CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 1. The Crowd (Crowd Symbols)

4 January 2013

This is the sixteenth entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power[1] and the fourteenth (entry to address Part 1 (The Crowd), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I cover the last section: “Crowd Symbols”.

Crowd Symbols

“Crowd symbols is the name I give to collective units which do not consist of men, but which are still felt to be crowds” (75). In this section, the concluding on for part 1, Canetti describes the examples of fire, the sea, rain, rivers, forest, corn, wind, sand, the heap, stone heaps, and treasure. These things populate myths, stories, &c., and for some reason Canetti feels he has to stress their difference from crowd crystals (which, after all, consist of actual people). The emphasis is probably to acknowledge that a crowd crystal might, like a crowd symbol, similarly feel like a crowd.

Canetti half acknowledges that construing things like sand or rain as a crowd—as feeling like a crowd—is obviously wider than usual off the mark. Just because someone has an imaginary projection that this or that feels crowd-like, on the one hand how will this not be merely an artist’s or a storyteller’s or a shaman’s idiosyncratic vision (that corn, for instance, “feels” like a crowd) or how does this, as a piece of question begging, not fail to explain how this gets felt as a crowd by anyone in the first place? Since this is just  feeling of a crowd, does any of the descriptive terminology Canetti has offered, even only if to ignore it, somehow apply. Nevertheless, supposedly through an examination of crowd symbols, the crowd itself “can be approached in a new and profitable way … which it would be foolish to exclude” (75).

Of the fifteen pages in this section, approximately five are taken up by the concept of fire, which elsewhere Canetti has already shown a fascination with.[2]  Summarizing his opening exposition:

Fire is the same wherever it breaks out; it spreads rapidly; it is contagious and insatiable; it can break out anywhere, and with great suddenness; it is multiple; it is destructive; it has an enemy; it dies; it acts as though it were alive, and is so treated. All this is true of the crowd … The crowd is the same everywhere, in all periods and cultures; it remains essentially the same among men of the most diverse origin, education and language. Once in being, it spreads with the utmost violence. Few can resist its contagion; it always wants to go on growing and there are no inherent limits to its growth. It can arise wherever people are together, and its spontaneity and suddenness are uncanny. It is multiple, but cohesive. It is composed of large numbers of people, but one never knows exactly how many. It can be destructive; and it can be damped and tamed. It seeks an enemy; it dies away as quickly as it has arisen, and often s inexplicably; and it has, as goes without saying, its own restless and violent life (77)

After further meandering, the most pertinent point of which involves the domestication of fire by humankind, Canetti then offers a case history of arson as “irrefutable proof of the connection between fire and the crowd, even in isolated individuals” (80, emphasis added). In this, the arsonist desires to be seen, is able to attract a crowd by the fire started and then, when the fire and crowd begin to dwindle, she turns herself into the fire by confessing; then everyone stares at her. In this particular case history, the woman spent 24 years in prison, was convicted six times of arson, and committed 20 acts of it; it is unclear if those 20 acts led to the six convictions or if there were instances of arson she confessed to in some other way without being convicted of it.

I would like to hope that the several mésalliances between tenor and vehicle in Canetti’s description above speak for themselves, since separating them—like separating dogs that have tied during mating—may be a fruitless tsk. Allowing some modicum of poetic license, Crowds and Power is not meant to be a work of fiction. Canetti speaks of irrefutable proof. But even allowing for a bug-eyed degree of appeal, rather than argument, even with something so simple as, “Fire is the same wherever it breaks out …The crowd is the same everywhere, in all periods and cultures; it remains essentially the same among men of the most diverse origin, education and language” we’re in the soup.

It seems a kind of small-mindedness to say but Canetti’s declamatory manner calls for it. Fire is not the same wherever it breaks out, as the prosaic variation in types of fire extinguisher makes obvious. Canetti’s slightly arsony appreciation for fire does it a disservice by reducing it all to one type. But even if fire were the same everywhere, that “the crowd is the same everywhere, in all periods and cultures” (80, emphasis added) collapses not only in the face of the variations Canetti himself has been at pains to describe earlier, but even here as he immediately hedges his bets, given that the crowd “remains essentially the same among men of the most diverse origin, education and language” (80). One could go on like this with the whole of the quoted passage.

