CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 6b. Interlude (A Summary for “The Survivor”) – part 2

9 May 2013


Over the course of this section of Crowds and Power, it becomes clear that by survivor Canetti means (malignant) narcissist—or, to be more precise—a survivor’s behavior tends (on a continuum of severity) toward or clinically expresses the traits of narcissistic personality disorder. But his alternative to this tendency (in political culture), the artist, is not adequately framed. His sense of the artist is as narcissistic as his sense of the survivor.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the thirty-eighth entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1] and part 2 of a summary for Part 6 (The Survivor). [2]

Narcissism and Language

In the gestures of control and counter-control, an individual’s introverted or extraverted orientation to the object still plays a fundamental role. Power is implicated in who gets to do the naming, but it seems to me that the very habit of reifying particularities into universals is an extraverted gesture in the first place. Language itself is the original embodiment of this reifying gesture. Nichols (1980)[3] notes Jung’s distinction of symbol and sign:

Jung often stressed the difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign, he said, denotes a specific object or idea which can be translated into words (e.g., a striped pole means barber shop; an X means railroad crossing). A symbol stands for something which can be presented in no other way and whose meaning transcends all specifics and includes many seeming opposites (7).

The usefulness of this distinction notwithstanding, we can recover somewhat an original numinosity that the word likely had as a symbol. Almost immediately, it seems, a symbol begins to transform into a sign—or, more precisely, the symbolic already bears traces of the semiotic and may be deployed accordingly, so that even in a thoroughly decayed phase of a sign that trace of an original symbolic numinosity may remain recoverable. On a massive social plane, we see this as part of religious or sacred revivals that aim to rescue sacred practice from empty formalism: the ministry imputed to the Christ myth is one such, as is the European Reformation and India’s Buddhism.

Thus, even in a word as familiar, banal, and oft resorted to in these sorts of matter as “cat” my be seen in its numinous, and hence symbolic, sense if we really stare at it and try to figure out just exactly how, in the final analysis, it is managing to encompass all cats in such a way that it is actually useable to refer to all cats. We can be dough-headed skeptics and point out that this involves nothing more than mere human assertion; we say it refers to all cats. Obviously. But why does that persuade anyone? I can say that you are sitting in front of a snoojadook, and instead of insisting that I’ve just said “nothing,” you’ll assume I might be resorting to another language (actual or made-up on the spot), but a language that offers yet another of the world’s words for whatever you are sitting in front of. The blunt-nosed skeptic will say again, “It’s just a matter of convention,” as if that somehow explains how anyone ever came to be persuaded by the convention. A convention involves some degree of agreement, coercion, or (mere outward sign of) obedience.

There’s an inadequate saying, “Things are what’s said about them in the social world.” If I say, “Bush Jr. is a goat-fucker,” that has no “reality” in the social world. We might say this fails to happen here because the sentence didn’t occur in the social world, but then we’d have to explain how public blogs on the Internet are not the social world. What is missing is that there is no power to enforce my assertion. We can imagine such a lack of “power” in terms of an absence of believers; that is, if my statement had had enough believers, then Bush would be a goat-fucker. There another, even more inadequate, saying, “Believers make liars.” Except, as Jung (1956)[4] reminds us, “Belief is a substitute for a missing empirical reality” (¶666), so believers do not always make liars, but only unverified asserters.  Moreover, one needn’t have believers; Bush Jr. said Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and while it is most assuredly the case that the millions of people protesting Iraq II made a policy difference in how the war was conducted—despite administration claims otherwise—it was the enforcement of a belief that drove administration policy, not any believers per se.

So this pragmatic or skeptical assertion that one needs only say it and that’s enough is itself shown inadequate by anyone’s rejection of it. When the psychiatrist says the patient is sick, what’s said about that patient in the social world comes backed up with medical authority, beefy orderlies, powerful tranquilizers, and even grimmer “treatments” still. When the parents says the child is bad, what’s said about that child in the social world comes backed up with greater physical strength, a whole body of law favoring the parent that allows them to make such a determination and punish the child for it, a fundamental distinction that the child may be denied inalienable rights accorded to human beings,(plus whatever neurotic fantasies the parents have and can inflict in the name of love for their child.

These extreme examples suggest that violence is the necessary additional element, but it may be simply force. To the extent that human being rests on the fundamental moral values of fairness, cooperation, recognition, and empathy, then the distinction between violence and force involves the culpable flouting of those values (regardless of the affective motive behind it). So the pragmatic notion that “cat” means “cat” simply because we say so is a grossly inadequate insistence.

Meanwhile, we may still sense the disconnect that hovers between our use of a word and what it seems to refer to as a numinous gap. And if nouns are strange in this way, verbs are even more so. In the sense that cognitively we have already reified objects into objects, then to slap the label of a noun on that reification seems almost internally consistent. But when we reify a process, like “is running,” then it is almost immediately obvious that the label we just affixed has already ceased to be true—or a new label has to be affixed.

