“I have made this letter longer, because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

–Blaise Pascal

This post in is four parts (A-D), but for the sake of its continuity and sequence, it’s all in one post.

A. Preface

I don’t normally provide an “abstract” for my posts—and considering their length, perhaps I should—but for this one in particular, the urgency behind it, especially in light of the upcoming election, compels me to make clear at the outset more of the reason for its writing. Plus, it’s longer than usual.

Take it as a premise then:

We find ourselves in the United States regularly surrounded in the public, which now includes the virtual spaces online, by an egregious misery that ultimately (if it has not already) co-opts us into it. Thus, we may withdraw from social interactions (and for example stop watching news)—which gives up the field to the very forces that drive us off in the first place—or if we do not withdraw, then by our participation in the world (especially in online interactions) we become whether we want to or not inadvertent collaborators in creating and perpetuating the miserable social conditions we now inhabit. Thus, we find ourselves caught in a dilemma every day—whether we do nothing or do something, the consequences of our actions further enable the circumstances that perpetuate our miserable social order. We need an alternative.

I myself can find ways to disagree with this premise, and the remainder of this post teases out those details, but for mean time I ask you to consider the mountingly unreasonable demands made of us simply to cope with daily life as a circumstance (1) that we’d rather see ameliorated (2) even if can currently see no way to do that. It makes complete sense (in one sense) to withdraw from unpleasant interactions in the world to focus more closely on the well-being, if not the survival, of our families and friends. It seems overwhelming to undertake to make a difference an proves discouraging, if not sometimes debilitating, to enter the fray. Let this be so. Even without any mounting sense of doom leaking into our worlds from the casual reports of news stories and political developments that we get indirectly from friends, Change.org emails, and whatnot, in two majors ways the sense of “doing nothing” to make things better in the world makes our lives worse. First, of course, we may feel bad or selfish, even as we try to console ourselves that the problem is too big to be addressed anyway. But second, and I think this matters more, we know in our guts that leaving the world to ignoramuses and barbarians while seeing to our own affairs can be a safe course of action only for so long. It might be that we’ll die before any true chaos erupts, but that just leaves that fate to our children and survivors. But more than this, we’re already in the shit. It’s a policy that hasn’t worked, and it’s the point (and policy) behind the current presidential election. Whatever may be said for Obama, with Romney we’re being promised an exponential exacerbation of the social factors that currently make life difficult and public life disgusting. If, then, the “choice” between Obama and Romney seems disheartening, then an alternative becomes desirable, and to get to that alternative, our untenable choices between withdrawal from the world or damaging participation in it needs to change too. This post explores one possibility.

This is the fourth post in a series that memorialize a study of multiple translations of the Bhagavad-Gītā­ by a friend and me. Other resources for chapter 2 may be found here, along with the following rough summary of the chapter:

In chapter two Arjuna accepts the position as a disciple of Lord Kṛṣṇa and taking complete of Him requests the Lord to instruct him in how to dispel his lamentation and grief. This chapter is often deemed as a summary to the entire Bhagavad-Gita. Here many subjects are explained such as: karma yoga, jñana yoga, sāṅkyha yoga, buddih yoga and the atma which is the soul. Predominance has been given to the immortal nature of the soul existing within all living entities and it has been described in great detail. Thus this chapter is entitled: The Eternal Reality of the Soul’s Immortality.

In part 1 (in three posts here, here, and here), I discussed at length the sense of the phrase “follow your dharma” in the two senses of “do your duty” and “follow your nature”. More or less, this addressed the first portion of chapter 2, along with some anticipatory incursions into chapter 3. Here, in part 2, I address the remainder of chapter 2.

In general, there exists some consensus that chapter 2 provides an overview of the Bhagavad-Gītā as a whole and that the poem attempts (some say with mixed results) a reconciliation of major forms of yoga in the civilization of India at the time. Some of the supposed inconsistencies in the text, then, make sense as a progressive teaching; that is, the hero Arjuna poses the question of his (and our) existential condition and what is to be done about it, which Kṛṣṇa answers according to different “philosophical schools”. One can read this that Arjuna is simply waiting to hear an answer that meets the truth of his existential condition and question—that makes sense to who he is at that moment in time and in that place—or one may read this that the answers Kṛṣṇa provides have an educational value that prompt Arjuna, in light of previous answers, to then ask new questions.

It’s not necessary to be dogmatic about which reading is right. In fact, what makes the Bhagavad-Gītā of abiding human significance arises precisely its argument for and support of a plurality of classes of truth without insisting that any one of them is right or superior; that we all have an only partial understanding of “reality”. So any questions about reality we might ask may not only be only partially answered but also will only resonate for those for whom that truth-class applies and not for others. Whether that answer proves ultimately to be satisfactory or not or whether (like Arjuna) it prompts further questions remains beside the point; it is enough that different people can be met by different answers to their questions. For example, within the context of the answer “do your duty,” various arguments support that: honor is accrued by doing one’s duty, the Lord has asked us to do that duty so if it seems troubling, do not be troubled, and so forth. In this context, it may be that the person is not inclined to hear more complicated or detailed answers; more than this, more complicated or detailed answers might induce greater confusion (and thus error) than doing one’s duty as it is currently understood. My friend Lorraine objected that if you don’t understand what you are being asked to do, then you should refuse to do it at least long enough to understand, and many of us might agree, but this only points to the inappropriateness of “do your duty” as an answer to us. The further objection that those in charge may be manipulating us can’t be wholly dismissed, but just as Prabhupāda’s commentary makes clear that a teacher who accepts money for an unjust cause negates the expectation of respect that would normally be accorded, so also would a commander who abuses his authority to manipulate subordinates similarly negate the expectation of obedience. It would be necessary to sort this out and prove it, of course, but the objection that some people abuse their authority is not an argument against “do your duty”; that is part of the reason that Kṛṣṇa—who by convention and definition is errorless—is cited as the authority who says “do your duty”. So, again, the plurality of incommensurable truth-classes, classes of truth that are not merely semantic differences but propose irreconcilably different value systems that different classes of people find their self and truth in—denotes one of the most valuable aspects of the Bhagavad-Gītā.

It seems the case that the well-known commentary[1] by Swami Prabhupāda does not often sustain this plurality.[2] This is, in part, of necessity and consistent with the bhakti yoga outlook of devotional service to Lord Kṛṣṇa that Prabhupāda operates within and from. Thus, his commentary bears those signs that his lineage asserts as indicative of Kṛṣṇa consciousness: “the immediate symptom of a Kṛṣṇa consciousness man is that he speaks only of Kṛṣṇa and matters related to Him” (175). For these notes and our understanding, we defend the wisdom and insight of recognized plural classes of answers that meet people’s existential conditions and questions.

This plurality, and the details of the remainder of chapter 2, have particularly here-and-now everyday significance, which is what I want the bulk of this post to be about, even when it gets into details from the text or a commentary. From verses 1–38, the text has asserted that one is one’s eternal soul (the Self), not the body or mind (the self). We have been enjoined to identify with that Self rather than our bodies or ego-consciousness, on the basis of both immanent and transcendental arguments (thus showing the consistency of the point of view from either angle). From verses 39–54, an exposition of what in other contexts might be called nonattachment occurs; for example, “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty” (II.47). This gets discussed in more detail in chapter 3, but anticipating this with one verse: “not merely by abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from reaction nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection” (III.4).

This is the “correction” to the notion that nonattachment means either withdrawal from the world or staying within it indifferently, i.e., caring nothing about it. Prabhupāda explicitly states that nonattachment does not mean a withdrawal from activity; in fact, so long as one is an incarnate being, the workings of material nature will always be present (c.f., III.8), so it cannot be a case of repression (c.f., III.34) or never failing to control the senses (c.f., III.5). There is a social impact from this as well. Prabhupāda describes prematurely undertaking sannyāsa (the fourth order of life), which involves retirement from social affairs to seek enlightenment away from the social order of the world—or more broadly “retiring from fruititive activities” (204): “without purification of heart, sannyāsa is simply a disturbance to the social order” (204).[3]

I appreciate this emphasis on activity insofar as my encounters with Western advocates of Eastern philosophy and spiritual practice have frequently espoused a sort of quietism toward the world, exemplified by many of the monastic withdrawals in Western traditions. This can take on ugly overtones as Barabash (1977) [4] reports, citing Thomas Mann (1955)[5], who pointed out of “Nietzsche’s predecessor in the area of anti-intellectualism” and Buddhist-sympathizer Arthur Schopenhauer:

This scholar and philosopher, who declared that politics was philistinism, in 1848 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).

Whatever the status of the world vis-à-vis the appearances of māyā, the point of view ascribed to the Bhagavad-Gītā is that action, as devotional service to the Lord, is effective and thus desirable action. In the Śiva-Sutras, one similarly finds the assertion that the world is not an illusion in the sense of nonreal but is a manifestation of the unimpeded will of Śiva. The point is not, strictly speaking, that other  Indian philosophies get “above it all” in Barabash’s sense merely by adopting a sense of the world as illusory. However, in the West at least where “illusory” carries the connotations that it does, it becomes virtually contradictory to enjoy any action that gets liable to being called illusory or nonreal. When the world is “real” (whatever that means precisely) there tends to be a better argument—that is, people tend to be more receptive—to conclusions that follow from that reality. To propose an illusory world means to wander into the domain of solipsism, which as a professor of mine once remarked is “irrefutable and uncompelling”. The Japanese poet’s haiku about the death of his son, which begins by acknowledging that all the world is illusion, and replies to that assertion with “and yet”. Or, there is the amusing story where the seer Śankara fled up a tree from a maddened elephant that had been set on him by a King, who’d not taken kindly to the teaching that everything is unreal: the King taunted Śankara for running away from the unreal, to which Śankara replied, “Wherever do you get the idea, your majesty, that the unreal cannot be harmed by the unreal?”

So, if verses 39–54 espouse the virtues and benefits of not being attached to the fruits of one’s actions, then verses 55–71, attempt to describe what that looks like. In this regard, Arjuna asks, “O Kṛṣṇa, what are the symptoms of one whose consciousness is thus merged in transcendence? How does he speak, and what is his language? How does he sit, and how does he walk?” (II.54).

B. The Dilemma of Everyday Life These Days

I say Arjuna’s question has particular bearing for us these days,[6] and at the moment (today here and now) I’m especially averse that this blog post might seem like some more or less idle commentary about a two thousand year old book that has little to do with anything unless you’re interested in enlightenment. So, for now, let me translate what I think Arjuna’s question means for us these days, especially in the United States. None of the following will refer immediately to the Bhagavad-Gītā until the next section of this post.

People in the United States are unhappy. In 2006, we ranked 150th out of 178 countries measured on the Happy Planet Index.[7] In 2009, we were 114th out of 143 countries measured and 105th out of 151 in 2012. That puts us in the bottom sixth in 2006, the bottom fifth in 2009, and less than the bottom third in 2012. By contrast, in 2012, the world’s top 12 happiest countries are (in order): Costa Rica, Việt Nam, Colombia, Belize, El Salvador, Jamaica, Panama, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Guatemala, Bangladesh, and Cuba. “Among the top five world’s biggest economies in terms of GDP, Japan has the highest [HPI] ranking in 45th place, followed by Germany in 46th, France is placed 50th, China 60, and the U.S. is ranked 105” (see here).

Though it’s wholly informal to say this, I have visited Việt Nam, and my sense while there—even in the face of the general lack of money all around—was that the Vietnamese are indeed happy people. The HPI findings seem to confirm that. Similarly, I live in the United states, and I find that many general interactions with people, and certainly any number of specific interactions with people online, are dishearteningly nasty. As a comparison, in 2006 and 2009, Canada was 39 and 25 ticks above the US on the HPI, and when I would randomly chatted with people I could frequently identify people as citizens of Canada (rather than the United states) just from how they interacted in their typing. This again points to my sense (and experience) that people who are not from the US come across as less unhappy than us and are thus generally less unpleasant. Bluntly put, the Zeitgeist for us in the US is one of being constantly irradiated by unhappiness; our social world is markedly toxic. The issues, of course, involve the stranglehold neoliberalism has and that daily makes more and more people more and more desperate in their attempts to survive. No wonder we’re depressed, overeat, &c. Those we love (especially friends and family) face threats at every turn—by which I mean economic threats of homelessness, starvation, failure to provide a living for those they love, not threats like murder, mayhem, molestation, terrorism, parolees, and illegal immigration that the media harps on—and this of course makes itself apparent in how we play our selves out in the public world. Stressed people tend not to respond well. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the texture and stench of political confrontations these days, particularly online and in the media.

In fact, perhaps the prime place in daily life where the nastiness of the current milieu gets most felt—where the irradiation of anxiety, unhappiness, and hopelessness gets its major airing—is on what passes for news these days. Many are the reasons for this, but as a starting point let’s note that “panic sells” and sales are what matters. The consequence of this for political life, both at times by design and other times seemingly by accident—is a general aversion one finds in people in the US for consuming the junk-food news currently offered. I know many people who simply don’t watch the stuff, and one can hardly blame them. In cases where the news manages to be factually correct, some “expert” gets interviewed who calls all the facts spin. In other cases, items wind up on what passes for the news these days that are not news items at all—so-called “entertainment news” is a designed example of this, but even in supposedly serious news the borrowing of clips from social media (typically owned by the company peddling the so-called new) makes the presentation of what is being called news itself already into an advertisement as well. Even on CNN, which tries to keep up the façade of being a legitimate news source, regularly runs “stories” that indirectly and sometimes directly amount to advertisements for programs on its other channels. &c. the fact that this gets called “just doing business” shows how far the standards of media journalism has fallen.

Two main feints then in what passes for news: lying about or trivializing newsworthy stories while ignoring more pertinently newsworthy stories (such as the consolidation of the media companies), or broadcasting lies (like Romney’s tax plan) or trivialities (like a Mel Gibson tirade) supposedly as news. With online versions of such propaganda, that any entity can post a blog under the façade of “independent” reporting exacerbates this—the selectivity and spin are much more pronounced, and the sorts of comments one finds in the comment threads attached to these “stories” frequently provides a rationale for concluding that all of one’s countrymen are uneducated demagogues who are a hair’s-breadth away from grabbing their pitchforks or lynching rope. In this kind of context, why would we want to subject ourselves to this?

But on the flipside, if we ignore what’s being said in the world—notice I said “what’s being said” not “what’s going on” in the world; what we find in the so-called news has little to do with what’s going on in the world, if it ever did—has two major effects: first, whatever comfort I get from not being subjected to the toxicity of fast-food news may not offset any anxiety that I actually don’t know what is being said about the world, and second, it consequentially recuses me from taking any part in what’s being said, even if or though I want to make a difference.

The second is obviously politically disenfranchising and plays significantly into the hands of the troglodytes who are interested in fucking everyone else over. Partly they can do this because people popularly express the (naïve) sentiment, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” The issue here is not whether voting makes a difference—the answer is that it does and doesn’t—but rather the taken-for-granted discourse in everyday life that argues and enforces the point: if you don’t show up (to vote, to argue) then it’s fine to disregard you, to regard you as persona non grata. An important corollary of this is that if political spaces under contest may be populated by the most obnoxious trolls ever (be that online forums or town halls), then that further discourages people from showing up. At Amazon, there seems to be a coterie of e-bags who collectively shit on “those not like them” as a matter of course. Whether this is a spontaneous gathering of like-minded ideologues or paid shills of the Koch brothers makes only a kind of difference in the final analysis. It requires perseverance to take their lesser primate poo-hurling and not turn into a lesser primate as well. This point will be returned to at length below since, in one respect, it is the whole issue itself.

It remains an open question how deliberately the news employs anxiety specifically for political ends—certainly panic sells, and that has at least been true since 1990. Some may recall the trashy “news TV” (like Hard Copy) delivered by anchor-babes all but dressed in bikinis. At the time, one could regularly hear the likes of Ted Koppel, Peter Jennings, and other scions of the Walter Cronkite school of TV journalism scoffing and poo-pooing at such ridiculous “reportage,” but the Nielsen numbers said it was working, and gradually all of those supposedly high-minded journalists were at least not high-minded enough to quit their jobs or protest too vocally as the major news outlets succumbed to trashiness. This was a time when CNN could look like a serious news outlet because it resisted trashiness for a little bit longer. We have short cultural memories in this country—which one professor has said makes us particularly liable to the sort of fascistic rigors of neoliberalism we’re being asked to tolerate these days—and so Fox News gets blamed for this kind of thing, but Fox News first aired in 1996, while Hard Copy launched in 1989 (in syndication on CBS). (Hard Copy was not the only such show, but it may have been the most influential.) And these days, much of the look of standard TV news (especially CNN) borrows from techniques first used extensively on Hard Copy (particularly the running ticker tape). It’s oversimplifying things to state this so bluntly, but one can mark something of a shift as a dominant in US news reporting from mere outrageousness or trashiness to active propaganda with the duration of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s tenure (and fall) from 1995–1999. It is here that Fox News may earn or warrant its reputation for gross misrepresentation, beginning with its motto “fair and balanced”.[8]

I am suggesting that the “what sells” of trashiness merged with the political “we need panic” to extort buy-in by US citizens. 9/11 provided the perfect pretext for this, whether it was a called hit or not; and Naomi Klein’s (2007) The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism ably frames what was done with that (real or imagined, permitted or requested) disaster. By 2002, then, “panic sells” had corrupted media further than ever from being the propaganda mechanism of (market) capitalism as advertisements to (also being) the propaganda mechanism for (political) capitalism.

The roots of this lie further back, of course. As a specific and ridiculous example I remember from around 1992 or so, a story (the word “story” starts to resonate in its real sense on the news finally) about dead bodies in east Fresno, California ran on the local news. Before every commercial break, this story of a record number of corpses in east Fresno got reiterated, in an obvious grab to keep viewer attention during the commercials. This continued until five minutes before the top of the hour when, almost literally at the last minute, they finally let the cat out of the bag—an appropriate metaphor, because it was dead cats that were turning up in record numbers in east Fresno. Fresno is a town that wallowed in murders, so this particularly shameless piece of baiting is especially illustrative. And obviously memorable. For me, it was the first piece of actively deceptive “reportage” I noticed in the commission of it. I’d doubtless been hoodwinked previously, but here—on a Podunk local news channel in 1992—I saw history in the making, or at least the local Podunk rendition of history already being made elsewhere around the country by much larger “news” entities.[9]

In a nutshell, if the media can induce anxiety in us—if, as Klein makes apparent in her book, we can be massaged or tricked into a frame of mind where we sense we are in some kind of danger, or that there is a disaster imminent or happening—then this makes many far more willing to accept whatever policy someone is trying to cram down our throats. Hence, the suspension of habeas corpus under the Orwellian name of the Patriot Act; hence the disingenuous signing under protest of the NDAA, and so forth.  In other words, disaster capitalism operates on all scales (national, state, and local), and in the absence of an actual set of circumstances in need of rectification, the media may be leveraged to, literally, tell a story: about a record number of corpses in east Fresno, for instance, or the threat to employment from “illegal immigrants”.

Anyone who knows the stats knows that the vast percentage of child molesters are known to the victim and yet we hear almost exclusively in the media about stranger-perpetrators. Similarly, in something like 2006, the number of child abductions by non-custodial parents was something like 395,000 out of 400,000—or 98.75% so that only 1.25% were stranger abductions. In this light, whatever political cache  a legislator makes out of the general public’s concern for stranger abductions and molestation not only ends up addressing only a tiny fraction of the problem but may create a false sense of safety, since it is overwhelmingly more likely that all of the attention directed outward to others in the world will overlook the danger brewing right under their noses.

Ditto the problem of undocumented workers. It is a dead certainty we’ve all interacted on a friendly basis with undocumented visitors, and yet the media talks about threats to increasing unemployment, &c, and legislators thus extort political will out of “the people” for legislation that, again, fails to solve the problem and which is not even in our self-interest. For obviously strategic reasons—and one saw this in the second 2012 presidential debate when Romney ran his mouth about Obama’s attitude toward immigration—the framing of the issue was an agreement that “criminals” need to be deported with all force in accordance with the law. By criminals were meant drug runners, and the like. In the first place, many of these so-called drug runners bear no resemblance in what they are up to within the borders of the United States compared to those who get typically slandered as “illegals”. In part, there is the attempt to make exactly equivalent “criminal” (as a practitioner of illegal activities) and “illegal” immigrants (as people whose mere presence on our dirt is legally defined as unlawful). The “panic sells” aspect is in the attempt to treat the whole body of undocumented workers in the United states as the equivalent of drug runners. This illustrates openly how the media’s framing of a story serves the (political) end of some aspiring policy-maker or party, even if we try to consume it only as entertainment—primarily because not everyone will consume it only as entertainment. By framing stories in terms of worse-case scenarios, which still reflects the original “entertainment value” gesture meant to keep us hooked on the broadcast, these framings of perpetual rape, mayhem, and murder in the media—along with the general sorry picture and anti-celebrity one encounters in “reality” TV shows—creates a platform where the hopelessness, desperation, and unhappiness of our current daily life, deliberately or indeliberately, help to hamstring our political will. Being able to see this, why would we subject ourselves to that?

That’s the dilemma. For the sake of one’s day-to-day mental well-being, we avoid the news. But by doing so, we disenfranchise ourselves. We excuse ourselves from the conversation so we don’t put a bullet in our head, but if that goes on long enough, someone else will show up at our homes to put the bullet there for us—whether that’s some cadre of security forces or a mob of frothing Tea Partiers. Moreover, recognizing this, if we try opting in instead of out, we’re back at square one. We’re back in the position of a passive consumer of TV news, so that “knowing” stops being half the battle but becomes the very coup d’état that carries us off. Or, we try to find places where we are not merely passive but can be active and thus wind up in the wasteland of Internet commentary.

Besides being a troll, I propose three identities for online commentary, whether in news article threads, Facebook posts, or Amazon reviews of politically motivated books, i.e., jerks, journalists, and jades.[10]

  • journalists: this type tries to argue facts, especially in the face of dogmatism. This typically has an air of what a “neutral journalist” in mass media claims as the basis for their arguments, as if facts alone determine anything.[11]
  • jerks: these tend to argue the correctness of their position come Hell, high water, countervailing facts, or any good argument. Spin doctors represent this type in mass media, although those professional versions usually have a veneer of education and argument.
  • jades: these have the air of the disinterested observer. For them, all arguments are at root, a game—people will be fools, politicians will stampede folks, and the circus will go on as always unchanged save for the faces on the money. They may be witty or morbidly serious, but they all have a Schopenhauerian stink of being “above it all”. The reason trolls and jades may be the same is because both really don’t give a fuck.

I’m tempted to provide examples of these types (on the right and the left) in mass-media broadcasting (not simply people who are in the public eye, but who specifically have the role in mass-media as being an intellectual in the public sphere[12]), but it’s probably more helpful if you think of your own examples.

What matters for these three types is how they represent populist versions of their mass-media counterparts. In the current social environment, all three types represents banes of our existence. Call it an open question whether the media imitates life or vice versa, I’m inclined to say that because there is no shortage of people in society who readily look to others for how to act—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting and following a role model—then I say there’s a very significant influence of media on how people interact with each other, especially online where the threat of being punched in the nose if I say anything particularly ghastly is nonexistent. I’m not going to immediately call this lack of accountability a serious problem because one of the main things it allows is, precisely, the display of absolutely garish human shittiness that might otherwise happen only out of sight, where I might never know about it.

Thus, we’re in a circumstance somewhat similar to the 1970s, when the political activism of feminism forced police officers, the judiciary, and the public in general to stop fucking around with respect to the reality of rape. Thus suddenly, the number of (reported) rapes skyrocketed. Even knowing that this increase results from women reporting rapes rather than hiding that they occurred, this might still prove unnerving, since it makes the reality of rape move from the domain of either anxiety (where it is imagined) or ignorance (where one remains blissfully unconscious of the numerous cases occurring). At the same time, this jump in numbers also reduces the perception of the threat of rape from infinity—that it might happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone—to something not quite so infinite. Knowing the number of rapes shows it to be on the one hand worse than we thought, if we’d previously dwelt in ignorance, or on the other perhaps not as bad as (infinitely) bad as we anxiously felt.

So also now in online exchanges: anyone who thought racism was just something people insisted was real in college classes can witness it point-blank, sometimes in truly garish form, but we must also remember in that context that the world of media is all about the squeaky wheel. For every hair-raisingly ignorant fanatic, there are all kinds of “everyday folks” who would whole-heartedly reject such fanaticism.

And that’s a problem.

The media provides us with the colorful idiocy of a Todd Akin, for instance—incidentally, a much-elected fellow; he’s not a political newcomer at all—and this is because he “sells papers”; and he knows it. He may have said what he did to shore up his base; the effect of his press coverage did so in any case. The witnessing of such idiocy (designed or not) that so-called moderates experience seeing someone like Akin tends less to galvanize them to political action and more to make them complacent that they are right. What’s clear in the current election climate is that there were a lot of people who were not my political allies who voted for Obama the first time, because now they’re claiming to be “undecided”.  It may make it a fluke we got Obama in the first place. Broadcasting the likes of Todd Akin won’t nudge those “undecided” voters them back to the fold, no more than encountering troll-like dough-headedness  in online comment forums will.

All of this post is toward diagnosing the current dilemma involved in overcoming an aversion to political action because we can’t put ourselves in the harm’s way of listening to the media. Daily life has already become unpleasant enough; our human interactions are already grossly distorted into absurd and horrible travesties of what life should be like. This is all the more obvious by traveling to a place (like India or Việt Nam, where people may be poor, but they aren’t unhappy like we are). Wandering into the trenches of the online communities, however, puts us face to face with more rapists than we were prepared to admit exist, so to speak. So the first thing to remember is they are overrepresented online. They are the noisy minority one again trumpeting that they are the moral Majority.

Be that so, the problem remains: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Because we have the option (following our media role models) of being a jade (like Schopenhauer) who is “above it all,” or some kind of jerk (putting our impermeably dogmatic spin on everything that comes under our nose), or a hopelessly irrelevant, hopelessly compromised journalist (“honestly” reporting the “facts” of the matter), the increase of activity we aspire to in trying to participate in person and online becomes a sort of self-fulfilling failure all over again.[13]

That is: if “consuming” the news (you are what you eat) turns us into shit, then enacting the roles of jade, journalist, or jerk all have the effect of adding to what ruins our lives anyway, i.e., making them less not unpleasant. The jade gets by by being above it all.[14] One might, in this way, find a comfy spot to laugh at the world from, but that laughter (like Schopenhauer’s) means that you help the police to murder people; Barabash (1977) makes this point unambiguously.

The journalist, by contrast, exhibits particularly problematic behavior, because the idea is that if we simply agree to the facts, then all will be well. But human beings do not live by facts in general; we live in meanings—typically, a fact is simply my meaning imposed on the whole world as something not open to contestation; thus the fanatical objectivist is little different from a fanatical jerk. Nonetheless, there’s this notion that the Right is better at political stumping because it tells stories, i.e., deals in values, while the Left can’t seem to shut up about facts so leaves people cold. That President Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction didn’t answer the Right’s contention that he wanted to harm us! An idiotic lie, to be sure, told to suck the cock of the 1%, but it worked, and even today one still can hear about “the right war for the wrong reason”.

What this says in another way is that a jerk cannot be dissuade by anyone, much less a journalist. And in the domain of political effectiveness, if we are not going to cede our country’s government to a corporate theocracy, then it will not be by trying to take jerks seriously, i.e., by appealing to their reason, in the same way one doesn’t appeal to the reason of a rabid dog or a monk in  spiritual transport. But we must also remember: the jerks are not as numerous as they seem online. In that respect, we can be more worried about the journalists, because in their neutrality about facts, they will finally argue themselves (and everyone else) into thinking that the facts speak for themselves—that maybe Romney’s tax plan isn’t a complete lie. It will certainly be in the name of the facts that Romney (if elected) might not refuse to veto a “gay marriage bill,” after all because as the neoliberal thumbscrews we all are living under now get more and more tightened, I predict in exchange we’ll be thrown more and more sops of supposed freedoms; we lose habeas corpus but get freedom on the Internet; we lose freedom on the Internet and get … who knows what. To put it trivially, that we can have an iPhone, even though our entire existence is dreadful and miserable, supposedly amounts to a tradeoff. Were Romney president, we’d probably see the Food Stamp program expand, perhaps under some other name for the sake of appearances—because, again, neoliberalism exacts an obscene cost from us in our daily lives; it has to offset that with something.

None of this speaks to whatever political forms of desirable action people currently do resort to (protests, signing Change.org petitions, &c). I do believe that most people would want to mean well, so it’s a question of getting them engaged (or reengaged) without losing sight of the fact that a dominant experience these days, arising in large part from the media as the meaning-making faction (or function) of our culture, is one of disenfranchisement, distraction, and limiting the apparent options available to us to make our lives better. In this respect, to the extent that active participation in online forums helps to make us passive in the political world, addressing the issue of such forums becomes important.

To be clear, this participation becomes politically debilitating  because the three modes available to us (jade, journalist, and jerk) reinforce and encourage, rather than discourage, those habitual modes of thought—and thus our being in the world—that engender the very bases of misery in our world in the first place that manifests as rampant unhappiness, i.e., that perpetuates the discourse of the current (neoliberal) social milieu that tortures the life out of us. Put too schematically, this means:

  • jerks foster hatred (because their ideologically narrow-minded view cannot acknowledge, much less abide a stance contrary to their own);
  • journalists foster paralysis (because they leave the essentials untouched or simply don’t engage them); and
  • jades foster cynicism (because they stand by and pretend nothing matters in the first place).

For all of these cases, we find ourselves in the position either of preaching to the converted (i.e., reinforcing our similar type’s points of view), playing to our prejudices (i.e., when we criticize other types in terms they have only contempt for, as when well-informed journalists get on tears about the stupidity of Tea Partiers or when high-horse jerks get on a tear about the moral vacuity of liberals), or positioning ourselves as irrelevant (i.e., when we try to claim it’s all just a semantic problem and play reconciler between otherwise irreconcilable and incommensurable positions). The only winner in all of this is the 1%.

These three types prevail in part because they are modeled in professional form in the media, but their presence there stands as symptomatic of our dilemma generally. Not just online but everywhere in daily life we encounter jerks, jades, and journalists (albeit in their more polite, face-to-face incarnation), which then in turn makes us act like, if not become, one of the types as well. And once we become a type, we then become a model for others to follow (as III.21–23 also make clear). That’s the Catch-22: either to stay out of the conversation entirely and be ignorant and disenfranchised or to stay in the conversation and become a tool of the social milieu we desire to oppose.

And so, once again, we may consider Arjuna’s question in this light: “O Kṛṣṇa, what are the symptoms of one whose consciousness is thus merged in transcendence? How does he speak, and what is his language? How does he sit, and how does he walk?” (II.54). This question rests on an assumption that things might be different, so how might the answers provided by Kṛṣṇa prove helpful?

C.The Bhagavad-Gītā & the Dilemma of Daily Life

The Bhagavad-Gītā has never not been intended in part as an answer to the dilemma of daily life, so bringing out this emphasis offers nothing revolutionary. But I do insist that the particular current dilemma of daily life described above lends itself particularly well to the Bhagavad-Gītā’s exposition in chapter 2.

Repeatedly, the text (and much of eastern philosophy besides) exhorts us not to be attached to the fruits of our action. It’s typically not immediately clear what this means in practice, even when it is stated unequivocally; e.g., “Nothing should be performed for sense gratification, but everything should be done for the satisfaction of Kṛṣṇa” (commentary on III.10, p. 211). Somewhat uncharacteristically, this enjoined nonattachment to the fruits of one’s actions brings Prabhupāda to resort to some paradoxical sounding language:

To become desireless [nispha in Sanskrit] means not to desire anything for sense gratification. In other words, desire for becoming Kṛṣṇa conscious is actually desirelessness. … Arjuna did not want to fight for his own sense satisfaction, but when he became fully Kṛṣṇa conscious he fought because Kṛṣṇa wanted him to fight. For himself there was no desire to fight, but for Kṛṣṇa the same Arjuna fought to his best ability. Real desirelessness is desire for the satisfaction of Kṛṣṇa, not an artificial attempt to abolish desires. The living entity cannot be desireless or senseless, but he does have to change the quality of the desires. A materially desireless person certainly knows that everything belongs to Kṛṣṇa (īśāvāsyam idaṁ sarvam), and therefore he does not falsely claim proprietorship over anything” (196–7).

That a different attitude, a change in the quality of the desires, makes the difference here is plain enough, and the example of Arjuna fighting, not for (the sake of) his desires or nondesires but Kṛṣṇa’s, points to the how (of how one would do this) and what it might “feel” like to desirelessly do something for another (Kṛṣṇa or otherwise). Nonetheless, it seems it’d be somewhat odd or unconvincing to be “doing everything for someone else” when that someone else is a non-present, to say nothing of literary, creation.[15]

The immediate, direct answer that Arjuna receives from Kṛṣṇa to his question says “one who gives up all varieties of desires for sense gratification produced within the mind and becomes satisfied by the realization of the self in the pure state of the soul—then it is said one is properly situated in perfect knowledge”  (II.55). The symptoms or outer signs of this state show one:

who is not disturbed in mind even amidst the threefold miseries or elated when there is happiness … and free from attachment, fear and anger … who is unaffected by whatever good or evil he may obtain, neither praising it nor despising it … who is able to withdraw his senses from sense objects, as the tortoise draws its limbs within the shell, … who restrains his senses, keeping them under full control, and fixes his consciousness upon me (II.56–8, 61).

So far so good, and still not at all clear as an answer. In fact, this begins to sounds like a jade, who is unaffected by all states because the world doesn’t matter (is all an illusion), but Prabhupāda has already been careful to refute such a claim (also, see below). In a bhakti yoga context, action that is not done in devotional service for Lord Kṛṣṇa might get called a waste of time, or vain, or even sinful, but those acts nevertheless are certainly real, insofar as they either fail to burn off karma or actually accrue negative karma. Here again, Prabhupāda stresses how, for one in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, doing the will of Kṛṣṇa becomes the nonattachment to one’s own doing:

For an impersonalist, the Lord … being impersonal, cannot eat. Whereas an impersonalist tries to avoid good eatables, a devotee knows that Kṛṣṇa is the supreme enjoyer and that He eats all that is offered to Him in devotion. So, after offering good eatables to the Lord, the devotee takes the remnants, called prasādam (188).

