CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 6. The Survivor (Resentment of the Dead)

29 April 2013


Consider as a comprador* intellectual** those who come up from the colonized domain of “obscurity” (the crowd) to become a spokesperson for and a normalizer especially of the violence, oppression, and abuse of the colonizing discourse of “celebrity” (power).

*comprador : “a native of a colonised country who acts as the agent of the colonizer”—in this case colonization refers not only to exogenous colonization, i.e., the colonization of the cultures of other people outside of a national border, or colonization in its usual sense, but also endogenous colonization, i.e., the colonization of all people within a national border as well, also known as acculturation.

**intellectual: those “who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world” (Suttner, 2005, 130).[1]

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the thirty-sixth entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [2] and the fifth to address Part 6 (The Survivor), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I cover sections 9, “The Resentment of the Dead”. [3]

As a partial framing, it has become clear that Canetti’s sense of what a survivor is may be equated with people tending toward or clinically expressing what today is called narcissistic personality disorder; these traits include (and it will be helpful to keep this in mind while reading through the following):

Reacting to criticism with anger, shame, or humiliation; taking advantage of others to reach own goals; Exaggerating own importance, achievements, and talents; imagining unrealistic fantasies of success, beauty, power, intelligence, or romance; requiring constant attention and positive reinforcement from others; becoming jealous easily; lacking empathy and disregarding the feelings of others; being obsessed with self; pursuing mainly selfish goals; trouble keeping healthy relationships; becoming easily hurt and rejected; setting goals that are unrealistic; wanting “the best” of everything; appearing unemotional. In addition to these symptoms, the person may also display dominance, arrogance, show superiority, and seek power. … Narcissists have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves as inherently better than others. However, they have a fragile self-esteem and cannot handle criticism, and will often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling or disparaging others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth. It is this sadistic tendency that is characteristic of narcissism as opposed to other psychological conditions affecting level of self-worth (from here).

Although individuals with NPD are often ambitious and capable, the inability to tolerate setbacks, disagreements or criticism, along with lack of empathy, make it difficult for such individuals to work cooperatively with others or to maintain long-term professional achievements. With narcissistic personality disorder, the individual’s self-perceived fantastic grandiosity, often coupled with a hypomanic mood, is typically not commensurate with his or her real accomplishments (from here). Other people are either manipulated as an extension of one’s own self, who serve the sole role of giving “admiration and approval” or they are seen as worthless (because they cannot collude with the narcissist’s grandiosity) (from here).

The Resentment of the Dead

What must be made clear right off is that Canetti does not mean the resentment of the dead by the living, but rather the resentment of the dead for the living, and he does not at all make clear if he is speaking of human cultural forms arising from beliefs about the dead or whether he means that the dead really actually are fucking people over, e.g., “the dead envy the living all the objects of daily life” (262).

With typical overstatement, Canetti speaks of “the universal fear of the dead” (262) and that “it is certainly remarkable that the same feeling should be attributed to the dead everywhere and under the most varied conditions” (262). In the process, he conflates “dead” as equivalent of “spirits,” thus muddling or conflating “actual” cases of haunting (by the departed) with the varieties of atavistic spirits who are responsible for bad luck, disease, plague, &c—what either Suvin (1970)[4] or Todorov (1993)[5] meant when he referred ghosts, spirits, fairies, and the like as providing an explanatory principle for an otherwise defective causality, i.e., that supernatural elements provide an explanation when our usual empirical explanation prove insufficient. Similarly, he places under the category of “fear” certain handlings of the dead that are fundamentally involved in righting the crime of a person’s death, as is described extensively by Spencer and Gillen (1904).[6] One may fear the wrath of disrespected dead, of course, but there is a significant difference between a fear of the dead that has a dominant of superstition, versus a “fear” of the dead that is concerned with humans killing one another via evil magic. And so Canetti infers that the dead resent being survived; they “cannot resign themselves to this injury which was inflicted on them, and so it is natural that they should want to inflict it on others” (263).

Besides that Canetti is telling stories here—and at least one basic process of culture involves coming up with stories, with explanations for experience that form our cultural discourses—even as a story one may object to his bland supposition that “it is natural” that the dead should be resentment. Properly speaking and by the typical sense of the word, to be natural would mean that it is of Nature to feel such resentment—but in the first place, humans are not of Nature, and our spirits (if we have any) are typically, by definition, super-natural. I’m not just playing with words by this. Since Canetti has no argument—rhetoric doesn’t necessarily need to have an argument—he resorts to the appeal it is natural.

