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

27 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 fourth entry in the series and the second addressing Part 1 (The Crowd), which Canetti breaks up into several sections. Rereading my other post about this particular section (The Fear of Being Touched), I realized I did little to offer an alternative to the generalizations Canetti seems to be insisting upon. This post addresses that.

Canetti begins[2]:

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).

A claim made by Canetti advocates is his tendency to drop things in a reader’s lap and leave them to decide whether they are true or not. On principle, I oppose both this explanation and method, to the extent that it describes Canetti’s book. I oppose this on principle because the idea that an author is (or can be) neutral is untenable.  Barabash (1977)[3] cites from Thomas Mann’s Reflections of An Apolitical Man,

a title which speaks for itself, to a recognition that “being apolitical is nothing less than being simple anti-democratic”, that “when culture rejects politics, the result is error and self-delusion; it is impossible to withdraw from politics in this fashion—one only ends up in the wrong camp”. Recalling how at one time, “in the name of culture and even freedom I resisted with all my strength what I called ‘democracy’, meaning the poiticisation of spiritual life”, Thomas Mann says that life taught him, and many like him, a terrible convincing lesson, graphically revealing the shameful ties between the apolitical aesthetic German burgher spirit and the most extreme forms of political terror, barbarism and totalitarianism. … We should recall these lessons more often. For the bourgeoisie today continues to increase and perfect its ability to play on notorious “anti-political” tendencies, and the danger of ending up in the camp of reactionaries may threaten the artist and intellectual who does not want to take any sides (15–6).

So it is not possible to “drop something in a reader’s lap” without an authorial point of view being implicated; such apolitical gestures must be understood as fundamentally reactionary. This fact brings out how reviewers at Amazon can turn Canetti’s work to the end of a kind of cynicism that resembles Schopenhauer’s:

The turning points of history reveal the true price of imaginary apoliticism with utmost clarity, as Mann convincingly demonstrates when he cites the example of Arthur Schopenhauer, “Nietzsche’s predecessor in the area of anti-intellectualism”. This scholar and philosopher, who declared that politics was philistinism, in 1948 called the revolutionary people “all-powerful scum” and “demonstratively proffered his opera-glasses to the officer who stood at the windows of his flat carrying out reconnaissance of the barricades so that it would be easier to direct fire against the insurrectionists”. “Is that what it means to be above politics?” the writer exclaims (16)[4].

Second, where an author seems to be indulging in this habit (of dropping something in the reader’s lap without any particular point of view expressed), it only seems that way because insufficient attention has been paid to the discourse of the work generally. For example, the observation dropped in a reader’s lap that Canetti begins his book with (“There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown”) is easily attached to an entire network of ideas that ground the statement in an imputable world-view or truth-class[5]. The idea that it is up to you to decide what something means, and that the author is merely an innocent reporter of these things, readily connects to the late-order capitalist/postmodern milieu that Barabash bashes.

But, saying this, what kind of engagement can come from confronting Canetti’s excessive generalization. How can I make sense of the notion that what I fear most is the touch of the unknown, &c?

A key move I have to do to “get onboard” with this is wrangle over the term “unknown”. If I am sitting in my study, and I suddenly feel something creepy-crawly on my leg or arm, I may tend to flinch violently; at a minimum, I will try to figure out what it is; I may try to bat it off. I think the strength of response may partly depend less upon the unknowability of the sensation and more the degree to which I am “violently” pulled away from whatever was engaging my attention. But it’s not necessary to insist upon this. The thing is: in the presence of such unexpected sensations, while I do most typically react in such a way so that I can identify (or see) what it is, it is not because the sensation originates from something “unknown”; rather, my life experience provides me with a wealth of things that it might be, including spiders or (potentially) other venomous insects, etc. My violent reaction (when it is violent) is not due to the thing being “unknown”—rather, it’s because it may be altogether too imaginable. The justness can be seen in flipping the circumstance around: if I am blindfolded, and my mate is going to lightly caress me with a feather, then the anticipation of that sensation and the very fact that I would put myself in such a “vulnerable” position shows that I am responding not to the unknown, but to the (in this case) pleasurably imaginable.

