CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 3a. Interlude (Summaries for “The Pack, & The Pack and Religion”)

12 February 2013


Culture, as the set of constraints on human behavior in a society, subject to change by that society, manifests as values made visible. Moralities/criminalities comprise the judgments arising from culture; ritual (religious or otherwise) orients to the metaphysics of culture. Culture will determine what (kind of) packs form; society will be the substrate out of which it will be formed. And the outcomes of packs then become inputs to society.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the twenty-fifth entry (happy anniversary) in a series that addresses, section by section over the course of a year+, Canetti’s  Crowds and Power.[1] This post addresses no specific section of the book so far (i.e., “The Crowd”, “The Pack” and “The Pack and Religion”, or any of the subsections), but is a coming up for air or a check-in on where things stand over the course of the author’s 168 pages so far. It covers “The Pack” and “The Pack and Religion”.

I’ve banished my normal disclaimer into an endnote,[2] because this whole post is an attempt to come to terms with what has gone before so far. As a reflection on a reflection, I should cite and document whatever blog-posts I’ve written and/or recite the relevant passages in Canetti, but the point of this is more to take stock of the past (work done so far) in order to proceed into the future. I will admit, I could have done something like this at the end of the first section (“The Crowd”) and, in fact, should have; equally, I could have or should have done a check-in at the end of the second section (“The Pack”). I did not for “The Crowd,” because at the end of that section I felt like I had actually wasted my time in the effort to find something of lasting value in Canetti’s exposition. I’m glad to have persevered, not necessarily because by the end of “The Pack” I’d started to find Canetti’s exposition helpful but because it led me to Spencer and Gillen’s (1904) groundbreaking work in Australia. Their work provided a jumping off point and contrast for finding sometimes helpful alternative constructions than those offered by Canetti.

But, whatever personal/intellectual teleology I might get out of Canetti, in terms of his argument generally in his book, it seemed essential at this moment to stop and take stock. The reason is: Canetti began by attempting to characterize the crowd, and then took a step back to characterize the pack (as the earlier, smaller, not-quite-crowd), and then in “the Pack and Religion” deceived himself that he’d made a case for how the transmutation of packs provides the basis for world faiths. The next section “The Crowd in History” betokens an obvious return to the crowd, which at this point has no material relationship to the pack. And so, if there is going to be any clarity (for you, for me) moving forward, I need to establish what’s worth keeping and what’s been found in order to chart a clear course through the mess to come. Partly I anticipate this because the first section of “The Crowd in History” is an especially obnoxious intellectual foray on Canetti’s part.

The Pack

In a conversation with Adorno,[3] Adorno shows a keen interest in Canetti’s attempts to get at what could be called archaic elements in mass psychology. We can make as much as we like about what Adorno’s  disregard for most of the book might mean, but at least in the analytical lens of “the pack” Canetti seems to be less aimlessly adrift than he does when talking about “the crowd” with such inconsistency, if not often vacuity. What is meant by this “archaic” quality need not be literalized to “pre-historic”  or “pre-modern” human modes of being (e.g., the hunting pack, the war pack, the lamentation pack, the increase pack)—that is, we can seek them out in our contemporary world,[4] but even then we needn’t reduce our contemporary world to “barbaric essentials”—as Sontag so glibly and superciliously suggests on the back of Canetti’s book.[5]

To reduce human activity to “primitive conditions” makes two fundamental mistakes: first on the grounds of ethnic chauvinism, since this imagines (for instance) aboriginal culture as not “really” culture but rather, whether laudably or not, primitive culture; second and more broadly still, this forgets that all culture is unnatural, precisely for its articulation by human beings (exemplified in the symbolic representations of language), and cannot then be reduced to nature, no matter how hard we try or want to. As Lucifer puts it, summarizing de Sade’s body of work:

God and Man and Nature were always symbols for my rebellion against Existence. I hated the idea of god because I feared men. But when, from three decades in asylums and prisons, I ceased to fear men, then my true enemy came into view, Nature.

Except that, as Saint-Fond from Sade’s Justine admits:

In everything we do there are nothing but idols offended and creatures insulted, but Nature is not among them, and it is she I should like to outrage. I should like to upset her plans, thwart her progress, arrest the wheeling courses of the stars, throw the spheres floating in space into mighty confusion, destroy what serves Nature and protect what is harmful to her; in a word, to insult her in her works—and this I am unable to do (qtd. In Blanchot, 1949,[6] p. 63, emphasis added).

