Canetti’s fascination with power, and the fascination that all others like him experience, leads “logically” enough to the claim, “If you want to avoid being a victim, become a victimizer”. Because the prevailing myth of power constructs it (and maintains that construction) monolithically—in other words, as the only game going—then this sort of fascination with the spectacle of power similarly makes the above imperative to become a victimizer the only game going as well. As a diagnosis of a certain kind of sociopathy in culture, this may seem more or less apt, but to claim out of this fascination with power that this diagnoses the entire human condition or shows human beings the only course of action they might resort to must similarly belie the mark of that sociopathy as well.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the forty-sixth entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1] and the second to address Part 8 (The Command), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I address section 6–9, “The Expectation of Command Among the Pilgrims at Arafat, Discipline and the Sting of Command, The Mongols (The Horse and the Arrow), Religious Emasculation (The Skoptsy)”. [2]

The Expectation of Command Among the Pilgrims at Arafat

Canetti returns to a previously used example—Islam’s wukuf or “standing upon Arafat”—to illustrate this point. His source, Gaudefroy-Demombynes’ Le Pèlerinage à La Mekke  came out in 1923.[3] He has doubtless never seen wukuf himself, so one may wonder about the veracity and intentions of his source. Nonetheless, this provides him an occasion for the story he wants to tell.

He characterizes this ceremony in terms of an expectation of command, pointing to how pilgrims Stan and cry out for hours “labheika ya Rabbi, labheika” (“we wait for your commands, O Lord, we wait for your commands”). This gets followed by what he calls “a kind of sudden crowd-fear, called ifadha, or torrent” (314). People run “headlong” to another place, people getting trampled to death on the way of course—one can never fail to mention this sort of thing when speaking of Islam—and then  large number of animals get slaughtered and eaten. Canetti assures us, “The ground is drenched with their blood and covered with the scattered remains” (314).

In this all, he sees the original pattern of the command; people stand expectantly (ideally in the same manner as a motionless Buckingham palace guard), and when the command comes, it poses no domesticated type—that draws something toward—but rather causes a panicked flight, because (like the lion’s roar) it portends and promises death. With this threat of death hanging over everyone, they pass the command along to someone else—the animals who get slaughtered. Moreover, since this command issues upon a crowd, it leaves no sting—because according to Canetti, commands issued to crowds don’t.

Thus the pilgrims escape the slaughter God (sic) intended for them. They have surrendered themselves to his command, so much so that they have fled before him, but they have not denied him the blood he wanted: the ground is drenched with the blood of slaughtered animals (314).

A recurrently annoying note in Errington and Gewertz’s (1987)[4] Cultural Alternatives & a Feminist Anthropology concern those moments when they make claims for interpretations but do not member-check those descriptions against a “native understanding” of the event described, even though it seems they could have.[5] Here, Canetti insists,

For the sudden fear which overcomes them at the given signal, there is a cogent explanation, namely that here the original character of the command—the compulsion to flee—breaks through, although without the faithful being consciously aware of it (314, emphasis added).

This kind of mind-reading frequently comes off facilely enough when an analyst claims to know an analysand better than the analysand, but when an amateur Western anthropologist consulting a text[6] claims to know better than Muslim pilgrims themselves, claims to write about their unconscious motives, then then mere ignorance of this may serve the uglier purpose of dehumanizing orientalism.

But this lame resort aside, other parts of Canetti’s exposition here contradict his narrative. For one, the crowd chants: “we wait for your commands”; here, the crowd waits for “commands” but Canetti speaks of the command. This may seem a slight point,[7] but this point requires more intellectual to explain (a claimed) expectation of commands and an issuance of an only singular command; similarly, while ifadha (Canetti tells us) means “torrent” (it is also a common name), Canetti prefers to call it crowd-fear.

The most glaring point, however, involves how Canetti makes it seem—“then, in a kind of sudden crowd-fear, called Ifadha, or torrent, everyone flees as though possessed (314, emphasis added)”—as if this event occurs spontaneously, but nonetheless admits that this happens upon a given signal (from the people running the event), e.g., he notes “the sudden fear which overcomes them at the given signal” (314, emphasis added). If any fear (reverential or not) prevails in all of this—and in a crowd of 600,000, we will no doubt find a whole range of human reactions from fear to ecstasy—at most it gets symbolically reflected through the clerics in charge if it does not simply fall on the clerics themselves as religious authorities. So, beyond Canetti’s untenable insistence that all commands comprise death sentences, we certainly have no idea from his report what this signal (not even a command) directs everyone to do, much less that it encodes a demand of blood-lust by Allah that must get satiated with a bunch of slaughtered animals later.[8]

That “no other religious usage … so forcefully illustrates the nature of a command” (314) makes visible the vast extent between Canetti’s discourse and the actuality of the event he uses to make his point. He has spun a tale, no doubt—has made a sow’s ear out of a purse—and I leave it to the reader to explore further why a European might want to make up this story about an Islamic religious practice.

Discipline and the Sting of Command

Canetti claims two forms of discipline exist, the open and the secret, within a military chain of command.  Once again, he insists on claiming to see what others do not; “duller men may only occasionally be conscious of [what he writes about], but, although hidden, it remains awake in most soldiers” (315). And the secret he divulges: “the open discipline of an army manifests itself in the actual giving of commands; the secret discipline operates by using the stored up stings of command” (316).


Hence, all of the “abuse” (the stings) heaped on the lowest grade soldiers may get alleviated (only) through promotion, at which point the promoted soldier can pass along his stings from above onto those beneath him, those who stand now or newly subordinate to him. Or, as the kids on the street say, “Shit rolls downhill”. Some secret, Canetti. This immediately reminds me of what Philips (1963) noted in his review of Crowds and Power: “its method is … to state a fact as though it were a discovery, such as that “a soldier on duty acts only in accordance with commands,” … and then to give these inflated facts all kinds of historical resonance” (Philips, ¶3);[9] hence, from Canetti, this secret discipline “remains awake in most soldiers, particularly those of our own time” (315, emphasis added).

Canetti  never served as a soldier, so he has here even less notion of how military command works out than most, but one may say also, “Even were this the case, so what? What does a military setting have to do with anywhere else?” In fact, the problem of a commander abusively passing on “discipline” to his subordinates stands, precisely, as an acknowledged problem in the military, just as domestic abuse constitutes a problem in the civilian world, and the lines of power that exists both do and do not address these problems, after their own fashions, according to the powers involved, &c. This constitutes no secret whatever. Much less the “secret” that, if you want to act like a dick toward people, climb the food chain. No secret.

In terms of the discourse Canetti develops, we may now see an unambiguous commitment on his part to the notion that one may get rid of stings. His first position contended stings never go away—in fact, the very word “sting” itself seemed to operate in a numinous and symbolic way in Canetti’s text. He simultaneously and contradictorily claimed one could not get rid of them, least of all the one’s from childhood, while also stating that one unconsciously then re-inflicted them upon the next generation of children. Since then, he has claimed that commands issued to crowds leave no sting—like a magical hail of arrows—and now here Canetti presents an unambiguous organizational structure that allows the ridding of stings; with a promotion one “has a justified hope of getting rid of them” (316).[10]

Whether Canetti thinks his discourse remains delimited by his resort to the completely artificial world of the military, his point—if you wish to rid yourself of the humiliating stings of a command, become a commander—offers a misleading analogy when applied to other domains. No doubt, the humiliated child may take his rage out on the family dog—in this way, budding psychopaths often get started. It hardly seems necessary, really, to state the inappropriateness of Canetti’s point, both in social terms but also analogical terms. For one, soldiers do not experience the sting of command like confetti insists, precisely because one understands—or quickly comes to understand once in it—that willingness to accept commands makes up the backbone of the thing. Canetti himself allows that one may not suffer the sting if one can evade it, and sitting (aloud or to oneself), “I am ready to be commanded” precisely functions like such an evasion. Canetti seems to think that evasion consists of not doing the command, but one may “steal’ the command from the commander and make it your own, thus neutralizing any claimed sting it might confer.

This gets trickier for the secretary of an abusive boss or the child of an abusive parent. There do occur times when the consequences of insubordination for a soldier take on life-or-death consequences, but generally these risks stand s different than those faced by the secretary or child. That female soldiers experience and get threatened with rape often in the military specifically points to the kind of “difference of risk” I speak to. For the secretary who gets fired (for insubordination), the threat of having to resort to prostitution hangs statistically closer than whatever undesirable form of a work a soldier (dishonorably discharged for insubordination) gets threatened by. For the child, the only resorts consist of waiting to grow up, running away, murdering one’s parents, committing suicide, perpetrating abuse on others, or using drugs or alcohol to numb the pain—all of these stand as very dire consequences, even for minor forms of insubordination (if the parents takes an egregiously authoritarian stance).

In other words, while military commanders do abuse their power, the very structure of the military not only enables but also makes bearable (for the soldiers) behaviors that outside of a military structure stand primarily as abusive; we might speak of the military as a domestication of such abuse of power. The fact that prison guards and police organize themselves under military titles—but only in the leadership echelons[11]—points to this misanalogy of military settings. When such “militarization” shows up in the workplace or the home it only gets more absurd and worse.

For instance, my (adoptive) mother’s step-father had a military background an apparently acted the very stern disciplinarian; years later, my mother’s little brother referred to her as a drill sergeant. This illustrates the partial utility of Canetti’s diagnosis. We may understand that my mother’s father—perhaps because of his military background, or maybe he already had a taste for abusing power—inappropriately brought that into a domain (the home) where such military discipline will almost invariably operate abusively.[12] And all of the stings my mother received she then reproduced upon her little brother. In this, we see that passing along stings needn’t occur only intergenerationally—from parent to child, and then from grown child to the next generation—and of course not, since those who must abuse power—due to the unbearable psychic pressure of stings inflicted—may have no way to wait that long—so you torture your dog or your little brother, &c.

Thus, the militarization of command (as a domestication of power-over) becomes immediately problematic in the ways it normalizes abuse of power, especially in non-military settings but also in military settings as well. Canetti fails to take this into account, when his argument disregards not the ways that the militarization of daily life seems inappropriate but rather the ways that military life makes the abuse of power normal (bearable). He describes soldiers as hopelessly piling up stings, but military life simply does not function that way for most soldiers. In  labor setting, one may imagine Canetti similarly waxing on about the stings inflicted on factory workers by the bosses, either because he never knew any working class people, who may (one might try to say arguably by necessity) hold themselves utterly superior to the pathetic pasty weak effeminate managers who think they run shit, or simply wants to engage in empty ideologizing to spin up another of his (seemingly to him strangely necessary) denials.

In all of this, Canetti belies an utter fascination with power. The masses remain too dull, too stupid, too unconscious of what their masters do to them—one of their masters being Canetti—or so he bluffs—as he tells them what their experience really consists of. He belies such  fantastic faith in the effectiveness of stings, showing no awareness, and even less, any knowledge of the bazillion countless ways that the poor, the workers, children, women, the colonized, have practiced resistance to command—one of the oldest and most venerable simply being to laugh at it, even as it chops off your head. And this fascination Canetti belies leads—logically enough—to the claim, “If you want to avoid stings, move up the ladder.” In other words, if you want to avoid being a victim, become a victimizer.

The Mongols. The Horse and the Arrow

I recently read Frank Miller’s (2006)[13] silly or grotesque 300, trying to figure out what useful response I might give as a reaction to it, and have had it in the back of my mind while reading Canetti’s own silly and grotesque material about the myth of power which he (Canetti) seems to helplessly reproduce. Although in something of a different vein, I see Canetti as offering what amounts to an orientalist version of Miller’s Laconicism—(“laconicism” denotes the enthusiastic appreciation for Sparta aka Laconia or Lacedaemon; hence also the phrase “Laconic wit” by the way). What I think to focus on right off the bat with Miller and Varley’s retelling of a portion of the battle of Thermopylae hinges on the question: what purpose does it serve to retell this story particularly in this way? We can ask the same of Canetti’s retelling of the history of the Mongols—encountered in his text at at least two levels of remove in terms of representation.

However, when in general I imagine trying to respond in detail to Miller’s text I have the same dispiriting experience as when I think about responding in detail to this portion of Canetti’s text—and this equivalence provides to me a key sense of a link between both texts. But even while linked, I feel oppressed by that sense of dispiritingness, which I can describe in terms of a fable or analogy.

It all feels like that kind of circumstance where someone inside of a massive stone castle keeps screaming through a window, “Jews are parasites.” Short of walking away to leave the asshole raving in their tower, the very structure of the castle provides not just a barrier but also a distraction; it seems as if one must get through the barrier (through the narrative presentation in Miller or the discursive exposition in Canetti) simply to arrive at the point one wishes to debunk. Again, just to say “fuck you” and wander off may spare me the trouble but the problem of this kind of raving lunatic remains. Canetti received a Nobel-prize; 300 generated $450 million in theaters. And both did so, in no small part, because what seems a raving lunatic in tower actually embodies a (well-protected) spokesperson for many, many people. The sense of dispiritingness then may arise less from the fact of a well-protected ranter (like Miller or Canetti), but knowing that their rant gets very well-received.




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Putting this less abstractly, as we all collectively struggle toward a more just world—and we have reasons to accept this as actually happening and not just some vacuous hope that it might—at every moment the opportunity exists for some e-bag to take up the old, shitty, too-familiar positions of oppressiveness, &c—at any moment, someone can re-pen another Mein Kampf, can use a position of social visibility or celebrity to model and thus pander to baser human instincts, or can utilize cherry-picking in the media to increase anxiety through lies or exaggerations. And some do this solely for the sake of celebrity (i.e., money, fame, a decent life for them and their kids, &c). Between the true believer and an empty shill like Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern I’d normally rank the true believer as more dangerous, but in this case the shill has taken up Canetti’s advice “if you want to avoid being a victim, become a victimizer” on the grounds that “that’s how things are” [14]–themselves providing the proof of the point.

That said, I want to avoid too much contending with the castle walls; the ranter within more concerns me. I’ll assume some Epialtes has shown me the goat path into the castle[15] and simply confront “Canetti” in his tower. He links (all of) the success of the Mongols to the instrumental extension of will affected between a rider and his force. Because, from a very young age, Mongol children were taught to ride horses, this permitted a much readier discharge of those usual commands supposedly all children receive everywhere in every culture of the world, without exception. By this capacity to pass on to their horses these stings, Mongol children didn’t suffer so much accumulation of them. How this leads to the reported extraordinary discipline of the Mongol army remains unclear in Canetti’s exposition.

In this context, the arrow (as Canetti’s symbol par excellence of command) has a special place, reflecting the death-dealing, potentially evadable but otherwise fatal or scarring quality of a command. But what Canetti does not draw out from this involves the license to command that each bow-armed Mongol thus reflects and possessed. If Canetti’s solution to the problem of victimization amounts to “become a victim,” then the Mongols horse represents the first (patient) recipient of that victimization but then, with the granting of adulthood, also a bow for victimizing others.

Reducing Mongol civilization to this seems pretty repellent, and it makes exactly the same gesture Miller does (as well as a lot of popular history generally) with 300, reducing all of Spartan civilization only to this military lens. As for why one might try to pretend that what civilization (in general) really boils down to involves only military prowess and the destruction of weaker people (as opposed to the composition of poetry, music, &c) might seem obvious enough already, especially from aging males like Miller or Canetti (c.f., history as nostalgia, or perhaps more often historians as nostalgic). Similarly, while Mongols have a reputation for wit rather like the Spartans—when for instance Phillip II threatened, “If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta,” the Spartans laconically replied, “If”[16]—we needn’t pretend some exclusive genius here; the Norse made a cultural form of flyting, a “ritual, poetic exchange of insults practiced mainly between the 5th and 16th centuries,” and verbal bluff makes for a central part of male politicking in many places around the world, including Papua New Guinea.[17]

The primary distinction to emphasize here: whatever the rule of militarization in Mongol and Spartan culture, it represents a part of that culture which comes also with song, dance, religion, &c. An absolutely central part of success both in Spartan and Mongol Empires involved alliance building and technological innovation—Genghis Khan himself remained an ardent student of experience, &c, and the Spartans were already the big military cheese in the region at the time of their most famous under-dog moment. Importantly, then, Napoleon and Alexander the Great thus appear as the two worst of the students of Genghis Khan and Leonidas,[18] because both of them amassed vast and extremely disciplined armies but had no culture (except militarization) to go with it.[19] Thus, one may further contrast military juntas in South American history with the cultural paraphernalia that comes with fascism; the former offer, at best, pointless butchery, while the latter offer, often unfortunately, butchery with a point.

Between the two evils (of juntas and military adventurism a la Napoleon and Alexander the Great, on the one hand, and empire building like Sparta, the Mongols, or fascism, on the other), one would prefer not to choose. But we can see that colonization falls then on the side of the junta or military adventurism and thus offers nothing in the way of culture, but only a “top-down” articulation of militarization. Thus, Canetti and Miller—both of them for the most part simply repeating long-standing narratives—transform the Spartan and Mongol cultures from empire builders into juntas.

Or, not quite. Both of them emphasize (to a more or less reactionary degree) cultural aspects of the empire builders that they admire but then only cite military forms of culture as a way of realizing that culture. Thus, Mongol children (boys) do not suffer the usual sorts of wounds that Canetti insists (most) other children do; wounds that, in one of the odder passages in this part of his book, become “what drive [a person] towards this or that otherwise inexplicable deed or meaningless relationship” (318). Thus, “compared with the child of higher, sedentary civilizations, the Mongol or Kirghiz child, who learns to ride so early, enjoys a freedom of a special kind” (318). Similarly, as Miller writes, every Greek always knows what is right but only Spartans actually do it.

Thus, the kind of cultural confidence out of which Queen Gorgo (of Sparta) could answer the question “why are Spartan women the only women in the world who could rule men” with “Because we are the only women who are mothers of men” gets explained (in iterations like Canetti’s and Miller’s) in terms of military culture, rather than the cultured military Sparta and the Mongolian empire actually reflect.[20] Canetti and Miller’s argument establishes (or attempts to establish) a basis for asserting, “Give us a strong military, and we will have a strong people.” Current conditions in United States and Israel both give evidence otherwise.[21]

Religious Emasculation. The Skoptsy

Here, Canetti links ritual castration (from ancient days of yore), a more recent (nineteenth century) Russian sect of “white doves” who converted themselves into angels by castration, and the secret sect of Assassins.

Let me say first, if the bloodbath of genital mutilation Canetti presents here makes me snicker, this comes not from some squickishness about the topic and even less from some failure to appreciate the gesture that castration can represent. I had a co-worker once who eventually got gender reassignment surgery, and he expressed great relief at the absence of the sort of male sexual urges he’d long experienced. Whyever he found such urges bothersome or disturbing or anything else, his report of the relief of their absence seems to me the main point.[22] I’ve also known others who actively seek and enjoy the head-space that comes with simulating castration—whether by looking at and thus vicariously experiencing videos of actual castrations (of humans or animals), or by temporarily “banding” themselves or through other means. Unlike my friend who got gender reassignment surgery because he wished to avoid or no longer have a particular kind of experience, these others seem very interested to attain to a particular kind of experience. In saying this, I do not suggest that my co-worker suffered from some kind of neurosis while the others do not; the specific experiences of specific individuals do not lend themselves to easy generalizations.

Partly I mention this because one of the sources Canetti lists particularly for its investigation into the “secret cult” of the Skopsty (the Russian sect) has the title (which I translate from its French) Introduction to Collective Psychopathology: the Skopsty Mystic Sect. People (perhaps most) frequently imagine that the kinks of others constitute perversions, so no doubt the notion of hacking your balls off—or worse, wanting too—will readily brand you as nuts.[23] But if one spires to seriously examine the phenomenology of castration, then citing texts on psychopathology might overly distort the frame of reference too much. Thus, I mention others who offer far more prosaic reasons than “religious ecstasy” (whether in days of yore for Syrian goddesses or more recently as a divine secret in Russia) or something like masochistic self-hatred.

I have to acknowledge, by the way: it seems no accident that Canetti selects his examples once again from middle easterners (this time ancient Syrians) and those dubiously European asiatics, the Russians. I won’t go into this ghoulish orientalism any further, except to say I mention my co-worker and fans of castration that I know also in part to make explicit that both here and now (in the western world) one may find the phenomenon Canetti raises and not only then or there.[24]

Ultimately, as also with the religious flagellation Canetti readily plays up in the Muslim festival of Muharram but downplays in all of its European manifests ions, what I see at stake involves a certain degree of intensity of experience specifically involving the body—all of this blood and lashing and mutilation signals—even in the person who desires to “painlessly” undergo gender reassignment surgery[25]—an especial degree of commitment. Many may aspire to haven, but you chopped your nuts off to get there—that shows balls.[26] Whatever the “point” hat such gestures make—and the history of crucifixion painting has its vicissitudes of fashion in the iconography of grueling torture willingly undergone by Christ—it has a tacit “I see you’re serious about that” ring to it, whether in ancient Damascus, modern St. Petersburg, Damascus, Iowa, or St. Petersburg, Florida.

Having said all of this to contextualize what Canetti writes, he seems at some pains to puzzle out such mutilation. He imagines the original founder of the sect as receiving the command from on high and who then proceeded to “pass the sting” along to other converts, issuing the command “thou must”. But what seems to trip Canetti up rises precisely in the fact that the new Skopets wills this command upon himself; “it is himself the Skopets has to stroke or mutilate” (321). Without Canetti saying it—although one of his source texts points to it; and keeping in mind that Canetti titles next section of his book “Negativism in Schizophrenia”—it seems as if he moves toward an assertion of masochism, at least as far as this kind of command goes.

A problem for his exposition that arises from this involves his earlier insistence that ideally one doesn’t notice a command; only an especially endowed elect even notice a command, and then it evokes feelings of hostility. Obviously, the Skopet counts himself a member of the elect by (willingly) accepting this command, but feelings of hostility if he has any at all in fact (toward the cult leader, toward the deity, &c) become sublimated; feelings of ecstasy result instead. Taking this out of its “gruesome” context for a moment, we may see that Canetti might have used this to understand how a soldier may experience commands—that he willingly accepts the “emasculating lash” of the commander’s command joyously, as his badge of courage, his proof of membership—rather than as an ever-accumulating humiliation that must eventually get inflicted on someone else (following the soldiers promotion or practiced against his wife and family before the promotion comes about). If so, then we get to call the soldier by analogy the sort of masochist or sexual pervert Rappaport describes in the dismembered member of the psychopathological collective of the Skopets, and the army itself as a mystic cult.

Fun as that might prove, we might rather acknowledge that Canetti’s ridiculous insistence on the one-valenced character of command cannot and does not stand up to even minimal scrutiny. One may, without being a neurotic masochist, willingly accept a command such that no sting gets left, just as surely as one may neurotically impute hostile intentions to a non-command someone makes[27]. Similarly, in the process of trying to manage the “pressure” imposed by what stings one has experienced, not only might one get rid of them permanently—no doubt most from childhood disappear through mere amnesia—one also needn’t get rid of them only by inflicting them on others. Psychological evidence suggests women tend to direct destructiveness more towards themselves than others, but even the stung child (at least as Canetti imagines it in a Mongol setting) might avoid becoming a psychopath because he gets to vent his stings on a large and powerful animal (a horse) rather than small and powerless ones (pets).

Through all of these possibilities, Canetti focuses only on the permanence of the sting, for which we have at best only one solution (as a temporary relief): to victimize others as we were. The closest Canetti can get to taking cognizance of an alternative, as this section shows, involves genital mutilation for the sake of religious ecstasy or taking on as an assassin the (literally) suicidal mission of murdering someone else.


[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] I do not suggest that old must stand as suspect. I recall reading somewhere (perhaps in something by Dabashi) that of the old-line Islamicists in the western scholarship, Goudefroy-Demombynes’ name did not occur in the list of not-hopelessly-orientalist commentators on Islam. But whether the passage Canetti draws upon itself seems problematic in is original context or not may apply here as well, whatever Goudefroy-Demombynes’ critical or uncritical orientation. The main point, as far as Canetti’s book goes, comes from his non-scholarly (not just unscholarly) resort to one text, from 1923 or otherwise.

[4] Errington, F, and Gewertz, D. (1987). Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology : an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire], New York: Cambridge University Press

[5] On those occasion when dealing with older texts—specifically Margaret Mead’s or her unpublished field notes—remarks about dead informants, or when they really had no access to the people reported about, not checking obviously does not pose such an immediate problem or concern.

[6] Of dubious provenance, perhaps.

[7] If, with Canetti, we allow ourselves to imagine the practice of Islam requires unconsciousness bout one’s experience, then we can imagine a situation where a crowd before a lion calls out, “We await your commands, oh Lord,” but then when the lion roars, this single command stands as so terrifying and so unexpected—so not the one that the crowd expected—that it induces the torrent.

[8] An obvious objection in all of this would note how Canetti takes no account of the fact that people have been fasting all day—he mentions this in his previous engagement with this festival. So, having stood all day in the sun, people then decamp to another location and, even then, before they can eat, must butcher and cook large animals—one would think an emphasis on (religious) hunger might be apt here, but Canetti doesn’t mention it at all. In any case, on simply the most banal level, that one begins with a whole prolonged religious harangue followed by food afterward needn’t make us think that “Amen, let’s eat” gets implicated in a death sentence or blood command. Those who organize social events where the organizers expect something from a crowd of people not necessarily inclined to cooperate know that baiting the event with food (“free pizza!”) will get people to show who otherwise wouldn’t. Less pragmatically, one might note how the moment of saying grade before a meal itself ‘whets” the (religious) appetite precisely by putting off the gratification of eating. Once again, neither in free pizza nor in the phenomenology of grade do we find any death sentence.

[9] Philips, W. (1963, 1 February). History on the couch: a Review of Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, The New York Review of Books [online] (see here)

[10] Of course, Canetti might say the soldier who loves or respects his commander stands either as masochistic or stupid, in which case the child who loves or respects his or her parents similarly stands as masochistic or stupid.

[11] Actually, everyone amongst prison guards and police form part of the “officer” class. While sergeants, lieutenants, and captains run the show, they issue orders to officers. So no one in such structures “suffers” the plight or position of a common soldier or a corporal.

[12] I say “almost invariably,” because if you can contrive a family setting where the children (and wife) make themselves willing to accept commands, then the domestication of command the military may reflect can get imported into the home. Whether this “works” in some ultimate psychological sense ‘for society” remains an open question. I for one do not think that a society gets served by making “militarization” the core of its socialization. Compulsory military service (rather than compulsory social service, which might include the military) seems symptomatic of this sort of thing. The current social order of Israel provides simply the most readily to mind example of this.

[13] Miller, F., & Varley, L. (2006). 300. Milwaukie, Or.: Dark Horse Books.

[14] For the record, Miller and Canetti seem more like true believers than shills, in contrast to that Nafasi that wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran.

[15] This refers to the supposed traitor of the Greek forces at the battle of Thermopylae.

[16] During World War II, the Germans sent a demand to a US general to surrender; he replied, “Nuts.”

[17] C.f., Errington and Gewertz (1987); see note 4 above.

[18] Just to arbitrarily pick a name to represent the Spartans.

[19] In this respect, Hitler’s Germany has more of a cultural element behind it, and its worth remember that whether one’s military comes artificially separated from culture or appears as an outgrowth of it, both deal out extraordinary levels of bloodshed.

[20] This does not mean that Sparta and the Mongolian empire have the same social structures somehow, even if both had slavery. The point, again, simply emphasizes that the warrior stands as a part, even if a central part but still only a part, of culture generally.

[21] And I would add, against the notion that the US has veered toward a fascist state: rather, we have moved toward a junta (i.e., internal colonization). As the joke in the Big Lebowski has it, “Say what you want about National Socialism, at least it’s an ethos,” one can’t make that joke about the US currently.

[22] One might want to imagine that he might have found relief by some other less drastic means. Perhaps. The point remains that attaining relief came as very welcome to him.

[23] Really. Did you think I could avoid that?

[24] This applies to assassins as well, of course.

[25] The psychological experience of gender reassignment, coming to the point of saying yes to the surgery and then all of the consequences that follow from that, comprises no simple cakewalk. Moreover, the relative simplicity of the surgery does not mean (1) it can have no complications and (2) proposes a radical alteration to one’s sexual physiognomy still makes even the most routine surgery a very corporeal affair, even when you remain under the knife for the surgery itself. Canetti notes, of the Skoptsy, “the fact that the operation is generally performed by someone else should not mislead us. Its significance is that the man surrenders himself” (321) has some sense; nonetheless, who performs the operation does matter. Amongst aboriginal tribes, unexpectedly the adults pounce on the intimate, hold him down, and circumcise him; at a later date, the more dire alteration of subincision gets done to him. It might well come about that, if left to the will of the young man himself, these things would never happen. It denotes a kindness in  way that others do it. All of this makes clear: the man who castrates himself (or the woman who cuts off her own breasts) may show more ‘commitment” than the one who says, “Do that to me”. For those into nullification, who cut off portions of their body (often starting with fingertips and extremities), this may seem even more hair-raising and incomprehensible. At least with scrotums and breasts we might imagine some kind of (perverse or masochistic, some might add) pleasure, but just to cut off the end of your pinky with a kitchen knife may prove hard for many to understand. Nonetheless, having done so—whether one numbed the area before or not—the naked fact of one’s fingertip on the kitchen table, separated from your body, offers a rather vertiginous moment. And having been the one who brought about such a (vertiginous) state of affairs could easily prove strikingly empowering. Certainly, in Miller’s 300, the battle-hardened willingness of the Spartans to suffer the slings and arrows of fortuitous outrage denotes a major clam to their glory and links them, just as surely, to the nullo who stares at her separated pinky tip on the table top.

[26] Sure, sure. I know.

[27] As, for instance, by asking a question. One might recall some of Canetti’s language about questions; “all questioning is a forcible intrusion” (284, emphasis added). “When used as an instrument of power it is like a knife cutting into the flesh of the victim” (284); “the final purpose of questioning is to dissect, but it begins by probing gently at a succession of points and then, wherever resistance seems weak, forcing an entrance” (285). One might ask how, if all questioning denotes  forcible intrusion, how the use of questioning by power offers any material difference, beyond evoking out of Canetti the subsequently relentless use of mutilation metaphors throughout this section; “it cuts like a knife” (287); “a question cuts most sharply when” (287); the “questioner can shoot at him from anywhere … he probes his defences with questions and, when he succeeds in piercing them, that is, in forcing him to answer, he has him pinned down and unable to move” (286); unanswered questions “are like arrows shot into the air” (285), &c.

Putting this less abstractly, as we all collectively struggle toward a more just world—and we have reasons to accept this as actually happening and not just some vacuous hope that it might—at every moment the opportunity exists for some e-bag to take up the old, shitty, too-familiar positions of oppressiveness, &c—at any moment, someone can re-pen another Mein Kampf, can use a position of social visibility or celebrity to model and thus pander to baser human instincts, or can utilize cherry-picking in the media to increase anxiety through lies or exaggerations. And some do this solely for the sake of celebrity (i.e., money, fame, a decent life for them and their kids, &c). Between the true believer and an empty shill like Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern I’d normally rank the true believer as more dangerous, but in this case the shill has taken up Canetti’s advice “if you want to avoid being a victim, become a victimizer” on the grounds that “that’s how things are”




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A Summary (in Two Sentences)

Where can the freak go when a parent hates it? This book doesn’t say.


12747Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.

A Reaction To: S. Niles and G. Ruth’s (2005)[1] Freaks of the Heartland

FreaksHeartland_0-11This offers  very handsomely drawn (painted) graphic novel whose cover better evokes the “gothic” spookiness of the “heartland” more than the title does. Like much horror fiction, this offers lots of affect and not much irony. Some time back—coming up on seven years ago—the inhabitants of a very isolated community in the American heartland Gristlewood Valley suffered an inexplicable calamity: seven women (presumably all of the wives in Gristlewood Valley itself) all became pregnant at once and then all gave birth in the same week to seven  monstrous children. Although folks collectively agreed they should all be killed, only two were—the other five have remained hidden from each other.

All of this stands in the past of the book, gleaned from later exposition. The current events particularly show Trevor interacting with his “little” brother Will, who already stands Frankenstein to his Igor. And once Trevor’s father finally drinks himself into the conviction that Will needs putting down—as should have happened when he was born—Trevor tries to help his brother escape, and events get out of control to the point that the two (along with the other freaks and one girl) decide they need to leave generally as well. Thus we get, from the book’s lone “comic” relief—a typically classist depiction of the white hayseed so useful to “backwoods” hillbilly horror—“Jim’s hurt bad. His own freak tore his innards out.”

freaks-of-the-heartland-exampleWhether it worked out this way by design or accident, the book ultimately reads like a prequel to a series that never got picked up or completed. As the band of five freaks and two children come to the edge of the valley, they look down and see a sprawling city for the first time. Trevor’s “little” brother makes clear to everyone the dilemma; that down there, everyone looks like Trevor, not him. In other  words, where can any of them hope to go to escape from the kind of hatred, judgment, and the lick they have already experienced? The book doesn’t offer an answer but magically jumps ahead without comment, closing the bracket on an opening gesture of reminiscence (by Trevor, now old), assuring the reader that his little brother remains alive, but how, in what way, &c: none of that gets answered. Had the series continued, such questions might have gotten explored in detail, but now (like the butterflies of Skyrim) not so much.

The question of the plea of the freak in society remains a perennial one and various X-Men publications have perhaps offered the most socially articulated approach to the issue. I mean, X-men offerings sometimes explore not just the establishment of a secret cabal of otherly people (whether wizards, vampires, illuminati, or freaks)—that’s easy and conventional—but shows the social repercussions of the existence of such people, especially in various anti-mutant activities. Lem alludes to this theme of the lien in our midst in his Return from the Stars and in our own world, the circus or carnival has traditionally provided the “social face” of freakdom, the place where someone could put on controlled display a range of safely contained freaks (along with safely  contained dangerous animals, like tigers and elephants). I want particularly to emphasize the social structures of these; the conventional depiction of the stranger (the superhero) in contrast to normal folks recurs almost of necessity in such fiction, as Arcudi, Snejbjerg, Hansen, and Abbot’s (2010)[2] A God Somewhere explores explicitly. But these involve a single freak confronted by numerous mundanes, like Frankenstein’s monster confronted by torch and pitchfork wielding locals. It proposes something else entirely when something like a college of freaks exists in a world and the authors of that world take up the theme of the social response to that college.

The Stereotype of White Trash and the In-Control Sheriff

The Stereotype of White Trash and the In-Control Sheriff

In Gristlewood valley, the local reaction meant imprisoning their freaks on the sly—after tacitly agreeing (apparently) to kill them. By making the arc of the book drive toward escape, the authors thus set themselves a sort of insoluble problem, which I think makes that moment on the ridge of the valley, when everyone realizes “no place will have us” ring with poignancy. It becomes a problem, then, that the book never “answers” that problem.

The story tracks things from one boy’s point of view (Trevor), and through that lens the writer rather slickly lets on that the story involves not just one father (and family) imprisoning a freak but a whole town.[3] This answers the question why the father hasn’t already slaughtered the mutant boy—the logical thing to have done—but it still kicks up narrative difficulties for the story. Presumably none of the major events in the book would have happened if this father never drank himself into the conviction of finally, almost seven years late, murdering this (monstrous) fruit of his loins. So the whole arrangement of imprisoning the freaks would have worked were it not for this father’s religiously based objections.

Importantly, the town has created a faux burial site, where they collectively buried two dead freaks and five rag dolls.[4] The fact that the site has two dead and five dolls points to the ambivalence on the town’s part about what to do in the first place. Whether the plan originally involved murdering all seven  and five reneged remains unclear, but the site nevertheless clearly points to two factions: the (murder them now faction and the (2) I can’t bring myself to do that faction.

a32I emphasize this because “what do we do with the freaks” remains a perennial question. What do we do with children born sexually ambiguous—do surgery on them now and never let them know or … or what? In terms of these two factions, the implied events of the story push the theme further. One girl has finally “run amok” and her father killed her, theoretically in the name of necessity. But Trevor’s father takes this turn of events as grounds for finally murdering his own freak.

The trashy overbearingness of this father—as an overly patriarchal representation—finds its usual “check” in his (wholly undercharacterized, almost entirely and literally faceless) wife. Obviously and only because she must have pled with him not to murder her baby—even though, as he reports, she hasn’t looked on him since the day she gave birth to him—has Will been allowed to live. Will has been fed stinking compost and mentions that shit tastes better than grubs, and despite these grotesque circumstances, the town sheriff refers to this family as “good people”. The illustrator went to some pains to make the father sympathetic; Trevor (the son) stands obviously as a saint, who sneaks his brother out at night to play with him. An most of all, the mother—who waves from behind the safety of a screen door on the one occasion when she sees her mutant son—commits suicide when she learns of the hunting party out to kill the freaks, pinning to herself the note, “Leave the children alone”. I report this all with a note of exasperation because the attempt to make this family the “good people” (even as the father gets identified by the illustrator as the “villain” of the story) resonates with so many problematic things. Even the mutant, Will, gets characterized as innately kind—despite having been raised chained up in the barn and forced to eat his own shit (or maybe other animals’), &c. This gentle giant has a distinctly overdeveloped aesthetic sense for “the pretty”—despite the fact that snaps off his father’s arms midway to the elbow and then breathes hellish fire on the man to burn him to death, principally because the father threatens Trevor not Will. That this indicates self-defense or any sense (in the reader) that the father “deserves” this stands alongside the utterly saint-like characterization Will otherwise receives. Thus, his belching fire, which he never does again, must seem as holy and correct as the father’s satanic viciousness stands incorrect, even though the illustrator went to pains to make the father somewhat sympathetic. Why not go to some pains to make the mutant non-sympathetic then, if one seriously takes the problem of the Other to heart? In this regard, a remark by the illustrator about one, that it made Wills seem so vicious that one might not ever sympathize with him again, seems telling. Apparently there remains no resort too far for patriarchy to go that people will not still try to find sympathetic elements in it, but as a freak one may not cross certain lines without risking becoming irredeemable. By this, I don’t suggest the illustrator has misunderstood something: a patriarch might never go too far, but a freak easily does. This indeed sounds like the world, but why allow ostensible non-fiction (the world) to rule fiction—unless, of course, you stand at most as a neutral bystander with respect to the current order of power in the world. In general, that this family denotes “the good” people belies an attempt (by the authors) to make a purse of a sow’s ear. Ultimately, as Will realizes, you can’t escape from “good people” to “good people” (in the city) and not expect more of the same treatment. Having hit that wall, the authors sidestep around the question raised and refuse to confront it.

FreaksHeartland_0-11This marks the most disappointing aspect of this book. And by allowing events to turn into a dramatic chase, it (literally) runs away from manifold other narratives it might have pursued (more fruitfully). Specifically, the only parent-child confrontation dramatized (after the pursuit begins) comes from the normal daughter of one father refusing to go back home with him. No freak every cries out to its parent, “Why do you hate me?” Or maybe that would just be too painful for the authors to face. Although Will has turned out like a saint who refuses to eat the live food of grubs—illustrating his moral superiority even over the “good boy” Trevor who proposes they eat grubs—the only thought that the authors allow any of the children takes the form of escape from the parents. An understandable desire no doubt, especially if we should read Will’s treatment at the hands of the “good people” as somehow more humane than any other, but if Will might emerge as a saint of forbearance, why do all of them collectively (implicitly) agree on the necessity of escape.

I say the answer boils down to, “The authors drew them that way.” So, just as they set themselves a perhaps insoluble task (of finding  “place for the freaks” at the end of the book), which they carefully circumnavigate, they similarly leave out of the book the specific origins for each specific “monster” and all of the sapient decisions they must have made to arrive at their reason for escape. The authors do not intend that we take the freaks as mere animals, chained up and ready to run away at the very first opportunity. We see clearly that Will remains chained most of the time but (1) when Trevor releases him, he does not run away, even though he clearly can, and (2) those chains have no capacity to really hold him, as he demonstrates manifestly greater strength.

The Good People

The Good People

So, very clearly, Will stays because he wills to. And he agrees to leave, at Trevor’s bidding, only because he gets convinced that serious repercussions will arise from killing his father. The text even makes clear—when the father who shot his run-amok daughter expresses worry about getting in trouble—that no repercussion will come to the father for what he did—not because one might kill the children with impunity but because the open secret of the children makes reporting their death unfeasible. On the same grounds, nothing would happen to Will for killing his father. At least, the story could have teased out that possibility, and this again would have explored more fully the social issues that gets called up by this kind of story. Escape might still prove the only resort, but however much a quick escape (from a narrative) serves survival, it leaves the situation escaped from unaddressed and thus left not critiqued. The authors still get to pretend that Trevor’s family denote “the good people”.