So if Canetti’s use of “unknown” may have some sense, then it is by understanding unknown in a strictly subjective way, as “something currently not understood by me.” This is where Canetti’s generalization loses traction, less because “unknown” transforms merely into “what I’ve not experienced before” (or something like it), but in the insistence that an encounter with this must be fearful. Self-evidently, if something imaginably repugnant touches me, I will react with repugnance, and if something imaginably pleasant touches me, I will react with pleasure, ceteris paribus. There is in all of this a remarkably limited view of the unknown, insofar as here it boils down (in all human individuals as system) as only those things not hitherto experienced (or, slightly more precisely, as any sensation that can be construed correctly or incorrectly in an either repugnant or pleasurable sense).

It is a false dichotomy to imagine that everything must be either repugnant (fearful) or pleasurable (attractive). It is, of course, child’s play to cram every human experience into the Procrustean bed of “love” or “fear” but this hyperbinary (by which I mean a dichotomy that is meant as an overarching simplification) does not actually get us anywhere analytically in the final analysis, particularly because it cannot make sense of how we are sometimes attracted to what we fear and fearful of what we love. Like all mere binaries (particularly one’s rooted in a false opposition, like this one), it is at least minimally necessary to expand the range of categories understood by the binary. Thus:



Attraction Love Fascination
Repulsion Loathing Fear

These proposed terms can only be considered connotative, not denotative. If “love” and “fear” may be taken as obvious (a perilous assumption, to be sure), “fascination” (I considered “abnegation” also) points to those qualities that appeal to us despite our desire otherwise. Similarly, “loathing” points to those occasions where we “know it is good for us” and yet we want nothing but to negate, destroy, be done with it. These affects are perhaps most familiar with the sexual arena, where fascination may lure us (not again!) into yet another horrible relationship with a person we know is no good for us, while loathing may drive us to betray, break, or call quits with someone who otherwise seems to be perfectly suitable as a mate, spouse, &c. Minimally, then, we may see that the hyperbinary love/fear (and its expansion above) points to at least four more salient explanatory terms that “get more work done” and explain more empirically lived human experience.

The disservice done to the concept of the “unknown” here involves its misprision as something knowable (to me) in the first place. If we take the unknown seriously, as for example Lem takes seriously the notion of what constitutes the alien (particularly in his Fiasco and His Master’s Voice, but also indirectly in his presentation of robots in Return from the Stars), then it is not possible for me to fear it, or have any affective response to it whatsoever. Following that distinction I picked up from somewhere, fear requires an object; anxiety does not. This makes “fear of the unknown” to be rather “the experience of fear (or some other affect) in the presence of something as yet still unknown”. So, ignoring these various more solid groundings, what Canetti’s sentence seems more to point to is: “man dislikes nothing more than unwelcome intrusions.” He wants to see what intrusions are on their way into his orbit and be able to decide in advance to accept or decline the visitor. The fact that Canetti’s mind turns to the example of a robber in one’s house points to this.

With respect to, “In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic,” we remain in the domain of anxiety, not fear. Women will tell us another story, but men may walk blithely down a dark alley or into a silent wood with an easy heart, so that it is only by the presence of a sensation (either in the environment or in one’s imagination)—a sound, a shadow, a fleeting thought, “here there be dragons”—that ease will turn to anxiety as we objectlessly imagine the altogether too imaginable sources for that sound, shadow, or rationale for the thought. But again, there are people for whom this would be positively exhilarating, loathsome, or fascinating, &c. gain, fear takes an object and, in general, is a wholly rational and sensible response to actually present dangers. The maniac brandishing a knife in the alley, the wild animal rearing up in the forest—these are sources of fear, so there is no question of these touches being “unknown”; quite the opposite, they are altogether too clear. It is certainly true that “in the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic,” but this is by (anxiously or dreadfully) imagining touches (like a murderer’s hand over our mouth) that are already known.