In metaphysical poetry, of the sort exemplified by Donne, the conceit was an extended metaphor that at first might seem inapt, to say nothing of inept, yet as the poem advances and the metaphor gets more and more folded into a tangle of tenor and vehicle, it gradually comes to be seen as actually surprisingly appropriate. What we have here is a poor execution of a conceit, whether more for the inaptness of the conceit itself or Canetti’s clunky presentation of it, which gets constantly slandered by his bad habit of gross overgeneralization. What’s so annoying in this—never mind that Canetti fans get all wet with a sort of philosophical euphoria because exactly this kind of mélange is the “truth-dump” in a reader’s lap, which the reader must then “decide” if it is “true,” that they applaud as Canetti’s most significant aspect—is how short-lived these rickety conceits re; they hard live to the end of the paragraph, if even the sentence, whether we try to take this in any kind of truth-correspondence descriptive sense with respect to the world (i.e., as any kind of sociology) or even in a merely poetic sense. Put still another way, fire is indeed one of the great numinous phenomena of the world and, just as Canetti notes of the socialized arsonist that he doesn’t light his whole box of matches for the paltry image of fire it would present, Canetti manages to do exactly this. If anything, likening fire to crowds gets the metaphor going the wrong way, not just imaginatively but linguistically. When excitement spreads like wildfire through the crowd, it is because something very much not crowd-like has possessed (in Jung’s sense) the crowd.

When Vico says that “man makes himself the measure of all things”—egli fa sé regola dell’universo (Element I, §120, p. 60)[3]—this isn’t meant in a reductionist sense. Human beings can only see the world as human beings; there is no question of seeing the world-in-itself, but neither does this necessary frame mean that we can only anthropomorphize the world either. To say that fires are crowd-like loses more in the equation than saying crowds are fire-like. And one might like to try to argue that that’s exactly the direction Canetti is arguing, that I’m misreading him. But he insists that fire, like the crowd, seeks an enemy, and this is an personification of fire rather than a flagrantification of persons.

The whole direction of the mythologizing of nature seems toward finding, in human terms, an experience of the decidedly inhuman. Tornadoes are an excellent example—small enough to seem to be taken in all at once as a phenomenon and yet massively transhuman; on the one hand, obviously insentient as only natural phenomenon can be, but at the same time almost impossible not to take personally, when one’s house is destroyed while one’s neighbors’ are left untouched. We might embody a tornado in an image of a stomping giant, and the malice we impute to them has its roots, of necessity, in personification, in our having made ourselves the measure of all things—but the malice leveled against us is expressly non-human, that’s what makes it monstrous, as a reflection of the monstrousness of tornadoes in the first place. A human crowd, however frenzied, however berserk, however raging and destructive, ultimately still consists of particles we not only know familiarly enough, but that we might even bring to justice if we can get an adequate case. There is no such appeal to tornadoes or fires. However we personify such things, our metaphor cannot contain them sufficiently—not at least when they barrel down over the top of us in  swath of devastation.

So while a crowd may be fire-like, a fire is not convincingly crowd-like. The numinous threat Canetti feels or describes from the stuff may be phenomenologically valid, but to ascribe the sublimity or terror of fire to a crowd misses more of the mark than it strikes. One may imagine the difference again in weighing the pros and cons of being killed by a shark or a psychopath. Both can have registers of horror, and whether the brutal utterness of the shark’s destruction of your existence is more consoling (or less unconsoling) than the anguish of needlessness in the psychopath’s torture and eventual murder of you may be debated till the end of time. The shark at least isn’t intentionally harming you, but its indifference to your pain might make it still more terrible. With the psychopath, awful as the pain you are experiencing may be, at least it serves some purpose, however sick, depraved, or compulsive. All of this may be asked of fire as it rolls over and destroys you like a shark or of the mob that brutalizes and tortures you for being African and then lynches you. Precisely the horror of the latter is exactly in the fact that it is not elemental and indifferent, even if it is mindless; precisely the terror of the former is you cannot even plead for your existence to an indifferent torturer.

With the sea, which has a voice, it is also

Changeable in its emotions: it can soothe or threaten or break out in storms. But it is always there. One knows where it is; It lies open and manifest, not appearing suddenly where there was nothing before. It lacks the mystery and suddenness of fire which, like a ravening animal, springs out at man from nowhere and thus may be expected anywhere; the sea is to be expected only where it is known to be (81).

Of the coherence of the human crowd, “the sea, while not explaining, expresses it” (80). The sea, then, amongst other things is the dream of the crowd to never disappear that the crowd cannot obtain. Canetti expresses pity for the individual drops of water that make up the sea—that “they only become drops in isolation, when they are separated from each another … their smallness and singleness makes them seem powerless; they are almost nothing and arouse a feeling of pity in the spectator” (80).

Put your hand in water, lift it out and watch the drops slipping single and impotently down it. The pity you feel for them is as though they were human beings, hopelessly separated. They only begin to count again when they can no longer be counted, when they have again become part of a whole (80).

Besides the arguably maudlin quality of this—maudlin not because Canetti (or perhaps only the reader to whom he imputes the emotion, namely “you”) experiences sympathy for isolated people but because its Canetti himself (or “you”) who creates the very circumstance by which drops become visible in the first place—there is the seemingly willful ignorance of the fact that any such drop of water created like this is in fact already another ocean or sea, but on a vastly smaller scale. If Canetti can wax beatific about the crowd of sperm in a wad of semen, then one feels licensed to note the hundreds of billions of atoms crowding worse than Mexico City the tiny little ambit of each drop. But even on a macroscale, cut the droplet in two and we see that what Canetti calls solitary is not so much so. There is then  self-flagellating quality to the seeming emotion of this passage seems strikingly unselfaware. The fact that this shifts to a “you” address further underscores this So one can almost smell the inner movement of the text as we move from drops that only count once “they have again become part of a whole” to drops of rain.

