CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 5. The Entrails of Power (Seizing and Incorporation)

9 March 2013


It is not enough to assert something is true; rather, we may ask whether this description offered as true is a relatively fit description of lived human experience, and if it is not that, I propose, that we find a more relatively adequately fit description.

To begin with the premise “we kill to live” is not an adequately fit description of human experience, in part because it offers no alternative to the “choice” of having to become either the predator if not the prey. A minimally more adequate description of human experience would be, “from time to time we kill to live,” and this at least offers both the possibility of in some way attempting to ameliorate any necessity in killing but also any implied mandate to become a predator—it allows alternatives. But to say “(from time to time) we kill to live” is itself not relatively adequate enough, we it is rather that “(from time to time) we eat to live”—the difference between herbivores and carnivores (human and otherwise) being the insistence by the latter that they do not “kill” anything when they eat. That might be disputed, but the point is well taken; by framing the matter in terms of the (biological) need to intake nutrients in light of meeting that need with the necessity of (vegetable or animal) matter, this further opens the possibility that there may be an alternative necessity even for “eating”. Whatever the feasibility of this, it is clear that how we frame our descriptions of the world have consequences. I want what we assent to as true, i.e., that to which we give our assent as providing a relatively adequately fit description of lived human experience, to be maximized as much as possible. Canetti’s assertion that “we kill to live”—with its attendant implication to be either the predator or the prey—does not meet this criteria.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the thirty-first entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1] and the first to address Part 5 (The Entrails of Power), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I cover section 1, “Seizing and Incorporation”.[2]

Seizing and Incorporation

“Anyone who wants to rule men first tries to humiliate them, to trick them out of their rights and their capacity for resistance, until they are as powerless before him as animals” (210); he then sucks the life out of them; “what remains of them afterwards does not matter to him. The worse he has treated them, the more he despises them. When they are no more use at all, he disposes of them as he does of his excrement” (210).

The excrement, which is what remains of all this, is loaded with our whole blood guilt. By it we know what we have murdered. It is the compressed sum of all the evidence against us. It is our daily and continuing sin and, as such, it stinks and cries to heaven. It is remarkable how we isolate ourselves with it; in special rooms, set aside for the purpose, we get rid of it; our most private moment is when we withdraw there; we are alone only with our excrement. It is clear that we are ashamed of it. It is the age-old seal of that power-process of digestion, which is enacted in darkness and which, without this, would remain hidden forever” (211).


ouroboros, or the snake “biting” its tail

This is some strident stuff, obviously riddled with a prevailing coprophobia (“fear of filth” “fear of shit”), but the anthropology of shitting contravenes this as a generalization. In ancient Rome at the very least, there were wholly public and open latrines; in present-day Việt Nam a vanload of relatives might disgorge into the scrub along the side of the road and, man, woman, and child, squat and take care of business. De Sade’s example notwithstanding, there are plenty who delight sexually in feces as cosmetic, lube, or feast, and in the days of yore, the poor-man’s pint of tribes as one of the great treats of festival inevitably could not exclude every trace of animal excrement.  And in the domain of the imagination, one of the oldest human symbols the ouroboros—popularized as the “snake that bites or eats its own tail”—this point is made numinously clear. Because it is not simply that the snake bites or eats its own tail; like the forebear of the human centipede, it not only devours itself to remain alive but also defecates in its gullet as well. As an image of perpetual motion, the image runs afoul of the laws of conservation of energy—if not also fashions on taste—but the image nevertheless is expressive—like all symbols—of an otherwise rationally inexpressible experience. This notion of extracting out of the world and expelling only waste is exactly again the increase paradigm, rather than the point of view captured by the ouroboros itself, as emblematic of the transfer paradigm.

This belies the typical developmentalist/capitalist linearity with scarcity and necessity masquerading as progress, rather than the abundance and conservation (in the physics sense) of many of the Earth's First Peoples, specifically in the failure to acknowledge the reincarnation that occurs between the cemetery of dead words and the words' (literal--pun intended) reincarnation at the institute of neologisms.

This belies the typical developmentalist/capitalist linearity with scarcity and necessity masquerading as progress, rather than the abundance and conservation (in the physics sense) of many of the Earth’s First Peoples, specifically in the failure to acknowledge the reincarnation that occurs between the cemetery of dead words and the words’ (literal–pun intended) reincarnation at the institute of neologisms.

For his discussion of power generally, he emblematizes the lion as preeminent—“all kings have wanted to be lions”—and takes the stalking, lying in wait, &c, as the paradigm of the exercise of power. Once the prey is touched, the “fingers” close around the prey; “what is really important is the pressure exerted” (204, emphasis in original). The “most extreme form of destruction through pressure, that is, grinding, cannot be achieved by the hand” (203, emphasis in original). The “hand’s real glory derives from the grip, that central and most often celebrated act of power” (206, emphasis in original).

Is this your symbol?

Is this your symbol?