The story supposedly follows this line of critique when Trevor accuses the adults of being the real freaks. What makes this point wooden (and obvious) in the text comes from its emptiness. If Trevor had said this to his father, the reader might have more inclination to believe it, although we’d still have to deal with the meaning of that accusation when hurled at overly conventional depictions of “ill-bred” heartland hillbilly types who like to drink.[5] More seriously, the accusation gets directed at the wrong target. Where exactly does one locate the identification of those in the hunting party with those hunted—do we impute to them the same kind of religious fervor of the father, the propensity to drink, the hillbilly stupidity? On the contrary, the authors present the sheriff—in his very first sequence—as the opposite of the most hayseed mundane in the book. On the broadest level, this “you’re the freaks” amounts on the one hand to a child’s “no you are” or on the other to the sort of Noble Savage tropes that praised Nature over against a barbaric Civilization.

a32What makes Trevor’s protest so empty involves his commitment to civilization. The book ends with him (and the one girl who also left) living together as old people, doubtless having raised a family, which graciously includes Will in it—wherever Will hides during the day, &c. Trevor’s objection does not aim at civilization, does not question it in the least, but only at those adult freaks who did it wrong. So, as long as parents love all of their precious mutants and don’t lock them in barns and feed them shit, then Civilization may go on destroying lives and environments somewhere out beyond the heartland.

Trevor’ objection “you parented badly” leaves untouched the deeper objection, “You created them in the first place.” What remains external o this book concerns the Monster’s question, that most pointed and devastating one in Frankenstein—why do I owe you any debt, Father; did I ask thee, Creator, to mold me man? And this comes from a Monster wholly alienated from its Father, from a creature long past the question, “Why do you hate me?” The Torah similarly avoids this question, never allowing Esau to confront his mother for cheating him of his birthright—not just cheating him of it, but gloating in her cleverness for doing so.[6] For all that we endeavor to make good of the opportunities that result from being made alive, in another sense our incarnation represents the most monstrous offense ever committed against us by others; no wonder it can sometimes seem so radical and profound to assert, “I chose this life” for the way it can undo or negate that offense. [7]

Of course, Frankenstein himself spends more time running away from the question, “I made that” than the Monster. And when the father goes to kill his son Will, he pauses to confront him. In the context of the book, we know already that Will can kill the man out of hand, and so the father’s dangerously naïve brusqueness toward his son evokes a dramatic irony, either a worried or gloating “uh oh, he’s gonna get it” on the reader’s part (depending upon their character and their reading), but in another way one n read more sympathy out of this than everything else the authors attempted. Here we see a father, come to murder his son, and even in his perhaps human moment of hesitation, still has to act like the kind of (stereotypical) bible-thumping asshole we know him as already. In his moment, albeit however briefly, of trying to reach across the never-addressed mystery, “How did this happen?” he has nothing but his own pathetic harshness to draw upon.

qrttttqtqtOf course, Trevor, as the proto-nonfreak and “good person” of the book, reads his father’s activity merely as hostility (not surprisingly, of course) and steps up to defend Will. And when the father threatens Trevor, Will responds in kind,[8] Will himself also being emblematic as a “good person”. And all of this goodness in one place, directed toward the “freak” of the father, leads to torturing the father (by snapping off his forearms in the middle) and then burning him alive. And we, the reader, as “good people” think he deserved it. We might at this point recall the epigraph Ott’s (2008)[9] graphic novel The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 includes from Barbara Graham a woman executed in San Quentin on 3 June 1955, “Good people are always so sure they’re right.”

If, ultimately, the book’s answer to the question ‘what do we do with the freaks” amounts to “leave the children alone” (i.e., be good parents), then it cheats us of this as well, since we only see Trevor in old age. Every parents will tell us one never has an easier time of it than when you imagine it (either as a child or a grandparent). For the freak who can ask, “How did I get in this situation in the first place?” a parent might equally ask, “How did this happen?” Unwelcome events seem to beset us, but when those unwelcome events occur from (or worse, as) our children, what can we do. The childish platitude, “Love them” hardly suffices, and the grim reminder, “You’re the adult, act like one. It’s your responsibility” leads to drinking.

This shows clearly that the one-to-one correspondence of parents and children that prevails as an essential part of the nuclear family cannot (does not) work. It takes a village. Yet in the fiction village of Freaks of the Heartland, the authors chose instead to repeat only what we already know: the only recourse seems to escape from your family so you can (wallow in the fantasy of) not reproducing it yourself elsewhere in your own children.

Fiction can do better.[10]


SAMSUNG[1] Niles, S., & Ruth, G. (2005). Freaks of the heartland. Milwaukie, Or. : [London: Dark Horse.], pp. 1–150. This post refers to the collected graphic novel edition of six-issue series originally published by Dark Horse.

[2] Arcudi, J, Snejbjerg, P, Hansen, B, and Abbot, W (2010). A god somewhere: an original graphic novel. La Jolla, CA: WildStorm, pp. 1–193.

[3] The father in this family gets drawn and written with what might be called urban-fantasy white trash overbearingness and authoritarianism + the de rigueur faith in god. I despise such people in real life, but their conventional use as a conventional signal for conventional types of “villainy” not only reads as manipulative and tedious to me but also disingenuous—as if, by imagining that overbearing authoritarianism only takes this form or only occurs in “uncivilized” types in the heartland, the more refined form of shitty male authoritarianism we find everywhere seem more palatable.

[4] One might ask whether or not everyone in the town knows perfectly well that they only buried two freaks. However, since the authors spill no ink with parents in the town mutually recriminating each other (“You promised you’d kill that goddamn thing, but didn’t” … “yeah? Well, neither did you”), I think we should take the burial site as a pie of plausible deniability to the “outside world” if anything untoward should ever happen in the town. The text suggests as much, and in fact untoward things have happened—one parents had to finally put his daughter down because she tore the head off of one of the man’s pigs. This emboldens Will’s father to finally do what he feels he should have done eyes ago.

freakspanel1[5] In a nice, if unintentional irony, the first frame of Trevor’s critique seems to issue from the most bald-faced “white stereotype” in the book. I like to think that the authors enjoyed resorting to the “hayseed” to embody an expression that realized the error of everyone’s ways. Unfortunately, this “simplicity of a good heart” plays just as much into the hillbilly motif as all the rest.

[6] More precisely, creepy males making up the story credit the mother with “spiritual discrimination” to dignify her grotesque act as a holy one. Notwithstanding that Rebecca never existed, who knows what she might really have felt about cheating her son of his birthright. Maybe she too would have hanged herself with a note pinned to her gown, “Leave the children alone”. In a way, one may understand that parents prefer one child over another, but to dignify that offense as divinely sanctioned stands as more disgusting still. One generally works against injustice, just as members of a family might work to offset a mother’s preferential treatment of one child. This may not perfectly redress the injustice but it does at least, in some measure, actively discourage mothers (and fathers) from behaving in such a way toward their own sons and daughters. If your mother thinks you a freak, where do you go? The answer the book provides, sort of: to an otherwise understanding family (formed not coincidentally out of those in the same generation as you, and not from amongst any of the parents’ generation). Where, for instance, do the grandparents in Gristlewood Valley live? The book shows none, not even old people.

[7] I say this as someone who thoroughly believes that life remains worth living–though perhaps of course I must tell myself that, or else the grossness of the offense against me could loom too large–but also as someone not sentimental about family. As an adoptee, I do not believe that “biological families” exert any kind of logical necessity on one’s existence in the world. Children raised by those who birthed them may get told otherwise, but any sense of inescapable ontological debt claimed FOR children BY parents falls flat on the ears of the adopted child. We see the reparability of “source” and “parent” in a way that non-adopted children may have trouble seeing and may never see.

[8] Does this point to where Will learned what it means to act like a “good person”?

[9] Ott, T (2008). The number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, pp. 1–144.

item3278.4[10] The authors get very sloppy with the details of the other freaks—a girl freak hardly gets drawn at all. Meanwhile, Will breathes fire, is telepathic, and seems to have some degree of telekinesis; another freak seems a strangely shaped, fur-covered biped. Those who know me might express no surprise that the plight of this fur-covered freak especially speaks to me, but the figure of the talking animal, as Hine’s (2010) haunting Duncan the Wonderdog does painfully well and makes painfully clear, carries an additional level of implication, because in many ways the brutality of dichotomy between adult and child stands kinder than what happens in the dichotomy between human and animal. One may imagine various awful answers to a child’s question, “Where are you taking me?” but one answer nowhere near the top of the child’s list of answers that occurs near the top of millions of animal’s list of answer is, “To the slaughterhouse for meat.” Will, despite his size and beetling brow, not only looks human but even gets drawn cutely—what good will even “cute” do for something resembling a cross between a Skyrim werewolf and a capybara?

What this particular freak makes clear: he contrasts significantly with X-Men’s Beast, who if not directly then indirectly stands as his analog. Beast gets blue colored, has cute furry horns, and most of all has tremendous intellect—to the point that “Best” becomes an ironic name. the beast in Freaks of the Heartland looks like he may never get so educated, may forever seem to have a feral side that no “civilization” could trust. It points to the already highly socialized character of most X-Men—to say nothing of physically attractive (i.e., Greek) specimens. They certainly have no “warped” physiognomies—one might imagine a “dark cell” in the X-Men organization that hunts down and kills off those mutants who fail in the comeliness, charisma, or norms of beauty test. At a minimum, the homeless sewer rat must get a good scrubbing an new neoprene outfit before enrollment in the college House Slaves.

* Hines, A (2010) Duncan the wonder dog: show one. Richmond, VA: AdHouse Books


4Nichols argues for a complementary character between the Empress and the Emperor cards in the Tarot but winds up in the weeds. Why?

Continuously in human discourse one finds the distinction between the Unconscious and Consciousness painted either in biological and spiritual* or in socio-moral** metaphors. At the same time, however, these metaphorical schemes almost invariably reflect a hierarchical evaluation of superior and inferior.***

*i.e., female and male, yin and yang, prakṛti and puruṣa, matter and spirit, phenomena and noumena

**i.e., nature and nurture, child and adult, barbarian and citizen, natural and unnatural, nature and civilization, ontogeny and phylogeny, IQ and learning, self and society, East and West, South and North, Blake’s innocence and experience, &c.

*** We all know the typical directions of this superior/inferior hierarchy (e.g., adult over child, civilization over nature), but these usual configurations have their contrary advocates as well (e.g., the Noble Savage as superior to the decadent citizen, organic nature as superior to artificial civilization). In trying to deal with (and sometimes too readily adopting) the connotative baggage that comes along with these hierarchical arrangements, Jung nevertheless advocated for a parity of approach to the Unconscious and Conscious.[2]

As something like master-symbols, the Moon and the Sun point respectively to one of the most widely represented embodiments of the distinction between the Unconscious and Consciousness, but even here—although we can locate traditions otherwise—the Moon as the “mere reflector” of the Sun’s light once again introduces hierarchy and subordination.

I suggest this “almost invariable” importation of hierarchy and subordination, even sometimes against the will and desires of the commentator otherwise, arises from attempting to characterize the distinction of unconscious and consciousness in the first place.

We might ask, for instance, on what non-patriarchal grounds would Nichols (or anyone) align the Empress with the Unconscious and the Emperor with Consciousness?[1] It seems, rather, we should ascribe some form of (non-gendered) consciousness to both.

I propose that Jung’s sense of introversion and extraversion, as reflective and radiant modes of (non-gendered) consciousness, capture this distinction between the Moon (which unnecessarily gets gendered as an Empress) and the Sun (which unnecessarily gets gendered as an Emperor).

So Nichols gets into the weeds because the Empress and Emperor themselves, as gendered terms (and cards), already import an unavoidably hierarchical framework into her discussion, whether we believe that men stand superior to women or women stand superior to men or try to argue for equality from a starting point that recognizes an inequality in the first place. By contrast, thinking of card 3 and card 4 as representing the conscious modes of introverted and extraverted consciousness respectively helps to avoid getting caught up in the framework of the patriarchal discourse that comes into play when we use other names or terms for these cards.

Introduction & Disclaimer[3]

ttttttThe sixth post in a series that adds commentary to Nichols’ (1980)[4] Jungian commentary on the major arcana of the Tarot, here I engage with card 4: the Emperor.

Over the past two or so years, I’ve been reading a lot of Jung’s writings,[5] and will continue to do so,[6] in part not only because his approach to psychology resonates with my own experience but also because when I read his works I experience a dislodging of psychic imagery that seems interesting and/or fruitful and/or inspiring. In addition, I have been doing Tarot card readings since 1986,[7] when my friend in college introduced them to me, and have even worked “professionally” as one.

So it proved very on-point and kind of my friend to think of me when she saw a copy of Nichols’ (1980) Jung and Tarot: an Archetypal Journey. This series, then, embodies my reactions to and commentaries on Nichols’ commentaries, &c, and will work through the major arcana (the trumps) of the Tarot deck chapter by chapter as Nichol’s book does in order from 0 to 21.

The Emperor: Father of Civilization[8]

If you’ve tracked at all my commentary on the previous cards, you might anticipate the bile in my gorge that we should take the emperor as the “father of civilization.” And much as I want to simply overlook this foolishness in order to get on with the more important work of understanding this card,[9] it still needs addressing.

The primary bluff of power—a central element in the myth of power, which plays out as much in our contemporary culture as elsewhere in place and time—involves the notion of “the man in charge” especially in the way it pretends to erase, deny, or make invisible all of those other people who stand behind the man in charge and enable him to do as he does. Power in this sense always rests on a tacit appeal to such (rarely acknowledged, almost never specified) others.[10] The royal we invokes this, but I especially want to underline that when a “man in charge” says we (or I), he reminds (or threatens) his listeners: “I have people who will back my shit up. So join if you like or oppose me at your peril.” Power in this sense doesn’t actually do any work (in an economic or physics sense), but serves primarily and usually usefully to orient (a group’s) attention. Thus, if the Empress tends to inspire an individual in his or her course of action, the Emperor collets the attention of many people and enjoins them to work toward an Other’s goal (i.e., not necessarily their own).

Obviously, in the human social domain a male or female might perform this role—while a father might command a bunch of his children, “Okay, everyone in the car” and the mother might ensure that everyone does so amicably, this gendered division of labor stands as conventional not necessary. So when Nichols writes:

He may be seen as an active, masculine principle come to bring order to the Empress’s garden which, if left to grow by itself, can become a jungle. He will carve out room for man to stand erect, will create paths for intercommunication, will oversee the building of homes, villages, and cities. He will protect his empire from the inroads of both hostile nature and barbarians. In short, he will create, inspire, and defend civilization (103).

Card06This prompts bunches of questions. As a latecomer to the Empress’ garden, why must it not remain a jungle? Moreover, how does such a  latecomer even understand the garden? A garden already denotes civilization, so this “carving out room” so “man” can “stand erect” can only proceed from some form of ignorance that mistakes gardens for jungles. In this respect, let us remember also Osiris sitting on a stone block while Isis, who has access to the garden, brings him Wisdom from it; at what point did Man think he could enter the Garden itself and set up shop in his own fashion?

Importantly, Nichols says the Emperor “will create paths for intercommunication”. First of all, the notion that women talk and men don’t may at least seem to have some local truth at this point, but it does not hold up cross-culturally; we may more accurately say that women view what men talk about and men view what women talk about with forbearance at best, rarely enthusiasm, often derision.[11] Environmentalists reading Nichols must already reject the notion that one must create “paths of intercommunication” within a jungle or garden; ecosystems already reflect highly articulated and complex intercommunications between elements. So whatever “path” the emperor proposes, at the very least it insists on some variety of intercommunication different that what already prevails and may, in fact, proceed in naïve ignorance.[12] It repeats the bluff of power to claim that these new paths of intercommunication  denote civilization while the old paths of intercommunication (in the Garden of the Empress) do not.

We see here the beginnings of the poaching of the male into the female domain, in his claim to have invented “paths of intercommunication’ when in fact such things already exist. Thus, he also will oversee the building of homes, villages, and cities as if the Garden already does not provide homes, villages, and cities for innumerable creatures at multiple ecological scales. But one may even more simply ask why such homes, villages, or cities need building at all. More precisely—sine we needn’t pretend to take a stance that we (humans) might have forever gone on dwelling naked before the elements—one may ask why these new forms (of home, village, and city) must exclusively substitute the old forms that already exist. Doubtless, we become more comfortable if we can cover our bodies against the elements but does that mean slaughtering an animal for its coat become desirable simply because we can do it?

This denotes the subtle problem at the root of the Emperor. Perhaps because it originates in a neurosis formation against Woman (i.e., civilization is not Nature), this makes the offers of civilization turn into commands or demands, as an insistence that we must do it this way—the kind of home, village, and city the emperor portends must not resemble Nature, even though it can do no other. Here again we see the bluff of power, pretending it has no link or connection to its source or origin that stands behind it,[13] and which then “will protect [its] empire from the inroads of both hostile nature and barbarians.” In an originatory myth, who could these “barbarians” consist of other than the “invading civilizers” of the Emperor himself into the Garden in the first place? Having despoiled the garden, the Emperor then promises to protect us from other invaders—more like his rule prevents a restorative revolution rather. And this becomes obvious as well if he will keep “hostile nature” at bay. What hostile nature if not his?

The_EmperorClearly, if we take a very cosmic view, the Garden doesn’t mind a bit all of this neurotic fussing that “Man” practices upon it. Human beings emerged out of the chaos of creation and we will sink back into it, like the dinosaurs did—no matter how badly we fuck up the ecosphere, &c. But, of course, the dinosaurs did not “sink” into anything, not even their tar pits. If the “purpose” of “Nature” “is” “Life,” then our presence or absence denotes an aspect of it. Even in the most non-anthropic point of view, we still borrow the bluff of power and claim that we (or perhaps even Nature) should take the part (humankind) for the whole.

However, human beings do not neatly fall into this distinction between Nature and Civilization; “Nature” certainly takes no note of such a distinction, so that whatever we mean by “Nature” already stands as a “non-natural” distinction. The very distinction that the Emperor wants to insist upon between “barbarians” and “hostile nature” must point to a fact of his consciousness, not to a fact about the world. Aligning “Nature” as “Woman” only muddles the issue, because then instead of the Emperor saying (with de Sade), “I am not you Nature” he takes his cue from sex differences an says (to Woman), “I am not you.” But this leads, again, to a neurosis formation. If the Emperor begins with the undeniable fact that new humans emerge out of women, as soon as he figures out that his sperm has something to do with that process immediately it becomes the essential part of that process if not actually the whole of it. Males need only plant their seed and all the rest of it amounts simply to a passive working out of stuff. A more reasonable—a less neurotic—point of  view would simply acknowledge that both factors play material and creative roles, but it appears that if the Emperor shares power then that threatens to deny him any power at all.

In short, Nichols writes, the Emperor “will create, inspire, and defend civilization” (103); a remarkable claim, given that creation and inspiration themselves denote specific purviews of the Empress,[14] the Great Goddess historically,[15] or (Mother) Nature itself at the largest scale of creative power.[16] Thus, the civilization the Emperor defends rather his theft of what properly belongs to someone else—or, more precisely, his neurotically formed imitation of what he found when he invaded—just as Columbus thought he discovered America even though people were already there.[17] Nichols indicates this, without emphasizing it, when she notes (of the specific Marseilles deck she comments upon), “the Emperor still retains a connection with the matriarchal world of the empress, for he is pictured looking back toward her” (104); I say that in this “looking toward her” this reflects the “looking toward Her for wisdom” characteristic of Osiris sitting on his carved stone as Isis brings him wisdom from the Garden.

Having said all of this in order to contextualize an aeon of symbolic sexism, what “good” can we make of the Emperor beyond his bluff for power; or, alternatively, what good does such a bluff affect. Nichols writes (still carrying too much of the symbolic sexism with it):

Historically, and in our own personal biographies, the transition from the matriarchal phase to the patriarchal era is always difficult. To leave the loving, protected, and nourishing world of childhood, to face the exposure and responsibilities of adulthood, is a tremendous task. Community life is the necessary intermediary step between the unconscious identity with all nature experienced in infancy and the more conscious and individual standpoint of adulthood. During this transition phase, ideally, one needs to experience oneself as a member of an ever widening group (family, clan, state, nation) at whose head stands a powerful and just authority figure (104).

qyyyyyThis again requires contextualizing in order to transform into something helpful or useful. When Nichols speaks of the “transition from the matriarchal phrase to the patriarchal era”, she accepts the symbolic ratio that woman is to male as child is to adult. The most immediate problematic aspect of this hinges on the fact that one must as a human being—so the theory goes—develop or grow from an inferior condition of unconsciousness to a superior condition of consciousness but that these qualities of inferiority and superiority should not then get attached then to the gendered identification of the unconscious (as female) and consciousness (as male), as also in Taoism’s yin and the yang or Sāṁkyha’s prakṛti and puruṣa, respectively.

In social or political terms, this transition occurs as out of the unjust condition of slavery imposed on non-adults (children) by adults and the subsequent conferral of social recognition (by adults) of new adults. Thus, though the experience of many contradicts Nichols’ notion of a “loving, protected, and nourishing world of childhood” (104), that she notes to leave it and “face the exposure and responsibilities of adulthood, is a tremendous task” (104) seems accurate enough. However, even this more apt analogy between childhood and adulthood, which still carries unnecessary overtones of inferiority and superiority (vis-à-vis children and adults), still offers only an analogy with the actual “developmental” task involved: namely, of moving from unconsciousness toward consciousness. To leave the world of the former for the latter, as Nichols notes and Jung frequently emphasizes, remains “a tremendous tsk”.

Nonetheless, Nichols distorts the picture of things to insist that “during this transition phase, ideally, one needs to experience oneself as a member of an ever widening group (family, clan, state, nation) at whose head stands a powerful and just authority figure” (104). Here we see a trace of the bluff of power; Nichols has bought into and repeats Power’s insistence that one needs a man in charge (at the levels of family, clan, state, nation) or else something will go wrong with the transition (from woman to man, from child to adult, from unconsciousness to consciousness).[18] Rightly, one may question the very need for such an authority figure, but even if we grant some such need, the next two questions that follow concern what exactly such an authority consists of and what kind of orientation one takes (or might take) toward that authority figure. Nichols seems to point toward answering this second question when she spends a good portion of her exposition describing Jung’s Psychological Types—by this, I mean she seems to tacitly acknowledge that one’s orientation toward Authority will vary by psychological type.[19] Nonetheless, encountering her bare statement this way seems to serve merely as an apologetics for all of the “Father Knows Best” kinds of abuse of power still going on every second around the world t this very moment.

These misleading developmental analogies  (as from nature to civilization so from woman to man or as from barbarian to citizen so from child to adult), which expressly propose distinct and static states one moves from and into once and for all,[20] only obscure that more fundamental transition Nichols identifies: from unconsciousness to consciousness.[21] Thus, the Emperor—the bluff of the man in charge—does accurately characterize the relationship of ego-consciousness (as only  part of consciousness per se) and all the remainder of cognitive activity (both conscious and unconscious) that makes up the Self. The Bhagavad-Gītā similarly makes this point. The war about to ensue in that text often gets described in allegorical (psychological) terms. In it, the villains consist of the forces of a blind king Dhṛtarāṣṭra (one translation of his name works out to “he who holds the kingdom together”), who has given his command to a son Duryodhana (i.e., “dirty fighter”). The occasion for the war involves specific historical offenses by Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s family against the Pāṇḍavas, on whose side Kṛṣṇa fights, but the primary offense or mistake at this moment in the text involves Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s ignorance, i.e., his unwillingness or incapacity to admit the nature of reality as Kṛṣṇa describes at length to Arjuna, thus making up the greater bulk of the Bhagavad-Gītā itself. So ego-consciousness attempts to hold the kingdom together by dirty fighting, by remaining blind to and ignorant of the actual state of affairs.

62The situation does not need to remain hopeless for he who holds the kingdom together; the entire Bhagavad-Gītā structurally presents the narration of events to Dhṛtarāṣṭra by his seer, Sanjaya (whose name means “complete victory”). Dhṛtarāṣṭra has the opportunity, at every moment, to renounce his ignorance (and give up his hopeless war). So, so long as ego-consciousness listens to its seer and  does not persist in pretending (or worse, believing) that it constitutes “the man in charge,” then one will find less occasions of tragic retribution for hubris, fewer humiliating reversals in life and death struggles, and in general fewer karmic manifestations of avatars of archetypal material in one’s consciousness to complement or compensate for too much one-sidedness in one’s psychic life (and thus life in general).

So, if Nichols writes “During this transition phase, ideally, one needs to experience oneself as a member of an ever widening group (family, clan, state, nation) at whose head stands a powerful and just authority figure” (104, emphasis added), then let us not only or even first project that need out onto external authorities like families, clans, states, and nations, since to claim such a need forms one of the bulwarks of fascism, and recognize instead that ego-consciousness itself constitutes the authority itself, the Emperor, but ego-consciousness in a sense that rules only upon the sufferance  and forbearance of “everyone else” (i.e., all of the complexes as well as whatever issues out of the unconscious). Just as we supply the magic that makes the Magician’s tricks magical, so we grant the authority to the Emperor that authorizes his rule. This experience requires no family, clan, state, or nation per se, though such external authorities might get yoked to the purpose. And, in fact, one might find external authority (if needed) in anything—books, Nature, truth—including committed resistance to such authoritarian things, &c.

To say this merely attempts to justify Nichols use of the word need, her invocation of necessity. A trope in the discourse of Power concerns that someone must rule humans, and amongst those who take it upon themselves to rule, the claim further follows that those ruled cannot rule themselves—thus children get seen as unruly, as do women, Africans, Arabs, &c. One might, with some just if still facilely, remark that in those who rule we will find those who most need ruling, but if this doesn’t merely reflect a politics of envy, it certainly offers no alternative to the problem. In any case, if I would say we need the authority of the Emperor, I want to do so cautiously so that extrapolating that need as a metaphor out into the world does not further provide a justification for the kinds of undesirable social structures it currently does.

But if we need the authority of ego-consciousness, what need in particular does that indicate. Remember, per Jung, ego-consciousness does not constitute the whole of consciousness (much less the whole of the Self, which includes all of consciousness and the unconscious). Ego-consciousness stands as only one figure, albeit a preeminent one, in the solar system of complexes that move in its orbit. This metaphor (of solar system) discloses not that the ego-consciousness (as the Sun) stands as the most important body in Consciousness generally, but only that it has the greatest influence, the most pull; its gravity organizes the activities of other “bodies” in its celestial court.

yyyyyyyyyyWhere this metaphor breaks down: the mechanistic laws of physics permit us to predict with great precision all of the movements of various objects within the Sun influence.[22] The part of the metaphor to retain points to the orienting consequence of the Sun; it becomes or provides a focal point—an extremely visible one—in the otherwise impenetrable murk of the surrounding space (Unconsciousness), out of which from time to time (without the light of consciousness) would strike us invisibly, &c.

This points to a wrinkle in the metaphor. We may conventionally speak of the Sun as the center but, like all of the planetary orbits, the Sun comprises only one of two loci in an ellipse. Jung himself, in one of his truly revolutionary moments that reprises Kepler’s own realization of the elliptical (not circular) orbits of the planets, recognizes that consciousness too does not comprise the center. Thus, not only does the Sun not stand at the center of the solar system, in the much vaster ocean of space (the Unconscious) it rests in it similarly does not stand at the center. Thus, to move ego-consciousness to the center (as also to move the sun to the center) constitutes part of the bluff of power, of the “man in charge” claiming that everything revolves about him, when in fact it revolves around two points: one visible (the Sun) and another far distant and invisible.

Even the mere mechanics of celestial motion point to important details in this metaphor. For instance, a (former) planet like Pluto could never hope to “avoid” getting pulled into the all-consuming inferno of the Sun were it not so far away, while Mercury (though larger than Pluto) pulls off something like such a feat by moving at tremendous speed.  Pedantically, both planets have stable orbits in the balancing of the forces of angular momentum and the Sun’s gravity, so if we merely say the Sun holds the planets in their orbits then we argue for the bluff of power by ignoring the second locus (of the orbital ellipse) as well as the planet’s angular momentum. And even the identification of ego-consciousness with the Sun may turn into a bluff of power if, in our light-blinded ignorance, we forget that the Sun itself sits s one star with its own elliptical orbit around the “center” of the Milky Way as well, &c.

One of the oldest associations in human discourse links light and consciousness, where light (at least in the Hindu use of the notion) does not reflect on its physical sense. The light of consciousness denotes that without which we could perceive nothing; conventionally, a visual metaphor of “seeing” embodies this light of consciousness in its physical analog and thus make the sun one of the humanly acknowledged and preeminent sources of enlightenment, illumination, &c. Without light, we would see nothing in the solar system, and recent science (i.e., in the last 300 years) has disclosed ranges of electromagnetism outside of the visible spectrum so that what “light” consists of no longer remains limited to the visible spectrum. We now may “see” in infrared, ultraviolet, &c., and this as far as it concerns the Emperor further de-centers his authority. We can see things without his illumination, in other words.[23] This offers an articulation or development on the metaphor of (physical) light for the light of consciousness—what gets disclosed, for instance, in the “infrared frequencies of consciousness”; doubtless someone will locate telepathic powers and the like there—but the light of consciousness still does not reduce to its metaphor, just as the transition from unconscious to consciousness does not reduce to the transition from nature to civilization, from woman to man, from child to adult, or barbarian to civilization.

Thus, the necessity of consciousness (and thus the Emperor) arises from the necessity of a point of focus, an orientation. Without this, we “see” nothing. This “seeing” (I must repeat) does not reduce to mere rationality, much less fathering a civilization as Nichols clams. Using Jung’s functions, the light of consciousness might direct itself through thinking, feeling, sensing, or intuiting. Even in a completely darkened room, we still “see” nothing; only during total sensory deprivation (or unconsciousness) does nothing “see”. In that darkened room, our cognitive functions (sensing, thinking, feeling, intuiting) still operate; the light of consciousness already occupies us in the room, only physical light remains missing.

Yet if we imagine the light of consciousness as physical light, then only once we point a flashlight in some direction do objects in the room come to light. Things appear only where we direct the light.[24] Now, instead, if we imagine a vast cave in which a single light bulb burns, what we see depends not only on what the bulb illuminates but also upon where we stand. Our relative orientation to the light gives sense to the common saying: “what’s your angle on this?” But how the bulb hangs also determines its angles of illumination. And our presence and it blocks, from our standpoint, certain lines of sight—we cannot see immediately behind the light bulb (if it does not simply burn too brightly to look at) and we do not see behind us the shadow we cast.[25]

04-Major-EmperorAll of this informs the (necessary) orienting function of consciousness, whether we identify with the light (of consciousness) itself, when we wield the flashlight, or encounter ego-consciousness from a standpoint external to ego-consciousness (as when our will gets superseded by a mood or  passion or an idea or a task, &c). The very fact that Jung recognized an acknowledged not just the possibility but the human experience of becoming de-centered (dethroned) from the position of one’s will (the position of ego-consciousness) offers a huge explanatory leap forward over other psychological viewpoints that accept the bluff of power: that the Emperor is the center of consciousness.

Thus, in its most banal sense, the Emperor represents the one who decides, who decrees the enactments of the will—as those things that we consciously desire, &c. Of course, the Emperor’s power rests on the tacit cooperation of the court; he can bellow all he wants, “make it so,” but unless someone obeys, nothing will happen—until he gets up off his throne and practices some of the good old ultra-violence upon someone to exact obedience or simply does it himself. Thus, the Emperor comprises not “the man in charge’ but “the one we charge with running things”.[26]

All this business about the father of the civilization and carving out paths of intercommunication makes for so much puff and bother. Ego-consciousness, as “he who holds the kingdom together,” might hold together the (psychological) kingdom of the sociopath or saint alike; we needn’t imagine anything “civilized” about it at all. Politically, a figurehead allows the bluff of power to hide the actual relations of power—we pretend that something like a President or Queen represents the “one in charge”.[27]

In my engagement with Canetti’s Crowds and Power, in a recent post the image of one who gets struck by lightning (the one upon whom lightning gets focused “by the gods”) itself brings into focus how we may come to perceive someone as an agent of the Powers (or Power itself). English has the convenient coincidence of making the link between light (from above) and lightning explicit. This sort of mandate of heaven then becomes conventionalized in images of gods who themselves wield lightning (e.g., Indra, Odin, Zeus), thus demonstrating their power over and command of what otherwise strikes us as a superior or involuntary event originating from outside of ourselves or other human beings. In this way, the one wrapped in lightning[28] becomes literally the one “in charge”.

That such a (figurative or literal) strike of lightning distinguishes (marks out, selects, denotes) the one in charge functions as a decree:[29]

early 14c., from Old French decre, variant of decret (12c., Modern French décret), from Latin decretum, neuter of decretus, past participle of decernere “to decree, decide, pronounce a decision,” from de- (see de-) + cernere “to separate” (see crisis).

Thus, a decree denotes something as separated apart from (i.e., distinct in category from everyone else) and points to a decision in itself (made by “the gods above). And just as Indra, Odin, and Zeus then arrogate to themselves the claim to wield such lightning, and thus to issue such decrees themselves, so does the Emperor claim as a central function a capacity to decree as well. Thus Nichols correctly emphasizes, “Naming things is an important part of the Emperor’s task” (115). Include with this all of the rightly observed significance (and thus the social problems implicated in) the license and privilege involved in naming things. One might point to the Chambri peoples’ vast social attention to the possession of ancestral names (see note 9 below) or Nichols’ observation regarding the ongoing social cache that “knowing the name of a person, place, or object gives us a specific power over it” (115) for just two examples, but what both of these examples point to indicate how power is knowledge.

Nakedly, as children, we may know this as “because I say so,” and the abuse of the power to name denotes a fundamental gesture in the relationship of parents that name a child as “bad” or a psychiatrist a patient as “crazy” or a judge a citizen as “criminal” or a teacher a student as “learning disabled” or a president an entire people as “enemy” or a human an animal as “food”, &c. These legion, daily, ubiquitous abuses of the power of naming, of issuing the lightning bolt of decrees upon others, stand glaringly in the foreground when I tempt to understand the claim by the Emperor (ego-consciousness) to issue decrees upon, to name, its experiences in the world.

qyreIt seems another aspect of necessity that consciousness (if not ego-consciousness itself) must name (for us) our experience. When we wield the flashlight, we name what we see; and when we stand to one side (occupying some other position in consciousness not the Sun), we hear the decrees of ego-consciousness[30] as if from someone else; perhaps this explains the apathy and defeatism that colors the mood associated with “that’s just how it is”—a mood singularly capable of neutralizing our social and political activism, or activity in general. But what I emphasize in this: this centrally devolves to the power of naming, decreeing. The Emperor (ego-consciousness) may inherit the circumstances that confront it, but retains for itself the power to state, “It is this,” thus naming the problem and implying in that naming the course of its solution. So the Emperor (ego-consciousness) must decree, but as soon as it believes its hype succumbs to or comes to practice the bluff of power. Thus Gordy Graham can note, “How you see the problem is the problem.”

If I have not made it clear enough, the identification of the Emperor as male stands as utterly misleading. That (human) males and females alike have an imperial power sitting at the (non)-center of consciousness requires no gender distinction: ego-consciousness provides the lightning rod that organizes attention in consciousness and re-discharges that lightning as decrees out into the (experience of the) court in the world without needing to invoke differences of male and female in the process. So that however tempting or poetically evocative it seems to acknowledge this and yet still speak of contrasting Emperor-complexes and Empress-complexes merely signals our acculturation or addiction to the socially organizing bluff of power that claims in the first place that the Sun and Son stand preeminent over all else of necessity.

Quite obviously, the luminously inspiring capacity of the Empress immediately suggests a solar refulgence—perhaps even suggests this first, and only after we remember that myths insist the moon re-presents that luminous quality of inspiration. That the moon should only reflect the sun’s light points to the patriarchy of such a claim, especially as it seems the case, far back in our mythological history, that the sun and moon stood in the sky simply as two primary glowing objects, not one as the dutiful mirror of the other. But this trip into the past also crosses over the fact that at times in India the sun gets identified as female and the moon male.[31]

So where, then, does the Empress stand in relation to the Emperor? If we can remember that time when the sun and the moon stood as not in some way subordinate to one another[32]—keeping in mind that the moon at times seems larger in the sky than the sun and vice versa—then we might link the radiant and the reflective in the two figures, as two modes or aspects of royal consciousness. And the obvious choice for this suggests extraversion and introversion as the radiant and the reflective, rather than the gendered male and female metaphor.

Nichols describes the necessarily complementary but still mutually exclusive roles or domains of the radiant and reflective consciousness. Mired in her sexist language, she writes:

The Emperor rules primarily by Logos and thinking; the Empress is chiefly concerned with Eros and feeling. For the Emperor, objective fact is honest truth; for the Empress, inner fact is primarily important. In her realm, to reveal an objective fact that might hurt a relationship would be dishonest, whereas in the Emperor’s world, to conceal such a fact would be reprehensible. Obviously, in a given situation, both cannot rule at once. But if we give each one in turn  chance to speak, we may find a solution which will be true to the fact of outer reality without doing violence to the equally important fact of inner feeling” (116–7, emphasis added).

In the kinds of analytical thumbnail sketches Jung descried and deployed in his psychological types, he spends a great deal of time on the distinction of extraversion and introversion, even as these “merely” comprise orientations toward the four basic psychic functions (thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuiting). Somewhere, he describes the experience of the differences in point of view entailed between those with an introverted orientation and those with an extraverted orientation as “fundamentally irritating”; he gives the impression, perhaps correctly, that this difference proposes a virtually unbridgeable gulf. At the same time, however, he insists—partly on logically necessary grounds-that in describing people in terms of psychological types we must acknowledge both introverted and extraverted aspects.

This emphasis gets forgotten (easily) in psychological typing discussions and schemas, in part due I think to the difficulty in bridging the introverted/extraverted orientation gap. Though misleading to speak of Sun people and Moon people—people with an extraverted or radiant orientation to consciousness and people with an introverted or reflective orientation to consciousness—in practice actually encounter those with a primarily opposite orientation come across as or seem, at least, as that opposite orientation, as an identity. However much one tries to negotiate this difference in a conversation, the whole process takes on an air of predestined doom.[33]

ahhhhhaWhatever the case, Jung did—perhaps in a case of hopeful thinking—ascribe both tendencies to any given individual, so that we each comprise both Moon orientations and Sun orientations, however problematic their relationship turns out for us in our own heads and in our interactions with others. But Nichols point stands: , both orientations cannot prevail at the same time; in a given situation, both cannot rule at once. We cannot project and reflect simultaneously—we cannot decree as an act of power on those we communicate with and simultaneously protect the relationship; we cannot gracefully decline a given offer of relationship while issuing a decree that names what our relating is.[34]

In  friendly context, we may assume that the lightning of decree (issuing from one person to another) not only offers no intention to harm but issues in the sure knowledge and anticipation that the one just named will return the gesture in kind. First, I grant you an audience, and you “thunder forth” with lightning, but in the next moment, the tables turn, and you grant me an audience in kind. &c. One may see in this no necessary equality in the hierarchical scheme of things (e.g., a boss might discuss matters with an employee) but only a necessity of equality in the manner of address: we both grant to each other in turn the right, with each moment of speaking, to issue a decree.[35] We each get a turn to command an audience, to hold court, &c, the whole while thinking in terms of the “royal” we (rather than the “paltry” me).


[1] The “grounds” for card-carrying patriarchs, of course, consist of the desire to dominate women. Thus my question included the word “non-patriarchal’ to bracket out these kinds of “grounds”.

[2] I say parity because Jung tends to see the unconscious and consciousness as non-equal entities. At least, in the psychoanalytical domain, one encounters those cases where the unconscious has autocratically or impishly overthrown the will of ego-consciousness, but perhaps the “power” of ego-consciousness over most of the course of the day proves generally adequate. In any case, my use of the word “parity” indicates that we must attend both to the unconscious—more precisely, psychic material in consciousness that emerges from the unconscious—and conscious material alike, though each in their own way.

[3] As a general context, I do not believe Tarot cards are in any way inherently magical; I’m not someone who becomes psychically disturbed if you touch my deck or someone who claims you’ve ruined the vibe if you do. Personally, doing Tarot readings for people is one place in my life where my intuitive and intellectual sides work in tandem, rather than being at odds with one another—and that sense of co-operation is a pleasure to experience. For others—for the “us” that exists during the duration of the Tarot reading—it is a chance to have a conversation; as an example, I’ve had a radio show where I did Tarot card readings on the air with formerly incarcerated individuals in order to let the world listening hear the reality of incarceration, &c, but the conversation is also for the other person, to examine the forces, the patterns, the trends in her or his life, and to have the opportunity to change them. I continually ask questions when doing Tarot card readings; I don’t pretend to be or act psychic. And having said all that, to the extent that the imagery in the Tarot operates archetypally (as Nichols claims), to the extent that it can inspire images and dislodge psychic impressions in those using and viewing the cards, then I agree that the Jungian approach Nichols brings to the Tarot stands to be helpful, insightful, and useful—hence this commentary on her commentary.