With rain, which falls, “there is no movement which more impression on man than that of falling; compared with it all others seem secondary and derived. From  a very early age falling is what one fears most” (82). And since “there is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown” (15) apparently at some point the (male) child swaps out his greatest fear for a man’s greatest fear.[4] One suspects there some unacknowledged biblical thing going on here, especially as Canetti then insists, “In contrast to man, rain is what should fall, and there is nothing which falls so often” (82), except night. And the rest that follows in this section on rain is almost mind-boggling in its triviality, pointless generalization, and banality. Only in the last paragraph does Canetti say anything resembling the point of section:

In so far as rain has become a crowd symbol, it does not stand, as fire does, for the phase of raging and irresistible increase. Nor is it ever as constant as the sea, and only rarely as inexhaustible. Rain is the crowd in the moment of discharge, and stands also for its disintegration. The clouds whence it comes dissolve into rain; the drops fall because they can keep together no longer, and it is not clear whether, or when, they can coalesce again (82).

My effort with this series of posts is not foremost to beat Canetti’s writing with a stupid stick, but largely to try to rescue it from itself. But there are times when the most dominant feature of the work is blindingly and painfully how little it warrants earning someone a Nobel Prize. It may be an idealization to expect that a Nobel Prize winner in Literature shouldn’t give the impression of being a doddering entomologist who is swooning over the thorax of Chorthippus brunneus, which happens actually to be Camponotus pennsylvanicus (or worse, a gazelle). Who’s humoring who by this? For have we not just been told that fire is the master metaphor that captures the whole nature of the crowd itself, only here to have it be  a phase of it: “phase of raging and irresistible increase”? And when is rain, not even “only rarely”, as inexhaustible as the sea? And what clouds “dissolve” into rain—Canetti can’t even remember his apposite use of “precipitate” from the section on crowd crystals here in the more usual place where one might find precipitation? And that the “drops fall because they can no longer keep together?” when it is actually the very accumulation of water around some particle that forms the raindrop in the first place?

This hardly seems a problem of translation, since conceptual muddling is at work here, not just terminology. To the extent that boundaries of phenomenon are difficult to determine—at least when one wants to take up the conceit of an objectivist description of reality—the conceptual confusion here whether a cloud would not already be a crowd and/or that the appearance of rain itself indicates either the discharge (that makes a crowd) or that already indicates the disintegration of the crowd shows, on the one hand, how hashed up the descriptive mess is or, more charitably, how difficult such a thing would be to describe in these objectivist terms. Nonetheless, trying to fit together all that Canetti has said before, not the least about the discharge (or the drops of the sea previously that were lifted up into the “sea” of the cloud likely actually above some ocean), makes it a poor fit for massing rainclouds and precipitation itself.

Canetti then says many daft things about rivers; so much so one wonders how many he might have seen. The least of these is, “the most striking thing about a river is its direction” (83); the most ridiculous is  simile of the relationship of a parade or demonstration (as a river) and the spectators watching (the river’s banks), and that a “special kind of relationship develops [between them], resembling the love-play of two snake-like creatures, the one slowly and tenderly drawing its length through the embrace of the other” (83).[5] Canetti insists there is never a time when a river is not being fed, and that its source is inexhaustible despite numerous try riverbeds or rivers that freeze solid during winter; he says a river’s growth is “determined at source and takes place only through precisely defined tributaries” (83) without acknowledging the phenomenon of even regular flooding, which ought to allude to the eruption (he even mentions the word). The way also that river disappears into sea or even more murkily into the vast capillaries of a delta or a swamp (the very opposite of precisely defined tributaries that precisely defined tributaries might have reminded on of). Neither is there any account of rapids or falls.

And all of this poor metaphorizing, I would say, for the same reason that he goes astray with making fire into crowds; his last sentence, which provides even less germane content than in the section on rain, is that the river “is the symbol of the slow crowd” (83). One could revisit the description of the slow crowd and track, in more detail, how Canetti has short-sold the image of a river just as he short-sells the image of fire. But if the river is the symbol of the slow crowd, then why is the river as a crowd symbol “always in some degree provisional only” (83), why should it be “only a limited crowd symbol” (84), much less a symbol of the slow crowd unless the slow crowd analogously is always in some degree provisional only and only a limited type of crowd. It seems rather that once again personification has gotten the upper hand over mythologization, that the trans-human quality of the image of the river has been sacrificed to the (paltry) image of a parade. One only has to remember Faulkner’s (1939)[6] If I Forget Thee Jerusalem (formerly The Wild Palms) or Twain’s (1884)[7] Huckleberry Finn to get plenty of additional associations for river beyond snake penis and parade. The delta in particular—a nice vagina symbol if you wanted to drag your (now hydra-headed) snake through it—wreaks havoc on the slow crowd symbolism. Unless someone wants to posit a schismatic reflex the close a (religious) group gets to its goal, then this seems the antithesis of a symbol for the slow crowd. Similarly, the river topography of rapids and falls lacks any made connection with the slow group or what it means when a river disappears underground and becomes subterranean for a time. The moodiness ascribed to the sea seems appropriate for the river as well, but that is missing. And in the relation of river and bank, which for Canetti at best becomes an eroding erotic friction, is—at least in the case of the Nile—a whole ebb and pulse that leaves fertile sedimentation behind for the spectators’ use.

