CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 1. The Crowd (Destructiveness, the Eruption, & Persecution)

2 September 2012

The intent of this series is ambitiously to address, section by section over the course of a year Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1]. This is the seventh entry in the series and the fifth addressing Part 1 (The Crowd), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I address section 5–7, “Destructiveness, the Eruption, &c”. However, it also finally mathematically dawned on me: it would have required confronting approximately 10 pages of Canetti’s text per week, not one section per week. So from here forward, I will tend not to address only one section one section of Canetti’s book per post.

Destructiveness

Canetti begins by allowing other ends and satisfactions to the infamous destructiveness of crowds—as its “most conspicuous quality” (19)—and puts the main emphasis on the boundary-breaking quality of crowd destructiveness. This destructiveness, which is not well meant, strikes a blow against the distances and enclosures Canetti argued for previously. In particular:

Windows and doors belong to houses; they are the most vulnerable part of their exterior and, once they are smashed, the house has lost its individuality; anyone may enter it and nothing and no-one is protected any more. In these houses live the supposed enemies of the crowds, those people who try to keep away from it. What separated them has now been destroyed and nothing stands between them and the crowd. They can come out and join it; or they can be fetched (19).

The positive aspect of this destruction is the objective correlative of the dissolution of personality boundaries that happens to a person in a crowd (at the moment of discharge). In the discharge state (or at the moment of discharge, this isn’t clear), boundaries of all sorts can become irritants, either reminders of the bounded state one will return to soon enough or s a piece of inhuman or non-human arrogance that something should propose and enforce such a boundary. This latter piece of pique illustrates the destructiveness Canetti earlier described (in this section)—the urge toward iconoclasm, tearing down saints, destroying statues—an materially solid representation that itself (arrogantly) asserts its own boundariedness. Canetti generally elides that this material violence can extend toward people as well; in the combination of “they can come and join it; or they can be fetched” (19), there is more of a sense in “they can be fetched” that they will be pulled into the crowd, rather than apart by it. In the passage that follows, there’s even a particularly heavy emphasis on objects per se. And, of course, another part of destructiveness is that it is fun—the physicality, the noise of it, especially in the spectacle of fire; the presence of destroyed humans here (the pleasure of destroying humans, that is) once again enters in a muted, sideways manner. Canetti notes, “the banging of windows and the crashing of glass are the robust sounds of fresh life, the cries of something new-born” (18).

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna what the purpose of life is. In summary, Krishna purports (and defends as valid) that there is not just one purpose in life, but that the pursuit of pleasure, the accumulation and practice of power, the devotion of service to one’s fellow human beings, and the dedication to the pursuit of liberation may all take up one’s lives (in sequence or in combination), bearing in mind always the universal moral prohibition (harm none” in the pursuit of your life (and with the additional caveat that the first three pursuits will, over the course of thousands of lifetimes, finally becoming boring, and an alternative will be sought, i.e., liberation). These four aims—pleasure (kama), power (artha), service (dharma), and liberation (moksha)—summarize the aims of destructiveness Canetti identifies (without, obviously, requiring the moral imperative “harm none”). There is a pleasure in destroying objects; destroying idols strikes a blow against the powers that exist and the boundaries of arrogance; shattering boundaries (in a sort of confused but saintly abnegation) at least creates the opportunity to suspend the artificial hierarchy of the social that separates us; and the discharge itself (as the holy of holies) is a literal liberation.

In Krishna’s answer—which proceeds in order from kama, to artha, to dharma (all as inevitably temporary satisfaction over countless incarnations) till one arrives finally at a desire for moksha (liberation) as the one purpose that ends reincarnation itself and thus any need to settle on a purpose in life—it is clear that kama (pleasure) is an end to itself, as is power, service, and liberation. But each subsequent pursuit contains an image of the previous: thus in power, there is also the pleasure of power; and in service to one’s fellow human beings, there is the pleasure of service and the social power accorded to those who serve others. Finally, in liberation itself, the power and pleasure are self-evident, and the service to one’s fellow beings is the example of the pursuit of liberation itself.

