CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 1. The Crowd (Invisible Crowds)

16 October 2012

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)


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