When Canetti insists “man wants to see what is reaching toward him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it,” he is emphasizing the disjunction between the “unknown” and the “imaginable” that undercuts what he is writing. By definition, one can only misrecognize or misclassify the unknown, if it is noticed at all. . We do however have one category for misrecognizing something, while still trying to maintain its character as unknown: the “unknown”. It is likely this is really only “the unfamiliar” but nevertheless, one can take an attitude toward “the alien” the “numinous” or “the unknown” and label it as such. As meaning-making entities, we can never not “see” what is reaching toward us; our reflecting consciousness can never avoid (except by death, perhaps coma, or derangement so severe that the reflecting person disappears from consciousness) making sense of some kind of what we sense.

So again, it is less “the touch of the unknown” and more “the presence of unwelcome intrusions”. The adjective “unwelcome” is key here, and literally unlocks what Canetti seems to be getting at, because if the presence has not already been constructed in such a way that it is unwelcome, then one would either not notice the intrusion at all (even in a numinous sense) or wouldn’t fear (the presence of) it. This requires some kind of construction or identification of the intrusion (a priori even), so it is not a question of being unknown.  The descriptor, rather, is that it is unidentified, and (because it is unidentified) may default to unwelcome—at least in those cases where intrusion is not desired. Canetti is candid enough when he admits the jostle of someone attractive is another thing altogether.

So it is not that man “wants to see what is reaching for him”; rather, we each will see what is reaching for us, no matter where we direct our gaze. We may overlook one thing by looking away, but our gaze will then be met by whatever reaches from where we look, and even if we squint our eyes shut, then darkness, inner images, or ectopic phenomenon will reach for us. We can negate the significance of anything our gaze falls upon as well, but we can only do so because we have already been “imposed upon” by sensing—our freedom is (at least in potential) in what sense we make of what we sense, but we are not free to determine or deny that we sense. As self-aware beings, I suspect that this is an existential human need on par with eating, drinking, sleeping, etc.

“Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange.” Even in the context of Canetti’s paragraph, this is an ambivalent remark, signaled especially in the “always tends”—a generalization and subjunctive hedging all at once. That is, one can only “tend”; to “always tend” belies a (justly) vacillating mind, I say. Canetti knows (perhaps even in himself) that man does not “always avoid physical contact with anything strange”. I submit that that was probably the original of the sentence (“man always avoids contact with anything strange”), but this overtaxed even Canetti’s capacity for overgeneralization, and so (perhaps all at once, perhaps gradually in several revisions) the words “tends” and “physical” were added—he’d lost his nerve a bit after “There is nothing man fears more than the touch of the unknown.”

Let’s allow this could be a fault of the translator or maybe even the translator herself losing her nerve in the face of the text’s overgeneralizations. If it is not already clear, let it be clear now and henceforth: when I say “Canetti” I cannot mean the once-living existential being who is imputed to have authored this text; I can mean only whatever sense I make of what seems to be evident through that text, not for the purpose of defaming the author, but for addressing the text. Second, lovers of Canetti might defend some point or sense in the original; one can say that the translator did a hack job here or there, and so forth. Be that all as it may, the myth that there is some “correct” text out there in lieu of this one solves nothing; there are, at most, only alternative texts and critical opinion and fashion may place the tiara on this one or that one. Meanwhile, the publishers of both texts will continue to publish their texts, and the sense derivable in either will continue to be inputs to people’s thinking about these matters.

So I propose the thesis that the original of “Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange” was ““Man always avoids contact with anything strange” in order to better understand the text, to better get at the underpinnings that Canetti is laying out. For example, by allowing that “man always tends to avoid,” there is the acknowledgment in that that man sometimes tends not to avoid anything strange. We already have Canetti’s candor about attractive people, but I have pointed out above how the fear/love hyperbinary ignores cases of fascination (as attraction to things that are repugnant).[6] That is, the text’s admissions of an “always tends” may be pointing precisely at cases of fascination.

What does the word “physical” (“physical contact with anything strange”) add then? On the face of it, this opens the door to man sometimes tending not to avoid spiritual or emotional contact with anything strange. It also places a particular emphasis on somatic repugnance that ties in with the jostling of bodies Canetti  generally dwells upon in this section. It is difficult to ignore how this attaches to the protagonist of Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé, who walled himself in with books and wound up in a disastrous apocalypse by pursuing a physical liaison with a fascinating/repugnant woman (that is the book’s description of her, not mine). As Canetti uses the (hand-like) phrase “reaching toward” to describe the unknown, here particularly the sense is (in this “physical contact with anything strange”) one’s hand reaching out to touch that something strange.[7] But also, if one avoids physical contact with anything strange, an inference (perhaps necessary if not yet sufficient) is that one could also both (1) seek physical contact with anything familiar (love, in hyperbinary terms) and also (2) avoid physical contact with anything familiar (loathing).