Thus, for Canetti, there is the sheer pleasure of destruction as well as the pleasure of destroying the idols of power (itself as a gesture of power). To the extent that a crowd may appear in a more or less spontaneous protest, the destructiveness that follows serves the social aim generally—not merely for the pleasure of destroying idols of power, but to attempt to reset  it; as Emerson insists in The Sovereignty of Ethics (which I’m otherwise neither approving or disapproving):

Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized in the recoil.

And finally, of course (beyond the pleasures, powers, and service of destructiveness), destructiveness is itself the sign of liberation—the freedom to destroy what you cannot destroy, the demonstration and pleasure in one’s capacity to destroy, and the power, pleasure, and social service of making possible others’ liberation whether they come out on their own or have to be fetched.

Benjamin (1999)[2] notes of the ‘destructive character’ that he “knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred … [he] lives from the feeling not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble” (541). And while it could only be hasty to equate “destructiveness” and “violence” (at least in Benjamin’s use of the latter term), he also notes[3] elsewhere, “For from the point of view of violence, which alone can guarantee law, there is no equality, but at most equally great violence.” (Selected Writings, 296).

Since, however, every conceivable solution to human problems, not to speak of deliverance from the confines of all the world-historical conditions of existence obtaining hitherto, remains impossible if violence is totally excluded in principle, the question necessarily arises as to what kinds of violence exist other than all those envisaged by legal theory (ibid, 293).

Whether Canetti was familiar with Benjamin’s work (he is not listed in the bibliography), to the extent that the above may serve as (if it is not already) an apologetics for violence and/or destructiveness, we must necessarily resist such a framing. Benjamin allows nonviolent solutions do sometimes exist, though only in the private sphere; he did not yet have (in 1921 when the essay was written) Gandhi’s or Martin Luther King’s liberation movements available (though his conception or argument is not so straightforward that these might be excluded from what he would mean by “nonviolent”). The salient fact, again, requires us to resist apologetics of violence, however argued as a necessity.

With Canetti particularly, there is an ambivalence of description reminiscent of Benjamin’s characterological description of the destructive type. The appeal of the crowd is its liberation, whatever the social cost to those who find the rigors of the crowd practiced upon them. In one respect, Canetti’s dogged focus on objects per se (with only glancing allusions to a person as a potential object) inadvertently echoes Krishna’s injunction “harm none”. While a crowd that riots and both loots and destroys is an obvious “blow” to the vanity of property ownership—by which I don’t mean merely to belittle the loss of things and costs of replacement involved—there is at least in some sense something less disturbing about that than “tearing down an idol” by stringing up a Black man from a tree limb or even haling the 1% to the guillotine to lose their heads. This also does not ignore that very real effect, known to children of violent parents, that witnessing violence and destructiveness, even when “only” to inanimate objects, can have a terrifying or dread-inducing effect that—in the perpetual anticipation of its occurrence—can be more damaging emotionally in the long run.

It is not necessary to decide precisely and once and for all whether Canetti is “for” or “against” crowds. Were I to hazard a “template” for negotiating the apparent ambivalence, I would propose that Canetti’s approach to describing crowds has a measure of fascination (in both an interested and revolted sense)—otherwise why write the book—and that in his attempt to understand the phenomenon he reduces the matter too much to the metaphors of individuals, persons, or individuality. It might be as a kind of fantasy, a liberation from his own windmill-like isolation, that he understands the “mind” of a crowd and personifies it—or perhaps that was his literal experience in a crowd or two. Some of this ambivalence is signaled in the different descriptions for the pleasure of destruction and the liberation destructiveness affords. In the former, there is a more distanced tone, even almost something akin to the sort of tone that creeps into news commentators when talking about riots in (minority) neighborhoods. It is a “riot” in the positive sense: “the banging of windows and the crashing of glass are the robust sounds of fresh life, the cries of something new-born … everything shouts together; the din is the applause of objects” (19). But with the liberation of destructiveness, the tone becomes highly subjective and personalized:

With the lifting of these burdens of distance he feels free; his freedom is the crossing of these boundaries. He wants what is happening to him to happen to others too; and he expects it to happen to them. An earthen pot irritates him, for it is all boundaries. The closed doors of a house irritate him. Rites and ceremonies, anything which preserves distances, threaten him and seem unbearable. He fears that, sooner or later, an attempt will be made to force the disintegrating crowd back into these pre-existing vessel (20).