In the eighteenth century, Nature and Culture were not yet so unambiguously or generally separate as they were in the nineteenth century or now, although the attempt now to re-fuse them back together seems to have gotten a fourth wind, in the degraded intellectual projects of things like Social Darwinism, neuro- and psycholinguistics, in vast tracks of genomics, and in every other reductionist trope in those physical, biological, psychological, cognitive, linguistic, aesthetic, and social branches of science and erstwhile fashionable pseudosciences that presume that the unnaturalness of culture can be made to correspond to or be derived from the naturalness of Nature, as if Nature were not already a cultural construction in the first place.[7]

Culture is, precisely, unnatural acts whether Kaitish Tribe or Kate Bush. What is “archaic” is the presence of whatever needs (then or now or both) that we must meet with necessities (to continue existentially, not just to live or survive); how we meet those necessities form the (recursive feedback loop of) historical circumstances Eagleton (1989) points to, to the fact that the necessities with which we met those needs were just one way of doing so at that place and time, and that if we could not for some reason have chosen differently then, we do not necessarily have to continue choosing so in the future.[8] So when Canetti tries to link pack to pack—never mind that what he means by pack is so diffuse and attenuated as to be conceptually impotent—he only imaginarily connects whatever dots he elects to regard as meaningful. A crystal-clear demonstration of the unnaturalness of human culture, the completely non-obligatory character of the cultural necessities we (as self-conscious beings in the universe) have invented, is available in Spencer and Gillen (1904) where, assuming they haven’t gotten it wrong, they report that amongst some tribes in Australia the patterns of marrying assure that (tribal and blood) brothers and sisters never marry, while in another tribe the arrangement assures that only (tribal) brothers and sisters marry.  Equally, in some tribes one part of the tribe, empowered to perform certain rites to see to the increase of totems, takes care of everything themselves, while in other tribes, it is only after being asked by the other half of the tribe (who then provide all of the materials for the rituals) to perform the rituals.

The pack is a cultural technology. Of all the factors that Canetti adduced as essential features of the pack, only one is tenable: a pack is goal-oriented, and the goal is collectively agreed upon.[9] This means, in principle, a pack may consist from one to any number of people, so long as each member of the pack shares the collectively agreed upon goal,[10] though a pack of one is obviously a special case (in the mathematical sense). Being a member of a pack means that each individual has some non-fungible part to play in reaching the collectively agreed upon goal—by non-fungible, I mean only that the functioning of the pack in its trajectory toward its goal will necessarily be different if other members are in it.[11] Each member of a pack has a local, personal goal in trying to realize the collective goal of the pack. This coordinated, multiplication of “functions” (toward a collective end) is one of the most technologically helpful aspects of the pack.[12]

As a cultural technology, a pack forms out of society at large according to culture—culture being the set of constrains on human behavior in a society, subject to change by that society. A pack is marked by a beginning, more or less formalized. In discussing crowds, Canetti mysteriously and pointlessly talks about some moment of “discharge” when the crowd becomes a crowd.  Anthropology teaches us, where there is magic there is ritual—and ritual is cultural fiat; that’s the magic exactly. A pack exists, then, begins, from the moment human beings say it does, when someone who is deemed by those listening to be capable of making such a declaration declares it. The moment of collectivity that Canetti incoherently identifies in the crowd is, rather, the moment when members of the pack subsume their activity to the collectively agreed upon end. From this, one sees it is possible to drop into or out of the pack—shifts in membership can occur due to the whole range of human events and disasters; all the while, the pack exists so long as human beings are oriented toward the collectively agreed upon goal, even when the whole party has been killed but one last person.

As a group cloaked in the mantle of reaching a collectively agreed upon goal, the pack then persists until it is dismantled. There is hardly any need to try to schematize the hundreds of billions of possible perils and failures and (partial or full) successes a pack might accomplish. The point is that the collectively agreed upon goal itself defines the terms of success.[13] The dismantling of the pack may come with as many formalities as established it, or it could end by being annihilated, disintegrating, or fragmenting, &c. The two salient points here: the ‘end” of  pack may not always be up to the human fiat of declaration—if everyone has been annihilated, there is no one in the pack to say, “It is done” or even “we failed.” But the fate of the pack is also subject to public opinion—that is, the pack’s society remembers sending it off, but the pack may never return. If the formation of a pack tends to be within the ambit of human ability to declare, like n opening parenthesis, the end may not be. This is the agony of an absence of closure. So, while a pack always has a beginning and a middle, it may not have an end—unless the society that originated it declares one in the open emptiness where the pack should have returned to.

What this means is that, like HTML syntax, e.g., <body></body>, to open a parenthesis already includes its closing parenthesis. The exigencies of events, the obstreperous refusal of reality to be grammatical, means our proposed enclosure may get corrupted, violated, punctured—it may bleed like a wound all over society but it will still be that enclosure that is bleeding, not society at large. This means that what “follows” after a pack is neither determined nor not-determined. Nothing, contra Canetti, must inevitably follow from one closure of a pack and the next. Success may bring celebration, but not inevitably; failure may bring lamentation, but not inevitably. If the pack returns, all that can be said is that it will dissolve back into the society out of which it sprung, but that is only to repeat what was said when the pack formed—that it would have an end. The pack, as a team, might go on to another task, or not. The pack, having never been a team until now, may stay one, or not. And so on. This is the sense in which nothing is inevitable or determined with the close of a pack. What is determined is that, insofar as the pack had a goal, the outcome of the attempt to reach that goal becomes an input to the next iteration of society, be it another formation of a pack or not.

A more specific example is needed to continue.

Among the Warramunga people, those who are of the kangaroo totem are empowered to perform the rites that increase the kangaroo in the area and are under a prohibition not to eat any kangaroo. A similar situation prevails for those of the emu totem, who are in the other half of the Warramunga tribe. So it happens, then, that the emu people ask the kangaroo people to perform the increase ritual for kangaroo, providing all of the materials so that the kangaroo people can. And vice versa. Thus, we can see a very smart mutual interdependency in this—all the more so since my ability to eat anything (excluding kangaroos, which I’m forbidden to eat if I’m a kangaroo being) depends on asking all the other totems to do their increase rituals.

