social specificity. In other domains, the threat of violence or the consequences of jostling are either not in play or do not rise to the level of social significance. If someone in a general social situation is so inept as to run into me, there is less at stakes in terms of my reputation—it may be I nearly spilled my coffee, my sentence was interrupted, I experience some small pain somewhere. As with an inept display of driving, my reaction is a negative judgment about the competency of the other person—nothing like hatred ever enters into it. Only with a second, third, or fourth repetition of the same “clumsy” gesture would I begin to suspect that someone was fucking with me deliberately.

So, to be more precise, we might imagine that someone jostled will respond in whatever way they respond, and perhaps the range of those responses might be grouped into classes of response. Even in prisons, not everyone will or needs to be touchy about reputation—a simple, “Sorry, wood,” might do, &c. In any number of neighborhoods around the world (i.e., outside of prisons), face-saving is close on the cuff of jostling, &c. And in other locales, an aversion to contact may make it seem like the root of touchiness in general. So, what makes untenable the attempt to reduce a promptness of apology to something like “a human propensity as deep-seated as it is alert and insidious” is the failure of this premise to account for lived-experience. Like any other monistic explanation, it applies where it applies, and distorts when it is misapplied where it does not apply. Jung makes the same point bout the misapplication of Freudian and Adlerian psychologies (both of them monistic systems) where they do not apply.

Ultimately, all monistic gestures negate significance. They leave us without choices (except to rebel); they deny alternatives (and thus prove reactionary and supportive of the status quo).

Monistic framings of problems led to monistic (one-sided) solutions. Thus, as man fears nothing more than the touch of the unknown, it “is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched” (15).

It needs to be said. There may seem to be an article of bad faith in “picking on” Canetti’s text for its generalizing words (i.e., the “only” of “is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched”). However, notwithstanding that an author may be held responsible for what is written, the dominant note in the text are precisely these kinds of continuous overstatements. It seems to be a piece of particularly wooden-heated ignorance to start with the generalization “there is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown” when a moment’s reflection suggests the alternative “there is nothing that a human fears more than what she or he most fears”. And if that seems a tautology, one may recall von Foerster’s quip that he would demonstrate just how much work one could do with a tautology. (One could invoke Wittgenstein too, but I’d sooner not.)  In the marvelous The Naked Civil Servant, the following dialogue (recomposed from memory) occurs:

                Woman to Quentin Crisp: “Oh Quentin, I love you.”

                Quentin to Woman: “Oh, but I’m afraid I only love men.”

                Woman (laughing) to Quentin: “That doesn’t matter.”

                Quentin to Woman: “It matters to those for whom it matters.”

The insistence that there can only be one explanation (the Truth) and all the rest doesn’t matter is a fine piece of propaganda for damning people to oppression. At a minimum, Jung was able to imagine at least 8 classes of viewpoints; the Jainists acknowledge that all truth is partial, so let’s not fight about it (and that truth manifests, in its partial forms, in seven ways). And do I really have to say, “It’s not that Jung or the Jainists are right and everyone else is wrong?” It is, rather, that empirical observation of lived-experience itself makes obvious that multiple classes of viewpoints are identifiable in culture and that oppression results from the (usually violent) imposition of one of those views to the detriment of all others.

So even if Canetti’s text could be excused these overstatements on the grounds that he doesn’t, in some way, really mean them as generalizations, their social use does not add to a cultural discourse where classes of points of view resist extirpating, silencing, or slandering other points of view.

Of necessity, this means (for this series) attempting to bracket the class of Truth embodied in the text. In the crowd, for instance, a person becomes identified with everyone else; it brings about “the reversal of the fear of being touched …. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest” (16). The euphoria (or relief) that is being expressed here is not consonant with the cynicism marked by the Amazon reviewer.  That reviewer insists that Canetti’s text provides “a powerful and plausible view of life that you’re going to have to put out of your mind the next time you find yourself at a party, in the office, or in a crowded theater—well, really anywhere you find yourself confronted with other people. You see, they all have one driving passion: to survive you.” Whatever else the text might claim elsewhere, here there is seemingly solace (relief) to be found, and maximally, in the maximally condensed crowd. There is precisely no question of individual survival here, as all have become one, as it were—and the next few sections will suggest that in fact it is the crowd that wishes to survive, not anyone in it. Thus, while the affect of antipathy and hatred the text survives may seem to be a similar basis for the misanthropy the Amazon reviewer boasts of, it seems rather that the two points of view do not, actually, share the same truth-class.

But stepping back from this, it can be further noted—again by the least moment of reflection—that even those who long for the touch of the unknown do not ever and always call forth one’s surrendering to the crowd. Because the text’s generalizations are so overstated, it frequently suffices that merely one counter-example is enough to dissolve them. One can easily imagine the person who, swamped by a crowd, has no desire but to get the hell out of there and, at the very least, to the fringe—or one can have the vision of the bookworm, holding his books to his chest in a kind of apotropaion as people surge around him; or conversely the inspired punk, smashing about in the mosh pit with a liberated sense of freedom (if not literal ecstasy from the music), not at all subsumed into the crowd but exalted above it (perhaps even literally crowd surfing). Once again, the monism of Canetti’s text is distinctly fascistic.

What is striking in this section—the opening section—is its exaggerated one-sidedness. On the one hand is an absurd overstatement of revulsion at being touched followed by an absurdly limited reaction to being in crowds. One could talk about denial and repression here as a way to get at how the text could emerge like this—that in all of the touchiness of the repugnance and antipathy was really just the stone-faced or stoic denial of a more motive, inward desire to be touched, even crushed, as closely as possible to other people—a description familiar to the Underground Man, who for all of his sickness and spite confesses if you just give him a cookie and a pat on the head he’ll collapse in a jelly-heap of gratitude and sweetness.

This oscillation may clarify itself further along in the text. For now, in this, the text’s opening section, the fundamental point seemingly striven at is that the violations of one’s boundaries (as a personality) that occur in day-to-day interactions are relieved in the boundary-dissolving press of the crowd. The text gives the impression that it is in the crowd that relief occurs, so I’m inclined to read the “hatred and antipathy and repugnance” of the fear of being touched not necessarily as a positive statement (as one of the centers of this truth-class) but in a negative light, as the undesirable condition that (unfortunately) prevails typically outside the domain of a crowd.

It may be that such a description accords with your experience; it is the fact of the inaptness of that for other people’s experiences that I am writing to challenge the monism of this view—not to extinguish your view or experience. It is possible that Canetti’s description is ironic, in which case the truth-class he’s describing may be salvaged from the irony by removing the scum of distaste, repugnance, or irony. Or it may be that Canetti is ambivalent about his subject, in which case it becomes necessary to carefully sort out the contradictions in an attempt to find the statistical center from which the text “really” operates. Whatever nuances may come out of this, the vulgarization of those nuances that take Canetti’s text as a cool well at which to refresh one’s cynicism are immune to such niceties; the use of the text to support the premise that we should hate our neighbors grounds the center from which I’m operating and resisting.

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

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