In a previous post, I contrasted Canetti’s personified sense of the social domain with the social interactivity of events like Carnival, Saturnalia, festival in general. Here we see again this “misreading” of the social, in the distinction between, on the one hand, the mere delight in breaking things in terms and images redolent of childishness—as a kind of left-handed invocation of Carnival (or festival) itself—in contrast to the “real seriousness” of what a crowd is really about (breaking down the artificial boundaries one has self-created). The former thus remains delightful or merely vulgar when viewed from a distance, and essential to solving the existential loneliness of the person when encountered up close.

As such, one ends up in the awkward position of giggling at rape under these terms (the “banging of widows” while “everyone shouts together” to the “din of applause”); it’s easy to make this formulation ugly. In the face of the crowd merely for pleasure bashes your face in or for the gesture of power sexually violates you, whatever pleasure, power, service, or liberation the perpetrator experiences, the one perpetrated not only unbearably occupies the confines of the crowd during the violation but also a very different kind of zone of experience within that crowd than Canetti has so far described. It’s not necessary to go into this in any detail. If we take his opposition between “a poor use of crowds” (as the behavior of the crowd he needn’t find a place in) and “the proper use of crowds” (as solving the crisis of existential loneliness), then we can also see that both of these “modes” can be represented in social (not personal) terms as well, to which “good” or “evil” valence may then be further added. Thus, festival (as the collective leveling of social hierarchy) might eventuate in Carnival or in a mob (replete with pitchforks and torches) so that one might in those moments become the clown jester throwing graffiti or the Marine raping an Iraqi civilian with one’s platoon mates. This might affectively manifest as creatively as camaraderie or Gemütlichkeit (as Gemeinschaft rather than Gesellschaft), or destructively as злорадство (Schadenfreude, epicaricacy) or eschatological evil-wishing, but the boundaries broken or created are not only reducible to the personal—the connections that join (or separate) people are not held by the individuals themselves but between them. This is, precisely, the fundamental fact of the social—the irreducible independence of another person apart from myself. To whatever extent I can (or do) control another, however I manipulate them (by hook, crook, or integrity), the autonomy of another person stands forever and always beyond my kingship, even as I deceive myself to the point of believing and authentically acting otherwise.

It is habitual, perhaps even inevitable (though not reversible), that we personify the social (and socialize the personal). And since, as one philosopher puts it, we are better able to comprehend something by having multiple angles of view upon it, then we will better understand crowds—and thus lived human experience generally (caught as it is on the curiously compelling false dichotomy of “self” or “society”)—by correcting an over-emphasis of one by the other and keeping both in mind.

The Eruption

It takes Canetti nearly six paragraphs to finally mention the namesake of this section; “I designate as eruption the sudden transition from closed into an open crowd” (22). This transition is not only literal (physical) but also can (or does have) an inner component of bursting out arising from “the dissatisfaction with the limitation of the number of participants, the sudden will to attract, the passionate determination to reach all men” (22).

It only gradually becomes apparent what Canetti’s sense of the “original” closed crowd that erupts is (i.e., the religious congregation). The already problematic equation of any “group” as a “crowd” notwithstanding, the historical eruptions Canetti can cite are no longer religious only; the crowd, moving from closed to open, and thus in principle aspiring to total omnivorousness, “is no longer content with pious promises and conditionals. It wants to experience for itself the strongest possible feeling of its own animal force and passion and, as means to this end, it will use whatever social pretexts and demands offer themselves” (22).