I suggest this structure of mutual interdependency is at the heart of the pack as well. Insofar as accomplishing a collectively agreed upon goal involves the cooperation of all of us—a multitasking function that I cannot do myself—then this depends on everyone else asking me, “Would you please do your thing now,” and vice versa. Critically, it is not in my personal self-interest to do this task; just like those who increase the kangaroo totem but do not eat it, me saying, “Yes, I will do that,” has no “selfish” benefit for me, because it is effort toward the collectively agreed upon goal, which the act that I just did wouldn’t get to individually. And this is true for all in the group.

With this said, the object of the next section involves detailing or working out the relationship of packs, as cultural technologies, to the larger fabric of the society in which they occur. To do this amounts to getting at the spirit that Canetti seems to aim for without winding up in the cul-de-sac that he does.

The Pack and Religion

One of the main theses of Canetti’s book, by his own account, is the transmutation of packs at the heart of the world’s religions.

There’s no such thing.

The principal objection here is that packs do not transmute; they disappear. When a collectively agreed upon goal is no longer pursued—due to success, failure, or some other still more ambiguous outcome—the pack ceases to exist, and a new one that is related in some way (positively, negatively, or otherwise) to the previous pack, may or may not be formed.

One of the most significant lapses in Canetti’s exposition concerns his failure to acknowledge that most packs simply dissolve back into the society that originated them; they don’t transmute at all. A team is assembled to reach a goal, it is reached, the team vanishes, and life goes on. This doesn’t mean the memory of the pack disappears or that the people who formed it do. I should mention here, perhaps, I’m not proposing that everything in society can be explained by packs[14] or even that all group activity devolves somehow to a pack.[15]

After the fact, one may name characteristic sequences of groupings that may and do recur in any given society. The fact that, for example, Warramunga mourning rituals occupy up to twenty-four months to complete and are “interlarded” with all the other activities of daily and ritual life while that parenthesis is open makes it untenable to pretend that the lament pack of this week is linked continuously to the last rite (bringing the arm bone in for earth burial) twenty-four months from now.[16]

Cases of more rigorous sequences may be easier to spot in (for example) Australian aboriginal culture, but these same cultures show counter-examples as well, unsurprisingly.  Amongst the Warramunga and related tribes, the rites of increase consist of sometimes very lengthy chains of ceremonies that reprise the wanderings of the totemic ancestors over the lands. Each must be performed in their full sequence before another totem series may begin. Amongst the Arandan people and similar tribes, by contrast, these totemic series may be performed all mixed in with other sequences, and perhaps may not even reflect the full series of wanderings. If one might pretend there is an inevitability to the sequence of packs in the Warramunga, one has to be explain why that’s not the case amongst the Arandans. Canetti’s scheme can’t do this, because he insists on inevitable links.

Culture, as the set of constraints on human behavior within a given society, subject to change by that society, induces values made visible.

Religion is a major vehicle for this visibility of course but it is only one type. Amongst the aboriginal people studied by Spencer and Gillen (1904), most tribes exhibit a very strictly enforced morality not accompanied by a great deal of metaphysical justification. Whether we call this moral, religious, spiritual, sacred, or superstitious—or if we try to suss out cultural behaviors dependent upon some metaphysics (spirits, the invisible world, &c) or physics (human beings, the visible world, &c)—such labels or distinctions might shed light on matters, and all of it will still be culture as values made visible—as values in visible individuated dynamism.

What matters, in the general case, is not that the Lele have a hunt and then a feast or that the Jivaro experience a crime and then form a revenge party (that’s what matters in the specific), but rather that packs reticulate. The “archaic form” is of course that A –> B, but without more information knowing A doesn’t tell us enough yet to predict B—and if our hermeneutic doesn’t help us understand other cases from particular cases, then it is not yet an adequate description of human experience, and that is a central reason why Canetti’s exposition has very little value. It is, as the one reviewer said, a poem, and a bad one at that.[17]

Human beings being moral beings, there is a vast utility in gathering from Spencer and Gillen’s (1904) description of mourning ceremonies that the death of a child, young woman, or man in the prime of his life is deemed a crime that must be solved (with tree burial as a critical part of that judicial process amongst thee Warramunga and related tribes). This crime, experienced by the Warramunga, calls for at least two retributive gestures; the formal revenge party itself is called an atninga, and Canetti provides (less detailed) other examples of such revenge parties for the Taulipang and the Jivaro.

This emphasis on crime provides a distinction sorely lacking in Canetti’s exposition for the hunting pack. Two things may be said: (1) if a revenge party forms, it is in response to a perceived attack by a hunting party;[18] (2) the hunting of animals, plants, minerals, and natural resources in general may be understood, from several cultures, as related to crime as well. From a hunt may follow a communal feast conducted with sufficient propriety and etiquette to ensure the spirit of the (putatively willing) animal is not offended and will reconstitute itself for future human consumption again. To not do so would be to offend Nature, to commit a crime. Culturally, my group may feel no compunction toward a neighboring group of strangers—such that we might show more respect to the animals we kill than the bipedal pests nearby that we kill—in which case we “hunt” them, we don’t commit a ”crime” against them (from our point of view). They’ll likely disagree—cue the revenge party.