In point of fact, objects may be deemed processes as well, so that nouns might be construed as a particular kind of verb as well. In Mandarin, we can find an overt recognition of this. Whereas in English we say, “He is tall,” in Mandarin, one might say, “Tā gāu”; literally, this translates as “he has tallness,” so that the adjective “tall” is expressed in something more like an English verbal construction “has tallness”. Similarly, if nouns and verbs represent to varying degrees the hypostatization of processes—rather like taking a single frame of a movie to be the whole of the object as a process—then adjectives function more like relatively adequate descriptions of objects.

Consider, “The red rose grows.” The words “rose” and “grows” both “freeze” the dynamics of these processes, as a kind of misrepresentation that may pragmatically be more or less helpful toward various ends, while the adjective “red” performs a more totalizing variety of misrepresentation, because the whole range of colors reflected in the rose get funneled down into a single term—if we don’t mention the green of the leaves, the brown of the stem, and the beige on the tip of the thorns, then all of this gets lost in the shuffle.

The point of these linguistic examples is not merely broadside that naïve realism—long scoffed at in philosophical circles and replaced, disingenuously, with so-called scientific realism—that nonetheless continues to hold absolute sway in the function of language itself, but also to bring out again the specifically numinous, shimmery “mystery” that resides in the gap between the sign and its referent.

I keep saying “gap” because I am specifically thinking of generate chaos—both in its (misogynistically) debased Greek form, as the source of all creation and also its role in chaos theory, where the presence of positive feedback in chaos portends opportunities for significant change; the oft-cited and misquoted sense of the butterfly effect is the most famous case-in-point of this. I don’t know how far this metaphor of a gap might be pushed; what condition of language is there between sign and hypothetical referent that affects the chaotic condition for the emergence of experience, which we then embody in the symbol of language.

Thus, we may understand “Things are what’s said about them in the social world” in a better light. As the generative gap (between sign and referent) affords an experience (of “reality”) that we then embody (creatively or conventionally) in (linguistic) expression, then it is not the case that a thing said becomes true in the actual social world of other autonomous human beings, but rather in the “reality” perceived by perceiving individual. This captures exactly the sense of projection Jung speaks of, when the phenomenological reality of the individual gets projected out into the world in treated as a taken-as-noumenal actuality. From this, it becomes immediately obvious that enforcing such a saying over against the saying of any other people becomes necessary. By this, “reality” becomes a contested zone where either the moral values of fairness, empathy, cooperation, an recognition are honored on both sides of any dispute with respect to how the discourse, debate, or dialogue about that putative “reality” will be conducted or else violence may get resorted to—violence as the contravention of one or more of the values of fairness, empathy, cooperation, or recognition—in order to suppress, mute, or marginalize any such other speaking.

It may seem overstating things to talk about the narcissistic labeling of others in such strident terms, but for one thing, Canetti’s entire sense of “survivor”—not only as someone who will literally do anything to survive, but who also goes out of the way to destroy other people—is well attested. In Todorov’s (1984) The Conquest of America, he documents efforts by various Spaniards to argue the justness of wars generally and particularly against the Mesoamerican civilizations. One author, Sepúlveda, begins as Todorov documents with Aristotle, “who establishes the famous distinction between those who are born masters and those born slaves. ‘Those, therefore, who are as much inferior to others as are the body to the soul and beasts to men, are by nature slaves …. He is by nature slave who … shares in reason to the extent of apprehending it without possessing it’” (Todorov, 152). One may also cite Rubios’ (1514) Requerimiento, which in the name of egalitarian Christianity gave the Mesoamericans who had it recited to them, in a language they could not understand, the option of submitting willingly to Spanish serfdom or being subjugated by war into slaves. According to this document, as Todorov summarizes an quotes it, it begins by telling the history of Mesoamerica through  Spanish lens, and particularly that the people of Mesoamerica, like the Egyptians, have deservedly brought god’s salvific wrath down upon them:

If the Indians show themselves convinced following [the reading of the Requerimiento, then], one has no right to take them as slaves … If however they do not accept this interpretation of their own history, they will be severely punished. ‘But if you do not do this, and wickedly and intentionally delay to do so, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall forcibly enter into your country and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and we shall do all the harm and damage we can as to vassals who do not obey and ruse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him.’ (147, emphasis added).

The most illustrative phrase here is, “If however they do not accept this interpretation of their own history, they will be severely punished.” This is the document of a genocide that claimed as much as 90 percent of the population and that Todorov says pales the 20th century editions of genocide. Sepúlveda’s circumstances that demand a war, i.e., provide a grounds for a supposedly just war, include the propositions (summarized by Todorov):

The Indians have a slave’s nature; they practice cannibalism; they make human sacrifices; they are ignorant of the Christian religion. The postulate imperative: one has the right or even the duty to impose the good on others … This postulate … implies a projection of the subject speaking about the universe, an identification of my values with the values (154).

Considering that this genocide was accompanied by regular atrocities—cutting off hands, limbs, noses, heads, hanging infants by the neck from their mother’s feet, who themselves had been hung, dashing their brains against rocks, feeding them to dogs, working them to death in the mines and on forced marches, often doing little or nothing to mitigate the diseases the Spanish had brought to Mesoamerica—it’s important to keep in mind the real consequences that arose out of this kind of labeling. I would call it simply State-sanctioned psychopathology, or structural malignant narcissism, but it begins, as Todorov notes, with “that fundamental projection of the subject speaking about the universe, an identification of my values with the values.”