When one makes an argument, this proceeds by a statement grounded on the evidence for that statement; thus, “I’m going to the store” (statement), “because I am hungry” (evidence).  It is principally the “because” that makes this into an argument; the statements “I am hungry” and “I’m going to the store” by themselves are simply statements about the state of affairs.[7] I might also say, “I’m going to buy a car, because I’m hungry.” We might say this second example is incoherent or not very convincing, but it’s still an argument. What is to be noted is: how is it the first one sounds rational while the second doesn’t? It is because underlying whatever statement we make to adduce or support our argument are cultural warrants; that is, there are culturally recognized forms of justification for a given argument. If I am going to eat food, it is culturally recognized (just about everywhere) that being hungry is a culturally recognized warrant for that; not so much that my buying a car is warranted by being hungry (even if that is exactly how my psyche operates).

When making an argument, being sure to get the right warrant tends to be crucial. The kid who tells his mother he’s going to his friend’s house to study—even though he’s really meeting his friend to have sex—understands the importance of picking the right warrant: doing homework is a culturally recognized warrant for going to a friend’s house. Trying to use the wrong warrant makes for an uphill battle, though it’s still possible to prevail. Additionally, one may try to introduce new warrants, though this typically involves an uphill battle as well. When interracial marriage was still forbidden in the United States, the warrant “I want to” (i.e., I want to marry someone of a different race) was more difficult to lodge in the craw of the Law; the warrant, “it’s fundamentally discriminatory not to let me” (marry someone of another race) ultimately proved more successful.

So Canetti’s argument is that “it is natural,” which rests on a warrant that whatever is “natural” cannot be disagreed with. The fact that homosexuality occurs in Nature provides one argument against those who would discriminate against people who are not heterosexual; that homosexuality is “natural” allowed my adoptive father to stop feeling guilty that I’d turned out gay, because (so the discourse runs) it was going to happen, no matter what he did. Some might object to the natural; they might find it offensive—they may be appalled at barbaric human (homosexual) nature, for instance, but because it is natural, i.e., because occurs in Nature, it becomes incoherent to deny its existence.

Thus, Canetti’s point is identical in form to: if you sock someone in the nose, it is natural she should resent you for it. And sometimes the obvious must get belabored: here, it is obvious that resentment need not be the only—and may not even be the most frequent—response to getting socked in the nose or having been survived by the living. Moreover, to pretend that, having been socked in the nose, that one resents it or doesn’t appreciate it or laughs at it or punches you back are all the same is unconvincing, but it also subordinates the verities of lived human experience to an oppressively ideological or dogmatic insistence, which itself is a crucial abuse of power. Moreover, the conception of Nature tends to be unitary and monolithic; that is, there is only one Nature, albeit organized (in some conceptions) into something like a Great Chain of Being—just as a human being is unitary though comprised of many parts, so is Nature ultimately One, despite its variety of parts. This tendency to veer into the One or to collapse into it is present in a great deal of Canetti’s rhetoric because he constantly—often implicitly but, in the present case, explicitly—rests his appeals on “it is natural”. So when he says, it is natural that the dead should feel resentment, he asserts—whether with malice aforethought or not—that resentment is the only possible response, in the face of course of innumerable counterexamples, some of which he sometimes attempts to explaining away, work-around, or simply ignore and move on, as he did with Adorno (2003).[8]

So one might ask then why it should be natural that the dead would respond this way? As supernatural beings it is not even clear what they “nature” might be and so their reactions should be obscure as well.[9] However, if spirits are responsible for bad luck and other malevolent things, then they must similarly be responsible for good luck and benevolent things, and so forth.[10] More pertinently, we might ask why it should be natural that Canetti would make this argument—that is, what warrant allows him to assume as natural that the dead would react resentfully?

In terms of the framework Canetti has been advancing, it would be that the dead re those who are denied the chance to lord it over others, i.e., the ones who do not get to feel unique and special; they’re just one of the faceless hundreds destroyed; they don’t stand out.[11] Canetti’s argument immediately turns to the individual dead man, not masses wiped out in a catastrophe, but he really needs to pick a metaphysics and stick with it, particularly since these things vary in every culture of the world.