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

rud[5] Psychological Types (Collected Works 6, [1921], 1971), Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9, Part 1, 2nd ed. 1968), Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works 7, 2nd ed 1966), Psychology and Alchemy (Collected Works 12, [1944], 2nd ed. 1968), Alchemical Studies (Collected Works 13, 1968), Mysterium Coniunctionis (Collected Works 14, [1955-6], 2nd ed. 1970).

[6] I have Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works 5, [1911-12], 2nd ed. 1967), Aion (Collected Works 9, Part 2, [1951], 2nd ed. 1968), and Psychiatric Studies (Collected Works 1, 2nd ed. 1970) lined up next, and need still to find affordable copies of Experimental Researches (Collected Works 2, 1973) and finally The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (Collected Works 8, 1970).

[7] I began with the Crowley-Harris (1972) Thoth Tarot, which I used for many years, acquired but didn’t find myself inspired by Dali’s (1955) Universal Tarot, owned, found myself inspired by, but did not use Tavaglione’s (1979) Stairs of Gold Tarot, used Brian William’s (1988) Renaissance Tarot during my professional phase, in part because the trumps readily leant themselves to that kind of setting, Gerhardt & Zeeuwen’s (1996) Terrestrial Tarot, which one reviewer describes as very unsettling yet still possessing a “strange magnetism,” and finally, Sergio Toppi’s (2000) Tarot of the Origins—Toppi being, as it turns out, one of my favorite illustrators of all time (see here and here, for my reviews of two of his books).

[8] The title used for this header comes from the title of the chapter in Nichol’s book.

[9] I.e., I would like simply to say “we may dismiss the patriarchal conceit here without remark and continue.”

[10] On one view of the major arcana, which aligns the cards in terms of the Hindu phases and/or overall purpose of a life—i.e., kama or pleasure (cards 1–4), artha or power (cards 5–8), dharma or service (cards 9–12), moksha or liberation (cards 13–16), and finally samsara or the interim duration between incarnate lives (cards 17–20)—then we see that the Emperor (and the Empress) cards occur at the level of pleasure, not power. In brief, just as we provide the magic for the Magician and the meaning for the High Priestess, the Emperor and Empress rule at our pleasure. In a real sense, we let them “get away with it” with apparently ruling on a basis of actual power.

[11] See Errington and Gewertz (1987)* or Reiter (1975)** for an in-depth analysis.

*Errington, F, and Gewertz, D. (1987). Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology : an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire], New York: Cambridge University Press.

**Reiter, RR (1975). Men and women in the south of France: public and private domains. In R. Reiter (ed.) Toward an anthropology of women, pp. 252–82. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[12] Among the Chambri of Papua New Guinea, they (use to) build men’s houses (completely out of material extracted from the world), which they referred as females, mothers. So men artificially cleared a space in order to recreate an image of the (female) world they already inhabited. To these houses men would retreat for lively debates and other male concerns. This clearly points to an alternative “path of intercommunication” that takes “the empress” as its example in the first place, but the most key element stands in the fact that such men’s houses were a part of culture, not the whole or the whole symbol of it. Males may well have wanted “their own world,” but in such a men’s house we don’t see yet any claim that that house shows the whole world (i.e., civilization). That claim comes later in history, from other cultures. And Nichols reprises it here with the notion of Emperor as civilizer. This belies the bluff of power that claims only a part as the whole, as the one in charge.

[13] Out of this comes the male fantasy of creation ex nihilo or at least without the assistance of Woman—Zeus’ Athena being the most familiar Western example

[14]  As noted in my previous post.

[15] C.f., Erich Neumann’s (1955). The great mother: an analysis of the archetype. [New York]: Pantheon Books.

[16] C.f., Mircea Eliade’s (1996). Patterns in comparative religion. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[17] See Tzvetan Todorov’s (1998). The conquest of America: the question of the other (trans. Richard Howard). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press; you may find my reply to and engagement with it here.

A Fool, Just for Good Measure

A Fool, Just for Good Measure

[18] Obviously,, in real-world families authority figures vary, both in and out of the family: the father one minute, a police officer another, the mother in a third instance, an older brother, &c. Whatever necessity might get ascribed for Authority, to statically genderize it represents a piece of ideology, whether that means insisting only men can wield authority or that women may only take on authoritative qualities by acting like men, &c.

[19] For those who respond favorably to an imposed context, traditionally authoritarian figures (even in their abusive practices) may get put to good use developmentally. Other types can and must rebel against and push against such constraints; in this case, an authoritarian figure might have (especially in its abusive practices) a fertile an generative ground developmentally. Obviously, the kinds of abuse of power here matter—I doubt that fathers raping daughters tends to have a strengthening effect on developmental identity. But I have known my share of males who took a conscious and not at all obscure pride in taking a whipping from their old man growing up. They experienced their fathers’ corporal violence as attempts to “break” them (like a horse) and the (successful) resistance to that attempt distinctly built up the (growing) boys’ self-confidence. Whether that childhood violence down the line had ultimately good or bad consequences remains another matter.

[20] More precisely, the series (for instance) from child to adult implies the possibility of a state of regression as well, as to the dementia of old age. Similarly, having transformed from barbarian to citizen, one may re-experience that transition by emigrating or by getting incarcerated. These further articulations of the “one-way” quality of typical transformations (from child to adult and barbarian to citizen) point to the static states each condition involves. In point of fact, one does come to occupy liminal spaces and these tend to have a great deal of distress about them: the state of adolescence between childhood and adult, for example, or the state of a (documented) immigrant. What these static categories seek to deny—and they have these static qualities (at least in the socio-political domain) in order that Power can track and know you—involves any sort of more fluid conception of identity—someone who seems adult and child at the same time or barbarian and citizen simultaneously, &c. Such fluid categories tend to throw spanners in the works, &c.

[21] My first year in college (in 1985) saw some sort of break-down in the computerized registration system so that we freshmen experienced long lines at the registrar’s office to get our schedules filled. While in that three-hour line, a male and female pair of frosh in front of me got into a debate about human cognition, and I spent the greater portion of that time successfully convincing them that we should envy the life of an abalone over the life of a human being. The abalone, I argued, neither enjoyed nor did not enjoy its existence, suffering at most for a few mere minutes as an otter broke it open and ate it alive. That brief flash of inexplicable physical suffering stood as a better risk than all of the helpless and hopeless turmoil we experience daily, moment to moment, as human beings. I do not recall this only to say I would now have little patience for such obnoxiously naïve (or naïvely obnoxious) self-contradiction as I pitched that day but rather to point to the fact that if I now speak in praise of consciousness over unconsciousness I do not do so from a naïve position that never considered the alternative. Ultimately, the problem of suffering seems quantitative not qualitative; we may desire for suffering to go away entirely if that means sacrificing consciousness to do so, but this seems a consequence of having no means (for whatever reason) for mitigating the qualitatively unbearable effects of suffering to the point of being bearable. People generally drink not to black out but to numb the pain even though blacking out technically reaches that goal as well. And people who do heroin may similarly do so to numb the pain but the last thing one want when in the delicious throes of the effects of heroin on one’s body is to black out.

[22] We might “salvage” the metaphor some by noting that the most recurrent influences on ego-consciousness (the Sun) itself erupt from its own interior—that the nuclear and tidal forces within the Sun, which so far physics can at best only approximate, might point to the sort of flare-ups, moods, and perturbations that appear in and around the Sun (ego-consciousness).

[23] Of course, the sun gives off plenty of non-visible radiation. The Emperor might tell us, “Oho, so you’ve discovered one may see through other forms of light. Well, I’ve been radiating that stuff too since forever, so I still embody the best example of light.”

[24] A logical inference to draw here asserts that we are that light (of consciousness), but Hindu philosophy avoids this mistake. Clearly, the one wielding the flashlight neither is the flashlight or the light shining on objects in the room. The light of consciousness denotes something that someone wields.

[25] Perhaps significantly, the very angle of our shadow discloses our orientation to the light.

[26] Thus, at those times when we attempt to diet but then gorge on vanilla ice cream anyway, we ask, “Why did I do that,” and beat up the one we charge with running things, when in fact in the “power politics” of our psyches, other complexes exist that express desires other than what the one we charge with running things decrees or wills. This doesn’t offer an apologetics for Power, of course, nor does it ague for a Stalinist paranoia that counter-revolutionary forces stands continuously ready to thwart the will. No “foreigners” or “aliens” hang out in the Court, and the holding together of a kingdom involves far more than any mere claim ego-consciousness makes. By remaining generally unable to distinguish these countervailing impulses in our psyches, we end up crediting and blaming the wrong element when things go wrong and right, respectively. If we buy into the bluff of power, then the Emperor will try to excuse his failings by saying, “See, a mood (a demon) wickedly possessed me. Let us wage a war against demons an kill them all” and so forth.

[27] Immediately, one detects the slimy slope this points to. If the President or the Queen represents not the “one in charge” but the “one we’ve charged with running things,” then this permits polity-blaming and statements like de Maistre’s “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.” (“every nation gets the government it deserves”). In other words, a crucial difference between the governance of the Emperor psychologically versus politically, in the psychological realm a corrective (revolutionary) mechanism exists perpetually to right the excesses of the ego-consciousness, whether these issue from the personal unconscious (the shadow) or the collective unconscious. If the world of politics has anything like this automatic mechanism, and that remains very doubtful, even when it kicks in, the effectiveness of such a mechanism remains questionable.

bgolj[28] If not killed outright; the very fact of survival becomes an argument for divine election then, since others so struck did not live.

[29] —or, perhaps more precisely, those interested in being in charge will make the claim it functions like a decree.

[30] Or perhaps issue decrees from that moody standpoint. Certainly, when I find myself “in a mood” (i.e., in those circumstances when my own willing seems superseded or thwarted by that mood) then “because I say so!” tends to provide a loud and clear “justification’ for remaining in possession by that mood. Jung might say these moods and complexes reflect archaic patterns so it becomes easy to label them “childish”—though this happens after the fact or from the standpoint of someone else. It seems tempting to “accuse” such moods and complexes as having no familiarity with the habits of rulership, but that might act as an asset as much as a liability. Such an accusation veers dangerously toward undesirable political assertions about the political capacities of other people anyway. In a sort of tautology, obviously those who have not habitually ruled (in whatever locally accepted way) will not have that habit of rule, but neither will the rulers have access to the positive aspects of those kinds of unruliness the non-rulers have as part of their traditions. Unruliness or ruliness themselves have no inherent value and will tend toward oppressiveness when practiced dogmatically and exclusively—as the exportation of democracy demonstrates in an especially ugly way. In any case, the specific forms of authoritarianism that moods, complexes, and the like—their specific forms of unruliness, in other words—may stand in a complementary (mirror) or complimentary (imitative) relationship to the ruliness of ego-consciousness. My moods or complexes, when they possess me, either seem to offer no justification for themselves at all or tend to rest on a petulant, rebellious, or autocratic basis. It would seem helpful to know the specific experience of others on this point.

[31] As far as I recall, this realignment occurs comparatively late, with Indian tantrism. Whatever else this entails, we should not rush to judge this as symptomatic then of a pre-patriarchal view of things.

[32] It belies a certain compliment to Woman to make the distinction between earth (Gaia) and heaven (Ouranos), especially as in Hesiod Gaia precedes Ouranos. But besides that this creation story sits already squarely in a vastly patriarchal if not misogynistic setting, like the antecedence of YHVH, this may encode a progressivist claim, “later is better”; certainly the Greek deities, in their titan battles and giant battles, make a show of claiming superiority. Moreover, as the phrase “as above, so below” makes clear, Gaia stands lower than Ouranos. But going further back in mythological history, I recall that in Egypt it seems at one time no distinction prevailed between night and day; they were seen, rather, simply as two aspects of the same goddess. And from other comparative analyses of religion, figures of Nature itself might offer no distinction whatsoever (including of gender) between earth, sky, and the like. So I’d prefer to remain wary of distinctions like sun and moon or sky and earth, as projections of cultural value, that may reflect problematic articulations of patriarchal social structures. In the image of the and the moon, particularly in their appearance of complementariness and the fact that both at times appear larger than the other, I see a desirable symbolic representation for the radiant and reflective in the human psyche. Moreover, if I hazard a tenuous “ground” for this, the mythological record of some of the earth’s oldest cultures bear traces of sky fathers who no longer have any significant worship attached to them. Logically, when people (as everywhere) get preoccupied most with daily affairs, whatever dim significance the “creation of the world” might portend, a quick “thank you” may suffice before getting back to one’s daily affairs. But I have (and perhaps we have) no way of confirming with any degree of satisfaction if these now at best only dimly remembered original creators were actually identified as male—whether or not this (1) more reflects a bias on the part of patriarchalized ethnographers collecting data on “primitives,” (2) represents a later (masculinist) articulation of patriarchy that deliberately or accidentally forgot about the sky mothers that accompanied the sky fathers, (3) or arises “innocently” enough because male informants might have only known of and thus spoken of those (male) traditions handed down to them about the original creators; female anthropologists might have discovered from women about sky mothers, &c. One does not of course need sky mothers for sky fathers to beget creation—the Egyptian Khepr does just fine by himself masturbating the universe into existence—or vice versa; even Hesiod’s Cosmogony acknowledges the vagina (all by itself) as the original source of everything. And finally, just to finish objecting to my own point, one doesn’t have to argue some priority of the imagery as the aboriginal Ur-ground for all that followed. Solely on the grounds of intuition I would assert that introversion evolved after extraversion, so if the introverts arrived on the scene after extraverts had been projecting Sun Gods (sky fathers) for a while, it wouldn’t surprise me. But however this all plays out, the mutually illuminatory vision of the sun and moon provide symbolic framework for the royalty of consciousness, especially if I link them with introversion and extraversion, the reflective and the radiant.

[33] I suggest this arises from a fundamentally extraverted orientation in language itself, so that the whole way that “extraverts” use language already wholly obliterates who “introverts” use language (and vice versa, of course).

[34] In stupid arguments, to attempt to get the last word in—to decree the last word—helplessly serves as a tacit admission of dependency on the one decreed to. And people in such arguments lost never fail to point this out. In a stupid Internet exchange, the promise not to reply to any post mockingly annihilates itself when one cannot exercise enough restraint in the face of the other’s (often smug) reply. And then one faces, “See? I knew you would reply.” Autocratically declaring “this conversation is over” belies the pathetic bluff of power in so far as it pretends that the one so commanded has no power to reply; the only guarantee involves leaving the room and staying way, but even this only means that your half of the conversation no longer gets publically represented. The one who remains can now say whatever he or she likes—an often does.

[35] Obviously, in a less friendly context, one may start issuing destructive bolts of language or one may pull rank on one’s listeners.


They say “knowledge is power”—and in one sense, yes. But from another, not so much, since “power is acknowledgment”.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the forty-fifth entry (if I’ve not lost track) in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1] and the second to address Part 8 (The Command), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I address section 5, “The Expectation of Commands.” [2]

The Expectation of Commands

“A sentry standing motionless on guard for hours is the best expression of a soldier’s psychic state. He must not … make any movement except such exactly defined ones as may be prescribed to him” (311). That Canetti knows nothing of actual soldiers’ lives (or phenomenology) matters little, since the image he provides comes, rather, from the fantasy of control that the military (ideally) envisages. Of course, probably few if any generals have ever seriously held this ideal—Napoleon may provide one exception, and he fancied himself an emperor—so we once again find ourselves a witness to Canetti’s resort to myth rather than actuality to make his point.

This point provides his basis for insisting on armies as the opposite of crowds. The expectation of command provides, in Canetti’s description, the preeminent state of tension for the soldier, i.e., suppress all activity and do only what someone commands you to do. In this idealized form, the commander aims to impart his or her will directly to another, &c. And while crowds certainly can’t get equated with armies, it remains unclear why Canetti insists so stridently that armies must not constitute any type of crowd; “anyone who has to give commands in an army must be able to keep himself free of all crowds, whether actual or remembered” (313). That a military command remains constant no matter how many it get addressed to “is of the greatest importance. It is what renders a command immune to crowd influence” (313).

What Canetti means by such ‘crowd influences’ remains unclear, but his emphasis falls on the effectiveness of the military type of command. This points to a desire to control, to the (necessary) feature of commanding an army, as a kind of machine, to affect the desired ends. Again, we have to note the idealized fantasy of this. In War and Peace, Tolstoy took great pains, with what historical material he had at his disposal, to demonstrate the disconnect that occurred frequently during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia between the commands Napoleon issued and what actually occurred on the battlefield.[3] Again, no military commander has ever wholeheartedly embraced a fantasy of perfect control, and a good deal of bluff gets called into play so that when one’s commands lead to defeat this may nevertheless lead to defeats becoming commands, &c. Nonetheless, the premise of command rests at least on an approach to the ideal of control, which includes that the ideal soldier consists of one with such a fine-tuned expectation of command that he serves as an ideal conduit for those commands (as exercises of control). &c.

That an army reflects an exceptionally regimented articulation of control structures and a crowd does not does not yet persuade me that we must understand them as so radically different in kind that a discussion of one does not overlap with the other. We may understand humans and machines as very different kinds of automata yet may still attempt to locate an understanding of such automata on a common ground.

Cybernetics attempted (and continues to attempt) this. Two points. Maturana and Varela (1987)[4] expressed strong reservations about extending the findings of their description of biology (living systems) to nonliving systems (organizations), and so any cybernetic comparison of crowds and armies should not lose sight of these reservations.[5] Second, through the distinction of trivial and nontrivial machines, von Foerster (2003)[6] demonstrates that any description of living systems as automata, despite being every bit as deterministic as a nonliving automata, represents a transcomputational (i.e., unsolvable) problem.

A difference of approach offered by cybernetics concerns the desire to describe (the range of) what a system does rather than what it is. Ashby (1956),[7] in an innocuously revolutionary remark, states that “cybernetics might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and control” (4, emphasis in original). While one might tease this apart a lot, for this post the salient part arises from control. If one imagines a system (an entity) experiencing a range of perturbations—as changes of state—then control in this context means some sufficient process for counter-acting that change of state so that the system (the machine, the entity) goes on functioning as designed (and desired).[8]

In biological (living) systems one may already discern an erosion of power as Canetti tends to present it. If I command my dog to sit, I may describe this as me issuing a command that (somehow) causes the dog to sit. But since biological systems remain “open to energy, but closed to information and control” (Ashby, 4), by another description, I may say the energy of my command “triggers” (rather than causes) a perturbation—a change of state—in my dog, and his biology then compensates for that perturbation in whatever fashion it does, including that he sits. We might debate whether I have “caused” the dog to sit or not in both cases but the nature of cause in the first case (the command fantasy) compared to the second clearly materially differs. In the first case, the dog reacts mechanically (literally) just as in the case of the ideal soldier. We can make a description of such a command without ever needing to take account of the dog (or soldier) the command issues to; hence Canetti emphasis the constancy of the military command. In the second case, however, some account needs taking of the nature of the dog; I directed energy at it that triggered a perturbation—a change of state—but the cognitive or biological characteristics of the dog (or the soldier) played a part. How do I know? The same command issued to a cat would have no effect, for instance; also, were we to examine the exact physiological response of the dog’s biology, we would find no difference (biophysiologically) between “sit” and “fetch”. In both cases, reference to my command alone cannot account for the behavior of the dog. An even further articulation of this point would interrogate the “openness” to energy as well, further complicating the sense of “cause” or “trigger”.

If we imagine a crowd or an army as a kind of machine, then control entails some sufficient process for counter-acting changes of state in those machines—however those changes of state originate—so that the machine (the crowd, the army) goes on functioning as designed (and desired). Stating it this way brings out the questions not only what design or desire do crowds continue to evince but also whether commands “trigger” or “cause” effects in crowds and armies. Or, perhaps differently—given that it seems intuitively more apt (though not necessarily more accurate) to speak of commands “causing” effects in armies and “triggering” effects in crowds—then what does “control” of a crowd look like and what sort of events “trigger” changes of states in armies? Similarly, can one “command a crowd” or does that amount simply to a bluff? What do we make of circumstances where a loss of command means a loss of control or vice versa?

The Indirections of Power

As a sort of summary illustration of this for now, Errington and Gewertz (1987),[9] describing the characteristics of politicking for public reputation in Chambri (Papua New Guinea), throw light on Canetti’s earlier remarks about the nervousness of (ruling) fathers that their sons eventually must replace them; or, as Errington and Gewertz (1987) put it:

Fathers do allocate some of their powers to their sons in order to indebt and empower them sufficiently so that they become effective supporters. However, since sons replace fathers within patriclans, to the extent a senior male gives important names and powers to his junior agnates, he also fosters his own political eclipse.

Amongst the Chambri, particular male relatives provide a patrimony to certain female relatives at marriage intended ultimately as a gift to the newlywed’s (eventual) son. This marriage involves a different clan, so that “the powers a mother’s brother gives to his sister’s son in the form of names are legitimately alienated from the mother’s brother’s clan, but only during the life of the sister’s son” (95). This patrimony, in fact, provides at least part of the initial repayment of affinal debts, Thus, “a man can, without fundamentally weakening his clan [by destructively gifting clan resources], ensure that his [own, actual] sons—and junior agnates more generally—are delayed in their access to ritual secrets [because they will return to the clan only when the newlywed’s son takes possession of them] which would make them more fully able to compete with him” (95). This potentially reduces claims for resources and thus rivalry between actual sons as well. This political and affinal maneuver functions like  savings account; “these valuables provided to a daughter by her senior patrilateral kin in trust for her son will, in fact, eventually be used by him to compensate her brother” (96).

The delay of the gift will probably retard, or at least, inhibit the postglacial ascent of the son: Fathers are likely to remain more important than their sons since much of the clan wealth they control is initially diverted from their own sons to their daughters’ sons. Men receive portions of their patrimonies from their sisters’ sons, when their fathers are likely to be already dead (96).

Hence, “in this sense, a father’s gift to his daughter is really a delayed bequest to his son” (96). We should not, however—or perhaps only need not—think of this only or strictly in economic terms. In their chapter on the monetization of social relationships, Errington and Gewertz (1987) draw a sharp distinction between the meaning of affinal exchange when the objects of those transations comprise symbolic objects compared to money itself as inherently a medium of exchange. Summarized, the patrimony represents a future surety of relationship between the patrimony-giver and patrimony receiver, rather than a gift of and acquisition of property per se.[10]

These passages from Errington and Gewertz (1987) read confusingly for me because the terms “father” “daughter” and “son” &c do not have the exact sense in Chambri culture as for us, and the authors seem to shift them about (perhaps for readability). In any case, the Chambri situation seems similar to the Warramunga and other peoples of Australia, where corporate not merely genetic kinship prevails, such that those who count as a brother or a sister includes people that we, in the US, would not designate with that term. However this breaks down, the salient point involves how males work around the dilemma of fostering their own political eclipse (by sons), by delaying access to forms of power by those sons who will have a legitimate claim to such goods in the future (i.e., those sons who will inherit anything from the father).

In theory, Canetti could have read Mead’s work on the Chambri and thus red bout this variety of power feint, but I don’t fault Canetti for having failed to read everything. Nonetheless, to the extent that Canetti (as well as the historical or quasi-historical documents he accesses) present the “problem of succession” as a head-to-head confrontation between father and son (or between son and son after the death of the father), these present picture of an only limited and certain kind of power structure. More precisely, even in the documented evidence Canetti draws on we may remember that the authors themselves may not have (almost certainly did not have) an intimate knowledge of the actual political or power structures involved. The father’s confronted in these anecdotes might well have had available similar affinal feints, or different ones besides, which don’t get into the historical record because (1) they tend to remain invisible and (2) historical anecdotalists don’t deem significant such details, if known.

The Chambri political dilemma, so to speak, involves the social requirement of giving away power without (1) utterly depleting the clan power ultimately or (2) having some means to replace it. Just as the bluff “I made a great ritual object but someone stole it” may function as a win-win, bequeathing power in trust to a member of a future generation who will, in turn, pay you back with it marks a similar kind of win-win. Canetti’s view of the leader as an autocratic thug who can do whatever he wants cannot take account of this kind of necessity-motivated maneuvering.

In addition, power in the Chambri setting explicitly involves knowledge. The objects given in the patrimony have meaning only as symbols (in the first place) and grant access to and identification with secret names (as information). By materializing the male’s knowledge of secret names in a patrilateral trust, this excuses the male from any claim—by an actual son, for instance—to divulge what he in fact still knows. By convention, he has imparted (in a literal way) his knowledge into ritual objects no longer in his care and thus (conventionally) no longer accessible to him, until the patrimony’s beneficiary comes into possession of it, if even then. Like the bluff, his ability to give the names (in a patrimony) attests to his ownership of them while avoiding any demand to prove that fact, because currently he does not have access to that power. He does have, however, the testimony and thus implicitly the support from those holding the patrimony in trust, who affirm, “Yes, he gave this to us.” Thus, again, rather than a direct support for a claim to power (“I have the power of these ritual objects and names”) we see an indirect support for such a claim (“Yes, he gave us these ritual objects and sacred names … which we can’t touch until I produce a son.”)

So, perhaps rather than “knowledge is power” we should say “power is knowledge” and even more than that, “power is what claims of support for your power you can accumulate from others.” Understood this way, Canetti’s narrative about the autocratic use of power as a force—in that sense of force and power understood metaphorically from physics (see Krippendorff, 1995,[11] here)—proposes a kind of bluff, in that it misrepresents the actual practice of power; it presents the bluff “I can do this” in place of “See? They say I have done or can do this.”[12] Thus—it seems gratuitous and obvious to say but given the way the discourse of power plays out in culture it becomes not gratuitous or obvious at all—power does not operate in a linear way. That Odin zaps someone with a lightning bolt must hide, somewhere in its mythological framework, the “they” who really does the work of the zapping. And that they, of course, comprise ‘the gods themselves” (or, in this case, the gods of the gods). Thus, when the commander commands, this similarly masks the massive power structure that permits him to do so.

Behind the myth of the commander, of Odin, of power as Canetti spins it out stands whatever field of acknowledgment that make the practice of command possible. And one of the key tropes in that myth arises, precisely, in controlling knowledge in the sense of “who knows that I command, actually, only upon the generosity or sufferance of they.” By they I do not necessarily mean “the people”. And by power, I do not mean the capacity of the autocrat to take up a gun and shoot in the face whoever annoys him. Contra Canetti, violence represents a kind of power, not vice versa—it remains forever as a possible threat, but this does not make it prior to power. A passage from Margaret Mead, reproduced in Errington and Gewertz (1987), makes this point. Mead (1935)[13] wrote:

The elaborate ceremonies, the beating of water-drums, the blowing of flutes, are no secrets from the women. As they stood, an appreciative audience, listening solemnly to the voice of the crocodile, I asked them: “Do you know what makes that noise?” “Of course, it is a water-drum, but we don’t say we know for fear the men would be ashamed.” And the young men answer, when asked if the women know their secrets: “Yes, they know them, but they are good and pretend not to, for fear we become ashamed. Also—we might become so ashamed that we would beat them (263).

We see in this the open secret: women know men’s secrets and men know they know, so the political transactions of power amongst men rely on the maintenance of this social fiction, but that fiction if violated may break down into open violence. We could pretend that the constraint of culture serves merely as a civilized accretion over an otherwise first-resort to physical violence, but neither the human nor the animal world support such a claim.[14] Chambri women and men, as also male and female wolves, and our daily selves as well, do not bely behavior as if violence gets assumed as the norm of every interaction. The fact that violence may typically surprise or astonish us similarly points to this, so the habit of dwelling on the potentiality of violence in all, most, or even any human interaction becomes neurotic. The norm (between humans and wolves, for example) appears as an expectation of acknowledgment, which one might call the antithesis of an expectation of command, especially when a command per Canetti can only leave a sting, a wound, a scar.

For the Chambri, in the present example, we see that an expectation of acknowledgment may also involve a form of non-acknowledgment—women will not acknowledge their knowledge of male secrets, &c.  In the absence of this, male shame may become so great that physical violence will occur. Errington and Gewertz (1987) state categorically:

This is not to say that men never do violence to women: Francis Yaboli, after all, did beat his wife. However, when men behave this way, it is not as part of a strategy to establish power but, rather, indicates a loss of power. Nor is the occasional violence toward women part of a general male effort to control women (152)

It must remain unclear how, on the scant evidence Errington and Gewertz provide, why occasional violence toward women does not evidence any “general male effort to control women” (152), but we at least see that violence does not constitute a first resort.

So, in contrast to the expectation of command that Canetti ascribes as fundamental to the wholly artificial circumstance of an army, we may oppose an expectation of acknowledgment as a fundamental aspect of the wholly mundane circumstance of everyday life (even among other mammalian species). To this expectation of recognition, humans (at least) add also an expectation of fairness, empathy, and cooperation, and perhaps on those grounds one might “rationalize” the obvious disparity in the Chambri social fiction, that demands women pretend not to know men’s secrets.  To make such a claim, however, would require seeing some reciprocal acknowledgment by males, but even in the passage Errington and Gewertz cite to support their case, the men and women alike describe the women as fearful lest men become ashamed. That fear, one assumes rests on the threat of being beaten, as the male attests. This veers away from a “polite social fiction”[15] toward something more generally oppressive, which women (smartly) avoid by at least seeming to willingly maintain the social fiction.

All of this potentially complicated back and forth involved in power contrasts starkly with Canetti’s myth of power, as something wielded like Odin’s lightning bolt—even more so to the extent that the (willing) silence of women in that arena further skews what we see in that arena.[16] The sense one gets from the sketches of power politicking that Errington and Gewertz (1987) provide seems far more fluctuating and protean; males seem constantly involved in finding ways to compensate for various perturbations to their sense of public prestige or reputation. It would seem an idle or unambitious male who did not (rather nervously) keep constantly alert for signs of his power eroding. Something like a castle, as a concrete manifestation of impregnability, might provide a welcome relief as a way to reduce vulnerability and dependency (upon women, upon other people) for one’s existential persistence.—and in this we may see the beginnings of the breakdown of the social, the substitution of the materiality of goods in place of their symbolic value, and the like characteristic of the current social milieu. The materiality of the castle, then, represents a literal concretization of the myth of power, which still rests on the acknowledgment of they—just as women might (smartly) maintain the social fiction for fear of reprisals, we might (smartly) maintain the social fiction that money has value (or that the bluff of property remains legitimate) on similar grounds. That the threat of violence lingers in the background of this still changes nothing as much for us as for the Chambri—violence remains a form of power where, at its maximal collapse, the they gets identified with an I.

The fluid situations of power we see in Errington and Gewertz’s (1987) description warrants taking a cybernetic view of them (as explored previously)—one may speak of a key variable or variables that either must remain within an acceptable range (of values) or, that some process (of negative feedback) exists to return those variables to the acceptable or necessary range whenever they rise or fall outside of it. This amorphous, shifting view of power differs sharply from the militaristic image of the commander on his throne throwing lightning bolts. And if the Chambri politician finds himself all out in the open, exposed on all sides and fundamentally dependent on other males and females to keep the key variable of his power in an acceptable state, then our modern politicians have the advantage of being less out in the open. The myth of (modern) power bluffs a non-dependency on other human beings but what security has been bought by the impermeability of boundaries (separating those in power from other people, i.e., the castle walls) creates difficulties in terms of knowledge. At the risk of putting it too fancifully, the chitinous shells of crustaceal life, which proved advantageous for reducing the exterior vulnerability of various life forms, also closed off for many species whatever evolutionary pathway that eventually led to once again shucking off such enclosures.[17]

If, to continue the metaphor, power took the resort of evolving a shell (a castle) to reduce the sort of vulnerability one readily discerns in Errington and Gewertz’s (1987) description of Chambri political life, then this “simply” reconfigures how power structures itself (e.g., specific points of egress and exit), with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, but this does not negate the dependence of power on others any more than a clam’s shell negates its dependence on the environment. An further, if on some kind of dubious anthropic principle, we get impressed by the fact that mammalian life found a way to get rid of the shell (and thus become once again more “open” to “environmental information”), then power might similarly benefit from trading in “shell” for “skin”—if, in fact, that has not already started to happen. But even if power has traded in shell for skin, that still does not negate the dependence of power on others. If power, in its most vulgar bourgie sense, saw a man’s home as his castle and his entire worth no longer in his reputation but simply in what he owns—like a dragon with its horde of treasure that no one else ever needs to see, that requires no social acknowledgment to have worth (at least for the dragon)—then the outer extent of that myth requires pushing back as far as possible, to infinity ideally (if impossibly), any sense of connection with other people.

Dehumanization Types

Four major ways to do this include ignoring them, objectifying them,[18] oppressing them,[19] or depersonalizing them, and while offered as distinct emphases or gestures, I also readily see how they might run together. By “ignoring them,” I mean not recognizing or acknowledging that a person exists at all. That part of shunning someone that refuses recognition to them at all represents a form of this.[20] This form of non-recognition does not require any form of judgment about the person; in fact, technically it cannot since it proceeds from a premise of not recognizing a person at all.[21] By contrast, then, to depersonalize someone involves  a judgment as an unfair ascription of traits or qualities to a person; thus, shunning someone as an adulterer might represent a form of depersonalization.

To keep this exposition on track, the above starts from the premise that the individualistic myth of power attempts to deny as much as possible the actual and still prevailing social interconnectedness of people. So far, I have described two ways this myth operates when it denies interconnectedness by ignoring other people and depersonalizing them. In the first case, power passes no judgment on them, “They do not concern me” or (in a more positive spin), “They’re free to determine their own destiny just as I am.”[22]—more notoriously, “The peasants have no bread? Then let them eat cake.” In the second case, power denies interconnected by passing a judgment, “Those people are lazy” (and so don’t deserve any help) or “Arabs [or Africans] are incapable of democratic forms of government” (and so we may excuse ourselves from involvement in their affairs).

Both ignoring and depersonalizing in these senses serve to remove the other; they deny the speaking capacity or ability of the Other to offer a self-definition. Thus, depersonalization serves to dismiss, while objectification similarly denies any capacity at self-definition, but impose a definition in order to make use of the thing objectified. Hence, since “all women are sluts,” this licenses rapists—whether acting singly or as part of a strategy in war—to assault women.  The difference between depersonalization and objectification may seem very slight, but the distinction carries wide ramifications. Depersonalization indicates the de-personalizing of someone; to de-personalize someone does not yet make them into an object, or even into anything else yet. It proposes a denial of something, rather than a positive assertion, like objectification does. Thus, while depersonalization unfairly calls a poor working woman “lazy” (as a way to deny interconnected with her), objectification calls her a “welfare queen”.[23] A fundamental difference I intend in this distinction concerns that depersonalization asserts an absence of personal interconnectedness so as to have nothing to do with the actual person whereas objectification asserts an impersonal connectedness that neutralizes the actual person through the objectifying lens. Objectification allows plantation owners and prison wardens to deny interconnected while keeping “slaves” and allows males to deny interconnected while keeping wives and mistresses.

In a statement like “Blacks are lazy” when it occurs in a leukocentric[24] culture, we see that the statement takes cognizance of an Other, so it proposes no case of ignoring. But what seems almost immediately to leap to mind involves the objection that such a judgment seems unfair—not just unfair in an abstract sense, but unfair in the mere sense that it ascribes everything (about a large group of people) to one quality only.[25] Depersonalization consists of this kind of unfairness; thus, against the judgment, “You are an adulterer,” the person (whether she committed the adultery or not) may rightly say, “I’m not only an adulterer.” One might imagine depersonalization as an attempt to rip off all the label that might apply to a person only to leave one—whether “lazy” or “adulterer” or “stupid”. Whatever qualities characterize the whole person, this gesture of power that denies interconnectedness proceeds by denying that whole personhood.

Objectification, by contrast, provides a wholly new, overarching label, but with an aim of justifying dehumanizing treatment of them, as a means to an end. Of course, the word “dehumanizing” here becomes treacherous, because all of these forms of denying interconnectedness with other people hinge crucially on different forms of dehumanization. In our human discourse about power, however, the word dehumanization arises frequently where objectification occurs; thus, they seem more extricably linked. Again, the key difference between depersonalization and objectification involves that the latter fundamentally disregards any empathy with the new “object” set for use, whether slave, woman, child, etc.  wherever one finds objectification, the question, “would you want to be treated that way” usually has relevance—and this, again, explains why “dehumanize” so readily comes up in this context.[26]  Here, it seems less that a judgment gets drawn so much as a label applied—i.e., what “woman” means in a patriarchal society—remembering that such a  label does not necessarily become identical with identity. An inmate (or a woman) will get treated as an inmate (or a woman) by the carceral society, but the “inner life” of that individual (and even the outer life) need not only consist of suffering, agony, and disaster.  Precisely this indifference to the inner life of those objectified denotes the sense of power lacking empathy for those it objectifies.[27]

From the foregoing, one may imagine that power might have an ‘enthusiastic” objectification for something. Canetti describes how the Jivaro people obtain shrunken heads (by slaughtering their neighbors, and then going to great ritual lengths to domesticate the wild power such a head possesses).  The Jivaro people recognize and acknowledge that one may obtain power from Others (provided you kill them and domesticate some of the remains). Or in some sun-down towns—those towns where African-Americans (to this day) my get warned to leave by sun-down or else—one occasionally finds a Black person who, in some way, has earned a “pass”—but that pass, like all passes, only permits certain kinds of delimited access. Let him stray outside of the carefully circumscribed magical circle—as a Jivaro shrunken head might threaten to—and all hell stands to get loosed.  To oppress people, by contrast, also requires enclosure but almost never any enthusiasm—the very verb “oppress” (to “press against”) shows the continuous vigilance and exercise of pressure and force ostensibly required to keep those oppressed “in their place”.

If objectification acknowledges—as the Jivaro acknowledge others as a source of power—some utility in the other, oppression tends to operate according to necessity, the necessity of keeping the Other enclosed. I don’t feel much needs saying about oppression due to its familiarity. It does seem to distinguish itself from the other forms of dehumanization above (ignoring, depersonalizing, objectifying) in that it may have the closest thing to a clearest view of the Other, insofar as the non-Other must (almost literally) “press” against those it oppresses. Israeli soldiers at checkpoints may have the clearest view of the actual Palestinian people oppressed, &c. This does not mean the “view” lends objectivity—German National Socialist camp guards regularly saw those they imprisoned, even those starving to death, and this does not guarantee any helpful response.

And this refusal to help denotes a key feature of what I mean by oppression. I see the Other, but I refuse cooperation with them—and the Other typically knows this, can see me. A poignant moment in Burnat and Davidi’s (2011) Five Broken Cameras shows Palestinian men asserting to Israeli soldiers, “We’re your brothers.” In this sense, watching someone drown denotes a moment of oppression; the 1% standing by while the 99% sink deeper into poverty denotes a case of systematic oppression, &c. If ignoring someone does not even acknowledge their existence, oppression notes the existence of an Other and refuses to help, to cooperate with them in their (our) living in the world.[28]

Again, one may easily overlap these various dehumanizations: one might say, of the one who refuses to help (one who oppresses an Other), that he refuses because he lacks empathy for the Other (has objectified them). I feel no compunction to get anal about the application of these categories, but an attempted precision of categories requires a precision of use as well. If we imagine a camp guard in Stalin’s gulag, for instance, whatever feelings or affective orientation he has toward the inmates itself does not matter. An attempt to deny interconnectedness implies an actual interconnectedness, so we should expect that these attempts at dehumanization—besides the obvious fact that if a person allows themselves to act in such a way toward others it affects them—should also have systematic effects as well. The awfulness of patriarchy to males denotes one variety of this. And so in the case of the camp guard, if he experiences any oppression at all as a result of his job, it may arise precisely in the fact that his feelings about the Other do not matter; someone has tied his hands (too); he can do nothing (but watch). And so this in particular, then, characterizes oppression: a lack of empathy, characteristic of objectification, may or may not co-occur with it, but either way, it functions secondarily to the primary “value” of refusing cooperation or help. One may say much the same for depersonalization as well—whether the camp guard thinks of his wards as “vermin” or “humans” plays a secondary role. Certainly, amongst the torture manuals of the world—or at least in the pragmatic instructions by master torturers to novices—they no doubt recommend erring on the side of caution: better to negatively depersonalize the wards (to see them as “scum”), better to negatively objectify the wards (to see them as a means to an end, a “paycheck”), than to humanize them.