Whether or not all kings want to be lions—that the lion’s “very act of seizing and its success which has been admired and praised. The simple exercise of superior strength has been universally regarded as courage an greatness” (206)—it cannot be ignored that Odin is associated with an eagle, as is Zeus, while the falcon is the preeminent bird in Egypt—they are not associated with lions. The Nemean lion of Greek myth may be mighty, but that is precisely why Heracles must dominate and kill it, and succeeds.  Similarly, in alchemy, it is only during an initial portion that the lion contends, only to have its paws cut off. Far more often, it is a great serpent or a dragon who figures as the most enormous enemy: Python and Typhon in Greek myths,[3] Jörmungandr in Norse mythology, वृत्र (i.e., Vṛtra) in Vedic tradition, and tracing, perhaps ultimately, to the Egyptian Set and demonstrably to the Babylonian Tiamat.[4] The rulers of China likened themselves to dragons, not lions,[5] and the origin myth of the Kinh people (the people of Việt Nam) is from dragons, not lions.[6]

Or this?

Or this?

Even the biblical myths cannot avoid placing the serpent as the most problematic enemy at the beginning of time. It is not until Genesis 49:9 that the lion is mentioned, as a metaphor: “Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?” Or Numbers 23:24, “Behold, a people! As a lioness it rises up and as a lion it lifts itself; it does not lie down until it has devoured the prey and drunk the blood of the slain.” This is the braggadocio concerning lions that Canetti’s imputes to kings, but even in the biblical context—notwithstanding the preeminence of place the serpent in Eden occupies—Genesis 49:17 avers, “Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward,” and a person no less than Moses runs away when Aaron casts his staff on the ground and it becomes a serpent (Exodus 4:3). Nonetheless,

The lion does not have to transform himself in order to catch his prey … Power at its core and its apex despises transformation. It is sufficient unto itself and wills only itself. In this form it has always seemed remarkable to man; free and absolute, it exists for nothing and no one except itself (206).

The point Canetti raises here may have something to it, but not as long as he keeps it tied to the human symbolic fantasy of lions as an apt expression of power.  Notwithstanding that for those who have been subjected to brutalization “the simple exercise of superior strength has been universally regarded as courage an greatness” (206) may more often be regarded as a preeminent injustice, his metaphor nonetheless does not serve him. The silliest manifestation of this is the way he wants to insist on “the hand” but obviously (with lions) has to substitute “the mouth”. He plays far too fast and loose with this,[7] and it’s a wonder and no credit to his failure of imagination that he didn’t assert at some point that (a lion’s) teeth are simply rigid, calcified fingers.

The “ultimate terror” (209), “perhaps what is feared most” (205) is no longer “the touch of the unknown” (4) but now the touch of the predator. And so, instead of explicitly engaging the merely disgusted fantasia Canetti indulges in the lion’s pounce and gastrointestinal tract, the more obvious question is: what about herbivores? On what grounds should anyone accept that “seizing and incorporation” must take the standpoint of a carnivorous predator?

Ethically speaking, a lion probably uses force not power to keep itself alive.  In Satchidananada’s (1988)[8] rather sweet formulation, all animals can only follow their dharma:

In nature’s college they are still under the control of the cosmic law. In a simple devotee’s language, every minute God simply tells them what to do and they do it. They never misbehave (38).

It would similarly be the dharma of the gazelle to escape, or perhaps to dedicate its life—in a very literal variety of yajña in Sanskrit, or what is usually translated as sacrifice, but which may be understood more accurately in English as dedication:

In order to prosper, the most important thing, the one and only thing, is living a dedicated life. Let your entire life be a [dedication]. That means renounce all your personal interest and personal desires. Live for the sake of others. [Dedication] is the law of life.

This is said only to mankind [in the Bhagavad-Gītā] because all other species are already doing it. Everything in this creation seems to exist to be used by others. Their very life is a sacrifice. They live not for themselves, but for others. They are all still under that direct guidance of nature’s law. No other species in this creation has the freedom humankind has (38).

One can argue with this, yes; the point is to offer the obvious (i.e., immediately to mind) counterbalance to Canetti’s stridency. When he veers out of his dough-headed anthropomorphisms into the human domain, they take on more resonance, because he’s speaking of the human domain.  So “the touch to which one resigns oneself because all resistance appears hopeless—and particular so as regards the future—has, in our society, become the arrest” (Canetti, 204, emphasis  in original). What’s perfectly obvious in this is that, whatever does or does not inform the phenomenology of the prey as it waits on the earth in the predator’s jaws, one must not be deceived by the appearance of complicity in a human being’s arrest, i.e., mistaking obedience for assent.

In the metaphysics of reincarnation, it is tempting to say the prey’s death today is answered by its reincarnation later. But amongst the Warramunga people of Australia, who believe whole-heartedly in reincarnation, whatever eventual consequence reincarnation offers, the death of a person is nevertheless regarded as a crime to be investigated and avenged.[9] So while, from the standpoint of eternity, it may indeed be the dharma of the predator to kill and the dharma of the prey to “give its life” in sacrifice for the sake of the predator, this need not suspend the ethical consequences in this world now for the act. I say this because Canetti’s fantasia hinges on a (needlessly) tragic one-way sense from living being to shit. He elevates the trauma of this loss into a cosmic fact, which may be as understandable as it is adolescent, but we’re under no obligation to agree to such regression. The gazelle, in any case, does its own seizing and incorporating to exist, and Canetti takes no account of that whatsoever.