In his example, he returns to his aboriginal example; the people who have cause to lament the dead person:

are also survivors. They lament their loss, but they feel a kind of satisfaction in their own survival. They will not normally admit this, even to themselves, for they regard it as improper, but they are always perfectly aware of what the dead man’s feelings must be. He is bound to the them, for they still have what he has lost, which is life (263).

It’s hardly necessary to object to this with the needed qualifiers to salvage it from being an empty overgeneralization; I want to point out Canetti’s resort of declaring how people (must) feel; that they feel a satisfaction that they won’t admit, out of propriety. This kind of manoeuver, especially when a gesture of power, is crucial to narcissism, especially malignant narcissism. In my previous post, I lambasted the kind of victim-apotheosis advocated for in this kind of narrative[12] about suffering—or how we approach suffering, more precisely, in part because it wraps the victim in the role of a narcissist, if not a malignant one. This insistence on not just claiming to know better than people, but actually declaring how they do feel, despite any protest to the contrary, certainly is redolent with the habits of Freudianism, but also of those forms of abuse of power that we can experience in the most painful way in daily life. This is where it becomes familiar as narcissism to us, though the clinical language of the term introduces its own variety of undesirable problems.

There are two major kinds of narcissism. For one, in terms of the self-involvement that narcissism’s namesake exhibited, the criticism is that the person seems detached from others but also, and importantly, he or she is at least not hurting anyone else actively. Harm may be occurring socially, insofar as she or he is not “showing up” in the world; duties may be getting neglected; tasks that could be done that would benefit all are not being accomplished, and so forth. The Bhagavad-Gītā flags down this problem when commentators caution that merely to walk out of one’s life and to become a renunciate in the forest (before one’s proper time) is socially harmful.[13] By contrast, the self-involvement of the narcissist in the clinical sense explicitly involves actively harming others—hence in its most extreme form, as malignant narcissism or sociopathy or psychopathy, it has been described as the “quintessence of evil”.

We should not let the physical mayhem inflicted by psychopaths—by outward narcissists of the most extreme sort—distract us from the nonphysical suffering inflicted by outward narcissists who are not so extreme. If the inward narcissist takes everyone and everything as a reflection of himself or herself and acts accordingly, the outward narcissist projects his or her self on everyone and then “treats” them accordingly. “Treat” is an appropriately ambiguously term for this, since a treat may be a sweet delight or it may be subjecting you to electroshock “for your own good”. In terms of the person encountering the narcissist, it may be extremely difficult to sense whether I am being “acted toward” or whether I am being “treated” but there is nevertheless a very key difference, which again is reflected in the inward narcissist (as the one from the self-gazing myth) as opposed to the outward narcissist (the psychopath, in the worst cases). While the inward narcissist, just as much as the outward narcissist, misperceives and misunderstands you and will act accordingly, there is not usually or primarily any insistence that that misunderstanding must be correct.

An illustration. I may misperceive you as not heterosexual and have a massive crush on you. And when it turns out that I am wrong, I might be all kinds of hurt, I might resent you, I might wish things were otherwise, I might even try to insist that you are lying to me—but however it goes, once the scales tip and I am disabused of my misunderstanding, then that will be the end of it. Whatever new misunderstanding I then have of you—that you’re a homophobic bastard, or whatever—will become the prevailing one. With the outward narcissist, however, for the sake of mental coherence it becomes necessary to insist on the misunderstanding. This is exactly (I suggest) why Canetti insists that people have a certain satisfaction in surviving the dead, even though no small amount of life experience provides manifold counterexamples. In this kind of case, the rapist who “knows the slut wants it,” for the sake of his mental coherence—for the sake of maintaining the state of mind he has gotten himself into and believes needs to be maintained—must insist on that misunderstanding. It becomes necessary to over-power the Other, because otherwise the world will fall apart. It becomes necessary to enforce the misunderstanding, with force if necessary. Canetti’s style of discourse emblematizes outward narcissism in this case. Their own need for denial becomes the cornerstone of their denial of the Other’s world and experience. The Other cannot be allowed to continue to exist as they are because they have become perceived as a threat—and so they may be silence, either by literally killing them, by suppressing their voice (or point of view), or by emotionally arranging things so that they themselves shut up an stop speaking for themselves; a most satisfying state of affairs for the outward narcissist, because it not only gets them what they want, it also makes it seem like you’ve agreed with them.