This subordination of other varieties of dehumanization to  primary gesture occur in circumstances other than oppression per se. For people who do not operate from a standpoint of committed or vicious racism per se, the depersonalization they offer of Others can break down once face-to-face with that Other—thus, the apt observation that historically “in the South, they hate the race and love the individual; in the North, they hate the individual and love the race”. The North offers an instance of oppression that follows from objectification (as accompanied by no empathy for the individual per se)—thus all of the obnoxious platitudes about welfare queens, laziness, refusal to find work, and so forth., and the plentitude of ghettos to contain the Other. By contrast, a much more intimate proximity with the Other made objectification (of people into slaves) a prerequisite for maintaining the oppressive of slavery in the first place.

The purpose of this example serves only to show that these four kinds of dehumanization do not occur in strict isolation, but that once a primary stance or orientation gets selected, the remainder constellate around it or in light of it.

Constellations of Dehumanization

The perspicacious reader will note that oppression and ignoring more or less operate antithetically. Although the citizens of a town who live where a prison operates do not themselves see the inmates in their midst, powers have assigned bodies with eyes to keep very close watch on those inmates. Surveillance, obviously, stands opposite of ignoring (non-surveillance). So, if one takes a primary orientation of oppression, then ignoring becomes the route for introducing what Foucault (1977) [29] calls in Discipline and Punish “illegalities”—things that properly speaking should be punished but get overlooked. Driving five miles over the speed limit exemplifies this for many people but the disparate rate of arrest and conviction for drugs between black and white people points to another. At the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (and doubtless most colleges in the United States), incoming freshmen receive quasi-formal information about how to get out of alcohol possession charges and other drug offenses that, a few blocks north of the college, regularly result in arrests (and convictions) for people in that (predominantly Black) part of town. &c. These illegalities seem exceptions to the rule but we should understand them as aspects of the rule, rather—the racial privileging that occurs with what drug offenses get overlooked underscores this.

Similarly, depersonalization and objectification propose something like opposites as well. Where depersonalization strips away all but a few qualities of a person (“women are loose”), objectification offers a totalizing metaphorical substitution for that person (“women are sluts”). In a trivial way, this reflects a difference in how we think about something compared to how we feel about it, but both actually rest on forms of knowledge (our idea of something and our sense of a thing’s meaning).  And whether, for instance, objectification “ultimately” involves our “idea of something” or and depersonalization involves “what something means” or vice versa likely must seem hopelessly confused and overlapping.  For now, I only want to (unfairly) insist that objectification and depersonalization represent contrary gestures as well.

In terms of dehumanization, and thus the way that the myth of power currently denies human interconnectedness, I will finish this off with a cursory sketch suggesting how these four dehumanizations tend to constellate. One my imagine the oppressing/ignoring axis as “crossed” by an depersonalizing/objectifying axis. For the purpose of this illustration, I assume that the first axis provides the primary orientation though in principle one could work out what it would mean, say, to constellate the other dehumanizations around a primary emphasis on objectification (or depersonalization).

If oppression gets pride of place (as the primary orientation), then ignoring takes on the appearance of “exceptions” (illegalities) as described above. To maintain this system of oppressive power, objectification and depersonalization mediate the “inner life” of those who carry out the oppression. This manifests principally in shaping how the wardens view their wards—as noted above, the system “works” easier for those who enforce it if they think of their wards as vermin (depersonalization) or a paycheck (objectification).

So far, all of this follows rather obviously, and in one sense nearly participates in Canetti’s fantasy of the efficacy of power. Here, power oppresses, with perfect effectiveness. It operates smoothly and all but effortless—people get marched into the gulag, worked to death, and thrown over the fence for the wolves and bears once dead. But not only did things not work this way, this ignores completely the “games” that went on, right under the nose of power. Canetti says one either suffers the sting or evades it; he takes no cognizance of the person who pretends to obey a command.[30] Foucault’s (1977) Discipline and Punish sometimes gives the impression of placing too much faith in the power of the panopticon to see everything,[31] yet even that mythological panopticon (the biblical deity) gets tricks pulled on him right under his nose by Satan, as Jung (1952)[32] makes clear in his Answer to [the book of] Job.

In this, the supposed exceptions illustrate the rule (of power). We may merely anticipate that someone involved in the oppression of others may simply cease to dehumanize her wards, but I do not wish only to point to cases that (obviously) question the premise of the oppression in the first place. I want to point also to those exceptions that reinforce the rule. Since racists have argued that “under-races” threaten hegemonic power both through miscegenation and their very fecundity, so long as the problem of reproduction or pregnancy remains “solved,” then the sexuality of the “under-races” remains accessible. In the South, this manifested as most plantation owners (who could afford it) having a kept “octaroon” mistress. The low-brow edition of this involved merely going out to the slave shacks. Either way, objectification has entered as a key element.

I want to say that the easy (and justified) disgust one conventionally finds in response to this kind of exploitation by white males of Black women should not forestall noticing a remarkable thing about these tacit or literal rapes, especially in the low-brow cases. In  context where Black means “animal” or “non-human,” we can ask how a male would have thought to direct his sexuality that way. Saying this does not confuse rape with sexuality or ignore its claimed-primary emphasis on power. However, I don’t think we can treat it so simply. In any case, these acts specifically cross a threshold, either in the fact that a (human) male has directed his power and sexuality at an “animal” or a “non-human” or has (conceptually) bypassed that designation of the Other as “non-human” or “animal” in order to express his power and sexuality.

Bourgie assholes like to imagine farmers s sheep-fuckers, and some farmers (and other people) do fuck sheep. Let’s not get too precious about being appalled by this, but in as much as it goes on, that a (human) male can cross the threshold to direct his power or sexuality toward a literal animal, then that the same occurs with an objectified human (as an “animal”) shows one way to “get around” a barrier normally inviolable. Insofar as this arises from objectification, a key element involves the lack of empathy on the part of the male. In this kind of setting, it likely seems grotesque to speak of ‘relationship,” but with the octaroon mistress kept in more high-brow settings, a whole complex of “relationship” explicitly gets implicated. The hierarchical arrangement of power assures that a relationship of equality cannot occur and—like the Jivaro shrunken head—the mistress must remain inside her constraining magic circle or all hell will break loose.

What I want to emphasize with this example: because systemic oppression (in the institution of slavery) already stood in place, the typical prohibition on contact between oppressor and oppressed breaks down at places—through the principle of ignoring that prohibition, through an illegality—mediated of necessity by a form of objectification. Phenomenologically, those involved on both sides experienced this as something like a “relationship,” but the hierarchical arrangements preclude this just as completely as in an exchange with a prostitute. Thus, the classic objection by mistresses (“if you really love me, then leave your wife and marry me”) unabashedly and perhaps unwisely underlines the irreality of the “relationship” going on. One may wonder if the octaroon mistress doesn’t represent a more ideal form of mistress-having because one can only with difficulty imagine such  mistress saying in all seriousness “if you really love me, you’ll leave your wife and marry me.”

In this way, we may understand Israel as the octaroon mistress of the United States. I use “octaroon” (technically, this means “one-eighth Black”) to point to the dis-ease on the part of Power to cross the threshold of prohibition. If Faulkner’s fiction gives any indication, the most serious conflagrations result less often from Black and White per se, and more from the mingling of it—either in a person (of mixed heritage) or in the threat of producing such. And one may point to ways that power in the United States had to construe people of Jewish ancestry as at least a little White (i.e., octaroon) before “getting involved with them” &c. In the skewed liens of power that result from hierarchicalized relations, the Master may often feel beset, or put upon, &c., by the mistress, but these conniptions point to the luxuries permitted to a master. &c.

The foregoing shows how objectification and ignoring contribute to the operation of oppression when given a primary orientation—this all as illustrative of the myth of power that denies interconnectedness. What about a circumstance where ignoring gets given precedence? In this case, oppression becomes the apparent exception to the rule, while depersonalization and objectification mediate how that oppression plays out.

As an interpersonal example, many heterosexual males will claim to “have no problem” with homosexuals so long as “fags” don’t “push it in their faces”. Rather than graciously accepting the compliment of a come-on—I describe this all in exaggerated terms for clarity—they take such grave offense that they resort to violence. In parts of the world, this constitutes a positive defense. Insofar as these kinds of “loud” and violent responses erupt out of deeply held idiosyncrasies, generalizing about them remains perilous. Some theorize that the one hit on feels his masculinity so challenged (“you thought I might be open to that kind of gay fucking!?”) that he has to lash out at the one who made the suggestion. Sure. Possibly—and insofar as this opens the possibility of dealing with an actual closet se, then he may no longer provide the best example of “ignoring” in the first place, since that kind of denial very much “knows” what it denies. However, whatever emphasis we put on the one who resorts to violence, it seems he must also have at least objectified the one hitting on him, “You’re a fag?” (or something like that).

The point here:  to attempt to provide an explanatory framework to understand why this person getting hit on results in a violent response as opposed to other non-violent and non-negative responses. In a world that denies the interconnected of Others—in this case even the mere existence of gay males—when abruptly confronted with that fact “oppression” may jump up (in “archaic” violent form) through objectification. Again, the violence of the reaction may muddle analysis. In less volatile reactions, the come-on may get rejected with, “Dude, that’s disgusting” &c, and that one may reply to this with, “Well, it’s not only disgusting” points in the direction of depersonalization (rather than objectification).

In this way, we may understand as a case of this point the exploitation of resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance. The myth of power says, “Because I can, I should,” while ignoring that human beings live in the Congo (and other place where Power aims to extract resources). Whether power finds it masculinity challenged by the sudden appearance of the “native” who claims access to the resources in his or her home country or whether de-personalizing (literally) the Congo as “merely a source of resources” calls forth a reply from the Congolese “it’s not only full of resources,” the (archaic) violence of oppression emerges to contain (in order to negate) that abrupt presence. Depending upon the aims of power, this archaic oppression—usually some variety of war or economic violence—may evolve into full-scale colonization, in which case ignoring and oppressing switch places as the primary emphasis.

[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] Tolstoy’s larger point in War and Peace stood to debunk the Great Man theory of history, by showing that if Napoleon gets called a genius, then what do we make of the fact that some of the battles where his subordinates followed his commands resulted in defeats while other battles where his commands weren’t followed resulted in victories, &c.

[4] Maturana HR, & Varela FJ (1987). The tree of knowledge: the biological roots of human understanding. Boston: New Science Library.

[5] The fundamental objection involves the misprision of taking artificial social constructions (like crowds or armies) as autopoietic (“self-organizing”) in Maturana and Varela’s (1987) very precise sense. Short of offering a full exposition of the point, I may simply observe that crowds and armies do not constitute “closed systems”. The ways that a crowd or an army or a corporation stand like closed systems impose too much of a metaphorical break with biological (living) systems to allow the use of the analogy. One might say we can exchange “autopoietic system” and “living system” as exact synonyms, so that any sense of a crowd or an army or a corporation as a living system offers a simile that precisely destroys the distinction offered by “living system” (“autopoietic system”) in the first place.

[6] von Foerster, H. (2003). For Niklas Luhmann: ‘How recursive is communication?’ In Understanding understanding: Essays on cybernetics and cognition, pp. 305–23. New York : Springer-Verlag.

[7] Ashby, WR (1956). An Introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.

[8] In biological (living) systems one may already discern an erosion of power as Canetti tends to present it. If I command my dog to sit, I may describe this as me (somehow) issuing a command that causes the dog to sit. But biological systems remain “open to energy, but closed to information and control”. By another description, then, the energy of my command “triggers” (rather than causes) a perturbation—a change of stet—in my dog, and his biology then compensates for that perturbation in whatever fashion it does, including that he sits. We might debate whether I have “caused” the dog to sit or not in both cases but the nature of cause in the first case (the command fantasy) compared to the second clearly materially differs. In the first case, the dog reacts mechanically (literally) just as in the case of the ideal soldier. We can make a description of such a command without ever needing to take account of the dog (or soldier) the command issues to; hence Canetti emphasis the constancy of the military command. In the second case, however, some account needs taking of the nature of the dog; I directed energy at it that triggered a perturbation—a change of state—but the cognitive or biological characteristics of the dog (or the soldier) played a part. How do I know? The same command issued to a cat would have no effect, for instance; also, were we to examine the exact physiological response of the dog’s biology, we would find no difference (biophysiologically) between “sit” and “fetch”. In both cases, reference to my command alone cannot account for the behavior of the dog.

[9] Errington, F, and Gewertz, D. (1987). Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology : an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire], New York: Cambridge University Press.

[10] This does not denote the only form of such future “trust” (in the economic and affective senses of the word both) given in Chambri culture.

[11] Krippendorff, K. (1995). Undoing power. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 12(2): 101–132 [online]. Retrieved 9 May 2013, available here.

[12] Once again, the particular power of this second appeal rests in the fact that it proposes a “they” to which the listener may feel compelled to join. The issue no longer involves whether I might really do such a thing, and whether or not I might do such a  thing to you, but rather that “they believe” I can and will act accordingly. Whether as a threat or as a boast of significance, the shift involves a change from a claim by one to a claim about many or several.

[13] Mead, M. (1935). Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York: William Morrow and Company.

[14] We could also say that the Chambri male claim that if women shame them enough they will beat them to denote a bluff as well. Errington and Gewertz do not document male-female violence to any significant degree. They write:

This is not to say that men never do violence to women: Francis Yaboli, after all, did beat his wife. However, when men behave this way, it is not as part of a strategy to establish power but, rather, indicates a loss of power. Nor is the occasional violence toward women part of a general male effort to control women (152).

[15] I do not mean to suggest we should regard polite social fictions with scornful sideways glances. The issue here involves the potential reprisals for women only that come from ignoring the polite fiction.

[16] Another example of this “sideways power” (of the type seen with the giving of the patrimony to a future male relative, at a wedding Errington and Gewertz (1987) provide observations of, a number of rather gruff remarks get made across clan lines by different males. Errington and Gewertz deny that these remarks have any sense of a head-to-head or direct confrontation, insisting that the inequality of relationship between wife-givers n wife-takers ensures that the hierarchical positioning during a marriage remains essentially inviolable. Whether or not this accurately reflects matters, Errington and Gewertz observe instead that such gruff remarks aim more at the audience, at those who do not stand directly implicated in the marriage (as the givers or takers of wives) and thus those who both sides of the marriage might stand to gain or lose prestige before. I find this reminder useful and not entirely convincing. Because Errington and Gewertz specifically deny any attempt by either principal side to dominate the other, it seems as if their concern to deny dominance in Chambri society makes them attempt to deflect attention elsewhere. But if the gesture does not aim to dominate either of the principal parties involved, does that mean that such bluffs do not aim to dominate non-principal parties? The passage of remarks runs as follows:

Bibi’s [the wife] clan brother suddenly interrupted to remind Pekur’s [the father of the groom] group of its responsibilities. ¶ As [the clan brother] enumerated the obligations of his affines to the new bride, he ticked off each of his points by taking a coconut frond with his right hand from the bunch he held in his left. His affines, he stated, must provide Bibi with a canoe, show her the betel nut trees she could harvest, show her the fishing grounds owned by her husband’s clan and never chastise her for using property belonging to those whose children she will bear. In response, Pekur cheerfully accepted these obligations. And then, still in a joyful mood, Pekur berated those young girls who would marry non-Chambri men and deprive their parents of the pleasure of seeing them correctly wed. ¶ But immediately he was informed by Bibi’s clan brother that there was more to correct procedure than the exchange of valuables. Correctness means, he warned, that she must never be beaten after she visits her brothers. She must be asked first why she visited them: it must never be assumed that she did so in order to have an affair with one of her clan brothers, or was using the visit to her brothers to conceal an affair with someone else. The groom’s younger brother then promptly countered by reminding Bibi’s clan brother that the girl had been acquired at considerable cost. Because her family had accepted such a large bride-price, they had abdicated their right to interfere when she and her husband fought. Indeed, he continued, so high was the bride-price that her father and brothers had, in large measure, already been compensated if she were to be killed by her husband during a fight. ¶ A friend of the bride’s family intervened by agreeing that the bride-price was, in fact, quite high. However, he added, the money that Bibi had brought with her—the $K100.00 placed in the bilum carried for her by her clan brother as she was introduced to the ancestral crocodiles—was to remain hers. It was her “pass book”—her bank account—it and it must never be spent by anyone other than Bibi, certainly not by her new husband to buy beer. ¶ Sensing that the oratory was escalating passions to such an extent that schism was threatened, a friend of the groom began to beat  drum to suggest the resumption of dancing (105).

One might make a lot of this—most of all that these remarks get made in the earshot not only of the bride but other women as past or future brides—but to claim these remarks can have an emphasis only in an indirect way seems contradicted by the friend of the groom, who sensed “that the oratory was escalating passions to such an extent that schism was threatened.” I think a reader of the passage may equally and easily sense such  thing as well, as the exchange runs to the implications that (1) her new relatives will beat her for visiting her old relatives; (2) that the new relatives have paid enough for the bride that she’s longer any concern of the old relatives; and that (3) the new relatives shouldn’t steal the patrimony to get drunk—the theft of that patrimony being, as Errington and Gewertz indicate, an investment in future trust between her son and one of the men who gave her as a bride; “a father’s gift to his daughter is really a delayed bequest to his son” (96).

In general, the cake gets had and eaten here—such remarks seem both “personal” and “impersonal” because the whole event occurs on a social stage. Insofar as male (and clan) reputation hinges on public perception, whatever meaningful divide one might find between “direct” allies (the principals involved) and indirect allies or enemies (everyone else watching), the whole nevertheless occurs in the public square, so to speak.

It seems at times when Errington and Gewertz spec of inequality they lose sight of the fact that we may speak of inequality on one hand as “strength” and “weakness” or on another as differential strengths, where one stands greater than the other. Thus, they note, “Since all Chambri recognize that they owe their lives to those who have provided their women, a wife-giving group is assumed to have an unshakable superiority over any of its wife-taking groups” (106, emphasis added). This ignores “differentials strengths” in favor of “strength and weakness.” For instance, what weakness does it exhibit for a clan to accept or seek to “marry down”? And what strength does it exhibit for a weaker clan to get selected for “marrying up”. Like the bluff of the stolen object,  male making this claim simultaneously admits he can craft mighty objects but remains vulnerable to theft. So also the clan marrying up—they simultaneously get acknowledged as worthy of attention by the great though the very act of calling them “great” requires taking a subordinate stance to that greatness.

As soon as hierarchical relations get established, one may then only either marry up or down—and the consensus (I suspect) has it that one should prefer “up”. It seems no surprise to me, then, that the bluff of marrying up (“I am lesser than you, yes, but you recognize my worth by marrying me”) seems easier to recognize—perhaps even seems more “convincing” or “true”—than whatever elaboration one gives for “marrying down”. In this respect, one would except more “sideways politics,” and the powerful lord “marrying down” out of an obligation or great love to his brother (or other relative)—“because my brother has married so-and-so, so our family too shall join with yours and-so-on and-so-on”.* So, while “the most general objective of … public speeches is to appear as consummate wife-givers or wife-takers to those unrelated groups with whom competition for actual superiority or control does exist” (106) has some degree of validity, not only do the two parties involved form a “superior dyad”—insofar as they engage in the public spectacle of a marriage in the first place, compared to those who do not—we also needn’t pretend that pointed remarks by the “weaker” side—like “don’t spend all of Bibi’s patrimony for her son [which will eventually repay us] on beer”—weren’t seriously made and intended for Bibi’s new relatives, not the bystanders.

* Errington and Gewertz (1987) allude to this in a more contemporary setting when they note of (Western) husbands and wives, “He, after all, is credited with having selected her as his wife n as mother to his children” (137).

[17] “Limited access” to “environmental information” obviously does not doom a species to extinction as the success of arthropods in general indicates—like any strategy, we may describe this as having relative advantages and disadvantages.

[18] One might say “commodify them” here if one remembers that the term “commodity” in the first place refers to a social good, not a material good. Perhaps this was the sense Marx intended with commodification but the term has since gone on to have primarily economic rather than social overtones and so creates the wrong impression (at least in me) when used. The grotesqueness involved in commodification stands starkly and still perfectly apparent when one reflects on what process commoditized human beings as slaves, i.e., turned the social good of human beings into something assigned an economic value for the purposes of a sale. A society requires the exchange of commodities (as social goods); it does not require the exchange of commodities (as material goods). This materialist reductionism marks one of the important steps in (undesirable) modernism; no surprise it occurred in part with the rise of industrialization, &c. In any case, to make a (symbolic) social good (as a commodity) into a (material) social good (as a commodity) first requires objectifying that symbolic social good of its (culturally determined and symbolic) value. Hence, objectification stands prior to commodification. Errington and Gewertz (1987), while discussing the monetization of social relationships, notes an instance where one clan drew up a bride-price sufficiently large that it licensed them (they felt) to forego the usual counter-displays by the bride-giving family. In this way, the “fact” of money superseded the conventional social obligations involved in presenting a bride-price, and so forth. The selfish of this comes out poignantly in the authors’ description: the father sits to one side, hopelessly dejected; the bride gets allowed no opportunity to ceremoniously (in both senses of the word) dress up; and instead gets simply removed, crying real tears rather than the crocodile ones usually involved in such removals. One could hardly seem more clearly the gross license permitted by money and the destructive effect when its material value substitutes for its symbolic establishment of (implied) social arrangements.

[19] The usual sense of oppress now means “to keep down by force” but it also has the now-obsolete sense of to “physically to press down on (someone) with harmful effects” (see here).

[20] I have (to my astonishment) actually witnessed someone doing this to another—at meetings or social gatherings where both individuals attended, the one would literally and fully not respond to questions from or to the other person, even when directly addressed; he would look past the person he shunned, and make every effort to make clear that the activity of the one shunned registered no trace in his consciousness. The childishness and barbarousness of this struck me at the time, and the fat that I read this behavior in “non-adult” (immature) and “non-civilized” (barbarous) terms hardly seems accidental or immaterial. One might equally note the “inhumanity” of the shunner’s behavior, but this then simply links the inhuman to the (problematic) metaphors of child and barbarian (as non-human).

[21] I mention this, because shunning frequently occurs as a punishment for a (perceived) moral failing, e.g., because someone or some people judge another person as having behaved adulterously, shunning then occurs in light of that judgment. Rather by definition, to judge someone (as such-and-such a person) cannot take no cognizance of the other, cannot arise as a form of non-recognition; instead, the one judged might protest it amounts to a misrecognition (of who they really represent). This sense of misrecognition, rather than nonrecognition, denotes what I intend to characterize (above in the essay) as depersonalization. The distinction between nonrecognition and misrecognition informs the difference between ignoring someone and depersonalizing someone.

[22] It exemplifies this form of power that the “they” here seems maximally abstract and impersonal, thus belying its links to the racialized problematics of so-called race-blind policies,

[23] One might insist that to objectify one must first depersonalize. Perhaps so, or perhaps it does not matter.

[24] Leukocentric = white-centric; by definition, I include patriarchy in this as well, though in principal one might find a leukocentric culture without patriarchy.

[25] The fact that some people might and have insisted that such a statement actually seems fair only confirms my emphasis on fairness here.

[26] Linguistically, one may often deal here with nouns (states of being) rather than adjectives (qualities), with “welfare queens” rather than someone who “is poor”.

[27] One may argue, not entirely facilely, that this indifference to phenomenology applies to males in patriarchal culture as well, to the extent that males will (or more powerful males up the ladder will) dismiss “feelings” (or psychic states) as mere nothings. However, as Errington and Gewertz underscore, in a context of male and female differences in US culture:

Although men and women may deprecate each other in the same terms, the battle is unequal because to the extent that women are financially dependent non-workers they are in actuality much more likely than men to find their autonomy curtailed and the expression of their subjectivity subsumed [to their husband’s]. In so far as women are, in fact, contingent, they therefore have greater difficulty in establishing worth in a  culture that measures worth in terms of the capacity to demonstrate a distinctive and competent subjectivity: to demonstrate a valued individuality (138).

[28] Of course, some oppression occurs deliberately, as a willful non-cooperation and desire for the Other to cease to exist, but whether deliberately or indeliberately, because the Other can see they are seen, the sense of indifference either way contributes to the experience of oppression.

[29] Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison (trans. A. Sheridan). 2d. Second Vintage Books Edition (May 1995). New York: Vintage.

[30] Perhaps he would call that evading, but he doesn’t say so. The sense of evading he seems to indicate involves simply not getting commanded in the first place.

[31] The illegalities show counter-evidence as does Foucault insistence elsewhere (not so much in the book) that resistance to the panopticon remains possible.

[32] 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, i–xvii, 1–121. The essay was first composed in 1952.

Summary (in One Sentence)

How does the word work in a wordless world?


numer_73304-23-4153-6-96-8_1Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.

A Reaction To: T. Ott’s (2008)[1] The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8

This marks the second graphic novel by Ott I’ve read; you can find my reaction to the first here. As in that previous book, here Ott again provides a wordless, woodcut/minimalist aesthetic with a circular morality tale as a narrative. In this case, the novel opens with the State execution of a prison inmate (by electrocution), who has a slip of paper with the number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 on it. Following the execution, the man who hooked up the equipment for the execution finds this scrap of paper, which subsequently serves as a master template for his future fortune and fall—finally to wind up as another condemned inmate on death row, similarly put to death.

It’s worth nothing how the number itself provides the “header” for every page. Although conventionally the place where a publisher prints the title, here the “title” has a continuous, floating symbolic sense of importance that doesn”t “read” like a title.

73304.07_mice3nycAs a note, one of the most effective parts of this book involves the chapter headers, which consist only of white (Roman) numerals on totally black facing pages. The effect of this while reading—turning the page to encounter the starkness of this compared to the relative richness of Ott’s illustrations—really packs a punch into the end and beginning of sections of the book. Also, Ott seems to lavish more detail  on angles, the direction of lighting, and faces in this book (than in Cinema Panopticum); almost no one ever smiles, and the protagonist has the classic 1950s drill sergeant/male haircut, making all of the proceedings have nicely grim overtones. As a story as well—again, compared to Cinema Panopticum, which juxtaposed five different morality plays without necessarily pulling them all together—this book has more narrative focus, and so it may have less numinous impact, i.e., a better story but for that very reason less mysterious.

In Cinema Panopticum, Ott’s text gives the impression of making (deeply) problematic the usual sort of tidy morals one finds in books—and especially the anti-alcohol morality illustrations that proliferated in England times gone by. People who should not suffer punishment do; those who do the right thing suffer, &c. Without too much fuss, one may read out of that text a disambiguation between (a person’s) actions and their desserts. A similar concern prevails here. As the man who materially prepares for and actually pulls the switch on the condemned inmate, this from the very beginning may similarly condemn the executioner as well—Ott includes at the front of his book a quotation from a woman executed at San Quentin on 3 June 1955, “Good people are always so sure they’re right”.

At the same time, however, the executioner remains an “innocent party” insofar as his acts merely express the will of others: the judge, the jury, the society that does not politically put an end to State-sanctioned murder. Moreover, the specific course of the executioner’s life—as he starts to encounter and decode the number on the slip of paper—presents an amalgam of accident and intention. I mean: if we want to say “something” punishes him for his act (or acts), then much of what happens more properly gets scribes to the (deliberate) machinations of fate and not everything to the man’s will. Ott makes this explicit by calling a dog the man finds (and eventually takes in)  “Lucky”.

We tend not to hold people morally culpable for luck, good or bad. Thus, by linking the man’s ultimate fate to luck, this makes his “punishment” (for his part in the execution) problematic, if not simply unconvincing. But this also makes problematic whatever person or agent or entity “dishes out” retribution upon the man in the first place. If luck (good or bad) rules us, then we have no grounds for speaking of “punishment for” in the first place. We see it simply as bad luck that the man wound up on death row himself. &c.

2093309819_6068e04dc7_oHowever, the book does permit itself supernatural elements. The dog the man finds—and the woman who owns him—get revealed as doppelgangers of some sort. After a fantastic run of luck at the roulette table—with numbers derived from the number of course and the woman who owns the dog—the man wakes the next morning to find the money and woman gone. “By luck” (by the numbers) he hunts them both down and executes them—thus, he winds up on death row himself and executed, leaving behind the slip of paper, by implication for his executioner to find.

So, Ott injects the possibility of a metaphysical force of some sort as governing all of this, even as it remains couched in terms of “luck”.  Thus, a change occurs in the narrative between those earlier moments when the man realizes that the numbers correlate with aspects of his world—or, at least, he begins to notice he can correlate the numbers—and the moments when the man realizes he can use the numbers—specifically to win extraordinarily big at roulette. In effect, he cheats. And while reading the book for the first time, one might have some expectation that his luck will end. However, the success at the roulette table (more than other events in the book) proves that it “works”; that it represents some kind of (still unexplained) key that decodes some portion of the mechanism of reality (or luck itself). In a literal pun, he has Lady Luck’s number and takes advantage of that. Thus, she abandons him the next morning, taking her dog and money with her.

By the way, the section of the book where the man wins big presents unquestionably his happiest moments, has the biggest smiles in an otherwise very smile-lacking narrative. And the “joy” of this against the general backdrop of drawn bleakness in the book—the general grimness of the world he inhabits—makes for one of the more poignant effects of the book. In a grim world, Lady Luck can truly bring diamond-glittering brilliance and vivacity to an otherwise dead life … sometimes.

Instead of a svelte beauty, the executioner discovers Lady Luck instead as a massive fat woman and “her dog” as mincing, weasel-faced man (with a tattoo of a number on his arm) who runs a pawn shop. I’ll have to get back to this shortly, but this reveal motivates the man’s revenge and thus his eventual execution. Narratively, however, it embodies the metaphysical “rule” that metes out punishment for hubris (moral violations) in that tidy moral sense that the old anti-alcohol screeds relied upon.

The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 - 009In other words, to the extent that we stand ready (as a reader, as a human) to believe in retribution “by fate” (or by the gods, &c), this turn of narrative events licenses such a  reading; it provides that “ah, that’s what’s really going on” moment. Although we may conventionally think of (Lady) Luck as “blind chance,” Ott presents the notion that (Lady) Luck may in some ultimate way represent a ‘rational” mechanism in the universe as much as anything else—a mechanism that we can cheat, moreover, though we do so at our peril. The man discovers the cheat, and cheats Lady Luck—and though he murders her, she still gets her final revenge not only in the man’s death, but in the promise of another cycle of events, signaled in the fact that the number still remains at the end of the book.

However, I think Ott tries to undermine such an interpretation. As the man discovers he can use the numbers, he may also begin to abuse them—becoming obsessed to the point that we may no longer trust his reliability as a narrator. Of course, that the man sees patterns from the numbers distracts us from the fat that he sees the patterns—and so all of the events, even though they seem “fated”—actually stem from his own construction of things. The “fate” he follows—the one that takes him to this house rather than that house, because the number directs him there—results from his actions, his interpretations, not the numbers themselves.

That he wins massively at roulette does not lend itself to such an interpretation; whatever he thinks he should bet on, the outcome remains actually up to Lady Luck, and thus the roulette sequence serves to powerfully suggest that the numbers actually “work”. According to the metaphysical interpretation of the narrative, Lady Luck actually stands by the man as he makes his bets. This doubles the betrayal—he thought he placed winning bets, but Lady Luck merely manipulated the wheel (and him) by making the outcome agree with his bets. She makes this clear by absconding with “his” money (really hers after all) and her dog the next morning. According to the nonmetaphysical interpretation, the man really does have an extraordinary run of luck, and then in the madness of his faith in the numbers winds up going to the house of complete strangers and murders them—mistakenly believing they represent transformed version of Lady Luck and her dog (Lucky).

botica ott 11Thus, in this mood of outrage and betrayal, the man readily comes to believe that a (fat) woman and a Jew have cheated him. When he tracks down and first spies the woman, significantly she rolls dice in a round tray. Imagistically, the man sees  male in the house with her with the dog’s head and has what appear as hallucinations. However, the lynchpin in all of this involves the tattoo of an eight ball on the (fat) woman’s back, which Lady Luck of last night also had. This detail provides a validation for the “I’ve been cheated by Lady Luck and her dog” interpretation of the story, but if the man has already slipped over into madness or unreliable narration, then that eight-ball tattoo may bely his hallucinating state of mind or—even more elegantly—simply a coincidence. Thus, it represents a fantastic piece of bad luck (for the woman and the man) that this numbers-addled executioner stumbles across their house and goes berserk on them.

However, the eight-ball tattoo only provides the final confirmation. When the man wakes up after his night of fantastic luck—he “gets lucky” with the woman as well—he finds the whole world has changed: not only have the woman and money (and dog) disappeared, the bar where they met looks as if boarded up for years, &c. He calls the phone number on a “Lost Dog” flyer (the one that connected him to Lady Luck in the first place), but the number rings through to a pawn shop instead, run by the man with the tattoo on his arm, which corresponds of course with the number on the slip of paper and the tattoo on the dog’s ear. The executioner eventually follows this pawnbroker home and there finds the tattooed woman, &c.

While Ott goes to some pains to portray the obsessiveness the executioner succumbs to, this transformation of his world (where the number continues to generate “results”) makes difficult hanging too much on just the eight-ball alone. A part of Jung’s exposition of synchronicity candidly admits that much that we ascribe to fate, to kismet, really amounts simply to a coincidence. But he then, in a rather brilliant turn, suggests that sometimes to insist on “coincidence” as the explanation for an extraordinary sequence of events exceeds the rational, that to call some “miracles” a “coincidence” becomes irrational. In those circumstances, the concept of synchronicity affords a rational basis for such an extraordinary coincidence.

The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 - 127In Ott’s text, we might plausibly deny the metaphysical interpretation of the story—that Lady Luck really has jerked around this guy—by claim as coincidental the eight-ball tattoo on the (fat) woman. On this view, we see that the man arriving at her house in the first place has occurred as a self-fulfilling tattoo—his number-mesmerization would have led him to some house that night and he would have found some numerical conformation—or would have get searching other men and other houses until he “found” the culprits. In this respect, that he blames women and Jews only adds depth to this interpretation. But because Ott has situated this in a way that provides “objective counter-evidence” (for the reader at least) that the world, not the man’s addled thinking, has changed, to explain all of these hangs as  coincidence, as Jung notes, becomes irrational.

I mean, if the man (and by extension, the reader) gets “duped” into accepting the premise that the number corresponds in a meaningful way with aspects of reality, then the night of fantastic success at roulette seems to confirm that. However, we may still read that night as, in fact, merely a night of fantastic luck rather than a validation of the number’s efficacy. Nonetheless, what makes this make the numbers seem to “work” arises from the fact that no clear-sighted or addled thinking on the part of the man would have changed the outcome of the roulette spins. Similarly, when the man re-calls the phone number on the Lost dog flyer that originally connected to the woman’s apartment but now connects to a pawn shop, this suggests that the world has actually changed, not just the mans’ addled thinking. On this specific detail alone, we would have to postulate (to sustain an “it’s a coincidence” interpretation) that overnight an old phone number got retired and picked up anew by the pawn shop. Or we might just wildly imagine that the man somehow mis-dialed the number originally, but Ott gives us no particular reason to assert this. This different phone number, in any case, does not consisted the only detail—the Lonely Hearts Bar the man went to last night (with the woman) looks as if boarded up for years. Again, we would have to postulate an extreme state of dissociativeness on the part of the man—that he from the beginning had such addled thinking that he hallucinated he went out to a bar with a woman last night at a place close for years, &c.

otttyeerTo explain all of this in terms of a coincidence seems (in Jung’s sense) irrational. The weight of the narrative, much as I’d rather it didn’t, points to a “change of world” that occurs after the night of fantastic luck. In the Schrödinger’s Box of quantum outcomes, the man no longer inhabits the world at the start of the narrative. For me, this pretty much requires that the metaphysical interpretation of the narrative leads the show. And makes the story into the conventional type of morality fable it ultimately descends from: the primary difference entails that rather than “god” or “the gods” that the unfortunate or hubristic human being crosses, Ott substitutes “blind luck” in its place.

Such a reading follows the general impression the book gives anyway, I think. A man who puts another to death and then tries to capitalize on the “secret number” the dead man leaves behind first rises then falls and ultimately gets his just desserts in the same way. Having revenged himself on (the Jews and women of) Luck, luck gets the last laugh anyway, with an implied promise that the cycle will continue.

One last point, however. Ott’s texts tend to get described as “wordless” and this stands as largely accurate; in particular, people don’t speak. We might see signs, but the speaking human (and thus words in that sense) remain absent. However, the number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 in this text functions like a spoken word. We can note the name (indicated in the text) of the woman who owns the dog as “Mrs. Price”—this has a symbolic sense, more for the reader than the man in the story. But this “word” doesn’t direct the man’s fate or cause him to act like the number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 does.

tytytytytytMoreover, whether one accepts a metaphysical reading of the text or continues to attempt to sustain an “it’s a coincidence” reading (one I frankly find more interesting), the methodology the executioner discovers involves selectively matching his reality (or finding the selected match in reality) with the number as a sort of decoding mechanism. This methodology mirror’s the reader’s experience, and changes whether we “believe in the number” (as a metaphysical actuality) or “see the madness of the number” (as a misleading explanatory principal). I don’t think Ott quite succeeds in inviting us to hold both of these possibilities in an irresolvable abeyance. Similarly, we may sense a tinge of critique in the contrast between those who want to ascribe “retribution” (a metaphysical actuality) to what really amounts only to “blind events” (a coincidence)—because “Good people are always so sure they’re right”.

In this perhaps too-faint way, Ott may critique our willingness not simply to seek out patterns—we can hardly help that—but also to make judgments based on those found patterns. The “good person” wants the unfairness (of State sanctioned executions) retributed, wants the evil-doer to get a comeuppance—even more basically than that, wants to insist an evil-doer even exists to get a comeuppance; “good people” necessarily presupposes “evil people”. Yet how, if the death sentence points to a fundamental injustice, can executing executioners make things right? &c. Good people are always so sure they’re right.

However, in this case, even the alternative “it’s a coincidence” also rests on a sense of rightness and a (proffered) goodness, in its alternative to delusional fantasies about metaphysical retribution. And whether no real link exists between actions and desserts, whether in the absence of “good” or “evil” people and “good” or “evil” events as a result of such people’s actions, nonetheless agony, suffering, and mayhem occur, which requires redress of some sort. The symbol of the death penalty particularly points to this. The death penalty stands clearly as retribution for, not redress of, a wrong. To seek an alternative redress of to such retribution for certainly points to a meaningful and important proposal for culture not just in a judicial setting.

number-73304-23-4153-6-96-8I think—or maybe I just want to think—Ott intends this. His book allows us to become seduced by the executioner’s way of treating the Word of the number—a bible as the Word figures prominently in the opening chapter, where the condemned inmate stores the slip of paper in his bible. Of course, as the author, Ott selects what we see, but he can still blame us for “believing” the narrative he presents to us. Like the executioner, who thinks he discovers facts about the world by comparing his word to his world, we feel we discover facts (about Ott’s fictional) world by comparing his wordless text to that world. And so on.

Again, a just protest here (by a reader) comes up in the premise (of a fictional) book that we will have to assemble a meaning out of a pattern of images—we might even draw a judgment about what those imagines mean—but this does not yet conflate such pattern-finding and judgments with the sort of (religious) pattern-finding and judgment Ott seems to critique in those who resort to metaphysical fantasies about divine justice and the like. To accuse the reader of “playing god” merely shifts “blame” from “god the author”. Perhaps the reader who thinks, “That guy got what he deserved” deserves such an accusation, but to implicate such hubris to all readers itself seems more like the rightness of good people, who would condemn others to death, as Yahweh did when he blamed humankind for his (flawed) creation.

Reader protests aside, if this points to one of Ott’s intentions with his book, then he has played his cards too closely.[2]  Insofar as the executioner has fallen prey to a metaphysical delusion (and perhaps also the reader), then who punished him (and us)? This question remains pertinent whether the man (or we) did it with malice aforethought or only accidentally, out of the chaos and welter of events. How—except upon a metaphysical conceit—can the text make the man (and us) guilty and thus worthy of the (ironic) comeuppance.

The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 - 013Ott’s choice of “luck” as the metaphysical principle makes a smart choice because it disconnects—or, rather, chooses the very anti-thesis of “fate”—as the basis for a “morality”. The “incoherence” of this helps decenter me as a reader, and doesn’t let me lapse into the usual sort of thing involved in “crossing” the gods or fate or whatnot. (How does one cheat chance?) And, in fact, not even Ott quite evades this problem with his choice, because (as the text makes clear) one may in fact ultimately discover the “mechanism” of chance and thus cheat it. In this subtle moment, chance (luck) changes from “truly random events” to something like a god and exactly there does the “metaphysical delusion” get into Ott’s text without him wanting it there.  Basically, in order to “honor the principle of chance,” then the man, the reader (and Ott himself) would have to resolutely deny at every step any causal link from moment to moment. And, in fact, we might imagines Ott’s text as a literal heap of disordered images that form a sequence, yes, but do not comprise a series. Unsatisfying as this might prove while reading, after the fact, we can at least say, with as much assurance as with the coincidence of the eight-ball tattoo, that the man wound up executed himself stands as bad luck too.