Also, “the most striking thing about wind is its direction” (86), apart from having a voice, like the sea. Or perhaps the most striking thing about wind is it is felt not seen, and only visible indirectly when it gets wrapped up by some other material–these superlatives keep begging the question. As something invisible, Canetti links it with the invisible crowd and thus spirits, but it is the Vedas, in their description of the storm gods, the Maruts, that make a more extensive and compelling conceit:

“Their numbers [of the Maruts] are stated as thrive seven or thrice sixty. … They are brothers of equal age, having the same birthplace and the same abode. … The noise made by the Maruts is thunder and the roaring of winds. They cause the mountains to quake, they shatter trees and, like wild elephants, devour the forests. They are often called singers: the singing of the wind. They are mighty, fierce, terrible like lions, but also playful like children or calves” (qtd. on p. 86)

What makes this description more effective is how its euhemerization—the adding of a human biography or embodiment to an abstract or transcendental idea or entity—begins from the presupposition of a non-human thing to be described. This is personification, again in Vico’s non-reductive sense. Thus, not only to the Vedic Maruts have all of the qualities that Canetti would ascribe to the wind (invisibility, a voice), they more than have additional qualities as well: they inhabit a world. They are realized, in the requisite manner of all good fantasy novels, as n internally coherent, if still not fully explicable (or even inexplicable) phenomenon; just as Canetti said earlier, in one of his rare apt phrases, that “the sea, while not explaining, expresses” (80) an idea.

This greater realization undermines Canetti’s attempts at generalization. He says that to name the wind “it is essential to know which quarter it comes from” (86), but the Maruts all live in the same abode; they all come from the same place (literally, the same birthplace) and even the same time (having the same age).[8] Nothing ties a Marut to any specific directionality; they are free—much more free than we helpless humans who are capable of only going one direction at a time—before the quarterless dexterity of these gods. Once again, a transhuman quality recognized by human myth gets turned into a reduced personification in Canetti’s description. Similarly, where Canetti’s wind has a voice, for the Maruts it is rather that the wind (and thunder) is their voice, and even more than this, is singing.

One might say, of course, that the poets of the Vedas got it wrong in particular aspects—though not for the euhemerization per se, since humankind as the measure of all things can never not resort to some human-made metaphor, even when that is a metaphor of fundamental “particles” or “strings” or “bonds”—with Canetti it’s become cart before the horse. In one direction, whatever the (rather dubious) construction of invisible crowds adds to the notion of wind in the first place seem inapt or redundant, while in the opposite direction what “wind” adds to “invisible crowd” seems non-essential in Canetti’s description. The Maruts, in any case, are not the wind—wind is a consequence of their existence, just as the singing of the wind is their voice. This Vedic distinction brings the sense of crowd Canetti wants into the picture but neutralizes his sense of wind as a crowd symbol; the Maruts themselves are the crowd symbol—a visual or imaginative representation of that which cannot otherwise be depicted (c.f., Jung’s use of the word symbol)[9]

As for the forest, it “is higher than man” (84, emphasis in original), except when man lives above it, e.g., in the Himalayas, etc. The forest is “the symbol of the army, an army which has taken up a position, which does not flee in any circumstances, and which allows itself to be cut down to the last man before it gives a foot of ground” (84–5, emphasis in original). “No other natural phenomenon of his surroundings is invariably above him and, at the same time, so near and so multiple in its formation” (84), except mountains. Obviously, if you live in a forest, then a forest will be the tallest thing immediately to eye, but this is no argument that forests are the end-all be-all like this. What’s interesting is anticipating that Canetti will liken the forest to the striking crowd, but instead he invokes the army. Once again, the direction of the metaphor seems wonky. It’s certainly true that the “army” of a forest will not flee, whatever the circumstances, but armies in general are known both for fleeing and charging. This still-standing army is either the one buried along with its emperor or possibly the army of a siege, except that there it is the single fortress, not the multiplicity of those in the fortress, that do the standing.