Prasādam receives particular emphasis. By dedicating ones actions to devotional service, the prasādam (the sacrificial remnant) satisfies one in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. An eample later in the text draws the distinction between those who merely prepare food for themselves and those who eat only from what is offered in sacrifice (c.f., III.13–4). This still may leave the matter vague—certainly as it relates to how we might become political engaged in the world at a time when simply confronting the world seems frequently more toxic or destructive than any good we might accomplish—but it emphasizes at least the necessity of activity and work as opposed to renunciation. If political engagement requires that we encounter the discourse of the world—both face-to-face in political action and avatar to avatar in the virtual world of online—how does this provide an alternative so we can participate without being, becoming, or modeling the jade, journalist, or jerk?

A long quotation from the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (see here) points to one answer. While chatting with a king, the Mahārāja Ambarīṣa, the great sage Durvāsā Muni loses control of his senses (in Jung’s terminology, he gets possessed by a mood), and although Ambarīṣa is less accomplished than Durvāsā Muni, he voids getting drawn into Muni’s fray in the following way:

King Ambarīṣa fixed his mind on the lotus feet of Lord Kṛṣṇa, engaged his words in describe the abode of the Lord, his hands in cleansing the temple of the Lord, his ears in hearing the pastimes of the Lord, his eyes in seeing the form of the Lord, his body in touching the body of the devotee, his nostrils in smell the flavor of the flowers offered to the lotus feet of the Lord, his tongue in tasting the tulasī leaves offered to Him, his legs in traveling to the holy place where His temple is situated, his head in offering obeisances unto the Lord, and his desires in fulfilling the desires of the Lord (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 9.4.18–20, qtd. in Prabhupāda, p. 184–5).

Previously, we had the straightforward assertion that desirelessness may be seen in Arjuna fighting for the (sake of) Kṛṣṇa’s desires rather than his own. Here, this more concretely shows—as does the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam generally—what it “looks like” when one “gives up all varieties of desires for sense gratification produced within the mind and becomes satisfied by the realization of the self in the pure state of the soul” (II.55). Here, we can see how King Ambarīṣa adopts an attitude—changes the qualities of his desires—completely colored, to be sure, by his bhakti devotion to Kṛṣṇa, but it also lends itself to thinking more generally in terms of acting for the sake of the desires of one’s Self (or the “pure state of the soul”). In particular, a kind short-circuiting happens here. Whatever Durvāsā Muni threw out there, whatever baiting, whatever insult, whatever barb, whatever morsel tempting for Ambarīṣa to respond to, the king redirected his thoughts, not in a way that ignored what Durvāsā Muni was saying (ignoring someone merely makes us into jerks), but rather in a way that did not allow the operations of his material nature (his guṇas) to run the show against his will. He did not have to control his senses in the sense of preventing them from happening, which is hopeless anyway, but channeled them through his yogic framework (in this case devotion to Kṛṣṇa in all of the various specifics mentioned) and thus did not become possessed (in Jung’s sense) either or sink to his baser self by replying to Durvāsā Muni as a jerk, a jade, or a journalist.

In one respect, this simply points not only to the distinction by effective communication experts between responding instead of reacting to a situation but also to that classic techniques of taking a deep breath or counting to ten before speaking. That these pieces of advice come with no backup plan for when they fail to work represents their less problematic feature; more problematic is the failure to remember to apply such advice at the right moment when most called for in the first place. (In a similar way, promises are easy to keep until we’re called on to fulfill them.) Kṛṣṇa consciousness answers this more problematic aspect, because we’re enjoined to be in it constantly, so that the problem of remembering to apply it at the crucial moment of an argument is no more and less crucial than remembering to apply it when stubbing my toe, picking up my mail, when sleeping, or at any other time. The constancy of it develops the habit of it that much more quickly. But it’s clear also that this demand for constancy provides no ironclad guarantee. The example of Durvāsā Muni shows that even sage renowned for controlling his passions can get possessed of a mood and lose control his senses, but Kṛṣṇa also confirms this generall: “O Arjuna, the senses are so turbulent they can forcibly lead astray even the mind of a vigilant person of sound judgment” (II.60).

This reminder has two major significances. In practical terms, it reminds us that becoming possessed by a mood (in Jung’s sense) can happen at any time but that that very potential for possession by a mood also points that there’s an alternative to that possession. On one view, this resembles effective communication experts remind us, often with a touch of superiority in their voice, that we always have a choice about how we respond. While true in the abstract, the point resembles my professors impression of solipsism: irrefutable but unconvincing. If you punch me in the nose and I react by swearing at you—there’s no question that I could have chosen a different response, but at that exact moment, it not only didn’t seem that way, it also in some material sense wasn’t that way, as evidenced precisely by the fact that I reacted by swearing at you rather than in some other way. As with orgasm, there’s a point of no return—once it starts, there’s no going back and having things be otherwise.

I don’t say this to defend reacting rather than responding. One of the important features of virtual (as opposed to face-to-face) encounters exists precisely in their built-in opportunities to avoid reactions. Whatever reaction we typed into Facebook, the comment thread, our texts, we’ve not only had the chance to revise them (if we bother), but also to reflect if we really want to hit “send.” Apparently Google has even implemented a feature that allows one to unsend sent emails. So something not to kid ourselves about is how our own jerky, jaded, or journalistic assertions in virtual encounters we have with other human beings make us culpable for them—far more than those excited utterances we blurt out face-to-face, and which so frequently feel like there was no available moment of choice involved in them whatsoever, no matter how much the effective communication experts insist otherwise; the circumstance sent us hurtling past the point of no return before we’d realized we’d even passed it. But online, when we “react” to someone with some shitty, gratuitous, or snide remark, we need to recognize that’s exactly what we wanted to do—be shitty, gratuitous, or snide, at least at that moment. One could even say that that (along with porn) is why there’s an Internet, so that we can be our baser selves and treat other humans in light of that.

Here’s my argumentative dilemma here. I recognize that, even online (i.e., in virtual encounters we have with other human beings), we might still react. In Amazon comments and on Facebook, to cite two examples, we can delete our comments, even if we passed the point of no return and sent something shitty in the first place. One has no luxury of “text regret” however (that I know of). If in the nononline world some people don’t know how to use or have difficulty using the technology of the apology to retract things better not to’ve been said, actual technological illiterarcy might leave some people stranded with a desire to unsay something without knowing how. All of this being so, if one an be sympathetic about reacting in ways we’d sooner not offline, the sympathy gets harder to sustain for online settings where, again, we have manifold ways to not say things and to retract what we did say. And so for that reason, we should jerk ourselves off less about “reacting” online and get more candid that, “Yes, I let myself say that.”

I suggest we have to admit this, not to drag ourselves through the muck, but to find a way to an alternative. If the Internet permits us (and particularly people in the US) to be shitty, gratuitous, and snide to one another, then we avail ourselves of that (1) because it’s fun, and (2) because it’s what we want to do. Maybe people in the 19th-century would have done the same; certainly the leading critics of predominantly female-authored novels in the late 18th-century often allowed the nastier side of their wit to pummel a defenseless authoress. But then, in economic terms, things were structured economically in much the same way as now. The point, in any case, doesn’t amount to a judgment that we take such resorts, because I see the intensity of it (if not just the fact of it) as a sign of the times. And it also shows how virtual encounters with other human beings (as one of the spaces of socio-economic structuring characteristic of the times) get co-opted into spaces that reproduce the kinds of interactions that perpetuate those current socio-economic arrangements.

However, when the effective communication experts assure me that (in my face-to-face encounters with people at least) that I always have a choice about how I respond—contrary to my experience sometimes—instead of putting a tool in my tool box for future use, this functions more like a (depressing) piece of evidence in each case where (apparently) I chose to react rather than to respond that I blew it yet again. A gentle communication effectiveness expert might console me, “There, there, just remember to choose next time,” but that doesn’t make me feel any more empowered to know how I’ll avoid the mistake next time. It doesn’t give me a way to do it, except, “Just remember.”

In contrast, the (metaphysical) claim in the Bhagavad-Gītāthat the senses are powerfully turbulent—that our guṇas are such that they not only run the show most of the time but that we even delusively claim that that running is our doing—offers instead that lapses on our part (being possessed by a mood, being run by the guṇas) is the norm such that any incursion we make against that norm is a victory and represents progress; because “even a little endeavor on the transcendental path offers great hope for deliverance” (420).

When I use the phrase “our guṇas run our show,” I’m deliberately masking how I would say this with English words, namely that “our natures run the show.” And I’m avoiding this, because in general we don’t oppose our natures running our show, because we identify our Self (or even our ego-consciousness) with our “nature”. For this reason, “speaking my mind” amounts to “being myself”; blurting out whatever occurs to me gets taken as “speaking the truth”. &c. Whatever justification, rightness, or wrongness there is in Indian philosophy, the blunt and stark reminder that the “mind” we speak and the “self” we be is not “us” at all but rather our nature (the guṇas) seems a radically helpful leverage point. For Jung, he gave ego-consciousness more credit; for him, the will was not hopelessly a plaything of the unconscious, and this also provides a useful insight to the extent that the Bhagavad-Gītā (at this point in its exposition at least) may be overstating the case. Without Jung’s insight, he might not have so closely characterized and named precisely those incursions from the unconscious that wreak havoc (sometimes for good) in our lives, all of those complexes (amongst other things) that overthrow our conscious will and make us the plaything (for a while) of something else.

So, the autonomous and usurping operations of the guṇas (or in psychological terms a possession by a mood) underlie the helpfulness of viewing these as both perpetual and requiring constant intervention—in other words, that they’re typical (one might even say normal)—so that even one interruption of the normal run of things constitutes progress worth congratulating. Much more could be said about this, but let this suffice for now. [16]

The foregoing suggests that what might be called “being myself” describes a trap. Though normal that I would identify with the apparent activity of my mind, especially as there seems to be no alternative, this chapter first proposed “follow your dharma” and ”follow your nature” as answers to the question, “What am I to do?” and now reverses course and says (when Arjuna presses the matter further), “Well, indeed. You are correct. To follow your dharma as both nature or duty means being the plaything of your guṇas. If you wish to be spared that, follow your Self, not your dharma or nature.”

NOTE: objections  might be raised against phrasing things this way. I address some in later posts (specifically in our notes on chapter 3) in light of the progression of ideas within the Bhagavad-Gītā. The specific issue that commentators like Prabhupāda might want to make here is that  “follow your Self” means “offering all that you do in devotional service to Kṛṣṇa”. If, imaginatively, we say that the self is one thing and the Self is another, then it is—at least at this point—a mistake by Prabhupāda’s outlook to equate that Self with Kṛṣṇa. Even reading the Bhagavad-Gītā as a psychological description (a phenomenology of enlightenment), the author employs an unambiguous non-identity of Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa as a central fact of the argument. Let this all be so. Now posit a self (ego-consciousness) and a Self, or perhaps better still, simply only a non-self (i.e., something other than ego-consciousness, which in Jungian terms would have its source necessarily the unconscious), then that non-self becomes a source of alternative reactions to situations I might find myself in.

If I identify myself with my ego-consciousness and the stuff I do, then all of the desires that lie at the back of that, by definition, are not the desires that my non-self has. It is in this distinction between the self and the non-self that some of the paradoxical sounding injunctions of this chapter come from. In Prabhupāda’s bhakti yoga context, the Self can only take an attitude toward Kṛṣṇa—a figure always essentially distinct from me—the Self cannot be identified with Kṛṣṇa (though there may be more esoteric byways that collapse the distinction).[17] Similarly, Jung cautions against the peril of identifying with the archetypal material that issues out of the unconscious; there can be no question of ever “becoming” or identifying with the Unconscious itself (except by giving up consciousness entirely). Whether one practices devotion to Kṛṣṇa by being in Kṛṣṇa consciousness or one seeks to fulfill the desires of the non-self (or Self) rather than the self,  both point to the possibility of not responding to events as we always do,[18] and that is where we may find an alternative to the “inevitable doom”[19] of becoming a jade, jerk, or journalist in our virtual (and finally even face-to-face) interactions with people. Whether the Bhagavad-Gītā provides one, we do at least need an alternative.

Pragmatically, we say it’s no problem when we see no problem. My interaction with a cashier or someone at a street corner may seem just fine as is, harmless at least, innocuous. But this is only half of the picture. What we fail to recognize as a problem denotes a problem for that very reason, and Kṛṣṇa does not neglect that point. To the extent that we are a plaything of the guṇas, it becomes logically necessary to non-attach not only to the trials of life (obviously enough) but also to its triumphs. The logic of this doesn’t make the news of this any more palatable; I’m likely not inclined to see the things I like (e.g., listening to music in my car as I drive) as needing to be construed as problems or subjected to the judgments or desires of someone else. Add to this that such a gesture of setting aside my desires supposedly should come about for the sake of a spiritual master like Prabhupāda or a fictional creation like Kṛṣṇa (or YHVH), and the whole thing seems even more dubious and unreasonable. And it’s no better if we swap out ceding the desires of our self (ego-consciousness) to someone else for ceding those desires to some other vague part of our Self (spiritual intelligence) or non-self. Just as it’s hard to parse what “doing everything for a (fictional) Kṛṣṇa” looks like, so does doing everything for the sake of the desires of a Self (or non-self) seems like a delusion substitution at the very least. Let all of this be so, we still need an alternative to the current order of things.

D. Consequences & a Fourth Type

To restate:

We find ourselves in the United States regularly surrounded in the public, which now includes the virtual spaces online, by an egregious misery that ultimately (if it has not already) co-opts us into it. Thus, we may withdraw from social interactions (and for example stop watching news)—which gives up the field to the very forces that drive us off in the first place—or if we do not withdraw, then by our participation in the world (especially in online interactions) we become whether we want to or not inadvertent collaborators in creating and perpetuating the miserable social conditions we now inhabit. Thus, we find ourselves caught in a dilemma every day—whether we do nothing or do something, the consequences of our actions further enable the circumstances that perpetuate our miserable social order. We need an alternative.

One way to address this problem (I’m now officially arguing against my premise) is to insist that it’s not so bad, really (if not actually bad at all). I’m not going to sweat the details of this objection; if you’re in the position of being able to say the quality of your life is good enough that it needs no significant change, then either you’re socially positioned as mostly well-to-do or the desperate pitch of your coping mechanisms is so well articulated that either you can’t confront it at all or doing so might bring down the whole house of cards. Both hinge on two main assumptions: (1) that my prime duty (“follow your dharma”) must be to see to my own affairs; that if we all do that, then things will be fine—or as fine as they can be anyway, and (2) that the social order will allow you to attend satisfactorily to your own affairs. Romney’s platform increases the demand of (1) on you will decreasing the likelihood of (2). In such a context, it falls on deaf ears to remind people that your “it’s not so bad” (either due to relative wealth or luxurious degrees of coping) exemplifies the grotesque (and celebrated) selfishness of the current social order, because it most assuredly is far, far, far worse than “not so bad” for millions of people in this country and billions elsewhere in the world. Especially in the United States, those goods that we count as essential to our lives we obtain primarily by denying them to others, both domestically and internationally. Tough shit for them, eh? Too bad they had the bad luck to be born where they were, eh? There really aren’t arguments on self-interested grounds against this, because the point stems from a “might makes right” base, which never has anything to do with morality (but only immoral justifications). So the counter-argument is not: (1) that’s a nasty attitude, or (2) thinking that way corrodes the basis an quality of your life, or even (3) drop the vanity and conceit that you’re a good person and just admit candidly what an e-bag you are. Rather, it is: you can see now, unambiguously, that all the robbery and denial directed at “others” to get those things you call good into your life is now starting to turn in your direction. You’re about to become (if you have not already become) a victim. Just as the Soviets encouraged peasants to become well-to-do under the NEP, and then dispossessed them fully and tossed them over the Urals to eke out an existence or starve to death, so the middle class—as the fatted calf—is getting led to the slaughter, if more slowly and stealthily. Hence, the entire economic context for the current election revolves (disingenuously) around the middle class. It’s just a question of whether you’ll willingly stretch your neck out to the saw (Romney’s platform) or will, if you’re comparatively wealthy and have the means, find a way to be further back in the line.[20]

Beyond this financial sense of “it’s not so bad,” however, is also the social version of it’s not so bad, that I’m (grossly) overstating the awfulness of general human interaction in daily life and online. In this regard, I’ll remind you that we are in the bottom third of the Happy Planet Index; I’ll remind you that I have witnessed people who are #2 on that index; travelers to India and even much of Europe, which tends not to be high on the index, note that people are happier. At the same time, things clearly aren’t so historically grim as Soviet Russia during the height of Stalinism or contemporaneously grim as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like the comparatively wealthy, for whom it really “isn’t so bad” in a grotesquely selfish sense, it may be that they are happy because life is good; I imagine the hopelessly sentimental and narrow-minded attitude expressed in the movie Eat Pray Love captures this nicely. For those who are coping, though, whether desperately or well, it’s exactly the question of “happy how” or “happy in what way”. Are we that kind of happy that comes with contentment, peace of mind, or lasting existential satisfaction? Or do we experience happiness in compensatory bursts, not as a positive experience in itself but as a negative experience (i.e., a cancellation) of drudgery, tedium, in short, lack of satisfaction, contentment, and peace of mind? In a word, are we giddy or happy? The Bhagavad-Gītā unambiguously claims that chasing sense gratification cannot yield peace of mind, and thus not happiness. So, if it’s “not so bad” in a social sense, i.e., in our interactions with people, it is because the occasional pleasant interaction—with a cashier at a store, for instance—offsets in an essentially neurotic way our prevailing lack of satisfaction, peace of mind, contentment, i.e., happiness.[21]

Whatever financial or social variation we might offer that “it’s not so bad” as merely an expression of a dog-eat-dog attitude—one, by the way, that the poor historically rarely share because such a shitty attitude would never play in the survival-tenuous setting of imposed poverty—the next objection to my premise would be (1) that jade, jerk, and journalist are not our only social recourse, and (2) that even if they are, we do not get inevitably coopted into them try as we might not. In note 13 at the end of this essay, I address the relative sufficiency of this tripartite distinction, and if pressed I’m sure I (or someone else) could creatively find a way to pack any cited instance of an online response into one of these three categories. But probably the most immediately “missing” online persona—and, to be clear, all three types denotes tendencies that one might shift among, depending on mood, circumstance, and setting—would be something like a peacekeeper, the person who tries to reconcile the different sides of the issue in some variety of (peaceable, or less argumentative) consensus. Continuing with the j-words, I’ll say this is a “justice” (of the peace). And since this is a newly proposed term, it needs some fleshing out like all the rest.

The most immediate “refutation” of the justice as a hopefully desirable alternative to the unmistabkly undesirable alternatives of jerk, jade, and journalist comes from Jung’s observation, “Thinking is hard; that’s why people judge” (Collected Works 10, ¶641), which matters since a justice (of the peace) presupposes a judge (see here for a basic overview of the issue). A justice of the peace, by definition, raises the appeal for peace based on (a presumed) commonly held set of values—literally a penal code, metaphorically, whatever prevailing social mores exist at the time. Thus, instead of reconiling the two positions under contention, the justice has one of two functions. On one hand, the justice literally arrests the exchange under contention in the name of keeping the peace. In the second function, a justice of the peace determines whether to accept a petition or not—queer-identified people seeking to be married have come face to face with justices of the peace who refused or claimed they simply could not recognize the request. Socially, the justice of the peace takes it upon himself or herself to declare that the contestation has no basis in the first place, hence advice to agree to disagree, to live and let live, or the plea, can’t we all just get along.

To the extent that a public disturbance could get worse, could become destructive, could threaten life or limb, &c, a justice of the peace represents a desirable impulse to let things not get out of hand past the point of some no return. But the justice does so by imposing a third “point” in the argument, that the argument has no point—or, at least shouldn’t be conducted in this way because we’re all civilized around here, and this won’t stand. Over against this pro-social, or at least sometimes merely necessary, intervention, many people know too well how oppressive the judiciary factually is. But beyond this, the justice presupposes that both parties are (1) essentially wrong, and (2) could reach some common ground if they’d just chill for a while. But where irreconcilable social goods are concerned, that conceit is false—and it’s precisely in recognition of this that Berlin (1978) in Russian Thinkers asserts that true social pluralism has been historically so hard to generate (in the West). Having arrested the exchange, the justice of the peace, now in the capacity of a judge, either bluntly (for want of a solution) tells everyone to go their own way, to kiss and make up, or concocts (perhaps brilliantly) precisely the third point upon which a consensus or common ground might be reached by the contending parties.

In real world settings, this attains effective force because someone has guns to back it up. And that proposes a whole world of problems and issues debated to no end by human beings trying to work out equitable forms of social arrangements. With virtual encounters, the degree of accountability much less any enforcement falls toward zero. Only once in all of my online wanderings have I ever seen someone, over a course of many posts in a thread, corral violently disparate opinions into something like an exhortation to shared values held by all present. It’s memorable precisely for its rarity. But the rarity of an online persona’s effectiveness needn’t be an objection to it. This argues, rather, that more people might more often take up the mantle of justice of the peace (rather than being a jerk, jade, or journalist) and try to marshal a group realization of its shared values, even if those shared values are only the “universal” human concerns for the well-being of those we hold dear.

However, it remains a crucial problem (for a justice in this setting) that no accountability or enforcement exists. Whereas a real justice and judge, for better or for worse, can back up any draconian or benevolent imposition of values, with online interactions the consequence entails not just simple futility but yet another undesirable social model that abets the perpetuation of the social order that afflicts us all in the first place. By commanding (whether by telling or asking or pleading) people to desist with their dispute, if this has any effect at all, this may merely defer it (or drive it away to somewhere else) but it does so precisely under the banner of an Authority that arrogates to itself the (sometimes good-willed) intention to so command others. The idea that anyone might have the authority to do this, simply by taking on such a role, is itself problematic. In past eras, only certain people born to certain classes were deemed qualified to take on such roles, and while such a conceit not only offends our sensibilities and seems dubious in premise, the idea that these days if one merely has enough money then that’s reason alone to set oneself up as a justice and judge is at least equally bogus. In olden days, no one would have insisted that they had some right to be a justice or a judge, that they were entitled to it, but now in an era where bourgeois conceits hold it an inalienable right in potential for all people at least, so the justice or judge may make an appearance in our virtual worlds, however generously, benevolently, or with good intentions.

It’s not that a jerks, jades, journalists, or justices never have redeeming qualities. One can admire the jerk’s conceit of tenacious subjectivity, the journalist’s conceit of catholic objectivity, the jade’s moderation of lop-sided jerkiness or journalism, and the justice’s mediation between all three. The point, rather, is that in their manifestation within in the structural domain of non-offline encounters between human beings they come to have the function only of serving to rehearse, reproduce, and reify the dominant modes of (unhappy) being that guarantee a perpetuation of that unhappiness. These questions here, then, are two-fold: whether alternatives exist to this inevitable state of affairs, and whether any alternatives can circumvent this state of affairs. Eagleton (1989)[22] puts it this way:

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 (184).

The emphasis here rests precisely on the historical/structural determinants that form spaces of human interaction on the Internet. Just as we, as human beings, manifest the forms we do according to the structures of our consciousness, so do our social selves manifest in the forms they do according to the structures we inhabit. If an unsavoury side tends to dominate Internet culture, this is less to do with an inherently base “human nature,” and more toward the kinds of good reasons that historical materialism can provide for why the past has taken the form it has. This means “defeat” on the Internet has alternatives—the modes currently practiced and modeled are the dominant ones for structurally determined reasons, not because they are the only modes available. Similarly, the form of such spaces on the Internet itself are not inevitable either, though they may be the obvious consequence of the current social milieu. This is no vacuous moralistic hope that the Internet will “sort itself out” on its own, but a call to examine those forms, understand their determinants, and craft both interventions and alternatives to them as best we can.

In conversation today with a friend, an angle on all of this came to the fore. He suggested the Internet represents a kind of wish-fulfillment for human omniscience, in the sense that the feeling that anything might be unknowable is falling out of our repertoire. The emphasis here must be on the lessening of the feeling of unknowability because, at the same time, the amount of information available is unmanageably vast so that the prospect of actual omniscience is unconvincing. Nothing, however, suggests that omniscience must mean instantaneous access to all nodes of that omniscience; it might take an omniscient being an eternity to sort through that omniscience. I raised the point raised in Borge’s (1941) “Library of Babel,” where there exists a copy of every possible book. Thus, in that Library a copy of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (in English) exists that differs from another copy only in a single additional comma (plus every other conceivable variation) so that in point of fact all books amount simply to transformations of all other books. Or even less than this; a footnote in the text notes:

Letizia Álvarez de Toledo has observed that this vast Library is useless: rigorously speaking, a single volume would be sufficient, a volume of941 ordinary format, printed in nine or ten point type, containing an infinite number if infinitely thin leaves. (In the early seventeenth century, Cavalieri said that all solid bodies are the superimposition of an infinite number of planes.) The handling of this silky vade mecum would not be convenient: each apparent page would unfold into other analogous ones; the inconceivable middle page would have no reverse.

This Library of course contains one’s biography in an infinite number of variations, so that even if I could find the volume that correctly tells my life in every detail exactly, even up to the moment of my death, I would not be able to discern the correct book from incorrect ones. With this becomes clear the observation: if everything is true, then nothing is true.[23] As my friend pointed out, this raises the problem of omnipotence, since it is in the domain of doing that one might express the desire, “I wish to know the unknowable, to conceive of the inconceivable,” and the like. On this view, omniscience is “greater” than omnipotence. And he suggested, therefore, that the Internet being the wish-fulfillment of omniscience, the omnipotence of virtuality will be a next step.

What is at stake then, in the wake of our omniscience where we discovered, somewhat to our chagrin, that the wish for omniscience left us with no ability (in the Library of Babel) to discern whether this book here is the true book or not. This matters because it could be asked, in light of all of the foregoing, whether it is actually a dangerous waste of time to give attention to online actualities at all. If the Internet provides, ultimately, a fundamentally debilitating and toxic environment where our guṇas make us into loyalists on behalf of a social world that kills us, then perhaps it is better after all to bow out. One may argue that the media itself are already so vitiated by propaganda that it’s necessary to avoid it, that only by ignoring it is there any chance of making a difference that will change things. Whatever goes on in the worlds of online encounters, the motive actualities of life play out first and foremost with my “tribe,” by which I mean the people in the immediate vicinity of my neighborhood. The erosions of community, even the failure of community in general, the failure of “neighborhood” to provide meaningful sociality, the greater mobility of people (especially amongst the poor) that makes long-term connections feasible and possible—all of this being so, we can call this a function of the neoliberal social environment more than a failure of community. Like our Internet selves, sociality offline manifests through the forms available to it and those forms have been being destroyed from the outside for decades now.[24]

But, like Kṛṣṇa’s starting advice to Arjuna “fight,” the similar conclusion here is that going off the grid cannot work, except to satisfy ego-oriented aims.[25] “not merely by abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from reaction nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection” (III.4). Moreover, having been granted our wish for omniscience—although it’s now clear we might have wished instead for wisdom—it’s precisely in the (unfortunately) infinitely contestable domain of that omniscience that we confront one another, most of all in virtual forums. That this text (this framing of the world’s narratives) gets precedence over that text, if this is not to devolve merely to a pissing contest or conflict resolution at the end of a gun barrel, has becomes the order of the day. And for all that people might want to ignore this, it’s determining (perhaps in the main part) the current election. It’s having very “real world” consequences.

So it turns out not to be a waste of time in itself to give attention to online interactions with human beings, even as the current modes of that interaction—whether as a jerk, a jade, a journalist, or a justice—has the damning downside of ensuring that we condemn ourselves to the status quo. It needn’t always be this way—not only was it once not, the fact of that difference means the future can change as well[26]. But we cannot, as against all vacuous moralistic hopes, simply hope things will change of their own accord. As Prabhupāda put it, “The living entity cannot be … senseless, but he does have to change the quality of the desires” (197).

Insofar as the structural qualities of online spaces enable (only) certain dominant forms of interaction, we may reject those forms as necessary and see them simply as determined. Speaking concretely, however, the effort it takes not to succumb to the four modes is considerable. The wear wrought simply by the environment itself takes its toll, and the shittiness people allow themselves gets disheartening. Knowing that people are (in Jung’s terminology) possessed by moods or (in eastern terms) the plaything of the guṇas doesn’t make things any easier. Nevertheless, to hold out creatively against these modes would allow us to uncover other (perhaps unintentional) joints and crannies in the structure of Internet spaces. The objection will remain whether these emergent alternatives aren’t just as vitiated, just as complicit, in the reproduction of the status quo. That remains to be seen. Similarly, even if one can import some ‘wholly alien” modes into online interactions, it remains to be seen if the dominant milieu wouldn’t “corrupt” that alternative as well. Think of it this way: if online interactions are like a vial of fluoroantimonic acid (which is 2×1019 times more corrosive than 100 percent sulfuric acid), then anything introduced into it will be corroded (if not cause a toxic explosion that kills everyone in the vicinity). Even the addition of a base (to overextend my example, and assuming one can even do this with such a ridiculous reactive super-acid) would at most only dilute the corrosiveness of the environment, and if there is a sufficiently renewing source of the acid, then it’s likely one couldn’t keep up with enough addition of base anyway. Or, to give another example, one might imagine a woman suing a mens-only organization for the right to be present. If she wins her suit, her presence most likely means that if she is not ostracized while in the club, then it will be because she proves to be “one of the guys” after all. If, over a thousand generations, this prompts men to accept a revised and widened idea of what a “guy” is, then this will not be stroke of liberation for women.

By contrast, imagine that the woman’s suit is not to be allowed in the club but to change the bylaws of the club that generally disallow women in the first place. With sufficient will, this men’s club might eventually be an all-women’s club, as its popularity with women and consequent flight of male chauvinists from its ranks proceeds apace. Similarly (and here I don’t have enough chemistry to make the example cogently), if instead of attempting to alter the acidity of an environment by adding a neutralizing element I reduce the temperature or the pressure of the environment so that the acid becomes solid, then the environment—which might now be uninhabitable due to the extreme conditions required to accomplish this—at least would negate the danger of the acid.

Dubious examples notwithstanding, a course of action from this involves not elaborating different modes of interaction but changing the structural features of the environment (or treating the environment as structurally changed) so that new modes of interaction become available, visible, or viable. A most material structural change in this regard would be not to accept the premise—shared by the jerk, jade, journalist, and justice—that those online are omniscient.  This is not to say we should point out the shortcomings of people’s knowledge (this would be merely to at in one of the modes against the basis of knowledge in any other, as when jerks call journalists deluded liberals) but to point out, rather, the shortcoming of all knowledge such that fighting over what is “true” is undesirable.[27]

I don’t pretend that this suggestion must be met with enthusiasm, or easily, or that it provides a panacea. It certainly doesn’t propose a vacuous moralistic hope, since operating in this (Jainist) mode would require a strong level of commitment to it to keep it up. From the context of the Bhagavad-Gītā, as well, it is Kṛṣṇa who is omniscient,[28] not Arjuna, and both Prabhupāda and Jung (when he is not fantasizing about the glories of the imitatio Christi) specifically denies the desirability of imitating the Divine.[29]

In effect, this Jainist (or Jungian) mode proposes the argument for and maintenance of that pluralistic vision Berlin notes is so difficult to sustain. At root, it offers the possibility of not permitting the available modes of our “natures” from distracting us with squabbles between us so that those who benefit principally and primarily from our political distraction may continue on merrily with their exploitation of us and our neighbors domestically and abroad. Nor do I intend that this should be the end of this issue. Recognizing that my actions online as a jerk, jade, journalist, or justice of the peace needn’t be mistaken for an expression of my self but may be seen as an expression of my nature (the guṇas). This proposes the beginning of a conversation to examine, “Well then what is my self, if not my nature?” At the same time, this at least gives me pause so I no longer wade into the fray only to whole-heartedly defeat my best purposes by becoming a plaything of the environments I occupy. In the change of my quality of desires, this may even mean that the toxicity of the environment affects me less.

As not the end of this topic, more remains to be said as the Bhagavad-Gītā continues, but for now this is more than enough. Like all initial proposals, it must seem necessarily incomplete, inadequate, and oversimplified, but the proposal is for  first step, for a premise from which further consequence can get derived. Because whatever the outcome of the election, we need an alternative.


[1] All references to this commentary will refer henceforth to the online PDF of the text and commentary found at http://ebooks.iskcondesiretree.info/pdf/00_-_Srila_Prabhupada/Bhagavad_Gita_As_It_Is.pdf

[2] An exception in chapter 2, which is striking for being an exception, seems to occur in the commentary to II.69, where he notes, “There are two classes of intelligent men. One is intelligent in material activities for sense gratification, and the other is introspective and awake to the cultivation of self-realization” (194). This recognition of the relative validity of these two classes of men points to the plurality of truth-classes in the Bhagavad-Gītā. The verse itself, a famous one, reads, “What is night for all living entities is the time of wakefulness for all self-controlled being, and what is wakefulness for all living entities is the time of night for all self-controlled being.

[3] This resembles an acknowledgment of a plurality of truth-classes, insofar as the typically argued general good of sannyāsa is not simply inappropriate for everyone to undertake at any time, but represents the typically argued general bad of a social disturbance at those wrong times. This does not resemble an acknowledgment of a plurality of truth-classes, insofar as the underlying reason for the argument is that according to varṇāśrama-dharma (similar to “do your duty”) one is enjoyed to act solely in accordance with one’s current station in life. A young person should not engage in business, then—though of course, the exigencies of Indian civilization show innumerable exceptions. Socially, these are the psychological equivalents of ego-conscious equivocation about principles although frequently the consequences of going against social principles can be more deleterious than going against psychological principles. Or so the argument runs.

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

[5] Mann, T. (1955). Gesammelte Werke, vol. 12. Berlin: Band, §828, 830–1. [footnote in Barabash (1977).]