We could avoid the term narcissist entirely, and simply refer to egotists and then track the more and less extreme forms of it, in its inward or outward manifestations. Again, a key difference is that the inward egotist seeks to arrange her “mental environment,” while the outward egotists aims to control his physical environment. This is what makes outward egotists more socially problematic. This is what makes them rage and thunder at scantily clad ladies because scantily clad ladies “tempt them”; or the conventional shibboleth that women must be veiled or else men will be “induced” to rape them. Thus, Canetti imagined the dead as outward narcissists, who must rage against the living. This normalization of outward narcissism implied by saying “it is natural”—like the normalization of rape in rape culture and the normalization of torture in the United States in the twentyfirst-century—must be resisted, obviously. Rape and torture aren’t natural; neither is telling stories that the dead are resentful.  The human act of providing an explanation for experience is not natural—it is human.

Canetti recites a long narrative about a grudge-holing spirit. What is most significant in this is the exceptional character of the situation—a fat that is evident from the narrative Canetti quotes. The people of the village are astounded by the bad behavior of the spirit, and so is the still-living brother of the dead man. The living brother declares, you were a bad fellow in life, and you continue to be a bad fellow in death—and this is the example that Canetti picks. Out of all of the well-behaving dead, Canetti zeroes in on an antisocial egotists to gird his entire argument. But more than this: Canetti is determined to prove that the dead resent the living, and so the statement by the dead man that he italicizes is (the dead older brother is speaking”: “’I indeed died and left you with a village. You had a large village’” (Callaway, 1870, qtd in Canetti, 267, emphasis in original).[14] One might in fact not read resentment from this statement, even in a context where the older brother was an arch-egotist who started fights, refused to admit he was wrong, and took advantage of his younger brother when alive an dead. In this respect, Canetti’s remark is all-important:

“I am indeed dead”, says the elder brother, and this sentence contains the core of the dispute, the dangerous illness and the whole sequence of events. Whatever the dead man’s behavior and demands, he is indeed dead, and this is sufficient reason for bitterness. “I left you a village” he says, and adds quickly, “You have a large village”. This village is the other’s life, and thus he might also have added, “I am dead and you are alive” (269, emphasis added).

The dead brother might have added that, but in fact he didn’t. And since one needn’t read resentment out of the statement, “I am indeed dead and left you a village” so Canetti resorts to putting words in the dead man’s mouth in order to (try to) make his case. Since Canetti insists that this “village is the other’s life,” I will point out the footnote the author Canetti is quoting provides here; the phrase “I indeed died, and left you with a village” (Callaway, 1870, 176) is the translation for: “Nga ku shiya, nomuzi, I left you with a village, that is, I died, leaving you to inherit the property which I possessed” (156). So the specific phrase in question does not even reference dying itself, but only “I have left you a village”. Besides the fact that one might only guess at what sort of emotional register this could be delivered in, it seems more in the area of an accusation of ingratitude toward the living brother than arising from resentment on the part of the dead brother.

But this unsettlable hair-splitting aside—because we no longer have the original interlocutor to ask what the emotional register was of the dead bream-brother—it is not innocent what Canetti does to this phrase.

In the text, he correctly copies “I indeed died and left you with a village” (267)—except for omitting a comma in the original after “died”—but turns this into “I am indeed dead” in his paraphrase; moreover, this part of Callaway’s text is appended with an entire gloss (“says the elder brother, and this sentence contains the core of the dispute, the dangerous illness and the whole sequence of events. Whatever the dead man’s behavior and demands, he is indeed dead, and this is sufficient reason for bitterness”) before getting to the rest of the phrase, “and left you a village”—which Canetti again slightly misquotes as a stand-alone sentence, “I left you a village” (267).

Why this especially matters, once again, is because in both Canetti (“I am indeed dead”) and the original (“I indeed died,”), there is no mention of dead or died, but rather only “Nga ku shiya nomuzi, I left you with a village”. Callaway himself, perhaps simply for the point of clarifying the meaning of nga ku shiya nomuzi adds the element “died” where it is not in the original, and Canetti then translates that verb, died, into a state of being, an adjective, “I am indeed dead.”[15]

Am I being clear enough? The phrase “I indeed died,” is not a part of nga ku shiya nomuzi, so all of