As a particularly sour note, “the forest is the first image of awe … Looking up at trees becomes looking up in general. The forest is a preparation for the feeling of being in church, the standing before God among pillars and columns” (84). Whichever Abrahamic religion this is referring to, it suggests that those without trees would have no god, as if people of the desert or Africa or the Steppes have nothing to look up at. The compensation for this piece of (hopefully inadvertent) ethnocentricity is that it also implies those who look up at trees are extremely short-sighted compared to those whose religion compels a look up at mountain, moon, sun, or stars. A rather comically inadvertent example of missing the trees for the forest.

Canetti initially characterizes corn as a domesticated forest, “diminished and subjugated,” (85) and therefore also an army.

Men readily see their own equality before death in the image of corn. But blades of corn are cut simultaneously and this brings a quite specific death to mind: a common death in battle, whole rows of men mown down together. The cornfield is a battlefield (85).

In addition to this, corn provides heaps of grain, and Canetti selects heaps of harvests, stones, and treasure for particular mention in the remainder of this section, the distinction amongst them being that the first are edible, the second imperishable, and the third invaluable.[10] In grains are not only the past harvest but the future crops. In heaps of stones: Canetti seems to be alluding to his earlier reference to a Nordic practice; there, each warrior places a stone in a heap, and upon the return from battle, removes his stone, so that those stones that remain are the dead.[11] The death of the warrior, memorialized in the stone, or the death of the corn, embodied literally in its grain, thus signals also the success if not triumphant continuation of one’s culture. Similarly, the border phenomenon between sea and wind, partaking of characteristics of both, is sand, which Canetti points to the link with progeny—“the stress here is not primarily on quality” (87)—and, as a throw-away, stars. The heap of treasure, colloquially known as a hoard and often presided over by a dragon, may be imagined as markers of the dead (the conquered) and the living (one’s tributes), and “the peculiarity of treasure lies in the tension between the splendor it should radiate and the secrecy which is its protection” (89).[12] It would seem an apt confirmation of this linking of heap and crowd in the fact that horde and hoard are homonyms, except that the two words are not etymologically related. [13]

hoard (n.): O.E. hord “treasure, valuable stock or store,” from P.Gmc. *huzdam (cf. O.S. hord “treasure, hidden or inmost place,” O.N. hodd, Ger. Hort, Goth. huzd “treasure,” lit. “hidden treasure”), from PIE root *(s)keu- “to cover, conceal” (see hide (n.1)).

horde (n.) 1550s, from W. Turkic (cf. Tatar urda “horde,” Turkish ordu “camp, army”), to English via Polish, French, or Spanish. The initial -h- seems to have been acquired in Polish. Transferred sense of “uncivilized gang” is from 1610s.


The claimed purpose of Canetti’s descriptions in this section generally is that through these images “the crowd itself can be approached in a new and profitable way” (75), bearing in mind that a crowd system is a collective unity that does not “consist of men, but which are still felt to be crowds” (75). In the hodgepodge of observation offered, the approach itself seems unchanged, i.e., not new, and whatever alteration to the schema he has not thoroughly sketched in is certainly not cast in a new light by these reductive feints.

Much as I might try to be a good sport about ignoring certain defects in Canetti’s exposition—which let us not forget, Iris Murdoch frames in terms of Canetti being “one of our great imaginers and solitary men of genius” (back cover) and which Susan Sontag claims “dissolves politics into pathology, treating society as a mental activity—a barbaric one, of course—that must be decoded” (back cover)—it’s difficult when it leaps to the fore like this. The mishmash of crowd symbols needn’t be ridiculed just for being a mishmash; Todorov fairly enough eviscerated Frye’s categories from Anatomy of Criticism, and even if Frye thought that was the most significant part of his book, it remains chock full of at least localized  and pertinent observations about manifold elements of genres and specific works. I don’t intend that this should be (or will be) the final word on my reading of Canetti’s Crowds and Power, and if you want to accuse me of being querulous just because Murdoch and Sontag (for whatever honorable or venal reasons) have been caught out as liars (or have had their quotations taken out of context) such that that’s allowed me to set myself up for disappointment by Canetti’s text, then let that also be an admission that Canetti falls grossly short, so far, of such inappropriate or misappropriated praise. To say it’s just me would be an overstatement, however; from Williams Phillips’ (1963)[14] New York Review of Books review of Crowds and Power:

Now we have a new work from abroad, combining politics, psychology, sociology, and certified to be the original, profound, and imaginative book we have all been waiting for. It is said to present a new view of civilization that combines the qualities of vision with those of analysis. The book is so extravagantly well-blurbed, and by such respectable figures as Arnold Toynbee, Kathleen Raine, C.V. Wedgewood, and Iris Murdoch, that one is actually put on one’s guard instead of being impressed. When a new book is hailed in the way Crowds and Power is, as “a new Golden Bough,” “a Twentieth Century Leviathan,” or its author as the Spengler of the sixties, one cannot help remembering how many great books were born without such fanfare, or how long they had to wait for serious opinion to build up (¶2).