[6] Prabhupāda might insist that the question always has bearing for human beings. Sure, of course. A major part of the swami’s mission in the US arose in reaction or relation to the social circumstances of the late 1960s, &c. But beyond this general utility, chapter 2 has some very specific relevancies for our current dilemma, and so it is necessary to describe that dilemma in some detail, to see how those specifics apply.

[7] “The Happy Planet Index (HPI) is an index of human well-being and environmental impact that was introduced by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) in July 2006. The index is designed to challenge well-established indices of countries’ development, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the Human Development Index (HDI), which are seen as not taking sustainability into account. In particular, GDP is seen as inappropriate, as the usual ultimate aim of most people is not to be rich, but to be happy and healthy. Furthermore, it is believed that the notion of sustainable development requires a measure of the environmental costs of pursuing those goals.” (see here). The issue here cannot be that any such index is too subjective. How one constructs a nation’s GDP involves decisions about what to include and what not to include (especially whether the uncompensated work of women in the home should even be considered work); similarly, IQ tests involve gross subjectivity and racism. The conceit of the GDP is that it has no errors of selection or that the errors don’t matter because it provides a consistent measure for all places measured. The conceit of IQ is that, even if it rests on nothing, still if everyone takes the test that compares “something” across everyone tested, so it’s worth measuring that “something” even if we don’t know what it is. (In this regard, it is worth pointing out that in a court trial aimed to challenge the disparate impact of IQ testing, all of the IQ proponents except one admitted that they didn’t know what IQ was, much less that it could be measured.) So if GDP and IQ can be taken seriously, then what the HPI selects to include or not is no more erroneous than GDP, and even if there are subjectivities in its items, still it measures “something” that at least is more quantifiable than IQ across every nation measured. My use of the HPI here is strictly in a comparative sense between the countries measured.

[8] As part of the attempted CIA-backed coup of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2002, one may compare Chávez’s refusal to speak in gross generalities about “the Venezuelan people” when offering rationales for his courses of action and proposed policies as compared to the usurpers’ constant use of the phrase “people of Venezuela” as justification for their deeds, which included dissolving the whole government, abolishing the Supreme Court, and throwing out the Constitution that the Venezuelan people had collectively participated in crafting of and that was a major reason they supported Chávez for president in the first place (because he promised to, and did, implement that Constitution). One would think, if your concern is really for the people of a country, your actions rather than your constant iteration of “the people” will show that support. Or similarly, those who constantly stress their honesty stand in poor comparison to those people who by their words an actions exhibit honesty. If Fox News were “fair and balanced,” the motto wouldn’t be necessary. An even more grotesque example of this is the claim of bipartisanship at the American Enterprise Institute.

[9] The fact that this teaser got dragged out till the end of the hour itself may be important. On the one hand, this could be simply a reflection of the desire to keep viewers on the channel for the duration of the broadcast. In narrative terms, this is a sort of saving the best for last, but as we know from books and films, if you’re going to make a big deal about some secret, then the reveal better equal in pay-off the build-up, which was not the case here. The “Oh is that all?” factor probably induced a greater sense of dirty pool or not playing fair on the part of the broadcasters, so that its long-term effect on viewer loyalty might be negative. But there is also the fact that for any viewers who stopped watching prior to the reveal, they would have gone out into the world carrying the anxiety about a record number of corpses in east Fresno. For those who lived in east Fresno, this might have resulted in a greater sense of vigilance or paranoia; for those who did not live in east Fresno, a more urgent sense of “needing to do something about those people over there” might prevail. Or yet something else. I wish only to emphasize that the cheap trick of deferral doesn’t only have an effect at the moment of the reveal. In the second presidential debate, Romney got asked point-blank what loopholes he proposed to close in order to make his mathematically impossible tax plan slightly less impossible. He didn’t answer. Thus, the (aggravating) teaser there is: if I hang around and keep watching, maybe he’ll answer, maybe he’ll be forced to answer, &c. So that at the end of the debate, when that shoe hasn’t dropped, the deferral gets pushed beyond the end of the debate and out in to the public domain, where it continues not to be answered by him. Strategically, the news channel might have cannily “forgotten” to cover the story they promised, which would have avoided the “Oh is that all” moment, but for those who dropped out of the broadcast early, the story’s anxiety could continue to resonate. Narratively, one creates a risk with this kind of deferral; as Chekhov insists, if you introduce a gun in the first act it must be fired in the fifth. But since life is not art, an unethical politicker might not feel compelled to honor this expectation.

[10] Perhaps I should say there are troll varieties of jerks, journalists, and jades, if by troll is meant someone whose contribution to an exchange amounts basically to shitting on the table. However, I’m more inclined to see trolls as simply a kind of jade—basically, a stupid jade.

[11] (If we were policy-makers in the executive, that might be so, but in the court of public opinion, mere facts are just that: mere facts.)

[12] Suttner (2003)[2], drawing on Gramsci (1979)[3] describes it: ¶ intellectuals should be defined by the role they play, by the relationships they have to others. They are people who, broadly speaking, create for a class or people … a coherent and reasoned account of the world, as it appears from the position they occupy. Intellectuals are crucial to the process through which a major new culture, representing the world-view of an emerging class or people, comes into being. It is intellectuals who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world (see Gramsci 1971[4]: 418; Crehan 2002[5]: 129–30). ¶ In a  letter of 1931 Gramsci says his definition of an intellectual ‘is much broader than the usual concept of “the greater intellectuals”’ (1979: 204). In his Prison Notebooks, he writes: ¶What are the ‘maximum’ limits of acceptance of the term ‘intellectual;” Can one find a unitary criterion to characterise equally all the diverse and disparate activities of intellectuals and to distinguish these at the same time and in an essential way from the activities of other social groupings? The most widespread error of method seems to me that of having looked for this criterion of distinction in the intrinsic nature of intellectual activities, rather than in the ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities (and therefore the intellectual groups who personify them) have their place within the general complex of social relations (1971: 8. Emphasis added by Suttner). ¶[Suttner continues] In the same way a worker is not characterized by the manual or instrumental work that he or she carries out, but by ‘performing this work in specific conditions and in specific social relations’ (117–8). [2] Suttner, R. (2005). The character and formation of intellectuals within the ANC-led South African liberation movement in T. Mkandawire (ed.) African intellectuals: rethinking politics, language, gender and development, pp. 117–54. London: Zed. [3] Gramsci, A. (1979). Letters from prison, introduced by L. Lawner, London, Melbourne, New York: Quartet. (footnote from Suttner 2005). [4] Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks (Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, eds.) London: Lawrence and Wishart (footnote from Suttner 2005). [5] Crehan, K. (2002). Gramsci, culture and anthropology, London: Pluto Press (footnote from Suttner 2005).

[13] No system of classification claims to be complete. Simply to propose categories immediately proposes as well all of the borderline cases between and within categories. My tripartite distinction of jerk, jade, and journalist can’t avoid this, and the clever use of j-words may spark thoughts about other, more justly useable words. What the three categories aim to identify are attitudes toward issues (or even objects). The jerk insists that his personal view of the issue is the only true one (i.e., is wholly subjective); the journalist insists that only an impersonal view of the issue can be true (i.e., is at least ideally objective); and the jade insists that, subjective or objective, none of it matters because we’re all going to die anyway, and I think I’ll laugh at you while you do. Over against the jerk and journalist, who insist on meaning, the jade says the search for meaning is idiotic. The benefit of the jade—considering my language, you might be surprised I’d claim there is any—is in the fact not that meaning can ever be negated, but sometimes things mean too much and it can be helpful to play down its intensity. In this, the jade may serve as a corrective to the jerk, who will stray out (left or right) toward fanaticism eventually, while the journalist will constantly pull toward the “zero point” supposedly in the middle where the human or personal element disappears. This will to human annulment (in the journalist) is also offset by the jade, who is no more inclined to accept an absolutism of objectivity than the more or less moderate and immoderate versions of fanaticism exhibited by the jerk. Online, nearly all of these types arise in a form that is, if not less educated, then in an environment that doesn’t generally encourage us to step forward with our properly mannered educated selves. This, again, is where the absence of accountability is a bane and boon—a bane because one encounters no end of rudeness, a boon because one sees perhaps people more as they allow themselves to be in an unguarded way. At the same time, however, this “electronic courage” (like the courage of whisky) shouldn’t be given too much credit as a “reality”. We don’t have to allow ourselves to be baited by the shittier allowances people give themselves online.

[14] This is the unintended effect of the argument that the world is nonreal, i.e., illusory.

[15] As with any deity, whether one believes in the literal actuality of it may make a kind of difference for believers, but the real non-actuality of such gods doesn’t negate their psychological value or effect.

[16] The example of King Ambarīṣa shows what rechanneling these typical guṇas actions can look like. In psychological terms, this may be framed as acting in terms of the Self rather than in terms of the ego-consciousness—in terms of our ideals (Arjuna) and not the utilitarian aim of merely maintaining the façade of holding the kingdom together (Dhṛtarāṣṭra). For King Ambarīṣa, the Self (in the form of Kṛṣṇa) provides him a whole host of symbolic trappings to addressing himself to, but the most general form of this—manifesting something like the sentence, “I am going to let my Self handle this one”—could be stated, in a confusing way, as not reacting as one would. This gets back to the paradoxical language Prabhupāda resorted to, that “desire for becoming Kṛṣṇa conscious is actually desirelessness” (196). Consciousness, per Jung, consists of that of which we are aware (and can only sense) and that of which we are unaware (and can only intuit); that is, sensation is conscious perception, and intuition is unconscious perception. One might give these other names; Jung chose these terms for reasons he gives in Psychological Types. Insofar as the Self comprises my totality, I can then speak of (selfish) ego-consciousness desires and (selfless) Self desires. If I non-attach to ego-consciousness desires, then I may (directly or indirectly) become aware of the Self’s desires.

[17] This distinction from Kṛṣṇa grounds Prabhupāda’s assertion of the individuality of souls after death (i.e., they are not absorbed and vanish into the Divine).

[18] Jung recognized that any total view of the human psyche he derived by looking at those who came to see him professionally would lead to a hopefully skewed vision of the human being; this is, in fact, one of the criticism Jung has of Freud and Adler alike. Every day in all kinds of circumstances, our unconscious presents us with material that is amplifying, compensatory, and goodness knows what else, and we take it all in stride and the medicine of the unconscious ‘works” automatically. But at other times, something in our psychic economies gets out of whack enough that the unconscious “resorts to strong measures.” And for those suffering such cognitive dissonance or neuroses, they’d wind up in Jung’s consulting chamber.

[19] Only because “doom” now has such a watered-down sense is the word “inevitable” necessary. Previously, all dooms had a sense of the inevitable and the irremediable. “doom: O.E. dom “law, judgment, condemnation,” from P.Gmc. *domaz (cf. O.S., O.Fris. dom, O.N. domr, O.H.G. tuom, Goth. doms “judgment, decree”), from PIE root *dhe- (cf. Skt. dhaman- “law,” Gk. themis “law,” Lith. dome “attention”), lit. “to set, put” (see factitious). A book of laws in Old English was a dombec. Modern sense of “fate, ruin, destruction” is c.1600, from the finality of the Christian Judgment Day” (see here for related words).

[20] Demanding that entities with 21 trillion in offshore accounts contribute one-third of that to the national debt would reduce it by 50 percent, thus halving the annual mandatory debt payments and freeing up some 200 billion dollars per year.

[21] I propose this is one reason why people like to shop. It is not merely whatever materialistic yen we experience to own some piece of crap from Wal-Mart or a Louis Vuitton shop but also to have an experience—in the store generally or at the check-out counter at least—of being respected, if not served. It doesn’t matter at all that the “moment of relationship” between a cashier and customer is utterly unnatural and distorted by the hierarchal structure that makes the customer always right, the illusion of respect and service can be enough—and just let that cashier belie even the least sign of disinterest, never mind rudeness, and we will take note of it, perhaps sympathetically, or perhaps more often with a peevish sense of affront. Because even if it was dread necessity that drove us out of the house to get some anti-nutritious food to feed our howling brats and spouse at home, at least the tediousness of that task an come with a hand-job from the cashier that we’re not trapped in a nightmare. Such an arrangement doesn’t pass muster as “happiness.” Nor any more so if I temper the “spleen” of the previous description, and send someone out from the house with no sense of dread whatsoever, if still the necessity to do so, so that any “positive” interaction with the cashier (which is still wholly distorted by the hierarchal arrangements of the setting) still doesn’t pass muster as happiness. This also may describe the conventionally claimed distinction that women like to browse and window shop while men prefer just to make purchases and get on with it. (It’s easy to think of counterexamples to this cultural conceit.) In particular, window shopping—whether one makes a purchase or not—tends to involve a lengthier interaction with various “servants” (clerks) in the stores; it could even involve considerable effort by the clerk, again whether all that effort results in a sale or not. This sort of situation provides one (whether male or female) with an opportunity to be “up” in a hierarchy (vis-à-vis the customer and the clerk). For women, a greater propensity to window shop in general may arise from typically being “down” in the patriarchal hierarchy of daily life; men may less frequently seek this out—insisting on the paradigm “just get in there and buy what you need and go”—because they are already “up” in the hierarchy generally, but men do seek out these experiences. The most obvious example is car-shopping, where the appearance of a customer on the lot an come off almost as something of a holy event. Here again, there’s nothing like an insufficiency of hand-job to drive even the most excited-to-buy customer off to some other lot, &c. That this sense of importance gets sought out in the completely contrived hierarchy of a customer/clerk circumstance more than anything underscores how not like “happiness” this is.

[22] 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.

[23] One might think a way out of this in asserting that what is knowable is finite so that omniscience needn’t encompass infinity as well. However, to know everything that is knowable includes the category of knowing what is unknowable, yet that remains outside the domain of omniscience making it not omniscience. By this definition, of simply knowing all there is to know, it becomes clear that we are already then omniscient; that is, within the domain of what we know, we now all of it. The fat that someone else can clearly see we lack in some piece of knowledge, or the fat that we can speculate there is more we don’t know, or the fact that we can imagine a divine being of celestial heft who knows vastly more than we do, thus putting our pretenses of omniscience to shame, offers no objection. Here again, then, the claim of human omniscience is not that all that is knowable (now or in the future) is alredy accessible to us now, and the fact that each passing moment brings more into consciousness, while simultaneously shucking off what is forgotten or no longer needed anymore, doesn’t change this in the least.

[24] Recall the ostensible social contrast: “(1) that my prime duty (“follow your dharma”) must be to see to my own affairs; that if we all do that, then things will be fine—or as fine as they can be anyway, and (2) that the social order will allow you to attend satisfactorily to your own affairs.” The destruction of community provides evidence of bad faith in expecting (2).

[25] Saying this is no condemnation of those who opt for this choice, many of whom have lived inspired acts of resistance and intervention against the status quo. And just as they are manifold answers to Arjuna, only one of which speaks to his truth-class, so is this option true (and workable) only for those for whom it is workable.

[26] To borrow a verse from the Bhagavad-Gītā that may be oddly applied here: “before birth created beings are unmanifest, in the middle are unmanifest, and then again unmanifest after death. What cause then for lamentation?” (II.28)

[27] This points to the fable famously expressed by the Jains (see here) “Six Blind Men and the Elephant.” I won’t reprise what can be read in the link.

[28] More precisely, as an avatar, Kṛṣṇa denotes a limited manifestation of that which is neither omniscient nor not omniscient.

[29] More will be said about this in later posts.

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This series ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year Canetti’s  Crowds and Power.[1] This is the twelfth entry in the series and the tenth addressing Part 1 (The Crowd), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I address section 15–20, “Classification of Crowds According to Their Prevailing Emotion,” including five basic types of crowds: baiting crowds, flight crowds, prohibition crowds, reversal crowds, and feast crowds. For the sake of size, I am breaking this post up into more than one part. This is part 2.

(2) Flight Crowds

One might readily infer what Canetti means by a flight crowd, so it will be pertinent to quote “the most striking example we know of” (55): Napoleon’s army in retreat from Moscow. With that in mind: Meanwhile:

The mass flight …is characterized by …the exaltation of common movement. … Everyone who falls by the way acts as a spur to the others. Fate has overtaken him and exempted them. He is a sacrifice offered to danger. However important he may have been to some of them as a companion in flight, by falling he becomes important to all of them. The sight of him gives new strength to the weary; he has proved weaker than they are; the danger was aimed at him and not at them. The isolation in which he remains behind, and in which they still see him for a short time, heights for them the value of their being together. Anyone who falls has thus an incalculable importance for the cohesion of the flight (54).

Canetti distinguishes mass flight, characterized by a common danger at a single point from which the flight crowd moves, from panic, which arises when the directionality of a crowd gets blocked off. Also, while one might expect mass flight to be a rushed affair, as Napoleon’s retreat demonstrates it can be both slow in time and over time; similarly, the mass flight of the French from Paris in 1940 also illustrates this.

In general, the notion of safety in numbers prevails, which accounts for a discernible orderliness of the mass flight, as distinct from occasions when panic takes over.

People flee together because it is best to flee that way. They feel the same excitement and the energy of some increases the energy of others; people push each other along in the same direction. So long as they keep together they feel that the danger is distributed, for the ancient belief persists that danger springs at one point only.[16] They argue that, whilst the enemy is seizing one of them, all the others can escape. The flanks of the flight are uncovered but, since they are extended, they think it impossible for danger to attack all of them at the same time. No-one is going to assume that he, out of so many, will be the victim and, since the sole movement of the whole flight is toward salvation, each is convinced that he personally will attain it (53).

The flight crowd is one that Canetti claims is pre-human, though (like the baiting crowd) he does not support or take up any details about that here.

With respect to the flight crowd generally, we cannot let the likely far more familiar circumstance of panic color this description, although it might help to make comparisons. It is not only that the danger is at some single distant point away from which the crowd moves, but also that the danger is at a sufficient distance such that the crowd needn’t move too quickly. At some point, with tanks rolling up on the rear of a crowd and beginning to fire, the “way” that will be blocked will not be the front of the crowd—still safely at a remove from the tanks—but back of the crowd itself before those who are being fired upon. Thus, Canetti observes correctly, “The moment [a man] starts to think only of himself and to regard those around him purely as obstacles, the character of the mass flight changes” (53) into panic.[17]

Whether a crowd is blocked in its desired directionality or whether the forward masses of the crowd itself becomes an obstacle for those at the back of the crowd, Canetti’s description points to a compression of the crowd. One might recall that for the stagnating crowd, a deferral of discharge aspires toward maximally increased density. We have to ignore, at this point, Canetti’s inconsistency that would allow such a group pending a discharge o be called a crowd in the first place (an inconsistency he repeats for the deferral of the goal in slow crowds as well):

The discharge is denied to the slow crowd. We could say that this was its most important distinguishing mark and, instead of slow crowds, we could speak of crowds which have no discharge. But the first term is preferable, for the discharge cannot be entirely renounced. It will always be contained in the conception of the final state. It is only postponed to a far distance; where the goal is, there too is the discharge. A vision of it is always strongly present, though its actuality lies at the end of the way (41, emphasis added).

And yet: before the discharge “the crowd does not actually exist; it is the discharge which creates it. This is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal” (17). The incoherence of Canetti’s exposition renders it untenable here. The resort to describing what might or might not be in people’s heads vis-à-vis some collective future vision (of discharge or goal) points more to Canetti’s impressions about “feelings” rather than the phenomenal “content” of crowds themselves.

Moreover, while the stagnating crowd, as previously described, seems pinned in place,[18] nevertheless, Canetti claims its deferral of discharge rewards itself with increasing density.  Canetti doesn’t mean this use of “density” as a metaphor:

The feeling of density is strongest in the moment of discharge. One day it may be possible to determine this density more accurately and even to measure it (29, emphasis added).

And yet, the increasing density that results from the compression of the flight crowd manifests not as discharge but as panic. In this, we finally see one descriptive mechanism for how a crowd “undischarges.” That is, while Canetti has proposed discharge as that which makes a crowd into a crowd, he has been more coy about what “undoes” a crowd. He implied an opposite mechanism in one case by the paradox of making the discharge also the end of the (a particularly exacerbated stagnating) crowd: “the succeeding outcry will be terrible, but it will be the last outcry of this particular crowd … The crowd pays for the lengthened period of stagnant expectation … with its own immediate death” (35).

This is not to claim that Canetti not described the dispersal of crowds—like Napoleon’s army, they can slough off soldiers along the way like dead cells and ooze away; they can stop growing; secret enemies in the fold can undermine resolve, &c—but noting the empirical disintegration of a crowd is not offering an explanation for the mechanism of that disintegration. With discharge: at one moment a group of individuals malinger, then a discharge mysteriously occurs, and suddenly we are in the presence of a crowd where all “differences between individual heads and arms are irrelevant” (29)[19]. With undischarge:  we are in the presence of a crowd, and then something as yet named occurs, and suddenly we are no longer in the presence of that state of absolute equality characteristic of a crowd, but rather see once again some group of individuals who stand fearful of touch with all of their touchy and definitively non-crowd individuality returned to them.

With the flight crowd, we see how increased density (somehow) disintegrates the crowd into merely a group of people who are looking out for their own individuality rather than leading to the discharge supposedly characteristic of stagnating crowds. Whereas by holding aloft the severed head, the stagnating crowd’s discharge at that moment also (somehow) negates its existence—the collective ejaculation (pun intended) here being the whole wad of wax.

Sometimes it seems that the violence of Canetti’s generalizations are directly proportional to the inadequacy of the evidence he adduces them from. If this seems unfair to say, let me repeat: he asserts that what he means by density may one day be quantitatively measureable (29). It may be argued that a stagnating crowd is not a flight crowd so that differences in them account for the different effects of increased density. Obviously. But it is one thing to claim that the same input in different settings achieves different results and another to claim that the same input in different settings yields opposite results. Most assuredly, to multiply a positive number by a negative yields a negative and to multiply a negative number by a negative yields a positive—the logical justness of this arises from the characteristic interactions of the signs of numbers not the characteristics of the numbers involved. What, for instance, is increasing density interacting with in the flight crowd that can lead finally to panic and interacting with in the stagnating crowd that can lead finally to discharge?

At this point, with terminology so vitiated by exceptions, it may be more helpful to go on to the next type of crowd Canetti describes than to expend further effort now to sort this out.

(3) Prohibition Crowds

Prohibition, or negative, crowds are characterized by a refusal by people to continue doing what they have done previously. Canetti’s provides the exemplar of a labor strike, stressing especially a class-similarity in workers but a non-equality of pay prior to the moment of the strike in order to emphasize the equality typically demanded by striking workers. In this context one may anticipate the wrath of the crowd directed at scabs. Also, insofar as crowds require direction, here is yet another fundamentally motionless crowd—one could cite the Civil Rights’ slogan, “we will not be moved” to underline the motionlessness of the prohibition crowd, but even Canetti writes, “The moment of standstill is a great moment” (56)—which holds out the promise of moving again, i.e., going back to work, only after its prohibition has been satisfied. So once again, we may anticipate Canetti projecting into the future or into the minds of those people involved in the strike the discharge of this crowd.

The fictitious equality, which they had heard made so much of, had never really meant more than that they all used their hands. Now it has suddenly become a real equality. As long as they were working they had very varied things to do, and everything they did was prescribed. But, when they stop work, they all do the same thing. It is as though their hands had all dropped at exactly the same moment and now they had to exert all their strength not to life them up again, however hungry their families. Stopping work makes the workers equals. Their concrete demands are actually of less importance than the effect of this moment. The aim of the strike may be a wage increase, and they certainly feel at one in this aim. But by itself it is not sufficient to make a crowd out of them (56).

Here it is apparently a will to equality that suggests a discharge rather than the other way around (i.e.,. a discharge that creates the crowd’s defining state of absolute equality). Moreover, unlike the baiting and flight crowd, which barely emphasize the perpetual desire for growth Canetti imputes to crowds, here the strike definitely aspires to grow by recruitment, until all workers in the world would strike simultaneously (this being the maximum extension of the crowd). Canetti also invokes the terminology of the sacred and the profane and echoes of those enemies within and without from his characterization of a siege (pp. 22–4, Persecution); in the present section, the detail of seeing to the organization of food and money (¶2, p. 57) further points to the contingencies of a siege. He notes:

There is something deeply serious and worthy of respect about such an organization and, when the ferocity and destructiveness of crowds are mentioned, one cannot help remembering the responsibility and dignity of the structures sprung spontaneously from crowds (57).

I note in passing that when Canetti wrote of persecution and destruction and ferocity in earlier sections, if he remembered, he did not comment upon this respect-worthy human gesture as a counterweight to that peevishness, wantonness, and cruelty.

The prohibition crowd may end deliberately, by calling off the strike (under satisfying or unsatisfied circumstances) or, for “men who have suddenly denied themselves the normal activity of their hands … after a time, it can cost them no small effort to go on not using them. As soon as they feel the unity of their stand threatened, they incline towards destruction” (57).  Canetti neglects to mention that strokes may be murdered out of existence by militias, and if there was a precedent available to Canetti similar to what Reagan resorted to with air-traffic controllers, then he either didn’t know of it or didn’t mention it.  Nonetheless, it is a curious, and inaccurate, statement to emphasize an incapacity for extended idleness as the occasion for the disintegration of the will in people to continue to strike. In just the previous sentence, Canetti acknowledged that resources may be limited; people’s families may be suffering. And in general, the strategy of a siege is not to pin an enemy down to the point that boredom with idleness inspires them into war again.

But over and above this, it matters that Canetti cites an individual motivation here. He characterizes crowds as a phenomenon where all individual difference vanishes, so that referring to a person’s desire to be active with his individual hands becomes a contradictory manifestation of individuality in the otherwise mass non-individuality of the crowd. In Zamyatin’s (1921) We, the author posits a utopia where—virtually unique amongst pre-1960s utopias—everyone is genuinely content; and while this is a logically necessary presumption when one claims to write a utopia, it is only Zamyatin (that I know of) who took this requirement seriously. So how then does a problem enter utopia in the first place? For Zamyatin, he argues that chaos cannot be suppressed forever; whatever Revolution brings us to the moment of this utopia, another turning of the wheel can only bring about a new Revolution and thus a new utopia. So the discontent that D-503, the novel’s protagonist, experiences out of the blue is unavoidable and inevitable—as it would be for anyone else in the novel who is catching the wave of the next beginning revolution. In Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, the notion “nature will find a way” expressed by the book’s chaos mathematician espouses something like a similar faith—emphasis on the effective miracle of chaos.

So on this kind of theory, one could explain the manifestation of the non-individual striker’s individuality all of a sudden. Except that people, in crowds, do not have their individuality wholly annihilated or extinguished. It is, rather, is the case that the over-generalization on Canetti’s part about “a state of absolute equality” prevailing in the crowd amounts either to a piece of armchair philosophy or demagoguery  or perhaps just one of the several currents of emotion that surge through a crowd.

Just as the boundary of a crowd cannot generally be determined but is a thing itself in constant flux, and just as there is no dominant passion in a crowd but rather an array of vectored sentiments on the ascendant one moment and on the decline at the next, so may the individuality of persons within a crowd not vanish entirely—in some sort of spooky transformation that gives credence to the sociological propaganda of the authoritarian personality or to Levy-Bruhl’s less attractive comments about the “primitive mind” involved in participation mystique. Instead, one’s presence in a crowd may be characterized as a duration of a particularly exacerbated sense of the interplay between individuality and collectivity—between something like the human agency involved in camaraderie or Gemütlichkeit (or less friendly versions of the same) and the human agency when connection with others does not press nearly so insistently. On one end of this would be an event something like a collective version of an alcoholic’s blackout, where action, memory, and culpability become difficult to identify in oneself or others, much less to ascribe. On the other end would be something like a state of radical alienation amongst all human beings in an area so that contact seems impossible.

The temptation comes about to personify these things, whether in Canetti’s mode or otherwise. Obviously, I would consider Jung. But in one of the more just points that Dehing (2002) makes in his apparently still incomplete and otherwise too demagogic analysis of Jung’s notion of shadow, he notes how the application of individual terms to group dynamics and phenomenon yields simplistic, that is to say, trivial, observations.[20] The empirical observations may remain defensible, even as the analytical terminology proves insufficient. This describes problems with Canetti’s approach as well, though if Jung “fails to recognise that a group is not simply the sum of its members” (Dehing, 2002, §10, ¶1), he does so on the basis of an at least adequate description of the humans involved in that collectiveness.

Canetti, by contrast, seems to be using a (not merely metaphorically) personified notion of crowds. The most obvious symbol of this, perhaps, is the discharge as the crowd-making event par excellence, which Canetti has yet even to wink a little at the sexual connotations in it. The discharge, as Canetti describes it being the most intense experience of being close to other people that overcomes the fear of being touched, literally manifests the crowd—of spermatozoa, and as soon as the discharge occurs (la petite mort, as the French say) the death of the crowd comes (pun not intended) quickly after.[21] Insofar as the basis of Canetti’s next crowd-type arises from the fact that “every command leaves behind a painful sting in the person who is forced to carry it out” (58), this sting is not only synonymously a prick but also gets stuck in people by pricks who command us.

(4) Reversal Crowds

Here, the French Revolution provides the exemplar of the reversal crowd, but they may be found also  in:

revolts of slaves against their masters, of soldiers against their officers, of coloured people against the whites who have settled in their midst. But, in all cases, the one group will have been subject for a long time to the commands of the other group; the rebels are always driven to act by the stings they carry within them; and it always takes a long time before they can do so (59).

Moreover, “everyone tries to get into position here he can free himself of his stings of command; and everyone has a large number of these” (59). Like other crowds, Canetti shifts to the imaginary plane, using the historical occurrence of an early 19th-century revival in Kentucky to illustrate the Gospel reversal “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”. At this revival, many died to their old lives and were born again, but the immediate oddness here is that such a circumstance is “exactly the opposite of what happens in a revolution” (61). That is, where revolution redresses the past stings of a submission and negates them, revival negates the problem of the past stings of sin by re-addressing submission to god.

“The only factor common to both processes is the reversal itself, and the psychic scene where it takes place—in both cases the crowd” (62). Here again, even more clearly this time, one sees the kind of miraculous invocation of chaos (in the individual) in the midst of that which is claimed to be nonindividualistic; Canetti can’t even avoid the phrase “psychic scene,” pointing unmistakably to the inner workings of individual minds, and then, with an em-dash, making an appeal (not an argument) that this is all “in the crowd” instead.

To be clear, the issue is not that Canetti gets the details of the revival in Kentucky wrong but the Procrustean misfit of his interpretation of the event and his descriptive terminology for crowds. That the revival cited takes place in a group of people is not at issue, nor that groups of people having religious experience may act strangely. Huxley’s (1952) Devils of Loudon (along with the 1960 stage play by John Whiting, 1971 film by Ken Russell, and 1968–9 opera by Krzysztof Penderecki) all depict gloriously the group hysteria that religious settings can evoke, as the original events in the 17th-century demonstrate. Nor does this deny the influence of the group setting, but the conceit of being born again is not that “we” are born again, but that “I” am born again, specifically into the crowd of the elect, which I was not a member of mere minutes ago. Once, I was in the presence of someone who underwent a full-immersion baptism and as soon as he went under the water, he violently started and shot back up, shouting hallelujah and shaking. For all of us looking on, the obvious (beneficial) trauma of the experience seemed to touch no one else save for a few answering echoing hallelujahs. As a related, somewhat idiosyncratic, example, I participated in a two-weekend, 10-hour-per-day self-help seminar, and sometime during the second weekend, having done little more than sit and listen to the speaker engaging the 150 people in the room all around me on the topics he was presenting, I experienced the handsome and noisy audio-visual hallucination of a cloud shot through with lightning floating above me. I reacted more calmly than one might expect and merely thought to myself, “That’s my life,” and then asked, “What’s it doing up there?” The consequence of this experience in my life could be described using language like “an exorcism of the rage I’d hitherto experienced as integral to my life,” although all the usual exhortations associated with exorcisms were missing entirely from the experience.

I point to this last experience particularly because it seems very much something like a conversion experience, albeit perhaps more subdued than the ones that get books written about them. At the time, I certainly ascribed the experience to the self-help seminar, though I could not have named what had been the motive cause. (In fact, I’d had a couple of curious experiences earlier during the first weekend that, looking back, could be viewed as presentiments of the “exorcism” or “conversion” to come, but not at the time.) And it wasn’t merely that I was in a self-help seminar; there were 149 other people there, who I’d interacted with in minor ways. I felt definitely, but not uncomfortably, alone in a crowd and I even still have a dim visual memory of the seminar’s presenter far up in front when I enjoyed by audiovisual hallucination. And it is still striking to me now, as it was then, how blasé I was about this hallucination, which I’d never experienced anything like previously. I suppose the factualness of it “before my eyes” (as it were) left no room for getting googly-eyed about it. Only now can I attach that gorgeous black mass of lightning-riddled thundercloud with the appearance of miraculous chaos Zamyatin and Crichton cite—and it happened singly to me, individually, while I was in a crowd.

Where generalizations as excessive as Canetti’s are concerned, like proofs in mathematics, one exception is enough to vaporize an entire conclusion. My experience demonstrates—as if demonstration were really necessary—that a crowd cannot be defined as “a state of absolute equality” (29). That’s wishful thinking on Canetti’s’ part and isn’t a premise that helps to understand mass psychology. However, I also don’t intend these anecdotes to “refute” some kind of claim to a collective element in religious experience. I intend only to resist Canetti’s identification of two phenomenon that he describes as “exactly opposite” except for proposing a reversal. It is simply a mistake, and not conducive to understanding crowds, to link the reversal of the French Revolution, with its one-of-many slogans “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” inspiring manifold baiting crowds to throw off submission to Authority, with the putative reversal of a faith revival occasioned by a one-of-a-kind scripture in Matthew 20:16 on the condition of one’s submission of the individual to Authority. On this view, if any sort of reversal can be construed as a reversal crowd, it’s not clear why panic isn’t construed as a similarly “exactly opposite” phenomenon vis-à-vis the flight crowd, where the common factor between the two phenomena is that they are reversals of one another.