To say this does not negate the “meaning” of the text overall. The man still lived and suffered and made terrible choices (and some good ones)—like all of us do—and the fact that he winds up executed for killing two people amounts to bad luck. This does not mean it had to end that way, much less that it must or should. The statement functions as an answer to the question why and nothing else. Why did things turn out that way for him? Bad luck. This wreaks havoc on fantasies of justice, of course, but nothing in it means that we must roll over and accept as determined Fate what “luck” deals out to us. Again, luck stands as the opposite of fate, and thus proposes a kind of liberation from the ironies of fate, which perhaps finally prove more gruesome or disheartening than the ironies of luck.

201210220539_number-73304-23-4153-6-96-8-4What Ott’s graphic novels make clear to me so far: the amount of simultaneous or countervailing interpretations that his narrative (here and in Cinema Panopticum also) can sustain originates partly in the ambiguity of the meaning of images themselves. We know how to “read” words, but images provide far less in the way of certain decoding.[3] Ott’s work especially forefronts this, as perhaps any attempt to actually narrate (i.e., make something like the equivalent of a sentence) out of a sequence of illustrations. This “uncontrollable aspect” (for the author) of visual material exists for words as well but the degree of conventionality around words seems exponentially more articulated than any “literacy” of visual images. So while a wordless world may liberate the reader (or require the reader) to make more of her experience of reading the novel, this means also that the author’s efforts or intentions must get more obscured, whether he puts that ambiguity to work or laments it.

Although this narrative does not otherwise wholly lack words—we know, for instance, that Lady Luck’s parents were named Price—the number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 not only most thoroughly functions like a typical word but also as an inward and generative principle for the action of the novel we can link with a notion of the Logos as well—and this introduction of the word is what precipitates disaster and catastrophe in the book (and for us, the readers). For just as the executioner (attempts to) read-off the “sentence” of the number as an analog with and explanation of the “sentence” of the world, so does the reader (attempt to) read-off the “sentence” of the sequence of images Ott presents as an explanation of the narrative world—a process ends that in a death sentence, the death of the world for the man in his execution, and the death of the man for the world in the execution of the end of the book. However, this marks a death sentence not because we (the man or the reader) as helpless thralls in a universe dominated by Luck (by chance) made the attempt to “decode” the world but rather because we ascribed a metaphysical truth to what we (the man and reader) read. By introducing god or chance (or Jew and Woman) as a motive force behind events, we get the end of the world, the end of the book.

73304.06_mice3nycThe single-most important difference between the reader and the executioner, then, stands in the fact that we (the readers) have no doubt that the author exists, even if we still cannot convince ourselves with certainty about his intentions. Unlike “god” or “luck” (or “Jew” or “Woman”) which reads as a metaphysical principle that we can dialogue with only in a solipsistically fictional way, with the author we can engage or dialogue with him through his fiction when read as a metaphysical principle.


[1] Ott, T (2008). The number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, pp. 1–144.

[2] I can arrive at these conclusions less by reflecting on his book per se and more on some of the ideas they may point to. A simplistic paraphrase of Ott’s book would have it as a protest (directed against the reader as well) against the injustice of the death penalty (ironically told), since good people are always so sure they’re right. This still doesn’t answer how—except upon a metaphysical conceit—can the text make the man (and us) guilty and thus worthy of the (ironic) comeuppance. And this points to why temptation matters. ¶ The man merely stumbles onto the number—or at least seems to merely stumble. Kindly emotions he feels toward a lost dog lead him to the woman who owns the lost dog, who gives him a card to a Lonely Hearts Bar. These elements put across the man’s path add up to his (attempt at) cheating luck. Whether he sinned originally as an executioner, out of the chaos and welter of events, he succumbed to a temptation to use the secret of the number and thus manifests (finally, God might say) something he deserves punishment for. Murdering the woman and the pawnbroker merely works out the final details of the man’s (properly) ironic end.

2093310039_46587e5581_oTemptation becomes key in this because otherwise—again—how else can the man (and we) deserve the fated outcome? If he (and we) stand doomed from the beginning, then the charade of blame gets exposed and god (the author) shows his hand too soon. The whole farce becomes literally “by the numbers” and just because god (and the author) arrogates the privilege to harangue us for doing exactly our fates, we still cannot miss the disconnect of that. And so, the concept of temptation allows god (and the author) to shift blame for “reading” the events put in front of the man (or us) in the way we do. Fate (or luck) might say to the man, “I didn’t tell you to abuse the power that came with having those numbers” just as Ott may say to the reader, “Hey, I didn’t tell you you had to interpret what I presented in any given way” etc. Again, as readers we get seduced (tempted) to make whatever pattern out of the chaos of images we encounter, just as the man made sense of his world in his way—and ultimately we get blamed for this. ¶ But then what tempted god (or the author) to make a world in the first place?

[3] Jung’s process of active imagination for confronting archetypal imagery makes a virtue of this, and Pettit (1975) teases out the perils of and debunks its conceits in structuralist-types of intellectual description (Saussure’s and Chomsky’s linguistics, and Lévi-Strauss’ anthropology in detail). Such descriptions rest in an ultimate sense on an attempt to “read” events (in the world) like a sentence. The key breakdown—as Pettit iterates in the cases of several practitioners whoa attempt to make this effort in the areas not only of architecture, fashion, music, sociology and anthropology, or what he generally calls the customary arts, but also in the many of the literary arts that directly analyze language as well (Barthes stands as the champion in this regard, but Todorov as well)—involves the inability either to provide a “grammar” of such events analogous to grammar in language or to derive an explanatory framework that has some predictive value for events other than those looked at. This problem, of course, merely restates the human problem of having no direct access to any supposedly objective reality. Experientially, from moment to moment, we “read” each next “event” in whatever mien we do or need to ensure that we go on living (in an existential sense). As humans, experience itself provides the pseudo-grammar we use as a guideline for encountering the next moment. The fantasy that there exists some actual grammar in this sense goes by the mythological name omniscience and tends to manifest socially as the oppression by others of a religious view that cannot—or more frequently, simply does not want to—take account of “non-grammatical” elements in the “sentence” of Life, i.e., most of all other people.

*Pettit, P. (1975). The concept of structuralism: a critical analysis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press


What happens when lightning strikes …

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the forty-fourth entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1] and the second to address Part 8 (The Command), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I address section 4, “Commands Addressed to More than One Individual.” [2]

Commands Addressed to More than One Individual[3]

This section requires some additional attention because for the first time Canetti explicitly attempts to link power and crowds. Also, issues in it interconnect a lot with a later post.

In usual fashion, Canetti moves the goal-posts, insisting that a command issued to a crowd cannot eventuate a sting because it passes from individual to individual too quickly; “it is only commands that remain isolated which lead to the formation of stings. The threat contained in such commands cannot be completely dissolved” (301–1), &c.

Canetti insisted without qualification on the indissolubility of stings even as he equivocated or wavered as to how one might get rid of them; hence, here “the sting is nothing but the hidden replica of the command he once received and could not immediately pass on. Only in this identical form can he free himself from the command” (311). So now, along with evading stings or (unconsciously) suffering from them, Canetti proposes that one may immediately pass them on.

How exactly does one do that? A command, ideally delivered, slips unnoticed into the depths of my psyche; even to notice an attempt at command puts us in the zone of inept commanding. So mote that that prevails as the case, one may ask then what mark gets left by evading a command—what piece of egotistical self-satisfaction arises from “outwitting’ the commander, but presumably this does not circumscribe how one immediately passes on a command to someone else.[4]

To immediately pass on a command to someone else would amount to repeating the command—Canetti would insist exactly—upon someone else, but how immediately? Two seconds, two minutes, two days? In the sloppiness of his exposition, Canetti doubtless believes precision about this doesn’t matter, but immediately means immediately.[5] Thus, with a crowd, a command issued to it somehow automatically diffuses it, so “no sting is formed. There is no time for this; what would otherwise have become permanent is instantaneously dissolved” (310).

In  crowd a command spreads horizontally. It may originally strike a single individual from above, but, since others like himself stand near him, he immediately passes it on to them (310).

One certainly can’t begin to take this seriously (or literally). We might recall, over against the horrible status of individuality that leads to man’s greatest fear being the touch of the unknown, how Canetti counterposed the crowd as the place where all such unbearable individuality dissolves and thus offers a solace to such fear of touch—affecting even, perhaps, an attraction to touch, or at least an end to jumpy opposition to it. In this magical sense[6] whereby  crowd “solves” the existential burden of isolation, the command issued to the crowd similarly and magically avoids the sting, multiplying from a single arrow of command into an outward radiating star of multiple, happily received arrows of something other than command. In fact, the command “is intended to make a crowd” (311) of gathered people and “in as far as it succeeds in this, it does not arouse fear” (311).[7] It does not arouse fear, like a command should, because of domestication, which makes the slave come to the master rather than flee, which makes the dog come to the master rather than flee, which makes the child come to the mother rather than flee. Moreover, since “power discharges commands like a hail of magic arrows” (305), we might recall the utterly unspecified magic Canetti ascribed to the discharge (pp. 17–9); before the discharge “the crowd does not actually exist; it is the discharge which creates it. This is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal” (17)—this feeling of equality being the most defining feature of a crowd.[8]

What I want to emphasize here involves Canetti’s use of the verb discharge in “power discharges commands like  hail of magic arrows” (305). The usage seems deliberate and points to the previously magical sense of discharge, which now belies its magical qualities as arrows (issued as commands by power). Since Canetti insists that those in the crowd feel absolute equality, that the discharge precisely makes them into a crowd by inducing this sense of equality, we stand on safe ground to say this amounts to little more than an empty heap of words. This insistence on equality seems facile ideologizing or wishful thinking; why a command should accomplish such a thing at all remains unanswered; and claims for such total effectiveness of command gets falsified by the phenomenology of those in the crowd not impressed by the command.

Canetti’s description of packs, as something like small-scale crowds, proved equally untenable but what emerged from my own analysis or thinking about them suggested how members of a pack might collectively assent to whatever goal the convening of the pack means to accomplish. This suggests no agreement about means, necessarily, but only ends, and implies neither that ends might not change in middle of trying to reach the pack’s goal. The crucial element here—and it denotes a central feature of cooperation and why one might resort to it—involves the fact that this collective goal sands as a non-personal goal, even though I might (I will) benefit from the attainment of the goal ultimately. By this, I will not act necessarily or only in an individually interested way but in a way that serves “our” interests (of which I comprise a member). In the case of a hunt, for instance, I might stand at one edge of the meow and make a lot of noise to frighten the prey away from a poet nail escape route. By herself, a hunter who frightens away all of the prey earns a reputation as a miserable failure, and someone we can’t count on to feed us, but in a cooperative venture this non-self-serving activity crucially contributes to the collective success of the hunt.

This proposes nothing revelatory about cooperation I expect, but when one tries to “scale-up” the pack into something like a crowd, the sense of any “collective assent” to a non-personal end becomes incoherent, because in no way does anything like a process to obtain such assent from everyone occurs (or, frequently, even can occur). By an analogy with a pack, where someone calls forth the convening of a pack and thus the naming of a goal (through dialogue or not with others) that all of the members of the pack tacitly or explicitly accept as the collectively agreed upon goal, a similarly formed crowd requires something like this summoning authority. Thus, previously when Canetti spoke of the formation of crowds and discharges without reference to any form of authority, now he must resort to it, in part because crowds do seem to form at times thanks to leaders (authorities) but also because his exposition remains incoherent without it. The discharge literally takes on magical qualities in a way that seems like a naïve application of Jung’s synchronicity. Thus, Canetti finally resorts to “embodying” the discharge as a hail of magical arrows issuing from power.

Because his description of crowds remains uselessly incoherent, I can attempt to finish adapting what I determined about the pack to “scale-up” to the crowd as Canetti tries to explain it here. (Also, even if the army does not constitute a crowd, we should for no reason accept that the command must work differently, all the less so in its most familiar context, merely because it seeks to operate on a non-crowd.) All of this, in principle, because the significance of crowd psychology remains even if Canetti’s exposition of it remains utterly inadequate.

With his fascination with power—by which I mean his readiness to grant magical properties to power, hence the hail of magical arrows—Canetti will tend to overestimate the power of power. Here, the dictator merely magically waves his wand and the people march in lock-step to their bliss or doom. That this occurs, that we have empirical cases from history, suggests we owe an explanation for these things, but not because the (sociopathic) leader issues a (magically, suddenly) non-stinging command, which arouses feeling of bliss and equality rather than hostility and the desire for revenge. At a minimum, power in this sense has the magi to manipulate the thoughtless clay of the masses, it seems. Doubtless, the debunked notion of the authoritarian personality lurks somewhere in the vicinity, placing the blame on the victims (who went on to make further victims), &c.

To move en masse toward some goal logically requires an imaging of the goal—hence Canetti stresses the importance of slogans and the like—but this fails to explain why Tom, Dick, Harry, and Susan specifically in the crowd all (at least to outward appearances) seem to march toward the same goal. It seems statistically impossible to insist that everyone does share the same goal, even as they all shout exactly the same words from exactly the same slogan. At root, the same problem underlying the dichotomy of Self and Society informs one’s experience as I versus Crowd. I don’t propose to untangle that knot. With a pack, one not only may readily imagine but one also knows it as the case in one’s actual practice and presence in a small group working toward some end that the group has a collectively agreed upon end, however contended that end might prove in practice. Everyone retains their individuality but subordinates it to some extent for the collectively agreed upon end (or one drops out of the pack, &c). For a crowd, especially like one that convened in Tahrir Square, one must seek in vain to understand what collectively agreed upon goal has occasioned subordination of one’s individuality.[9]

Insofar as someone (or something) calls for the convening of a pack, for a crowd to have  pack-like quality seems to require similarly that someone (or something) must call for its convention as well.[10] Canetti fails to address the relevant details of this, but if we suspend for the time being the salient question “at what point does a group of people become a crowd?” (and so the related question of “if a bunch of people came together in a public place, have they or have they not already formed a crowd”), then we can at least pretend that  people milling about in a group that then gets “called” into a crowd resembles the situation of a pack, where culture “mills around” doing its thing until someone within that culture “calls for” the formation of a pack (to accomplish a specific end—to exact revenge, to seek for a lost child, to organize a rebellion, &c).

The analogy seems to suggest a crowd needs a “lightning rod”—an ironic image compared to power issuing into the crowd as a hail of magic arrows. However, Canetti’s image proves accidentally more apt than he realizes.[11] He insists that the command “may originally strike a single individual from above, but, since others like himself stand near him, he immediately passes it on to them” (310). We might remember that the symbolic magic arrows so common among atmospheric deities (like Zeus, Odin, the devas) suggest the forks of lightning, and that lightning—as every player of role-playing games knows—has a form of chain lightning that strikes one individual and then leaps to those around her, doing damage as well. Thus, the one who gets struck denotes the leader (of the crowd). Thus, the “from above” issues from the sky, so that everyone below (the leader and the crowd) alike seem from that vantage point all (horizontally) equal. Certainly, from the standpoint of the gods, all humans seem the same (merely mortal).

We see in this Canetti’s insistence on the elevation of the leader as unnecessary, if not misleading. The gods limn the leader with the holy fire of lightning, which then immediately passes to everyone else in the crowd, and so forth, thus galvanizing them (in this case with metaphorical literalness). Except that being struck with lightning most assuredly leaves a scar, if it doesn’t kill you, that it flashes over the “surface” of a body and does not penetrate it lines up with the sense of a stingless command. The verb discharge shows itself as very apt as well.

I might believe Canetti intends the full range of this symbol—lightning as the symbolic emblem of power—if he elsewhere followed the logic of it. The leader, like Jove, thundering and raining lightning on one person in the crowd that then spreads to everyone else fails to explain countless cases of crowd formation. We may imagine a tense moment; a group of people seem restless—and suddenly,  single cry goes up from somewhere, inarticulate, perhaps well-formed, and suddenly this cry becomes the rallying point, the lightning rod, that impels the crowd to act. We need no commander to explain this, and one may remember any number of pathetic attempts by leaders to get folks fired up. The would-be pep-talker has gotten ahold of Odin’s lightning bolt but manage instead to come off fuck-daffy in its use. By Canetti’s lights, this must remain impossible—when Power thunders, people jump, &c., but this again belies his symptomatic fascination with Power.

Merely as a consequence of definition, whenever this “lightning’ strikes anyone “in” a group of people (that yet comprises a crowd), and this includes any of those deemed “above” all others by virtue of their mantle as leader, that refulgent moment of illumination may provide (or rather does provide) an or the occasion for the seeming-consensus that then orients people in the crowd to act. While this oversimplifies things somewhat,[12] this person “struck by lightning”—by the divine approval of the sky fathers—then stands out, literally and figuratively, just as we conventionally speak of leaders also as outstanding. And once something outstanding occurs, others may (or may not) see that example as an alternative for themselves and either take it up (or not).

I intend this description of lightning as fanciful and apt—as a conceit in the poetic sense. It pulls together various (seeming disconnected) aspects of Canetti’s exposition about commands or power (the hail of magic arrows as lightning, the association with sky gods and claims to power, &c., some sense of focus-drawing or –making to “make” a crowd, and an electrical rather than sexual sense of “discharge”, &c). Of course, anyone may attempt to bluff this lightning as well, as Errington and Gewertz (1987)[13] detail in their analysis of politicking among Chambri males (in Papua New Guinea). An example of the “genre” of such bluff illuminates this topic:

It is also common to hear men shouting as they walk through a Chambri village about their loss through theft of an object of potentially exceptional power. A man might complain, for example, that a piece of wood he was transforming into a totemic effigy had been stolen before he had ritually empowered it. In this way he is suggesting that he is powerful enough to have enemies who wish to thwart him and, at the same time, hinting at the extent of his esoteric competence by reference to the scope of his plans. Yet he is also acknowledging that he has not, in fact, actually completed this wonderful object (76).

This bluff generally affects a win-win for the bluffer: it claims the capacity to make powerful ritual objects, ritual objects moreover worthy of envy and theft—a worthless ritual object would not get stolen—while also (because of the theft) preventing any obligation on the part of the bluffer to present or finish the object. Moreover, by making this announcement of theft, he “ensures” also that the ne’er-do-well who has stolen object will not dare use it or show it in public, since to do so would serve as an admission of the theft.

Some might try to dismiss as quint the curious habits of “natives” in faraway places, but this kind of power-bluff we can find all over our local milieu. In this example, we see not merely the claim to power (i.e., “the lightning has struck me!”) but the acknowledgment of others of power (“someone has stolen my luster”). This aspect of the bluff—that “others acknowledge as a power”—underscores the crucial aspect as far as a public gambit like this goes, because it speaks to those who hear the bluff in terms of some other (perhaps large) group of people who already acknowledge the power. A mere assertion out of the blue that “I have the power” almost implicitly demands demonstration as verification, but here the “proof” of power gets shifted, in this case to a shadowy third party who, by the fiction of the bluff at least, do exist and have tacitly acknowledged the power of the bluffer. But, again, aside from the logistics of such a bluff—one doesn’t really actually have such a ritual object or such power so responsibility for that absence must get shifted to someone else—the framing of this appeal doesn’t rest on “Believe me when I say I have power,” but rather, “Believe it, because others already do.”

The marketing of books, of course, relies upon this. It certainly doesn’t matter what kind of intellectual reputation Iris Murdoch or Susan Sontag have—but it doesn’t hurt if you know—simply that they say complimentary things bout Canetti gives the book exactly a Chambri male bluff. Where shall we find any proof that the ne’er-do-wells Sontag and Murdoch actually and independently said these things or that they weren’t simply solicited for the back of the book itself. But just exactly as the specificity of these compliments also propose a weakness—what, for instance, happens to the book if we can demonstrate that Sontag or Murdoch never said such a thing, or said it ironically, got paid a hefty stipend to say such a thing, or said it because they had an ongoing romantic relationship with Canetti (in Murdoch’s case), &c—we also of course get the anonymous back-text of the book: “Crowds and Power is a revolutionary work in which Elias Canetti finds a new way of looking at human history and psychology. Breathtaking in its range and erudition … Canetti offers one of the most profound and startling portraits of the human condition.” I don’t mean that this might seem startling, even if one did not foresee a linkability between the bluffs of marketing and politicking males in Papua New Guinea ; I point to the back-text to illustrate its appeal to an already existing consensus of (mysterious, unknown) others who think the text revolutionary, breathtaking, and profound.

Within the text, Canetti indulges his own variety of bluffs—most of all in claiming to quotes texts when in fact he misquotes them—but mostly he operates within the ambit of the conceit of having been struck by the lightning (of inspiration). For one, he not only believes but makes it his central project to present his “feelings” about events as the basis for generalizations about events; per Reiss (2004),[14] this amounts to Canetti mirroring Stendhal’s approach (to writing fiction), despite Crowds and Power being non-fiction. The obvious faults of this aside, I would emphasize the bluff of illumination (power) this proposes. Importantly, Canetti also hailed Stendhal (the artist) as an obvious alternative to the malignant narcissism of the leader (the survivor), and so Canetti’s bluff of illumination at least in principle arises from a desire not to act like a survivor.[15]

I could easily make problematic and facile this desire on Canetti’s part to pretend or assert that merely to have the mantle of the artist avoids all (or even the main) threats to the social world and the people in it that the survivor (the leader) must always exhibit—that Hitler painted flowers and Karadzic wrote poetry provide counter-example enough. In the vocation or calling of artist or leader, one clearly has a choice of means for treating and acting toward the world. And if the socially neutralized psychopath (artist) ultimately does “less harm” than the politically empowered psychopath (survivor), I don’t see why we should approve the “symbolic” (artistic) variety of psychopathology simply on those grounds. I would have no trouble arguing in depth and breadth that precisely such symbolic psychopathology may do greater harm in an ultimate sense;[16] at the very least, whether we cage evil, endure evil, or use evil to kill evil (a self-defeating process), the deeper problem remains our framing of evil, how it arises, &c.

If I push the metaphor a little further, a flash of lightning may blind those that see it and may completely stun or addle the one it strikes; similarly, the thunder may make one deaf. To survive such a strike (as with all disasters) may spark in some, certainly not all, that sense of election. Where the lightning would have destroyed others, I passed the test; others were chosen, but I survived. The very fact of survival marks me out as not like others—others cannot understand my experience—an so I need not (perhaps even cannot) follow the usual rules. In the calamity of lightning and thunder, though blind I claim to see, though deaf I claim to her, and for that reason I have a unique, incommensurable mission. And so forth. In this midst of this powerful delusion, which Jung would identify s godlikeness, that particular kind of person who concludes all this from the mere chance of survival may mesmerize others as a charismatic leader—or, perhaps in a proper bluff, the claim will arise that “many already believe in me” and an entire industry of commentators will spring up to make manifest that body of believers—or manifest as a piece of writing (scripture). So, evil arises from blinding ignorance.

All of this adds to the simpler point that the (metaphorical) image of striking lightning provides an apt one for how a group of people transforms into a crowd—bearing in mind that this indicates a claim about an explanatory framework and not a claim about the “nature” of groups of people or crowds. Because the problem persists in imagining or explaining how a disparate group of people could, without any guarantee of any clear discussion, collectively “agree” on a course of action “all of a sudden”. A pack accomplishes this by a literal calling for it and then at least outwardly agreed upon end goal as a constrain on the function of the pack until the attainment of that goal. A crowd has no such goal, much less any discussion to identify one, but nonetheless seems to move toward a collective end. Those struck by lightning—whether actually a leader or merely a cry going up from someone in the crowd, or a single shopkeeper burning himself alive in despair—orient the crowd to a point, if not an end per se. Figuratively, everyone looks in the same direction—what direction ultimately doesn’t matter per se—and then (this incites a second step) as some start to move toward that point, others see this as an alternative not previously considered or recognized (or if considered or recognized, not actable upon), and then act or do not act accordingly themselves. As a piece of physical logistics, if you happen to stand in the middle of a crowd that starts moving, you either move as well or tend to get buffeted around a lot (if not trampled). So whether you will to take up the example of the crowd as your own, the sheer weight of people may negate the possibility of your willing.[17]

The main thing I wish to emphasize in all of this, the main thing that distinguishes what I have written (here) from Canetti’s text, involves the source of power. Canetti wrote, “power discharges commands like a hail of magic arrows” (305). Whatever this says about power and commands to individuals, such a wielding of Indra’s bow type of picture does not translate to the situation of a crowd, where the image seems more that the leader gets struck by lightning from above; the leader (the survivor) does not originate it.  A demagogue may bluff or actually possess Odin’s lightning bolt and claim to call down the lightning, but only by remaining mesmerized by Power can we imagine “the masses” as mechanically galvanized by such overly deliberate wieldings. Wherever lightning comes down, on a leader (or survivor) or not, that serves, ceteris paribus, to orient a group of people as a crowd. Insofar as that aptly describes crowd-formation, human beings (and especially survivors) will and have utilized this observation to manipulate people. Mistaking obedience for consent, the survivor believes that those who take up an example actually “follow” that example. Thus, as also in the entangled self vs. society question, the distinction between leader and follower offers an intellectual incoherent description of power’s transaction in the first place, leading to psychopaths as leaders on the one hand (as power) and authoritarian personalities (as crowds) on the other.


[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] Here, as not elsewhere in Crowds and Power but as in Adorno (1972),* Canetti states bluntly, “Thus an army should never be a crowd” (310). The “should” of this seem striking but I do not intend to chase the fox of this point here.

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

[4] Canetti’s metaphor works this way—you get struck by an arrow, and then pull it out of yourself and use it to inflict the same wound on someone else. This seems a distinctly not unconscious process—if I don’t know I have an arrow in me, how would I pluck it out and pass it along? So this talk of “immediately passing it on” becomes completely incoherent. Canetti has to insist on “immediately” because otherwise the period between the affliction of the sting and being rid of it must get accounted for; i.e., the sting becomes effectively permanent until alleviated.  He desires to say that we may avoid in some way stings, but unless we get rid of it “immediately” then we do not avoid it. His insistence seems gratuitous and aberrant. What objection must he have to the notion that a command, once issued, leaves a mark until one gets around to dealing with it? He even admits that stings leave scars after one gets rid of them.

[5] Maybe we should recall what Pettit (1975)* refers to Mary Douglas’ “useful word of policy” (82) when she says with regard to the incoherence of Lévi-Strauss’ ramblings: “I do not think it is fair to such an ebullient writer to take him literally” (Douglas, 1967, 50).**I will not accept that ebullience should constitute grounds for excusing a writer of nonfiction if that ebullience does not get accompanied by a sense of self-consciousness about the direction, extent, or consequences of that ebullience. In Canetti’s case, the motivating spirit seems less frequently ebullient and more carping or embittered. However, in either case, I reject as adequate that we may refuse to hold a writer responsible for her or his writing, especially when someone (like Lévi-Strauss or Canetti) attempt to present a systematic explanation of something. The consequences of bitterness of ebullience when expatiating on a particular work of art or whatnot involves a potentially garish display of sentimentality or curmudgeonliness, &c, but little threatens to paint a picture of the world as dehumanized (in Lévi-Strauss’ case) or relentlessly violent and awful (in Canetti’s case). What Pettit notes regarding two propositions about myth by Lévi-Strauss point to the issue here:

Spelt out, the analogy with music gives Lévi-Strauss two propositions about myth: these are two sides to his theory. The first is that myth is non-liner or non-sequential—the time of myth, as he likes to say, is reversible (see [Lévi-Strauss] 1958a, 209–12).[***] What he means is that a myth is essentially repetitive, returning again and again to the same points instead of just getting on with the story. The nature of myth is to resist liner reading, to suspend non-reversible time. It does this because its task is to exhibit a timeless structure, impressing it on the minds of the audience by repetition of the elements of the structure. ¶ The second proposition about myth which Lévi-Strauss derives from the musical analogy bears on the nature of the structure which myth presents non-linearly, the polarized character which makes the structure interesting for the native and worth presenting. He puts the proposition in rather formal language. ‘The purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real)’ (). This statement suggests that the polarization has a strict logical form and a definite social status—that it is a contradiction felt in the society at large. Neither suggestion is borne out in Lévi-Strauss’s analyses and is safely worth examining (81–2, emphasis added).

Whatever ebullience leads to these analytically vacuous statements does not leave no tree in the work or the consequences that come from the work. Moreover, when  writer accepts that truth constitutes a property of statements, i.e., when one takes an essentially naïve realist stance vis-à-vis ‘objective reality,” then it seems fair, if not necessary, to insist on the same kind of one-to-one correspondence to “truth” that such statements epistemologically rest on. Ebullience or embitteredness in such a context turns almost immediately into ideology, if not agenda. In her ultimately dubious analysis of Freud and Lévi-Strauss, Rubin (1975)**** diagnoses a part of the problem as “substitutions”:

There are points within the analytic discussions of femininity where one might say, “This is oppression of women,” or [paraphrasing Freud] “we can demonstrate with ease that what the world call femininity demands more sacrifices than it is worth.” It is precisely at such points that the implications of the theory are ignored, and are replaced with formulations whose purpose is to keep those implications firmly lodged in the theoretical unconscious. It is at these points that all sorts of mysterious chemical substances, joys in pain, and biological aims are substituted for a critical assessments of the costs of femininity. These substitutions are the symptoms of theoretical repression, in that they are not consistent with the usual canons of psychoanalytic argument. The extent to which these rationalizations of femininity go against the grain of psychoanalytic logic is strong evidence for the extent of the need to suppress the radical feminist implications of the theory of femininity. (Deutsch’s discussions are excellent examples of this process of substitution and repression) (202–3, emphasis added).

Thus, the kinds of substitutions, whether the goalpost-moving Pettit (1975) identifies extensively in Lévi-Strauss or that one may find continuously in Canetti as well (e.g., one does not notice stings/one notices stings, one cannot get rid of stings/one can get rid of stings, one must pass a sting immediately along/this happens automatically in crowds issued order, with the exception of armies, which do not constitute crowds—all of these examples I’ve drawn from two pages of Canetti’s text), thus point to symptoms of theoretical repression, by which I take Rubin to mean not an inclusion of repression (in woman) as part of Freudian or structuralist theory (though this as well), but repression of the theory itself—an ideological or dogmatic insistence on a point contrary to the very consequences of the theory itself; hence Rubin says that these substitutions “are not consistent with the usual canons of psychoanalytic argument” (203) in the first place.

*Douglas, M. (1967). The meaning of myth. In E. Leach (ed). The structural study of myth and totemism. London: Tavistock.

** Pettit, P. (1975). The concept of structuralism: a critical analysis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

***Lévi-Straus, C. (1958). Structural anthropology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

**** Rubin, G. (1975). The traffic in women: notes on the ‘political economy’ of sex. In R. R. Reiter (ed.). Toward an anthropology of women. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[6] Recall that “power discharges commands like a hail of magic arrows” (305).

[7] Obviously, Canetti has fired up again, and did so earlier in this section, his breathless appreciation for the “herd”. So long as the herd flees in a collective direction from the predator’s threat, they do not panic—this denotes his ‘flight crowd”. By contrast, when encircled (as when caught in a net or a burning theater) then neighbor becomes enemy and panic sets in. Canetti writes, “It seems very likely that sacrifice originated in this state of crowd fear” (309, emphasis in original). “A lion pursuing a herd of gazelles, all fleeing together in fear of him, desists from pursuit as soon as he succeeds in seizing one of them. The animal, his victim, is a kind of sacrifice which procures a respite for its companions in the herd. As soon as the other gazelles see that the lion has got what it wants their fear abates” (309, emphasis added). Incorrect. The gazelles cease to flee, when they do, because the lion ceases to pursue them. Here again, as in so much of Canetti, his fascination with power makes him focus on the wrong element, or at least grant exclusive attention to one element in the analysis of an event. Thus, he imagines that the accidental death of one gazelle, which from the gazelle’s standpoint caused (rather than signaled) the end of the lion’s pursuit, becomes the deliberate slaughter of one of their individual—as  sacrifice—that ‘serves to halt the pursuit and, for a while, still the hunger of the hostile power” (309). This proposes a far too-narrow sense of sacrifice, even perhaps as an explanation for the emergence of the practice of sacrifice in the first place. One basic distinctions involves whether one propitiates the gods or honors them and then, beyond this, whether by enacting the sacrifice one becomes the gods or that one demonstrates faith in the gods by conspicuous destruction of one’s valuables. In these latter two cases, one finds no question of staving off a hostile power: for those who become the gods, they become the hostile or beneficent power, while sacrifices intended to show faith presume upon the beneficence of the gods to replace what we destroy. In Mesoamerican cultures, as Todorov (1984)* details, cultural outsiders for the most part comprised victims of sacrifice, and in for example the horse sacrifice of the Brahmins, this offered no substitution of the horse for a human sacrifice, insofar as a horse had a greater cultural value. If the gazelle losing a gazelles constitutes the original image of sacrifice, as  staving off of a hostile power, then how does one arrive at the variety of sacrifice one finds in the human record, and above all the substitutions of non-gazelles (non-humans, including humans deemed non-human by virtue of their outsider status). Amongst the Warramunga and several other tribes in Australia, rituals that required the sacrifice of goods resulted not in the staving off of hostile forces but the increase of totemic creatures. In these cases, the human predator (the one making the sacrifice, the lion) generally tabooed eating the sacrificial creature. For it incapacity even to address these issues, much less account for them, Canetti’s conception here seems grossly inadequate.

* Todorov, T. (1998). The conquest of America: the question of the other (trans. Richard Howard). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press

[8] At least, so Canetti claims at least once; “Within the crowd there is equality. This is absolute and indisputable and never questioned by the crowd itself. It is of fundamental importance and one might even define a crowd as a state of absolute equality” (29, emphasis in original).

[9] One may fancifully try to insist that somehow cells within crowds form packs in the sense I describe and that these manage to aggregate in some way, but the actual playing out of crowds usually belies nothing of the sort. Such an explanation in any case merely pushes the problem back. Why, in the mass of gathered people, did an individual manage to “call forth” a locally organized pack, and why did the authority of that pack become the “authority” to call forth, to aggregate, other packs, &c?  Conceptually, this seems like an explanatory dead end in general.

[10] For Canetti, the moment of discharge demarks the boundary between crowd and not-crowd, but this puts the cart before the horse. The whole problem of a crowd’s boundaries, &c., remains unaddressed by Canetti.

[11] That is, he belies no sense of its symbolic consequences.

[12] Maybe the most obvious “lightning rod” in a group of people is the group of people itself. For those who have ever idled in a car at a train crossing while a long, long train passes, the moment may come when someone up ahead decides to hang a U-turn and leave. With that one example, others might follow; some will remain. It seems an error to suggest that the first one to depart acts as a leader. Notwithstanding we know nothing about the person in the car, they leave presumably without any thought that others might follow their example. And we might talk about “sheeple,” placidly sitting at the railroad crossing “mindlessly” helpless before the bad luck of the crossing train, in comparison to the “audacity” of the one who decides to turn around and leave, but this equally misreads people’s motivations as well. Once that first person goes, some who felt helpless and put upon by the situation might realize they have an escape; some might take courage from the example, having imagined they might turn around, but were embarrassed or scared to (what if a police officer sees them turning around illegally—without knowing if such a U-turn actually is illegal), and so forth. Whatever motivation in the person who first turns around, and whatever the motivations in those who subsequently turn around as well, parsimoniously we may say only that given an initial condition (of waiting for the train to pass), one of the people waiting enacted an alternative, and others did or did not similarly enact that alternative as well. Conventionally, we say they “followed” the example, but this denotes a following without a leader, because the first person made no demand that anyone follow her example. Similarly, those who did not enact the alternative don’t constitute cowards who lacked audacity or whatnot.

[13] Errington, F, and Gewertz, D. (1987). Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology : an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire], New York: Cambridge University Press.

[14] 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.

[15] This desire gets complicated by the fact that Canetti’s description of Stendhal presents the French author more like a socialized narcissist than any sort of genuine alternative to the malignant sociopathy of leaders (celebrities) in general. Whether Stendhal warrants Canetti’s description or not, the problem of “the artist as an alternative to the survivor” recurs in the fact that the “socialized narcissism” in Canetti’s text still also does not provide a genuine alternative to the “malignant narcissism of celebrity”.

[16] Often, the emotional trauma of the reaction of adults to the sexual abuse of a child leaves more profound scars than the physical abuse itself (e.g., the mother who says the child has lied that the father molested her). Similarly, the hypocrite who acts holy does a double disservice to society—not only does he commit wrongs, he models that the operation of the good itself rests on the commission of wrongs. Per Suttner (2005), the task of the intellectual (not necessarily the intelligent) involves framing the inchoate experience of people generally into a coherent explanation of the world To the extent that the artist stands as an intellectual in this sense, then to act hypocritically in that capacity commits a double wound against society: not only does he commit wrongs in his framing of the explanation of society, he models that the operation of the artist itself rests on the commission of such wrongs. As a reaction to the “wound” of the world—as an explanation for the bewildering and sometimes disheartening character of the experience of the world—such a hypocritical reaction in a text may leave a far deeper emotional trauma in the person who has experienced that would—more so than from the wound itself. While grotesque to assent to any theory proposing that some people simply by race stand as inferior to others, this does offer an intellectual framing of the experience of injustice in the world—“why do I suffer? Because I’m a nigger.” The life-long and earth-shattering consequences of taking up such an intellectual framing results in far greater social damage than a racist calling me a nigger on the street. So I must reserve judgment whether the artist “gets a pass” as innocent of all malignant narcissism of celebrity.

[17] Thus, even in terms of the “direction” of a crowd, the equality of all members Canetti insists on remains untenable; those swept along by the crowd unwillingly mark a heterogeneity within the crowd contrary to “equality”. Only the members and commanders of the riot squad trying to control the crowd thinks everyone in a crowd seems equal. That we must shift the framework from those in the crowd to those who look at the crowd to see where those who ‘see equality” stand denotes a telling elision in Canetti’s discourse.

Summary (in One Sentence)

In the feminist and antifeminist discourse regarding whether or not males and females might coexist without dominating one another, this discourse usually progresses without any recognition of—or, frequently enough, a disheartening apologetics for—the justifications offered that adults do and should dominate children.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.

A Reaction To: Errington and Gewertz’s (1987)[1] Cultural Alternatives And A Feminist Anthropology : An Analysis Of Culturally Constructed Gender Interests In Papua New Guinea

My thesis or sense comes to this: while one may readily identify some of the elements or roots of patriarchy at work in cultures organized according to or ultimately derived from settled agricultural societies, i.e., those societies now deemed by history as initiating civilization and, indeed, history itself, one might reasonably hope to find less patriarchal social structuring in “non-civilized” cultures, i.e., those typically framed as pastoralist and non-agricultural.[2] However, from the anthropological record—and we may put all the necessary caveats in place regarding not simply the process of the representation of the Other but also the very reason and sociomoral/political interests that such a representation gets undertaken in the first place—I find no tidy correlation between patriarchal social organization (or simply patriarch) and “civilization” on the one hand, and non-patriarchal social organization and “non-civilization” on the other.

For clarity, by patriarchal social organization I mean an arrangement of the social order that prioritizes the needs and values of (adult) males over others (non-adults, and non-males).[3] Patriarchy does not mean, then, that women have no value, but only that their values get framed in light of male values.  To some degree, and this degree matters substantially in each society, the public recognition of women’s ability to value themselves in their own terms gets de-valued (or un-valued, or non-valued), if not suppressed, inhibited, or punished.

Three key points then.

First, the distinction of patriarchal and non-patriarchal does not directly analogize with patrilineal or matrilineal descent systems or patrifocal or matrifocal marriage systems, and the like; one might have patriarchal matrilineality or (at least in principle) non-patriarchal patrifocality.[4] Second, the typical view of patriarchy holds it as oppressive, but this oppressiveness does not play out identically for everyone in a society; in other words, certain people (males and females alike) will locate agreeable spots within patriarchy, just as other (males and females) will not. This agreeableness (e.g., the points where certain women , usually with a marked degree of privilege compared to other women) points to a critical leverage point. In Errington and Gewertz’s (1987) book, for instance, they insist that men neither dominate women nor women men—“in most cases, men and women are able to pursue their separate concerns without domination by, or even interference from, members of the other group” (13)—but whatever the relative adequacy of this description, not only does the Chambri social order but even Errington and Gewertz’s text belie a heavily patriarchal organization that places more emphasis and focus on male activity; the authors admit that, in order “to provide a complete portrayal of Chambri gender relationships, we must necessarily devote somewhat more space to the discussion of the strategies of men than of women” (13).