Canetti  generalizes this sort of thing to all leaders, and when she offers an alternative (the French writer Stendhal), instead of being an example of something other than this grotesque need to control other people—to the point that one prefers to kill them—the emphasis is essentially on the objectification, reification, and/or hypostatization of people in artistic (or at least literary) form. As Eagleton (1989)[5] fairly asks, if “there is an unsavoury as well as a magnificent side to human nature, then it is hard to explain, on the simple law of averages, why the unsavoury side has apparently dominated almost every political culture to date (184, emphasis added). While Canetti and Eagleton are near to the same point here, the difference between them remains vast. Canetti takes it as human nature that those deeply entrenched in political culture to date are survivors—that is narcissists, if not malignant narcissists, i.e., psychopaths and sociopaths; Eagleton recognizes that these unsavoury emphases are a function of the specific time and place of a political culture. They arise out of circumstances that humankind created and so can be changed, because they are not historically necessary.

Eagleton’s point is also limited to political culture, whereas Canetti intends to smear all of humanity, it appears—with the exception of a narcissist like Stendhal,[6] who stands in Canetti’s mind as an alternative.

On the face of it, it seems eminently preferable that whatever objectification Stendhal indulged it was not the same kind of objectification being practiced by Sepúlveda or Rubios; at least, so far his documents have not seem not to have been used so directly as part of a program to justify or license genocide. In fact, people might be pretty quick even to say, “However gross his intention in writing the document, he still wasn’t the one who actually used his document to excuse their murdering of other people.” And if someone took one of Stendhal’s books and murdered someone “because of it,” he’d almost surely not be held liable (were he still alive). So that this banality bout the innocence of free speech becomes immediately more troubling—or at least far less complacent and smug—if the text in question is Mein Kampf.

Call this an overstatement or a bad analogy, the question may still be asked: is malignant narcissism “saved” from its social destructiveness if it is channeled into art-making? I don’t think this is an easily answered question at all and neither is it not worth asking. If someone would be a murdering psychopath gets a job on death row as the executioner, is that a victory of social acculturation or a disaster? In Sacramento, California, one of the most vigorous prosecutors of child molesters eventually was arrested himself when they discovered five years of closed evidence from child pornography cases on his computer—here was a pedophile who was able to practice being a pedophile under the cover of State sanction. Should we take him as a positive or negative role model?

In the case of Stendhal—assuming for the time being that he is an assimilated narcissist—is his would-have-been destructiveness that’s been channeled into artistic representation a gain for culture or a loss? The question is more complicated here, because with the psychopathic executioner and the perverted pedophile prosecutor, the sin that is being simultaneously punished and indulged is not so visibly linked together in the public view. In the old days, the executioner was a very public figure but, on the other hand, so were politicians (kings and the like) openly warlords, thugs, strongmen, and (in a word) murderers. With the advent of the bourgeoisie, the pretense of a kinder and gentler ruler has also tucked our executioners away before prison walls.

In the case of linguistic or artistic narcissism, the propensity for objectification is heralded as a criterion of artistic significance under the rubric of realism (or naturalism). And certainly fiction at times has decisive and destructive influence, as biblical scripture (&c) demonstrates. But it will be more in that liminal zone between fiction and nonfiction most likely where this sort of stuff has its most invidious effects—those documents like Mein Kampf (as simply the most obvious example amongst those already cited) that purport to tell others their history; especially those documents that imply or threaten outright that if those others do not accept this interpretation of their own history, they will be severely punished. One step back from this malignant literary narcissism is that mythological nonfiction, i.e., nearly all intellectual work purporting to be in the social sciences, that attempts to arrogate the property of truth to its assertions. In some cases, this is on statistical grounds, masquerading as science; in the case of Canetti’s Crowds and Power, it is his avowed purpose, borrowed from the factionalist Stendhal, to tell events in terms of how he feels them.

It probably might seem that I’m forgetting the Marquis de Sade as the quintessential psychopath committing atrocities to paper rather than in deed. In the first place, we must remember it is not well-established in fact how much of a prevent de Sade was in practice. He seems to have wanted some sadomasochistic play with a chambermaid and he seems definitely to have been sodomized by his valet, for which crime it is unclear if his death sentence was for being sodomized or being sodomized by the help. Beyond that, the almost inexhaustible wealth of his perversity may be most of all imaginary. But whatever the case, de Sade too, however polemical he might be, is a fiction writer. Whatever marker of civilization it is that he symbolized his perversity rather than literally carrying it out, this sets him apart from Canetti, who claims to be writing nonfiction.

[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] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.

[4] Jung, CG (1970). Mysterium coniunctionis: an inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. (Vol. 14, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. R.F.C. Hull) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, i–xix, 1–702.

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

[6] I say this based on Canetti’s description; Stendhal may not have been a narcissist.


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