Canetti might say the difference is exactly in the collectively shared fate of the flight crowd rather than the frightened self-interest of panic. In the section on Panic, he wrote, “Whilst the individual no longer feels himself as “crowd”, he is still completely surrounded by it. Panic is a disintegration of the crowd within the crowd” (27)—one can see Canetti struggling with the inadequacy of his distinctions here. Later, “Fire in the form of a conflagration of forest or stepped actually is a hostile crowd” (27). Panic, then, amounts to a condition where one’s membership in a crowd has shifted so that I am now the baited confronted by the baiting. Except that this is true for everyone in the panic, and so there is that state of absolute equality again. In a panic, “Neither women, children nor old people are spared: they are not distinguished from men” (27), so although panic “makes the boundaries of his own person … clear … again” (27), since “the more blows he inflicts and the more he receives, the more himself he feels” (27), one’s own individuality is utterly lost in an equal indistinguishableness to everyone else in the panic. Or, to put this all another way, it seems as if the panicked crowd denotes an extremely identifiable type, all the more so in a circumstance of imminent death, like in a theater fire or a military invasion for the destruction of major landmarks in New York City. Canetti’s dogmatism about equality (or perhaps his terror of the panicked crowd) prompts him to deny it as a crowd. If, contrary to Canetti, individuality gets accounted an attribute of crowds, then what becomes apparent is how the panicked crowd is one where density is exacerbating and where the similarity between people is rooted most in their material danger to one another. But more than this: the agony of the panic, the awfulness that drives it is the nonrecognition of one’s individuality by anyone else.

A person’s sense of membership in a crowd arises by feeling included or by feeling not excluded (if one wants to use the word “feel” for this). This doesn’t have to be only in a positive sense; that is, one might feel included merely out of tolerance or one might feel not excluded because (luckily) no one knows what you’re really like. The crowd needn’t be only welcoming; it can also be not unwelcoming. What Canetti is calling equality may be seen rather as this tacit sense of inclusion or nonexclusion. This is tacit because one receives no confirmation for why you are being not excluded or included except that you continue to remain as an acknowledged presence in the crowd.  Two helpful words from medieval philosophy: quiddity and haecceity. Quidditative (like qualitative and quantitative) is a descriptive attribute—in this case, rather than indicating a quantity or a set of qualities, it denotes those characteristics that make something a member of a class. For instance, all chairs have the quiddity of chairs even as they otherwise differ greatly in quality and quantity. Another word for this is “whatness”.  (It’s not necessary at this juncture to get into the controversy for how one could taxonomizes these classes.) Haecceity, coined by Duns Scotus, points to the characteristics that make something a specific member of a class. Thus, the haecceity of this chair is x, y, z1, as opposed to that chair over there, whose haecceity is r, y, n, z2, &c. The word was coined (by the monk-philosopher Duns Scotus) from Latin’s “thisness”.

With these, we can understand the human sense of individuality in terms of its quiddity or haecceity; that is, what I value in my individuality (and what those who love me, in principle at least, value) is my haecceity, but the individuality that a crowd recognizes is my quidditative individuality, the individuality that we all share. With this distinction in mind, one may see that when Canetti describes panic, it is that individuality in the sense of its haecceity enters the picture and thus people become inhuman, but quidditative individuality is no longer recognized. Similarly, the equality Canetti refers to is the recognition of quidditative individuality, the right to be present in the crowd, to be included or not exclude.

Having said all this, the panicked crowd denotes a reversal of the flight crowd. In general, the “equality” of a crowd gets experienced by the individual as the right to be present (in a sense of being included or not being excluded) and gets enacted by the crowd in a recognition of the quidditative individuality of all—maybe most often in the form of a friendly indifference towards others. Thus, even in the presence of a threat, in recognition of the quidditative individuality of all, the crowd moves collectively away from the danger. However, once the way is blocked (or if danger comes up from behind), a shift occurs. The general recognition of the quidditative individuality of everyone present becomes an insistence on the haecceitic individuality of each one. This emphasis comprises the new “equality” in the panicked crowd. This shift creates a crowd that wants to disintegrate; density is its greatest enemy not its most sought for boon; now, being included or not excluded, the desire is to be not included to get excluded. But, because this is a crowd and everyone is in the same boat, the crowd of which one is a part—a crowd that does not recognize your haecceity and thus makes you into a faceless cipher that is merely blocking the door—makes everyone a potential victim of a blindly baiting mass.

Similarly, the standstill of the prohibition crowd specifically presupposes a reversal of one’s usual work habits, so perhaps it should be considered a reversal crowd as well.[22] So, what the foregoing demonstrates is either the logical innecessity or logical incoherence of the distinction of the reversal crowd. I would say the above also rescues some of Canetti’s terminology from his usage of it, but for now it is apparent that “reversal” is not a crowd type, but rather one of the fluxes that a crowd (any crowd) might undergo. It is clear enough that a baiting crowd could become a flight crowd if properly confronted by a suddenly overwhelmingly superior opposite force. Or perhaps there is a “panicked” form of the baiting crowd. More in this vein may develop in future posts.

For the reversal of revolution, what is at root involves the individual stings experienced by individual people, and presumably once those stings are exorcised, once the baiting crowds have found out the perpetrators of those stings (or, what is more likely, those who represent the whosoever commits those stings) and addressed the historical redress of those stings, the crowd will dissipate. Similarly, when the besieged laborer gets the itch to stop being idle, the strike will disintegrate or move toward positive, active destruction. The invocation of the sacred and profane that Canetti resorts to when describing prohibition crowds finally gets into the text explicitly, if implausibly, by claiming the social upheaval of revolution as Salvationist individuality should be likened, albeit in an exactly opposite way, with the personal upheaval of individualistic salvation. I suggest this is all an erroneous emphasis on “equality” that gets clearer when the distinction between quidditative and haecceitic individuality are put in play.

Gratuitously, Canetti insists that “reversal presupposes a stratified society” (62). With “feast crowds” as the remaining type, this may be a feint in that direction, and since all societies are stratified to some extent it says little to assert this prerequisite. However, having made it, it’s immediately clear that revival makes for a bad variety of reversal then.

In theory, revival is available to anyone who is prepared to be open to grace, but this is different enough from revolution (which can only be the work of Man, even if God is on our side). In one way, revival represents a form of social climbing; one goes from the least to the first. But the “stratified society” in this case is imaginary in two senses. First, it is mythological, which may be called its trivial imaginariness. Second, whatever hierarchy might exist, from the divine, to the saved, to the damned, and the devil, this is not a society at all, because only the world of the divine is real; the world of the damned constitutes nonexistence. It might be a deeply imagined threat while one lives on earth, but after death, its possibility is negated. So there’s only a “stratified society” while one still exists in an envelope of flesh and has meaning only because faith can’t be pure while alive. So, while one must work for revolution, one may only receive revival. Moreover, any terrestrial heaven (as a stratified society) that might exist on Earth as a congregation, which also takes work to build incidentally, does not have the unequivocal good of the reversal in revolution. And whatever the emphasis on fellowship on earth (as a society), that’s utterly secondary in the final analysis to whether one[23] is saved or not.

As a segue, the reversal of revolution and feast also may not be precise enough to make confounding them impossible.

(5) Feast Crowds

Canetti only obliquely clarifies the presupposed stratification of society that grounds the experience of the feast; that is, if a reversal crowd presupposes a stratified society, so does the feast crowd, though Canetti only barely emphasizes this.  Bakhtin (1984),[24] writing in the Soviet Union without any knowledge of Eliade presumably, noted:

The feast is always essentially related to time, either to the recurrence of an event in the natural (cosmic) cycle, or to biological or historical timeliness. Moreover, through all the stages of historic development feasts were linked to moments of crisis, of breaking points in the cycle of nature or in the life of society and man. Moments of death and revival, of change and renewal always led to a festive perception of the world. These moments, expressed in concrete form, created the peculiar character of the feasts (9).

In medieval and Renaissance culture, there were essentially two kinds of feast, not just the one that Canetti emphasizes: the official feast (what we now call the State dinner) and the unofficial feast (widely celebrated as Carnival, Mardi Gras, &c). The former “sanctioned the existing order of things and reinforced it” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 9); it consecrated the present “hierarchy, the existing religious, political, and moral values, norms, and prohibitions” (ibid) by the way of the past. The unofficial feast, by contrast, opposed itself to all of this in a point by point inversion (parody) of everything official: in place of official seriousness, Carnival brought festive laughter; instead of the strictly maintained hierarchy of culture, it reflected absolute equality; instead of official prohibitions on sexuality, speech, etiquette and association, it lifted all bans; in place of official glorification of the past, it festively annihilated it; instead of pious recitation of scripture, parodies of scripture were enjoyed. The suspension of hierarchy had especially profound effects, as it allowed contact between people otherwise completely separated by social designation:

[S]uch free, familiar contacts were deeply felt and formed an essential element of the life of the carnival spirit. People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival experience, unique of its kind (Bakhtin, p. 10).

In this light, one could call the revolutionary crowd a reversal of the feast crowd, insofar as the topsy-turvy social world the feast world imposes is of limited duration by design. It tends to end with a sacred wedding that restores the dethroned king and queen, &c. Moreover, from descriptions of the French Revolution, it really would seem hardly inapt to call it an “evil festival”; certainly the available food and drink burgeoned more plentifully than in the land of Cockaigne,[25] the euro-folk-literary precursor to the “hobo paradise” of Big Rock Candy Mountain. (Note: these terrestrial heavens here-and-now figure as reversals of the revival’s utopia-to-come.)

Canetti devotes barely over a page to this type of crowd, and this may be due to the feast crowd’s resistance to pietistic  sentiments of the type he resorted to with the labor strike and the non sequitur revival.[26] But if he neglected to explain how we could find emblems of the baiting crowd and flight crowd in the pre-human world, he neglected even to include the feast crowd on the list of pre-human crowds.

For most assuredly, the vast steps of grass for roving herds made the world itself one massive feast table. And even the ultimately transitory moment of abundance and plenty that prevails after the taking down of one of those herd by carnivores represents an orgy of feasting that, in its capaciousness at least, connects to human feasting. Surely more than one Lord’s smorgasbord looked like the gutted carcass of a wildebeest on some occasion and all the yeoman sitting about with swollen bellies lies their chops reminiscent of our best ancient enemy and friend the wolf.

The human element in this arises precisely in the suspension of whatever “natural” hierarchy prevails amongst predators. Rather, she or he eats first according to whoever sits at the table. This isn’t even who eats first will be the last and the last the first—a trait nature shows in the birds who feed their offspring by regurgitating what they’ve already eaten. But in this abolishment of hierarchy, individuality goes with it to an only approximate degree; in fact, it is probably in the feast crowd where Canetti’s absolute equality becomes more incoherent. In part because the feast world is topsy-turvy, this seems to be a crowd where the haecceitic individuality is more recognized than the quidditative. It is not for instance that the Queen ceases to be the Queen during festival, but rather that she stops getting treated as the Queen. So too with the lowliest of peasants, who might (male or female) enjoy private concourse with the Queen unknowingly, to everyone’s delight. The many “technologies” of the feast further abet this suspension of the social gaze, as it were, most obviously in the masks and disguises that—and this is important—do not annul one’s individuality but rather provides you with another one. And this points again to the notion that what matters in the crowd is not equality s Canetti means it but rather the social (public) recognition of individuality, here in its haecceitic sense but elsewhere in a typically quidditative sense.

Significantly, in the feast crowd all the other types are reprised, not only merely on the level of cultural presentation (hence the vast array of games one finds at carnivals, as substitutions for the warfare and direct violence of the world) but also on the level of making of those other crowds as well. Baiting, not symbolically or theatrically but also literally in the mode of now unfashionable animal cruelty (e.g., bear baiting), get presented and represented as a way to siphon off blood-lust through entertainment; everywhere around festivals, mass crowds move in groups towards pleasures rather than away from dangers; in general, every manner of obligation is socially prohibited for the duration of festival; in this his reversal of everything, above all the dignity of the King and Queen are mocked in the most crass and vulgar way, even by the King and Queen while the reading of parodies of Scripture—says Bakhtin—serves the purpose that all of these reversals do: to knock the dust off the ossified and historical accretions of habit in exactly the same way that one takes a carpet out and beats it, with a festive violence that, like all stories of death and birth, restores the world once again to a more pristine initial condition.

Summary (Brief)

Pragmatically speaking, the value of Canetti’s five crowd-types is less in their applicability and more in the way he abuses his own terminology, since that helps to expose what might be salvageable in his exposition. The notion of an edge may yet help to clarify any understanding of crowd boundaries. The move away from static descriptions of crowds  (with discharges that make them and passions that dominate them) point toward more dynamic description, where factors shift; the biggest change in this regard is eliminate “reversal” as a crowd type and recognizing it as a moment any crowd might have. Canetti began by saying he would discuss “feelings” and “contents”—this may point to  sort of “form’ and “content” analysis, except that what exactly should be called “contents” in any of Canetti’s descriptions isn’t that clear, nor what the dominant “feeling” might be. Regardless, the shift toward thinking less statically about types—all of Jung’s smartness about types from Psychological Types could be invoked here—and instead thinking more dynamically points (covertly) toward the cybernetic notion of regulation, which effectively performs an intellectual end around on the difficulties that arise from using “form” and “content”.


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

[16] Canetti’s source for the claim about the persistence of an “ancient belief … that danger springs at one point only” (53) is unattested. With the flight crowd, Canetti suggests we can find has pre-human examples, which would seem to be the usual sorts of herd, flocking, and schooling movements. Given that wolves and hyena, to name only two species, hunt in coordinated but dispersedgroups, this will suffice to give a counterexample to any claim, implied or stated later, that Nature “teaches” the ancient belief that danger springs at one point only. In the case of various tiny sea creatures, whales will swim in circles to generate a containing funnel and then sweep up from underneath to devour the group so contained. Here, the specific linearity Canetti ascribes to the flight group gets turned around on itself literally, and the “single point” of danger from which any such group might flee is actually the encircling circumference of a circle and not a single point at all. The only reason to insist on this obvious hair-splitting arises from the excessiveness of Canetti’s over-generalizations. However, it is not such a trivial point to question the analogy of herd, flock, or school with human circumstances—specifically in the relationship of mass flight to panic. The flight crowds, by definition, flees, so any sort of mere ambling about does not even constitute a particular crowd in Canetti’s five-part scheme. So the herd must be on the move and away from some danger to be a flight crowd but at what point, in nature, does panic take over, if ever? Or should we take the fact that a human crowd can panic as a sign that a human flight crowd that is not yet in a panic makes a bad analogy for nonhuman flight crowds that are incapable of panic? Unlike baiting crowds, where it seemed interesting and fruitful to pursue similar kinds of logical inconsistencies, here there seems less promise, so I will leave the questions merely asked for any who find them more interesting.

[17] Here again the precision of terminology dissolves, for it is precisely at this point, at the edge of the crowd, where panic might initially set in. If a crowd reflects a commonality of all people, then the transformation of someone at the edge of a crowd from “one of the crowd” into someone who thinks only of himself and sees others as obstacles begs the question of how this borderline phenomenon makes sense in the terms Canetti employs. If the discharge constitutes the mechanism Canetti names for “official” formation of a crowd, what is the opposite mechanism that dispels a crowd. Here, a press of external circumstances (as also the “blocking” of the crowd Canetti identifies) may serve as such a mechanism. Ironically, this mechanism compresses the mass of the crowd, but instead of being a piece of increased density, which normally helps to generate a discharge in the first place, here it is the dissolving phenomenon instead.

[18] Canetti insists that “the crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal” (29) and so forth. In suggesting that the stagnating crowd gets pinned in place, one could point to the tense, micro-movements one makes when held in suspense, when suspended. It remains unclear if Canetti means this as a “moving toward a goal”. The movement here is particularly temporal. In effect, the stagnating crowd is a crowd without the essential attribute of movement but, borrowing from Canetti’s goal-post moving elsewhere, he might insist that—like the deferral of discharge in the slow crowd into the future—here the “movement” of the stagnating crowd is similarly deferred into the future, perhaps to be co-terminal with the discharge, which is also deferred here.

[19] Remembering, as well in this context, that “one might even define a crowd as a state of absolute equality” (29).

[20] Dehing (2002) notes: “Jung’s view on the relations between individual and collectivity appears simplistic to me. … [He] fails to recognise that a group is not simply the sum of its members. ¶ Jung compares the cold war, with its radical splitting of the western world, dramatically symbolised by the Iron Curtain, with a neurotic dissociation (1951c, § 561). He argues that it is necessary that we all recognise our shadow: so we would be immunised against moral and mental infection and undermining (1951c, 562). Acknowledgement of the shadow would prevent identity with the collective unconscious, mass psychosis and other catastrophes (1947/1954, § 426). This may be true, but I am afraid that the power will anyhow be seized in the first place by people who do not bother about their shadow. Jung is conscious of this problem; some of statements about the Führer for instance come close to Bion’s description of the (chosen) leader of a group: “The leader will be found in the individual who displays the least resistance, the smallest responsibility, and – by virtue of his inferiority – the strongest hunger for power.” (1946c, § 449). ¶ In my opinion analytical psychologists have little to say about collective problems. They specialised in a special form of dual relationship; they may be very good at it, and handle the transference-countertransference entanglements very skillfully indeed. But they are not entitled to transpose their findings and theories to larger groups. Suffice it to point at the numerous splits occurring in analytical societies, or to consider Hillman’s exclamation: “One hundred years of psychoanalysis, and the world isn’t one bit better!” ¶ Jung however perseveres at drawing a simple parallel. If the confrontation with the shadow is eschewed, problems will arise: “In the individual this is called conflict; in the nation we call it civil war or revolution.” (1933, 170). ¶ Or course there is some truth in these assertions, but they pass over the great complexity of group phenomena. And – what is most important in my opinion – these sermon-like admonitions have little if any therapeutic efficiency”; parentheticals in the above refer to references to Jung’s texts in Dehing’s article.

[21] Canetti is not the only to resort to this, of course. Barthes described it (metaphorically, at least) as the chief objective of reading literature.

[22] And what the reversal crowd has in common with the prohibition crowd in this case is precisely an overwhelming emphasis on the individual—that is, of mistaking group phenomena as being reducible to the behavior of its individuals.

[23] The grammatical use of “one” is intentional for the way it is telling.

[24] Bakhtin, M. (1984). Rabelais and his world (trans. Hélène Iswolsky). Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.

[25] “There was a popular cycle of legends about the utopian land of gluttony and idleness (for instance, the fabliau of the pays de Cocagne)” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 297).

[26] Which is not to say it cannot be taken seriously. Bakhtin (1984) emphasizes how the laughter of the festive world is no joke. “It is, first of all, a festive laughter. Therefore it is not an individual reaction to some isolated “comic” event. Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people. Second, it is universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival’s participants. The entire world is seen in this droll aspect, in its gay relativity. Third, this laughter is ambivalent: it is gay, triumphant and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives…. ¶ [I]t is also directed at those who laugh. The people do not exclude themselves from the wholeness of the world. They, too, are incomplete, they also die and are revived and renewed. This is one of the essential differences of the people’s festive laughter from the pure satire of modern times. The satirist whose laughter is negative places himself above the object of his mockery, he is opposed to it. The wholeness of the world’s comic aspect is destroyed, and that which appears comic becames (sic) a private reaction. The people’s ambivalent laughter, on the other hand, expresses the point of view of the whole world; he who is laughing also belongs to it. ¶Let us here stress the special philosophical and utopian character of festive laughter and its orientation toward the highest spheres. The most ancient rituals of mocking at the deity have here survived, acquiring a new essential meaning. All that was purely cultic and limited has faded away, but the all-human, universal, and utopian element has been retained” (11–2).

This series ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year Canetti’s  Crowds and Power.[1] This is the twelfth entry in the series and the tenth addressing Part 1 (The Crowd), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I address section 15–20, “Classification of Crowds According to Their Prevailing Emotion,” including five basic types of crowds: baiting crowds, flight crowds, prohibition crowds, reversal crowds, and feast crowds. For the sake of size, I am breaking this post up into more than one part.

The Classification of Crowds According to Their Prevailing Emotion

Canetti begins with a one-page preface, where he proposes to add to his description of the formal principles of crowds some additional material on what a crowd “feels, what its content is” (48). He will distinguish five types, each “distinguished by a homogenous colour; a single passion dominates them” (48). Though a single passion dominates them, “this content is by no means always to be found in a pure state” (48). Moods change; theater and concert experiences, for instance, reflect a wide variety of feelings. Nevertheless, once the type distinctions “have been properly understood, it is impossible ever to confound them again” (48).

I confess, I suspect I’ll find these types confoundable before long, much less never again. But more pertinently, I remain sketchy about Canetti’s prefatory remarks about the distinction (or synonymous usage) he employs between crowd’s “feelings” and its “content”. The colorful (pun intended) metaphor that similarly links a crowd’s “homogenous colour” and “dominant passion” may prove more metaphorical than helpful. What this signals to me at the outset amounts to a vagueness on Canetti’s part already, a haziness of distinction that alludes (seemingly in a musical sense, where the allusion itself is already metaphorical) to color in the domain of music[2].

This raises two problems.  First, if I imagine for the moment describing a crowd’s mood as for instance ugly, then I will notice (or someone listening to me will notice) that this description describes my looking of the crowd rather than a statement about the crowd itself. The Republican National Convention might look like the bloodthirstiness of Russians about to undertake a pogrom to me and look at the same time like the glorious wave of the future to a Tea Partier. To talk about a description of how a crowd “feels” and to identify it with the “contents” of that crowd then commits a logical error, in that it identifies (literally) observational impressions of a thing with the nature of the thing itself.

This is not to say that we can ever be anything but observing beings, so that there must always be a gap between our description of a thing and the nature of the thing itself. This remains irreducibly the case, so that all description at best provides something like an analogy[3] between the thing described and the thing-in-itself. Composers of experimental music have frequently run afoul of this problem, where a description of the “contents” of a composition (as the composed sequences of sound that occurred over a given duration) gets identified with a listener’s description of his or her reaction or impression to that content (often, in the case of experimental music, in terms like “unpleasant” or “incomprehensible” and so forth). In the wake of this reaction to the impressions fostered by the contents of the composition, the contents of the composition itself then get judged, and often dismissed, in those terms rather than in terms of formal criteria that actually bear on musical compositions (and which, incidentally, are almost never neglected by critics and musicologists when describing non-experimental music). To be specific, the rightly admired genius of Bach doesn’t get credit only for creating affectively compelling music; rather, analyses of the very structures of music he employs (his composition) gets credited with supporting and affecting the emotionally compelling and satisfying aspects of his compositions. One also finds sloppy comments that it’s just the music (not the structure of the composition) that people love. This is the opposite of the dismissal of experimental music because it is “unpleasant” or “incomprehensible” and so forth, but it constitutes the same problem.[4]  In a circumstance where impressions of events (“feelings”) get identified with descriptions of events (“contents”), the further invocation of metaphors like “homogenous colour” or “dominant passion” presage descriptive incoherence to come. And that does prove the case, s the following demonstrates.

But in addition to this mixing of logical types, Canetti’s promises to identify two crowds as pre-human—not just pre-historic but pre-human; “the main emotional types of crowd can be traced much further back than this. They make a very early appearance; their history is as old as that of humanity itself, and in two cases even older” (48). This raises the red flag of too much personification[5] as well. Definitively, as describing creatures in an existential condition, we must necessarily view nature and the animal world in human terms, but identifying our impression of events (as descriptions of the personified “feelings” of animal crowds) and descriptions of events (as descriptions of the humanly framed “contents” of animal crowds) sets the stage for more misleading generalizations. In his light, the prospect that “properly understood, it is impossible ever to confound [these five types of crowd] again” (48) turns out to be still-born, since the very terms meant to deliver us from confoundment are already hopelessly confounded. Having said this, however, it must also be added that at least in the sections that follow he does not follow up on this claim of pre-human origins.

(1) Baiting Crowds

Presumably, the dominant emotion of the baiting crowd is that it is out to kill, whether the killing is done by the crowd per se, is witnessed via a proxy (such as a public executioner), or encountered in a literary representation (as when we read about public executions, or baiting in general, in newspapers). In this light, participation in the killing (whether immediately, mediately, or in the media) comes with little risk for those involved due to the overwhelming superiority of the baiting crowd compared to its victim—the victim is outnumbered, surrounded, tied down (or, in media cases, nowhere near the scattered crowd of early risers taking breakfast in their homes; here, it may even be the case that the killing was already accomplished during the previous night, so that there is a remove in time as well as space).

In these circumstances of low risk, “the crowd advances towards victim and execution in order to rid itself once and for all of its own deaths. But what actually happens to it is the opposite” (49).[6] Once the death occurs, a kind of sheepishness overcomes the crowd, and it disintegrates. On the one hand, the frenzy being over, why linger? The fun’s been had or possible consequences may now obtrude into whatever state had prevailed previously to give rise to the baiting crowd. Or alternatively, one might say that the evident mortality of the victim abruptly comes to signal a reminder of individual mortality that the baiting crowd aspired to cover over or deny. Whatever the case, (male) post-ejaculatory lassitude seems to comprise an adequate paraphrase of Canetti’s description, even without its link to Canetti’s notion of discharge.

Canetti identifies two primary forms of death sentence: expulsion and public execution (performed immediately by the whole community, exemplified in cases of stoning, mediately by proxy, exemplified in the crowd calling out for Christ’s crucifixion, or remotely in the media, exemplified in any newspaper story of a State execution). He then makes a great fuss with material from the French Revolution (or stuff like it), emphasizing the head of the victim held aloft, the eyes of the victim—even when a king—and so forth. In his description of medieval public executions, he particularly notes:

Sometimes the victim exhorted the spectators with pious speeches. He declared his concern for them and expatiated on the manner of life which had led him to where he stood, so that they might avoid his fate. The crowd felt flattered by his concern and to him it may have been a last satisfaction to stand there once more as an equal amongst them, a good man like themselves, with them renouncing his former life and condemning it (51)

The “sometimes” proves important here, as Canetti does not offer us any vision of what any other times would look like. Foucault (1977)[7] does:

If the crowd gathered round the scaffold, it was not simply to witness the sufferings of the condemned man or to excite the anger of the executioner: it was also to hear an individual who had nothing more to lose curse the judges, the laws, the government and religion. The public execution allowed the luxury of these momentary saturnalia, when nothing remained to prohibit or to punish. Under the protection of imminent death, the criminal could say everything and the crowd cheered….In these executions, which ought to show only the terrorizing power of the prince, there was a whole aspect of the carnival, in which rules were inverted, authority mocked and criminals transformed into heroes (60-1).

Canetti’s description seems overly framed by a bourgeois outlook, whereas Foucault’s, if with an educated intellectual’s excess of enthusiasm for peasant “earthiness,” offers at least an alternative to such a bourgeois class-view. Canetti selects examples that avoid entirely the ghoulish humor humanity has found in public executions, even though the non-bourgeois better historically understand the sentiment “you today, me tomorrow” he ascribes to the victim in his own description.

Moreover, pious repentance before the stake or at the gallows isn’t confined to merely historical settings. The opportunity, “Any last words,” remains as contemporaneously available today as before—such that the range of sentiment expressed, from silence, to arrogance, to professions of faith, to last-second apologies, and even the noisiest and most pathetic begging for mercy are themselves contextualized by those executions that were not public, where the opportunity to speak to a crowd gets denied. Between the apologist or the anarchist on the scaffold, one might say that the State wins either way—the recanting of the latter reaffirming the State’s rectitude and the mere death of the latter reaffirming the State’s power, so that any gesture of resistance in the latter must serve in a compensatory way just as the extensive celebrations of festival (mentioned in previous posts and again below) provide a relief valve for an otherwise unbearable status quo.[8]

In other words, the cultural circumstances of what Canetti calls the “baiting crowd” before the scaffold of a State execution differ significantly from whatever cultural conditions prevail for baiting crowds gathered to stone a malefactor to death—and this is probably still true in places, like Saudi Arabia, where public beheadings do not function in the same way as Canetti and Foucault identify for public executions.[9] In the case of a stoning, what is meant by “community” more plausibly encompasses the entire community, while before the scaffold, it prevails rather that one part of “community” gets executed by another part of it.

We can rework then Canetti’s distinction between expulsion and execution as distinct types of death sentence.  As part of this, I want to add a third category (without characterizing it yet). Thus, where Canetti refers to execution and expulsion, I will refer to execution, expulsion, and exile. In the following, up to where I introduce the term exile explicitly, the terms execution and expulsion refer to Canetti’s sense of them.

On one hand, expulsion seems to constitute a kinder or gentler death sentence, if only because it allows the possibility of physically surviving (however unpleasantly) apart from one’s tribe. These days, certainly, most in the US would likely choose expulsion over execution, which itself points to the State’s resort prison since, at the point when expulsion ceases to be a form of punishment (because living beyond one’s community has become possible), expulsion then gets transformed into compulsory housing in modernized dungeons—and in the US, we have the highest per capita incarceration in the world by a wide margin.[10]

In proper historical setting, however, expulsion could easily have been more terrible than execution. Per Eliade (1991)[11], the distinction of the scared and the profane proposes a world where only the sacred has reality, so that anything outside the domain of community (as a sacred) means nonexistence. This would entail, psychologically, that every act one committed outside of community would ipso facto be non-real. In this respect, execution and expulsion are functionally identical for the victim, since both impose nonexistence.

We can look also at the difference of effect between expulsion and execution in those committing such acts. With stoning, everyone gets made culpable in the act. Whether one feels delighted or sad for the victim, and even whether one (due to age or cultural practice) stands on the sideline while the stoning happens, the blood of it covers everyone; with drawing and quartering, this might prove literal for bystanders. In particular, the cries of the victim seems especially pertinent—whatever sympathy one might experience needs in principle to be squelched, not simply because such sympathy might make one liable for similar treatment in the future[12] but also generally in the overall cultural sense of what the imposition of nonexistence (in this case as an execution) implies.[13]

With expulsion, the characteristic interaction with the one expulsed has some different qualities. There is potentially more pathos, as one must witness the terrified, dejected, or even defiant going away of the one expelled. It may be, rather as one must when trying to drive off a previously owned dog, that one must angrily charge the one being expelled. This seems like something midway between the literal violence of stoning and the more mannered, “Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out” of expulsion such that one’s physical body gets used as the stone to drive away the condemned (whether contact physically occurs or not). Here, the reality of the imposed nonexistence seems less to the fore, at least for those who are imposing it one someone else. As with stoning, to the extent that one shouts back or shouts down the condemned, then any utterances made on the way out have less public memory. The conceit of a firing squad depends on the uncertainty of who fired the fatal bullet(s); stoning, by its slower pace and larger bullets, makes this uncertainty less assured, but the comparatively less fatal nature of rocks (as opposed to bullets) makes it easier to distribute the “guilt” of stoning across many thrown rocks. In a circumstance of driving someone off, the individual blows or insults (delivered by the baiting crowd against the condemned) gets even more personal—the plausible deniability that your blow fell upon the body of the condemned declines precipitously—though the collective culpability for the action whether as guilt or credit readily accrues to everyone. This is assuming anyone in the baiting crowd even feels something other than justification in their desire to inflict the death sentence. To the extent that baiting crowds have as their central need not a demonstration of the transcendence of death (as Canetti suggests) but rather a demonstration of survival in contrast to the one who does not survive, who has nonexistence imposed on her, for the death sentence in particular (as opposed to baiting crowds in general) the emphasis may be more the survival of the group than the individual. It’s not simply that the collectiveness of the death sentence points to the collectiveness of the body that inflicts it (as the public confirmation of a nonexistence already asserted by the offender’s crime), but that looking for individual culpability in the act may be anachronistic.

In other words, nothing prevents us at this point from looking for or ignoring the “personal” element in an execution or expulsion (as a driving off). If we want to run contrary to essentialist assumptions that otherwise generally inform discourses about human nature, then we can say that our (primitive) human ancestors lacked subjectivity (as we know it) and never had to take account of any “personal reaction” when executing or expelling malefactors. Or, if that assumption is untenable or offensive, then we can try to imagine the collectivity of these death sentences as a way to downplay, absorb, or overcome any personal reactions that might be problematic, such as sympathy for the condemned. In general, it would only be problematic reactions that must be addressed—admirable willingness to torture adulteresses to death (it should be remembered that stoning finds its most frequent application, past and present, in cases of adultery) will be a “personal reaction” desirably fostered in such a culture.

In general, the imposition of a death sentence, particularly by a collective that is face-to-face with the condemned, presupposes a detachment of the condemned, whether in an individual or collective sense. We could emphasize his personal immorality or we might construe her like a dead limb best gotten rid of. The notion of sin as a strictly personal affair is of fairly recent provenance; of yore, the sin of any one implicated the whole community, as the sin of sodomy (whatever one might conclude that is) meant, even in England at least through the Renaissance. In any case, whatever the relationship of the whole to the part or the part to the whole, the death sentences of execution and expulsion presuppose a severing of that. With stoning or drawing and quartering, the severing is a tad literal with respect to the victim and thus, by implication, with the community or the individuals that make up that community. With expulsion, by which I mean specifically the violent driving out of the individual or offending part, the literalness of the nonexistence by stoning gets pushed over the horizon, out of the community’s view (or the view by members of the community). Again, for those for whom this driving off is not problematic, they may happily beat and pummel and shout down whatever protests the condemned might offer, and the whole thing has the air and consequence of a less hands-off stoning,[14] with the major difference that culture could afford to let this kind of malefactor out of its sight. The threat of return, notwithstanding the likelihood of death in the wilds, was a cognizable threat, whereas crimes warranting stoning (i.e., adultery in particular) called for stricter measures.