Of the silly drama of the stalk and the pounce—it’s a pleasing pun that herbivores might often eat a stalk; there is their “stalking”. One has to say that a part of the lion’s “psychology” in eating meat is that it “wants” to be a shit-head. For a lion—I’m using the term allegorically, with a knowing wink always back in the direct ion of the human being and not simply to any actual lion—it’s not enough simply to wander the veldt and eat whatever is underfoot. In lean times, you might scavenge a fallen carcass or, in general, steal more than you kill from the efforts of others—an apt enough image of much of the behavior of many kings—but this secret appreciation for criminality, audacious theft, or the desire to test your strength against a worthier opponent than grass is only semi-legitimate, if not more usually sociopathic. Just as Mar identifying commodification as part of the problem is itself a part of the problem, Canetti’s recitation of the doxa of might makes right is itself a might-makes-right gesture. He is, if you will, pouncing on the gazelle of the reader with his entitled tragic view of the world. His is the politics of envy, taking out his sense of powerlessness on us, his readers.

And just s power over need not be inevitable, contrary to what Canetti seems to be insisting, this gesture on his part is not inherent in all texts. We can fantasize (i.e., pretend) that the mere fact of my words entering in through your eyes and into your brain is a predatory leap on my part, that I am throwing you (or your imagination or your cognition) down in some proverbial earth and choking the life out of you, &c. But we can just as easily reverse the imagery, and accuse you of being the one who is predatorily holding my words helplessly in the thrall of your delectating gaze, as you nibble, chew, and consume may gazelle-innocent words, which you then thoughtfully or thoughtless digest in the darkness of your unconscious. This is a much easier equation to make, although one can have fun making sadomasochistic readings of readers and texts all day long. In the best BDSM scenes, in any case, both parties get off equally albeit both in their own ways.Jain_hand.svg

But back to herbivores, rather than bibliovores or logovores, in an absolute sense (as the Jains would observe contra the Buddhists[10]), such creatures may not be excused from devouring grass, berries, and the like. Whether it is a greater or a lesser crime to eat meat than vegetable life, one is still eating life and thus running afoul of the moral injunction अहिंसा (i.e., ahiṃsā, or do no harm). So this certainly means that consumption is not out “blood-guilt” (211) as Canetti calls it, incorrectly metonymizing “blood” for whatever “juice of life” we want to impute to plants and animals alike. But in this regard, his fantasia on the limits of pressure and grinding are apposite. “the most extreme form of destruction through pressure, that is, grinding, cannot be achieved by the hand, for this is too soft” (205).

The immediate counterclaim to this is how one grinds an insect between one’s singers; anyone who has plucked a flea currently violating ‘do no harm’ and making a nuisance of itself may experience exactly a grinding death over the rough edges of our fingerprints between thumb and forefinger.[11] What is odd about Canetti’s claim is he has just finished a disquisition on the contemptibleness of insects, which I intercut with commentary in the following:

But even more than fear or rage, it is contempt which urges him on to crush it. An insect, something so small that it scarcely counts, is crushed because one would not otherwise know what had happened to it; no human hand can form a hollow small enough for it. (205).

Canetti ignores that there are some very big insects in the world.

Canetti ignores that there are some very big insects in the world.

I have seen tarantula-like spider bigger than my (small) Vietnamese hostess’ hand, which she cupped against the wall, picked up by its abdomen, and delivered back outside through a window. The broader point here, of course, is that one needn’t feel contempt for insects at all—the Jains make efforts not to kill them, Lamas have any number of anecdotes about rescuing ants or whatnot who have wandered into an abode, when one even bothers not to share a space with them in the first place.

But, in addition to the desire to get rid of a pest and to be sure it is really disposed of, our behavior to a gnat or a flea betrays the contempt we feel for a being which is utterly defenceless, which exists in a completely different order of size and power from us,

The contempt described here is one noted by an observer more often than the one doing the destroying. To the extent that we simply reach for a flyswatter and squash it against the wall can be taken as an absolutely heatless contempt, not really worthy of the word contempt—this is akin to the kind of mistreatment and indifference toward a person’s humanity that informed the Atlantic slave trade, but not the whipping doled out by an angry plantation foreman. Contempt of this first kind is in the fact that most don’t think twice about doing this. Whether this is because one fantasizes that flies are “dirty” or “carriers of disease” or simply a buzzing nuisance—that won’t stop landing on my computer screen while I’m typing—is not much on the radar of their destruction. As regards flies specifically, we all know they are notorious clowns, repeatedly putting themselves before us, landing on our noses, our television screens, &c. At such times, people may begin to personalize the fly—it is doing things specifically to “bug” them. This is where the foreman’s whip comes in. With enough of such persistent clowning, the fly finally earns our judgment of a death sentence, and then we hunt out the flyswatter, roll up a newspaper, or start improvising some other method of smashing and dispatch. This switch from nuisance to menace (or annoyance) is not negligible. The defenselessness, however, hardly comes into it. Most budding psychopaths torture small mammals—pulling wings off of insects tends not to register with a sufficient quantity of cruelty, but only childish curiosity or innocence. The half-squashed insect, stuck in its own oozing ichor and struggling to pull itself forward and further into its arthropodal life, may whet the whistle of the psychopath—in that struggle might be seen the kind of agony sought more often in torturing kittens, rodents, and the like, the shriveling in fire, the paddling legs as they drown in the flushing toilet—but it takes a bit more effort to really get the πάσχω (the paschó, or suffering) of life at that level going out.

with which we have nothing in common, into which we never transform ourselves and which we never fear except when it suddenly appears in crowds.