The presuppositions here involve an inadequate identification of the between an open and a closed crowd, what the character of the discharge is in a closed crowd (how it even figures into something defined as recurrent and at root an institution), and other issues already noted in previous posts. In the main, this section merely offers a definition from Canetti, so how it plays out must be left to later sections. The emphasis on the “inner movement” once again points to the reduction of the “crowd” to the individual, and what Canetti calls recognizably modern eruptions that make “it easier for us to see [the crowd] in its nakedness, in what one might call its biological state”(22) points again to a sort of Schopenhauerian deflation of the human, further signaled by the crowds desire for “the strongest possible feeling of its own animal force and passion” (22) coupled with amorality toward attaining that end. At the end of this, Canetti suddenly proposes “double crowds”; the only hope for endurance in a crowd “lies in the formation of double crowds, the one measuring itself against the other. The closer in power and intensity the rivals are, the longer both of them will stay alive” (22). Where this will go remains to be seen.

Eagleton (1989)[4] offers some useful framing for this whole project:

Nothing could be more obvious to Schopenhauer than the fact that it would be infinitely preferable if the world did not exist at all, that the whole project is a ghastly mistake which ought long ago to have been called off, and that only some crazed idealism could possibly believe the pleasures of human existence to outweigh its pains. Only the most blatant self-delusions — values, ideas, the rest of that pointless paraphernalia — could blind individuals to this laughably self-evident truth. It is hard for Schopenhauer to restrain a burst of hysterical laughter at the sight of this pompously self-important race, gripped by a remorseless will-to-live which is secretly quite indifferent to any of them, piously convinced of their own supreme value, scrambling over each other in the earnest pursuit of some goal which will turn instantly to ashes in their mouths. There is no grand telos to this ‘battleground of tormented and agonised beings’, only ‘momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium, everything a hunter and everything hunted, pressure, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum or until once again the crust of the planet breaks’ (p. 354). If Hegel is the ultimate high-minded mystifier of bourgeois civil society, Schopenhauer is the buffo who mouths the truths of the marketplace.

There is something amusing about the very relentlessness of this Schopenhauerian gloom, a perpetual grousing with all the monotonous, mechanical repetition of the very condition it denounces. If comedy for Schopenhauer involves subsuming objects to inappropriate concepts, then this is ironically true of his own pessimism, which stamps everything with its own inexorable colour and so has the funniness of all monomania. The monological has its own unwitting humour, of which the dialogical knows nothing. Any such obsessive conversion of difference to identity is bound to be comic, however tragic the actual outlook. To see no difference between roasting a leg of lamb and roasting a baby, to view both as mere indifferent expressions of the metaphysical will, is as risible as mistaking one’s left foot for the notion of natural justice. In another sense, however, Schopenhauer’s intense pessimism is not in the least outrageous — is, indeed, no more than the sober realism he himself considers it to be. Absurdly one-sided though this viewpoint may be, it is a fact that throughout class history the fate of the great majority of men and women has been one of suffering and fruitless toil. The dominant narrative of history to date has been one of carnage, wretchedness, and oppression; and any Bakhtinian celebration which has not in some sense gone through this belief and emerged somewhere on the other side is politically futile. Moral virtue has never flourished as the decisive force in any historical society, other than briefly and untypically. The monotonous driving forces of history have indeed been enmity, appetite, and dominion (the Schopenhauerian Will); and the scandal of that sordid heritage is that it is indeed possible to ask of the lives of innumerable individuals whether they would not in fact have been better off dead. Liberal humanists have the option of either denying this truth, or acknowledging it but hoping that, for some obscure reason, the future might turn out rather better. Such pious wishful thinking is unlikely to withstand the coarse cackle of a Schopenhauerian materialism. There is absolutely no reason why the future should turn out any better than the past, unless there are reasons why the past has been as atrocious as it has. If the reason is simply that there is an unsavoury as well as a magnificent side to human nature, then it is hard to explain, on the simple law of averages, why the unsavoury side has apparently dominated almost every political culture to date. Part of the explanatory power of historical materialism is its provisions of good reasons for why the past has taken the form it has, and its resolute opposition to all vacuous moralistic hope. Those liberal humanists who have no enlisted the joyous, carnivalesque Bakhtin to their cause need perhaps to explain rather more rigorously than they do why the experience represented by carnival is, historically speaking, so utterly untypical. Unless the carnivalesque body is confronted by that bitter, negative, travestying style of carnivalesque thought which is the philosophy of Schopenhauer, it is difficult to see how it signifies any substantial advance on a commonplace sentimental populism, of a kind attractive to academics (183–4).