So we have once again another expanded hyperbinary: familiar, strange, strangely familiar, and familiarly strange.

The switch from “unknown” to “strange” signals, I will say, the commitment “at work” in Canetti’s text. The strange is definitively not the unknown, though it’s easy enough to elide them.  The unknown is something unknown; the strange is something carrying markers explicitly other than my experience. The latter, if I take the notion seriously, offers me no category into which I may place it; the latter distinguishes itself as not a member of any category I already know. The former demands a kind of paradigm shift in my thinking to accommodate it—if I don’t simply misinterpret it into an available category; the latter requires me to make room in my existing thinking for this difference—if I don’t simply deny it presence in my thinking )or social world). One can liken these to the descriptions of adaptation prevalent in Piagetian cognitive psychology: assimilation and adaptation. In the case of assimilation (parallel here to the “strange”), complex but relative familiar or unfamiliar objects or experiences are simplified to fit preexisting categories in one’s experience and thinking. In the case of adaptation (parallel here to the “unknown”), the structure of one’s cognition must alter in order to fit the realities of objects or experiences.

Thus, this substitution of “strange” for “unknown” is not an innocent move at all, but this is evident socially as well.  If I encounter a human being who in manner, language, and appearance is essentially unknown to me, I can attempt to adjust my categories of “what is human” in light of my new experience or I can misinterpret all of the differences that I am noting as being essentially “the same” as what I already understand. Reactionary notions of “race-blindness” fit into this pattern, for obviously negative social ends.  By contrast, if I encounter this same human being, I can construe them as strange and attempt to incorporate their apparent similarities vis-à-vis “what is human” into my preexisting categories or I can work myself up into xenophobic reaction to that strangeness. The issue here is less how I might react and the fact that these two basic categories of reaction are endemic and familiar enough. And since assimilation and accommodation itself may be construed as a hyperbinary, one may see also the two categories of an assimilation of accommodation (i.e.,. the Devil’s Cultural bargain of assimilation in general; the reduction of all human difference into the main category of dominating hegemony) or the accommodation of assimilation (i.e., the exoticisation of the Other, as in Orientalism, the Noble Savage, and the like).

These larger social issues notwithstanding, here the elision in the text from “unknown” to “strange”[8] is actually a crucial moment. In the “problematic” versions of accommodation and assimilation: (1) if accommodation implies adjusting to the given object or experience, then the familiar differences that objects or experiences present become the focus of attention with an aim to incorporating them into thinking; and (2) where assimilation implies the adjusting of the given object or experience, then the unfamiliar similarities that the object or experience become the basis of strangeness (and xenophobia). These versions are problematic because the former “misses” the actual nature of the object or experience while the latter denies the existence of the object or experience. The apparent familiarity of the former allows us to misconstrue it (albeit in a “friendly”) way as recognizable, while the apparently unfamiliar similarities of the latter allow us to misconstrue it (unfortunately in an “unfriendly”) way as strange—as “not recognizable” as something, actually that society “cannot recognize”. The dangers of the former include paternalism, Orientalism, &c; the dangers of the latter include marginalization, ostracizing, and genocide. Just to finish the thought, the “unproblematic” versions of accommodation and assimilation might be termed “learning” and “wisdom” respectively.