Canetti isn’t making much effort here if he imagines that people fear insects only in crowds. imagesSpiders may not be insects per se, but they are decidedly insects in human imagination, ranking amongst the creepies and the crawlies. Millipedes and centipedes as well.  But wasps and hornets are decidedly insects, and every year some people die because they crash their cars when the wasp (or bee or hornet or yellow jacket) gets inside. Cockroaches especially send some people into conniptions, and as for fearing the touch of the unknown, who wants an insect crawling across them while they sleep and wandering into their open mouth? &c. But as for never transforming ourselves, besides the largely beloved butterfly and ladybug, the aboriginal people Canetti cites have numerous insect totems, including even lice, and the butterfly or moth itself is one of the quintessential images of transformation for humans.

The destruction of these tiny creatures is the only act of violence which remains unpunished even within us. Their blood does not stain our hands, for it does not remind us of our own. We never look into their glazing eyes.

Because their eyes are small? Because they have more eyes than two? Because some don’t have eyes? Or perhaps because their eyes don’t glaze like a mammal’s, they being insects? It’s a circular argument to say we don’t feel guilt killing insects if we don’t see what we’re doing as killing, but clearly a consciousness of ahiṃsā (nonviolence) would make one well aware that destroying even the creepies and the crawlies is destroying life, thus making the violence not remain unpunished even within us. But even without some Jainist ethics, the argument that “their blood does not stain our hands, for it does not remind us of our own” (205) is comically refuted by fleas and even more often mosquitoes who, as little glut-bags of our very blood, may very well get it on our hands when we squash them.

We do not eat them (205).

What an ignorant thing to say.

They have never—at least not amongst us in the West—had the benefit of our growing, if not yet very effective, concern for life. (205).

The qualifier “at least not amongst us in the West” is telling. Self-evidently, “elsewhere” insects have had the benefit of our concern for life. Canetti’s intellectual contempt for himself is sometimes impressive, since here he cannot even respect his own failed generalization by pretending that it applies everywhere, even as he knows it doesn’t. If all he is speaking of, ultimately, is Europe, then perhaps he’d do well to stop acting like “white = human” and start properly qualifying his statements—or, rather (of course) those who wave around his work as if it has universal significance.

In brief, they are outlaws (205).

Something more than brevity is needed to make this. It’s perhaps more that they are simply, radically, inhuman.

If I say to someone, “I could crush you with one hand”, I am expressing the greatest possible contempt. It is as though I were saying “You are an insect. You mean nothing to me. I can do what I like with you and that won’t mean anything to me either. You mean nothing to anyone. You can be destroyed with impunity without anyone noticing. It would make no difference to anyone. Certainly not to me.” (205)

I’m not convinced the ethical element of contempt must reside in this claim, but only a statement of relative power, i.e., I am so much more mighty than you are that I can crush you like a bug, just as Akasha in Rice’s (1988)[12] Queen of the Damned surreally squashes the Elder underfoot. The address of “you” is the mistake here—the mistake, rather, is in thinking it is addressed to a person—since there is no content to this “you,” no personhood, just as the child who pulls the legs from an ant takes no account of the haecceity of this ant—any ant will do. YHWH doesn’t need to name which Pharaoh to make claims of superiority about him, i.e., YHWH’s ability to jerk Pharaoh around; any old pharaoh will do. The surrealism of Kafka’s (1915)[13] The Metamorphosis depends precisely on this disconnect, between the mere emptiness of specificity that any old insect has relative to the projected humanness we imagine for Gregor Samsa. It is actually the failure of the book, i.e., the refusal of the book’s inhabitants, to acknowledge that Samsa has been “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” (see here), often conventionally and wrongly imagined as a cockroach, but more likely simply a beetle of some kind.[14] Viewing the narrative, we can’t track why no one else sees what has happened to Gregor, just as no one seems to acknowledge the nose that is strolling quite independently of its “owner’s” face in Gogol’s (1836) “The Nose” (English here, Russian here).

In his construction of power as a process of digestion, the end result of which is excrement, we have standard bogeyman body horror story. Of the manifold objections to this rhetorical excrescence, the most important is this: it removes the agency from the people or persons in the picture and makes it into Power per se, some sort of spooky mechanism running the world, the hand of god, if not the whole god himself—the next part of the book is called “the hand” tellingly enough. Digestion is a wholly in-the-dark process, as Canetti puts it, something “enacted in darkness and which, without [excrement], would remain hidden fore ever” (211). Forever, except that Canetti has apparently pulled the wool away from it. However, just as the tendency will be to personify crowds—that is, a crowd does not exist until an observer (including someone inside a group of people) by fiat declares it to be a crowd—so the same is occurring here; Canetti is imagining some institution and calling it the Devourer.

The impression is that by Power he means the biblical myth of YHWH, i.e., one of the most poorly realized and spiritually benighted image of supreme power ever, particularly as Gerda Lerner (1986)[15] asserts after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, i.e., in the cultic modifications affected by Ezra and Nehemiah. From Jung’s (1952)[16] “Answer to Job,” we may now say certainly that YHVH is unconscious at the very least if not psychopathological.[17] Taking the “problem of the world” to be that the I am afflicted by lions, that the strong bulls of Bashon have beset me round,[18] and that the solution is to break the teeth in their mouths and tear out the fangs of the lions[19] is an unnecessary but also provincial if not willfully ignorant view of the matter.[20]

Canetti conflates two premises: that we kill to live, and that power is an exercise in this. Since both premises are imaginative assertions (in language), we can ask what the consequences of such descriptions are and decided whether those consequences are more or less desirable than the consequences of some other descriptions (e.g., the starting premise that “we kill to live” is not desirable or doesn’t do enough work to explain the actual lived human experience we all find familiar.”) And then secondly, we can ask whether linking the latter to the former is logically compelling as well as socially desirable.