Whether or not one wants to disagree with Eagleton that historical materialism offers good reasons for why the unsavoury has won out in every political culture to date (the adjective there is crucial, since the social milieu of every culture to date has by no means been dominated solely, or perhaps even predominantly, by the unsavoury), his recognition of a certain justness in the Schopenhauerian view (which, I suggest, Canetti often veers toward and which his proponents, as already noted, certainly seem to credit him with) is answered in his objection that Schopenhauer (and Canetti) fail to explain the atrocity of history in terms of something other than mere human nature.

In the dialectic involved in the false dichotomy between Nature and Civilization, four basic gestures prevail historically.  For one, there are the monotonous if enthusiastic espousals of cultural bigotry, whether in Herder’s nationalism, in the tendency of First People’s tribes to refer to themselves exclusively as human beings, or the kind of cultural conceits at the back of the elaboration of a standard national language;

“’the English language, like the English people, is always ready to offer hospitality to all peaceful foreigners — words or human beings — that will settle within her coasts’[5] The language was to be revered sacramentally, ‘worthy of our holiest and never-ceasing devotion’, on the grounds that ‘it will bear to future ages the sentiments of a free, generous, and singularly energetic race of men’[6]

In a negative valence, the problem of Civilization (its antithesis vis-à-vis all it holds dear) is exposed in Empire and all that is involved in that. Similarly, there are equally straightforward denunciations of Nature as evil (or at the very least, something worthy of rape), as in the anti-feminine traditions of the bible, technocratic fantasies of progress since the Renaissance, the Manichean heresy, certain misprisions or sheer assertions of Eastern philosophy, and the like, as well as retrogressive or eschatological fantasies about past or future states of nature, which variously the gods, heroes, the Greeks, or perhaps one day our descendants shall occupy.

In addition to such straightforward approbation and opprobrium, Civilization may also be pitted against Nature and vice versa. Thus, in the vision of the (ostensibly positive) Noble Savage or in Sade’s (ostensibly negative) philosophy one finds Nature proposed as an alexipharmic or antidote for the disease of Civilization. As such, depending upon which archetype of the Great Mother one adopts for Nature (the all-supporting Übermutter of Isis or Ishtar) or the all-devouring Mother  (of Kali), we can discover either an infinite solace in Arcadia (and perhaps secular humanism in general, to the extent that humankind is an authentic child of Sweet Nature) or be trampled underfoot by the likes of a Schopenhauer or Richard Dawkins (biological reductionism in general) to the extent that Nature thus disabuses Civilization of its conceits.

Conversely, Civilization may be taken as capable of redeeming Nature—as against the World, which Christianity can rescue only by appeal to its highest notion of Civilization (divine authority), alchemy saw the artificial artifice of the alchemical Art as capable of transforming Nature. Jung’s process of individuation is similarly oriented, and thus places it at odds with Schopenhauer’s outlook (even though Jung acknowledged a significant debt to Schopenhauer). Less admirable—or at least more politically problematic—versions of this include Imperial education programs to “raise up” the savages colonized or Matthew Arnold’s (by no means idiosyncratic) proposal to get literature into the hands of the rabble in order to elevate them. In this respect, even Darwinism can be argued as a kind of “revenge” of Civilization upon Nature.

Of course, these categories will seem to run together: at what point are the blandishments of Civilization per se substantially different from Civilization’s conceit to teach Nature a thing or three? It hinges principally on whether or not either term (Civilization or Nature) changes or is changeable. More specifically, one can find it in the orientation to human nature (in so far as it is the authentic locus where Nature and Civilization meet). Thus, where Civilization is unchangeably good and Nature unchangeably evil, Civilization becomes the bulwark against chaos; one that even specifically precludes the possibility of “raising up the savages” (as the sign of chaos itself). It is rather a matter of keeping the torch lit. The same tendency holds where Nature is good and Civilization is evil, which is the predominant western religious idea where what is essential about human nature (the Spirit) is that which must (literally) keep the faith against the temptations and irremediable fallenness of World (as Nature and Civilization interchangeably).

