CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 1. The Crowd (Classification of Crowds According to Their Prevailing Emotion) (part 2)

23 October 2012

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).

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