Second, then, we must remain alert to not allowing some group within a society to unilaterally make effectively unchallenged descriptions about the social order.  What verdict might we render on patriarchy when some men and women within it call it agreeable and others do not? We may begin by remembering that patriarchal social organization—like the vast majority of social organizations—have hierarchal structures and that, as American Express assures us, privilege has its rewards. But even those at the bottom of the social order may find—would act smartly to find—and make peace with the social order in some way—after all, besides a resort to suicide, we all must live. What I consider when I consider patriarchy then involves, amongst other things, these two elements: that patriarchy establishes an order of privilege from which judgments about patriarchy (and how one lives) emerge and that it demands as well and offers certain varieties of “coming to terms” with the social order.[5] Whatever hierarchal arrangement a society reflects, we will find at least find these two factors. Errington and Gewertz expose this in discussing an event where Gewertz (a woman) discovers that she had not gained access to all of her (male) informant’s ritual paraphernalia—paraphernalia the informant now readily displayed to Gewertz’s husband (Errington).

After Deborah protested to Yorondu that she had always been privy to his ritual knowledge, he allowed her to accompany Frederick to this new display. He, however, did send his wife, daughter, and several visiting kinswomen from the house before he explained the significance of these objects to us. These women were far from disconcerted by their exclusion and continued to chat with each other, somewhat bemused by Yorondu’s preoccupation with ritual items (3).

That Yorondu had previously excluded Gewertz, and would have continued to do so but for the coincidental presence of another male, prompts the authors to ask, “But why exactly should this annoy her, we later wondered, when it scarcely even occasioned the notice of Chambri women?” (3). In Author’s () “Article”, she describes a culture in France where the entire geographic range of some women’s lives may amount to no more than the house she grew up in and the house literally next door. In this extremely circumscribed movement, Author describes the scoffing and ridicule that women often expend on the “café culture” that their husbands, brothers, and fathers participate in; the degree of outright enmity between the male and female sphere in this work comes across as very striking. Author makes clear that most women—socialized to embrace this form of social organization—do not experience it as a gross imposition; it would affront their dignity even to venture out to such a worthless locale like a café to have idiotic discussions about nonsense, &c. None of this should persuade us that such agreeableness on the part of French women or the bemusement of Chambri women over male preoccupation with ritual baloney have nothing problematic about them.

Third, this all points to the degree of actual violence or threats of violence (coercion) involved in the “functioning” of the patriarchal constraints within a society.[6] More simply, if we take up as a matter of intrusive attempts at social justice, we might look at those places (or sub-places within places) where patriarchy affects domination. Errington and Gewertz allude to, but may not finally provide their own distinction for, “the definition of dominance widely held within our culture” (44):

dominance is a relationship between individuals (or groups) in which one unjustifiably deprives the other of his or her capacity to make an enact what are regarded as reasonable decisions (44).

Instead of “reasonable” decisions, I would say “meaningful” decisions, but otherwise I consent to work within this framing of dominance. Moreover, I can imagine a hierarchical social order not necessarily colored by dominance;[7] by contrast, a characteristics of hierarchical social organizations where dominance begins to emerge as a structural feature involves those that assign positions in by class not qualitative distinctions. The double-sense of class here (e.g., as “middle class” and “member of a class”) provides a happy semantic intersection. In racial terms, this operates as prejudice, so that one’s membership in the class of the “wrong race” excludes access to participation in cultural life in important ways that unjustifiably deprive that Other of his or her capacity to make meaningful decisions. In sexual terms, this operates as chauvinism, so that one’s membership in the class of “women” excludes access to participation in culture life in important ways that unjustifiably deprive women of enacting her capacity to make meaningful decisions. Errington and Gewertz (1987) note:

A significant part of the cultural meaning of dominance for the Chambri is that only those deprived of power consider it unjustifiable that another has incapacitated them.[[8]] Particular cases apart, Chambri men consider it perfectly reasonable, indeed essential, given their view of entropy, that they seek to dominate over one another (48).

Here we see not simply a politics of envy, i.e., a critique of the social order by a (disenfranchised) member of the social order, who likely raises this critique on the basis of his exclusion from this ability to dominate others rather than as a critique of domination itself,[9] but also the “cheek” of privilege itself inherent in a dominance, that [the privileged] “consider it perfectly reasonable, indeed essential” to enact the rigors of that privilege on others, even other privileged others. What makes this unjustifiable, in the view of the politically envious, involves the prevention of their capacity to make and enact meaningful decisions. In the case of the politically envious, the objection to (privileged) others arises precisely in terms of fairness: all males have the right to enhance their reputations in these and those ways and yet here some few inhibit that right. Errington and Gewertz would insist, and do, that women have no interest (cultural or affective) in such stuff, so the patriarchal arrangement that denies them the opportunity—or makes extremely socially costly any attempt to demand such a kind of an opportunity—never comes up for them.

Errington an Gewertz insist that:

Chambri men and women experience the world through a set of non-Western cultural premises concerning the nature of indebtedness and the nature of power. The primary debt is for physical and social existence itself: individuals are indebted to those who have engendered them and to those who have lost ancestral power to give them viability and social position” (17).

First, as a point of procedure, how do Errington and Gewertz know to look at the Chambri as “non-Western”?[10] And then, beyond this, how does such indebtedness for one’s physical and social existence mark itself as different in kind from “Western” obligations to one’s parents and the larger community that en-members those parents?[11] Most assuredly, the specific way that Chambri men and women manage and repay that debt not only distinguishes that way interculturally from other (Western and non-Western) social arrangements but also intraculturally (i.e., differentially between males and females). Thus, from the outset, culture declares to those who find themselves born into it: you owe this debt, you repay it this way.

This imposition involves no distinction of sex or gender (male and female), but rather one of age (adult and non-adult), which points to the priority (and virtual invisibility) of this distinction as the “original” enslavement.[12] Although they somewhat acknowledge the qualifiers one might add, in distinguishing dominance from constraint, Errington and Gewertz write, “Few would, for instance, interpret as dominance the insistence by a parent that his or her teenaged child eat with knife and fork. To the extent that the constraints are regarded as reasonable and normal, they will be interpreted as acts of legitimate control rather than of dominance” (44). This opens various cans of worms, but all I want to emphasize at the moment involves that the example Errington and Gewertz select—one of which they write, “we have intentionally chosen a simple example” (150)—not only gets selected from the world of adult n child but also gets presented as uncontroversial, simple, and taken-as-obvious.

From this initial imposition as a framing of the problem of culture (“you owe this debt”) by adults upon children, culture—as the set of constraints on human behavior in a given society, subject to modification by the people in that society—then stipulates through the same framing the solution to the problem of culture (“you repay that debt this way”). So, the individual may work out how to enact the (deemed culturally necessary) solution to the problem within the framework provided or imposed, but they do not have any say (and certainly not as a child) in how that solution got framed for them.

In this we see the unjustifiable deprivation of the other of his or her capacity to make an enact what are regarded as reasonable decisions, and it remains crucial to remember that exactly here—at the adult/non-adult juncture—that Errington and Gewertz invoke the distinction of justifiable dominance, as constraint. The issue here does not at all involve any abstract question of whether a non-adult can participate in some way (while still a non-adult) in the framing of the problem and solution of culture. By the very definition of what a “non-adult” constitutes, adults preclude attribution of qualities to children that would recognize adult capacities—the most obvious of these from the legal world involves the declaration that children cannot consent to sex.[13]

Consequently, adults simply declare justifiable (as a constraint) their unjustifiable dominance of non-adults, just exactly as Chambri men consider it perfectly justifiable, indeed essential, that they seek to achieve dominance over others. Errington and Gewertz example of a teenage child even points to the politicians of envy, insofar as the teenage child represents the non-adult who has enough experience of the world to attempt to dialogue (with the adult world) about the solution of the problem as adults have framed it upon them; hence the familiar parental, “When you own your own home, you can make your own rules. But while you’re under my roof, you’ll live by my rules.” &c.

Whatever the seemingly reactionary elements in this book, some cognizance of class issues prevails within it, and the authors close unambiguously in noting the dominance of women in the US milieu.[14] If the authors’ view of the Chambri as holding out the possibility of non-dominance between the sexes rings unconvincing finally, they at least stand resolutely opposed and make apparent why one should stand resolutely opposed to US dominance of its women by its males. Whether this advocacy for women’s practice of subjectivity in US culture proceeds at the expense of women in non-US cultures seems less clear.


[1] Errington, F, and Gewertz, D. (1987). Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology : an analysis of culturally constructed gender interests in Papua New Guinea. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire], New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. i–ix, 1–185.

[2] Frequently, this means they get deemed prehistoric as well—accompanied or not with a layer of racial chauvinism.

[3] I could split a hair here whether “males” or “men” denotes the most adequate term, where what constitutes a man in any given society follows from that society’s definitions. Thus, a male who remains too young to have gone through initiation rites still has yet to become a “man”—this may still remain true, even if the “boy” is 25 years old. &c. Complicating this, just as women get ascribed not no value by patriarchy but a particular value seen through the patriarchal lens, so also for “non-adults”; consequently, among non-adults distinctions may prevail between girls and boys, s future non-males and future males (or men) alike. &c.

[4] Also, in formal terms, the distinction of “non-patriarchal” requires more specification. Definition, logically, it proposes a social organization

[5] In practice, the implied class distinction here does not simply play out in an uncomplicated way. The generation of young Russian aristocrats who, following the emancipation of the serfs, were prompted by social conditions to become literal revolutionaries often found themselves confronted by a bewildering complacence with the status quo in the former serfs they set out to liberate. More recently, one might point to the higher incidence of suicide among the rich as compared to the poor. Privilege may have its rewards; it has its rigors as well, which the poor do not suffer from. I say this not as an apology—I think I’d rather have the problem of losing $100,000 dollars out of my multi-million dollar portfolio than trying to figure out how I’ll make rent this month, &c.

[6] One of the disingenuous critiques of Utopia involves the insistence that it “is bad” even though its inhabitants “are happy”. Most former serfs—as populist activists discovered to their chagrin in the late nineteenth century—seemed happy to go on thinking of the Tsar as wonderful, just as most impoverished conservatives—as social activists discovered to their chagrin in the early twentyfirst century—seemed happy to go on thinking of Bush Jr. as on the right track. But if Utopia “is bad” despite that its inhabitants “are happy” then Utopia also “is good” despite when its inhabitants “are sad”. But it doesn’t do to proceed like this—again in part because those most empowered to pronounce publically what the discourse of culture should or does consist of constitute exactly those most of the time who most benefit from that particular discourse. More precisely, if Errington and Gewertz accuse Mead’s earlier work as driven to provide a picture of the actual possibility of non-domination of women by men, the Errington and Gewertz’s desire to correct that bias with a view of men and women neither dominating nor dominated suffers from the same imputation.  This desire resembles the same dream Rubin (1975) expresses, as she torturously argues for not abandoning what she calls two of the most sophisticated ideologies of sexism to date: Freudianism and structuralism. This gesture toward progressivism—a dream of equality—that has strikingly reactionary overtones—the embrace of foaming ideological sexism and a shallow rejection of historical materialism—has its parallels in Errington and Gewertz’s work as well. In describing an ideal—a social world of non-domination—not only do the authors continually point to garishly patriarchal elements of Chambri culture but they also relentlessly deny subjectivity to Chambri people, e.g., “none derives identity through an inner subjectivity” (154). Logically, let’s admit the applicability of the criticism that Mead (as also other anthropologists) unduly imposed Western notions of subjectivity when encountering (at least presumably) non-Western cultures, it does not follow that no “non-Western” subjectivity exists. Whether one intends a compliment or insult by saying, “You have no Western subjectivity,” this merely reproduces the kinds of positive and negative orientalism Said (1980) detailed. Just as Spencer and Gillen (1904) were accused of ideological bias when insisting that the aboriginal cultures they studied gave no evidence of a Supreme Being, those who made the accusation were equally ideological in saying tribes like the Warramunga did have a Supreme Being (see Nicholls 2007).* An important detail in this, I cannot determine to what extent Spencer and Gillen (1904) spired to brand aboriginal people as “godless” in order to warrant some policy treatment by the colonizing Australian government; I can determine that those who insisted the aboriginal people did have a belief in a Supreme being had every intention of evangelizing them with Christianity—prerequisite to that project being, apparently, to demonstrate a capacity “in the native” for such “advanced spiritual thinking” in the first place. Similarly, whatever ax Mead had to grind—whatever “exploitative” use she wanted to make of the representation of Chambri people in her local US context—I find it more worrisome what (exploitative?) purpose Errington and Gewertz’s insistence on non-subjectivity may entail for those inhabitants of a place more and more filling up with non-locals. On this point, the downstream use of Spencer and Gillen (1904) to make policy determinations about aboriginal people because someone had “found” they had no Supreme Being did take on political consequences for aboriginal people, and efforts were made to counteract the imputation of any “lack” (of advanced spiritual capacities, &c). This itself points to the whole knotted problem of the Outsider (here, actually, the colonized already-Insider) having to prove in colonial terms their worthiness of address as human beings.

*Nicholls, A. (2007). Anglo-German mythologies: the Australian Aborigines and modern theories of myth in the work of Spencer Baldwin and Carl Strehlow. The History of Human Sciences, 20(1): 83–114. DOI: 10.1177/0952695106075077

[7] I feel like I ought to provide examples. When I say “social organization,” I do not imply a scale, so while I find it difficult to imagine an entire society that lacks dominance, I can easily imagine a group of friends going out to eh movies or an anarchic work environment where we might impute dominance only by an ideological insistence that we must find it everywhere. This, again, where dominance means “a relationship between individuals (or groups) in which one unjustifiably deprives the other of his or her capacity to make and enact what are regarded as [meaningful] decisions”. A problematic element of these non-dominant soil organizations (within larger, dominating social orders) involves to what degree do the relative freedoms of such organizations ameliorate and thus help to perpetuate the undesirable larger-scale domination?

[8] Errington and Gewertz include a footnote here, which features one of the more striking insistences on their part regarding subjectivity and the Chambri:

Even though there is general recognition that competition for power is inherent in the nature of Chambri political life, a man may, nonetheless, respond with (what seem to be) fear and anger to a loss of, or threat to, his power. It should be emphasized, however, that these emotions do not constitute evidence for the existence of a sense of subjectivity. Rather than, for instance, marking someone as distinct by virtue of a unique cluster of dispositions, capacities and perspective, they are regarded as manifestations of human nature, as responses generally characteristic of persons (152).

I find myself unable to give a charitable reading to this pointed insistence “that these emotions do not constitute evidence for the existence of a sense of subjectivity.” Earlier Errington and Gewertz contrast Chambri phenomenology with a “Western inner subjectivity”; dubious as that might seem, the adjectives at least point to the possibilities of non-Western, external subjectivities, whatever those would consist of, but here the adjectives have fallen away, and a human enactment of emotion—of fear and anger no less—get qualified as “what seem to be” and denied status as “evidence for the existence of a sense of subjectivity”.

[9] And, indubitably, feminist and civil rights critics have ultimately devolved, whether with malice aforethought or simply as a consequence of things, from a denied enfranchisement to a denier of others’ enfranchisement. What discourse one finds of xenophobia by assimilated immigrants toward the latest wave of immigrants exhibits with particular acuteness the issues and ironies involved.

[10] This proposes a high-level philosophical debate within anthropology that anthropologists have conducted extensively amongst themselves. Errington and Gewertz summarize some of it in their attempt to characterize Mead’s “Western bias” for interpreting Chambri culture. Instead of some impossible retreat from bias—which leads, as we see, to question begging the Chambri as non-Western in the first place—I propose the provision of multiple examples from different human beings explicitly from their biases. My justification for this approach takes the Hindu example of seeing as unproblematic the unending multiplication of avatars in the face of an unknowable, ineffable One.

[11] I admit to some confusion on my part here. When Errington and Gewertz write that “individuals are indebted to those who have engendered them and to those who have lost ancestral power to give them viability and social position” (17), I understand the phrase “those who have engendered them” clearly enough, but how does the rest of the sentence attach to that phrase? Do “those who have engendered them” and “those who have lost ancestral power” indicate one or two different groups, for instance? In their description, the primary debt of males lies not with their mother but with their mother’s father, who provided the mother-to-be to someone in marriage. Meanwhile, these wife-givers (as a daily part of Chambri politics) must constantly shore up their reputation, which experiences continuous entropic diminishment. And so it seems that “those who have lost ancestral power to give them viability and social position” points to these wife-givers, who gave wives (future mothers-to-be) as part of their (political) effort to maintain access to and identification with ancestral power and thus social viability.

[12] Contra Lerner’s (1987) Creation of Patriarchy, which sees women as the original slaves.

[13] I have no intention to grind the whole ax on this point, but one notes the vast and many ways that adults assume—frequently where punishment gets involved—that a child must have consented to do some bad thing, but that when it comes to any capacity to consent (to sex), even at age fifteen, suddenly that capacity to consent gets rigorously and absolutely denied. In the legal domain, this denial of capacity arises simply as an arbitrary matter of law, like any other matter of law (i.e., drinking ages, driving ages, ages at which one may draw Social Security, and the like). When one says “children can’t consent,” one should not remain naïve about the choice of phrasing (“children can’t consent” rather than “teenagers can’t consent”) or the fact that the speaker rarely intends to invoke a legal sense of the word ‘consent’. Saying all of this has no purpose except to point to the massive cultural inconsistency that occurs at the nexus of the word “consent” with respect to non-adults.

[14] Their unambiguous rejection of the notion of “separate but equal’ as it pertains to the men’s (economic) world of work and the women’s (domestic) sphere of non-work offers a strong case in point. By distinguishing what men do as work and what women do in the home as non-work, and then by tying self-worth to one’s work, clearly then women get denied access to ways to validate their worth; non-work remains non-validating. Moreover, since the domestic sphere—even if the woman prevails in it like a queen—remains economically dependent and thus contingent on the one who does “work” (as culture recognizes it). Thus, separate but equal in the world of male/female sexual relations remains wholly untenable.


They say “knowledge is power”—and in one sense, yes. But from another, not so much, since “power is acknowledgment”.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the forty-third entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1] and the second to address Part 8 (The Command), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I address section 2–3, “The Domestication of the Command, and The Recoil (The Anxiety of Command)” [2]

The Domestication of the Command

My previous post, like several in this series, ran longer than Canetti’s original, partly in an effort simply to come to grips with his material, partly to contextualize its intellectually empty aspects, &c. His concept of the “sting” in particular, which Canetti encounters in a numinously charged and symbolic way—one might say it possesses him[3]—leads him in essence to frame the outlook: I have suffered, so I will treat you like shit. Other details of his exposition about the command and the sting aside, this automatically and mechanically reproducing infliction of suffering on others—ideally we receive the sting unconsciously and go on to reproduce it on others whether we want to or not—contrasts with (1) those happy few who arranged things so as to evade the command and thus also the sting—since such evasion offers the only promise of not being marked by it[4]—and (2) those unhappy several who consciously noted the issuance of a command at them (whether by duly appointed or not, whether a mother or military commander, without distinction), projected their feeling of hostility about that command onto the intention of the one issuing the command, and from that position of knowing, which takes as “natural” this sort of cruel infliction of stings on other people through commands, deem themselves elect (a survivor, in Canetti’s sense as a sociopath or narcissist), and thus entitled to deliberately inflict stings on others—hence, “I have suffered, and so I’ll treat you like shit.” One may examine Buddha’s response to suffering for a contrasting alternative.

I have not overstated Canetti’s exposition. As for finding no exception to the infliction of the sting, Canetti unambiguously insists, “Beneath all commands glints the harshness of the death sentence” (304, emphasis in original); as for finding no alternative to this, because it stands as part of nature, “all command derives from this flight-command” (303, emphasis in original), i.e., from that sort of thing like the lion’s roar. Thus, the first sentence of “The Domestication of the Command” reads, “The flight-command, which contains a threat of death, presupposes a great difference in power between the protagonists: the one who puts the other to flight could kill him” (307). But if all command—the infliction or evasion of a sting notwithstanding—drives away (in terror) those commanded by it, how does one understand the dog who comes when called, or the child? This reversal of the “natural” Canetti identifies as the domestication of the command.

This at least follows logically—if flight comprises the “natural’ response, then one might associate approach as at least one of the “unnatural” (civilized or domesticated) responses. Canetti asks, “What made the threat of death seem harmless?” (307)—the answer: a “kind of bribery: a master feeds his slave or his dog and a mother her child” (307). Hence, “instead of serving its master as food, it is itself given food to eat” (307), an, of course, becomes dependent upon that master for the meeting of that most essential need. Thus, despite the modification of situation, “Every command still contains the same threat” (308)—in this case, the threat of death should the master or mother refuse to provide food.

I could spend a lot of ink (or pixels) tracking how Canetti employs his examples here. He mixes master and slave, master and dog, and mother and child, and switches to each one (or includes them in pairs, but never all there together) to try to shore up different points.[5] Since Canetti’s point speaks only to how domestication occurs, we can ignore the differential motivations of slave-owner, dog-owner, and child-owner. Instead, I would note Canetti’s failure to distinguish initial domestication (e.g., how homo sapiens sapiens persuaded canis lupus to become canis domesticus) from cultural (or what one might call institutional domestication, i.e., the process where the new expression of an already-domesticated species’ individuals—whether slave, dog, or child—gets “further” domesticated).[6]

I could argue that these processes do not sufficiently differ to warrant distinction, but something seems lost when doing so, as also in any insistence that we should pretend colonization and assimilation amount to the same thing. The Russian language usefully distinguishes two varieties of other in чужой (chuzhoi) as something wholly unfamiliar (denoting foreignness, alien, &c) and in другой (drugoi) as something more like a friendly unfamiliar (denoting Other, another, or simply different). Initial domestication (as also colonization) involves a stance toward the Other of necessity as чужой while institutional domestication (or assimilation) involves a stance toward the Other as in principle другой.

Something in this distinction captures what seems a likely objection to Canetti’s exposition: the wolf that homo sapiens sapiens attempts to domesticate lives under no real threat of any command. [7] Certainly the ox and other bovine more suitably fit this explanatory mold of something that traded in the harsh risks of life for the “ease” of domestication and spitting over a fire for a meal. With some justice, we might rather say that wolves (or, previous to that, hyenas) domesticated human beings.[8] It seems far more probable that human beings were under more of a death threat (from wolves, lions, hyenas, crocodiles, &c), if we want to talk that way, and that humans self-domesticated in the constructivist interaction that occurred over the course of millennia.

Whatever the direction, conflating (чужой) domestication and (другой) acculturation loses too much in precision.  Moreover, it offers no declaration of what Canetti means by domestication. In evolutionary terms, domestication affects a relaxing of (evolutionary) constraints or pressure on behavior; for instance, domesticated songbirds exhibit a greater range of vocalizations than wild varieties, on the notion that the reproductive success of wild varieties remains tied to a particular vocalizing performance. That pressure vanishes for domesticated birds. If the domestication of the wolf, then, enabled a range of behaviors no longer strictly tied to survival—one might say the enabling of suicidal behaviors—then herding rather than hurting sheep, for instance, denotes a piece of domestication—as also oxen placidly standing about while chefs heap up coals for a barbecue.

In the case of the slave or the child, however, what pressure of survival gets alleviated by any so-called domestication?[9]

The Recoil (The Anxiety of Command)

Canetti uses the metaphor not only of an arrow to characterize commands but also the bow’s recoil to describe an anxiety on the part of those who issue commands: this, since every command carries a threat of death, nonetheless this typically amounts only to a promise of death and thus opens the one giving commands to possible reprisals.[10]

Canetti insists, “A shot which kills an isolated create leaves no danger behind it:  creature which is dead can do no harm to anyone” (308), but of course this does not follow. If we fantasize that by “isolated creature,” we men one wholly and totally disconnected from all other people, then even this dead person stands in a relationship to the one who killed him—as Raskolnikov discovers, to his chagrin, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I do not claim by this that every CIA operative or mercenary who assassinated someone finds himself haunted by any isolated creature always; I simply intend to show that Canetti’s overgeneralization fails to take account of certain other human circumstances. He admits that even in an Emperor, who dishes out lots of death threats daily, that madness may erupt out of this recoil finally, out of this anxiety of command.

More generally, almost no person stands so completely isolated, even detainees in Guantanamo. Perhaps more saliently, since Canetti speaks of anxiety rather than fear,[11] simply the anticipation of revenge may prove strong enough to induce anxiety. We may go on, innocently or naively believing we have killed an isolated creature, only to have the son or daughter or father or mother or uncle or friend of the assassinated suddenly with a knife at our throat in the dead of night, &c.

If Canetti’s overstatement constitutes a straw-man in its pretense of offering an “isolated creature” as if merely being isolated justifies some lack of anxiety on the part of the one who kills him,[12] then he similarly overstates the murderous vengefulness that commands propose; “anyone who has fled from a threat, or given in to it, will invariably revenge himself when the moment comes” (308). Wrong. That “the man who threatens is always conscious of this [possibility]” (308), except that the word always overstates the matter, gets more accurately to the point.

Obviously, this all requires more specification. Canetti’s lack of a distinction between harmless and harmful commands puts his exposition into the land of foolishness. Since every command must invariably eventuate in deadly revenge when the moment comes, Canetti has much more yet to do to explain why bloody counter-assassinations don’t happen every day, or even why various exchanges between people do not consist of an endless litany of tit for tat.[13] One may say that what constitutes the “moment coming” may take a while to come around (if at all), but this still requires explaining why some people, if not most, do not exact revenge when the moment really does come.[14]

Rather, what Canetti describes involves the complacency or anxiety of the one issuing commands, whether as in the former case when the commander believes that the isolated creature truly stood as isolated (and thus provides no channel for revenge to come through) or in the latter case as the commander anticipates possible reprisals. None of this takes any account of the phenomenology of the commanders (would-be) victims. The commander imagines (Canetti insists) that all of those commanded on the one hand harbor feelings of vengeful hostility whatever feelings actually prevail in those commanded and that all of those isolated creatures slaughtered on the other can provide no channel for revenge whatever connectedness actually prevails in those slaughtered.

It seems as if Canetti’s fascination with power has led him again to accept the limited (if not neurotic) view of the commander (the survivor, the malignant narcissist) as the necessary and only proper template for analyzing these things.


[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] Maybe this points to a useful distinction in Jungian psychology—that some things (experiences) fascinate us while others possess us. With the former, we may find ourselves rooted to the spot, unable to move, our wills suspended for the nonce; with the latter, “we” gets taken out of the picture entirely, even as we continue to go about acting (moving) and speaking as if on behalf of ourselves. Canetti’s discourse belies fascination with power and possession by “the sting”.

[4] Canetti speaks ambiguously as to whether the sting remains truly ineradicable or not. Rationalizing his text—i.e., making it self-consistent—I might say he suggests we can manage the pressure of the sting—the sting itself reproducing the initial pressure “caused” or “imposed” by the command in the first place—without ever completely removing the source of that chronic pressure. So, we get rid of the pressure, i.e., we alleviate the recurring pressure, by venting on others or ourselves (through drugs or alcohol or suicide), &c. Not attempting to rationalize Canetti’s text, one sees the two poles of the sting (as “can be gotten rid of” and “cannot be gotten rid of”) as a source of the pressure itself.

[5] I appreciate the vulgarity of this mother-bashing, likening mother and child to master and slave or master and dog. That this critique arises from psychological vengeance-taking by Canetti inflicted on his mother long after the fact seems likely, but the (essential biographical and thus trivial) question hinges on whether she stood as a genuine harpy of sadistic command or if Canetti only narcissistically imagined her as such. Perhaps both. Nonetheless, even the most trivially motivated critique of “the child” with respect to the status of “the parents” (here the mother) warrants some consideration, even as we should remember Jung’s (1968) *apt reminder:

The positive aspect of the first type of complex, namely the overdevelopment of the maternal instinct, is identical with that well-known image of the mother which has been glorified in all ages and all tongues. This is the mother-love which is one of the most moving and unforgettable memories of our lives, the mysterious root of all growth and change; the love that means homecoming, shelter, and the long silence from which everything begins and in which everything ends. Intimately known and yet strange like Nature, lovingly tender and yet cruel like fate, joyous and untiring giver of life—mater dolorosa and mute implacable portal that closes upon the dead. Mother is mother-love, my experience and my secret.  Why risk saying too much, too much that is false and inadequate and beside the point about that human being who was our mother, the accidental carrier of that great experience which includes herself and myself and all mankind, and indeed the whole of created nature, the experience of life whose children we are? The attempt to say these things has always been made and probably always will be; but a sensitive person cannot in all fairness load that enormous burden of meaning, responsibility, duty, heaven and hell, on to the shoulders of one frail and fallible human being—so deserving of love, indulgence, understanding, and forgiveness—who was our mother. He knows that the mother carries for us that inborn image of the mater natura and mater spiritualisis of the totality of life of which we are a small and helpless part. Nor should we hesitate for one moment to relive the human mother of this appalling burden, for our own sakes as well as hers. It is just this massive weight of meaning that ties us to the mother and chains her to her child, to the physical and mental detriment of both. A mother-complex is not got rid of my blindly reducing the mother to human proportions. Besides that we run the risk of dissolving the experience “Mother” into atoms, thus destroying something supremely valuable and throwing away the golden key which a good fairy laid in our cradle. That is why mankind has always instinctively added the pre-existent divine pair to the personal parents—the “god”-father and “god”-mother of the newborn child—so that, from sheer unconsciousness or shortsighted rationalism, he should never forget himself so far as to invest his own parents with divinity (¶172).

*Jung, C.G. (1968) “Psychological aspects of the mother archetype” in The archetypes and the collective unconscious. (Vol. 9, Part 1 of Collected Works., 2nd ed., Trans. R.F.C. Hull). Princeton: Princeton University Press, ¶172.

[6] I could argue that these processes do not sufficiently differ to warrant distinction, but something seems lost when doing so, as also in any insistence that we should pretend that colonization and assimilation do not materially differ. The Russian language usefully distinguishes two varieties of other in чужой (chuzhoi) as the wholly unfamiliar (denoting foreignness, alien, &c) and in другой (drugoi) as something more like a friendly unfamiliar (denoting Other, another, or simply different).

[7] Talking about the domestication of the dog introduces an ethnocentric element. In Africa, where humans invented domestication, the (spotted) hyena constitutes most common predator for human beings. From the historical record, one sees that despite the domestication of the hyena (and its uses a food source) by Egypt, that human cultural habit seems to have fallen away in favor of the (smaller and presumably less formidable) dog. To my surprise, on the European continent during prehistory, wolves, humans, and things called cave hyenas (as well as cave lions) had numerous run-ins. From an ecological and taphonomic study by Stiner (2007),* she found that humans and hyenas in Pleistocene Tuscany vied for the same prey animals; wolves, by comparison, hunted away from either of these two major predators in the area. In Europe, then, the hyena seems to have evaded domestication while the wolf did not, while in Africa hyena were domesticated, rather than the various smaller dogs (principally jackals).

*Stiner, MC (2007). Comparative ecology an taphonomy of spotted hyenas, humans, and wolves in Pleistocene Italy.  Revue de Paléobiologie, Genève, 23(2) : 771-785.

[8] Or we can reject file dichotomies and note, after Oyama (1985),* that domestication itself denotes a process not a state that we may only explain as emerging out of that very process itself and not “from” either side of the wolf (the environment, Nature) or the human (the individual, Nurture).

*Oyama, S. (1985). The ontogeny of information: developmental systems and evolution. Second edition, rev. and enlarged. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[9] This doesn’t necessarily pose a degree of abstraction previously absent, i.e., we must now more fancifully imagine what could be meant by ‘survival” (of the slave or the child, in a human sense) that exactly mirrors the domesticated increase of behavior in wolves or songbirds. This, because our construction of what consists survival for wolves or songbirds stands no less imagined than for slaves or children, except that we have a harder time pretending (usually) that slaves and children operate on merely mechanical instinctual bases. So since we allow ourselves that assumption with wolves and songbirds, it becomes easier to imagine that domestication “liberates” them for the whole range of behaviors we now see in their (domesticated) varieties.  In other words, we my easily imagine that threshold, that divide proposed by the difference of чужой and другой, for “animals” likes wolves an songbirds, but when we try to imagine the analogous or a similar divide for the “animals” of slaves and children, we must fail, unless we make certain racist or developmental assumptions as well. When I say we must make retain racist or developmental assumptions, more properly what this requires involves dehumanizing the slave or child in a literal sense, i.e., we must specifically deny that slaves or children constitute human beings in the first place. Why? If I look at a slave or a child, I see a human being, and if I see a human being, then I know (at least as far as domestication as a species goes), then that human being already bears the marks of domestication like I do. I can only deny this by denying such a mark to a slave or a child, and that means denying their humanness. Racist discourse certainly did not shrink from this, readily (one has to say logically and necessarily) identifying slaves as “animals”. Perhaps part of the reason why card-carrying racists make such a big deal about our spiritual nature then arises from the fact that, to the extent that recent biology insists vehemently that “all humans are (merely) animals,” this denies them a cornerstone in their racist discourse. If the slave and the slave owner alike are animals, then a leverage point for justifying the treatment of slaves (and children) as animals vanishes. In this respect, religion provides the basis for a crucial argument in racist (and adultist) discourse.

[10] Canetti’s description of this counterforce to the command as recoil seems inapt in the context of a bow (and arrows). Let someone correct me, but the characteristic physicality of releasing an arrow, the snap back of the draw-string toward the bow not toward the one who fires the arrow, does not match the more usual sense of recoil one encounters with guns. Yes? Anyone who knows, please clarify this.

[11] In general, fear takes a definite object, while anxiety takes an indefinite object, if any.

[12] No doubt, he who believes he has killed an “isolated creature” may deceive himself that no vengeance (other than possibly a haunting) can come of this act and, indeed, no consequences may ever arise from it. Still, this points to  belief by a person rather than to a fact of killing isolated creatures, and just as the anxiety of command takes no real object as a source of that anxiety so also does the complacency of command depend on no object as well. Those who command fire their arrows, frequently never imagining any consequence of doing so, especially if—as Canetti focuses on—these people stand at the top of a command hierarchy.  We should not count it a naïve faith in loyalty when the commander (say, an Emperor) expresses astonishment at betray, “Et tu, Brutus?” Canetti imagines that all commons sting, but besides that this provides an inadequate description, it also misdescribes what commanders understand when they issue commands.

[13] Canetti might fantasize that such does occur, but we needn’t base our understand or description of human experience on paranoid imaginings.

[14] By “the moment coming,” I understand this to mean not merely the opportunity for revenge but also the means and the probability of success. Obviously, the house-servant who daily feels humiliated by his master my fantasize and scheme his revenge but never have a moment where carrying it out will not have personally disastrous consequences. Such a person lacks opportunity. On the other hand, we may imagine the circumstance where opportunity presents itself, and in that moment, the house-servant still refrains from revenge. Canetti’s exposition cannot explain why, at least not without dropping his insistence that such a person “will invariably revenge himself when the moment comes” (308).


“Let us never forget that the narcissist with a typewriter is just like an alcoholic with a barrel of wine”[1]—and also that the more socially well-placed the alcoholic, the greater the reach of the mayhem such an alcoholic may affect.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the forty-second entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [2] and the first to address Part 8 (The Command), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I address section 1, “The Command. Flight and Sting.” [3]

Scripture as Psychopathological Treatise (Part 1)

For the inaugural voyage of this section, Canetti stars with an uptick in vacuity. The first sentence, in quotation marks no less, reads, “An order is an order” (303). Disregarding if this amounts to an attempt to adduce tautology as proof, the sentiment expresses the familiar and parental “because I say so,” wrapped up in equally familiar, if more formalized language, so that we may grasp Canetti’s approach to these things in their fullest light now—simply because he says so, we must obey his pronouncements, i.e., accept them. We do not have to insist this precisely and only must represent Canetti’s intention; it suffices to note that his narrative issues using the forms of command, especially tautology and “because I say so”.

In what follows in this section “The Command” then generally, we may trace a phenomenology (as a reader) to such a narrative to explore the sufficiency (and likely insufficiency) of Canetti’s framing of power and command.[4] Resisting the temptation to transcribe and comment upon the entire opening page of this section because Canetti’s language betrays so much, I’ll focus on the first paragraph only.

Commands are by their nature final and categorical, and this may be the reason why so little thought has been given to the subject (303).

This categorical and final statement might be remarkable were it not so remarkably ignorant. To sketch in only the barest outlines of this topic, qualitative aspects of command have been exhaustively explored in Western religious contexts at least since the fifth century in Augustine and onward in a tradition that crosses Duns Scotus (thirteenth century), arguably Kant (eighteenth century) and on into our era. While typically religious in orientation prior to Kant’s deontological ethics, which specifically attempts to offer an alternative to the sort of command theory informing most previous ethical writing, in a non-religious, specifically judicial vein, John Austin (died 1859), who had a profound influence on English legal practice, penned something specifically called “command theory,” which Canetti might have found a critique of had he read Hart’s (1952)[5] The Concept of Law, both texts being available to him at the time he wrote on this topic. And in general, the whole vast question of whether one should—or on what grounds one must—obey an explicit or implied social contract hinges on a concept of command, issuing from the state, the sovereign, or the divine (as a symbol or reality of the previous two). Moreover, I have no clue what sort of traditional discourse has occurred in historical military theory and practice regarding the qualities and effects of command, but I doubt that “little thought has been given to the subject” in those military circles.

So, continuing with tautologies then, the “little thought … given to the subject” must refer to Canetti himself.

They seem to us as natural as they are necessary and we accept them as something which has always existed (303).

Since they seem natural and get accepted as something always existent, no further proof needs adducing. Canetti does plan (later on this same page) to misanalogize sounds from the animal kingdom as commands in human kingdoms, but we face a shell game here, since Canetti has not attempted to define what a command might consist of. The next paragraph begins, “Commands are older than speech. If this were not so, dogs could not understand them” (303). I can only hesitate over what to do with such a foolishly constructed appeal. In the first place, dogs do not understand human commands because they don’t speak English (or, in Germany, German); it seems unnecessary, but sometimes one must belabor the obvious with Canetti’s text. And what part of human vocalizations dogs do respond to (not understand) does not implicate human speech, but only sound-making. One might recall also that border collies, often considered the world’s smartest dogs, do not only respond to speech commands, because the herd (and the dog) will sometimes stand so far away from the herd’s owner that the dog can only recognize physical (hand) gestures at such a distance. We might recall also, both amongst border collies working as teams and in a gazillion other social animals all over the planet, that the way they signal amongst themselves does not occur in any specifically human way, i.e., dogs may bark at one another, leave scent-markings, &c. Whether this constitutes a signal, communication, “speech” (in dog-talk), a command, or something else still requires a great deal more sophistication of thought than Canetti’s seeming and accepting here as simply a reiterated because I say so.

From childhood onwards we are accustomed to commands; they make up a good part of what we call education and the whole of our adult life is permeated with them, whether in the sphere of work, of war, or of religion (303).

This may seem reasonable if only because Canetti has not defined what a command consists of. We decide for ourselves at this moment whether the statements of our mothers were commands, or our fathers, or both—or only our older brother, our teacher, our gym teacher. We might not bother to pause to wonder the distinction between the command we recognize from our gym teacher and way we find no similar command from our parents, or vice versa. We likely also will not note simply the distinction that some statements in childhood strike us as a commands and others do not—as a qualifier on Canetti’s overgeneralization that ‘from childhood onwards we are accustomed to commands” (303). Surely we find ourselves accustomed to other things as well, but what do those consist of and how do we (and did we) distinguish those from ‘commands,” which let us remember we have no definition of as yet.

This well captures Canetti’s “method,” which leaves to the reader the task of doing the intellectual work for him—he provides an empty marker, a verbal sign (in this case “command”), and then acts as if it exists, in a recapitulation of that parodying description of St. Anselm’s notorious proof of god, which runs: because the word god exists, that must point to something, therefore god must exist. Worse than this, however, involves Canetti’s further insistence that this “it” “is natural” and has existed from time immemorial.[6] One may certainly object, “I had laissez-faire parents, who weren’t overbearing” and that provides a salient critique of Canetti’s point as well. And what about naïfs who simply did not experience attempts at command as commands?  Such sloppy throwing terms around demands more precision. For example, we might imagine that in a more patriarchal culture or household, we might more likely find more divine imperatives issuing (either from the father who knows best or his duly appointed or usurping lieutenant the mother) in the form of overbearing authoritarianism; let us recall here Canetti’s description of the feelings of a son upon the death of a father: “the man who, more than anyone else, could once order him about is now reduced to silence and, helpless, must endure everything which is done to his body” (248).

Thus the question has scarcely ever been raised of what a command actually is: whether it is really as simple as it appears; whether, in spite of the ease and promptness with which it normally achieves its object—that is obedience—it does not in fact mark the person who obeys it, even to the point of arousing feelings of hostility in him (303).