The question of change relative to constancy, the problem of time if you will, notwithstanding, wen human nature is conceptualized in static terms (particularly in negative, static terms), then the main edifices to spring up are Civilization (as the bastion against all that is profane and unholy) or Civilization (as the laughably pathetic farce of illusion erected against inevitability and necessity). Almost invariably (I can think of no ready example) as soon as the biologicity of human beings enters the picture, these two contending views of Civilization (with their necessary concomitants in Nature as that which has been overcome, the game that Nature cannot win but eventually always does, or alternatively Nature as that which shows the naked emptiness of all Civilization) start to argue with one another for ascendancy, to our detriment. Both take the premise that Civilization and Nature do not change (and even less so human Nature).

Of course, change is constant, and so Civilization must absorb what variety of change it can while pretending that that which is cannot absorb has always and forever been a part of Civilization anyway. (Civilization will one day for instance, perhaps even soon, final aver openly that the recognition of marriage between people has been a foundation of Christian culture since forever—thus normalizing “gay marriage” finally). And what changes are wrought upon Nature and are discovered from Nature will be “secrets” merely long dormant in the “matter” (the Mater) of Nature all along. There is nothing to be discovered, only uncovered. One hears this kind of discourse in Jung’s writings often enough, but he also commits an authentic Schopenhauerian trahison de clercs by insisting on the function of individuation above all else. In its own way, individuation is an invention of Civilization and as such domesticates the Unconscious, but to say so would be a serious misreading of Jung. The outcome of the individuation process is neither rational nor foreseeable—it posits a wholly legitimate change to each human’s given nature and even human nature generally, since in Jung’s view nature is not only matter, but matter and spirit.

As noted above: “it easier for us to see [the crowd] in its nakedness, in what one might call its biological state”(22) points again to a sort of Schopenhauerian deflation of the human, further signaled by the crowds desire for “the strongest possible feeling of its own animal force and passion” (22) coupled with amorality toward attaining that end. This alerts us to Canetti’s work being a sort of gloss on Schopenhauer (or an extension of it along certain branches). That characteristic veer from high to low that Eagleton identifies as bathos in Schopenhauer, his preoccupation with intellectual nooks and crannies as a sort of synecdoche for principled intellectual breadth, and perhaps above all the description of (involuntary) laughter as a result of subsuming images, materials, and ideas in unfamiliar contexts deeply links Canetti’s Crowds and Power to Schopenhauer (whether under the sign of influence or not).

As such, the answer to Canetti is the same as Eagleton’s to Schopenhauer: the answer to the horror-story of history—which Eliade[7] locates in part in, precisely, such rites as festival and New year’s celebrations—is not liberal wishful thinking, but even less so the sort of complacent, irascible discomfort of quietism in the face of that horror-story. The dutiful and mere “noting” of the state of affairs, and theorizing upon it that takes it as either actually unchangeable or requiring such titanic efforts that we may bet the bank such changes will never come about, belies its moral bankruptcy by willfully or incidentally eschewing any analysis for how the state of affairs came into being in the first place. And, if these matters in some way came into being, then they may equally go out of being again.

Persecution

“One of the most striking traits of the inner life of a crowd is the feeling of being persecuted … The crowd’s feeling of persecution is nothing but the intuition of” (22–3) of a double threat, from within and without; “the walls outside [where the external enemies are] become more and more constricting and the cellars within [where the internal enemies are] become more undermined” (23–4). This persecution consists of “a peculiar angry sensitiveness and irritability directed against those it has once and forever nominated as enemies” (22), and this will persist, regardless of how the enemy behaves.