So acts calling for expulsion represent mid-way cases between execution and what I will call exile per se. It is obvious enough that one exiled might still be chased out of town by rocks or fists, but neither of these would prompt problematic reactions in those asked to perform these acts. With exile, the imposition of nonexistence comes literally from being driven out into the non-real, out of the sacred domain of the acknowledged world and into “the wilds”. It is in the name of this nonexistence, like the conventional requirements of excommunication, that no one may have anything to do with or render any assistance to the exile. It seems particularly in this that the material distinction between these three death sentences appears. In principle, anyone run off by rocks or blows would be run off again by rocks or blows if they returned. In effect, the death sentence is reimposed. And whatever problematic reactions anyone might have about the original sentence might well reëxperience them. Those expelled have sometimes relied upon this, sneaking back within the compound of the community to solicit help from that person (or people) who remain sympathetic to her or his case.[15] Exiles may similarly sneak back, but with additional danger to any who would help them. If sin is contagious, then here nonexistence has become contagious as well. The motive difference seems that whatever collective or personal reason advanced by one who helps the expelled, for one who helps the exiled, they themselves become individually liable for offering that help. Just as one might leave food at the periphery of reality for someone who has been expelled, to leave food at the periphery of reality for an exile earns one nonexistence as well (once discovered). It might be that one incurs execution for such an act, but either way, one earns the imposition of the death sentence of nonexistence.

Two final things must be noted about exile and execution. In cases of ritual where a scapegoat gets sacrificed (i.e., where an animal loaded with the sins of the community gets run out of the community), there typically happens also the sacrifice of another animal (i.e., an expiatory blood right to propitiate the gods or ritually cleanse the community). This doubling in sacrificial deaths may inform the cultural sense of exile and execution as death sentences as well. Also, while the exigencies of our hoary ancient past may have made exile tantamount to a death sentence—rather like any sentence of prison is taken informally to be a death sentence for child molesters—the narrative origins of many culture heroes arise from exiles, from those who were abandoned to nature. Like Romulus and Remus, the abandoned hero is rescued as a child by Nature and gets raised by Her. This very act of survival is its own authority. Informally, there is the notion that a State can only try to execute a fellow some limited number of times before admitting defeat and letting him go. Or, in the by-laws of stoning, if a victim escapes and lives, there are conditions that commute the sentence. In general, the purpose of the baiting crowd being to demonstrate its survival as distinct from the victim, that the victim has survived makes the victim—with a candor of admission that is startling for its logical integrity—superior to those who tried to kill her. There’s an almost comic quality to this—a vast “Oh shit” moment that rather instantaneously must fall back on a desperate hope that the victim’s return is not for the sake of revenge. On the other hand, narratives that set the origins of a cultural hero in nature usually do so on the assumption that the hero wasn’t abandoned by the narrativizing culture in the first place.

This extra-cultural origin also makes such heroes self- (rather than community-) reliant and thus them in the position of an outsider, from which position they may be singularly able to propose cultural innovations. Their authority as something that “cannot be killed”—whether because they survived abandonment in nature or because they are identified as a child of Nature herself, which amounts to the same thing—holds them in good stead before the receiving culture. If a traditional society tends to wish above all else to repeat the cultural gestures of the past (as being the only ones that have reality), then such an outsider who has not acculturated to those specific cultural habits will, even accidentally as a matter of course, exhibit cultural innovations in her or his actions alone. One culture’s scapegoat, then, may become another’s culture hero. But this also points to a liminal status that the expelled might come to occupy.

Simply as a consequence of the descriptions above, the nonexistence of execution and exile may be taken as permanent for the imposing culture, even if an exile discovers some other community of humans and gets accepted there. For those who are expelled—again, this is simply by virtue of the descriptions above—they either die or discover how to eke out existence in the wilds (which the designed intention for the death penalty of expulsion, whether the expulsed continues living or not) or end up persisting in the vicinity of the exurbs of the expelling community, either on the sly or as an open secret. In permaculture, an edge denotes the twilight zone where two domains overlap. Thus, where the domains of sea and land meet is an edge, the beach; where the domains of the private (i.e., a house) and the public meet is an edge, the porch; where childhood and adulthood meet is the edge of adolescence, &c. One way this gets put is, the variety of one domain and the variety of another intersect to create a greater variety than either domain alone. I disagree with this. The total variety of biological life in the sea and the total variety of biological life on land are not surprised by whatever variety results from their intersection on a beach. This faulty assertions may arise from imagining that the overlapping domains point to a logical union. Whatever the case, it is clear that there are neither sharks nor elephants that occur only on a beach as an edge; rather, one finds all those variations of amphibious plants, animals, and other forms of life that would tend to fare poorly whether further inland or further out in the sea. With this in mind, the expulsed who nonetheless manage to linger at the fringe may come to carry markers connotative of the edge (between reality and nonreality) they inhabit.

A problem with Canetti’s categories generally—and in fact most attempts to describe anything systematically—involves how to characterize boundaries. This has been raised previously by asking where the edge of a crowd is; when is one in a crowd, when not. Below, this becomes important with respect to the flight crowd. And in general, Canetti plays fast and loose with this, allowing himself to project discharges into the future, &c. Similarly, the absolute distinction he suggests between execution and what I am calling exile leaves numerous holes in his exposition. He might object that his object is to describe the “feelings” and “contents” of the baiting crowd, not to analyze its effectiveness (so to speak) or to interrogate a putatively individualistic phenomenology that may or may not be at work in it. Nearly all of this post, however, stems from his remark that the baiting crowd aims for one goal and misses it; this post is a consequence of pursuing the consequences that Canetti opens the door to. Or, to put this another way, the historical fact of individuals living at the fringe of culture who may have been driven there by the kind of crowd Canetti describes as baiting begs the question—if the purpose of the baiting crowd is death-dealing—why such people were allowed to exist. Canetti might say this is simply further evidence of baiting crowds missing the mark, but all of the foregoing suggests—under the notion that the baiting crowd has the aim of demonstrating its superiority of survival, not its transcendence of death—that baiting crowds were not so ineffective or mark-missing after all.

The example of the arrangement made for the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 19–21 points exactly to the expelled who lingered on in the cultural edge between the world of the expelling tribes and the nonworld of the wilds beyond. The point of mentioning this edge is not to suggest some of those expelled (call them hermits) lived there but that it exists at all to be lived in. Between the sacred and the profane there is, in principle, no alternative, nothing between existence and nonexistence—tertium non datur.  In one respect, this merely reprises a point I made at the outside about binaries: that as soon as one is proposed, these “shadow categories” spring up to serve as argumentative slush-piles to account for counterfactuals. But this shows also how edges, at least, also point to zones between categorical distinctions. And thus also a further distinction between exile, expulsion, and execution. By design or by accident, whether due to cultural sympathy or inattention or individual wiliness on the part of one expelled, the death sentence of expulsion carries within it a possible nonpermanence that exile and execution do not reflect. It is not simply that the expulsed might continue to interact with the expelling culture, though this of course may be the case as well, but that the “amphibious” variety of existence that the expulsed inhabits may then, by further interactions with the expelling culture, actually change that culture. Carrying this further, the culture of the expulsed—as a curious and liminal mixing of the sacred and the profane—may itself articulate over generations into a full-blown culture in itself; one that affords a sort of buffer for the originating culture. This buffer may precisely become the place where otherwise untouchable transactions may occur, where otherwise profane taboos get converted, if only partially, into quasi-sacred realities or artifacts, that may then—through channels either open or secret—pass into the originating culture. More briefly, expulsion (as a death sentence) may create marginal or fringe social elements; a buffer structure that subsequently may “catch” exogenous cultural elements, phenomena, or whole tribes of other people before they “get into” the original culture itself.

To a certain extent, this anticipates some of Canetti’s upcoming remarks (cf “the double crowd”), but from a very different angle. Those differences will be explored later.

As a closing remark for this post, Canetti assert that any of the five types of crowd he identifies will experience a gamut of emotions, which contradicts the notion that a crowd-type may be identified by its dominant passion. Once again, as with the question of at what point does a group of people in the open become an open crowd (i.e., the problem of boundaries), which Canetti insists will occur only after a discharge, his descriptions do not conform to this with this requirement. In the present case, he describes people sitting in their homes and reading in a newspaper about a State execution as a crowd—but this is neither a crowd, nor is there any discharge. With the notion of the stagnating crowd, the trait Canetti emphasizes is precisely the delay of its discharge, which should mean, by his terms, that we should not yet call it a crowd. It’s not merely a question of difficulties in terminology when attempting to describe the overwhelming variety of human phenomena, but the sort of moving goal-posts he resort to. Rather than modifying the declarations of his terms (his analytical scheme), he attempts to distort the observation of phenomenon to conform to that scheme. Thus we read, with respect to the “crowd” of spermatozoa:

200 million of these animalcules set out together on their way. They are equal among themselves and in a state of very great density. They all have the same goal and, except for one, they all perish on the way … It may be objected that they are not human beings and that it is therefore not correct to speak of them as a crowd in the sense the word has been used. But this objection does not really touch the essentials of the matter (47, emphasis added).

The claim then that (the people in) a crowd-type will express a gamut of emotions, a claim that accurately describes empirical conditions, functions as Canetti’s resort for dismissing the (equally empirical) objection that crowd-types do not, in fact, have a “dominant passion” and that any “dominant passion” noted will arise as function of the observer rather than the nature of the crowd. At a good old-fashioned stoning or lynching, one might find frenzy but, as Treblinka and places like it made clear, the boredom of evil sometimes accompanies mass victimization as well. It won’t be pertinent here to claim that the activity at Treblinka didn’t comprise a baiting crowd. People have yawned at stonings and have uttered at lynching, “Oh, get on with it already.”. Taking emotions (even “dominant passions”) as signal markers for crowd-types makes overlooking and dismissing counterfactual currents of emotion within a crowd into banal dogmatism. A more tenable argument would recognize that the whole swirling flow of varying sentiments in a crowd—as opposed to  whatever current any given observer can spot in it and call the dominant passion—constitutes an elemental feature of a crowd, especially to the extent that any given current has a capacity to become infectious at any time.

So a baiting crowd might exhibit boredom, excitement, blood-lust, terror, sadness, and presumably any other emotion in succession all at once and both. Tell me that a crowd is dominated by a desire to kill, and this doesn’t tell me enough yet to know if I am looking at a baiting crowd or not. I cannot understand any strand of emotion present in whole sectors of the crowd that are not seized by this supposed dominant; I cannot understand why that portion of the crowd so seized is (or even should be) taken as the defining part of the crowd; since ‘a state of absolute equality” (29) might even be the very definition of a crowd, I cannot make sense of this inequality in the first place, and even less can convince myself that all the signs of countervailing emotions should be shoehorned into some putative dominant. What I can be certain of is that Canetti has (in a Jungian sense) gotten possessed of an idea, to the detriment of his description of the empirical phenomenon of crowds.


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

[2] Not that the metaphor of “color” hasn’t been used extensively in human dialogue about emotions and such previously.

[3] There exist a trillion and a half human proposals (even in phenomenological circles) to overcome this gap between noumena and phenomena, but unflinching honesty must recognize the gap cannot be bridged since any proposed bridge issues from the domain of descriptions of phenomena not noumena. And that is why I said “something like an analogy” because a typical analogy—as a “relationship of resemblance or equivalence between two situations, people, or objects, especially when used as a basis for explanation or extrapolation”—necessarily assumes knowledge of the two elements analogized. Here, in any attempt to analogize phenomena with noumena, the noumena is not known—is not even knowable—so whatever correspondence is established cannot be between phenomena and noumena, but rather between phenomena and our description of noumena (i.e., more phenomena), so that the whole is tautological. At the School for Designing a Society (SDAS), one aspect of their notion of composition suggests a kind of hypothetical analogy such that a composition is analogous to a not-yet-existent society. This specifically means that whatever “reality” or “truth” such an analogy would propose must come from those living right now who do the work of making that reality or truth in the present; it is not at all a question of futuristic prophecy. In this sense, one might treat this idea for the “mechanism” by which an analogy between phenomena (the inactual but known) and noumena (the unknowable but actual) might be constructed. Such a hypothetical analogy bears no resemblance to any epistemological or ontological claim about some putative truth-correspondence, which in any case (by the same unflinching honesty that brought us here) may only be proposed as a utilitarian conceit wholly lacking validity. It means that whatever “reality” or “truth” such a hypothetical analogy portends requires work. The human being who would take up such an analogy would, in the here and now, be responsible (and held responsible) for creating that reality and truth. In SDAS terms, even if this sounds romantic because of the word chosen, this would make us composers of compositions.

[4] Since composers, like other human beings, need to make a living and pay the rent, many might not object to this kind of “anti-slander” of their music, but it will take a most economically desiccated composer to have not even a tittle of artistic conceit about her work such that a critical response like “I liked it” would satisfy her. The adequate response to that, “I’m glad,” likely will never suffice for the conversation such a composer would rather have about the structure and details of a work. After all, even in the most elementarily simple pop or blues song, some amount of effort went into assembling the pieces of its construction. Mere to “like” the results leaves untouched (even unacknowledged) that effort.. In the interests of making a living in a merely economic sense, it wouldn’t pay to alienate such anti-slanderers, but life reduced simply to economics tends quickly to seem not much life a life worth working for.

[5] I say personification rather than anthropomorphization. Personification originates in the Greek rhetorical term prosopopoeia, which means “the putting of speeches in the mouths of characters”. In English, personification has the primary sense of an embodiment (i.e., Joan of Arc was a personification of virtue) and a secondary sense of attributing human qualities to an inanimate object or abstraction. Artistic representations of abstractions re, in this sense, personifications as well. With anthropomorphization, the two senses are “endowing with human qualities” and “attributing human characteristics  to something that is nonhuman”. Outside of artistic circles, where either of these nouns tend to serve as pointers for intellectual errors, they may be interchangeable synonyms; at least, I would not expect much hair-splitting over someone’s indiscriminate use of both even in the same context. From the definitions, personification seems to be the more flexible term, completely covering all that is claimed by anthropomorphization. However, perhaps it is worth keeping the distinction since one may, in effect, personify anything, while one may only anthropomorphize the nonhuman. In terms of usage, we’re liable to note how a writer anthropomorphizes nonhuman animals in nature rather than pointing to this as a personification. And this, it seems because the ascription of human qualities is not necessarily an ascription of personness. The accent when one anthropomorphizes tends (it seems) toward generalizations about a class of nonhuman things, while personification (as per the Greek original) tends more toward “the putting of speeches in the mouths of characters”. For this reason, Canetti’s approach seems more to personify crowds, and not simply because a “crowd” is not inanimate, abstract, or nonhuman. Dehing (2002), referenced more later in this post (see note 12 below), insists that Jung misunderstands that crowds are not merely the sum of their members—this inductive or bottom up approach cannot get from a description of the people involved to the behavior of the crowd itself. Canetti’s top-down approach, starting with the manifest evidence (from personal experience, presumably, and also from representations of crowds in cultural artifacts), nevertheless “puts speeches in the mouths of crowds”—thus the claim that a crowd has a dominant passion.

[6] Faith—as the evidence of things unseen and the essence of things hoped for—in human stupidity takes many forms, and one variety frequently encountered involves declarations like this that human aims perpetually attain their opposite instead. One might ask immediately, if baiting crowds fail in their aims, why did humans ever keep up the habit long enough that they became culturally institutionalized? Since Canetti describes baiting crowds as so ancient that they pre-date even humanity itself, it become not implausible to detect a note of paternalistic condescension by (recent) civilization for humanity’s oldest ancestors (in Africa). This obviously isn’t Canetti’s intent; it’s simply that he’s in the discourse and reproduces it as a matter of course. But if the baiting crowd is as old as or older than humanity itself, what comprise examples from nature. Canetti specifically repeats:

The baiting crowd is very old. It goes back to the most primitive dynamic unit known among men: the hunting pack. I shall say more later about packs, which are smaller than crowds, and differ from them in many other respects also. Here I only want to treat of a few general occasions which give rise to the formation of baiting crowds (50).

(NOTE: Looking ahead to the section on hunting packs provides nothing especially re-framing about Canetti’s remarks here.) It is clear enough that a hunting pack is out to kill, and it is clear enough what examples one can find in nonhuman domains that corresponds to the hunting pack, but it is not at all clear how one gets from the aims (successfully accomplished except at the peril of the group generally) of the hunting pack to the aims (never successfully accomplished, per Canetti) of the baiting crowd. In any case, we may still use the “example of nature” to correct Canetti. That is, if there were even such a thing in the nonhuman world as a baiting crowd, which at the moment gets likened to a hunter pack, then the motivation behind it is satisfaction of the need of hunger. That is, one hunts and kills in order to be hungry again, because to not arrive once again at the condition of hunger means you have died. Thus, following terminology used at the School for Designing a Society, one may identify a need (such as hunger) and the necessity (in this case nutritive sustenance) that satisfies that need. Thus water, wine, Gatorade, &c., are the necessities that satisfy the need of thirst; sleep, blacking out, unconsciousness, drug-induced rest, &c., are the necessities that satisfy the need of rest. And so forth. (It is important in this context to note that one typically finds any number of necessities that might meet a need, and that it is only cultural convention that names any given one necessity or set of necessities as the authentic way of meeting that need. Thus, in some cultures the need to perpetuate the human species gets construed as meetable only in a context of heterosexual monogamous marriage, even as it is obvious that the procreation of human beings may be met in many other ways.)

On this view, one would hardly say that the satisfaction of the need of hunger by food “achieves its opposite” because one must eventually eat again later; again, one eats so that one may become hungry again. One meets a need with a necessity in order to meet that need again in the future with the same or a different necessity. So if there is such a thing in the nonhuman world that craves to kill, not solely for the purpose of obtaining food, then we could identify the need involved in that being met by the necessity of killing. This hardly seems likely in the nonhuman world, but I’ve seen documented cases of female lions annihilating dens of cheetah cubs without eating them. (Anthropomorphically, this is very bad PR for female lions.) And the biologists invoke vague mechanisms that somehow smaller cheetah populations increases the survivability of lions. If so, then the need of survival is met by the necessity of killing (cheetah cubs). But there is nothing in this tow arrant Canetti’s assertion of failure or sheepishness in human beings following their baiting. This isn’t to suggest that humans can’t feel guilty, &c., in the wake of an execution or group murder that they’d salivated over mere minutes before. One could even “blame” such reactions on the invention of games, which provided an alternative necessity to the literal act of killing. Legend has it that chess, known in its prototypical form as chaturaṅga in northwest India during the Gupta Empire (~320–550 CE), originated with  Queen who invented the game to settle a dispute between her warring sons. In Northrop Frye’s (1947) Anatomy of Criticism, he cites the invention of games as one of the most authentic advancements of civilization ever devised by human beings. In this respect, one might wonder what role if any the modern Olympics played with respect to exacerbating or lessening international tensions between the Soviet Union and United States during the Cold War.

So, notwithstanding that female lions show no particular sheepishness after they annihilate dens of cheetah cubs, any such sheepishness would merely denote the recognition that the meeting of a need by a necessity rests on necessity of meeting that need again in the future. So if a human baiting crowd meets some need (not yet identified) by the necessity of pack-murdering other humans, whether immediately, mediately, or in the media, then any let-down afterward, akin to post-ejaculatory lassitude and thus also the exigencies of the refractory period (particularly in male reproduction), denotes merely a recognition of that fact. But what is the need being met by the necessity of the baiting crowd? It hardly seems to be attempting to transcend mortality. Seeing the dead body of the victim exactly emphasizes the mortality of bodies, even in cultures where reincarnation of some sort is the dominant spiritual premiss. Taking our cue from the lionesses, the need being met should better be identified as survival. In the wake of the slaughter of another, to be standing over them, actually or symbolically, requires one’s continued existence, otherwise the tables would be reversed. Any nervousness that follows from this act—I don’t mean moral reservations, I mean any reflection that somehow the meeting of this need of survival by the necessity of pack-violence in a baiting crowd may not have met the aim it aimed for—may arise by recognizing one’s own vulnerability to similar baiting crowds. It may arise in the reflection that one’s continued survival may need getting away from the very group that just demonstrated its survival over someone else. This is not at all a refutation of the baiting crowds “aim,” but a confirmation of it, insofar as one’s safety in numbers a moment ago might evaporated in the next, should the baiting crowd decide to turn on you. Thus, all moral reservations or legal ramifications notwithstanding, some kind of equivalent of “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword” may be seen in the moments after a baited killing that helps to explain why such a crowd might disintegrate soon afterward. It is precisely in the recognition that the need must be met again—and, preferably with respect to my own survival at that moment—just not at in that immediate future just to come, where I might find myself as the baited target. In this light, while games represent an authentic increase of alternative necessity for meeting the need of conflict resolution, civilization has since invented as vast array of “comforts” (racism, just to name one) that serve as alternative necessities for meeting the need of demonstrating survival. Most of these alternative necessities are themselves cultural problems.

[7] Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. (trans. A. Sheridan). New York: Vintage.

[8] Once again here, one may catch a whiff of faith in human stupidity. Why would human beings ever endure the absurdities of  feudal social arrangement merely by being “bought off” with periods of festival. Historians will assure us the matter is far more complicated, but what I would particularly emphasize here is that what we might call “the feudal arrangement” (which more or less anachronistically extends a European-ish term to all kinds of other cultural settings around the world, especially as regards the Mesoamerican civilizations) evolved gradually, and in that evolution changed in unfortunate ways. Thus, at the beginning of the emergence  of what more generally might be called “moral economies,” there prevailed more or less a genuine mutuality between those governing and those governed. In these circumstance, the interests of those governed and those governing, while necessarily different, were in an effective sense dependent upon one another. The fulfillment of the moral obligation by one required the fulfillment of moral obligations by the other. With time, this mutuality eroded, principally to the detriment of those governed—so that now the indentured servitude of neoliberal capitalism is taken as wholly natural. But in this long development, “festival” pre-existed moral economies; it was not a sop thrown by greedy governors to those governed to co-opt their loyalty. It was, rather, a non-negotiable feature that those who would be governed could not be dissuaded from, as the relentless efforts by the Church to stamp out various forms of ancient festivals and habits expressed by local populations attests. It seems that the habit of those governing to throw festivals may originate in a demand by those governed that those governing must “be like them.” A view that this was taken up as a cynical populism for the sake of power (a view one can find vis-à-vis the practice of Games in Rome by various rulers) is not necessary.

[9] In particular, the absence of the opportunity for last words makes the spectacle of this kind of public execution akin to the effect of the nonpublic executions neither Canetti nor Foucault draw attention to. As will be shown with stoning shortly, an effect of that kind of death sentence is the imposition of nonexistence on the accused. Not allowing the condemned to speak before a public execution, or not allowing the accused even to be seen publically before an execution, links with this imposition of nonexistence. Doing this out in the open, as in the Saudi example, rather than under the cover of secrecy provides an obviously more visible display of the executing power. When citizens imagine the threat of torture in prison that can make the imposition of nonexistence into a kind of fantasy of release from that torture; displaying the imposition of nonexistence publically offers to the public the direct demonstration of the State’s capacity to enforce nonexistence. Whichever of these proves more effective for State control is left for others to determine. But whether one is executed out of public view or publically without the opportunity to speak, it is the imposition of nonexistence that seems most in play. In Europe prior to the reformation of death sentences more or less in the 18th century, the slow public messiness of executions made visible an already extant juridical torture. That is, the general course of jurisprudence employed torture, even in cases where a confession came before hand, apparently out of the notion that an accused would confess more forthrightly under torture than not, even if all that resulted was exactly a conformation of what had already been confessed to. Torture being an assumed part of jurisprudence, there was no public imagination of it. That is, there was no “promise” of it; rather, it was a guaranteed actuality—as the tough guy quotation relies upon, “It’s not a threat. It’s a promise.” We may these days cynically assume that every political prisoner gets tortured, but that allows us the luxury of fancying, so long as we are not political, we won’t be tortured. If we’re dissuaded from criminality to avoid a potential torture in prison, then in a (medieval) setting where such torture was a promise, any basis for deterrent out of the judicial process needs to be made more visible and more awful, in the execution itself. Foucault (1977) provides a garish example in the widely notorious drawing and quartering of one condemned man. Here, while the vanity of the Prince (the State) might be offended if the pomp of an execution gets muddled by the intractability or resilience of human bodies under abuse, the very grossness of that incompetence (in both sense of the word) adds to the undesirability of winding up in such a circumstance. Without a doubt, we may all be grateful that human conscience found it unconsciousable that State-sponsored executions should not be grueling, protracted, and hideous affairs, even if that means that the State now takes on superior airs that it murders human beings humanely. For it can’t be otherwise that the threat of a grueling, protracted, and hideous death at the hands of others—competently or incompetently carried out—exercises more of a cautionary note in folks’ minds than a clear, well-lighted death without pain. No wonder opponents of the death penalty—thank goodness for them—now emphasize the grueling, protracted, and appalling wait on Death Row as the essence of the cruelty of the death sentence itself. However, there is a certain disingenuousness in this. Those who get their sentences commuted to life without the possibility of parole (the most typical commutation) will spend the rest of their lives awaiting a far less certainly scheduled day of execution in circumstances more or less identical to the ones when they were waiting. Yes, most on Death Row live alone, with less access to the yard and other amenities “enjoyed” by the general population. Those housed in Protective Custody will tend actually to have very similar living arrangements. (Solitary confinement, by contrast, tends to be reserved for those who have marked themselves as “criminals” amongst those incarcerated. Here one finds the sorts of authentic “tortures” typically ascribed to inmates on Death Row—absolute isolation from others, restrictions on access to books, TV, mail, etc. I do not intend to impugn the experience of Death Row inmates—in fact, I’m about to propose what makes Death Row acutely awful—but it is not necessary in the process to engage in a very bourgeois and paternalistic sympathy for those on death Row, even if those on Death Row are smart enough not to turn down such misunderstanding sympathy.) Opponents of incarceration often sloppily use prison and jail interchangeably, even though one frequently hers the sentiment from inmates that “jail sucks; prison is a piece of cake”. The underlying reason for this, I suspect, is that jail, by definition, is a time of uncertainty. The disposition of one’s case is not yet determined—one may go free, one may spend time in prison, but meanwhile, for the duration, every minute of every day can potentially be distorted by that unanswered question. Jail holds one, literally, in suspense. And an end to that suspense, whether in freedom, probation, or even prison, marks an end to that suspense. Unless you are on Death Row, with its odd decade of legal appeals at the very least, if not an even more protracted effort to get the sentence commuted, up to and including even the very last second before the switch is thrown. So unlike the typical inmate, who has merely the stuff of daily life to contend with in prison—fighting, fucking, copping, working, starting shit out of boredom, playing cards, watching TV, stressing over girlfriends, boyfriends, and the like—the inmate on death Row can only get to those mundanities of daily life by an active disregard for that which is hanging over her or his head. Except that they will be dead after being suspended by the neck from the executioner’s rope, the executed inmate might claim finally to be “at rest” because the suspense has finally ended.

[10] The poignancy of the greater portion of, for instance, Russian émigré literature points, however, to the still very real potential for punishment in expulsion. One could imagine Russians, even into the Soviet era, preferring execution to expulsion.

[11] Eliade, M. (1971). The myth of the eternal return or, cosmos and history (trans. Wi. R. Trask). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[12] (this may be seen over and over in the Soviet era especially, where denunciation followed upon an insufficiency of enthusiasm for a given current denunciation)

[13] There exists a nuance here as well regarding the utterance of last words. Stoning—outlawed in the Iranian penal code, incidentally, since 2008—amounts to a kind of firing squad armed with rocks instead of bullets to which everyone is invited. Sometimes victims are restrained by being partially buried, and may be allowed to live if they escape burial. I’ve also encountered the description that stoning involves placing a heavy stone on top of someone and then adding more until they suffocate. So far as I know, there neither is nor is not a formality in stoning that gives the condemned a chance to speak. But whatever question, “Any last words,” there may or may not be, those words get superseded by the voluntary and involuntary utterances that occur over the torture of inflicting the death sentence. Whether these cries consist of tear-jerkers, execrations, blasphemies, or purely animal howls of terror and pain, they have a distinctly different status than the same kinds of sentiments expressed as “last words”. Call it a hypocrisy of the State even to ask, the question, “Any last words,” accords agency and existence to the one asked. It’s not that the answer matters—in fact, the radical freedom of the moment, for the condemned who elects to use it, is that they are no longer under any compulsion whatsoever. Nothing she says will make any difference for her, so the gesture radiates outward (whether the State likes this or not) to the plane of the social. But even without this, the asking of the question itself points to the acknowledgment of the agency and existence of the condemned. Stoning (and similar public executions) itself is a denial of that agency and existence, so all of the screams, all of the blasphemies and pious prayers spat out as stones bludgeon the life from you already do not exist. Even their social value gets negated (although individuals doing the stoning might be individually haunted in various ways by the act). The torture of stoning then, like drawing and quartering, creates an impression of substituting these elicited cries from any solicited reply from, “Any last words.” The traditional demand not to make any utterance when disemboweling oneself in the ritual act of seppuku seems related. The image of stoning whereby a slab is placed on the victim substitutes a State-imposed silence in place of the self-humiliated (elicited) cries of the condemned.  With any last words, the gathered non-condemned cannot wholly disregard any reply, cannot wholly negate it, even after the fact by the execution itself; the words remain in public memory. Whatever “last words” are elicited by the torture itself not only may be drowned out (and thus muddled in the public record of memory) but are themselves made of no consequence, are rendered nonexistent, by the counter-cries of the murderers and the agency and existence of the rock proxies.

[14] Let’s remember that stoning tends to arise as a death sentence for adultery. This means that expulsion and execution need not be mutually exclusive in a culture. What is striking about stoning (pun not intended) is, precisely, the rock proxies. Sin being contagious, it would appear that adultery had to be handled by not handling it. If one could beat and pummel the goat thief out of town, this was not true for the adulteress. Not only did her crime require expiation on-site, but it also had to be conducted at an optimal distance: literally, a stone’s throw.

[15] This exception-making sometimes takes the form of an open lie. When an offense by one of the biblical tribe of Benjamin resulted in the execution and expulsion of the virtually the entire tribe, the objection was raised (out of a spirit of sympathy) that the men of Benjamin would not henceforth be able to get wives as they had previously. And so it was arranged that, at the festivals where wives might be had, the members of the tribe of Benjamin could lurk on the periphery in the vineyards without being openly acknowledged in any way, and the daughters of Shiloh would be sure to wander off in the appropriate way (cf Judges 19–21, for a version).

[16] Here again the precision of terminology dissolves, for it is precisely at this point, at the edge of the crowd, where panic might initially set in. If a crowd reflects a commonality of all people, then the transformation of someone at the edge of a crowd from “one of the crowd” into someone who thinks only of himself and sees others as obstacles begs the question of how this borderline phenomenon makes sense in the terms Canetti employs. If the discharge constitutes the mechanism Canetti names for “official” formation of a crowd, what is the opposite mechanism that dispels a crowd. Here, a press of external circumstances (as also the “blocking” of the crowd Canetti identifies) may serve as such a mechanism. Ironically, this mechanism compresses the mass of the crowd, but instead of being a piece of increased density, which normally helps to generate a discharge in the first place, here it is the dissolving phenomenon instead.

[17] Canetti insists that “the crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal” (29) and so forth. In suggesting that the stagnating crowd gets pinned in place, one could point to the tense, micro-movements one makes when held in suspense, when suspended. It remains unclear if Canetti means this as a “moving toward a goal”. The movement here is particularly temporal. In effect, the stagnating crowd is a crowd without the essential attribute of movement but, borrowing from Canetti’s goal-post moving elsewhere, he might insist that—like the deferral of discharge in the slow crowd into the future—here the “movement” of the stagnating crowd is similarly deferred into the future, perhaps to be co-terminal with the discharge, which is also deferred here.

[18] Dehing (2002) notes: “Jung’s view on the relations between individual and collectivity appears simplistic to me. … [He] fails to recognise that a group is not simply the sum of its members. ¶ Jung compares the cold war, with its radical splitting of the western world, dramatically symbolised by the Iron Curtain, with a neurotic dissociation (1951c, § 561). He argues that it is necessary that we all recognise our shadow: so we would be immunised against moral and mental infection and undermining (1951c, 562). Acknowledgement of the shadow would prevent identity with the collective unconscious, mass psychosis and other catastrophes (1947/1954, § 426). This may be true, but I am afraid that the power will anyhow be seized in the first place by people who do not bother about their shadow. Jung is conscious of this problem; some of statements about the Führer for instance come close to Bion’s description of the (chosen) leader of a group: “The leader will be found in the individual who displays the least resistance, the smallest responsibility, and – by virtue of his inferiority – the strongest hunger for power.” (1946c, § 449). ¶ In my opinion analytical psychologists have little to say about collective problems. They specialised in a special form of dual relationship; they may be very good at it, and handle the transference-countertransference entanglements very skillfully indeed. But they are not entitled to transpose their findings and theories to larger groups. Suffice it to point at the numerous splits occurring in analytical societies, or to consider Hillman’s exclamation: “One hundred years of psychoanalysis, and the world isn’t one bit better!” ¶ Jung however perseveres at drawing a simple parallel. If the confrontation with the shadow is eschewed, problems will arise: “In the individual this is called conflict; in the nation we call it civil war or revolution.” (1933, 170). ¶ Or course there is some truth in these assertions, but they pass over the great complexity of group phenomena. And – what is most important in my opinion – these sermon-like admonitions have little if any therapeutic efficiency”; parentheticals in the above refer to references to Jung’s texts in Dehing’s article.

[19] Canetti is not the only to resort to this, of course. Barthes described it (metaphorically, at least) as the chief objective of reading literature.

[20] Bakhtin, M. (1984). Rabelais and his world (trans. Hélène Iswolsky). Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.

[21] “There was a popular cycle of legends about the utopian land of gluttony and idleness (for instance, the fabliau of the pays de Cocagne)” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 297).

[22] Bakhtin (1984) emphasizes how the laughter of the festive world is no joke. “It is, first of all, a festive laughter. Therefore it is not an individual reaction to some isolated “comic” event. Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people. Second, it is universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival’s participants. The entire world is seen in this droll aspect, in its gay relativity. Third, this laughter is ambivalent: it is gay, triumphant and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives…. ¶ [I]t is also directed at those who laugh. The people do not exclude themselves from the wholeness of the world. They, too, are incomplete, they also die and are revived and renewed. This is one of the essential differences of the people’s festive laughter from the pure satire of modern times. The satirist whose laughter is negative places himself above the object of his mockery, he is opposed to it. The wholeness of the world’s comic aspect is destroyed, and that which appears comic becames (sic) a private reaction. The people’s ambivalent laughter, on the other hand, expresses the point of view of the whole world; he who is laughing also belongs to it. ¶Let us here stress the special philosophical and utopian character of festive laughter and its orientation toward the highest spheres. The most ancient rituals of mocking at the deity have here survived, acquiring a new essential meaning. All that was purely cultic and limited has faded away, but the all-human, universal, and utopian element has been retained” (11–2).