On Earth, only humans are criminal.[19] And within a group, there can be the imposition of or consensus upon what is and is not interdicted and permitted social behavior. But between groups, such consensus may be untenable—cue the difficulties of international law. So, the difference between a pack’s “crimes against Nature” as opposed to a pack’s “crimes against another group” is that Nature “talks back” differently than others groups of people do.[20] In all of this, the moral emphasis is paramount, because all human activity occurs in the moral/criminal realm, in the realm of what is permitted and what is not permitted,[21] what is sacred and what is profane. [22]

Culture, as the set of constraints on human behavior in a society, subject to change by that society, manifests as values made visible. Moralities/criminalities comprise the judgments arising from culture; ritual (religious or otherwise) orients to the metaphysics of culture. Culture will determine what (kind of) packs form; society will be the substrate out of which it will be formed. And the outcomes of packs then become inputs to society.

Canetti wants to insist that religion may be located in the –> of A –> B, in the pivot formed by A –> B. There are two central problems with this.

First, the –> is not related to the pack at all, in the same way that the metamorphosis of caterpillar –> moth, where –> is the metamorphosis has nothing to do with the caterpillar or the moth, and just as the movement from here –> there is, more properly, always here –> here. We are never not always here, just as at no point is the caterpillar or the moth or the thing at any point in-between those endpoints of transformation something other than what it is. This seeming paradox is, like most paradoxes, a mess involved in language, but in the present case, the point to be made is that if religion is going to be located in –> from one pack to another, then the packs themselves are not integral to that movement. This kind of metaphysics has no descriptive force for packs. Packs do not transmute; they dissolve and then a new one forms. There never is any “continuous substrate”—not even the individuals necessarily—much less any obligatory link between them. (See for example my description of American football here for more details about this.)

Second, Canetti is actually not very clear what A or B are supposed to be, saying things like Islam is a war religion, Christianity is a lament religion, &c. In the Taulipang and Jivaro example, a crime is committed and a revenge pack forms—is this supposed to be a lament –> war shift? In which case, why does Christianity (or Shia Islam) stop at its lament? In both cases, a titanic crime is said to have been committed.[23]

So packs crop up, proliferate, do their thing, vanish, leave traces, fail, and whatnot—what, if any, relationship does this have to religion, as Canetti wants to insist on proposing? It has to be asked then what is religion, but let’s not.

Instead, what religion is, ritual may be taken as a manifestation of it. Ritual is like a catalyst (a crowd crystal) in that its form is obligatory (if not unvarying), but it is also like a pack in that its specific character and attainment of its goal inherently depends on the people who are doing it. A pack is a deformalized ritual; a catalyst is a depersonalized ritual.

A ritual plugs into the explanatory discourse of a culture—although at this point, I’m at a standstill how “explanatory discourse” is not already a synonym for culture anyway. I’m using the word ritual instead of religion because rituals do not necessarily require a supernatural metaphysics to be in play—not that the supernatural must always be a part of religion. Ritual is recognized effective action (contextualized by the criminal/moral range of cultural activity). It might be that carrying water could be ritualized, but it is still different than ritual—and where it is not, then something other than carrying water will be non-ritual. Ritual touches the metaphysics of culture because it has a conceit of speaking for society—the group of people who are constrained by, negotiating and mediating, and changing culture on a daily basis. Moral action can be ritual action—for rituals, this must necessarily be the case—but they needn’t always or only overlap.

Discourse is not monolithic, though it may be enforced as such. Although one is subaltern, one is still viewed through the acculturated lens; culture becomes what one resists, like de Sade. Whatever one has to say, culture will hear what it wants, or can. This doesn’t mean its hearing can’t change, only that it may be difficult for non-conformists. Spencer and Gillen (1904) provide some examples of this within the tribes they observed. Culture, as the set of constraints on human behavior by a society, subject to change by that society, threatens to become infinitely recursive, since one of the cultural behaviors is articulating a description of culture. I’m not going to get cutesy about this. One of the limits of this recursion is whether anyone will listen or is listening. We do live inside of culture, so even those who control discourse are controlled by it—are constrained by it as well.  Merely changing a constraint on one’s behavior is not yet (may not yet be) enough to propose, offer, or enforce a change of behavior generally.

I would not call religion “assent to an explanatory paradigm”; rather, of the forms of assent to an explanatory paradigm, religion (in some cultures) is recognized as such. This explanatory paradigm has as its object transcendental reality, i.e., that hypothetical reality apart from myself that I confront in the persuasive agency of others and the obstreperous refusal of “the world” to be grammatical. This presence of transcendence lends itself to people offering supernatural elements in their explanatory paradigms, but it seems a good portion of aboriginal culture as described by Spencer and Gillen (1904) doesn’t need to lean much on the supernatural metaphysics so far as ritual or moral heavier is socially concerned.