382px-Lord_Mahavir_GoldBy “truth,” I can only mean “that which as a description adequately fits lived human experience”.[21] We may adjudge to what extent a description does explanatory work in our lived lives. I can claim that we need to rely on prayer for everything, but the incapacity of prayer as a notion to explain when it doesn’t work, to work (at best) only sporadically, &c., makes its explanatory power let fit than the sort of stuff I use to explain how my Jeep gets me to and from work, &c. This example is strictly pragmatic; there hundreds of millions of occasions when mechanistic or scientific  explanations are just as empty and worthless s religious explanations—the field of sociolinguistics is an example, or pretending you can explain why I am writing these sentences from an evolutionary or genetic perspective. &c.

So it is not a question if “we kill to live” is true in the sense of “is it factual”. As Vico made clear—if uncomfortably, as Ernst von Glassersfeld (1995)[22] insisted—the word “fact” derives from the Latin for “to make”.[23] Facts are something we make, not find; in this regard, it’s important to remember that “to invent” derives also from Latin’s invenire, “to discover”.[24] Duns Scotus “anticipated both Vico and Kant in saying that reason an know and understand only what it itself has made according to its own rules” (von Glassersfeld, 49).  Moreover, “I agree with Vico and claim that whatever is transcendent can be spoken of only in poetic  metaphors and therefore belongs to the realm of the mystical” (39). In fact, all of language consists of these “poetic metaphors”—though it’s usually not too poetic. The subjectivity Adorno flags down in Canetti is not exactly the problem. It’s a problem for Canetti, because he believes his poetic metaphors are true—once again, this is the problem of imposing truth on other people, which is where the real social problem arises. No, the more severe problem in Canetti’s subjectivity is his own contempt for it, his lack of taking himself seriously, or his ideas. He proposes things, only to abandon them later for something else. S one reviewer said, Crowds and Power is a bad poem. So it’s not that he’s wrong—because it is, per Pauli, not even a question of being wrong—but rather it is unfit, it doesn’t fit; it is not an adequate description of lived human experience.

“We kill to live”—how am I killing at this very moment? What insights about the world might be disclosed to me if I think in those terms? (An open question.) If my first thought is of blood-guilt, as Canetti implies—“the excrement, which is what remains of all this, is loaded with our whole blood guilt” (211)—then this tragic view of life seems fundamentally disabling, to say nothing of delusively whiny. It puts me in a situation where, by its own description, I must either hurl myself on the ground and wail in despair that I’m such a fuck or I can say, “Pish, I don’t care that I kill to live” and get filed away as the kind of bogeyman Canetti paints. So I can be predator or prey, victim or victimizer. The fatuity of dichotomies notwithstanding, I’m not signing up to live in a world that insists on describing human experience that way under any circumstances.

It would be more accurate, I suspect, to say, “I must kill so that I continue to live.” I do not need to kill to live; it is a sporadic activity that I must take up, perhaps more than once per day or whatever. I might still have my juvenile response to this or blow my brains out in the ethical awfulness of it all, but at the very least, recognizing that “killing to live” is not the only aspect of my life shows that “we kill to live” is not an adequate description of lived human experience, even in its own terms.

Of course some dogmatic ideologue can howl, “Well, if you’d not eaten, you wouldn’t have lived,” but in the first place, not even that is as true as the howler insists. There is no attempt to specify here ‘eat how often” or “on what time table” and so forth. The fact that I must eat and did at some point can be stipulated, and so what? Let’s remember the joke: drive a truck once, you’re not a truck driver; suck a cock once, you’re a cocksucker for life. The neurotic homophobia involved in the latter informs the neurotic moralism that because I ate once—today even—means I’m the antichrist forever; we have in this yet another ad Hitlerum. And human cultures have certainly taken this into account, by all kinds of myths and habits of respecting the animal to be eaten, seeing to its bones so that (having been respected) it will reincarnate. We can call that a pretty fiction, a story that “primitives” tell themselves to be “okay” with slaughtering innocent animals; the pretty fiction we tell ourselves is that we have the right to slaughter all the animals we want, and don’t owe anyone anything for it, except the price of beef for the trouble they went to to slaughter it for us.

Certainly, if I say, “I must kill from time to time to continue to live,” this opens up a number of possibilities not visible to “we kill to live”. The sporadic fact of eating—or, among first Peoples, of feasting on hunted meat from time to time—suggests that one might mitigate it in some way; and I suspect that is how the traditions arose of treating the animal to be slain well. It is the dharma of the deer to offer its life to the human creatures who, in their greater freedom, have yet not reached the plane of generosity such as animals may exhibit. One could get to such gestures from ‘we kill to live” as well, but not by Canetti’s description. From “we kill to live” he heads immediate to excrement and blood-guilt—to howling groveling in the face of necessity or, alternatively, to a salivating enthusiasm for the crushing exercise of power and admiration for the creature of Africa that has the most repugnant admiration-discourse about it, the lion.