This is the fifth post in a series that memorialize a study of multiple translations of the Bhagavad-Gītā­ by a friend and me. For the sake of clarity, notes on this chapter are broken up into several posts. In particular, the (currently planned) three posts cover background material (the first post), and then “Follow Your Dharma in the Sense of Do Your Duty” (the previous post) and “Follow Your Dharma in the Sense of Be Yourself” (this post).

Other resources for chapter 2 may be found here, along with the following rough summary of the chapter:

In chapter two Arjuna accepts the position as a disciple of Lord Kṛṣṇa and taking complete of Him requests the Lord to instruct him in how to dispel his lamentation and grief. This chapter is often deemed as a summary to the entire Bhagavad-Gita. Here many subjects are explained such as: karma yoga, jñana yoga, sāṅkyha yoga, buddih yoga and the atma which is the soul. Predominance has been given to the immortal nature of the soul existing within all living entities and it has been described in great detail. Thus this chapter is entitled: The Eternal Reality of the Soul’s Immortality.

“Follow Your Dharma” as “Be Yourself”

With the notion of “The Vedas deal mainly with the subject of the three modes of material nature. O Arjuna, become transcendental to these three modes. Be free from all dualities and from all anxieties for gain and safety, and be established in the self” (II.45)[1], we have an argument that anticipates Aristotle’s teleological cause. In essence, this suggests simply that whatever we are (earlier) in germ we gradually unfold into (later). No claim accompanies this that we can say in advance what something will become, which is part of the weakness of the argument—if all we can say before the fact is that a thing will be itself by the end, that’s not saying much. Here, the Bhagavad-Gītā proposes a mechanism, without yet describing it to extent it will be described in chapter 3, for the inherent nature that makes us spokespersons for it rather than our ego-consciousness (or persona).

US culture is more sympathetic to interpreting “follow your dharma” as “be yourself”. Doubtless, this immediately resonates with that most famous literary speech along these lines, Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes in Hamlet, which is worth quoting in detail here.

Give thy thoughts no tongue, nor any unproportion’d thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar; the friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel; but do not dull thy palm with entertainment of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in, bear ‘t that th’ opposed may beware of thee. Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice; take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment. Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, but not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy; for the apparel oft proclaims the man. Neither a borrower, nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. (Hamlet, I.iii)

I will not be the first to remind anyone that the critical consensus on Polonius tends to make him out to be more than a bit of a doddering fool if not actually unlikable. It’s worth remembering especially that, having given this speech to his son, he then sets another character on Laertes as a spy to ensure his son behaves himself, i.e., obeys his father’s advice. But even without these details, one can easily see a contradiction in the speech itself to the extent that Polonius spools out a whole host of injunctions and caps it off with, “But this above all: to thine own self be true,” which must in some sense mean, “So ignore everything I’ve said.”[2]

This nicely encapsulates the problem of the persona or the dilemma of self versus society, even though here its mouthpiece is taken as a doddering fool. In a sense, Polonius has diagnosed the social conceit exactly: follow all of these rules, but (at least claim to be) true to thine own self, and thus one cannot be false to any man. This can only be true via a willful denial. It is the politician’s trick of calling improvisation necessity and hindsight good planning, &c.

But whatever these wrinkles, the broader question may be ask, “which self am I to be true” or simply, “who?” In my individualistic conceit of acting authentically, what exactly am I claiming “is me.” If I have some sort of impulse that I might otherwise for some reason of social constraint feel I’m not allowed to follow, then suppressing that impulse may feel like an imposition. If I set side that impulse in the name of duty, the free spirits will condemn me for not being true to myself. And if I indulge it, I may claim I’m being true to myself. But which self. Who?

To ask the question more existentially, why do I ascribe to my “self” those impulses that arise not of my will but simply as a matter of course, seemingly out of nowhere. Language itself conspires to make these things into “me.” I might say something like, “If I become sexually aroused …” so that apparently I am already ascribing the sexual arousal to “I” so it must be “me” who originates that state of affairs; to be true to myself means following that impulse. Thus, to “follow my nature” denotes another sense of “follow your dharma”—even “do you duty” if we understand duty as something like “this above all: to thine own self be true.” Here, my “nature” is the same as that nature Aristotle points to when he says it is the thing (now) that will turn into the thing I will be (later). But, here again, the “false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature” (III.27). Jung might similarly note the vast portion of daily life addressed, without our awareness, but unconscious activity.

Peter Hammill (1982) puts it well in “The Unconscious Life”

The point of all of this is not merely to cast aspersions on our rational pretenses of being in charge of anything. If, in large measure, the idea of follow your dharma, in the sense of “do your duty” or “play your social role,” tends to ring wrong in a lumpenbourgeois domain where its sense is “follow your nature” or “be yourself,” then the two questions may be the same as asked earlier: (1) how are the earlier, arguably problematic, elements of Kṛṣṇa’s point addressed or not in this construction of “follow your dharma” and (2) what does this mean for the psychology of individuation.

As for the first question, Kṛṣṇa’s and Prabhupāda’s answers concern the social cache that accrues from following one’s dharma and that, because one is obeying the dictates of the Lord, one’s actions necessarily must be moral. Where this involves “follow your dharma” understood as “be yourself,” then because one’s persona in this case is money or the pursuit of it, then any social cache that results will be in those terms as well. In other words, what we might call expressions of individuality will have the (teleological) end of sustaining your physical sense in culture, but not necessarily your social sense. Whereas the peasants and aristocrats accrue (literal) credit thanks to their good word, the lumpenbourgeoisie accrue credit (symbolically) in the form of money. Even if I concern myself with my character, this plays second fiddle to the fact of my having enough money to transact whatever is in question. My good character might make the transaction pleasant. My reliable character might men people will be ready to do future transactions with me. Whatever good faith among people I accrue will be due to the “good word” of the Almighty dollar. But all of this will be secondary to my having those dollars. None of the good will I have generated because my persona (my public self) is one with sufficient cash on hand will generally be available to me if I find myself in the situation of no ready cash on hand.

I would say this is only a slight exaggeration to make the point clear. So, it follows, that one’s social reputation might wax and wane with cash flow and that one would be able to “buy your way in” to any institution that required only cash to get in. But the more unsettling aspect here concerns the parallels that arise from Prabhupāda’s argument in particular that the State executioner does the condemned criminal a favor and that violence, done at the Lord’s behest, is not violence. How does this translate? For the latter, it is of course (as noted above) an insoluble dilemma that the Lord should be an excuse for violence. One does one’s dharma before the Lord commands it; that is, one enacts one’s persona because the Lord demands it. So then here, where “be yourself” ties to a sense of persona as money or the pursuit of money, we can immediately find ourselves in Gordon Gekko’s world, where “greed is good”. One would like to think it an intellectual spoof, but so-called prosperity theology[3], on the rise since the 1950s in the US and meteorically since the 1990s, unambiguously insists that the Almighty commands that to “be yourself” as He wants is to seek wealth. One may note that, with the advent of the middle class during the Industrial Revolution, there persisted a tension between the accumulation of capital and variously tortured interpretations of Matthew 19:24, but these days those niceties have almost wholly been jettisoned, along (incidentally) with the value of charity, save (usually) for the purpose of tax breaks.

It is easy to wax indignant about a radical shift toward selfishness arising from the persona of money in three of four of the largest US congregations, but with the dollar as the New God it is hardly inconsistent. The further danger, as justifying violence because the Lord says so, arises from the self-fulfilling prophecy of money. What is affordable becomes the justification for what is doable, and we can imagine that the capitalists buying politicians are merely conniving dirt bags who are jerking the system around—and they may be that as well—but it is frequently not that simple, particularly in the wake of corporate personhood. Much could be said about this that has already been noted, so for now I will point only to the link offered in the Bhagavad-Gītā regarding the benefit to those executed by the State and the common use of the word executor in the sense used with an estate. That is, in particular there is a deluded and delusive sense of martyrdom on the part of the monied (not only the rich) that any money they spend or give away constitutes a benefit to whomever receives it. The uncharitableness with which we hand over a dollar to someone who has to live on the streets, the stories we make up when describing the experience to friends—this points to the (persona) psychology of the justice of the peace, who shall not be held guilty for being the executor (executioner) of the estate (the State)—the estate in this case being whatever grand manor or pathetic studio apartment we inhabit.

Poverty is a necessary element of capitalism, so it can be no news to observe how the persona of money or the pursuit of it finds its divine sanction and preeminently emphasizes the benefit (not event eh charity) of executing the (e)state’s beneficence on those who have, in some way, run afoul of the state, i.e., generally the poor. Note, all of this is still in the domain of the persona, which ego-consciousness pays lip service to in the service of “holding together the kingdom”. In principle, the persona and the ego-consciousness need not (and are not) identified, but for the lumpenbourgeoisie in particular that identification tends to be total, in large part because character is not a function of behavior but of wealth. Consequently, it may often be the case that the shadow of the persona (as simply the excluded portions of one’s public face) and the shadow of ego-consciousness (the personal and collective unconscious per se) fuse indiscriminately together, so that there is no awareness (save for Sanjaya’s nagging conscience) that the divine sanction for wealth accumulation and the long-suffering martyrdom of benefiting others in society by executing them (economically most frequently, but “giving them” the opportunity to be poor, but also semi-literally as mass incarceration points to, and literally, either by starving them to death or generally denying them the means for living lives, or actually putting them to death) constitutes a massive fraud—the economic metaphor is intentional here. Similarly, although this will be less of a concern for the lumpenbourgeoisie than for those who are the beneficiaries of the lumpenbourgeoisie’s execution of their estate, this fraud is matched by delusion as the “false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature” (III.27). This is little consolation for those treated to such beneficence, but it points also to the challenge of overcoming this delusion, as it’s likely the distinction between persona and ego-consciousness isn’t even available to illuminate an alternative to the world-view they are living.

The above will seem to point primarily only to those with enough money to really throw around the largesse of their beneficence, but I don’t intend that at all. The widespread attitude of entitlement one can encounter on a daily basis, which has in no way anything to do with anything in government programs relating to entitlement, is not limited only to people with money; hence, the notion of the person as money or the pursuit of money. In fact, an irony of the Republican party’s attack on the notion of (government) entitlements stems from a violently self-righteously sense of entitlement itself, that no one with money (or that no one who might pursue money) should ever have to fund, directly or through taxes, those who do not have money or who refuse to pursue money. The fact that the rigors of the economy have driven so many to require food stamps only points to the high watermark of what constitutes “the poor” as they are conceptualized (as the 47%) by those whose personae link to money and the pursuit of money.


[1] Much amplified later in the Bhagavad-Gītā, as at “The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature” (III. 27) and “Everyone is forced to act helplessly according to the qualities he has acquired from the modes of material nature; therefore no one can from doing something, not even for a moment” (III.5)

[2] Perhaps it is in recognition of this that Polonius sets a spy on his son.

[3] “By 2006, three of the four largest congregations in the United States were teaching prosperity theology, and Joel Osteen has been credited with spreading it outside of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement through his books, which have sold over 4 million copies” (see here).

This is the fourth post in a series that memorialize a study of multiple translations of the Bhagavad-Gītā­ by a friend and me. For the sake of clarity, notes on this chapter are broken up into several posts. In particular, the (currently planned) three posts cover background material (the previous post), and then “Follow Your Dharma in the Sense of Do Your Duty” (this post) and “Follow Your Dharma in the Sense of Be Yourself” (the next post).

Other resources for chapter 2 may be found here, along with the following rough summary of the chapter:

In chapter two Arjuna accepts the position as a disciple of Lord Kṛṣṇa and taking complete of Him requests the Lord to instruct him in how to dispel his lamentation and grief. This chapter is often deemed as a summary to the entire Bhagavad-Gita. Here many subjects are explained such as: karma yoga, jñana yoga, sāṅkyha yoga, buddih yoga and the atma which is the soul. Predominance has been given to the immortal nature of the soul existing within all living entities and it has been described in great detail. Thus this chapter is entitled: The Eternal Reality of the Soul’s Immortality.

Follow Your Dharma = Do Your Duty

I have no illusions that for very many people the idea “do your duty” amounts not simply to an inadequate answer but even  corruption of the very purpose of life itself. Certainly, the word “duty” drips with all kinds of obnoxiousness. We’ve probably most frequently encountered it as an (overbearing) reminder by someone else that we have an obligation to do something. It certainly shows up in religious circles, and thus informs the loathing of the word for those who have left a church. It figures prominently in military circles, where opponents of military duty would ask, not entirely without some cause, “Why would you follow out orders that you yourself are opposed to or offended by or even morally affronted by?” In a slightly more positive guise, duty connotes a promise we have made to ourselves, a self-chosen obligation, but I have met people who are as vehemently denouncing of duty even in this sense, seeing in it a very deliberate and active thwarting of one’s “natural inclinations” to do something other than whatever commitment or obligation one has made. This personal kind of commitment aside, a most frequent encounter with a sense of duty socially almost invariably demands a person’s adherence to a course of action or an outcome that may or may not be in accord with their desires at that moment. Thus, a mother’s or a soldier’s duty may be the most familiar. And what particularly colors these forms of duty is that they are imposed by external forces—they are demands that have issued not from the mother or soldier personally—though, in principle, they have agreed to be dictated to—but from military superiors or the demand of society to care for children.

I find myself a bit baffled by my willingness to defend the notion of duty, specifically even in a person’s most outrageous suspension of their own desires for the sake of the most outrageous impositions by an external authority. By this I mean, one can domesticate the idea of duty and turn it into something that (1) amounts to a commitment to oneself, rather than someone else, which (2) one might actually suspend at any moment. I may have a duty to be a mother, which I took on, more or less willingly, because I more or less chose to have children. But today, right now, at this moment, I’m  going to tell my kids to fuck off and fend for themselves, for a few hours at least, because I’m suspending my promise to myself to care for my children. Not that the desire for such a break isn’t understandable; I’m only underlining that the sense of duty that’s in play here is a rather pale variety compared to the mother who relentlessly sacrifices herself, just as a soldier is willing to sacrifice herself, for a cause they may not even in that moment affectively desire.

The baffling part to me, if you will, is that I’m adamantly not about duty in my life. I would oppose to the notion of duty the notion of integrity, where the commitments and obligations I honor in the world to myself and others stem from an expression of my principles. Of necessity, this means that even when I submit my will to someone else, I do so out of my own sense of principles, and my commitment and obligation to fulfilling the will of another person devolves ultimately to my sense of integrity in honoring that commitment. Duty, by contrast, implies (to me), “I’ll do whatever you say, or I’ll do whatever is necessary, regardless of what I think about it.” And that, I suspect, is where the notion of duty gets its bad rap amongst people who are more like myself. In this sense, duty starts to look dangerously like the kind of conformism that Bertolucci investigates in his film and which leads to fascist youth groups marching around, &c. Indubitably, I’m somewhat impressed by this seemingly self-abnegating sense of duty because my mother gives the impression of being wholly driven by duty—that is, showing no evidence of emotional reasons for doing the things that mothers do while raising children.[i] But just as it can be difficult not to admire Duryodhana for honestly admitting, “Our forces are insufficient,” or thieves at times for their audacity or drug addicts at times for their astonishing drive and entrepreneurship, even the most virulent critic of duty should be able to appreciate the ability of those who plight their troth with the concept to honor commitments, which the non-duty-bound might (like a tired mother) simply let slide.

The argument is that such noble honoring of commitments (to others), such generous self-abnegation of one’s desires otherwise in those moments, amounts to a tragedy or a travesty precisely because the cause to which one is giving oneself is not worthy of such sacrifice. This is acutely obvious in soldiers, who are asked to commit the unambiguous iniquity of murder on other human beings. In such a scenario, it becomes eminently sensible to construe such human beings as subhuman, as animals—it helps immensely when those subhumans are firing submachineguns at you, but when it is civilians, women, or children (even women or children carrying grenades or strapped with bombs), the moment of doing one’s duty and pulling that trigger triggers a whole chain of unbearabilities manifesting now in more deaths by suicide amongst Việt Nam era soldiers than actually died in the war, countless cases of PTSD in currently returning veterans, and the report that at least one soldier per day in or out of combat arenas now take their own life. Of course, the State sheds maudlin or heartfelt tears over these losses, and opponents of duty will call this the disingenuous and hypocritical regret of those who put soldiers in harm’s way in the first place. Soldiers will be asked, “Why honor your duty?” when that GI bill the recruiter said you’d get when you were done will not be honored, when you won’t even return intact, when Veteran’s services will be denied you, and what “care” you will get will be incompetent at best. The extremity of the situation only makes the question of honoring duty that much more acute, and perhaps for that reason that much more significant for those honoring it. A promise is easy to keep up to the moment someone asks you to honor it—mothers and soldiers are daily commanded to honor their duty.

These values, and thus also these criticism, lie behind Kṛṣṇa’s injunction: follow your dharma (“do your duty”). That one is born into a particular caste, even the untouchable caste, as embodying the dharma one must follow analogizes with participating in  world where the demands and dictates of someone other than oneself take precedence. It might be argued that one’s caste birth is involuntary so that it is unfair to demand people follow such dharma, but entering into the dharma of motherhood is often involuntary or accidental as well. Conversely, Indian philosophy would declare (persuasively or not) that one’s caste birth is not involuntary but is the karmic result of one’s past lives. The point, in any case, is not to demonize or rescue an Indian philosophy vis-à-vis some subset of western phenomenon or cultural milieus. It’s quite enough to note the kind of circumstance where, for whatever reason, one becomes obligated in the name of duty to set aside one’s own desires toward bringing about someone else’s externally stipulated end or goal.

In the most general sense, “follow your dharma” can mean “follow your social role”. In our socially mobile culture, we like to imagine the notion of a “social role” as being an artificial, undesirable construct—one that is generally to be avoided, lest one appear to be a conformist—but even if we have nothing so explicitly specified as India’s caste system, one may easily recognize any number of prevailing social mores in different social circumstances, many of which people adhere to more in a sense of duty than out of a spirit of self-expression. In fact, as obnoxious as the caste-injunction “do your dharma” might resonate for us, there is a steady-eyed (or at least candid) analysis that follows from that. Specifically, Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna that if he does not follow his dharma and act like a kṣatriya, then his reputation will suffer, people who currently respect him will cease to respect him, he will lose the opportunity to enhance his reputation amongst those who respect him, those who would benefit from being killed by him (in battle) will be denied that boon, and—perhaps most significantly as far as this point is concerned—he will not be doing the will of the Lord.

Surely these last two points, the beneficence of killing people and the suspension of the absolute provision on doing violence to others because the Lord says it is not violence in this case, come across as the most disingenuous parts of Prabhupāda’s commentary. If one knew unequivocally that the Supreme Good (Kṛṣṇa) did indeed say, “Go for it,” that would—if only because it is defined that way—actually be a correct course of action. The human beings have been manifestly deceived on many occasions by charlatans claiming to have received instructions from the Lord, so kill the infidel, is not a refutation of Prabhupāda’s point, but a confirmation of it, for he would insist, I suspect, that if one follows charlatans, one may expect poor results. At the same time, one has to say the vanishing horizon of establishing any certainty that the Lord has really spoken—notwithstanding that the Lord doesn’t even exist—puts the whole mess in the lap of faith and thus human error, whatever faith might claim to the contrary. But this does not negate the consistency of the point view; it only points to its difficulties, if not its undesirability. The consolation of duty is precisely that one is doing the right thing, even if it is unclear to you how.

But my friend and co-reader, Lorraine, observed a crucial problem in this. Before I describe it, let me repeat again that this answer by Kṛṣṇa is only one of several. The insufficiency of this answer is not a sign that it is wrong; it is simply that, as an answer to “What am I supposed to do,” follow your dharma (“do your duty”) in this sense does not cut it. Moreover, we can see the intelligence in the Bhagavad-Gītā’s author in choosing a kṣatriya to pose this question, because a soldier may, in fact, be in the most terrible position with respect to what is asked of her in the name of duty. Everyone faces moral dilemmas, but they are rarely at the point of having to violate the one universal Hindu philosophical (if not simply human) principle: do no violence to anyone. At the same time, so far as ‘do your duty” is concerned, the author cannot shirk that conclusion merely because we are dealing precisely with that most untenable of moral dilemmas. The fact that Arjuna, in his compassion, seems even constitutionally opposed to the notion of killing his relatives (great warrior that he otherwise is said to be) only deepens the pathos of the situation. Moreover, Arjuna himself finds Kṛṣṇa’s answers at this particular juncture insufficient, but this cannot be taken as meaning they are generally insufficient.

Nonetheless, Lorraine observed that to obey the injunction “do your duty” without understanding what is at stake in that doing cannot stand. It is a necessary assumption, when the Lord says “killing them will be no violence,” or when an authority says, “You have a duty as a parent to care for your child,” that the authority in question is an embodiment of the Good. Once again, if we are dealing with charlatans, we get the fruits of that. And when the soldier is told to put a bullet between the crying child’s eyes, asks why, and the commander barks, “Do what you’re told, soldier,” we (rightly) suspect we are in the presence of something striving toward an aim that may not embody a Supreme Good. This, however, occurs for those who sand already constitutionally outside of the capacity to accept “do your duty” as an injunction. Lorraine’s objection is very on point, and I’m wholly sympathetic with the presumption that it would be better we understand why we should obey an order rather than blindly obeying it, but to put it this way misses somewhat the mark of the “contract” that one enters into (so to speak) by doing one’s duty. The only reason to know why in such a circumstance would be not to justify the course of action but only to do it more effectively. Insofar as I am obligated (or have obligated myself—or have, in the aggregate, agreed to be bound by a certain set of social conventions in a given circumstance), then it really doesn’t matter what I am asked to do. I must assume, even if my commander is sending me on a suicide mission, that the intention is Good. Kṛṣṇa, as an image of Supreme good in this case, may be an unreachable human goal as far as doing one’s duty is concerned, but it is the logically correct representation of the Authority that issues the commands I would obey in the pursuance of my duty. The further argument from Prabhupāda in this case might be that those who are in Kṛṣṇa Consciousness in the first place would be of such  character that there’d be no inclination to war in the first place. Thus, one might say that Kṛṣṇa’s advocacy of war here was the only instance such that humankind might never again submit to the will of those humans who claimed to wage war in the Lord’s name.

In any case, understanding follow your dharma in the widest sense of any social role we might find ourselves in voluntarily or otherwise, Kṛṣṇa’s first answer to, “What shall I do?” is play your role. Insofar as this is equivalent to saying ‘adopt a persona” (in Jung’s sense), it follows that Kṛṣṇa’s and Prabhupāda’s remarks through this section have an ego-consciousness emphasis. Duryodhana is certainly following his dharma, his social role—he is maintaining his persona. What this specifically means is the antithesis of “be yourself” (much less “be your Self”). Follow your dharma in this sense means “adopt the persona consistent with what the social dictates your role to be”. Again, for women who find such social dictates demanding they bear men’s children, the “problem” of social roles is apparent enough, but for those who (voluntarily or involuntarily) enter into that domain, once there the various arguments that Kṛṣṇa and Prabhupāda offers for those who do follow their dharma (they will gain in reputation, they will not lose in reputation, &c) kicks in as necessary consequences of that. Thus, the woman who blatantly flaunts her motherhood will find any number of ways to increase her social cache, at least to the extent that people conventionally fuss about very young children.

In psychological terms, this points to the validity of the person in general. Particularly elsewhere in the world, the notion of “face” plays a significant role (i.e., saving face), and one may certainly find places in the US where it figures importantly as well, perhaps most prominent among the ruling castes and everyone else besides most of the middle class. I say this because while Jung’s assertion that we all have personas is true, it has been primarily only among the high and the low that I have seen it making a difference—and for the same reason: that much is at stake in reputation. For the aristocrats, the stake is power itself; amongst the serfs, as the saying goes, “a man’s reputation is all he has”. For the middle class, I might offer you collateral as surety in an agreement of some sort—the serfs don’t have the luxury of collateral, all they have is their word. My sense is that in the middle class, face plays a much less prominent role in part because money (as the sign of worth, as opposed to my word) stands in instead, so that I can be negligent about my persona in the public sphere.

This is less true as we go back in time, in part because the middle class rose to power on a neurotically self-righteous persona of moral rectitude, but that was 200 years ago. At stake then was real social power, and real social power requires a reputation. The way Jung presents the notion of persona, one can still read from it some good old-fashioned burgher stodginess, as is so often twitted in European literature. Compare that to the image of the typical US plutocrat, the Texas oilman, and the distance between what constituted a necessary persona of old versus the kind of persona one n have today is very obvious. Whatever the justness of this, one may expect in general that the more power (as social cache) comes into play, the more persona management there will be. Even poor Protestant churches often have it in abundance. Conversely, in those circumstances where mere survival or individuality take priority one will find less emphasis on persona (as face or reputation). Hence, money or the pursuit of money stands (psychologically) in the same position as persona in Jung’s sense. And just as the injunction, play your social role, implies that increases in reputation will follow, &c., the same holds true—t lest the claim does—when money or the pursuit of it is one’s social role as well.

I sense in my trying to argue for this that there is a clamoring individualistic objection. I’ll repeat: Kṛṣṇa’s answer may not be for us, but it is not for no one. And if there is a central value in Jung’s work, similarly, it is in the recognition of a plurality of social truths, about which we should not fight but, rather, recognize the partial understanding that each (including ours) embodies. Moreover, in psychological terms—even if persona as “face” has morphed into “money or the pursuit of it” for the middle class—this advocacy for follow your dharma (“be your persona”) takes some of the stink of inauthenticity out of the persona. The sense one can get from Jung, perhaps unfairly, perhaps inaccurately, is a skepticism on his part about the persona. The way he talks about it, he gives me a sense of it as a false front, a mask (which is precisely the original etymology for the term by way of the word “person”[ii]).

The therapist may be bound to see more than her fair share of “false fronts” from those who seek psychological help from a professional, and Jung generally went far out of his way to avoid generalizing the whole of the human psyche only from the clinical cases he observed. Nonetheless, there seems to be bites of acid in places that may make too much of this mask as false. Certainly, in his bland pronouncements, he made nothing more of the persona than it being simply our public face. This implies, of course, that there is a private face, and the media of all ages has delighted in exposing cases of gross disparity between these two faces. But  very huge portion of humans in history have identified with their social role, so much so that historians of ideas say that was the norm for human personality (prior to Rousseau’s’ invention of personality, so to speak, in the 18th century). Thus the vast number of family names associated with professions (carpenter, wainwright, carter, smith, wright, singer, taylor, weaver, farmer, &c). One’s dignity, as Marx assures us, was in one’s work, which itself became a central pillar in the middle class self-congratulation over itself as it rose to power, as distinct from the indolent and decadent aristocrats, who never did an honest day’s work in their life—a criticism that gradually came to applicable and just to the capitalist nouveau riche who indolently and decadently make investments simply to amass more wealth. Thus, for the lumpenbourgeoisie, who have no necessity of “face” because (unlike the aristocrats or top capitalists) something more than their mere life is at stake at any given point of the day or because (unlike the peasants or working poor) the day to day commerce of human affairs depends implicitly on one’s reputation, the sense of persona has been domesticated (i.e., freed from the singular purpose of maintaining social reputation)[iii] such that money or the pursuit of it stand in place of “face” in this typical sense.

The point of all of this, psychologically speaking, defends the utility of not overlooking the value and purpose of persona simply because we lumpenbourgeoisie give it little thought. Not only does it play a tremendous role in some people’s lives, our own suspicion of the validity of it for those people leads us astray when thinking about them. Conversely, because we give little credence to persona, we have a tendency to think we can simply “go out in public” and will be wearing our private face. Or worse, that we can or should. This is a social problem in itself.

With the figure of Dhṛtarāṣṭra as written the distinction between persona and ego-consciousness is not pronounced. I will take his blindness as evidence not only of his partial understanding, which Arjuna, Kṛṣṇa, and even Sanjaya stand as contrasts to, but I see in it also a blindness to the distinction between persona and ego-consciousness. If the historians of ideas re correct, then Dhṛtarāṣṭra had no private self. Essentially, except in times of festival, Carnival, or Saturnalia, when one by convention dons a mask, then there is never a moment when the king cannot be the king—or at most, only when she is completely alone and assured that no one else is looking, if even then. Nor is this only something kings experience. I had a mate once who was grateful to have me as a mate, but particularly for the fact that when we were home together he could “take his game face off”. Even with other partners he’d felt compelled not to “let his guard down”. For any number of reasons, he’d not felt he could stop managing his reputation. We might call this neurotic, but he was not from a middle class background or in a middle class setting, and his discomfort at the threat of “setting his mask aside” was every bit as pronounced as the king’s trepidation.

In this respect, Sanjaya takes on a literal role as the voice of his conscience. If all we see of Dhṛtarāṣṭra is persona, because that is all a king can let us see, nevertheless the voice of conscience is able to speak past that barrier (because it has a view to the interior, where Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa stand conversing). So, if there is a trap for aristocrats or peasants, it may be located in whether or not (1) they recognize a distinction between ego-consciousness and persona, and (2) have a way of setting aside the mask of persona. If there is a trap for lumpenbourgeoisie—by which I mean members of the middle-class who needn’t pay attention to face or reputation as a matter of social survival—then it may be located in failing to recognize the (social) reality of the persona at all. We have this conceit that we are just being ourselves, which is precisely how “false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature”  (III.27).

Our dominant emphasis on individuality makes us at least pay lip service to an opposition to conformity.  This itself may simply be a persona assertion, even as ego-consciousness doesn’t really take that ideal seriously and rigorously conforms to whatever niche it finds itself in. But we needn’t be merely scoffing of this—the false dichotomy between ‘society” or “self” is resolved when Jung describes individuation as the individual embodiment of collective norms. Thus, self or society are analytically separable, but it is only in their inextricable actuality that that which we analytically break off as “self” or “society” can emerge in the first place. Moreover, for some it appears to be the case that self-esteem arises from their sense of “belonging”—a central value which may not be a central value for other people.


[i] The autobiographical details of this may help or hinder the point here. My father, in his physical overbearingness and violence, may have helped to make my mother’s extreme emotional distance appealing to me—simply because she didn’t impose on me like my father did. And certainly her relentlessly pleasant and polite demeanor, devoid of any sign of emotional affect, certainly had some kind of frustrating consequences—I’m told sons generally want the affection of their mothers—but it also provided a rather profound, or at least striking, illustration and demonstration of emotional independence. My description makes my reaction seem very blasé; I’ve described my mother to people as evil, so let’s not kid around. But her evil, like the doctrine of the privatio boni (that evil is simply the “absence of good”), arose in her absences and unavailabilities and less her acts. Meanwhile, as a child and son watching her, all I could see was someone doing the tasks of managing a house, washing laundry, cooking food, &c. I could only believe she loved me; nothing she did gave me any sign of it. But this is exactly where those who respect duty would berate me, because it was precisely that she fed me, washed my clothes, and the like that provides the evidence of love. Obviously, I was utterly aware of that growing up, and I was hardly ungrateful for what she did. And yet, at the same time, I never felt loved by her; all I could do was give her the benefit of the doubt, which is a rather awkward situation to be in when you are ten years old, &c.

[ii] person :: “early 13c., from O.Fr. persone “human being” (12c., Fr. personne), from L. persona “human being,” originally “character in a drama, mask,” possibly borrowed from Etruscan phersu “mask.” This may be related to Gk. Persephone. The use of -person to replace -man in compounds and avoid alleged sexist connotations is first recorded 1971 (in chairperson). In person “by bodily presence” is from 1560s. Person-to-person first recorded 1919, originally of telephone calls.” (see here for “persona”)

[iii] In another essay, I noted the following about “domestication” (smaller text indicates footnotes in the original): A study of songbirds found greater variety of song in domesticated varieties. The researchers suggested this was so because evolutionary pressure (to reproduce) no longer demanded specialization in the species’ given mating call. So why should cats, now countless generations removed from their primordial ancestors, only sharpen their claws for a “motivation” of “survival”. Having been domesticated, the activity may now be for some other reason, like pleasure. If by domesticationI mean the increase in the range of an activity formerly specialized for the sake of reproductive survival such that a wider variety of telea (the plural of telos) for that activity eventually emerge, then this may be extended to a function of cognition in general, to the extent that a greater range of cognition frees an otherwise necessary action from the constraint of that necessity. [I have heard humans referred to as a self-domesticated species.] Recreational fucking, then (which not only humans, but also bonobos, dolphins, &c engage in) may be a result of self-domestication (with its own chain of subsequent evolutionary consequences, rather than the other way around). [An increasing range of cognition (as an increasing range of effective action) permits telea other than “continued existence” to come into being. From observing living organisms over the earth, it seems this came into play comparatively early in the evolution of life]

The domestication of cognition enables not only an increased range of self-addressments to an environment but also an increased variety of telea for those self-addressments. This is self-evident, to various degrees, across the whole range of living systems, but is most familiar (to we humans) in other mammals, who often seem rather occupied with behaviors “for pleasure”. With caveats toward not falling prey to anthropomorphisms in place, then, perhaps not all personifications are hopelessly anthropic at root. A great deal of behavior (toward objects) in the animal kingdom can only with considerable torture be construed as “for survival”. It seems that other telea could be legitimately identified. Insofar as this means at least for some species that sentience is already enough to justify an ascription of multiple telea to its members’ behavior, then “motivations other than survival” cannot in themselves be construed as a uniquely human endowment. Yet it is with no appeal to human vanity that I propose still to identify our distinguishing distinction as a species of living system. [Language is the most frequently resorted to benchmark, though how to rigorously maintain human language as not simply a highly complex—so we insist—form of signaling otherwise found in Nature challenges this resort. Our complacency about this assertion seems the readiest of its refutations. And ultimately, it’s less whether bees or bonobos don’t compose sonnets than that we do might not be valid evidence for a distinction in the first place.]