So ritual is action attached to an explanatory paradigm—that sense of attachment is where “religion” (“to rebind”) and yoga (“to yoke”) and the symbol of the ankh (which is the harness of the oxen) all would seem to point to. There’s no need to call this religious or spiritual. We can call it sacred, because by attaching to this explanatory paradigm, there are then a hierarchy and cascade of values that depend (hang) from it. It is these values that are in play in determining the sequence of social events, whether that means forming a pack, dissolving a pack, or having nothing to do for the moment with packs whatsoever. In this respect, using Canetti’s terminology, packs are already signs of religion, not the sequence of packs.

But this is giving too much precedence to the term religion, because religion is every bit an aspect of culture as morality and criminality. If I tend to emphasize crime, it is to avoid the dead end of arguing about celestial ontologies. But as religion lacks immanence, crime lacks transcendence, and so neither will ultimately do—hence, for now, the slightly helpless resort to culture.

Imagine a slowly bubbling mud-pit, so that first one bubble breaks the surface here, then another over there. Canetti has insisted that the sequence of this bubble then that bubble comprises the religion of the mud pit. It is, rather, the mud that comprises the religion of the mud-pit—that is, it’s the culture of the mud-pit that provides the substrate for any ritual expression (as religion) within the mud-pit world, regardless of the sequence of bubbles.

Ritual is a special case (in the mathematical sense) of moral action. [24] Tentative declaration: a metaphysics of culture provides the explanatory justification for any given form of action while the physics of culture provides the forms of action. Then: if the pack subsumes the metaphysics of a culture to the physics of obtaining a goal, then the catalyst subsumes the physics of a culture to the goal demonstrating the cultural metaphysics. Ritual (magically) holds these subsumations in tension—metaphysics and physics overlap, become entangled. More properly, to the extent that we may separate the metaphysics (the explanatory justification for  given form of action) and the physics (the form of action) of ritual for analytical purposes, the consequences of ritual cannot be derived from those analyzed parts. Example: we may separate the form and content of a sonnet for analytical purposes, but the consequences of the sonnet cannot be recovered from the points elucidated about form and content. We can describe the effect of reading the poem; we can say at any given moment that it is the content or the form that is contributing to our particular experience, but this is all after the fact. The consequence of ritual is similarly open to analysis but not derivable from those terms.[25]

The foregoing may not yet adequately find a grounding for any relationship between packs and ritual (as a manifest example of attachment to an explanatory paradigm), but if there is going to be any relationship between any sequence of packs, transmuting or not, and the cultural formation of “religion,” then it cannot be derived from Canetti’s approach. Adorno (2003)3 calls attention to the methodological problem in Canetti’s subjectivity:

that cannot really be ignored … What strikes the thinking reader of your book, and may even scandalize him, regardless of whether he calls himself a philosopher or a sociologist, is what might be called the subjectivity of your approach. … The reader of your book cannot quite rid himself of the feeling that as your book develops [that] the imagined nature of these concepts or facts [i.e., the concepts or facts about crowds and power]—the two seem to merge with each other—is more important than the concepts or facts themselves (184, emphasis added).

Adorno offers as an example of this Canetti’s notion of invisible crowds, and Canetti responds to the point about invisible crowds, rather than to the subjectivity of his method. Adorno has to return to the question more than once to finally get Canetti to insist that “the importance of the real masses is incomparably greater” (188), but this doesn’t answer Adorno’s question either—Canetti may, in general or through the obvious rhetorical pressure of Adorno’s question, answer this way, but are real masses actually what he’s writing about in his book? Is that what comes across?

No. Which is how Adorno comes to ask his question in the first place.

Now, whatever Canetti’s problem with accepting that—at least for some people—so-called concrete life as a value can be hierarchically subordinated to symbolic life, what one comes away with in this conversation with Adorno, besides his willful non-engagement with the dialogue, is an apparent urgency to be seen as talking about “concrete reality” and to avoid imputations of being a phenomenologist of the imaginary, since he “would really be very upset if anyone were misled into thinking that the reality of the masses is not the crucial thing” (188) for him.[26]

There are literally hundreds of examples of what Adorno flags down, but to pick just one involves the wholesale non-address of boundaries. What is perfectly clear when Canetti points to any given phenomenon (of a crowd) and declares what type it is is that he, like Justice Potter and hard-core pornography, may have a hard time actually defining what it is but he (Canetti) knows a crowd when he sees one. Never was Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (in its humanistic guise) ever so apparent—that the observer changes the thing he is looking at. For the reader—I take heart from Adorno’s testimony in this regard as well—must frequently read Canetti’s declamations and say, blinking, “No, that’s not so.”