“I am indeed dead”, says the elder brother, and this sentence contains the core of the dispute, the dangerous illness and the whole sequence of events. Whatever the dead man’s behavior and demands, he is indeed dead, and this is sufficient reason for bitterness (267)

is not supported by the text Canetti cites. And since this must be perfectly obvious to anyone who looks at Callaway’s text, with its attention to intellectual integrity as evinced by his footnote, Canetti’s disregard for this fact, and his charging onward to impose his own desired (pre-decided) conclusion on a text where it does not apply exemplifies the sort of outward narcissism described above. The way that it reprises European misprisions of Noneuropean experience and all that has and still does currently entail may be left to some other essay. Nor does Canetti limit himself to this; he writes, “‘He wants to kill me,’ says the younger brother, and adds to himself, ‘because he is dead’” (269). There is no “adding to himself” in the text Canetti cites—that’s utter fabrication. And even the phrase “he wants to kill me” in the original (from the living brother) reads, “I am angry, and say he just wants to kill me” (Callaway, 148; Canetti, 266). The declaration “he wants to kill me” is the opinion of the living brother; the dead one does not say this. What’s more, it is the living one who says, “I am angry,” and clearly evinces in his complaint to the people that he resents his dead brother’s impositions; he specifically states, “He wrongs me” (Callaway, 150). Moreover, the consensus of the people is that the dead brother desires to harm the living one because he was wicked in life and now also death—not “because he is dead”. They take this argument so far as to surmise even that the spirit may not be the dead man’s brother.

I mention in passing that Canetti seems to have very unfaithfully copied large portions of Callaway’s transcription, just as he neoliberally edited Spencer and Gillen’s (1904) report on Warramunga grieving rites. Unlike with Spencer and Gillen (1904), however, I have not and am not going to undertake a specific analysis of where and how he edited his selection. One can hardly ignore, however, that on both occasions where I had the opportunity to take a peek at the original Canetti cites, in both cases there are very dubious decisions evidenced about what to keep and cut. In this second case, with Callaway (1870),[16] I had to go no further into the text than the phrase that Canetti italicized and made most central to his argument. It takes no effort to imagine that some compiler, with enough time to waste, might keep herself (or himself) busy for quite some time detailing the many instances of questionable editorializing Canetti treats his texts with.

Narcissists, like snake oil salesmen, mountebanks, and charlatans, make a habit of screwing people over and then simply moving on to the next victim without any acknowledgment of the fact whatsoever. Just as when Adorno (2003) called Canetti out on the inadequacy of his example, and Canetti went on to another, equally inadequate, example with no substantial acknowledgment of the inadequacy of the prior one.

Canetti ends with a piece of orientalism I cannot be wholly disgusted by. He imagines that ancestor worship in China provides a salutary alternative to the mean-spirited злорадство (or Schadenfreude)[17] he imputes to sons (and probably all people) as survivors of their fathers (and parents generally).

The fact that ancestors remain separate and distinguishable individuals for some generations is also important. They are known as individual and venerated as such, only those of the remotest past fusing into a crowd. Between every living man and this crowd stand separate and clearly defined individuals such as his father and grandfather, and the very nature of the relationship between him and them means that any feeling of triumph in his own present existence which comes to tinge his veneration will be of a very mild and moderate kind and carry no temptation to increase the number of the dead. His own death will some day increase it by one, but this he naturally wants to defer for as long as possible. Survival loses its crowd characteristics; as a driving passion it would be absurd and incomprehensible and thus it ceases to be murderous. Piety towards the dead and awareness of self have entered into an alliance. The one merges into the other, but the best of both is preserved (272).

I quote this at length principally because it is a rare case of Canetti not allowing himself to be merely crass or sloppy with his broad-brushing; however, there are obvious problems here, especially as the next sentence reads: “if one reflects on the figure of the ideal ruler as it takes shape in Chinese history and thought one is struck by its humanity. It is probable that the absence of brutality in this image is due to the particular form of ancestor worship” (272). Here is where his idealism of China seems to be a case of positive (idealizing) orientalism.

However, Canetti does say the image of the ideal ruler. As is typical with him, then, he is not speaking of lived human actualities in Chinese ruling culture but representations of (in this case hoped for) lived actualities. The Chinese ideal features non-brutality, presumably in distinction to non-Chinese images of rulers, which included brutality.  Of course, the brain howls in objection, “Yeah, but what about any number of actual Chinese rulers?Just as the Bhagavad-Gītā et al. may be accused not simply of not having made enough of a dent for example in the moral failing of the caste system but also actually of being a part of that problem, or just as one may say of the US Constitution, about which Jefferson declared, “Let this be the distinctive mark of an American, that in cases of commotion he enlists under no man’s banner, but repairs to the standard of the law,”[18] not only fails to protect the rule of law it claims to embody but actually assists in the undermining of that rule of law, so then may the image of the ideal ruler in China be not only insufficient to secure that ideal image but also is part of the problems one may find in that ruling culture.