The point I’m making: “we kill to live” suggests to me there is no alternative; we kill to live, and that’s all there is to it. Welcome to the soup, humanity. Good luck. But if “we kill from time to time to live” is the description, this opens the possibility of ameliorating the necessity of killing, and so therefore also alternatives to the necessity of becoming a lion in order to survive. Hence, humanity invented the polite fiction of the willing animal or the impolite fiction that we can eat whatever the fuck we want, because we’re the lion. Or perhaps that latter lie is truly just a regression back to “we kill to live.” Both premises, both stories (“we kill to live” or “we from time to time kill to live”) are fictions, of course; the question is, what are the consequences of telling ourselves these stories. And beyond either of these two alternatives (“we kill to lie” and “we from time to time kill to live”) one may further reject the verb “kill” and think of other ways to describe our need for energic and nutritive inputs—as beings who rest on a living biological substrate. Vegetarians would insist that eating vegetable matter doesn’t constitute “killing”—and certainly not in the sense that is involved in slaughter chickens, goats, creatures out of the oceans, &c. Here the “polite” fiction is that plants are not “sentient beings,” so one is practicing ahiṃsā and doing no harm by “harvesting” (rather than killing) plants. As living systems, plants are most certainly “sentient” (i.e., they are “sensing”),[25] without needing to

Plants have feelings too!

Plants have feelings too!

resort to dubious pseudoscience that suggests they are sentient in the same manner as cows, pigs, chickens, &c. Whether one “buys” this distinction between “harvest” or “kill,” the question of whether one might harvest respectfully or not again can come to the fore.

That seems to be at least one major consequence of these distinctions. With “we kill to live,” this feels like a circumstance where one’s two possibilities are: be a predator or you’ll be prey, wobbling on a dangerously tenuous ethical balance of not becoming a predator, perhaps only for want of opportunity, thank goodness. By contrast, “we kill or harvest from time to time to live” suggests not only that one might ameliorate one’s tendency to harvest or kill—one can make attempts to reduce the frequency; if it has to happen, then at least let it happen as infrequently as possible—but by the very fact of leaving open that possibility then also the possibility of doing away with the necessity of harvesting or killing entirely. One way to do this now is to live only off of what expires naturally—fruit that falls from trees, animals that perish on the wayside, road kill, &c. The other, currently in the future of speculative fiction, would be to modify ourselves, genetically or mechanically, so that our energy inputs may come from insentient forms of matter. Perhaps even science might be so kind s to invent a super-vitamin that provides all the nutrients we need directly from such insentient matter. Notwithstanding that we hardly understand the full workings of our bodies currently, which is why we randomly stuff various matters into our gullet and leave it to our alimentary canal to sort out and extract what it can from what we give it, nonetheless, this process is only “necessary” because we don’t know what ions, atoms, and molecules currently available in insentient matter we need to get by on.

So Canetti’s strident “we kill to live” should more properly be “we eat to live,” which as the above shows is not at all so universal as it might seem. We eat—that is to say, we have a biological need for various materials and nutrients as inputs—in order to meet that need with the necessity of (the animate) matter we call “food”. But needs need not only be met in one way; there are always—or we at least may imagine—alternative necessities. If we might pulverize some granite, add dirt, and water flavored in some delightful way to provide these inputs, then obviously we have met the need of nutritive inputs without causing harm to any sentient life, animal or vegetable.  The feasibility of this is less the issue than the supposed lack of alternatives Canetti (and others) would shrilly insist upon. Saying “we kill to live” has undesirable social consequences, and it fails to adequately describe lived human experience.  To link this as a description of Power is equally unfit, primarily because it proposes there can be no alternative to it—that we must kill to live, logic dictates one must become either the predator or prey—but also by trying to make it into an automatic impersonalized force, it excuses the lions of the world from acting as they do. At the very worst, they are only being natural; at the worst, we should admire them. Just as we should admire the most petulant lion of all YHVH.


[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] Likely one and the same dragon, confused and conflated or somehow split in two from an Egyptian original.

Karl Kerenyi points out that the older tales mentioned two dragons, who were perhaps intentionally conflated; the other was a female dragon (drakaina) named Delphyne in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, with whom dwelt a male serpent named Typhon: “The narrators seem to have confused the dragon of Delphi, Python, with Typhon or Typhoeus, the adversary of Zeus”. The enemy dragoness “… actually became an Apollonian serpent, and Pythia, the priestess who gave oracles at Delphi, was named after him. Many pictures show the serpent Python living in amity with Apollo and guarding the Omphalos, the sacred navel-stone and mid-point of the earth, which stood in Apollo’s temple (Kerenyi, 1960, 136).

*Kerenyi, K (1960). The gods of the Greeks. New York: Grove Press

[4] Vernant, JP (1982). The origins of Greek thought. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[5] (for example): Historically, the dragon was the symbol of the Emperor of China. In the Zhou Dynasty, the 5-clawed dragon was assigned to the Son of Heaven, the 4-clawed dragon to the nobles (zhuhou, seigneur), and the 3-clawed dragon to the ministers (daifu). In the Qin Dynasty, the 5-clawed dragon was assigned to represent the Emperor while the 4-clawed and 3-clawed dragons were assigned to the commoners. The dragon in the Qing Dynasty appeared on national flags.