Canetti never takes account of this while describing packs either, but it is obvious enjoy that a pack forms because humans say it has been formed, by fiat. What Canetti uselessly calls the “discharge” (in a rather embarrassingly Freudian metaphor from someone who claims to be so at odds with Freud), as the indispensable moment of crowd formation—even though there is no shortage of crowds that by Canetti’s descriptions have no discharge or a delayed discharge, and therefore shouldn’t by his terms even be called crowds—for the pack, we can see that its formation has nothing more mysterious about it than all the members subsume their activity to the collectively agreed upon goal of the pack. The mode of cooperation is adopted, so that the request (implicit or explicit) by other members of my pack to do my part in the multitasking machine we have assembled, even though that tsk is not in my immediate self-interest, amounts to the pack-making moment of the pack. So, in contrast to a “discharge” that is imaginary both in the sense that it could only occur in the imaginations of people in the crowd-to-be[27] but also fictional as an explanatory concept in Canetti’s usage, we see that the unnatural cultural formation of the pack is declared by fiat to exist through the moment of human beings agreeing cooperatively to set aside immediate self-interest to reach a goal than none of them could reach individually.[28]

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

[2] The ongoing attempt of this heap is to get something out of Canetti’s book, and that of necessity means resorting to the classic sense of the essay, as an exploration, using Canetti’s book as a starting point. I can imagine that the essayistic aspect of this project can be demanding—of patience, time, &c. The point of showing an essay, entertainment value (if any) aside, is first and foremost not to be shy about showing the intellectual scaffolding of one’s exposition as much as possible. This showing, however cantankerous the exposition, affords the non-vanity of allowing others to witness all of the missteps, mistakes, false starts, and the like—not in the interest of merely providing a full record (though some essayists may do so out of vanity or mere thoroughness, scholarly drudgery, or self-involvement) but most so that readers may be exasperated enough by the essayist’s stupidities to correct his or her errors and thus contribute to our collective better human understanding of ourselves.

[3] Adorno, T. and Canetti, E. (2003). Crowds and power: Conversations with Elias Canetti (trans. R. Livingstone) in R. Tiedemann (ed.) Can one live after Auschwitz? A philosophical reader, pp. 182–201, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[4] Although one paraphrastist insists that the hunting pack, war pack, and lament pack have vanished from our current milieu. “The first three packs are all elements of archaic survival and no longer apply to the modern world (we no longer have to hunt, we no longer have to ritualize each death.)” We will have to see if that is an accurate summary of Canetti; I anticipate it is not.

[5] “Canetti dissolves politics into pathology, treating society as a mental activity—a barbaric one, of course—that must be decoded.” Maybe she wasn’t being complimentary. I doubt it. If someone wants to believe that human beings are only inherently bad, then they may begin the difficult process of improving our lot by killing themselves. If, instead, and less in the spirit of a querulously disappointed child, we acknowledge, as Eagleton (1989) does, that there is

absolutely no reason why the future should turn out any better than the past, unless there are reasons why the past has been as atrocious as it has. If the reason is simply that there is an unsavoury as well as a magnificent side to human nature, then it is hard to explain, on the simple law of averages, why the unsavoury side has apparently dominated almost every political culture to date. Part of the explanatory power of historical materialism is its provisions of good reasons for why the past has taken the form it has, and its resolute opposition to all vacuous moralistic hope (184)**.

I especially want to highlight the phrase “why the unsavoury side has apparently dominated almost every political culture to date”. The day-to-day life of people has tended not to be dominated by the unsavoury element, so the problem is not the broader issue of human nature or the nurture of historical circumstances, but the specific problem of how we arrange our political economies. I’m completely sympathetic with Eagleton’s point, and simply wish to point out that those who are nailed to the wheel of domination (the First World, South Africa, Israel, &c) tend in their paranoia to lose sight of the fact that much of the world, eking by in dire poverty, are not busy eating one another and are not degraded as human beings as those in the First World are by their historical circumstances

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

[6] Blanchot, M. (1949). Lautréamont et Sade Paris: Les Editions de Minuit reprinted in R. Seaver & A. Wainhouse (eds.) (1965). The complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and other writings. New York: Grove Press, p. 54.

[7] At its root, a tautology that proves unhelpful in Wittgenstein’s sense of a tautology hides here and aims (some would say ironically, since this emanates from the domain of science, but the irony is no irony at all but wholly consistent with the same naïve realism behind it that informs religious faith) at nothing less than a new blind faith in the god not of the gaps of the genes or matter or, more elementally still, energy. Here, science is “what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves” (Richard Feynman, from here), and yet here it is fooling itself about its limits; the converse being the dogma, “Faith and Reason inhabit different worlds–and so far there is no space travel between them” (Erika Wilson, ibid). de Sade’s answer to our inability to negate Nature, to free ourselves from determination by Nature, is to try our hand at a moral crime, “the kind one commits in writing” (qtd in Blanchot, p. 57). In other words, generate culture.  In this way, writing that I’m only my genes is a moral crime; writing that you can explain this sentence by way of my biology is a moral crime—equal in scope to de Sade’s blasphemies, but oriented toward, not away from, a new religious thralldom to the essence of things hoped for in a quite contemporary and authentic trahison des clercs.

[8] One can make a structuralist argument out of this, if what is meant by structure is cultural not natural; This is how I take Jung’s sense of archetypes. It’s probably argumentatively more coherent to emphasize the hermeneusis of this.

[9] Teleology being a debased concept in biology, it is an ineradicable concept in culture. In culture, everything happens for a reason, whether we can explain so adequately before or after the fact.