But we needn’t lose the forest of Canetti’s point for the trees of his example. Notwithstanding that his embittered or narcissistic diagnosis needn’t be taken as the only, or even, the primary story “in the West,” then his treatment for that diagnosis also needn’t be taken as absolute, or even necessary. At root, he simply wants something better, which is perfectly understandable—and the first place to start would be in his own thinking, which shows how it works in his finding the one terrible example (e.g., the ungrateful ghost mentioned above in a world of good people and good ghosts) and then not only spinning that up into the basis for a totalizing generalization but doing so by fraudulently falsifying the evidence with misquotations and invented hearsay. Canetti’s focus on the discourse of rulership (its representation in an ideal image) draws attention back to the question: what discourse is he deploying? Insofar as he continuously has his nose in books (in representations of lived actuality), this invites examination of the stories he is telling—and if the ideal image of the Chinese leader may be seen as a problem of actual Chinese rulership, then the narrative Canetti is spinning may be recognized for the part of the problem it comprises in the hegemony of the culture he writes in—part of which includes the positive (idealizing) orientalism of “the East” (or also, in this case, “the past”).

I’m not at all averse to finding alternatives to the current order of things, which are so poorly arranged for the overwhelming majority of people on Earth. I don’t at all fault Canetti for desiring an alternative but rather his assent to and promotion of a view of the world that is disabling in the first place and thus entirely consonant with the needs of the culture that motivates him to desire an alternative.

In its penultimately worst embodiment, this makes Canetti a comprador intellectual[19] insofar as he came up from the colonized domain of “obscurity” (the crowd) to become a spokesperson for and a normalizer of the colonizing discourse of “celebrity” (power).[20]


[1] Suttner, R. (2005). The character and formation of intellectuals within the ANC-led South African liberation movement in T. Mkandawire (ed.) African intellectuals: rethinking politics, language, gender and development, pp. 117–54. London: Zed.

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

[3] 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.

[4] Suvin, D (1970). Afterword. In S. Lem, Solaris (trans. Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox), pp. 205–16. New York: Faber Walker.

[5] Todorov, T. (1993). The fantastic: a structural approach to a literary genre (trans. Richard Howard). Ithaca: NY: Cornell University Press.

[6] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from here, pp. i–xxxv, 1–787.

[7] We could make them into arguments: “I’m hungry, because I haven’t eaten today.” Or we could get into an argumentative situation: “You’re going to the store? We don’t have that kind of money.” That’s peachy as well, and simply beyond the immediate example.

[8] 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.

From my previous post: “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.

[9] Here again, then, the reminder that the notion of spirits provides an explanatory framework for an otherwise defective causality..

[10] Distinguishing between असुर (ásura, “an evil spirit, demon, ghost, opponent of the gods”) and देव (devá, “deity, god”) and the like makes this distinction more explicit. However, this sense of ásura as an evil spirit is the third usage or sense of the word; the first is “spirit, good spirit, supreme spirit (said of Varuna).” This ambiguity likely points to a tribal or cultural rift that occurred long go, but this “muddle” only helps to make clear the human discourse involved in naming the nature of the supernatural.

[11] The incoherence of Canetti’s argument is pretty thick here. It is in the crowd, precisely (and perhaps most of all in the crowd of the dead) that the fear of being touched is overcome, that functions (in Canetti’s description) as a sort of blessed relief from the neurotic aversion to people in general. Early on, he provided the image of man (by which he means males) as windmills, their blades keeping others at a distance; there, in that fear of being touched, the crowd offered itself as a place of respite. And yet here being anonymous amongst the crowd of the dead gets spun into resentment.