[6] (from here): According to legend, the first Vietnamese descended from the dragon lord Lạc Long Quân and the female heavenly angel Âu Cơ. They married and had one hundred eggs, from which hatched one hundred children. Their eldest son Hùng Vương ruled as the first Vietnamese king.

[7] “With many animals it is the armed mouth itself which does the seizing, instead of the hand or claw” (204); “It is true that in some archaic cults the victim was still clawed, but the actors were disguised as animals and what they did was deliberately bestial. For the real job, men came to rely on their teeth” (205). The imaginative veracity of this could at least be dignified with consistency or enough intellectual thought to make the case coherent. This kind of sloppiness—“just say anything and move on without regard to coherence”—is the sort of nonsense his swooning fans appreciate (see here), and which Adorno (2003)* flags down as being an grossly subjective approach (see here).

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)

Significantly, Canetti does not address this point at all, but defends his notion of invisible crowds instead. This procedure is typical apparently. Let us remember:  A particularly obvious case of Canetti insisting upon his view in the face of its genuine contradiction occurs where he offers to Adorno what he believes to be an example of an archaic society, i.e., the invocation of locust repeated from the section “Invisible Crowds” (Crowds and Power, 46), at which point Adorno interrupts:

Adorno. But doesn’t this come from a very late stage of society that is already organized and institutionalized, that has a state and an organized religion—in contrast to natural conditions? ¶ Canetti. That could be argued. The Shih Ching is very ancient, but … ¶ Adorno. But it still presupposes a highly developed and even a hierarchical society. ¶ Canetti. That may well be true. That is why I would like to give you another example.” (Adorno, 193–4).

The fact that his example is refuted by Adorno has no meaningful acknowledgment from Canetti; rather, he just blusters ahead into another example, and offers two full paragraphs of material about the origin of the bandicoot totem in aboriginal culture, after which Adorno replies,

I would say that this takes us too far afield. I do not think we can fully discuss the matter here since we are dealing with an ambivalent phenomenon. There is undoubtedly an archaic element that gives rise to diversity, to the amorphousness and the multiplicity of forms. But there is also the opposite element, and it is probably no longer possible, or so it seems to me, to distinguish clearly between what is primary and what is secondary, as indeed it is in general difficult to separate them so that such discussions tend not to lead very far (194–5, emphasis added).

Here, Adorno is specifically questioning whether Canetti’s reversal of the native people’s understanding (what is primary and what is secondary) may be untenable.

* 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.

[8] Satchidananda (1988). The living Gita: the complete Bhagavad Gita. Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications

[9] By their own account, for old women and for old men who are no longer capable of doing magic rituals, the degree of crime involved is so low that there are often not the usual judicial steps taken to solve the murder.

[10] In the interests of getting the concept that much more out, here is the whole point (from here):

In Jainism, the understanding and implementation of ahiṃsā is more radical, scrupulous, and comprehensive than in any other religion. Non-violence is seen as the most essential religious duty for everyone (ahiṃsā paramo dharmaḥ, a statement often inscribed on Jain temples). Like in Hinduism, the aim is to prevent the accumulation of harmful karma. When Mahavira revived and reorganized the Jain movement in the 6th or 5th century BCE, ahiṃsā was already an established, strictly observed rule. Parshva, the earliest Jain Tirthankara, whom modern Western historians consider to be a historical figure, lived in about the 8th century BCE. He founded the community to which Mahavira’s parents belonged. Ahiṃsā was already part of the “Fourfold Restraint” (Caujjama), the vows taken by Parshva’s followers. In the times of Mahavira and in the following centuries, Jains were at odds with both Buddhists and followers of the Vedic religion or Hindus, whom they accused of negligence and inconsistency in the implementation of ahiṃsā. There is some evidence, however, that ancient Jain ascetics accepted meat as alms if the animal had not been specifically killed for them. Modern Jains deny this vehemently, especially with regard to Mahavira himself. According to the Jain tradition either lacto vegetarianism or veganism is mandatory. ¶ The Jain concept of ahiṃsā is characterized by several aspects. It does not make any exception for ritual sacrificers and professional warrior-hunters. Killing of animals for food is absolutely ruled out. Jains also make considerable efforts not to injure plants in everyday life as far as possible. Though they admit that plants must be destroyed for the sake of food, they accept such violence only inasmuch as it is indispensable for human survival, and there are special instructions for preventing unnecessary violence against plants. Jains go out of their way so as not to hurt even small insects and other minuscule animals. For example, Jains often do not go out at night, when they are more likely to step upon an insect. In their view, injury caused by carelessness is like injury caused by deliberate action. Eating honey is strictly outlawed, as it would amount to violence against the bees. Some Jains abstain from farming because it inevitably entails unintentional killing or injuring of many small animals, such as worms and insects, but agriculture is not forbidden in general and there are Jain farmers. Additionally, because they consider harsh words to be a form of violence, they often keep a cloth to ritually cover their mouth, as a reminder not to allow violence in their speech.