For brevity, I am going to refer to the “unknown” as synonymous with problematic accommodation (the “friendly” construing of apparently familiar differences) and “strange” as synonymous with problematic assimilation (the “unfriendly” construing of apparently unfamiliar similarities). Socially, the way that calling someone or a people “strange” (as socially not recognizable) leads to marginalization, ostracizing, genocide, &c., is clear enough as a social negative. The opposite insistence of someone or a people as “unknown” may be less immediately obvious as a problem, even after mentioning Orientalism, &c. It is salient how gay activism shifted from the early-80s from the claim “we are everywhere” to the current demand for marriage, which is simply the assimilationist demand (or claim), “we are you.” Any number of critiques of gay marriage precisely on this ground are offered by activists on behalf of non-heteronormative values. I suggest that this is a shift from a sense of being perceived by US culture as “strange” to being perceived as “unknown”. (There are, of course, any number of self-elected pundits who continue to use the dominant club of “strange” to brow beat community people who are nonheterosexually identified.)  If in the 80s (and earlier) the equation of pedophilia and homosexuality was widespread enough to require answering,[9] the current laudable desire for necessary legal recognition of people who are not heterosexually identified is precisely a kind of “different but equal” discourse. Note the “inevitable” appearance of the word “recognition” there, because what is at stake (in terms of the descriptive social discourse about the issue) is precisely the shift from the not-recognizable reality of “homosexuality” in the past as opposed to the (now possible) recognition of “homosexuality” currently. The worried critique of this is that this recognition comes only at the price of the Devil’s bargain of cultural assimilation.

I pick this example because it’s more politically stomachable. Where the designation of someone or a people as “unknown” really shows its teeth is in how people discourse about (particularly not physically present) Others (i.e., in the Middle east, in Africa, in Asia). The emphasis here is on the “friendliness” of the discourse. Under the discourse of “strange” one can denounce lesbians, Jews, and immigrants within one’s culture as destroying it; that at least was who Juvenal blamed some 1800 years ago, showing that the list of usual suspects hasn’t changed much. But when it comes to colonizing, it is as useful to construe people as “unknown” as “strange” (i.e., Terrorists, “out to destroy our way of life”). LGBT activists (if it’s correct to call them that) in the Middle East have asked that the “help” offered by the Gay international cease, for the various problems it introduces. (This is not everywhere the case of course.) But one can tease out all kinds of problematics from these “friendly” insistences on “unknown”. Domestically, the fascination with (i.e., the cultural construction of) Black penises and octoroon mistresses is emblematic of this. Our enthusiasm for the Arab Spring is, of course, predicated on the paternalism of finally “enabling democracy” (amongst ungovernable Arab tribes). &c.

So I am not ignoring at all the problem of the “unknown”. If the bloodshed and violence in the Soviet Union was predicated (in part) on a class distinction that made non-proletarians “strange,” then the bloodbaths, disappearances, and widespread social destruction that occurred in South America[10] through neoliberalism proceeded (again, at least in part) by that same conceit that we now see in the Middle East as “exporting freedom.”  In this sense, both “the unknown” and “the strange”  can equally have devastating social consequences.

Only because Canetti himself shifts to the use of “strange” will I emphasize then the importance of resisting the desire to make repugnant the unfamiliar. Here, I am no longer using “unknown” or “strange” in the way I just did. Canetti’s shift from “unknown” to “strange” discloses (I claim) the actual foundation from which Canetti’s argument proceeds. Only indirectly, if ever (so far), would he have meant “unknown” in the (problematic) sense I mentioned. His emphasis of “physical contact” (the avoidance of “sticking your hands in something”) is emblematic. That he would shift the “unknown” (in an unproblematic sense) to the “strange” belies the recreation of tendencies toward marginalization, ostracizing, and genocide, and it is for that reason that I am particularly emphasizing resistance to that.

This emphasis on “physical contact” helps to illuminate Canetti’s “solution” to the fear of touch: the press of the crowd. The absent part of the equation here is, precisely, that such contact is “welcome”. Someone who is in a crowd and stays in a crowd (as Canetti describes it) self-evidently “welcomes” that presence, whether because it is finally a welcome touch (of the unknown or the known), because an unbearable prison of self is finally paroled into the mass-mind of the crowd, or whatnot. Just as in the mosh pit, all of the hard physical jostling and smashing together is, precisely, a “welcome intrusion” (in fact, an even specifically sought one). In part, this is precisely based on construing everyone present (whether in the mosh pit or the crowd) as having a similarity of purpose—in other words, one can pretend everyone is the same. Instead of becoming awash in an uncanny strangeness of others, there is the warm fuzzy of Gemütlichkeit (or even collective Schadenfreude). It is precisely this anti-strangeness that is the converse of the repugnance described when, walking on the street, bodies collide. Except that one is free to assume another’s intentions, it appears that Canetti cannot impute or put attention on similarity in a sidewalk setting—there, the somatic bump of one body against another must be an unwelcome intrusion.