Phillips (1963), commenting on the state of sociology generally at the time, noted, “The result of all these advances in social thought was that the thing criticized became indistinguishable from the criticism of it, and soon both became part of the same cultural package” (¶1). Thus, when Sontag says that Canetti treats “society as a mental activity—a barbaric one, of course—” or when Phillips observes , “But most of the book reads like a psychoanalysis of history” (¶5), when we remember the send up of Freudian psychoanalysis in Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe, and then this (from here):

Canetti finally answers Adorno’s initial question and explains the difference between his own theories and those of Freud. Canetti explains that for Freud, there are two concrete “crowds” that he uses as examples: the church and the army. For Canetti, the army is not a crowd at all; in fact, the army is a group of people held together by a specific chain of command in such a way that it can become divisible at any time, in correspondence to a specific command.[15] Adorno later agrees with Canetti’s belief of armies and churches and says that the church and the army are not really crowds but rather a negation of crowds in that they both operate within a rational hierarchy whereas crowds are always subject to irrationality. Instead, the army and the church must be regarded as reaction-formations, namely regressions to social stages that are no longer reconcilable with present realities (¶1, emphasis added).

Whether Adorno has a point here is not the point, but rather that Canetti specifically denies that armies and churches are crowds.

Canetti has called the crowd symbol of both forest and corn armies and gives the double crowd of opposing armies in war its own section. The baiting crowd, that most ancient of even pre-human types and the descendant of the hunting pack, is out to kill and attracts more into it (whether through voluntarism or recruiting). As an army, it wants to grow, it reflects as much equality as possible in its uniforms, it loves density, it wants a direction–all of these are the most defining features of a crowd, as Canetti lists them in the section “The Attributes of the Crowd”–and stagnates till it erupts into a killing frenzy or disintegrates into panic and/or mass-flight when confronted by a too superior force, as Cnetti specifically notes of the double-crowd generally. In this light, an army seems rather Canetti’s most obvious archetype or point of reference for the (bounded) open crowd.

As for churches, Canetti more than once (irrationally) stresses the buildings that delimit closed crowds; he describes sieges with its heretics and treasoners, and the return of the savior (or death) as the slowest of slow goals for a slow crowd. He hijacks what little logic there is in his exposition of the reversal crowd to insist that a religious revival is an example of such a crowd, noting the revival “is, as it were, a process of domestication: a man allows himself to be tamed by the preacher to become God’s obedient servant” (61). Or from the section “Domestication of Crowds in the World Religions”

I propose now to show how the world religions have succeeded in holding their crowds even when these are not in the stage of fierce and rapid growth[16] … Churches are built to contain the existing faithful and re enlarged only with reluctance and circumspection when there is real need … The faithful are gathered together at appointed places and times and, through performances which are always the same, they are transported into a mild state of crowd feeling … Wherever men have grown accustomed to this precisely repeated and limited experience in their churches or temples they can no longer do without it (24–5).

Canetti frequently gives the impression that his archetype of the closed crowd must be precisely a (Protestant) church of some sort, both as the building of the church itself (that encloses the crowd) and the congregation within as well. Notwithstanding that Canetti seems to say everything is a crowd at some point, to say that armies and churches are not crowds is particularly aberrant. A most plausible explanation may be simply that he is misrepresenting himself outright, due to his loathing of Freud’s theories.[17]

All of which is to say, Canetti’s sociology is imaginary. In the blog just cited, its author continuously refers to Canetti’s anthropology—a designation that can only, at this juncture of the book, be deemed an abuse of the term. Sontag’s “mental activity,” Murdoch’s “great imaginers,” Phillips’ “psychoanalysis of history”, and Canetti’s (must one really say) Freudian denial of Freud—to say nothing of the manifold piecemeal character both of Canetti’s observations and his book organizationally overall that gives more of an impression of selective imagining than discursive logic—make the whole effort a poem, though as Phillips also notes, “it is a bad poem”. This isn’t just cattiness. As noted above in the personification of fire as a crowd, the effort of extended metaphor amounts to a conceit (in the metaphysical poets’ sense), but it’s a poor conceit because it doesn’t sell the metaphorical relation. The same is true here of crowd symbols generally, their mishmash being the first symptomatic element. The fact that he states blankly that fire, corn, sand, etc., feel like a crowd, or that the fear of falling is a child’s greatest fear, takes absolutely no cognizance of cases where a moment’s reflection is enough to disclose examples where that is not the case. The error of this does not even provide a fruitful starting point, because one has to clear away the muck and muddle of it even to try to approach the matter at hand.