[12] Of which I have to say (and said) this:

First, in principle, deifying the person in the center presupposes that the person is actually there. Who decides who is “suffering”. Do I get to put myself in the center of a ring when i walk down the street and treat everyone accordingly? And who decides the hierarchy of outer rings. My ex-wife considers herself to be an immediate family member; my wife objects. Who mediates that? The assumption is that these hierarchies are stable (that’s the minor sin) an enforceable (that’s the major sin). And what if, on a ring larger than me, there is child: do I get to dump out on the child just because they’re on an outer ring? bullshit. Are there people on an outer ring equally in a position like a child, i.e., not prepared to handle dumping? Or even yet more saliently, if I am someone banished to the fifth ring of significance, then why does that license someone on the inside to dump on ME, when I am being defined, from the outset, as someone peripheral. This whole set-up accomplishes nothing except to make the victim into an untouchable, sacrosanct oracle. ¶ Second, it also mandates only a certain kind of response (i.e., comfort in, dump out). When I am suffering, what I WANT is advice; I don’t want to be told things’ll be fine or whatever. but this merely autobiographical point is all to say that if we’re going to offer comfort, then comfort should be of the type desired (by the sufferer), and similarly that one’s ability to dump (which tacitly makes you a sufferer on an outer level) can be met by someone who wants to hear, i.e., who can provide “comfort” in the necessary mode. This might mean giving advice, slapping you to get your attention, who knows. The only way we can know is absolutely positively NOT by ASSUMING some pre-scripted course of action, like this article demands. ¶ When I say I’m sad, and someone says “I’m sorry,” I understand that they are trying to be sympathetic, but in point of fact, what they are doing is (1) engaging in a cultural convention because it’s culturally accepted to be “safe” or (2) they’re giving a response that makes THEM feel good, either because they did something nice (offered me sympathy) or made themselves less uncomfortable (by deflecting my imposition of telling you I’m sad). Notice, this article is all about what a person can say so as to say right, i.e., feel good. ¶ The original friend, who said, “This isn’t only about you” was 1000% right. This whole ring theory demonstrates tacitly that it is not only about the sufferer, otherwise the hierarchy couldn’t be fashioned at all. Sickness and death are the very stuff out of which communities are forged–dealing with these things. It’s most assuredly not only about the sufferer, and making them the untouchable holy center of a hierarchy (a rule by the sacred) shatters the importance of community by turning it into pure individualism. Something that is obviously going to be very popular in our neoliberal, hyperindividualistic culture (in the US).

[13] Perhaps in extreme cases of autism one might find a link with narcissism in this sense?

[14] From Callaway, H (1870). The ancestor cult of the Zulus: the dead man and his brother, in H Callaway (1870). The religious system of the Amazulu: Izyingyanga zokubula, or divination, as existing among the Amazulu, in their own words, with a translation into English, and notes, pp. 146–59, Natal: John A. Blair.

[15] Whether this is an apt example, we nevertheless see the liberty an license involved in the (European, Christian, White) representation of the Other. Callaway may simply have been trying to make the original reporter’s phrase clear in its sense, because “I left you a village” might be misunderstood as referring to a village and not simply to the property the dead brother had left behind. In the process, he apparently felt it was necessary to underline the fact of having died first. Just as Canetti does, Callaway—if asked, “Why did you put that in there?”—might have responded, “He might as well have said that.” Canetti then repeats the error, though with far less plausible deniability, most of all because Callaway’s footnote makes clear that the original actually reads: “I left you a village; you had a large village.” Canetti finds a phrase he believes he can work with (“I indeed died, and left you a village”) and then distorts that further: “I am indeed dead. I left you a village.” Callaway’s insistence on what he is hearing may be innocent enough; at a minimum, he gives us enough text to see what he has done at that moment in the text. Not so with Canetti, who distorts both the sense of the original an even Callaway’s text to maintain his point.

[16] Some might think I should object to the age of this text as well as Spencer and Gillen’s (1904).

[17] злорадство (zlorádstvo) n :: schadenfreude (delight in someone else’s misfortune)

[18] Quoted in Barber, BR (2002). Constitutional faith, pp. 31–2. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 30–7, Boston: Beacon Press.