It is worth noting that, under the notion of karma one can arrive at the conclusion (one can arrive there by other concepts as well) that wherever one meets, perhaps even in the most passing of ways, is not a stranger; this is someone you have known in previous lives, there is a preexisting relationship (perhaps blissful, perhaps, strained, but a relationship nevertheless). The point is not that such a person cannot be odd; it is rather that they cannot be a stranger. It is without a doubt swimming against the massively rushing current of hyperindividualism in the United States to suggest that we might benefit from not assuming everyone we meet (or see in public) is a stranger (is an unwelcome intrusion). A major trend of technology (portable music players and cell phones in particular) have allowed us to “carry our private world” into the public domain, more or less as a kind of boundary or bubble. It is not simply that we are all on our way to be doing this or that and cannot afford to stop to chat, but more that the trend is toward colonizing the public with our private worlds. There are limits to this, obviously. Etiquette has (spontaneously) developed that we tend to go outside when we get cell phone calls, but it takes being a bit more than simply an asshole to tell one’s friends around the table when out eating not to answer their phone or text, &c. One could argue that the “invasion of the public” into one’s home (through the Internet, social media) is a parallel move, but not quite.  I may complain that the TV’s news (or the Internet) fills my private world with terrible stuff, but I’m still in control insofar as I can turn it off, ignore it, etc. Whatever (attempted) colonization of my soul I wanted to claim as going on, I’m complicit in it in some way. But when someone denies me their public self (by wearing headphones in public), the mutuality of the social setting is fucked up.  It would be received as really weird to ask such a person to “be present to me in this social world we share.” If someone were listening to loud music on a laptop without headphones or if they were carrying on in some kind of awful way, it would be much more normal seeming for me to ask them, for the sake of the social world, to tone it down, but our courage to stick up for the public this way is heavily undermined. Or, not our courage, but rather the social feasibility of it—the chances of not seeming off your rocker for making such a request.

Obviously more could be said on this point, but in particular Canetti’s shift to the word “strange” and the way that the crowd (for all he claims) functions primarily as a “welcome” form of touch (in distinction to the anti-social construction of “unwelcome” touch) is one of the ways that a cynic can leverage this text. Insofar as cynicism (c.f., Barabash, above) is reactionary, this particular way of construing the social world (not necessarily the people in it) as unwelcome individually and welcome when I can imagine we are all the same is obviously an argument (whatever Canetti intends) that is good for the status quo. The less that people are people, the more manipulable they are. As Jung insists:

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 led to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation … (Psychological Types, ¶758)

A norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when the individual way is raised to a norm, which is the aim of extreme individualism … The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality (ibid, ¶761).

The construal of contact between individuals in the public sphere as “unwelcome” is a sign of the individual way being raised to a norm; so that the collective norm of a crowd Is offered as a remedy (as “welcome”) because then not only is social life negated by giving absolute validity to a norm, but also individual immorality spikes. One can see this particularly in the degree of entitlement one encounters in public, with its implicit assumption that whatever is good is whatever I can get away with.


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

[2] I want to be clear, I’m dwelling on Canetti’s opening paragraph because his section (“The Fear of Being Touched”) has two main moments: providing discourse for the opening assertion and then characterizing its solution or opposite (that man overcomes his fear of being touched “in the crowd”). To the extent that the framing of a problem implies its solution, one can will be able to infer in advance some rejoinders to Canetti’s opening salvo, but the details are still worth pursuing.

[3] Barabash, Y. (1977). Aesthetics and poetics. Moscow, Progress Publishers.

[4] See Mann, T. (1955), Gesammelte Werke (vol. 12). Berlin: Band, pp. 828, 830–1.

[5] It is not the purpose of this post to describe or characterize this truth-class; it is enough simply to note that it is not difficult to discern here.

[6] It necessarily oversimplifies things to rely upon the hyperbinary of attractive/repugnant, just as love/fear itself is overly simplifying. Etymologically: fascinate (v.)