Spetch & Friedman (2006) reviewed comparative studies of object recognition in pigeons and  humans. In particular, they established a study to rule out the possibility (logical enough) that pigeon performance at object recognition might be improved if actual objects, rather than pictures of objects, were used. And this did indeed prove to be the case, while the change in human performance (between pictures of objects and objects themselves) was minimal. More strikingly, while the pigeon’s reactions times were always longer than the humans’, and showed (expected) faster reaction times for objects over reaction times for pictures of objects, for humans, we had notably faster reaction times to pictures of objects compared to objects. [Spetch, M. L., & Friedman, A. (2006). Comparative cognition of object recognition. Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 1, pp. 12–35. from http://psyc.queensu.ca/ccbr/Vol1/Spetch.pdf%5D

I don’t intend to hang an entire argument on just one result, and yet these findings suggest that humans are more habituated to representations of objects than objects themselves; by this distinction I mean particularly a self-awareness of awareness of objects themselves. Citing a general and anthropic bias in the studies surveyed, Spetch & Friedman (2006) allow that some visual cues may be being lost for the pigeons in the (human) transformation of objects into pictures (representations of object). It may also be that what we (as humans) consider to be an adequate pictorial representation of an object will seem that way to us precisely because we have spent a great many centuries mastering the artistic and technological means to reproduce those representations in a way that looks correct to us. On this view, we may describe self-domestication in our species as having freed an object recognition specialization formerly adapted to the telos of “survival” to a variety of other telea (such as tool use, aesthetic appreciation, sexual obsession, or whatever else caught our fancy). Somewhere along the way (and here is where intelligence might diverge descriptively from cognition per se), within the range of additional telea, representations of objects became objects in their own right, and have since taken priority over objects per se, as our faster reaction times to representations of objects compared to objects suggests.

This is the third post in a series that memorialize a study of multiple translations of the Bhagavad-Gītā­ by a friend and me. For the sake of clarity, notes on this chapter are broken up into several posts. In particular, the (currently planned) three posts cover background material (this post), and then “Follow Your Dharma in the Sense of Do Your Duty” (the next post) and “Follow Your Dharma in the Sense of Be Yourself” (the third post).

Other resources for chapter 2 may be found here, along with the following rough summary of the chapter:

In chapter two Arjuna accepts the position as a disciple of Lord Kṛṣṇa and taking complete of Him requests the Lord to instruct him in how to dispel his lamentation and grief. This chapter is often deemed as a summary to the entire Bhagavad-Gita. Here many subjects are explained such as: karma yoga, jñana yoga, sāṅkyha yoga, buddih yoga and the atma which is the soul. Predominance has been given to the immortal nature of the soul existing within all living entities and it has been described in great detail. Thus this chapter is entitled: The Eternal Reality of the Soul’s Immortality.

An initial confession: readers familiar with the Bhagavad-Gītā may have noted that in the commentary in my previous post, I included issues and arguments raised by Arjuna that are actually addressed in this chapter. The purpose in the last post comprised principally to sketch in the “psychic relationships” between Kṛṣṇa, Arjuna, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, and Sanjaya as they related to Jung’s concept of individuation. Properly speaking, it is in this chapter that Arjuna argues not about the sadness of killing family members and the destruction of family values that war threatens (as in chapter 1) but that one should not attack teachers or those worthy of veneration, &c. Prabhupāda’s refutations of these points offer “ego-consciousness” replies as distinct from the principle famous reply Kṛṣṇa gives here.

Skipping the background justifications for Kṛṣṇa’s reply, it boils down to this: Arjuna, you are, by nature, a warrior, therefore fight. Narratively, it is much to the credit of the Bhagavad-Gītā’s author that this reply continues to be surprising centuries after it was first composed. And, as an anticipatory comment on my part for what is yet to come, my sense of the Bhagavad-Gītā is that Kṛṣṇa’s various answers to Arjuna do not supersede one another, but are simply different answers (different truths) relevant to different people. It is the wisdom of a guru to understand that one aspirant needs X while another aspirant needs Y, even if X and Y seem antithetical. Similarly, I noted in the Preface of this series that for those not inclined yet to benefit from jñana yoga then karma yoga may prove adequate. So, on a strictly practical level, the first consolation for the moral dilemmas of the world that Kṛṣṇa offers to Arjuna is simply “do your duty” (i.e., follow your dharma). Later answers, as Arjuna finds this answer not sufficiently compelling, will be different.

Here, Kṛṣṇa’s answer, so compellingly put, hinges on the fact of the soul’s immortality. He chides Arjuna for being confused and grieving needlessly, and then states, “For never was I not, nor you, nor any of these kings; nor shall we cease to exist in the future” (II.12). Metaphysically, the soul being eternal, why fuss over the transitory manifestation of the body? Everything that is manifest must once have been non-manifest and in the future will be unmanifest again, so why fret? (II.28). Or, again, even if we believed things that are born die, only to be reborn again, why fret over death on that account (II. 26–7). One may answer with a paraphrase of a famous Japanese Haiku on the death of a monk’s son: “All is indeed attachment and chasing after vanity, and yet …”

If the argument here stopped merely at what might be called “calling the bluff on one’s belief in immortality” (if one really accepted that metaphysical reality, one can hardly refute Kṛṣṇa’s reply), but it does not. It is even suggested (in Prabhupāda’s commentary explicitly) that killing Duryodhana and forces is a benefit to them. Likening the act to a State execution, these human manifestations will, by their deaths, expiate much of the crime they have accrued to themselves that brought them to this pass in the first place. Even the very nobility that still inheres in them—not simply as mighty and renowned warriors, but even as partially enlightened beings—their death now will put them on a fast track to a more auspicious birth in the future. Quite bluntly, Arjuna will be doing them a favor by killing them in battle.[i] To his (human) credit, Arjuna expresses reservations about this, once again invoking the general prohibition on harming others, but the text suggests (and Prabhupāda’s commentary makes explicit) that when the Lord says it is okay to “harm others,” then one may proceed without reservation. Specifically, as a commentary on the verse “neither he who thinks the living entity the slayer nor he who thinks it slain is in knowledge, for the self slays not nor is slain” (II.20), Prabhupāda asserts:

This, however, does not at all encourage killing of the body. The Vedic injunctions is mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni: never commit violence to anyone. Nor does understanding that the living entity is not killed encourage animal slaughter. Killing the body of anyone without authority is abominable and is punishable by the law of the state as well as by the law of the Lord. Arjuna, however, is being engaged in killing for the principle of religion, and not whimsically.

With this, from verses 31–38, Kṛṣṇa reiterates the benefits for a warrior who fights, even if he dies, in battle, placing particular emphasis on the religious aspect of such fighting. Kṛṣṇa then pivots in his argument to a description of karma yoga, stating, “O Arjuna, I have explained to you this spiritual intelligence regarding the nature of the soul; now listen to this science of actions without fruititive desires by which spiritual intelligence is endowed completely releasing you from the bondage of reactions from actions” (II.39).

Over the course of this first portion of chapter 2, Kṛṣṇa has resorted to an essentialist and nonessentialist argument. The latter is that the injunction “follow your dharma” (“do your duty”) should be understood essentially in terms of caste, i.e., Arjuna has been born into the kṣatriya caste with all the rules and regulations of its varṇāśrama-dharma (i.e., those “many principles of religious traditions to help members of the family grow properly and attain spiritual values” cf commentary on I.39). This particular idea, that you must conform to the circumstances of your birth, denotes a particularly alien idea to our current way of thinking. On the doctrine of reincarnation into castes, it follows logically to identify the duties of one’s nature and the duties of one’s station in life, but this rigorous non-mobile sociality stands all but antithetically to our tendency to deny the important of such social roles. Certainly, this becomes especially pertinent when one considers the proscriptions on social roles for women. “Do your duty” (“follow your dharma”) most assuredly means “bear men’s offspring”.

Reaching forward for a moment into the next chapter, we find, “The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature” (III. 27) and “Everyone is forced to act helplessly according to the qualities he has acquired from the modes of material nature; therefore no one can from doing something, not even for a moment” (III.5). Both of these concern the doctrine of the guṇas (the three modes of material nature), which will be addressed more in future chapters. Here, in the present chapter, we read, “The Vedas deal mainly with the subject of the three modes of material nature. O Arjuna, become transcendental to these three modes. Be free from all dualities and from all anxieties for gain and safety, and be established in the self” (II.45). Here then is the essentialist argument; the Rudra Vaisnava Sampradaya elaborates on this point:

An argument may be put forth that if the person situated in knowledge of the Vedas also has to perform actions then what is the difference between the ignorant and the wise? Lord Kṛṣṇa apprehending such a doubt explains the difference between the two in this verse and the next. All actions are impelled by prakriti or material nature through the guṇas being the three modes of sattva or goodness, rajas or passion and tamas or nescience and these are experienced by the mind when the senses make contact with sense objects. Thus the ignorant person believes that they are the doer of the actions because the false ego has accepted the physical body as the self and deluded by this egoism has superimposed the senses over the self in illusion (III.27).

At present, the significant phrase is “activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.” This recalls Foucault’s assertion that we do not speak discourse but rather it speaks us. Similarly, at the School for Designing a Society, they hold a recognition that language carries intentions in addition to, and often different from, the intentions we intend by our speaking. What this ancient and two more recent encapsulations of this idea suggest amounts to the assertion of an autonomous or teleological end to a person’s activity that supersedes the person’s understanding of his or her own purposes. Thus, just as the nonessentialist argument insists that it is correct to hold a person liable for conformance to a social rôle they are born into, here an overlooked nature of the person becomes the effective agent for (or at least a major player in) carrying out activities.

Both of these points rub some of our cultural conceits (or habits) the wrong way, part of which exactly appears to be (e.g., Prabhupāda’s) critique of “Western” culture; i.e., “if economic development and material comforts could drive away one’s lamentations for family, social, national or international inebrieties, then Arjuna would not have said that even an unrivaled kingdom on earth or supremacy like that of the demigods in the heavenly planets would be unable to drive away his lamentations” (cf comment on II.8). Under a guru-like authority, the instruction is simply to submit to this “divine” wisdom, and we needn’t read this demand merely as a piece of (cultic) power politics by a would-be sage. It may be that the insistence on individualism sets itself squarely against what is necessary, and even in the consulting chamber of analytical psychology the contract between the analyst and analysand rests on a necessary article of good faith that the analysand will trust the analyst and that the analyst will not abuse that trust. Similarly, just as the analyst will admit that theory is all well and good, but it is only the well-being of the individual that matters, so may we take any sense of “thou shalt” in the Bhagavad-Gītā (or commentaries on it) as a general proposition that must find its specific application for the specific aspirant. Jung makes this unambiguous, even if Prabhupāda does not:

“[The healer] knows that there is nothing purely good in the realm of human experience, but also that for many people it is better to be convinced of an absolute good and to listen to the voice of those who espouse the superiority of consciousness and unambiguous thinking. He may console himself with the thought that one who can join the shadow to the light is the possessor of the greater riches.

But he will not fall into the temptation of playing the law-giver, nor will he pretend to be a prophet of the truth: for he knows that the sick, suffering, or helpless patient standing before him is not the public but is Mr or Mrs X, and that the doctor has to put something tangible and helpful on the table or he is no doctor.

His duty is always to the individual, and he is persuaded that nothing has happened if this individual has not been helped.” (CG Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, ¶125)

The notion that the station one is born to in life should be conformed to may be fitted to the notion that all social roles (gender roles particularly) are socially constructed. As far as the Indian conceit of karma is concerned, one gets born into a caste thanks to activities in one’s previous lives, and this creates some social problematics akin to system-wide class “victim blaming”. This notwithstanding, it must be counted two separate arguments if, one the one hand, Kṛṣṇa can simply enjoin Arjuna to act like the kṣatriya he has been born to be and, on the other hand, to claim that we (in our only partial understanding of the matter) believe we are the doer of actions, when in fact it is our (essential) nature manifesting itself that is really running the show. The idea here would seem to be that our inherent nature and our social role may be taken as identical, so that Arjuna not acting like a kṣatriya is going against his inherent nature.

Still, to say this begs the question. If our natures act themselves out, even as we believe we direct our fate, then mustn’t Arjuna’s hesitation be the operation of his inherent nature, rather than his conscious will? In such a situation, how could he ever come to act contrary to the only way he is capable of acting? One might assume, with some justice given his exalted nature, that he really is of the brahmin caste and should not fight. Moreover, as Prabhupāda makes clear, once one is in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, a brahmin might act like a kṣatriya or a kṣatriya might act like a Brahmin, akin to the notion that when the Lord says to kill, contrary to the Vedic injunction never commit violence anyone (mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni), then it is acceptable to commit violence. But this apparent confusion seems only that: apparent. Again, what is at stake here are different degrees of answer to Arjuna’s question, “What am I to do?” One answer, a first one, is “follow your dharma,” while the second (still to be developed more in the rest of the chapter and the next) involves understanding the actions of one’s inherent nature.

This being so, the answers may still seem problematic—especially for women who are told “follow your dharma” (and produce babies for men). The inadequacy of Kṛṣṇa’s answers are not deficiencies. As there will be some who do not respond to the relevant truth of one kind of yoga (specifically, jñana yoga) such that there is an alternative (specifically, karma yoga), this is more or less the same as saying that some will not find the answer of karma yoga sufficient and may respond instead of jñana yoga.

But it remains pertinent to interrogate—at least if only to further bulwark the premise of “follow your dharma” (“do your duty”)—the adequacy of this answer generally. And for the purpose of that, to keep returning to my example, the injunction of this to women in particular helps to keep the potentially (and historically and currently often very much actively) problematic element of this injunction in mind. This will be done in the next posts.


[i] In the commentary on II.21, Prabhupāda remarks, “Everything has its proper utility, and a man who is situated in complete knowledge knows how and where to apply a thing for its proper utility. Similarly, violence also has its utility, and how to apply violence rests with the person in knowledge. Although the justice of the peace awards capital punishment to a person condemned for murder, the justice of the peace cannot be blamed, because he orders violence to another person according to the codes of justice. In Manu-saṁhitā, the lawbook for mankind, it is supported that a murderer should be condemned to death so that in his next life he will not have to suffer for the great sin he has committed. Therefore, the king’s punishment of hanging a murderer is actually beneficial. Similarly, when Kṛṣṇa orders fighting, it must be concluded that violence is for supreme justice, and thus Arjuna should follow the instruction, knowing well that such violence, committed in the act of fighting for Kṛṣṇa, is not violence at all because, at any rate, the man, or rather the soul, cannot be killed; so for the administration of justice, so-called violence is permitted.”

Currently, a friend and I are studying multiple translations of the Bhagavad-Gītā­. This post represents the second in a series that will memorialize the course of our reading. The first post (a preface) is here.

Meanwhile, here is a text of chapter 1 of the Bhagavad-Gītā (along with the four authorized commentaries on it) to consult. The following is a general summary of the chapter contents:

Chapter one introduces the scene, the setting, the circumstances and the characters involved determining the reasons for the Bhagavad-Gita’s revelation. The scene is the sacred plain of Kuruksetra. The setting is a battlefield. The circumstances is war. The main characters are the Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa and Prince Arjuna, witnessed by four million soldiers led by their respective military commanders. After naming the principal warriors on both sides, Arjuna’s growing dejection is described due to the fear of losing friends and relatives in the course of the impending war and the subsequent sins attached to such actions. Thus this chapter is entitled: Lamenting the Consequence of War.

I cannot attempt to justify the intuition to read the Bhagavad-Gītā as an illustration of Jung’s individuation. I can only ask you to take that trip with me and perhaps the outcome will be helpful and insightful. One of the details that persuades me the question is worth examining arises from the frame of the telling: that is, while the bulk of the Bhagavad-Gītā comprises a dialogue between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, that dialogue itself is related by the King Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s secretary, Sanjaya. One translation for Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s name is “he who holds the kingdom together,” which by virtue of being the king of the enemy forces in the Bhagavad-Gītā makes him a figure of ego (in Jung’s sense).

A passage from Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis, his last book on alchemy, sets some of the parameters for understanding the Bhagavad-Gītā’s four principals figures— Kṛṣṇa, Arjuna, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Sanjaya—in  terms of individuation):

We know well enough that the unconscious appears personified: mostly [in males] it is the anima who in singular or plural form represents the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is personified by the shadow. More rarely, the collective unconscious is personified as a Wise Old Man. (I am speaking here only of masculine psychology, which alone can be compared with that of the alchemists.) It is still rarer for Luna to represent the nocturnal side of the psyche in dreams. …

It is therefore not surprising is the unconscious appears in projected and symbolized form, as there is no other way by which it might be perceived. But this is apparently not the case with consciousness. Consciousness, as the essence of all conscious contents, seems to lack the basic requirements for a projection. Properly understood, projection is not a voluntary happening: it is something that approaches the conscious mind from “outside,” a kind of sheen on the object, while all the time the subject remains unaware that he himself is the source of light which causes the cat’s eye of the projection to shine. Luna is therefore conceivable as a projection; but Sol as a projection, since it symbolizes consciousness, seems at first glance a contradiction in terms, yet Sol is no less a projection than Luna. For just as we perceive nothing of the real sun but light and heat and, apart from that, can know its physical constitution only by inference, so our consciousness issues from a dark body, the ego,, which is the indispensable condition for all consciousness, the latter being nothing but the association of an object or a content with the ego. The ego, ostensibly the thing we know most about, is in fact a highly complex affair full of unfathomable obscurities. Indeed, one could even define it as a relatively constant personification of the unconscious itself, or as the Schopenhauerian mirror in which the unconscious becomes aware of its own face[1]. All the worlds that have ever existed before man were physically here. But they were  nameless happening, not a definite actuality, for there did not yet exist that minimal concentration of the psychic factor, which was also present, to speak the word that outweighed the whole of Creation: That is the world, and this is I! That was the first morning of the world, the first sunrise after the primal darkness, when that inchoately conscious complex, the ego, the son of the darkness, knowingly sundered subject and object, and thus precipitated the world and itself into definite existence,[2] giving it and itself a voice and a name. The refulgent body of the sun is the ego and its field of consciousness—Sol et eius umbra: light without and darkness within. In the source of light there is darkness enough for any amount of projections, for the ego grows out of the darkness of the psyche[3].

Elsewhere, Jung notes, “For [the analysand] will infallibly run into things that thwart and ‘cross’ him: first, the thing he has no wish to be (the shadow); second, the thing he is not (the ‘other’, the individual reality of the ‘You”; and third, the psychic non-ego (the collective unconscious)”

This frames the Dhṛtarāṣṭra/Sanjaya axis and the Arjuna/Kṛṣṇa axis, under the notion that Dhṛtarāṣṭra (“he who holds the kingdom together”, hence ego-consciousness) experiences in Sanjaya (whose name in one translation means “complete victory”) “that nagging sense that what is wrong is wrong”.

As an initial intuition, then, Arjuna comprises the shadow of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, i.e., the kind of idealistic impulses that inform Arjuna’s character typically play no part in the Realpolitik of “he who holds the kingdom together”.

More needs to be said about this. Jung uses the term persona to refer to our public face, who we are to the world. On this definition, then the shadow is everything we exclude from our persona. It is particularly in this sense of shadow that Jung points to discarded parts of consciousness, repressed contents, and the like. However, persona should likely not be identified with ego-consciousness, although it is tempting, and also makes a kind of sense. The reason not to is to avoid controversies with Jungians, who might cite passages in Jung that make the identification incorrect or perilous. The broader point is that my public self (my persona), which publicly denies certain impulses, may in private quite consciously indulge them. So, in this case, my persona is just a face of my ego-consciousness, and there will be two characters of shadow then: those parts of experience banished from public view in my persona, and those parts of experience banished from even my own ego-consciousness.

I imagine Dhṛtarāṣṭra as an ego-consciousness figure (that includes a persona). And in the context of “he who holds the kingdom together,” principled ideals may not always be honored when making pragmatic decisions. The statesman (the ego-consciousness) may, as part of its persona, avow freedom of speech as an ideal, but manifold practicalities of “holding the kingdom together” may make that ideal untenable, even if heartbreakingly so. So while the person pays lip service to ideas—even with a complete sincerity—the ego-consciousness cannot be so blasé about it. Hence, the shadow of the persona—the repression of free speech—is precisely the act that ego-consciousness may have to resort to. While the shadow of ego-consciousness comprises a principled assertion of those ideals.

This is how Arjuna is described. One might ask whether Arjuna acts like a coward,[4] but Prabhupāda’s commentary instead stresses the meritorious qualities in Arjuna’s lamentation on the battlefield, even as his refusal to fight is admonished. Prabhupāda, offering his own commentary rather than summarizing any reply by Kṛṣṇa, who has yet to intervene in Arjuna lamentation, notes Arjuna’s compassion, his high spiritual development (when he proposes to undertake a life of begging rather than murdering his relatives), his freedom of emotional expression, and general readiness for spiritual instruction. More indirectly, Arjuna shows himself to be highly acculturated to the mores of his station in life. He argues, for instance, that one should not be so disrespectful even to speak back harshly to those worthy of esteem, much less to counterattack with arrows or blades. Similarly, he cites the veneration of teachers as further grounds for refraining from attacking them. He presents a long disquisition on the woeful effects of war on family life, which an avoidance of war would avoid. And he generally places the value of life higher than any earthly pleasure or ambition.

Prabhupāda refutes each of Arjuna’s arguments in terms of what I would call an ego-consciousness perspective. In general, Arjuna argues idealistically (life is more important than ambition, one should not attack teachers or the venerable, the stability of family is more important than settling differences with violence, &c) and Prabhupāda answers practically. The teachers in question had accepted money to be on the wrong side of the battle, and teachers who commit such abominations open themselves to attack and negate whatever respect they otherwise would be accorded. Similarly, though there is the absolute injunction in Hindu ethics to harm nothing, here Prabhupāda insists that when the Lord says to kill this is not a case of “harming anything.” We can accuse Prabhupāda of sophistry here, but more pertinently we can see how this is the sophistry of ego-consciousness (“he who holds the kingdom together”). Prabhupāda’s answer to Arjuna’s objections are not the same answers Kṛṣṇa will give.

In pragmatically narrative terms, an effective story tends to “work” on various levels. When a hero will face down a villain, the villain must be sufficiently mighty that defeating it constitutes an act of heroism. Similarly, any dilemma a hero faces must be a genuine one. Thus, in the late romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight’s wife puts Sir Gawain in an untenable position, precisely by using the demands of chivalrous behavior. Anyone hearing this story at the time would well understand just exactly what kind of tight spot Sir Gawain was being backed into. Or similarly, in Hamlet, for Renaissance theater-goers, the moment Hamlet hears his father’s ghost demanding vengeance, the correct response—and the one that Laertes resorts to the moment he hears of the death of his sister—is immediately to fly off the handle and start attacking people. Here, we might count it a historical mystery just how sympathetic the crowd was to Hamlet’s hesitation, but whether they counted him a coward or something else, they most assuredly would have recognized the pickle he was in.

Moreover, in many Hindu narratives, they set a trap, by putting the listener in the position of falling in with the “shape” of the story only to discover they have been just as implicated in the narrative as the hero. Here, Arjuna’s objections are unobjectionable, but he still might seem a coward to listeners—that he is engaging in sophistry simply in order to avoid fighting. But, in the first place, the various translations tend not to go so far as to actually use the word “coward” to describe Arjuna. The chapter refers to Arjuna’s despondency and there is a reference in Prabhupāda’s translation to a debilitating weakness.  The description is less of cowardice and more of the kind of depression of energy that despondency brings. But beyond this, Arjuna’s role as a hero makes calling him a coward unlikely. He has already figured in legends and the rest of the Mahabharata as a hero. He is worthy of Kṛṣṇa’s instruction, and Prabhupāda stresses Arjuna’s noble qualities. But even more than this, a part of the narrative effectiveness—for listeners at the time at least—hinges exactly on the justness of Arjuna’s objections. They show him to be caught in a quite inextricable situation, one that his training as a ksatriya could not have prepared him (i.e., killing his teachers, killing his relatives, being party to the destruction of his own family, &c). In contrast to Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Arjuna is not the type to treat his ideals cavalierly, as the exigencies of daily life may require in political terms.

And so we can see in the context of the four main characters— Kṛṣṇa, Arjuna, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Sanjaya—that Sanjaya is the nagging voice in Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s ear that lets him know he’s on the wrong path, while Arjuna comprises the shadow of Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s ego-consciousness. Kṛṣṇa, of course, is the Self.[5]

Almost immediately upon being presented with the Dhṛtarāṣṭra/Sanjaya frame for the narrative in general, Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s main general (and son), Duryodhana, whose name can be translated as “dirty fighter”— i.e.,  it is “dirty fighter” who helps keep ego-consciousness on the throne[6]—steps forward to recite the honor roll of warriors on both sides of the fight to come. Once this honor roll is complete, Duryodhana declares, “Our army protected by the strength of Bhīṣma is unlimited; but the army of the Pāṇḍavas being protected by the strength of Bhīma is limited” (I.10).

In Sargeant’s (1984) translation of the Bhagavad-Gītā­, he insists a controversy exists about this verse. It is clear enough, reading the above quotation from chapter 1, verse 10, that Duryodhana (the main general of the enemy forces) is claiming his side of the army is better protected, but this is where the controversy occurs. Nonetheless, the various translations one encounters for this verse assert the above, so it is hard to see where the controversy is. Sargeant suggests an error may have crept into the text. For instance, if one reverses the names Bhīṣma and Bhīma (which looks like it would be easy enough to do, given it is an only one-letter difference), then Duryodhana would be saying, in effect, “Our army is weaker than theirs.” However, I believe there is no original or copy of the Bhagavad-Gītā­ that reflects this error.

The first word of the verse aparyāptaṁ seems usually to be translated as “unlimited” so that its antonym  paryāptaṁ logically means “limited”. (The “a-“ prefix is the same as in the English “acausal” or “atypical”.) Sargeant translates these words in an opposite sense, which at least gives a basis to the controversy he claims. Or, one could posit that the “a-“ prefix got transposed in the original. But despite the fact that the text as we have it now seems to be intact, such that the sense of the original makes logical and narrative sense alike (i.e., that Duryodhana, “dirty fighter,” would report that his troops are superior, which Sargeant confirms was the case in the Mahabharata generally), nonetheless the commentaries on this verse at least have some odd elements:

Duryodhana is implying that although his army is mighty it is insufficient due to the fact that Bhīṣhmadeva being affectionate to the Pāṇḍavas as well as the Kauravas is not totally committed to victory for him; but Bhīma being completely committed to the defeat of the Kauravas makes the victory of the Pandavas stronger and more likely to be successful (Rudra Vaisnava Sampradaya).

Now the question arises that if the armies on both sides were equal in might, how is it possible that victory is assured? Duryodhana gives the answer in this verse by using the word aparyāpta in the sense of being unlimited. Duryodhana to conceal his fear exclaims that his army is unlimited and moreover they are protected by Bhīṣhma who is the most intelligent and a maha-ratha; whereas the Pandava army protected by Bhīma of less intelligence is limited. This is why the Kaurava victory is assured (Brahama Vaisnava Sampradaya).

So it may also be put forth that if Duryodhana is so convinced of his superiority then why does he need to assure himself. In this verse although he states his army is unlimited by its tone it implies by his reply that the army of his with all the mighty heroes previously mentioned protected by Bhīṣhma seems inadequate, whereas the army of the Pandavas which is protected by Bhīma seems adequate to him (Kumara Vaisnava Sampradaya).

Unlike Sargeant, none of these commentators assume an error in the text, nor should we. But what is apparent is that, despite the correct sense of the words, Duryodhana gets credited here with fear and lying (appropriate, perhaps, for a “dirty fighter”), but only when the commentators contextualize his words in such a way as to make them mean the opposite of what he is saying. In the Rudra Vaisnava Sampradaya, the commentator states outright that Duryodhana is confessing his army is insufficient. So, whatever the text actually says (assuming neither that it is corrupted or not), the consensus opinion here is that Duryodhana is actually making a claim for the insufficiency of his army. What to make of this.

As a matter of genre, although Sanjaya is relating events (seen clairvoyantly) to Dhṛtarāṣṭra, there exist no grounds for the modern twist here that Sanjaya is some kind of unreliable narrator. The claim of clairvoyant reportage points thematically to the exact fidelity of Sanjaya’s recitation. Sanjaya, whose name means “complete victory,” already understands well enough that Dhṛtarāṣṭra has erred in setting his army against Kṛṣṇa and the Pāṇḍavas, so it would be tempting to imagine he might, at this particular moment, take the occasion to remind Dhṛtarāṣṭra of that error. Prabhupāda, without getting into any controversy about the text, suggests exactly this. So this is a case of the “nagging voice” that is ever reminding the ego-consciousness when it is choosing to be on the wrong side of the battle (against individuation and the Self).

But there is another detail as well. In a battle where one is facing any number of famed warriors and particularly where your opponent has Kṛṣṇa on his side, it could only be a sign of stupidity or empty bluffing to say, “We’re going to kick your ass.” Duryodhana, whose name also may be translated as “hard to conquer” (a name he chose for himself, incidentally), didn’t get to be a leader of millions by being an idiot or empty bluffer. In other words, I’m suggesting he’s being candid when he says, “Our forces are not sufficient.” Narratively, the fact that he is admitting a truth that is known by all of his listeners makes him a worthier opponent than some fool who is bluffing and full of bluster. But the feint, which is uttered in the presence of his teacher, not in front of all of his troops, also points to the very principle that Arjuna is about to deny. Arjuna argues he shouldn’t fight because of countless good arguments, while Duryodhana argues he should fight, even though he’s going to lose. Duryodhana’s “heroism” (however historically or spiritually misplaced) makes his status as a “dirty fighter” somewhat qualified.

But let’s contextualize this in terms of Jung’s individuation. If Dhṛtarāṣṭra is ego-consciousness, then Duryodhana (“dirty fighter” and “hard to conquer”) denotes some complex in Jung’s sense that wages losing battles on behalf of ego-consciousness, which is holding the kingdom together. Moreover, Duryodhana has the appeal of candor—he admits, “Yep, we’re going to lose, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to fight.” That image, which is a kind of stupidity on the one hand, is a kind of nobility on another, however misguided. It points to how valuable Duryodhana might be if we could get him on the side of the Self, on the side of individuation. The situation suggests how Self allowed ego-consciousness to rule, but now the ego reneges on giving credit where credit is due; the battle on Kuruksetra points to the moment for righting that wrong is at hand.[7] It emphasizes again how this can be seen as a signal on Sanjaya’s part to Dhṛtarāṣṭra that the blind king has made a foolish choice to go to war in this way—to not make good on the promise he made long ago. The bravery or foolhardiness of Duryodhana contributes to the dilemma of Arjuna’s situation, because he shows a willingness to follow his dharma (and fight) even though he acknowledges he can only lose.

In Jung’s studies of alchemy, he stresses that the alchemists’ project was to liberate spirit from its incarceration in matter. He insisted that, whatever value such efforts eventually had with respect to the origins of chemistry, the process of alchemy amounted to a projection of psychic material, which Jung demonstrates exhaustively by continuously underlining the differences between the actually physical characteristics of the various substances the alchemists spoke of (sulphur, salt, quicksilver, gold, silver, &c) and the descriptions they would give of them, which clearly point to a symbolic (rather than material) nature.

What is striking in the Bhagavad-Gītā­ then is that we may describe it as the alchemists’ process, but narrated from the standpoint of the spirit to be liberated (i.e., Arjuna).[8] For us, in terms of Enlightenment, the task is to realize our Self (Kṛṣṇa), who hear appears in person as Kṛṣṇa. But what is markedly different from the alchemists’ project—if it’s fair to say this—is the status of matter. Alchemists speak of the prima materia as the beginning and end of their work, so this prima materia (as an archetypal image of the “stuff” upon which all work is to be done) is not unreservedly inert, fallen, or evil—it is simply that it is a shell or a covering; exactly the same image Prabhupāda uses to describe (in chapter 3) what covers the Self and makes it seem invisible to us. Nonetheless, if there is a temptation to think of the alchemists’ prima material as “dark,” its designation as the “light of nature” qualifies that. As such, the alchemists’ work, seen from the outside, presupposes something—however illuminated—that nevertheless covers what is sought.

In the alchemical scheme of things, the primary object is the union of opposites, described in a seemingly limitless number of ways. But to just pick one, the conjunction of the Sun and the Moon (Sol and Luna) is virtually a master image. Through all of this, the figure of Mercurius constantly dances. In the Sun and the Moon one may infer the union of opposites in the yin/yang. It may be nothing more than a lovely coincidence, but in the Rig-Vedic literature, its authors designate themselves as the Lunar race, while the solar race (the Ikṣvāku) dwelt to their distant northeast. In the context of the Bhagavad-Gītā­, Kṛṣṇa may be the Sun and Arjuna the Moon. And all of this figures as the “shadow” of ego-consciousness. Or, perhaps, Arjuna is the (personal) shadow of the persona and Kṛṣṇa is the (collective) shadow (as a figure of the total Self) generally.

To me, what is striking in all of this is that the typical hero quest—and this is detailed in considerable detail in Campbell’s eternal hero myth and Neumann’s Origins and History of Consciousness—involves a contest with the darkness, the dragon, the depths, which (plausibly enough) gets equated with the unconscious. But here the enemy is, precisely, “he who holds the kingdom together” i.e., ego-consciousness. There is simply no way to easily turn this scenario around in such a way that it could conform to the usual hero quest, particularly because this is—in the figures of Kṛṣṇa, Arjuna, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Sanjaya—a male-only affair.[9] Even in alchemy, the dragon, which comprises an essential part of what must be conquered in the hero’s quest, morphs into something less unambiguously “bad”. The head of the dragon may be where the healing poison is found, or the very philosopher’s stone itself. It recurs again and again as the snake devouring its own tail (the ouroboros) as a symbol for the prima material and thus the whole of the alchemists’ work in general. Even when the dragon is something to be destroyed, it is a preliminary only toward the eventual union of opposites (Sun and Moon). And throughout all of this, the identification of the dragon (or the serpent) with Woman can be found everywhere, with increasingly sexist overtones as we get closer and closer to our present age

But here, the closest one can come to a figure of Woman would be Kṛṣṇa’s androgynous appearance. In the Indian scheme of things, purusha and prakṛti denote metaphysical terms of varying provenance, but to the extent that prakṛti gets associated with the veil of māyā, this provides an implicit backgrop of “woman” which enlightenment challenges by removing the veil of māyā. However, in terms of the narrative of the Bhagavad-Gītā­, this backdrop is far in the distance compared to the masculine figures named as primaries.