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

[2] Consider here presently: “The matchbox that modern man carries in his pocket is a small remnant of these ancient and deeply significant associations. It represents the serried tree trunks of a wood, all reduced to an agreeable uniformity, and each provided with a combustible head. It is possible to light several, or indeed all, of them together and thus create an artificial conflagration. One may feel tempted to do this, but it is not usually done, because the tiny size of the ensuing conflagration would deprive fire of all its ancient splendor” (78). Like most compulsions, it is easy to be struck by the sudden obviously complacent ease with which someone begins rattling off in your presence whatever compulsion it is that they deem utterly normal, as when someone suddenly and casually informs you that Africans are inferior. The very casualness of this is disarming, to say nothing of the awkward moment of feeling, if only obscurely, that you have been deemed someone likely to be interested in, to agree with, the disclosure.

[3] Scienza nuova seconda (1730/1744), The New Science of Giambattista Vico, revised translation of the third edition by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1948; Cornell Paperbacks, 1976.

[4] It is unclear if one is expected to take a biblical attitude to this contradiction, i.e., that those with eyes of faith see no contradiction in scripture. It at least spares Canetti’s text from being seen as an incoherent rush of sentiment that only makes sense in the moment but doesn’t connect into any larger coherence over time. One person, when I pointed out this contradiction to them, replied, “I’d stop reading book like that.” An understandable response, without even encountering the other excesses of empty generalization in the book. But I have another friend, or perhaps an acquaintance, who might respond to what I would call Canetti’s shenanigans with, “Maybe that’s what he intends for you to do.” The statement arises less, perhaps, from a principled broad-mindedness—which he certain possesses in other circumstances—and more here from a salutary resistance to people’s framing of problems. That is, I would say, “This is appalling,” and rather than assent to my framing of this (as a problem, a problem which, perhaps, I would prefer to be rid of), there is an equally principled, sometimes implacably gentle, refusal to assent to the framing (of the problem) in that way. It invites looking at things differently. Often, this sort of, “Oh, hey, that could be looked at this way instead” short-circuits being stuck in a framing, but here I would not find this apt. A sensitive reader can often tell the difference between a subtle irony that invites the reader to take a kind of ironic relationship to the text as well, but to take up that invitation involves reading out from the text markers that justifying reading the text that way. The issue here is not whether one can’t read markers that aren’t there; of course that’s possible enough. The point rather are those instances where a writer has placed those markers, whether too subtly or not, and quite apart from whether a reader successfully “decodes” those markers in their intended meaning. Depending upon how understated or masked the markers are, this can involve needing first to have faith in the writer or to determine they have established a credibility or authority. In Joyce’s A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, at one point Stephen Dedalus, worried tremendously about an (unnamed) sin he has committed that is so terrible he wishes he’d murdered someone instead and feels compelled to go to a different church to confess, then has a vision in the church of flakes of fire falling upon him while he waits. Those remembering their Divine Comedy, or at least Dürer’s famous illustrations of Dante’s epic, might discover that flakes of fire are the punishment for the depraved triumvirate of the blasphemer, usurer, and sodomite. Since Stephen blasphemes and charges interest on money he loans, it seems sodomy might be hidden in the text as well. In the notorious prostitution scene, the whole is presented as if Stephen is being penetrated, and elsewhere in the book is the observation, “Suck is a queer word”—it certainly is. And since in one of the Dubliners stories, a woman who is planning to leave Ireland does not when she looks up to see the “black mass” of the ship (i.e., the Witches Sabbath of the ship), it is certainly no stretch to raise an eyebrow at “suck is a queer word” and so forth. Joyce has well established his bona fides as culpable for his very specific word choices. Whether one can make the case from this that Dedalus is “actually” gay or if, as any amount of tortured critical prose attempts—e.g., “Also, from chapter one, Stephen learns to desire men for their strong invulnerable disposition, while denying his own masculinity. Stephen’s socialization forces him to repress and mask his dominate femininity while repressing his affinity towards men. The dialectics between his feelings for men and the attitude of his peers towards homosexuality synthesize into Stephen’s repressed feelings”—that the “femininity” has something to do with the receptiveness of the artist to inspiration or whatnot and only results in “repressed” homosexuality is another matter entirely. But Joyce certainly gives one a sense that he can be held accountable for the markers in hi text. Not so with Canetti. Many, maybe even most, of the occasions that his text prompts require less a charitable reading and more a charitable overlooking of what happens if you read the text as it is. In this particular case, to wonder instead, against the assertion that the fear of falling is a child’s greatest fear, what the greatest fear of my childhood was seems as non-germanely autobiographical as the (likely) projection on Canetti’s part of his own greatest childhood fear. I asked someone else what their greatest fear was, and he replied of his father and of death—from an early age, he found the idea of his nonexistence to be highly unnerving.

[5] I’m given no reason to believe Canetti even realizes the obviously sexual content of this image. It seems as if he is busy confusing himself that a river and its banks or a parade and its spectators are two snake-like creatures. Try to imagine how a vagina can be a second snake-like creature and one realizes almost immediately it’s easier to track this if there are three creatures instead.