1590s, “bewitch, enchant,” from M.Fr. fasciner (14c.), from L. fascinatus, pp. of fascinare “bewitch, enchant, fascinate,” from fascinus “spell, witchcraft,” of uncertain origin. Possibly from Gk. baskanos “bewitcher, sorcerer,” with form influenced by L. fari “speak” (see fame). The Greek word may be from a Thracian equivalent of Gk. phaskein “to say;” cf. also enchant, and Ger. besprechen “to charm,” from sprechen “to speak.” Earliest used of witches and of serpents, who were said to be able to cast a spell by a look that rendered one unable to move or resist. Sense of “delight, attract” is first recorded 1815.

Historically speaking, it is pertinent that the sense of “delight, attract” is only from the 19th century forward, and that fascination previously signaled something that “rendered one unable to move or resist”—Medusa must be a classical expression of this. All the same, the useful and marvelous specifics of this need not ultimately limit the range of examples for the hyperbinary expansion (fear, love, love of fear or fascination, fear of love or loathing). One could make similar remarks about welcome/unwelcome (i.e., those seemingly unwelcome visits that turn out to be highly fortuitous, and those seemingly welcome visits that are finally exposed as terrible. In the romantic domain, two immediate images are highly illustrative: when a mere friend comes to visit and an unforeseeable night in bed occurs, or the joyous arrival of one’s spouse-to-be, only to be told they are breaking up). So if I resort again and again to ‘attractive” and “repugnant” as descriptors in examples, it is vehemently against the notion—more frequently encountered, especially in the love/fear hyperbinary—that it is the only or even a necessary contrast.

[7] Canetti devotes other sections of his books specifically to hands and fingers, so this may not be an overreading.

[8] Here again, objections about translations are moot. Repeating the paragraph from before: Let’s allow this could be a fault of the translator or maybe even the translator herself losing her nerve in the face of the text’s overgeneralizations. If it is not already clear, let it be clear now and henceforth: when I say “Canetti” I cannot mean the once-living existential being who is imputed to have authored this text; I can mean only whatever sense I make of what seems to be evident through that text, not for the purpose of defaming the author, but for addressing the text. Second, lovers of Canetti might defend some point or sense in the original; one can say that the translator did a hack job here or there, and so forth. Be that all as it may, the myth that there is some “correct” text out there in lieu of this one solves nothing; there are, at most, only alternative texts and critical opinion and fashion may place the tiara on this one or that one. Meanwhile, the publishers of both texts will continue to publish their texts, and the sense derivable in either will continue to be inputs to people’s thinking about these matters.

[9] I heard a commentator report, not without scorn and not without referring to the landmark moment when the American Psychiatric Association depathologized homosexuality in its diagnostics manual, that pedophilia will similarly be depathologized in the DSM-V (due out May 2013). This remains to be seen; the current proposed language does not appear to delete this diagnosis. A tangentially related, but illustrative, issue may be see here.

[10] I point to these examples principally to make clear how, as the heightening rhetoric against the Soviet Union in the Cold War advanced, the “Western world” was systematically destroying South America more aggressively than in previous eras under the bloody banner of neoliberalism. But neoliberalism has also wreaked devastation in the US and England—the accomplishment of Reagan and Thatcher was simply to manage the feat without as much overt bloodshed. That’s the claim at least. The error of this claim is the relative lack of violence. For instance, whatever extra-legal disappearances occurred under US-supported dictator Augusto Pinochet’s direction, the numbers pale in comparison to the “legal” disappearances that have led to mass incarceration (thanks to the Reagan Administration’s inauguration of the still on-going war on drugs). The plunge in literacy in Peru following the arrival of neoliberalism is at least offset by the rational decision of the Peruvian government to default on its onerous and socially destructive IMF loans. In the United States, the plunging literacy rate is met by calls for even higher standards that assure even more students will be resegregated (socially) and likely funneled into prison. In the calculus of viciousness, the thuggery of merely beating me over the head and dragging me off to shoot me seems at least less duplicitous and disingenuous than creating a social environment that funnels me on a slope almost inevitably to fail—all the while blaming me for it.


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