Two odd things appear immediately in this section. The most salient anomaly is the extensive use of a siege metaphor for what I take to be an (admittedly embattled) closed crowd. The eruption is the dissatisfaction of the closed crowd with whatever rites and ceremonies there are that make the closed crowd stable, repeatable, &c. The rebellion against this stability, which is unsatisfactorily explained as something like an original, residual reflex of the open crowd, which wants to expand indefinitely and which, Canetti has insisted, is swapped for stability in the closed crowd. “The next section concerns the domestication of crowds by the world’s religions, so more on this anomaly so one might expect more on this soon). But even if it is the case that the closed crowd typically (or in some other sense frequently enough to warrant the name “phenomenon”) experiences eruptions, this “empirical” observation does not tally with the definitions and explanations Canetti has provided so far. Why, for instance, isn’t a closed crowd satisfied by precisely those features (e.g., stability, repeatability) that Canetti ascribes to the nature of closed crowds? Why does one of the defining features of the open crowd (e.g., its omnivorousness) make a sudden appearance? It’s as if a governing body were suddenly to pick up guns and pitchforks to conduct a pogrom (rather than behaving like governmental bodies do, and sending duly appointed thugs to conduct pogroms).

I would suggest that Canetti has run afoul of a hyperbinary (as the distinction between closed and open crowds). Thus, we are now seeing the open closed crowd (in the eruption and desire to return to its omnivorous days prior to enclosure) as well as the closed open crowd (turned into the metaphor of a besieged city). In practice, this allows Canetti to play fast and loose with the categories he is advancing, and it is not very convincing. Moreover, the necessity of the siege metaphor is dubious; Canetti would be merely anticipating his sense of what he later calls a double crowd, but that doesn’t answer the sense of innecessity described here. In particular, with the usual wash of overgeneralization, the ubiquitous irascibility of the closed crowd, even when more or less obscurely relegated to the “inner life” of the closed crowd, comes out of nowhere, fails to be sufficient or sufficiently convincing, and seems more personal that social. It could also be that Canetti is projecting some kind of fantasy (or biography) of religions, as the close crowd par excellence, but once again, by the definition Canetti has provided, there is no reason to limit the phenomenon to religion (just as the open crowd is not religion as well, as the sprawl of Festival suggests). Much as I dislike Western religion, I can’t pretend that the inner life of each congregation rests on a sense of persecution and some “peculiar angry sensitiveness and irritability directed against those it has once and forever nominated as enemies” (22).

What has to be said is that persecution mania may be a feature of a closed crowd, but it certainly needn’t be a necessary or sufficient condition for explaining the presence of a closed crowd. Further work would be needed to make this characterization, and it may show up in the future when Canetti discusses the double crowd in more detail.


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

[2] Benjamin, W. (2004). “The Destructive Character” in M. P. Bullock & M. W. Jennings (eds.) Selected writings (1931–1934), pp. 541–2. New York: Belknap/Harvard.

[3] Benjamin, W. (1999). “Critique of Violence” in M. P. Bullock & M. W. Jennings (eds.) Selected writings (vol. 1), pp. 277-300. New York: Belknap/Harvard.

[4] Eagleton, T. (1989). “Bakhtin, Schopenhauer, Kundera” in K. Hirschkop & D. Shepherd (eds.) Bakhtin and cultural theory, pp. 178–88. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press.

[5] Meiklejohn, J. (1886). The English languages: Its grammar, history, and literature, London, qtd in Crowley, T. (1989), p. 77 in in K. Hirschkop & D. Shepherd (eds.) Bakhtin and cultural theory, pp. 68–90. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press.

[6] Harrison, M. (1848). The rise, progress, and present structure of the English language, London, qtd in Crowley, T. (1989), p. 77 in in K. Hirschkop & D. Shepherd (eds.) Bakhtin and cultural theory, pp. 68–90. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press.

[7] Eliade, M. (1991) The myth of the eternal return or, Cosmos and history (trans. Willard R. Trask). Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

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One Response to “CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 1. The Crowd (Destructiveness, the Eruption, & Persecution)”

  1. no ka oi monk seal said

    It’s really long.

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