[10] There will be practical limitations on this, but I suspect that for a pack to really function as a pack, and not an organization or a group or a corporation or an army or an occasional association or something else, then this collectively agreed upon goal must be known to everyone in the pack. Ultimately, this becomes merely a matter of definition and edge cases would be interesting to discover and analyze.

[11] Elsewhere, I contrasted the pack with what Canetti calls crowd crystals and I will call a catalyst. To summarize the difference somewhat too schematically, if the form that the pack takes is wholly dependent upon the total presence of each individual in all of her knowledge, skills, and being, then in the catalyst the total presence of each individual in all of his knowledge, skills, and being is wholly dependent upon the form the catalyst must take. A university’s marching band, for instance, presents a catalyst at a sporting event, &c.

[12] This is where the pack of one loses some ground—it cannot multi-task, so to speak. As folks who often have to get things done know, however, there are certainly times when the necessary overhead to organize a group upstages getting something done and it can be easier (as a pack of one) to do it yourself. I propose that there is a value in seeing even this seemingly individual activity in pack terms, at least sometimes.

[13] One can start finding wrinkles in this. If five members of a pack agree upon the goal and one does not what is the status of the non-believer vis-à-vis the pack. What if five no longer believe and one does? It may be that this is where the argument that you cannot have a pack of one demonstrates itself. If five say yes and one says no, then this could be read that a pack of six has splintered into a pack of five. So that, if four say yes and two say no, then the pack has split into two contending packs. Or imagine a pack has returned home and been disbanded, but one person insists that the goal was not reached (i.e., is still a hold out for the non-disbandment of the pack), then this shows how the pack seems (plausibly) to no longer exist. Or, to defend the notion of a pack of one, though the original pack was (collectively) disbanded, all packs emerge out of the larger society, and this hold-out is not a sign of the continuance of the old pack but the first sign of the attempt to form a new pack.

[14] If a ritual is a strictly formulaic cultural activity designed for a specific outcome, then when the obligatory form is removed one has a pack; when the obligatory content is removed, one has a catalyst (what Canetti calls a crowd crystal).

[15] Somewhere in a McCullers story, she provides a description of the gathering storm of a lynch mob. The men are milling about, working their jaws, not speaking much amongst themselves. It is not even clear if they are actually going to get riled up enough to enact their terrible violence. They’re waiting for a spark, an indicator, some kind of something, and when it comes, they’re all onboard. Canetti would call this the discharge (as applied to a crowd), but he can provide nothing about how it comes about or gets distributed through the whole crowd. But from this, it is apparent it is each man gathered subsuming his activity to a collectively agreed upon goal.

[16] This is particularly true in the Warramunga tribe, where there are such strict requirements for who does what vis-à-vis the dead person. Within what Canetti calls their lament pack itself are a number of configurations that form, do their thing, then dissolve into the next thing, and there is no reason—save for human fiat—to pretend that a given scale of looking is more correct than another. For the Warramunga, all three levels matter—those three being: (1) the level that Canetti too narrowly calls the lament pack, (2) the forming and dissolving configurations of sub-packs that make up his “lament pack,” and (3) the larger cultural arc that links a whole series of “lament-like packs” in a while sequence spanning some twenty-four months.

[17] The obvious case of inadequate hermeneusis (or bad poetry) in Canetti is in how he puts the emphasis on lament. He pretends that Shi’ite Islam can be reduced to the “passion week” of Hussein and acts like this is somehow different than the passion week of Yeshua ibn Yusef. It’s not that he’s pretending that Christianity is a religion of lament. It’s that he wants to indulge his orientalist prejudices by wallowing in the flagellation of Ashura’s grievers as if there were never Christian flagellants, as if there’s no emphasis on the gory spectacle of some dude nailed to a cross, &c.

[18] Which itself may be in response to a perceived attack, of course, ad infinitum: Hatfields and McCoys, &c.

[19] Obviously this has an anthropic bias. We could be in the situation of note 19 below vis-à-vis plants, animals, minerals, &c. A part of the critique by first Peoples of the first World is a failure to recognize the criminal pillage and rape of the environment. But even here, this would still make us the only criminals. Until we can prosecute a tornado for vandalism and murder this may continue to be only a one-way street.

[20] With a sufficiently dense language barrier, another group of people may not be recognizable as people. Groups that fragmented due to differences of opinion might share some notions of “crime” in common or they may have become wholly estranged. Groups who encounter one another through wandering may yet have even interacted enough to learn if they have anything in common vis-à-vis crime in the first place. &c.

[21] I.e., what is permitted and done, what is permitted and not done, what is not permitted and done, what is not permitted and not done.

[22] Like all dyads, these are not either or. To posit the sacred and the profane implies the edge between them, which symbolically appears as the yin/yang. Thus, in addition to the sacred and the profane, there is the sacralized profane (such as the shrunken head of slain enemies in Jivaro culture) an the profaned sacred (the social equivalent of what Jung calls the shadow of the Self). Foucault calls them illegalities—things that are overlooked by the panopticon, things that are formally illegal but not prosecuted—five miles over the speed limit being a particularly benign one of these. The panopticon claims to see everything; thus, there is what it sees, what it elects not to see, what it believes it sees but does not, and what it does not see. &c.