First of all, who asserts that commands easily and promptly achieve its objects and in what context? The effectiveness of a command in a military setting, i.e., why it works, differs substantially from the effectiveness of a command by a parent to a three-year-old child or by a friend in a moment of critical danger (“look out!”). Second, only a naïve commandant believes without qualification that obedience to a command denotes consent to it. It seems as if Canetti intends to surprise us by observing that a command marks “the person who obeys it, even to the point of arousing feelings of hostility in him” (303). Throughout his text, Canetti exhibits a touchiness about commands—especially in the domestic overtones that turn marital questions into a nagging interrogation[7]—and perhaps he often felt the sting of the disjunction between obedience and consent; we might also recall how a narcissist might “take” a command in view of the habit of:

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).

All of this serves primarily to contextualize and locate Canetti’s (sloppy) use of the distinction “command”. Just as what he means by “survivor” warrants designation as “(malignant) narcissist”—and thus requires our further qualification that separates his gross overgeneralization of all “leaders” as “survivors” at least into “(malignant) narcissists as leaders” and “non-narcissists as leaders”—so here he identifies the effect of a command (this marking and occasionally evoked hostility) as arising from a hostile intention on the part of the person issuing the command. In other words, this describes a psychological projection. And so we must separate this neurotic (or sometimes justified) response to a command—a response moreover that suggests the topos of the narcissist—from the person deemed as issuing the command, i.e., a survivor (a leader, a narcissist).[8]

This misreading of hostile intent grounds Canetti’s empty analogy with the animal world—the lion’s roar, for instance, denotes the command to its prey. Note that Canetti writes, “The original command results in flight” (303, emphasis in original). I have pointed out Canetti’s conflation of a response to a command as the command itself and here explicitly we have the response, flight, that results from a still undefined “original command”. “Flight only appears spontaneous; danger always has a shape and no animal flees unless it discerns it” (303). In this, we may see that the “entity” issuing the command has vanished completely—for zoology offers billions of examples each day of animals preemptively taking flight whether an actual danger lurks nearby or not. We ourselves may experience this as well—something like a log falling in the woods may put us in mind of all sorts of imaginable dangers (bears, psychopaths), and off we go. No command. So too the gazelle (or fish) that darts away at the shadow of a cloud darkening the area around them. No command. The principle better safe than sorry does not require an actual present threat to activate.

A conclusion one might draw from this: insofar as we (and fish and gazelle) require no actual threat but only a sufficiently pitched fear or anxiety about one to activate the flight mechanism, then we needn’t construe the actual presence of a threat as the cause of the flight mechanism either. This explains—if one needs an “explanation”—how predators and prey may sometimes drink from the same watering hole more or less proximately to one another. To our eyes, this proposes an actual threat to some prey in the very near ambit of a predator, but to the prey they “discern” (to use Canetti’s word) no threat and do not flee. If the roar of a lion in such a setting—“the roar of a lion is a death sentence” (304)—does not only and always then cause a stampede, this further undermines Canetti’s projections about the one issuing the command.

Canetti infers more—“disparity of strength between the two animals involved is inherent in the nature of flight” (303)—but since he takes as axiomatic that “all command derives from this flight-command” (303, emphasis in original), then the irrelevance of the actual threat, much less any ‘disparity of strength’ &c., means that all that Canetti would derive from this fundamental axiom  does not follow.

“The oldest command—and it is far older than man—is a death sentence, and it compels the victim to flee” (304). Canetti says this in part because he wants to insist, despite all of our civilization and acculturation, that “beneath all commands glints the harshness of the death sentence” (304). We’ll have to wait and see what comes of this, but I quote the sentence about “the oldest command” so that you, my reader, might not naively assume Canetti means all this stuff about lions in  metaphorical sense. He means it quite literally, an so we do not need to accept his goofy anthropomorphization of “nature”—that its oldest “command,” which issues from no one as shown above, manifests as a death sentence. Even among so-called prey species—gazelle don’t refer to themselves that way, we might remember—experience exponentially more non-death commons every single day, mostly from other gazelle, but also from their world generally. It may also seem a tad weird that Canetti’s natural history begins with mammals—that the hundreds of millions of years of Life on earth—the entire rise and fall of dinosaurs even—prompt not a tittle of recognition in Canetti’s exposition. But even on logical grounds, the command “Live!” must precede any death sentence, much less one imposed by a predator.

The value of this (if any) lies not in any merit in the ideas but in the form of command Canetti uses to construct his narrative, his story about “command”.  In this light, the word “instinct” provides the most obvious synonym for command as one might draw from his mammalian examples—I mean, from the fact that he elects to draw examples from the world of lions and their prey. Instinct, of course, has a pleasingly eternal, essentially immutable quality to it—whatever changes evolution offers over time constitutes mere marginal emendations to the main text—so goes one inadequate populist notion of instinct anyway. But, aside from this reassuringly (false) ontology, the metaphor of instinct also pretends to find its “cause” in the environment.[9] In other words, the metaphor of instinct exactly reproduces the projection of hostile intentions onto those issuing a command and thus makes a (narratively) cushy trope to invoke to justify (or attempt to justify) this story about “command”.

So, just as “instinct blames environment” supposedly adds a proof by analogy to the narrative that “the commanded blame the commander,” then why does Canetti insist that a death sentence not only constitutes the oldest command but also the underlying gesture in all commands? Doing his work for him again—although I anticipate he will get around to this one himself—we may say that in theory all commands may carry an implied “or else”—where death simply amounts to the outer extremity of “else”.[10] More accurately, whether such commands “may carry” a threat doesn’t matter at all, just as the gazelle needn’t at find itself in the presence of an actual threat to flee; it matters only that (in a given circumstance) we may imagine that a command carries a threat of “or else”.

So—to spin out all of the analogous examples again—just as a death sentence is not the oldest command but we may imagine it is, so Canetti in his text imagines that the death sentence is the oldest command and, like a gazelle, spooks himself with his own ideas. And just as the gazelle mistakes its environment as the cause of its flight, just as the commanded mistakes the commander as the cause of its hostile reaction, so Canetti’s narrative becomes “helpless” before the command of “the world” and/or it ‘blames” the world for its nature as a narrative.

Except, of course, that all of this rests on (false) projection but, more significantly, on Canetti’s narrative occupying the position of the lion, not the gazelle, of commander, not commanded or world, not representation of world (as narrative); “an important aspect of commands is that they come from outside” (304, emphasis in original). Canetti then illustrates this point this way:

Even those solitaries who appear from time to time and, with a whole arsenal of commands, seek to found new religions and regenerate old ones, still retain the appearance of men on whom an alien burden has been laid. It is never in their own name that they speak; what they demand of others is what they have been told to demand and, whatever other lies they may tell, they are honest in this: they believe that they have been sent” (304–5).

That his example draws upon religious fanatics speaks volumes. That they believe they have been sent no one doubts; just as no one doubts that those who feel (who believe) their commanders have hostile intentions  feel that way.

Canetti proposes to “forget for the moment what we have learned about the original of commands and look at them without preconceptions, as though for the first time. ¶ The first thing that strikes one about a command is that it initiates an action. An extended finger, pointing in  certain direction, can have the effect of a command” (304).

Notwithstanding the difficulty of perfect amnesia about one’s preconceptions, it still seems fair to ask (with respect to Canetti’s proposal here) how one would recognize a pointing finger as a command at all without a preconception to that effect. Even with preconceptions, I’d incline simply toward looking where the finger points without feeling that as a command; moreover, unless the one pointing thought of pointing as a command, they’d not resort to it in that sense. So on both sides of the “cultural” aspect, unless we have a preconception that pointing can serve as a command—or that anything, in a given culture that determines it so, might serve as a command—Canetti gives us no reason to go along with his poor example.

Perhaps it seems I’ve let the (inept) example upstage the point; the first thing that strikes Canetti, a command “initiates an action”. So the sun commands photosynthesis in leaves; earthquakes command buildings to fall down; women with uncovered heads command men to rape them, &c. Since most theories of causality involve an infinite regress—the Big Bang commands me to write this sentence—we can leave aside the problem of effective cause in this phrase “initiates an action”. Obviously, one would like to add that a key missing element involves the human will that desires to issue a command (that points the finger with an intent to command others), but Canetti doesn’t want to limit it to that: the lion commands the gazelle, the delusional belief about the divine commands the religious fanatic.[11]

“An action performed as the result of a command is different from all other actions. It is experienced and remembered as something alien, something not really our own” (304); moreover, “the source of a command is thus something alien; but it must also be something recognized as stronger than ourselves. We submit because we see no hope of fighting” (305). One may imagine all kinds of commands that do not fall into this these categories at all. The willing soldier who not only obeys but consents to a directive from her superior office need not experience or remember this as alien or not her own—so then we would have to call such a circumstance something other than a “command”. And if only the stronger may command, then in an interpersonal relationship where both parties sometimes issue commands, then we cannot pretend that the direction of power remains immutable, i.e., that Canetti’s insistence “that one of them is habitually preyed on by the other, the unalterable nature of the relationship, which is felt to have existed for ever—all this makes what happens seem absolute and irrevocable” (303–4, emphasis added) goes out the window—or, again, we must find some other term than “command” for such domestic interactions like “pick up your dirty clothes” and “get out of my house”.

Importantly, just as Canetti illustrated people under commands in terms of a religious solitary subject to mythological delusion, he asserts also that “power discharges commands like a hail of magical arrows” (305, emphasis added). Many times in his text Canetti resorts to other texts in an almost magical way. The scholar uses texts, of course, to buttress or support an argument, but not only does Canetti often treat his texts in an unscholarly way, it frequently seems as if the mere existence of the text constitutes proof for him, not the veracity of the material presented in the text (whether we can surely establish that or not). Without making the least distinction between them, Canetti cites figures from the nineteenth and twentieth century,[12] academically trained anthropologists,[13] a French female journalist who made a name for herself pseudonymously writing about the horrors of Islam and head-hunters, the transcribed myths of various cultures, and works of explicit fiction[14] all as evidence for the empirical world itself. This resembles (probably exactly) those medieval scholastics who believed on Aristotle’s authority that air fills human arteries:

late 14c., from Anglo-French arterie, Old French artaire (13c.; Modern French artère), and directly from Latin arteria, from Greek arteria “windpipe,” also “an artery,” as distinct from a vein; related to aeirein “to raise” (see aorta).

They were regarded by the ancients as air ducts because the arteries do not contain blood after death; medieval writers took them for the channels of the “vital spirits,” and 16c. senses of artery in English include “trachea, windpipe.” The word is used in reference to artery-like systems of major rivers from 1805; of railways from 1850.

So that “power discharges commands like a hail of magical arrows” belies a shift in Canetti’s narrative. In the same way he seems frequently to permit himself to take the sheer existence of a text (whether avowedly fictional, transcribed myth, purple journalism, or more or less dubious anthropology—no matter how recent or removed in time) as evidence for his exposition, he here explicitly makes exist in a text an assertion of magic as the basis for the command of power—the hail of magic arrows itself resonating thoroughly with any number of bow-armed Indic gods (Indra, Kṛṣṇa, &c).

I may get accused of making a metaphor literal here but, in the first plea, I did not command Canetti to resort to such a phrase in a work of nonfiction. Second, and more saliently, the justness of taking this phrase as if meant more on the side of the literal than the figurative arises from the weight of Canetti’s text itself, which as I have shown frequently fails to maintain a distinction between the fictional and nonfictional. One may cite Sontag’s remark again from the back of the book that Canetti treats “society as a mental activity—a barbaric one of course—that must be decoded” but this assessment itself already does the lion’s share of intellectual work Canetti fails to do—precisely because she recognizes (it seems) that the most economical way to interpret or understand Canetti’s text occurs if one assumes that he proceeded by (claiming to) decode a barbaric society. Canetti’s text shows continuous traces of this, as demonstrated, but almost never any sign of his recognition he has proceeded in such a fashion. Even in copying his idol Stendhal’s method of what one might call subjective historicizing, in the first place Stendhal avowed wrote fiction, but secondarily, we do not encounter sentiments of the form, “I experienced the world this way,” but rather, and relentlessly, “the world is this way.” The (sometimes comical) relentlessness of this lends the text that sense of something more than mere egotism an pushes into the zone of the narcissist—and the zone of the narcissist, like the zone of the equally sociopathic child (or perhaps simply the child generally), gets colored by magical thinking, as when power operates like a hail of magical arrows.[15]

Lastly, Canetti divides the command into its momentum and sting, although he expends only one sentence on the former: “momentum forces the recipient [of the command] to act” (305). The sting, by contrast, lodges interminably: “when a command functions normally and as one expects, there is nothing to be seen of the sting; it is hidden and unsuspected and may only reveal its existence by some faint, scarcely perceptible recalcitrance before the command is obeyed” (305). For someone who lampooned Freud, this takes a very Freudian resort, arguing for an (unconscious) effect not noticed by the (passive) victim of the command. In this way, the sting becomes “fixed for ever in that moment in which it was first promulgated, and this, or rather its exact image in miniature, is stored up in the recipient for ever and may remain submerged for years and decades before it comes to light again. But it is never lost, and it is essential to realize this. The fulfillment of  command is not the end; it remains stored up for ever” (305–6).

As one might anticipate, the commands of childhood reemerge especially in adults, reproduced “as soon as the next generation provides victims” (305). We may easily read in this an apologetics for child abuse, especially given that countless “commanded” children go on precisely to become committed to parenting in a way different than their authoritarian parents. Even for those who have a lapse, who uncover some lasting, lingering thorn, may respond to that lapse not by exacerbating it, not by leaving it unaddressed and thus reinforced on and before the child, but denounced to the child as wrong and with apologies, &c. By leaving these possibilities out of the picture, Canetti gives us only the case of the adult, commanded during childhood, who abuses their power (over their own child) and does so unapologetically. Perhaps that, more than the command itself, lays the ground for neurotic reproduction of that power-gesture in later life?

Canetti takes his discussion in a different direction; “the ‘free’ man is not the man who rids himself of commands after he has received them, but the man who knows how to evade them in the first place” (306). This follows from Canetti’s insistence on the unalterable permanence of the sting, except that it implies one might somehow get rid of strings; all the more so, since “the man who takes longest to rid himself of them, or who never achieves it, is undoubtedly the least free” (306). Insofar as “everyone speaks of pressure” (306) as a way to describe (the experience of) commands, then it follows that one relieves pressure either by evading it (not experiencing it in the first place) or by venting that pressure, blowing off steam, and other like metaphors. So one way of venting this pressure involves inflicting it on others; in theory, a less sociopathic way of venting this pressure (of being rid of stings) involves expressing it, transforming it even, symbolically (in art, writing, dance, &c)—although, as a perspicacious reader may anticipate—I’ll doubtless claim that it often seems clear in Canetti’s written venting that it amounts to venting his stings on others, his readers.

Perhaps Canetti’s lampooning of Freud arises from any faith in “the talking cure,” insofar as the only relief from strings that seem consonant with Canetti exposition involve temporary relief—venting the pressure—since we cannot alleviate the sting itself.

However, I have to say, this denotes a very strange sort of sting. By talking about a sting one cannot remove, this moves the sense of it toward “thorn,” but no matter how deeply lodged a thorn, its removal (at least in principle) seems ever-possible. By contrast, in a non-material sense of a sting, i.e., a painful activation of the nerves, one might not (physically) remove such a string, but physiologically such stings—imagine the pain and swelling of a bee sting—gradually go away of their own accord.[16] If we take sting (again) as a thorn, then so long as we do not remove it (and so long as it does not simply wear down), then it might perpetually gall us indefinitely, and it is this permanence that Canetti seems especially keen to emphasize. We could similarly imagine a (thorn-less) permanent sting, like fibromyalgia, where some kind of constant irritation of the nerves keeps causing pain over and over, not from a distant past cause, either, but from a very current and now set of circumstances.[17] What the thorn metaphor or fibromyalgia example make clear suggests that, to experience a sting as permanent, requires chronic or recurrent re-irritation. And in the case of the “sting” of a command as Canetti wants to describe it, we might see such renewed and renewing irritation in someone dwelling on (the fact of) the command—“dwelling” denotes a telling usage here as a “living within” the thing one focuses upon.

To note that one may re-experience the sting of a past humiliation by dwelling on it should come as no great revelation. The point, as regards Canetti’s exposition, concerns his complete non-recognition that a person reproduces the sting by perpetuating it through welling or exacerbating it. For Canetti, the sting becomes (yet again) an Other one finds fault with as a cause of a current dilemma or agony or humiliation, &c. In this regard, it matters a lot that Canetti concludes, “No normal man feels less free because he obeys his own impulses” (306).

Much needs unpacking here.  First, I note Canetti’s change of terminology—rather than obedience to a command, here we have obeying one’s impulses. This may represent an effort to mark a distinction between a command “an important aspect of [which] is that they come from outside” (30) and an impulse, which presumably comes from inside. But it stands as an almost non-credible degree of unconsciousness to believe that no impulses ever contravene one’s will. At a minimum, surely one should insist that evading the command of one’s impulses as much implicates one’s freedom as evading the commands of others. The addict certainly knows too well the lack of freedom that comes from obeying one’s impulses, and Canetti’s appreciation for the aristocrat who aspired to keep secrets from himself may find one root in the way that Canetti asserted his freedom even as his impulses led him about by his nose. His various and pitched declarations to avoid determination by others—he opens his book, “there is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown” (15)—mirrors the aristocrat’s reflexive and involuntary gestures to avoid being pinned down by his political rivals (or anyone else for that matter).

And against the addict’s objection to “no normal man feels less free because he obeys his own impulses” I think also of Wilde’s quip, “Some temptations take great strength to give in to.” In a trivially autobiographical sense, I take this as referring to the struggle Wilde experienced to not obey his homosexual impulses, to not (Edwardian-style) “come out of the closet”. In one idle quip I find more intelligence bout the relationship of freedom and obeying one’s impulses, but this means we might also consider if one may obey commands, i.e., without a sting, so that we may uncover the counterpart to Wilde’s witticism: some commands take great weakness to give in to.

Canetti can take no cognizance of this because for him unless one evades the command, the command leaves its sting. This “mechanical” version of power—with its magical hail of arrows—takes no account of people, so that given the right set of circumstances, the sting reappears and inflicts itself on someone else, even in writing. We cannot take the claim of helplessness in all of this seriously, because we do not believe that anyone held a gun to Canetti’s head to force him to write. This does not mean people never find themselves mood-ridden; Jung’s psychology focuses extensively on the various sorts of complexes that might contravene one’s will, especially ego-inflation or godlikeness. Borrowing from Wikipedia for the sake of brevity:

Von Franz considered that “the dark side of the Self is the most dangerous thing of all, precisely because the Self is the greatest power in the psyche. It can cause people to ‘spin’ megalomanic or other delusionary fantasies that catch them up”, so that the victim “thinks with mounting excitement that he has grasped the great cosmic riddles; he therefore loses all touch with human reality.”

In everyday life, the Self may be projected onto such powerful figures as the state, God, the universe or fate. When such projections are withdrawn, there can be a destructive inflation of the personality – one potential counterbalance to this being however the social or collective aspects of the Self (from here).

Thus, as for the religious fanatic Canetti cited, so too for Canetti: we can believe this: “whatever other lies [he] may tell, [he is] honest in this: [he believes] that [he has] been sent” (305).

Scripture as Psychopathological Treatise (Part 2)

Apt as that last remark might make for an ending rhetorical flourish, fairness demands I show it as more than a snide aside. I meant no idle coincidence by linking religious fanaticism and godlikeness, of course, but beyond this, godlikeness arises from identification with symbolic psychic material. Mystics who experience “visions of the beyond” and the like represent extreme or particularly clearly realized cases of this kind of symbolic psychic material. More mundanely and familiarly, whenever we find ourselves in transports over something—a seascape, a new beau, even a fantastic plate of spaghetti—this also points to a related aspect of the experience as well, best exemplified by those times when what we say we want (as a matter of will) gets contravened by a mood (we do not otherwise will)—e.g., I know I shouldn’t eat that cake but, fuck it, I will. In the contradiction between the “I” that wills to eat the cake and the “I” that wills not to eat the cake, which I actually says at the end, “I will.” Conventionally, we may tend to “blame” ourselves when, afterward, we lament, “I shouldn’t have eaten that cake.” Again, the alienated sense of “I” that an addict can experience points to this “divided” will an gives Jung’s recognition of multiple conflicting aspects of self, some of which seem to go against the will of our ego-consciousness, its utility.

Combine these kinds of experiences—of “possession” (by a mood) and transports (often visionary, over something)—and these provide a sketch of Jung’s description of the experience ego-inflation or godlikeness, which I will call “possession by symbolic psychic material”. I have to say symbolic, because possession by a mood tends to have a wholly personal/subjective aspect to it. In a phenomenological description such as Jung offers, of course everything may seem “personal” or “subjective” but in our experience as human beings, we experience any number of things as non-personal, as “objective” as “outside of our experience”. Thus, I might say moods have a subjective feel to them, while visionary experiences—a la the religious fanatics Canetti cites—the experiences seem to originate outside of us, and thus objectively. Thus, we might read all subjective or personal possessions as “signs” of something; by contrast, we experience “objective” and “transpersonal” (or non-personal) possession as “symbolic”.  Nichols (1980)[18] draws the distinction this way:

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).

Thus, a symbol stands for something not already known and which, Jung insisted, might embody various contradictions; he liked to illustrate this with the Christian cross, a literal intersection of two lines pointing to the simultaneous place of death and rebirth, of the place where one must die to live, &c.[19]

In Canetti, I see the “sting” as a (verbal) symbol that possesses him. In his usage (as described above), the contradiction, i.e., the contrary “directions” of the symbol, arises in the seeming materiality on the one hand of the “string” like a thorn but on the other hand its immateriality in that we cannot remove it. This ambiguity arises again when Canetti says we can get rid of a sting—that a man remains not free until he does—while describing at the same time that we might only at best alleviate the worst effect of the sting—the recurrence of the pressure from its command—by (inadvertently or mechanically) reproducing it on, in, or at others.

Calling this sting an “immaterial thorn” or a “thorny immateriality” (i.e., a thorny nervous system that, literally like fibromyalgia or figuratively like a human consciousness that returns to dwell on a sting, constantly reïrritates itself and reëxacerbates it) offers a potentially misplaced rationalization, insofar as Jung would insist no symbol might get exhausted by analysis; rather, the analyst gets exhausted by examining it (or arrives at a point of satisfaction where she or he has drawn “enough”[20] out of it). The contraries of a symbol—the (verbal) symbol of the “sting” for Canetti—do not necessarily suss out either/or to “thorny materiality” or “immaterial thorniness” for Canetti, but rather hovers, like a properly numinous symbol, in an and/both, it seems.

What also seems obvious involves Canetti’s deeper activation by the sting more than the command per se; more precisely, in his division of the command into the component parts of momentum and sting, momentum points to the person who delivers the command, while the sting points to the recipient of the command. On the one hand, Canetti says next to nothing about momentum; on the other, in his description of the commander (the leader, the survivor) earlier in the book, he has presented a vision of the deliverer of the command as sociopathic, as a (malignant) narcissist. In the next section of his book, Canetti admits, “What we normally call a command, however, is something which happens between humans beings” (307), and then gives two examples, “a master gives commands to his slaves, a mother to her child” (307). Whether Canetti meant to imply anything by juxtaposing an obsolete social structure (masters and slaves[21]) and a current one (mother and child)—it’s certainly not inapposite to juxtapose de jure slavery and de facto slavery—nonetheless, both examples point to “archaic” material in either the deep past or childhood. In common parlance, these point to “old wounds.”

So the archaicness of the material and the numinous quality of the (verbal) symbol suggest that it not simply constellates and organizes Canetti’s material here but takes possession of him. As he identifies with the symbol,  she “takes on” its mantle, this affects an ego-inflation or godlikeness—Canetti becomes “full of himself”; more precisely, he allows himself in such a mode to produce a narrative marked by vast but empty generalization[22]—so that he “thinks with mounting excitement that he has grasped the great cosmic riddles; he therefore loses all touch with human reality” and “whatever other lies [he] may tell, [he is] honest in this: [he believes] that [he has] been sent” (305).

We don’t have to wonder why the sting has this numinous effect on Canetti, as a verbal symbol; simply to note it and how it plays out in the shaping of his text suffices as an example not only for how to understand Canetti’s narrative but also to witness and understand the mechanism generally. Although with typical Other-blaming, a hefty portion of Canetti’s narrative has (indirectly until now) characterized the deliverer of the sting in considerable if ambivalent sociopathic detail, but all of this arises as a function of the sting, i.e., the respondent’s assertion of a hostile intention to those who issue commands.

Canetti’s presentation of the survivor, the leader, the commander has not lacked ambiguity. For example, whether he thinks Josephus shows himself as a thoroughgoing bastard (never mind a liar, most likely) doesn’t make itself apparent. Canetti offers us the artistic example of Stendhal, who he clearly intends as an alternative to the leader, the survivor, the commander—never mind that Stendhal himself my strike one as a terrible example of an alternative—so this implies a disapproval of the non-artistic practice of power, &c. Nevertheless, in his toothsome admiration for the lion, he seems to place his stamp of approval on those human beings who aspire to act like dominating, murdering lions, &c. We might remember the armchair theologian and white supremacist Gobineau’s excited ejaculations over Muslim men’s self-flagellation with razors and chains during the Shi’ite festival of Muharram, that he felt “pity, sympathy and horror all at the same time” (qtd. in Canetti, p. 150), or Canetti’s remark, “It would be hard to find anything more compelling or more frightening” (153) than a passage from Paris-Soir journalist Elizabeth Sauvy-Tisseyre, aka Titaÿna, who made a name for herself publishing works on cannibals,[23] headhunters,[24] prisoners in the United States,[25] and other exotics[26]—even as her career got marred by accusation of collaboration with the Nazis. At least three times Titaÿna emphasizes the madness of the crowd she describes—“500,000 people, seized with madness … infecting them with their own madness …there is not one man who retains the balance of his mind” (qtd. in Canetti, 153)—and closes with:

The madness seizes the children, even the very young ones. Beside a fountain, a mother, drunk with pride, hugs a child who has just mutilated himself. Another woman comes running, shouting, ‘He has gouged out an eye. In a few minutes he will put out the other.’ The parents watch it with delight (qtd. in Canetti, 154).

Canetti describes this as compelling and frightening; Gobineau similarly had mixed feelings of pity, sympathy, and horror; Titaÿna can only stand and gape. One might point to Aristotelian catharsis, as the curious mix of pity and fear a spectator feels for the plight of the tragic protagonist, but such mixed emotions precede an transcend Aristotle’s famous framing of them.

The word fascination has roots in bewitching and enchantment, and if proof were needed, then we may say that train wrecks and the Internet make amply clear that people experience fascination about “horrible” things often enough—enough so that journalists can make a career of it.[27] It may seem a memo from the Department of the Obvious that a fascination with Power may explain Canetti’s impulse to write his book, but let’s not lose the distinction between fascination and interest. Fascination might compel someone to write a book, for instance; interest would not. Fascination certainly denotes—or gets into the vicinity of—the sort of possession Jung describes. So, insofar as the survivor, the commander, the malignant narcissist wields power in a hail of magic arrows, that spectacle of display might well prove fascinating, even for those who suffer those arrows of outrageous fortune.

Sure. In any case, Canetti’s rejection of the practice of power—by the commander, the survivor, the malignant narcissist—does not manifest itself monolithically; sometimes he shows less ambiguity in his rejection, sometimes the (ghoulish) fascination he exhibits undermines any sense of rejection, &c. But against all of this stands the sting: irremediable, unconscious, not just an essential wound (from childhood) but a humiliation, really. A humiliation so profound that one’s own sense of pride (Canetti would say a “man’s” sense of pride) depends entirely on and gets modeled on obeying one’s own impulse, i.e., stinging oneself with commands issued from one’s self.

I put the emphasis this way to bring out the greater centrality of the sting compared to power, command, commander, survivor, predator, perpetrator, and the like that occupies much of Canetti’s book. So let’s return to the mother and the child apposite of master and slave.

Canetti avers that the sting may arouse feelings of hostility. This “may” more involves whether the person notices the sting, not that certain circumstances may not prompt feelings of hostility from a command; thus, “when a command functions normally and as one expects, there is nothing to be seen of the sting” (305); nevertheless, the sting ineluctably remains “hidden and unsuspected … [it] sinks deep into the person who has carried out the command and remains in him unchanged” (305). So a feeling of hostility only arises when the command functions abnormally. In such circumstances, the feelings of hostility prompt placing blame on the issuer of the command, i.e., the commander, the malignant narcissist, the mother, for issuing that ineluctable, ineradicable wound.

The behavior of our parents surely marks us, and some mothers provide gory examples of autocratic tyrannizing, but to place such an extreme emphasis on “Get your feet off the table, Elias,” seems more than overstatement. More importantly, to ascribe a hostile intention to, “Put your coat on before you go outside”—in the circumstance where the command functions abnormally; where it functions normally, no feelings of hostility will arise, but the command nevertheless delivers its permanent an ineradicable sting—points (like the three fingers that point back at me when I point accusingly at someone else) to the one ascribing hostile intentions.

Canetti’s fascination with power, i.e., his inconsistent rejection of the abusive practice of power, originates it seems and gets looked at through in the experience of the sting. Those who experience no feelings of hostility over commands issued at them might never feel compelled to wonder why commanders, mothers, survivors, or narcissists their impose hostile intentions upon them by their (abusive) practice of power.[28] This exposes the conceit of difference that the survivor, the malignant narcissist, in Canetti’s sense claims. The typical survivor (of trauma, of commands) literally survives, i.e., has avoided destruction, despite all of the trauma, all of the commands. The survivor in Canetti’s malignant narcissist’s sense takes this one more step. Thanks either to an incompetent wielding of commands (on the part of the commander, the survivor, the mother) or the perspicacity of the one commanded, because he or she sees “what’s really up” in the issuance of commands, then the feelings of hostility that result serve as their distinguishing mark—that knowledge is the sting. From that knowledge, they may attempt to evade future commands, but more than this—and this marks particularly that tendency toward sadism characteristic of narcissists—they do not simply inadvertently reproduce their stings, like those who filed to note they’d been commanded do, but come to inflict them deliberately as part of their own (abuse) of commands.

Here again, then, the doctrine: because I have suffered, I’ll make you suffer. And whatever justice you may fancy this has, remember again that Canetti applies this always and in every case a command gets issued, especially in childhood between a mother and her child. “Because you made me suffer, Mom, I’ll make you suffer.”

However, a key point in Canetti’s exposition of commands concerns that only bullies practice it; “the source of a command is thus something alien; but it must also be something recognized as stronger than ourselves” (305). Thus the child cannot hope to command a parent, and thus the budding psychopath tortures and kills small animals. In this, we may readily discern how one might have mixed feelings toward the “hostile intentions” embodied in the (abuse) of power by one’s mother—and thus a fascination with power—but such fascination arises in the first place because of the sting, i.e., the reading of hostile intentions into every command. The survivor, in Canetti’s malignant narcissist sense, sits alone in this knowledge—here, at least, involves partly the sense of election, of at least being differentiated from others in a way that substantially matters. And from that sense of election, the survivor then permits himself or herself anything: whether to genitally mutilate one’s son and oneself, whether to condemn a son and all of his descendants to slavery, whether to deny a son his rightful birthright, or whether to write a book where such behavior gets named as the proper (and desirable) order of behavior.

This may provide one description of narcissism, but it covers an only fractional portion of the human race, given that few of us belie the pathological degree of narcissism Canetti’s argument requires and rests upon. By this, we see that Sontag got it wrong on the back of the book: Canetti treats “society as a mental activity,” yes, but as a “neurotic one” not a “barbaric one”. I recall Sontag’s statement at this point, because in Sontag’s proposed shift from what we might more properly refer to as neurotic, i.e., the neurotic’s ascription of hostile intentions to all commands, since “beneath all commands glints the harshness of the death sentence” (304, emphasis in original), to her designation of society as barbaric mirrors the narcissist’s blame-shifting from his or her framing of events to the (imputed) motivations of others. In other words, bad metaphorizing aside, neurosis properly speaking applies to the domain of individuals, barbaric to the domain of people generally.

This also may provide a way to attempt to write a narrative one expects others must (or will) take as a certain kind of scripture, but that genre also covers an only fractional portion of the human experience, and frequently in undesirable forms.  The most salient element of this concerns not mistaking the survivor’s projection of the one who victimized him or her as an adequate description, in the same way that the budding psychopath who reads a hostile intention and death sentence into every command a mother issues. That budding psychopaths consequently often grow up to have severe “problems with women” we take as a commentary on the person’s disordered thinking not on the actual nature of women. &c.  And so the (sociopathic) survivor projects a neurotic understanding onto the transcendental Other (the divine) as an excuse, through ego-inflation, for re-visiting their own stings on human Others and thus may come to embody a written narrative, as a kind of scripture, that embodies that view. Examples other than (large portions of) the bible include Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and Its Future, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Anders Breivik’s 2083: A European Declaration of Independence.[29]


[1] Adapted from Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and Its Future.

[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] By insufficiency, I mean particularly the too-delimited sense of power (or command) he generalizes as all cases of power (or command), &c. One might identify cases where his descriptions apply, provided he does not offer such vague statements that they would apply everywhere or always, but between moving the goal-posts and offering empty placeholders of statements, his explanatory framework gives us little or nothing to work with in the world of human experience. As a  project to write a subjective history in the manner of Stendhal—see Reiss (2004)*—then if Canetti has succeeded, this has the effect of making most of his observations merely retrospective—after an event, i.e., after a piece of text he has encountered, drifts across his consciousness, he provides a trace of its effect, but we (the readers) have an interest in crowds and power (or the command), not in Canetti’s masturbatory or poorly framed poeticisms in response to those texts.

*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.

[5] Hart, HLA (1961). The concept of law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[6] A vast arena of awfulness opens up wherever “the natural’ gets adduced as a justification for anything: it is natural that women be subservient to men, that Blacks be enslaved to whites; homosexuals or Jews are unnatural. &c. Such an invocation of the natural, all the more so that it gets invoked without even an argument for it, puts it squarely in much of the traditional thinking associated with divine command theory, because whether one identifies (i.e., makes equal) the divine and the nature, as occurred for centuries in western thought, even when separated, they still propose the same unalterable and transcendental ground for making one’s appeal in the first place. Thus Canetti notes “the fact that one of them [predator and prey] is habitually preyed on by the other, the unalterable nature of the relationship, which is felt to have existed for ever—all of this makes what happens seem absolute and irrevocable” (303–4). The joke on Christian and Jewish and Islamic bigots who want to denounce homosexuals as unnatural, for instance, comes from the approximately 1,500 species in “nature” that exhibit homosexual behavior, including the black swan that create permanent, same-sex bonded couples. &c. At the risk of an ad Hitlerum, arguments for “the natural” put Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs, &c., into the gas chambers. Arguments for “the natural” inform the slow-scale Zionist genocide of the Palestinian people.

[7] The text comes off this way at times in “Question and Answer” (pp. 285–9).

[8] This may seem unnecessary. However, if me asking you to pass me the salt evokes a hostile response, we might pause. Remember, Canetti already makes clear that even idle questions deserve the label interrogation. At best, he only manages in the section “Question and Answer” that one might ask a question “as long as it is polite” (288). So if I ask politely, I might get away with asking for the salt; everything else risks hostility, because it amounts to interrogation or cross-examination. All of this construes a question as an unwelcome invasion by another person—my reaction (of hostility) to a question gets blamed on you for asking. And so the whole notion of ‘command” as Canetti sets it up here has built into it a tacit projection of responsibility. Phenomenologically accurate as this might prove for certain circumstances, we needn’t understand ‘command” in only such  narrow sense, especially since most people don’t react so neurotically to requests.

[9] See Maturana and Varela’s (1987). The tree of knowledge: the biological roots of understanding for a thoroughgoing annihilation of the explanatory adequacy of such a description.

[10] That we may imagine fates worse than death would adjust the kinds of threat while still keeping an ‘ultimate extremity” of it.

[11] After this moment of supposedly suspended preconceptions, Canetti utterly forgets that proposal and says things like, “Any delay in understanding it detracts from its force” (304) and so forth.

[12] Including the notorious race theorist Gobineau, but we may file that under bad taste more than bad scholarship, in theory.

[13] Ones that may well have a particular ideological ax to grind, but that peril admittedly prevails for all anthropologists.

[14] As a writer of fiction, I know well enough that often fiction (or mythology) can tell a truth (i.e., make an observation) about the observable world more adroitly and effectively than nonfiction. And if I write, “India rests just off the coast of Mexico,” with enough totalitarianism I can make that (false) assertion believed as true—or at least stated aloud as true—by anyone left alive after I’ve had killed anyone who contravenes that (false) assertion. This kind of (fictional) “truth” stands apart from the usual truths of fiction, if only because the very label “fiction” ensures few but the literal-minded or hopelessly naïve will take it “as (factually) true.” People do, of course; apparently Joan Collins, who played a villainess on a TV show, would sometimes get harangued in public for all of the awful things she’d done (on TV). Such events only make the point about the difference between (and the importance of bearing in mind the difference between) fiction and nonfiction. Hence, the religious fanatic who believes the voices that command him may get institutionalized if what his voices tell him fall outside the acceptable range of normal religious delusion—he will get labeled a cultist, or simply insane, if not a Protestant or reformer. The key difference again, as regards Canetti’s narrative in particular, involves evidence. Canetti frequently seems to permit himself to take simply the existence of a text (fictional, transcribed myth, journalism, or more or less dubious anthropology), no matter how recent or removed in time, as evidence for his exposition.

[15] Magical thinking has both a vast literature and most assuredly “legitimate applications”. Let us then separate any dogmatism that magical thinking can only generate errors—e.g.,  “Magical thinking is no less characteristic of our own mundane intellectual activity than it is of Zande curing practices” (Shweder et al., 1977)*—from Lévy-Bruhl’s (1925)** useful observation that people sometimes commit the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, in which people observe that x is followed by y, therefore y has been caused by x. In this case, a fundamental post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy hinges on, “what I experience follows from the event that prompted that experience, therefore my experience proves that the event happened as I experienced it”; this colors much of Canetti’s text, s when the flight of the gazelle gets taken as caused by the presence or roar of the lion, when the sting of the command gets taken as caused by hostile intentions in the commander, or when the veracity of a text gets taken as caused by material actualities in the empirical world.

*Shweder RA, Casagrande JB, Fiske DW, Greenstone JD, Heelas P, Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, and Lancy DF (1977). Likeness and likelihood in everyday thought: magical thinking in judgments about personality [and comments and reply]. Current Anthropology, 18(4): 637–58, p. 637.

**Lévy-Bruhl, L. (1925). How natives think. New York: Knopf.

[16] I might also take aspirin or heroin to dull the pain, to finish the metaphorical line of thought.

[17] This points to one of the most salient critiques of psychoanalysis—whatever traumas I may or may not have experienced, what matters involves the construction of my psychology here and now, not there and then. This applies to victims and victimizers alike; the popularly assumed correlation between sexual abuse in childhood and sexual abuse of children does not generally hold up statistically, &c. Regardless, that someone got abused as a child does not license sexually abusing children in adulthood, contrary to the implications of Canetti’s thesis. One might object he does not approve of such elf-licensing of behavior, but his discourse disagrees. He insists on an essentially mechanical reproduction of one’s childhood traumas (commands), even as he limits it to “the new situation which releases the command must be the exact replica of the situation in which it was received” (306). “Exact replica” assures the non-reproducibility of the event, and the circumstances I can imagine Canetti intending his diagnosis to apply to do not in fact require exact replication for someone to inflict on someone else a previously experienced sting. If I might identify two essentials required: pressure and opportunity, where opportunity means circumstances that permit one to get away with it generally with impunity—sometimes, one’s judgment errs regarding impunity and/or the pressure might prove so great that one throws caution to the winds.

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

[19] Whether we should insist on the presence of such contradictions, embedded in the often visual representations of symbols, or not certainly the wealth of symbols Jung examines reflect this attribute.

[20] Etymologically, “satisfy” means to “do enough” (see here).

[21] From the context of Canetti’s usage, by masters and slaves he means of the sort found in imperial China or Rome, &c. He does not intend, at least not primarily, a metaphorical sense. This warrants my calling the social structure of master and slave obsolete; we obviously very much still live in an era with masters and slaves, but not in the sense reflected in imperial social. In certain ways, things have worsened, so I’m implying no kind of automatic improvement simply by virtue of progress in time.

[22] In the cognitive space of eternity or Godhead, everything connects to everything else and thus seems no longer to require an argument or demonstration of any such connection.