Even this most scrupulous form of practice does not fail to acknowledge worldly exigencies, whether to its credit or not:

In contrast, Jains agree with Hindus that violence in self-defense can be justified, and they agree that a soldier who kills enemies in combat is performing a legitimate duty. Jain communities accepted the use of military power for their defense, and there were Jain monarchs, military commanders, and soldiers. ¶ Though, theoretically, all life forms are said to deserve full protection from all kinds of injury, Jains admit that this ideal cannot be completely implemented in practice. Hence, they recognize a hierarchy of life. Mobile beings are given higher protection than immobile ones. For the mobile beings, they distinguish between one-sensed, two-sensed, three-sensed, four-sensed and five-sensed ones; a one-sensed animal has touch as its only sensory modality. The more senses a being has, the more they care about its protection. Among the five-sensed beings, the rational ones (humans) are most strongly protected by Jain ahiṃsā. In the practice of ahiṃsā, the requirements are less strict for the lay persons who have undertaken anuvrata (Lesser Vows) than for the monastics who are bound by the Mahavrata “Great Vows”.

[11] Sometimes escaping, as fleas are impressively tough little things. One must most assuredly grind to ensure their pulverization.

[12] Rice, A. (1988). The queen of the damned. New York: Knopf.

[13] Project Gutenberg., & Kafka, F. (2007). Die Verwandlung. Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation.

[14] (from here, the fuss about this):

English translators have often sought to render the word Ungeziefer as “insect”, but this is not strictly accurate. In Middle German, Ungeziefer literally means “unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice”  and is sometimes used colloquially to mean “bug” – a very general term, unlike the scientific sounding “insect”. Kafka had no intention of labeling Gregor as any specific thing, but instead wanted to convey Gregor’s disgust at his transformation. The phrasing used by Joachim Neugroschel is “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” whereas David Wyllie says “transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin”. ¶ However, in Kafka’s letter to his publisher of 25 October 1915, in which he discusses his concern about the cover illustration for the first edition, he uses the term Insekt, saying “The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.” ¶ Vladimir Nabokov, who was a lepidopterist as well as writer and literary critic, insisted that Gregor was not a cockroach, but a beetle with wings under his shell, and capable of flight. Nabokov left a sketch annotated “just over three feet long” on the opening page of his (heavily corrected) English teaching copy. In his accompanying lecture notes, Nabokov discusses the type of insect Gregor has been transformed into, concluding that Gregor “is not, technically, a dung beetle. He is merely a big beetle.”

[15] See Lerner, G (1986). The creation of patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press.

[16] Jung, CG (2010). Answer to Job. (Intr. Sonu Shamdasani, paperback Fiftieth Anniversary Edition). Reprinted from Jung, C.G. (1968). Psychology and religion: West and East. (Vol. 11, Collected Works., 2nd ed., Trans. R.F.C. Hull). Princeton: Princeton University Press. First published in 1952.

[17] Of the many things Jung answers in his essay, one thing is not why YHVH does not “consult his omniscience” more often. In one of the more numinous gestures, Jung doesn’t deny YHVH possesses omniscience, only that it never gets consulted—and why that is is not explained. Because it is not explained, this at least in the text appears to excuse YHVH of psychopathological traits—his acts are done from ignorance, from sheer unconsciousness.

[18] Psalms 22:12.

[19] Psalms 58:6.

[20] Considering that these sentiments are credited authorship to someone who murdered another man in order to fuck his wife, the projection and the hypocrisy are that much more to the fore; Psalms 22 and 58 are traditionally ascribed to David.

[21] This is not a rejection of or commentary on truth in a temporal sense—what might be true now might be true later, if the relative adequacy of the description of lived human experience continues. I am not at all interested in pretending that truths must be of limited temporal duration on mere principle; it is not desirable to speak of a “time of truth” except as a secondary feature of a world in which something happens to be currently prevailing, as an adequate description of lived human experience. The attempt to speak of truth in a temporally limited fashion arises from the gesture to avoid Truth (with a capital T). Once one gets into Truth with a capital T, we get confronted by essentialist doctrines like human nature, original since, and other willfully ignorant notions. But in throwing out the baby of Truth with a capital T, the introduction of truth (with a lower case t) that happens only to be true for right now in some sort of way does not do any real intellectual or social work—this is the modernist/postmodernist shift again, or the distinction Frye (1957) traces between high and low mimetic (in Anatomy of Criticism). It’s trying to make the death of a salesman into a tragedy. It doesn’t work. All this accomplishes is to make the Truth with a capital t into a Truth with a lower t and a wink of “you know what I really mean”. In point of fact, as I’ve written somewhere else, human beings are already omniscient; all we have is Truth with a capital T, and pretending otherwise is disingenuous. What needs to be shifted is how we treat one another, how we treat the fact that we are all confronting one another with our Truths—trying to change Truth is an ignis fatuus. To buy it is simply to assent to someone’s power play.

[22] Glassersfeld, E. (1995). Radical constructivism: a way of knowing and learning. (Studies in Mathematics Education Series, no. 6). New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

[23] fact :: 1530s, “action,” especially “evil deed,” from Latin factum “event, occurrence,” literally “thing done,” neuter pp. of facere “to do” (see factitious). Usual modern sense of “thing known to be true” appeared 1630s, from notion of “something that has actually occurred.” Facts of life “harsh realities” is from 1854; specific sense of “human sexual functions” first recorded 1913.

[24] invent: late 15c., “find, discover,” a back-formation from invention or else from Latin inventus, pp. of invenire “to come upon; devise, discover” (see invention). Meaning “make up, think up” is from 1530s, as is that of “produce by original thought.”

[25] Maturana, H, and Varela, F (1987). The tree of knowledge: the biological roots of human understanding (trans. Robert Paolucci). Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications.


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