[6] Faulkner, W. (1995). If I forget thee, Jerusalem: the wild palms. 1st Vintage International ed. New York: Vintage International

[7] Twain, M., Seelye, J. D., & Cardwell, G. (2003). The adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Elsewhere—in certain Polynesian cultures if memory serves—the winds from different directions have different names, and these distinctions reflect crucial temporal or seasonal differences.

[9] Here does adequately enough as a brief summary: Jung “proposed an alternative definition of symbol, distinguishing it from the term sign. In Jung’s view, a sign stands for something known, as a word stands for its referent. He contrasted this with symbol, which he used to stand for something that is unknown and that cannot be made clear or precise.”

[10] To be more precise, this would run edible, inedible, and imperishable in Canetti’s terminology, but since in a heap of treasure each item “should have a special value” (88), and since stones generally are at least s imperishable as items in a treasure horde, the distinction of edible (fruits and grains), imperishable (stones), and invaluable (treasure) seems to respect the distinctions Canetti wishes to propose more thoroughly.

[11] “Dead” here means those who did not return home. Whether they were slain on the battlefield, simply ran away into the English or European countryside, never to be heard from again, or were abandoned or put to death in some way by his fellow warriors for some reason, to be dead means simply to no longer be a living presence in one’s culture. The heap of stones becomes the marker for that.

[12] Canetti cites the lottery as a kind of virtual hoard, and then closes this subsection, section and entirety of part 1 overall with:

The greed which unites people on such occasions presupposes and absolute confidence in the units composing the treasure. It is difficult to exaggerate the strength of this confidence. A man identifies himself with the unit of his money; doubt cast on it offends him and, if it is shattered, his self-confidence is shaken. He feels slighted and humiliated by the lowering of the value of his monetary unit and, if this process is accelerated and inflation occurs, it is men who are depreciated until they find themselves in formations which can only be equated with flight-crowds. The more people lose, the more united are they in their fate. What appears as panic in the few who are fortunate enough to be able to save something for themselves, turns into mass-flight for all those others who have become equals by being deprived of their money” (89–90, emphasis in original)

Canetti then promises to describe later the consequences of this “which, particularly in our own time, have been of incalculable general importance” (90).

A less patient critic—and I in no way consider myself Canetti’s most patient or even an especially patient critic—would have to chew her eyeballs out at this unmotivated hashing together of metaphors from some sort of a crowd-like quality in a hoard (not at all well-characterized) and the introduction of economic literality so that humans get depreciated (or perhaps only men, since it is men Canetti specifically refers to with italics) and then somehow “they find themselves in formations which can only be equated with flight-crowds” (90, emphasis added). However, I am not convinced that there is sufficient reason to try to unpack the swirl of associations here. Perhaps it will become more clear with further exposition by Canetti, but if not that won’t be the third time he’s left behind an unmade argument by claiming it is finished elsewhere.

[13] Once again demonstrating that etymology by sound is not sound etymology.

[14] See here. Phillips continues: “Thus, according to Canneti (sic), we have the ruled and the rulers. Now, this is not a very startling idea or image; at most it is an insight, and not a new one at that, since most studies of modern society have dealt in one way or another with the manipulation of the masses by leaders and rulers. And the value of such an insight depends on how it is argued and developed. But Canetti does not really develop the idea; what he does instead is to spin a web of illustrations, associations, and analogies. In this sense, he has written a poem. The trouble, however, is that it is a bad poem, far too long, cluttered up with home-made jargon, and much too pretentious. Its method is to convert truisms into metaphors, to state a fact as though it were a discovery, such as that “a soldier on duty acts only in accordance with commands,” or that war consists of one crowd fighting another, or that “in revolutionary periods executions are accelerated”; and then to give these inflated facts all kinds of historical resonance. Frequently, the idea itself is a bad metaphor: the most picturesque example is Canetti’s description of spermatozoa as a crowd, with one survivor. Sometimes the metaphor is purely verbal, as when Canetti says that in an inflation the “unit of money loses its identity.” Here we have just the opposite of what goes on in a good poem: instead of an original and concrete association that puts things in a new light or makes for a new experience, an ordinary observation is given “poetic” overtones, and made to sound more suggestive. And unlike good poetry which loses in paraphrase, some of Canetti’s inspired rhetoric might easily gain by a paraphrase” (¶3).

[15] Not having the text available that this blogger is summarizing from, in the sentence, “For Canetti, the army is not a crowd at all; in fact, the army is a group of people held together by a specific chain of command in such a way that it can become divisible at any time, in correspondence to a specific command,” the text after the semicolon may be dissenting, not affirming.

[16] This sentence is the last one from the section “Persecution,”  which is immediately before “Domestication of Crowds in the World Religions”

[17] To say he is projecting would normally seem like cheap armchair psychologizing, but when he goes on about the “rationale” for not lighting a whole box of matches (that we all carry about in our pocket, by the way) or the love-play of snakes, then projection certainly seems an apt term.


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