[23] The inadequacy of Canetti’s scheme is apparent in its incompleteness. If religions re supposed to arise from transmutations of packs, then here is a table that shows the possible transmutations according to the packs Canetti supplies (the four basic types—he seems unable to decide if a communal feast is really a pack or not). Since he doesn’t adequately specify which packs are in play regarding Shia Islam as a lament, Islam in general as a religion of war, or Christianity as a tranquil lament (compared to the noisy lament of Shia Islam), it isn’t even clear where to put these. Nor is the murderous stampede of the Greek Easter festival plausibly placed, based on Canetti’s exposition. And when I imaginatively try to do his intellectual work for him, it becomes obvious that things might be placed in more than one slot. Additionally, insofar as he refers to the Jivaro as reflecting a pure religion of war, this implies that the “transmutation” involved here is from war pack to war pack, though Canetti never claims this can happen. He says, rather, the packs have a tendency to turn into each other. He, in any case, tries to read it as some kind of “increase” although earlier he has stressed (with the Taulipang example) that no benefit accrued from the war pack whatsoever. From the Taulipang example, it’s not clear what they “do” with the fact of a successful vengeance-taking. For the Jivaro, they obtain something that will eventually (in eighteen months or so) become a shrunken head or tsantsa, and thus an occasion for a feast. This transmutation of war –> increase somehow equates to a religion of pure war.

A –> B











(Shia Islam?)









The vacuity divulged by this table is one thing, but it also makes clear the expository gap of what the hunt –> war “transmutation” would be. It would be a slightly more than average psychopathic religion—one that would hunt a deer, for example, and then take revenge upon the forest for the crime of … hard to tell what.

[24] By moral, I do not mean in that oft-heard distinction—a parallel to the insisted upon distinction between religion and spirituality or guilt and shame—that what is moral or reflective of social rectitude is imposed from without (by others, by society) while what is ethical or reflective of personal integrity is composed from within (by oneself, by one’s spirit). At one time, it was  commonplace to refer to a moral instinct in the human being; the loss of that distinction may have been important, though there can be no doubt that overbearing prudes hit squarely by Ambrose Bierce’s proposed use for the word immorality (“someone having a better time than you are”) had something to do with the demise of the distinction. By moral, I mean all human acts in the social world—in other words, all cultural activity, which means (for example) that the moral is concerned not with that we walk but how we walk, not that we speak but what we say, &c. ¶ All that rigorous rectitude—whether in 18th century Europe, Australian tribes in 1904, or US/Soviet social settings in the 1950s in particular—can be more than one wants to bear, this is true. The rigor and policing of the moral code, whatever it is, raises the specter of oppression—raises the desire to make it less meaningful and to have a place to retreat to as a respite from it (i.e., the private domain). Recognizing that there is a moral code at all—as the set of constraints on human behavior—may make it uncomfortable, because it is now visible.

[25] Nor is it a problem that we are ultimately “stuck” in this descriptive mode. Reflective consciousness itself is always after the fact, always trails behind experience by an eye blink. This makes the center of our lives belated but still the center. It is our (only) starting point. We can and do hypothesize other vantage points, an those disclose any number of insights and delusions, and it is only to forget this hypothetical character, especially where other human beings are concerned who may be affected by such a hypothesis, that I am objecting to the habit. All of my analysis here stems from something equally hypothetical. A major portion of my activity is, a la the atninga, to correct the crime committed by Elias Canetti in taking his hypothesis to be not just fact but universal fact.

[26] Iris Murdoch, reputed to be Canetti’s lover at one point and a decidedly more interesting and talented writer than him, does her paramour no assistance in this regard, calling him “one of our great imaginers”.

[27] Canetti does not even begin to try to explain how this discharge transmits itself through the whole of the crowd-to-be, how, why, or where it stops at the edge or interior of the crowd, and all the rest. The discharge, as he deploys it, is a very authentic petitio principii, since it can only be after a crowd “has formed” that Canetti could infer that the discharge must have happened.

[28] It seems unnecessary to emphasize, but just in case: by contrasting immediate self-interest with some other self-interest, it is not at all necessary to pretend that “social-interest” supplants “self-interest” or that the attainment of some longer-term goal that I could not attain by myself through cooperative action isn’t still beneficial to me. It is not an either/or. The aboriginal evidence from Spencer and Gillen (1904) makes clear enough that the cooperative structure of increase rites amongst the Warramunga ensures a sociability of mutual interdependence that cooperatively benefits everyone. But there is a more prosaic sense of non-self-interest in this description as well. If I am a member of a hunting pack, and my tsk is to stand somewhere and make some kind of alarming call that will drive the animal(s) we are hunting in a particular direction, then this act of “hunting” I am being asked to do is actually antithetical to hunting were I by myself. If I intend to hunt a creature, I will not succeed by driving it away. And yet, in this particular circumstance, that is exactly what is needed, because by driving the animals in a certain direction I am directing them into the traps set by my co-hunters. This change of activity, away from what would normally meet a given goal were I by myself to something else, is a very central part of what makes the pack successful as a cultural technology. And it is this subordination of immediate self-interest (i.e., what I would normally have to do or would attempt to do if I were by myself) to the “self-interest” of the collectively agreed upon goal that I’m emphasizing.


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