[19] A comprador is: “A native-born agent … formerly employed by a foreign business to serve as a collaborator or intermediary in commercial transactions”; cast in an anticolonialist discourse, Dabashi’s (2011)** Brown Skin, White Masks, thus frames the comprador intellectual this way:

Writing about the US, Edward Said had identified the “exilic intellectual” as a locus of dissent at the heart of empire that had managed to squash critical public intellectuals. Dabashi, however, sets out to explore the ‘darker side of intellectual migration.’ Thus he writes about how from ‘the selfsame cadre of exiles are recruited native informers who are no longer telling their imperial employers what they need to know but rather what they want to believe in order to (…) convince the public that invading and bombing and occupying the homelands of others is a good and moral thing.’ ¶ Dabashi calls these immigrants who service empire ‘native informers’ and ‘comprador intellectuals.’ After developing these concepts in reference to anthropological and historical studies, Dabashi explores in some detail the modus operandi of comprador intellectuals. A chapter on ‘Literature and Empire’ concentrates on Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, while another chapter on ‘The House Muslim’ delves into the writings of Ibn Warraq who has been celebrated in the media as a ‘dissenting voice’ and an ‘ex-Muslim.’ Tapping into his extensive knowledge of literature and the history of Islam, Dabashi provides a devastating critique of these comprador intellectuals (¶9–10, from here, italics added).

** Dabashi, H. (2011). Brown skin, white masks. Pluto Press.

[20] However, Canetti seems to come from a well-heeled family from way back,

The original family name was Cañete, named after a village in Spain. In Ruse, Elias’ father and grandfather were successful merchants who operated out of a commercial building, which they had built in 1898. Canetti’s mother descended from one of the oldest Sephardi families in Bulgaria, Arditti, who were among the founders of the Ruse Jewish colony in the late 18th century. The Ardittis can be traced back to the 14th century, when they were court physicians and astronomers to the Aragonese royal court of Alfonso IV and Pedro IV. Before settling in Ruse, they had lived in Livorno in the 17th century (from here).

though what advantage this afforded him is debatable. His father died when he was seven, and the family moved about to Lausanne, Vienna, Zürich, and Frankfurt—we may assume this disaster functioned like a “loss of world” (akin to Abraham’s and Noah’s), despite his nasty observations about how sons feel in the presence of their tyrannizing fathers. Whether his mother dragged around her conceits of aristocracy or whether the loss of the father’s capital venture gave Canetti a sense of being a down-at-the-heels aristocrat or Burgher can be left an open question; one of the reasons the family moved to Switzerland during World War it was due to “the impossibility of transferring money from Britain to Austria” (Reiss, 2004, 72–3)***; Reiss, imitating Canetti’s penchant for speculative hearsay, adds, “though doubtless her hatred of war and the warlike atmosphere in Vienna was another” (73).

Following the Anschluss of Austria, at the very least, Canetti had the means to move to London—perhaps another loss of world. However all of these details figure into things, as someone who seems to have been relatively privileged, Canetti may more resemble Josephus than Isaac—Josephus being the relatively privileged leader who, whatever obscurity he may have once occupied, rose to celebrity ant hen behaved in the most despicable way—as Canetti (and the historical record) attest. There is a major difference, one has to say, between the disenfranchised survivor (who may nevertheless rise from that to cultic arrogance) compared to the enfranchised survivor, who may have been a partial author of the very disaster they survive. In any case, the purpose of this distinction is that, if the second-worst framing here is the comprador intellectual discourse that normalizes the current order of things that Canetti gives voice to (if he does not actually embody it himself), then the worst framing is the hegemonic discourse itself as given voice to by power (and Canetti in his text). In Solzhenitsyn’s (1974)* Gulag Archipelago, he states unambiguously—and one might infer this from Koestler’s (1941)** Darkness at Noon as well—that the most morally reprehensible prisoners in the gulag were those who had enjoyed power and privilege in the Soviet bureaucratic structure. In a word, this means they were the most selfish and the whiniest, as might be expected from those who have tasted the limelight and then returned to or placed in “the trenches”; the theme is prominent in Howard’s (2008) Frost/Nixon as well and from any number of other literary and nonliterary sources. It could be called the politics of envy, but we must distinguish the envy of those who are barred from power who never had it from those who are barred but once did. The latter in particular, if Canetti’s insistence has any teeth—that leaders are pathologically narcissistic—means we must take any griping from the disenfranchised with an entire block of salt.

*Solzhenitsyn, A. (1974). Gulag archipelago (trans. TP Whitney). New York: Harper & Row

**Koestler, A. (1941). Darkness at noon (trans. D. Hardy). New York: Macmillan

*** Reiss, H. (2004). Elias Canetti’s attitude to writers an writings. In Lorenz, DCG (ed) (2004). A companion to the works of Elias Canetti, pp. 61–88. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Camden House.


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