What the details of this might be I’ll leave now for the next post.


[1] Jung’s footnote: “Here the concept of the self can be mentioned only in passing. (For a detailed discussion see Aion, ch. 4.) The self is the hypothetical summation of an indescribable totality, one half of which is constituted by ego-consciousness, the other by the shadow. The latter, so far as it can be established empirically, usually presents itself as the inferior or negative personality. It comprises that part of the collective unconscious which intrudes into the personal sphere, the reforming the so-called personal unconscious. The shadow forms, as it were, the bridge to the figure of the anima, who is only partly personal, and through her to the impersonal figures of the collective unconsciousness. The concept of the self is essentially intuitive and embraces ego-consciousness, shadow, anima, and collective unconscious in indeterminable extension. As a totality, the self is a coincidentia oppositorum: it is therefore bright and dark and yet neither. ¶ If we hypostatize the self and derive from it (as from a kind of pre-existent personality) the ego and the shadow, then these would appear as the empirical aspects of the opposites that are preformed in the self. Since I have no wish to construct a world of speculative concepts, which leads merely to the barren hair-splitting of philosophical discussion, I set no particular store by these reflections. If such concepts provisionally serve to put the empirical material in order, they will have fulfilled their purpose. The empiricist has nothing to say about the concepts of self and God in themselves, and how they are related to one another” (pp. 107–8).

[2] Jung’s footnote: “Genesis 1:1–7 is a projection of this process. The coming of consciousness is described as an objective event, the active subject of which is not the ego but Elohim. Since primitive people very often do not feel themselves the subject of their thinking, it is possible that in the distant past consciousness appeared as an outside event that happened to the ego, and that it was integrated with the subject only in later times. Illumination and inspiration, which in reality are sudden expansions of consciousness, still seem to have, even for us, a subject that is not the ego. CF. Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, pp. 102ff” (p. 108).

[3] For a somewhat misguided article on Jung’s concept of shadow, see here.

[4] What makes Arjuna seem possibly like a coward arises from the wealth of argument he gives for why he shouldn’t attack: he doesn’t want to kill his relatives; family traditions would be ruined; it would be better to beg; one shouldn’t speak back, much less attack, one’s superiors; teachers are supposed to be revered, not killed. Even if the crowd expects Arjuna to fight, these are all sound arguments. And in fact, Kṛṣṇa’s first answer will be, “Don’t act like this; do your dharma as a warrior.” But Arjuna is precisely delineating the moral dilemma, that parts of his dharma (i.e., don’t attack superiors, don’t kill teachers) is now in conflict with his duty to fight as a warrior. The commentator in The Bhagavad-Gita as It Is, answers these points by Arjuna in advance of Kṛṣṇa’s own answer. Thus, for example, the teachers have compromised their reputation by accepting money and, in any case, scripture allows that if a teacher does something abominable, then a student may abandon them. Importantly, these are “persona answer”. We have linked Dhṛtarāṣṭra with the persona, with the public face of the ego, who has only the job of maintaining that public face, particularly as it becomes necessary to qualify or set aside principles. This isn’t pessimistic; ideals are (or can be) held in genuine high esteem, but ultimately they are guidelines, not obligations. They’re flexible. As an embodiment of idealism, Arjuna does not have this flexibility—and the commentator is clear that he should not. Dhṛtarāṣṭra is not the hero of the story; his worldly pragmatism (the ego’s resort to any means to keep its kingdom) is not the hero of the story. Nonetheless, the rejoinders offered by the commentator are “persona arguments”—only in a pragmatic setting would one say “teachers are always to be respect, except when …” This does not mean that the commentator will only ever offer persona-type rejoinders, just as Kṛṣṇa does not answer Arjuna’s questions only once.

[5] In the article reviewing Jung’s use of the term shadow (noted above), the author engages in some pretty smarmy pessimism; he rejects Jung’s notion of “integrating” the shadow, preferring to emphasize Jung’s “transcendent” function that lifts one out of one’s self, if only for a short while. In his view, wholeness is not possible, except for short runs. I will say this pessimism is akin to Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s blindness, all the more so since the optimism for wholeness—the possibility of a principled life—is currently “suppressed” in the unconscious (where Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, the Self, are). Nonetheless, Sanjaya is whispering in Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s ear; he can’t ignore the possibility of wholeness entirely.

[6] His actual name was Suyodhana, but he changed it to Duryodhana, which Wikipedia says means literally “hard to conquer”.

[7] The legendary historical circumstance for the battle were: “Kuru territories were divided into two and were ruled by Dhṛtarāṣṭra (with capital at Hastinapura) and Yudhishthira of the Pandavas (with capital at Indraprastha). The immediate dispute between the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra) and the Pandavas arose from a game of dice, which Duryodhana won by deceit, forcing their Pāṇḍava cousins to transfer their entire territories to the Kauravas (to Hastinapura) and to “go-into-exile” for thirteen years. The dispute escalated into a full scale war when Prince Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, driven by jealousy, refused to restore the Pandavas their territories after the exile as earlier decided, as Duryodhana objects that they were discovered while in exile, and that no return of their kingdom was agreed” (for more, see here, ¶2).

[8] Commentary on the Bhagavad-Gītā­ stresses that it depicts three worlds: the historical world with its details of the battle of Kuruksetra, the philosophical world presented by Kṛṣṇa in his disquisitions to Arjuna, and the world of those listening, consisting of Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Sanjaya. I would add that there is now a fourth world insofar as the text is yet another “world,” but even as a text, the reader (or listener) is put in the position of listening to Sanjaya, of possibly lapsing into an identity with Dhṛtarāṣṭra, which is exactly the kind of “trap” that Hindu tales often set and spring so well.

[9] Jung’s remark, cited above, might be recalled here: “(I am speaking here only of masculine psychology, which alone can be compared with that of the alchemists.)”

Currently, a friend and I are studying multiple translations of the Bhagavad-Gītā­, and this represents the first in a series of posts that will memorialize the course of our reading.

In undertaking to study the Bhagavad-Gītā­ in this way, we aim: (1) to better understand this widely respect piece of Vedic scripture, (2) to understand the piece in terms of the process of coming to Enlightenment, or what I would say Jung would call the process of individuation, and (3) to uncover what insights it might offer as a philosophy, i.e., as  an insight into ways of living that improves the quality of that living. We (or at least I) have little interest in how the Bhagavad-Gītā­ may or may not justify the role given to it by the Kṛṣṇa Consciousness movement itself, though one of the translations we use is A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda’s (1997) Bhagavad-Gītā­ As It Is (second edition).  Primarily because this text is the only one with extensive commentary, it will like prove the target of the most disagreement or contention. I recognize and appreciate, without being cynical, the necessary faith an aspirant must place in his or her guru. And I acknowledge that no Hindu sūtra (“verse”), śruti (i.e., that which is revealed, hence scripture per se) or smṛiti (i.e., that which is remembered, and hence not scripture per se) is meant to be understood without the benefit of a guru.

In Hinduism, the guru is considered a respected person with saintly qualities who enlightens the mind of his or her disciple, an educator from whom one receives the initiatory mantra, and one who instructs in rituals and religious ceremonies. The Vishnu Smriti and Manu Smriti regard the teacher and the mother and father as the most venerable influences on an individual.

For this reason, we do consult Prabhupāda’s commentary, but as I am not his devotee, I have no obligation to place my understanding fully at his discretion. The very structure of the Bhagavad-Gītā­ itself, as an instruction by Kṛṣṇa to the hero Arjuna suggests already that (the guru) Kṛṣṇa provides an adequate interpretation himself.  In that respect, one reads in the Bhagavad-Gītā­ (III.5):

Lord Kṛṣṇa said, O sinless one, in this world, two kinds of faith were just previously declared by Me; the science of the individual consciousness attaining communion with the Ultimate Consciousness by the path of knowledge for the empiric philosophers [jñana yoga] and the science of the individual consciousness attaining communion with the Ultimate Consciousness by the path of action for the yogis [karma yoga].

In an excerpt from one of the four authorized Vaisnava Commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gītā­, Sridhara Swami (c. 15th-century) says of this verse:

The Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa explains to Arjuna that he is looking at jñana yoga and karma yoga as two independent paths but He informs him that He has not stated this point of view. Lord Kṛṣṇa has taught that both can give unadulterated devotion to the ultimate truth. Which yoga is superior or subordinate to the other is not a question as they each can attain the desired goal. They are two different paths to a singular destination suited to the ambiences of different aspirants.

Lord Kṛṣṇa, the omniscient one has explained very clearly in chapter two of the two classes of aspirants in the human race being the sinless of pure mind and the sinful of impure mind. Lord Kṛṣṇa has explained that for purified minds jñana yoga or the yoga of knowledge is appropriate as in chapter two verse sixty-one states: the self-controlled one sits in meditation on Him. But for minds not yet purified karma yoga or the yoga of action is more suitable as in chapter two verse thirty-one states there is no greater fortune for a ksatriya warrior than a righteous war.

Therefore in respect to the two paths they are actually two stages of the same path separated only by purity and impurity of mind. You have already been taught the requisite state of mind conducive to realisation of the soul in jñana yoga now learn of it from the point of view of karma yoga.

One of the great truths of the Bhagavad-Gītā is precisely its acknowledgment of multiple paths to the same end. A saying ascribed to Buddha captures this, when He declares, “Some run up the mountain; others wind slowly up the winding path. But all shall reach the sunlit summits”. This underscores the innecessity of worrying about someone else’s salvation, for whether quickly or slowly, we all arrive eventually. But it also emphasizes that what seems like one truth to one person may not in fact be the relevant truth for another. So on the authority of Kṛṣṇa and the Bhagavad-Gītā, if A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, or any other guru interpreting the Bhagavad-Gītā, were to insist that I must submit to them to obtain enlightenment (or individuation), then it may equally be the case that their truth is not the relevant truth for me. And even it is were, no need to fret exists, for even if I don’t come around in time, sooner or later, I nevertheless shall find my way to the sunlit summit through some path or another.

As a general note, the posts in this series usually do not contain detailed summaries of the chapters in question. Instead, links are provided that give more background to the issues raised. This is particular true in the sense that I’m especially interested to understanding the text of the Bhagavad-Gītā as a description of individuation (in Jung’s sense).

This series ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year Canetti’s  Crowds and Power.[1] This is the eleventh entry in the series and the ninth addressing Part 1 (The Crowd), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I address section 14, “Invisible Crowds”.

Invisible Crowds

In brief, Canetti tracks invisible crowds through the spirits of the dead, demons, and devils and then notes how in our more secular age the immaterial elements in these have given way to psychological elements (specifically posterity) or biological elements (bacteria, viruses, &c, and spermatozoa). What all of these have in common—least so in the case of spermatozoa—involves (imaginative) anxiety formations. Thus, specialists such as shamans and priests became necessary to at least describe, if not actually do, something about these immaterial (invisible) crowds, just as politicians and doctors get called upon to describe, if not actually do, something about posterity (unborn future generations) and microscopic disease-bearers. These specialists point specifically to the role of the intellectual as Suttner (2003)[2], drawing on Gramsci (1979)[3] describes it; in this, intellectuals

should be defined by the role they play, by the relationships they have to others. They are people who, broadly speaking, create for a class or people … a coherent and reasoned account of the world, as it appears from the position they occupy. Intellectuals are crucial to the process through which a major new culture, representing the world-view of an emerging class or people, comes into being. It is intellectuals who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world (see Gramsci 1971[4]: 418; Crehan 2002[5]: 129–30).

In a  letter of 1931 Gramsci says his definition of an intellectual ‘is much broader than the usual concept of “the greater intellectuals”’ (1979: 204). In his Prison Notebooks, he writes:

What are the ‘maximum’ limits of acceptance of the term ‘intellectual;” Can one find a unitary criterion to characterise equally all the diverse and disparate activities of intellectuals and to distinguish these at the same time and in an essential way from the activities of other social groupings? The most widespread error of method seems to me that of having looked for this criterion of distinction in the intrinsic nature of intellectual activities, rather than in the ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities (and therefore the intellectual groups who personify them) have their place within the general complex of social relations (1971: 8. Emphasis added).

[Suttner continues] In the same way a worker is not characterized by the manual or instrumental work that he or she carries out, but by ‘performing this work in specific conditions and in specific social relations’ (117–8).

Thus, shamans, priests, politicians, and doctors comprise intellectuals insofar as they provide “a coherent and reasoned account of the world, as it appears from the position they occupy” (Suttner, 2005, 117), so long as this is understood in terms of the “ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities … have their place within the general complex of social relations” (Gramsci, 1971, 8). On this view, Canetti’s approach tends to go wide of the mark not only for the difficulties of coherence that sometimes arise in his analysis—no analysis can be flawless—but because of its reduction to a non-systematic view, i.e., a view that does not place the phenomenon in question in the social relations wherein it occurs. This is not to say Canetti continuously ignores the context of events, but just as a what a worker is cannot be located in “the manual or instrumental work that he or she carries out” (Suttner, 118) and intellectual work cannot be located “in the intrinsic nature of intellectual activities” (Gramsci, 8) itself, so a crowd—of any type—on this argument cannot be located in the activities of that crowd, but rather must be found “in the ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities … have their place within the general complex of social relations” and thus, the performance of this activity “in specific conditions and in specific social relations”.

All the same, let it be said at once that Suttner’s (2005) and Gramsci’s (1971) construction of the activity of intellectuals privileges local specificity, no doubt  with an aim toward practical engagement with local circumstances. Such an approach tends to be at odds with that other major cognitive tendency to abstract and generalize, which aims to de-particularize the local and the specific in order to craft concepts with an applicability over a wider range of circumstances than the originating ones.  As such, while an adequate analysis of local particularity depends at the very least on sufficiently relevant generalizations for use in the analysis of local particularities, so does adequate generalization depend upon sufficiently relevant empirical data as a basis for the elaboration of a generalization. For the former, one can hardly ignore that how one sees determines what one sees; it is much easier to miss this in the latter. When examining a local particularity, one’s analytical framework determines both what one sees and how one sees it, such that whatever systems look gets derived necessarily arises out of the framework used to do the looking. When attempting to generalize, on the other hand, the greater (or impenetrable) invisibility of the framework leads to what in experimental circles is called errors of selection. For Canetti’s thesis here, this specifically means his generalization of invisible crowds gets marred by the examples he chose to ground it, as the following shows.

Canetti first acknowledges the hordes of the dead—those ever-present ancestors who demand propitiation or management by shamanic expertise or any number of apotropaic spiritual technologies that ward them off; to this day, we can still hear the phrase “knock on wood” as an example of these apotropaic wards. Nevertheless, Canetti asserts these hordes no longer figure too prominently in daily life; “for most of us, the hosts of the dead are an empty superstition” (46).

To contextualize this remark, Canetti’s phrase certainly functions to contrast this ostensibly empty superstition about the invisible crowd of the ancestral dead with an obviously not-empty superstition about the invisible crowd of posterity, which we signal in our “noble and by no means fruitless endeavor to care for the future crowd of the unborn” (46). (The ancestral dead include those who have fallen in battle as well.) One needn’t heavily underscore the selection error of ethnocentrism[6] here that distinguishes a (former) concern about the invisible crowd of ancestral dead only in non-industrialized cultures as opposed to a (contemporaneous) concern (in industrialized cultures) for the future dead of the yet-unborn. It’s more pertinent to note that, even as Canetti wrote his book, in advanced industrial nations such as Japan and Taiwan a concern for the management of the spirits of the dead continued to persist as far from an empty superstition. Similarly, this tidy distinction between the “problem” of ancestral spirits (in industrialized or non-industrialized cultures alike) and the “problem” of posterity (among those for whom the dead are an empty superstition) continues to describes poorly any number of Asian settings, where we can see precisely that the good shepherding of “the past” (dead spirits) has every bearing on “the future” (posterity). Ironically, it is precisely an ancient Chinese text that Canetti points to illustrate such a concern with posterity in the first place. In these details, then, we see how Canetti’s faulty generalization runs aground of Suttner’s (2005) and Gramsci’s (1971) point: that the activity of a phenomenon might best be found less in what is done and more in how and when/where it is done.

With this contextualization in mind, we may examines how Canetti selects examples from Africa (the Bechuan of South Africa, the Boloki of the Congo, and the Pygmies of Gabon), to the shamans of the Siberian Chukchee, the Tlinkits of Alaska, the Celtic and Germanic tribes of Europe, the Kolta Lapps, and then jumps far backward in time first to a Jewish text and thence the Persian Zend-Avesta. With the African examples, we see human kind beset by spirits; “the Boloki folk in the Congo believe that they are surrounded by spirits who try to thwart them at every twist and turn and to harm them every hour of the day and night” (42).[7] Here, the best that might be hoped for involves warding off such spirits. By contrast, the Chukchee shaman “have power to conjure up and subdue the spirits and turn them into their servants” (43). Thus, rather than being beset like the Africans, the Siberian Chukchee harnesses the sprit forces.

As part of the massive cultural project of Europe from the late-18th century onward to systematically deny the history and influence of African cultures—Bernal’s (1987)[8] Black Athena (volume 1) is just one work that uncontroversially lays this all out—one strategy in this project involves a misuse of naming, typically by using Greek names for pre-Greek cultures. Thus, we still refer to the Fertile Crescent by the Greek term Mesopotamia (i.e., “between rivers”) rather than historically relevant names. Similarly, the Indo-Aryan Bhṛgu who originally lived in or around present-day Pakistan, in the area historically known as the Punjab, and who later migrated to establish a kingdom in Western Anatolia (present-day Turkey) have their historical homeland obscured when the Greek name for them (Phrygians) gets used instead. A similar pattern is visible in the word “shaman,” which originates from the Evenk language of east Asia and was first attested by Russians in the 16th century. Consequently, one can create a controversy as to whether “shamanism” even “exists” in Africa, and the pejorative or problematic term “witch doctor” gets used instead. Merely take a quick look here to see how little space is devoted to African shamanism compared to Asiatic  and even North American shamanism. Assuredly, this is partly due to the European “discovery” of shamanism in eastern Asia and thus the greater amount of ethnographic work done in that region, but by the 16th-century, even Europe was well-aware of Africa but nevertheless failed to recognize the “shamanism” present there. Nor is this all a piece of overstatement—most assuredly the most widespread variety of shaman generally known these days must be the practitioner of Voudou and yet the words that spring to mind to describe such a person is “priest,” “priestess” or “witch doctor” not shaman. It is not an accident that of the mere six paragraphs devoted to African shamanism that one of them may be read as implying that shamanism in Africa dates to the 19th century: “In the early 19th century traditional healers in parts of Africa were often referred to in a derogatory manner as “witch doctors” practicing Juju by early European settlers and explorers.”

So Canetti’s progression, that contrasts Africans who, at best, could only ward off ancestral spirits in contrast to Siberian shamans, who had technologies for harnessing such forces, is grossly anachronistic at best. From there, Canetti’s examples morph—specifically with an example from the Celts—to a sense of the dead specifically as battle-dead. He offers the etymology of “slogan” from Scottish-Celtic “sluagh-ghairm” or “cry of the spirit-multitude” specifically in a martial sense. This attaches to the Kolta Lapps’ and Alaskan Tlinkits’ conception of the aurora borealis as smears of blood on the sky from battling spirits, and dovetails with the Germanic notions of Valhalla, where “all those who have fallen in battle since the beginning of the world go” (44). And also to “an old Jewish text” (44) that Canetti neither names or dates that similarly describes the “’space between heaven and earth [as] not empty, but … all filled with troops and multitudes’” (qtd on p. 44). Since Canetti does not name or date this text, I cannot determine if its temporal relationship to the other cultures cited here, but is significant that he switches from selecting examples from anthropology and instead cites a culture that has writing, i.e., has texts.  This will continue, even more explicitly into the past, when Canetti next cites the Persian Zend-Avesta.

With these examples (Celts, Germans, Tlinkits, Lapps, and Hebrew), Canetti provides selections of people who have mythologized war—and it is not at all necessary to look elsewhere from Africa or east Asia for such examples. Were there not already such a strong strain of racism in how history gets conceptualized in Euro-US practice, it might easily seem an over-reading to say that Canetti’s text implies that Africans and Siberians weren’t sophisticated enough, weren’t civilized enough yet, to invent war. But even more than this is Canetti’s resort (as his ultimate example in this list) to a culture with a text—even though insisting that the Celts or Germanic tribes had no texts would involve an uphill difficulty. It’s not that Canetti’s patronizing must be interpreted as mean-spirited—it’s enough to note its apt reflection of “Western” discourse about Africa, Asia, and Europe. The other salient point is Canetti’s (admittedly anachronistic) construction of the invisible crowd of the battle-dead. Again recalling Suttner and Gramsci, there’s a disquiet that Canetti’s attempt distinguish this type of invisible crowd evokes. And why this is becomes apparent in his next example.

From the imposing or utilizable dead spirits of Africa and Siberia, to the autonomous battle-dead who carry on with their own affairs (whether those ever intersect the affairs of living humans or not), Canetti’s selection of examples then shifts emphasis by citing the “daevas” of the Persian Zend-Avesta as “demons”. (Those familiar with Sanskrit writings will immediately recognize “daevas” as the Vedic term for “gods”, i.e., an exactly antonymic term for “demon”. We’ll leave that aside for a moment.) After invoking this sense of “demons” as an invisible crowd, Canetti’s argument goes on to substitute the word “devils” in place of “demons”. And while mythology (particularly Judeochristian mythology) is full of both demons and devils and any number of other distinctions between such malevolent powers, at this juncture it behooves us not to anachronistically back-write (as Canetti has) those Judeochristian senses of “demon” or “devil” to the Persian context. That’s the caveat as we proceed now.

To return to the sense of “daevas” as “demons,” much that would be beside the point could be added here about the historical circumstances behind how the term “daeva” in the Zend-Avesta gets used in precisely the exact opposite sense of the term deva as found in the Indian Rig-Veda. At this juncture, however, the only point to be made is that the supposedly invisible crowd designated by the Zend-Avesta as “demons” were anything but invisible to the authors of that text. Specially, the “daevas” were the mythological or contemporaneous embodiment of the historically visible enemies of the writers of the Zend-Avesta, i.e., those people who lived to the east of the Punjab (present-day Pakistan) and who were themselves the authors of the (older) Rig-Veda. Notably, the authors of the Rig-Veda returned the favor, describing the “asuras” as atmospheric demons as well; the “ahuras” being exactly the same reference as one find in the name “Ahura Mazda”—the highest deity of worship in Zoroastrianism, but also for deities in general; “Avestan ahura derives from Indo-Iranian *asura, also attested in an Indian context as RigVedic asura. As suggested by the similarity to the Old Norse æsir, Indo-Iranian *asura may have an even earlier Indo-European root” (see here). Thus, the term “demon” points to a tribal distinction between friend and foe along originally closely associated relations; “As time passed, the Vedic asuras began to be referred as the lesser beings while in Avestha, the Persian counterpart of the Vedas, the devas began to be considered as lesser beings. The asura were opposed to the devas. Both groups are children of Kasyapa” (see here).

So quite apart from what we might normally think of as “demons” (and apart what Canetti seems to be using the concept of as a way to bridge to the invisible crowd of “devils”), the example from the Zend-Avesta points rather to demons as a historical memory of people who precisely are not necessarily yet dead; they are the “invisible crowd” only insofar as they are out of sight and hence imagined enemies. This attaches back to Canetti’s remark that if the strong leader cannot hold a slow crowd together by charisma then the threat of an enemy may; “again and again must the man who leads them strive to re-establish their faith. Again and again he succeeds, or, if he does not, the threat of enemies does” (39). Here, the word “threat” could be a synonym for “invisible crowd”.

This sense of demon obviously disconnects it from the sense of “devils” Canetti further addresses. For while devils may certainly be enemies, they do not arise from any even imaginable historical prototype but rather reprise (in a European setting) the kind of malevolent spirit against which we only have apotropaic wards—making signs of the cross, and the like. This echoes Jung’s frequent observation that underneath all of the Euro-US conceit of rationalism there lurks an ever-ready-to-be-helplessly superstitious individual, who won’t walk under ladders, refrain from washing one’s hands after toileting, build a building with a 13th floor or start a business enterprise on the 4th of April, and the like. Canetti’s selection of examples acknowledges this when he underscores bacteria, &c, as the microscopic (hence invisible) crowd that besets the current day Euro-User. However, what is disingenuous in this is pretending that the explanatory mechanism between “ancestral spirits” and “microscopic organisms” (as the forces responsible for chaos in human culture if not properly propitiated) originate in different causes. Humans, whether then or now, found their affairs often interrupted by conditions beyond their control—the current political circus around the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya hinges precisely on a (politicized) claim that more could have, should have, would have been done, even though we all know that the definition of an accident, properly understood, is one that cannot be avoided. But insofar as humans have long been subject to chance—so much so that the Greeks embodied it in a goddess and then proceeded to revile Her to no end—whatever name we give to those operations that thwart us, be they bacterium, ancestral spirits, or what may be the most persistent and authentic expression of the stuff over the whole course of human history “bad luck,” our naming of it does not erase the common source that all the names are pointing to.

However, one may question the pertinence of calling microorganisms (including spermatozoa) “invisible crowds,” because (like Zend-Avestan “demons”) they are only relatively invisible at most. The very fact of relative visibility in the “invisible” crowds of enemies, microorganisms, and spermatozoa points to the fact that it is the idea of these things, not their actuality, that matters. Epistemologically, one may argue that all we have are “ideas of things,” but that is not what is at play here. Only having “descriptions of reality” and never access to reality itself, that does not stop us most of the time from taking our descriptions of reality as having a truth-correspondence with a reality we can never actually access. So it is, rather, precisely the reification, the hypostatizing, of the idea as “real” that is at issue here. The actuality of enemies, microorganisms, or spermatozoa—more precisely, an social contestation of what those terms might mean—becomes secondary vis-à-vis any confrontation between people in culture about those terms. Thus, if I am your enemy, my actuality and what I might actually do gets negated in favor of your belief in my actuality. This sense of reification appears to inform Canetti’s whole analysis of crowds. It is less that he has a “subjective opinion” that he presents over the course of his argument that one may “take or leave,” but rather that he postulates crowds in such a way that preclude disagreement. I suggest this is where the relentless and unregenerate tendency to over-generalize originates. More particularly, this “personal element” expresses itself in a way that makes the crowd into a personified thing. In the next sections, for instance, Canetti will offer descriptions concerning the “emotion” of crowds. Underneath all of this is a Romantic, Schopenhauerian, organic or biological metaphor that provides a poor fit for social phenomenon—social phenomenon being, by definition, artificial and thus not inexplicable in biological terms.

So, invisible crowds more properly might be called imaginable crowds, even as various peoples at various times would claim to have seen even the most decidedly immaterial entities. This needn’t occur in a material sense, i.e., some ectoplasmic entity needn’t be floating before your eyes to make its presence known; the human experience of the numinous itself is already a name for the sense of an invisible presence, characterized by a sense of dis-ease (the pun is intentional here) or anxiety, but sometimes just as often bliss. This is all well and good, but crowds themselves are not immaterial, and our human, social interaction with such things on the imaginative plane seem apart from our human, social interactions with them in person.

This mixing of logical types has severe consequences. For one, when we fail to understand that “demon” refers to actual historical people we have once been in conflict with (and may be again in the future), then the transformation of this into a metaphysical entity opens the door to the kind of propaganda that leads to genocides. Second, when we allow ourselves to succumb to superstitions about microorganisms and spermatozoa as if those readily visible “crowds” have metaphysical or magical qualities like malevolent spirits, then we open the door to anti-empirical nonsense in public policy (such as opposition to the use of condoms for birth control, since sperm carries the magic of the soul). It is well to recognize that the signs and symbols we have truck with in culture can have motive force, but this psychologization of the sociology of material crowds proposes more problems than it helps us to solve. We can see this in multiple ways in Canetti’s final example of the invisible crowd of spermatozoa.

Jung refers to archetypes—as the structures of the unconscious—as forms of consciousness that are, in effect, the inheritance of all previous human beings. By saying this, it is not at all that the whole stock of commonly held human mythology is hard-wired in our brains, just waiting to appear again. Whatever ambiguity of terminology Jung might have resorted to from time to time, archetypes cannot be images—rather, out of our common stock of homo sapiens sapiens, it should come as no wonder that our cognitive intuitions of “source” or “origin” for example would perpetually reëxpress itself in Great Mother images and the like. Just as human beings have ascribed “ancestral spirits” and “bacterium” and “bad luck” as images of common human intuitions about the familiar experience of human stability being perturbed, without claiming that these explanations must have metaphysical reality, so are archetypal images like the Great Mother or anima or shadow names for common human intuitions arising from the vastly similar cognitive structures that statistically exists for all human beings, past and present. Out of this sense, Jung speaks of the collective unconscious as our ancestors. Canetti expresses a similar idea when he describes the seminal crowd of spermatozoa (quite literally) as our ancestors, although his language is typically slippery:

200 million of these animalcules set out together on their way. They are equal among themselves and in a state of very great density. They all have the same goal and, except for one, they all perish on the way … Each of these animalcules carries with it everything of our ancestors which will be preserved. It contains our ancestors; it is them, and it is overwhelmingly strange to find them here again, between one human existence and another, in a radically changed form, all of them within one tiny invisible creature, and this creature present in such uncountable numbers (47).

One can see an arc of excitement in Canetti here, as “200 million” morphs in a couple of sentences into “uncountable” but also in the shift from each spermatozoa being only that which “carries with it everything of our ancestors which will be preserved” to “ it is” our ancestors. This is an important, if disingenuous, shift. Canetti seems to acknowledge this, since he asserts (at the point of my ellipsis above),

It may be objected that they are not human beings and that it is therefore not correct to speak of them as a crowd in the sense the word has been used. But this objection does not really touch the essentials of the matter (47).

This is transparently no kind of answer to the justified objection. When Jung, seemingly along lines just as much out of a Schopenhauerian tradition as Canetti, attempts to locate human universality, he does so by pointing to structures of cognition not to structures of DNA, as  Canetti does. If our ancestors, per Jung, may be characterized by the forms of cognition they possessed and that were bequeathed to us—as a way of identifying “who” they are—that differs radically from saying that the most reduced form of biological actuality is those ancestors. Moreover, Canetti is willfully ignoring that he is referring to only half of our ancestors in any case. One can accuse Jung’s discourses on analytical psychology to be too heavily slanted toward male psychology—in Mysterium Coniuntionis he is honest enough to note that where one speaks of the psychology of alchemists, one necessarily speaks only of masculine psychology—but one may at least rescue his concepts from this overemphasis. Here, the singularity of the ovum stands in stark contrast to the crowd of spermatozoa, ignore that the metaphor carries us at once into a kind of competitive gang rape where only one (like a Highlander) can be the winner. In his psychological work, Jung adamantly opposed metaphysicals while equally resisting the tendency he saw in others to reduce the human to its biological substrate. Whatever it means exactly to say that our ancestors “are” the collective unconsciousness, as “a coherent and reasoned account of the world” (Suttner, 2005, 117) this intellectual framework represents a more desirable and more fit description of human experience than Canetti’s alternative claim that we “are” our reproductive gametes. As part of a “the process through which a major new culture, representing the world-view of an emerging class or people, comes into being” (ibid), with Jung’s intellectual work we start at least from a fit description of the world, however it might lead us hither or thither. With Canetti’s, we see already the ground for a nihilistic view of human beings, one that dovetails easily with postmodernism and neoliberal capitalism (as it has since come to manifest, particularly in universalist globalization) to abet the limitless imperial ambitions of the US-Anglo-Israeli axis of domination over the whole world.


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

[2] Suttner, R. (2005). The character and formation of intellectuals within the ANC-led South African liberation movement in T. Mkandawire (ed.) African intellectuals: rethinking politics, language, gender and development, pp. 117–54. London: Zed.

[3] Gramsci, A. (1979). Letters from prison, introduced by L. Lawner, London, Melbourne, New York: Quartet. (footnote from Suttner 2005).

[4] Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks (Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, eds.) London: Lawrence and Wishart (footnote from Suttner 2005).

[5] Crehan, K. (2002). Gramsci, culture and anthropology, London: Pluto Press (footnote from Suttner 2005).

[6] Canetti’s illustrative progression bears some closer analysis. In its itinerary from Africa (Congo and Gabon) to Siberia/Alaska, and then Europe (Celts, Germans, Lapps), its ostensibly chronological arrangement appears to reprise racist European notions of civilization. More could be added here that is outside the scope of this essay.

[7] Canetti is quoting a text here that he does not otherwise identify.

[8] Bernal, M. (1987). Black Athena: Afro-Asiatic roots of classical Civilization: the fabrication of ancient Greece, 1785-1985 (Vol. 1), Vintage; New Ed edition (21 Nov 1991)

A reminder ….

. panopticonsRus .

This essay is about symbolism, Jungian psychology, Tarot card reading, and other matters. It begins particularly with some background from Jung and gradually segues into a fairly detailed discussion of symbolism in Tarot card reading. In this way, I can imagine it being dissatisfactory for those who are here for one and not the other. However, the topics are not reciprocally incommensurable—certainly more knowledge of Jung’s psychology illuminates Tarot card reading (and thus one’s philosophy of life in general) and vice versa, however seemingly indirectly. Whatever metaphysical claims might be made about Tarot (or Jung’s psychology for that matter), both provide articulate, detailed, and helpful “explanatory vocabularies” for coming to grips with (1) the life of our mind, (2) our lives in general, and (3) the world in which these live and occur. So it may be I must ask for a bit more indulgence when parts of the below…

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