[23] Chez les mangeurs d’homme (Nouvelles-Hébrides) (1931), Paris: Éditions Duchartre, collection “Images” (photographies par A.-P. Antoine et R. Lugeon).

[24] Une femme chez les chasseurs de têtes (Bornéo et Célèbes) (1934), Paris: Éditions de la nouvelle revue critique, collection “La Vie d’Aujourd’hui”; reissued and expanded as Une femme chez les chasseurs de têtes et autres reportages (1985), Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions – 10/18, collection “Grands Reporters” No. 1735 (préface par Francis Lacassin), (ISBN 978-2081254251).

[25] Ombres d’hommes. Version Française de Titaÿna des révélations de Jim Tully sur les prisons américaines (1931), Paris: Louis Querelle, collection de la revue “Jazz”.

[26] La Caravane des morts (1930), Paris: Éditions des Portiques.

[27] Which rises a separate problem, not addressed here.

[28] In Canetti’s terms, stings would still mark these naïfs, who would then reproduce—that much more bewilderingly and mechanically—those stings upon others, especially their own children.

[29] It comes as no accident, one supposes, that Kaczynski’s manifesto contains a long diatribe against a (qualified) straw man conception of Leftists and Leftist politics in a section literally entitled “Feelings of Inferiority.” Kaczynski, the Unabomber, writes as one of the elect, divinely apportioned to send bombs to people he deemed worthy of a swift, noisy death. The tone of Kaczynski’s harangue, even when making reasonable points, points to his being beset by leftists and Leftist politics, being stung by them. He resorts to equivocation (if somewhat fairly) and appeals to unconscious motives (entirely unreasonably) to try to make his case. When he writes, “Political correctness has its stronghold among university professors, who have secure employment with comfortable salaries” (¶12), we may compare that with Kaczynski’s meteoric rise to an assistant professorship—at the time, the youngest ever to do so—with neither a secure position nor a comfortable salary yet, before he resigned in 1967 and moved to an isolated cabin in Montana. So, unless he stayed in the mix of university demographics and politics from that time onward, it seems unlikely that the loudest proponents of ‘political correctness’ were “heterosexual white-males from middle- to upper-middle-class families” (¶12). Such a description sounds more explicitly applicable to 1967 than 1995. As a specific instance of psychologizing about “the Left”:

Many leftists have an intense identification with the problems of groups that have an image of being weak (women), defeated (American Indians), repellent (homosexuals) or otherwise inferior. The leftists themselves feel that these groups are inferior. They would never admit to themselves that they have such feelings, but it is precisely because they do see these groups as inferior that they identify with their problems. (We do not mean to suggest that women, Indians, etc. ARE inferior; we are only making a point about leftist psychology.) (¶13).

I want to say right off, like the religious fanatic who whatever other lies he tells, honestly believes he has been sent, the parenthetical remark Kaczynski supplies at the end reds as an honest assessment of his opinion of the matter. Nonetheless, no one forced him to append the adjectives weak, defeated, and repellent to women, American Indians, and homosexuals, respectively. I won’t try to sneak the point up on you and will state bluntly: if Kaczynski doesn’t think “women, Indians, etc. ARE inferior,” he does think homosexuals “repellent”. Personally, I think that “weak” and “defeated” have an idiosyncratic ring to them in Kaczynski’s use of them; he had to think of words to characterize (unconscious) Leftist views of women and American Indians as “inferior”. His point, exactly, imputes a Leftist assumption of inferiority, thus the Leftist responds (in a salvific way) to that imputed inferiority. Thus, Leftists unconsciously do believe in the inferiority of women and American Indians—“they would never admit these feelings” &c. This somewhat baffling insistence makes sense by realizing that Kaczynski at least fails to imagine (or cannot imagine) any other orientation to the social positioning of women, American Indians, and homosexuals than as “inferior”; Leftist can only care about those unjustly treated by society if they (Leftists) first construe them as inferior. So when it comes time for Kaczynski to disavow that he might feel this way, he cannot actually bring himself to reproduce his whole original list (women, American Indians, and homosexuals), because this would require him to write the sentence, “We do not mean to suggest that women, Indians, and homosexuals ARE inferior,” rather than resorting to “etc.” in place of “homosexuals”. What his whole passage underscores, however, amounts to that same stupidity and unconsciousness Canetti imputes to those who do not register (much less evade) the sting of the command and thus find themselves jerked around for the rest of their life by hidden, unknown impulses. Clueless about her own impulses, the Leftist first projects inferiority on others and then proceeds to rescue them. By contrast, the survivor—do I have to mention that Kaczynski lived literally a survivalist mode of life—knows what weakness consists of and from the  position of power and election wields a hail of magic arrows, this time in the form of bombs, deliberately rather than inadvertently against other people.

Summary (in Once Sentence)

If we want a machine to generate knowledge, then we should what we build generate knowledge and not merely what we want.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.

This is the third of two (or more) reactions.

Another Reaction To: Philip Pettit’s (1975)[1] The Concept of Structuralism: A Critical Analysis

I aim with the first part of this third response (“Metaphorical Uses of Semiology”) to keep it briefer because what Pettit examines here, the applicability of the structural linguistic model to other domains, involves very high-level or broad-ranging assumptions, so I hope to remain more specific in my reactions. He also at times cursorily, but justly, formulates and refutes claims to veracity or utility by structuralism. The second part of this third response (“Model and Metaphor”) does not aim for brevity.

Metaphorical Uses of Semiology

The basic framing he offers for constructing an analogy between language and other domains—“the narrative, dramatic, and cinematic; non-literary arts such as music, architecture and painting; and the customary arts, as I shall call them—fashion, cuisine, and so on” (42)—involves those “areas where entities are to be found which resemble sentences in the required way: [i.e.,] they have meaning of such a kind that they can exhibit certain states of mind and they produce this meaning by something like a mechanism of articulation” (42).

A high-level objection here would ask: if the only requirement arises that  something has “meaning of such a kind that it can exhibit certain states of mind and produce this meaning by something like a mechanism of articulation,” then understanding language to be a kind of intention engine (or intentional engine), then why should we take it as the prototype?[2] Why not take language as simply one of among a veritable auto lot of intentional engines—the human being itself being first and foremost the most intentional engine of all? Summary of this objection: the bait-and-switch that substitutes “language” for “intentional engine” seem dubious.

In summarizing what he calls straight analysis, Pettit admits that the kinds of quasi-structuralist ridings of texts as if sentences by Barthes or Todorov  do not “identify in narrative texts anything that might count as the ‘language’ of narratives: if the texts are ‘sentences’ there is no ‘language’ to govern their construction” (45). Pettit doesn’t mind this, so long as it does not go too far, i.e., a Tel Quel “fundamentalism [derived] in part from Derrida’s insistence that the play of contrasts in which language produces meaning is an arbitrary play of contrast arbitrarily chosen” (45). He adds:

It is difficult to argue against such fundamentalism. All one can say perhaps is that so long as reading is taken in its ordinary sense—and certainly this is the only sense in which its value is proven—analysis must be subject to the control of something like the principle of [Rawl’s] reflective equilibrium. To reject the control of that principle is to despise the general psychology of reader and drive literary analysis into the sheerest caprice (45).

The mid-level objection here points to Pettit’s naïve insistence that the ‘ordinary sense’ of reading “is the only sense in which its value is proven.” The higher-level objection involves Pettit’s attempt to put a limit on the extent to which structuralism gets taken. The difficulty of his argument with such fundamentalism arises from his having accepted the premises of that fundamentalism in the first place. This seems rather like a torturer becoming astonished that one of his victims died.

If I follow Pettit, he examines a proposal in Barthes’s (1966)[3] Crítique et Vérité, which Pettit reports Barthes never followed up on and subsequently rejected altogether,[4] for a systematic theory of literature. The deal-breaking difficulty noted by Pettit involves that, whereas for sentences one (at least in principle) has a test, the rules of grammar, to distinguish well-formed and poorly formed sentences, we do not have the analogous test for making  a similar determination about a text. Pettit otherwise defends, I believe, other aspects of sentence building as they bear upon text building,[5] but his concern for “literary analysis [as] sheerest caprice” (45) draws him up short. Nonetheless, one might ask why—besides the obviously conventional reason Pettit avers—one needs this analogous test. Poetry in manifold ways—some so obvious we tend not to see them (i.e., the semantic sense of line breaks)—offer nongrammatical examples of language. And this, not merely that poetry reveals previously invisible potentialities, though it does that as well, but may even invent possibilities that did not exist previously.[6] Literary texts may do the same— Bakhtin (1981)[7] certainly seems to think so with the novel—and  the part that addresses the “anything goes” worry of Pettit’s involves whatever rigors exist for those trying to tease new affordances out of language in the first place. Canetti’s (1960)[8] Crowds and Power, claiming status as a work of nonfiction, got justly panned by Phillips (1963)[9] as a bad poem; Here we have just the opposite of what goes on in a good poem: instead of an original and concrete association that puts things in a new light or makes for a new experience, an ordinary observation is given ‘poetic’ overtones, and made to sound more suggestive” (¶3). Certainly in language itself “anything goes” does not prevail; I can write “asdf;lkj qewr;lqew; qe qewlk;rj qewr;lkj” but that doesn’t mean I should or that doing so yields an interesting result.[10]

Describing two kinds of paradigmatic approaches to narrative, these descriptive theories focus on form and content. And what Pettit concludes for one “what is possible is not always interesting” (50), he concludes for both, with the same caveat in each case for “considerable non-theoretical interest. [Such theories] may offer a set of terms for approaching a certain sort of comparative analysis of texts. Indeed, on reflection, this is precisely what Propp’s[11] theory provides: its goal, after all, is the comparative analysis of Russian folk-takes, not an abstract theory in any strict sense of the term” (52). He neglects to mention how such comparative analysis, if done cursorily and ad hoc,, may provide grist for literary writing. I recall reading somewhere that the twentieth century more than any previous era displays a reciprocal and mutually informing relationship between literature, literary critics, and literary criticism.

Systematic analysis [exemplified by Barthes’s (1970)[12] S/Z], like straight analysis, requires nothing more by way of assumption than what the central structural argument provides … that when a text is given an interpretation by a reader, it is given a structure that puts limits on what may replace any event in the text. What systematic analysis does is to show for each event the significance which it has, by contrast with possible replacements, in terms of setting, story, and other dimension (53).

The second premise of the argument is that the meaning of any part in a non-literary work of art is determined by the background contrast with what might have replaced it without making nonsense of the whole (56).[13]

An important trace that Pettit keeps repeating in the environs of the word ‘systematic’ shows up, for example, in the phrase “if a part changes in its meaning the meaning of the whole changes too” (56).[14] Hence, “the non-literary work of art, like a sentence, produces its meaning by the way in which it articulates its parts … that the ‘audience’ of such a work projects a structure on it which defines the possible replacements for any element” (58).[15],[16] However, also this: “for any … [art, or experience] to be given meaning it must be assigned a structure which puts limits on what can replace any element in the piece” (63) or else interpretation devolves to “anything goes.” We might sidestep this fussiness on Pettit’s part, which desires to avoid letting the intellectual life of the academy turn into an empty game,[17] and ask instead whether or not we do this in everyday life—or, more precisely, why in the structures we assign to everything we encounter in daily life does “anything goes” not already prevail? I will return to this below.

Against a gestalt of information theory vision of art that overemphasizes “the power of a work to challenge an surprise” (61), Pettit notes:

What is of equal importance … is satisfaction. I meant he word etymologically: the repetition in a work, usually through variations, which ensures that the aesthetic subject is given ‘enough’, that he is satisfied and not just tantalised. It is a point of the most common experience that the human being enjoys having his expectations fulfilled—as rhyme fulfills expectations in poetry for instance. A work of art is satisfying only if this desire is indulged in some measure (61).

Reprising his earlier argument in a new setting, Pettit questions the value of generative or descriptive theory given that, unlike the ‘test’ of grammar that permits the determination of well-formed and poorly formed sentences, we find no similar sort of test for well-formed or poorly formed customary arts (in fashion, cuisine, &c); “with no piece of customary art is our intuitive sense of structure firm enough to bear representation in a grammar of strict recursive rules” (63). He sees structure more as a gestalt in this case.  However, in the most general way, one might assign ‘culture’ as the test for customary arts analogous to ‘grammar’ as the test for linguistic performance.

I do not want to pursue this problematic proposal at the moment, except to suggest that to the extent that grammar itself already proposes a reflection of culture, then ‘culture’—as the set of constraints on human behavior in a given society, modifiable by that society—may provide the more adequately descriptive ground for a “master metaphor” than language. Specifically, rather than a ‘language’ of dance or film or architecture, for instance, we might speak of a ‘culture’ of dance, architecture, film, &c, each with their own way of speaking (their own discourse). By this sense of, for example, the ‘culture’ of film, I specifically point not to any culture (as a milieu) of the film industry and whatnot, but in an expressly metaphorical sense standing in exactly the position where one normally finds ‘language of film’ (and the like). What this might entail I leave aside for now. I will point out, though, that when Saussure elected to bracket out parole—as the customary way of speaking in a given culture—he thereby “invented” language as a reification of that customary way of speaking and thus falsified it, or, rather, erased it. So also Lévi-Strauss, who responds to myths as “messages of a most disheartening complexity, and which previously appeared to defeat all attempts to decipher them” (qtd in Pettit, p. 73, emphasis added)[18] by his objective, his desire rather, to analyze that structure of myth that “he takes to remain constant from version to version” (73):[19] “the supposed multiplicity of features proves to be largely illusory” (1958, qtd in Pettit, p. 76).[20]

Model and Metaphor

Pettit ends his book with a discussion of models beginning by a characterization of metaphor. On this view, he describes models as a systematic metaphor. We might, taking as an example Donne’s poetry in a literary tradition, call such a systematic metaphor a conceit. A conceit, precisely (and in Donne’s case, in poetic form) offers not simply a metaphor—as the famous likening of a pair of lovers to a mathematical compass—but an extended one, whose use at first may seem unwarranted but, by the end and in its fuller articulation, seems surprisingly apt after all.

I emphasize this in part because Pettit has already expressed a concern against “anything goes” and, in the advocacy of the sense of systematic metaphor for model, he remains at some pains to not let just any old metaphorical linking occur. While anticipating Lakoff and Johnson (2003)[21] in some respects and citing other previous critics of the metaphor as a device, Pettit teases out semantic aspects of various metaphors that help to ground their plausibility—that (I would say) help to suade the reader to them as conceits.  In particular, Pettit notes—I leave out his examples to avoid bogging down in them—that when we propose a metaphor, there exists simultaneously some sense of analogy and disanalogy between the two things metaphorically linked, and that the more necessary culture finds it to assert and maintain the disanalogical portions of the comparison, the less likely the case that the metaphor will die as a metaphor and transform into a nonmetaphorical piece of language, perhaps even an adage or proverb, e.g., “misery loves company”.

At one point, he utilizes earlier commentary to add something significant to the notion of metaphors.

In the “subcategorial” aspect of linguistic description, what Pettit calls “selectional subcategorisations” help to structure the listener’s expectation of what type of word should or likely will follow; thus, when we see “John plays _____,” the selectional rule sets up the expectation that something like “music” or “golf” will follow, e.g., “John plays golf.” Pettit identifies violations of these selectional expectations as expressly metaphorical, e.g., “Golf plays John.” A first point to note about this, Pettit observes, involves that the sentence does not seem wholly nonsense—one could say that John has become a golf addict and in that sense golf plays him; Foucault’s “we do not speak discourse, discourse speaks us” proposes a more dire but similar example.

However, I would not overestimate this capacity to paraphrase. Even without providing a “realistic” sense-paraphrase for “Golf plays John,” it nonetheless does generate a sense of meaning—however much a nebulous, vague, or difficult to express meaning (precisely because, as the sentence makes clear, the only adequate way to express the idea comes about exactly in the form “golf plays John” and so we have no ready-made conventional meaning for this “new” idea). This differs notably from the other famous example (from Chomsky) that Pettit borrows: “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. I do not intend to seriously analyze the merits of different examples of metaphors, but simply want to point out that the construction of this second example presupposes multiple contradictions—“colorless” and “green”, color as a property of an abstract idea, the ascription of an action ‘sleep” to an abstract noun, and the contradiction of sleeping furiously, &c. For me, because these several elements get heaped up together the meaning-making capacity of the sentence gets clabbered up for me or, slightly more precisely, it doesn’t have the same stark numinousness that “Golf plays John” has (for me).

It may seem a digression, but I suspect it would bear fruit to examine this more closely. If we imagine various subphrases of “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” in a poem—because in a poem, we will tolerate almost anything in language—then we might consider “a colorless green” and “ideas sleep” and “sleep furiously” keeping in the back of our mind what Pettit says about aptness in metaphor as it relates to the analogy and disanalogy each proposes.

Of the three phrases, “a colorless green” “ideas sleep” an “sleep furiously” I sense the strongest metaphorical pull or suggestive strangeness in “ideas sleep”. For me, “sleeps furiously” seems already nonmetaphorical—anyone who has had a rough night of trying to sleep next to someone tossing and turning has witnessed someone else “sleeping furiously”. One may say that while “sleeps furiously” on the face of it seems selectionally barred, i.e., it proposes a word one shouldn’t expect after “sleeps,” nonetheless, once we see it, it seems in retrospect not barred on “realistic” or conventional grounds after all. In the same way, “runs slowly” seems equally already nonmetaphorical after all.

“A colorless green,”—I think the phrase requires the addition of an ‘a’ to more generate a sense of meaning in the first place—reads more like a straight contradiction at first, but ‘a colorless green” after all could mean a green that has had all the hue removed from it. (One might ‘abuse” the example, and take “green” to indicate the green of a golf course, which as a noun may be given an adjective like colorless, however badly that fares for the greens keeper of the course.) Thus, “a colorless green” shifts my attention from green in some absolute sense and suggestively implies that its greenness instead has gotten skewed, distorted, or modified in some way so that it now looks like a “colorless green”. In exactly the same way I might imagine a “light darkness” or a “dark lightness,” both phrases having a tendency to point me—without justification—toward a sort of visual imagining of “grey”. This has no justification because a “light darkness” would not, strictly speaking, amount to grey, but the suggestiveness of the phrase, as a metaphor, has precisely some kind of evocative power in similar to “Golf plays John.”

However, there remain gradations of suggestiveness or strangeness going on in these examples, and Todorov (1974)[22] description of the literary genre of the fantastic sheds some light here. Briefly, this genre operates by affecting a hesitancy in the reader (and often in the protagonist) of a story. Classically, in ghost stories, this hesitancy arises from uncertainty, for instance, whether the ghost actually exists or represents some sort of a hallucination in the narrator (or protagonist’s) mind. However, this bated-breath sense of hesitancy lasts only so long as we do not resolve this question, and most stories will come down on one side or the other of it finally. Thus, the genre of the fantastic teeters perilously between two adjacent genres, the uncanny and the marvelous. In the former, the ghost—as in all episodes of Scooby-Doo—turns out to be a hoax, so that a rational and human explanation occurs, while in the case of the marvelous, the supernatural prevails despite any evidence to the contrary: the climax of The Exorcist goes this way. Sometimes, however, the author does not resolve the matter and/or sometimes the reader does not resolve the matter either, and rather than lapsing into one of the “side genres”—of the supernatural debunked or the supernatural affirmed—we remain hovering in a (pleasingly tantalizing or perhaps aggravating) uncertainty and hesitancy.

So, we might array the final disposition (of the story or the reader) for these three genres in terms of “ah, that all makes sense after all” (the uncanny), “uh, that makes neither sense nor nonsense” (the fantastic), and “oh, that makes no sense” (the marvelous), where the starting point (for the story or reader) stood initially on the tightrope of the fantastic.

These three possibilities characterize the subtle variations of strangeness in the paired words of “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. With respect to the kind of strangeness apparent in “sleeps furiously” the selectional violation in it (as the generative mechanism for the sense of fantastic or strangeness in the first place) falls easily down on the side of “ah, that makes sense after all”. Conversely, “colorless green” primarily because it propose a semantically literal contradiction would most likely fall down on the side of “oh, that makes no sense” An important point about this: to say “it makes no sense” has a misleading quality; we might say “that’s non-sense” rather, the marker “non” sense being precisely what the phrase generated. The phrase does not generate nothing; it generates non sense. This remains true in the genre of the marvelous as well—the conclusion of the story that affirms the existence of the ghost asks us to accept a reality of ghosts, which some people incline to already, but for them a ghost story falls in the category of literary realism then. The whole drift of The exorcist, its narrative wiliness, lies precisely in allowing the mother’s unceasing skepticism—her refusal to believe that a demon has actually possessed her daughter –to get worn down along with the reader’s, so that the supernatural affirmation at the end of the book offers as much terror in the prospect of girls like Regen behaving horribly but also the “demonstration” that demons (pun not intended) exist. We may say, “oh, that’s nonsense” as a way to deal with this (marvelous) conclusion, but we do so from a standpoint that the author has said something, has asserted a meaning rather than something meaningless. Similarly, we may dismiss “colorless green” as “oh, that’s nonsense,’ but not because nothing got meant.

This leaves “ideas sleep” to suggest the fantastic. Certainly, with this phrase I sense a “strangeness” most akin to what I encounter in “Golf plays John”. Here, we encounter metaphor in the sense that Pettit especially underscores where his point about analogy and disanalogy specifically apply. As an initial reaction, whatever ideas “do,” sleep seems not one of those things, nonetheless, in trying to sort out the “paraphrase” for what this means, we may refer to Todorov again. He particularly ascribes the composition of the fantastic, logically enough, so that in at least one sense we can blame the authors for whether the story ends ultimately—and thus comes to reveal itself as in—the genre of the uncanny, the fantastic, or the marvelous. However, readers do not always follow an author’s intentions, so that (let us imagine an example of the fantastic) the reader may decide she has read an example of the uncanny or the marvelous instead. One way this readily happens arises when the reader discerns or elects to read the story as an allegory (hence the uncanny) or poetry (hence the marvelous). Thus, one might dismiss the meaning of “colorless green” as a piece of poetry; one might read the insistence on the supernatural in The Exorcist as an allegory. Readers’ readings varying, I propose no definitive pronouncements about how these variations might play out. One could take “sleeps furiously” as a piece of poetry (analogous to the marvelous); for me, the phrase seems ultimately commonplace even if it initially and briefly surprises me. &c.

The purpose of this—as well as Todorov’s excursus—does not propose to explain all literature genres or reactions to them, however. It particularly applies to the moment of hesitancy prior to making an either/or determination (sense, or non-sense) or suspending that determination (neither sense nor nonsense). So in particularly when confronted by the phrase “ideas sleep,” I feel a longer sense of pause confronting it than with “colorless green” or “sleeps furiously”. All three phrases have a strangeness—fantastic, marvelous, an uncanny, respectively—but we may distinguish them in their further qualities of that strangeness.

Of these three selectional violations, “ideas sleep”[23] resonates most strongly (for me) as a metaphor in Pettit’s sense[24] even as the disanalogy between them, i.e., the set of qualities one might attribute to sleep not typically shared with “idea”, overshadows the sense or meaning that the metaphor generates (for me). I find myself quickly turning the phrase first into a piece of “mere” poetry and then secondly personifying “ideas” and imagining them carrying on with their day in some sense that amounts to an allegory. I feel the “gravity” of this either/or strongly, i.e., I find myself spending less time on whatever “ideas sleep” itself and more considering it in its poetic or allegorical senses. Other people will react differently of course.

By contrast, “golf plays John” leaves me lingering much longer in the strange world where something like golf in some sense plays John. I have available to me taking this in an allegorical sense—just as Pettit does when he proposes that John’s golf addiction has got the better of him—or I can take this in the “poetic” way one might read the transformation of Gregor Samsa into “an insect”—more properly, some kind of “vermin”—at the beginning of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But in both the poetic and allegorical case, these “explanations” do not have the same degree of satisfaction that a poetic (or marvelous) and allegorical (or uncanny) reading of “colorless green” and “sleeps furiously” have (for me). Pettit especially emphasizes that along with the pleasure of surprise in literature, we find also the pleasure of having our expectations affirmed. He specifically uses the word satisfaction to describe this, pointing to the etymological sense of the word as “enough”.

What constitutes “enough” for one person differs from another, so again no one may utter definitive laws about how this plays out in a given text. For me, I find it ‘enough’ to take “ideas sleep” as oscillating alternatively between the uncanny and the marvelous, the poetic and the allegorical, while dwelling for a much less appreciable length of time in the fantastic. I find the opposite true for “golf plays John”; the specific weirdness and charm of this proposal, but also my inability to find “enough” in the poetic and allegorical standpoints to account for “what the phrase means” marks out something I deem more like the fantastic as Todorov describes it and the apt (systematic) metaphor (or conceit) as Pettit describes it.

One might compare “misery loves company” to “golf plays John” to see how strikingly two otherwise extremely similar constructions may resonate: in this case, because misery loves company has become a platitude. The fact that usage moves this phrase into common parlance means also we may turn it metaphorical by reversing it: company loves misery. So we see that whatever analogies or disanalogies we might assert between “company’ and “misery,” the force of cliché has pressed all of that juice out, as from an olive with its pit removed.

At the same time, I hardly know where to begin in trying to pretend what analogies or disanologies must inhere between “golf” and “John”. The phrase seems witty at the very least, quite apart from whether it “means” (or points to) John’s golf addiction playing him, i.e., leading him about by the nose, to marshal in another metaphorical platitude. One could pretend that despite being a proper name “John” simply offers a specific but fungible term for “person” but even on that assumption, what then do we label as the analogies between (the game) “golf” and “persons” (who play the game). Borrowing Hjelmslev’s commutation test, we may swap terms in the phrase and examine the results: music plays John; golf plays Joan;[25] dead plays John; death plays John; golf slays John.

The term “plays” seem obligatory in this example, so that rather than trying to find analogies between “golf” and “John,” we might suspect that at least something significant lurks in the verb. A conventionalized kind of metaphorical construction will often offer something of the form “X is Y”, i.e., war is hell. In this case, “is” makes the identity proposed by the metaphor explicit and so, perhaps for that reason, on the one hand makes the project of determining the analogies and disanologies of the metaphor more visibly necessary but on the other masks that necessity to the extent that such an analogy, like misery loves company, no longer seems metaphorical. Nonetheless, this kind of “is” metaphor changes starkly when reversed: war is hell and hell is war, or love is war and war is love.

For “Golf plays John,” it presupposes, one might say, the reversed version. We know very well what it means that john plays golf, but in light of that, what might “golf plays John” mean then? Whatever charm or wit one discerns in “company loves misery” would seem to rely on a similar contrast.

Pettit, citing numerous stands of linguistics, constantly invokes the notion that language “means”—explicitly in its paradigmatic sense—by contrasts with background words or a sense (by a reader or listener) of what words were chosen relative to those that were not. The play of language I resorted to above belies my autobiography, not facts about language, though I do assume that my processing of language would bear (does bear) similarities to whatever process you have experience reading these examples. Golf plays John” has the numinous, metaphorical charge and charm I read from it because I already had the “corrected” (reversed) version “John plays golf”. But even without this in advance, one might stumble across it simply by reversing the terms—otherwise “Golf plays John” might seem a perfectly bland thing to say, no more or less metaphorical than “John plays golf”.[26]

I emphasize all of this because typically the verb of an analogy gets overlooked, perhaps because we construct the most obvious ones in the form “X is Y”.  One may see (a structurally similar) example to “golf plays John” in “the boy may frighten sincerity”. For me, this tends sooner to a poetic or allegorical sense on the face of it, tempered somewhat when I contextualize it by its reversal: sincerity may frighten the boy.

And all I point to by these examples illustrate (my) possible readings of phrases and the kinds of reactions they generate (in me) as meanings. The technique of swapping terms—given a technical formality in Hjelmslev’s commutation test—does not presuppose a necessity but only points to a way of engaging an otherwise “unsatisfactory” phrase to (attempt to) make it satisfactory, to make it provide “enough”. In the case of “sleeps furiously” I have “enough” almost instantaneously, and even a sense that the phrase seems belabored. Perhaps as an adverb “furiously” already seems an afterthought, and that adds that much more to its sense as already conventional language; perhaps “furiously” itself signals the belabored sense. With “colorless green,” the obviously deliberate contradiction also all but instantaneously gives me “enough” (there at the beginning of the phrase) an I complacently file it under a “poetic usage”. With “ideas sleep” (or, at this point more precisely, “colorless green ideas”), the predisposition to “poetry” in the opening two words may set up the frame to take “ideas sleep” in a poetic sense as well, whether furiously or not. And so I can parse the whole thing as if straight out of cummings or Ogden Nash.

I recognize of course that one needn’t parse the sentence in two word phrases; to do so would adjust the meanings meant—one might read “colorless green ideas” and “ideas sleep furiously” and so forth—but I don’t intend to claim what this phrase means, unless without recognizing also the plurality of the word “means”.

Because speaking involves an iterated sequence, then sequence matters—an precisely that it matters means as well we may find times when the priority of sequence does not completely dominate (a sentence). Thus, if someone wanted to say, if with some difficulty, that “Sleep furiously colorless green ideas” still means in essence or more or less the same thing as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” we can’t say the same for “John plays golf” and “golf plays John”. Similarly, to say “green colorless ideas sleep furiously” seems (to me) to stray too far from the original to still call it the same— “green colorless ideas” being in the final analysis (to me) not identical enough to “colorless green ideas”—and this, I would say, because (for whatever reason) here sequence matters more than in the case of “sleep furiously colorless green ideas”.[27] Even at the granularity of “ideas sleep,” a poet might trick us by letting us assume that “ideas” presents a plural noun but eventually discloses “ideas” to be a third-person conjugation of the verb to idea (whatever that means) with sleep as the subject that ideas:

as night’s eyes
sleep’s wide black

so wide
pries sleep
night’s black eye

the eye’s knight
while black wards

and eyes
as black
sleep’s wide-backed

All of this to lay some further lines of suggestion for making the metaphor of metaphor into a model for models. Perhaps the main thing to note concerns reversibility, not only the meaning that emerges when we reverse  metaphor but also the intransigence against doing so. We mays similarly remain sensitive to the notion that a model (as a systematic metaphor, as a conceit) in all likelihood hovers more in the zone of the fantastic than collapsing into one of the side genes—much less starting in one. Pettit speaks at length of the necessary integration of philosophy and empiricism, especially for all of the humanistic disciplines and the social studies that mistakenly call themselves science. The center of these projects in particular stands as the phenomenological subject, precisely in a delicate (fantastic) position on a tightrope between the threat of lapsing into positivism—as Pettit makes clear that Lévi-Strauss did—or the solipsism of “anything goes”.

I might suggest further attention paid to the verbs of metaphors in Pettit’s sense; what actions, what processes, constitute the relation between the parts of the metaphor. The conventional assumption that “is” links the parts of a metaphor lays the groundwork for a misleading claim to transform (in a mathematical sense) the one into the other, but the unbounded license Lévi-Strauss permitted himself to argue one myth represented a transform of another, the mathematical pretenses of Jakobson and the Prague school of linguistics, and the “original” bracketing out of all human users of language by Saussure and its reinvention in its syntagmatic and paradigmatic transform all point to the manifold problems, deliberate or accidental, that come from metaphors with “is”. If a metaphor emerges as a violation of what Pettit call selectional rules—without requiring we subscribe to the whole theory that comes with—then in what sense do models, as systematic metaphors, represent something of such a selectional violation?

In a remarkable section of his book, Peter Taylor (2005)[28] empirically demonstrates that models never do not work; to the extent that they generate knowledge at all, they do not cease to do so simply when “wrong”. Moreover, simply because a model generates apparent contradictions or impossibilities (in some of its elements) does not mean it fails as a model—he demonstrates this with a model conventionally dismissed as erroneous (because it generates results populations smaller than zero) but which nonetheless demonstrates accurate predictive power.  To summarize it too breezily, these anomalous results may arise “simply” from the analytical terms of the model, but the clear point Taylor makes asserts that no amount of refinement in the number of kinds of those terms will entirely erase all anomalousness—at best, it may reach a point where such anomalies remain left out of focus. Taylor’s further point advocates developing a thick skin about impossibilities and not necessarily building assumptions into a model to exclude those possibilities, e.g., ruling out the possibility in advance of populations less than zero.

I bring this up to say two things. First, in ramifying our models as conceits (as systematic or extended metaphors), this greater articulation proposes a reduction in anomalies rather than an approach to any “truth,” which we can never reach. Second, it points to a right orientation for understanding the inadequacy of overly simplified models—such as structuralism’s unregulated desire to cast everything into binary operations. The problem of such an approach doesn’t arise from too much simplicity—Taylor makes clear that all models if they generate knowledge at all will generate knowledge—and not necessarily even in the likely legion numbers of anomalies an analytical inadequate model would generate. The objection, rather, arises where the modeler begins making exceptional, i.e., making exceptions, about those anomalies, and especially offering appeals outside the framework of the model itself. Fundamentally, this issue involves vanity, institutional continuity, and issues themselves that stand outside of the model, but at root this involves moving the goal-posts; formalized, we call this data massage statistics.


[1] Pettit, P. (1975). The concept of structuralism: a critical analysis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. i–v, 1–117.

[2] In the phrase “can exhibit certain states of mind,” Pettit underscores an emphasis on intentionality, without which one might say that inert matter “exhibits” as well. Thus, this framing offered for constructing an analogy between language and other domains characterizes language as an intentional engine apart from some brainless or mindless process.

[3] Barthes, R (1966). Crítique et vérité. Paris: Seuill.

[4] Barthes, R (1971). A conversation, in S. Heath, C McCabe, and C. Prendergast (eds). Signs of the times, pp. 44–5. Cambridge: Granta.

[5] In effect, he seems to give voice to my sarcastic question, which I ask when someone speaks of a “language of film” and the like, “what, then, comprise the nouns of this text? What grammatical case or cases does this text move through?” A non-systematic approach to this characterizes, it seems, what Pettit calls straight analysis. It also reflects, though he only dimly acknowledges this, something of the approach in Russian formalism.

[6] This involves a tricky claim. A chair affords use as a murder weapon, but shall we call this affordance for murder an originally present potential or a newly discovered possibility? Saying this, we might more cogently note how these affordances (either to sit or to kill) arise from the interface of the chair itself with a human user. Saying this proposes an alternative way of talking about objects like chairs and subjects like humans that re-enmeshes them together as an interactive unit otherwise stereotypically (and incorrectly) taken as separate elements. By “incorrectly” I mean that a description of objects and subjects apart from the affordances arising from their interface involves and offers a relatively unfit way of describing the human experience involved in such interfaces and affordances; I do not mean that the description “is wrong”. The relative unfitness of this description (that separates objects and subjects) leads to debates less well described as fruitless and more accurately as iteratively perpetuating a status quo. For example, by separating the human subject from the object of a gun, both sides of the gun debate may blame the other side, and the social consequence of that blaming substitutes debating about the issue for taking action on the issue (one way or another). When summarizing a debate between the merits of a patriotic versus a cosmopolitan outlook, Nussbaum (2002) asks and answers:

May I give my daughter an expensive college education, while children all over the world re starving and effective relief agencies exist? May Americans enjoy their currently high standard of living, when there are reasons to think the globe as a whole could not sustain that level of consumption? These are hard questions, and there will and should be much debate about the proper answers (137).

In the face of wholly unjust human suffering around the world, Nussbaum concludes that “these are hard questions, and there will and should be much debate about the proper answers” (137)—a remarkably inhuman conclusion.

[7] Bakhtin, MM (1981). The dialogic imagination: four essays (ed. and trans. M. Holquist and C. Emerson). Austin: University of Texas Press.

[8] Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press.

[9] Phillips, W. (1963, 1 February). History on the couch. [online] The New York Review of Books from here.

[10] Unless someone in a position of some variety of institutional authority (whether academic or merely wealthy) declares it as such and markets the phrase as significant (not just interesting).

[11] Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the folktale, 2nd ed., Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

[12] Barthes, R (1970. S/Z, Paris: Seuill.

[13] Regarding this point, Pettit alludes to Hjelmslev’s (1953) ‘commutation test,’ which “consists in replacing a word in a sentence an watching the effect on the whole of different replacements” (57). Moles (1966)** takes this further: “One of the most general heuristic procedures of aesthetics, based on the materiality of the work of art, consists of progressively destroying the work by known, perceptible quantities, and in following the variations in esthetic sensation, value, and knowledge as a function of this destruction” (201).

* Hjelmslev, L (1953). Prolegomena to a theory of language. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Pres.

** Moles, A (1966). Information theory and aesthetic perception. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

[14] Or later, again, almost as if without acknowledging that he has written this earlier:

There are two premises to the argument. The first is that the meaning of the whole depends on the meaning of its parts so that it changes if the meaning of any part changes. The second is that the meaning of a part is determine by its background contrasts with what might have replaced it without making nonsense of the whole. These premises … imply that any … piece of art produces its meaning by having its parts set up against appropriate contrasts (62).

[15] Pettit links systematic analysis of nonliterary arts with the literary arts (stylistics and narratology): “

Systematic analysis corresponds to stylistics when the latter describes the significance of the words of a poem in semantic, metrical and symbolic terms, and to narrative analysis when it describes the significance of events in a text in terms of narrator’s presentation, from a definitive perspective n with a definite purpose, of setting, character, or story (58).

[16] In an aside, Pettit contrasts descriptive systematics in music in two forms, using the terms technical and expressive to characterize them; one recognizes in these the analogs of form and content in descriptive systematics in literature—the former aspiring to describe how the parts achieve their effects, the latter to describe the effects of a piece’s parts. The faults of these two approaches in music my apply to the literary as well: the former “leave much out of account—most notoriously, rhythmic pattern—and can be accused of giving only the appearance of rigour … [for the latter] the worst fault is that the terms it uses are necessarily vague and offer no hope of characterizing artistic effects with any precision” (59). The disconnect here consists, in the incapacity in the former (technical/formal) case to satisfactorily explain how various motives, (musical) gestures, even chords and key changes, for instance, actually affect the critic’s claimed effects, while in the latter (expressive/content)  case the incapacity arises in not satisfactorily establishing that the affects noted by the critic constitute the effects at all. Thus, in the former, we may often have more an autobiography of the critic’s capacity to sniff out patterns and in the latter an autobiography of the critic’s sensibilities in their works, both of them claiming (sometimes not entirely without some justification) to write history, not autobiography. Or, in a nonacademic setting (such as music critic for a major newspaper), they my unabashedly embrace autobiography while still arrogating to themselves the claim (again, with some justification since in some case such critics have made and broke musical personalities) to make history. In this, we may discern that history and autobiography (in the fields of music and literature) stand as analogs to form and content in music or literature, or technical and expressive descriptive systematics in criticism of music or literature.

[17] It must be said that so-called postmodernism, as a reflection of late-order (one hopes) capitalism, to turn the intellectual life of the academy into an empty game provides a crucial element. Much else needs adding to this to flesh out the point, but what we see missing from Pettit’s analysis, who after all wrote this in 1975 before the most glaring aspects of academia’s empty game had come to the fore as they since have, involves his failure to analyze who benefits from this empty game, whose interests get served by it. Thus the liens of power in late-order capitalism co-opt the artist and the intellectual—in a sense the analogous figures of content and form, expression and technique, autobiography and history—and politically neutralize their meaning-generating function (see my comments on Suttner, 2005 here) for culture.

[18] Lévi-Strauss, C. (1964). The raw and the cooked. London: Cape.

[19] Pettit provides a weird moment in Lévi-Strauss, when Lévi-Strauss (1963)* avers, “behind every sense there is a non-sense and not vice-versa. For me meaning is always phenomenal” (qtd in Pettit, p. 73). As an anti-phenomenologist, this functions rather like ‘this sentence is false,” and so points to a (perhaps in this case deliberate) obfuscation of terms. After all, if Lévi-Strauss in some sense purports to describe the savage mind, then what savagery shall we read out of the merely phenomenal meaning of his text? Another gesture of colonialism? He seems to acknowledge this: ‘because we are prisoners of subjectivity we cannot understand things simultaneously from within and without” (ibid, qtd in Pettit, p. 72). His phrase “prisoners of subjectivity” belies a (his?) desire for freedom, but if phenomenology provides, re Foucault, Althuser, Lacan, &c, an illusion of freedom and escape, then Lévi-Strauss delivers his lectures from his prison cell while imagining he stands on Sinai. This reflects no mere semantic detail; beginning with Jakobson’s phonology, which he believed had “reached beyond the superficial conscious and historical phenomena to attain fundamental and objective realities consisting of systems of relations which are the products of unconscious thought processes” (1958, p. 58, qtd in Pettit, p. 76; see note 20 below), he concludes that “all forms of social life ‘consist of systems of behavior that represent the projection, on the level of conscious and socialized thought, of universal laws which regulate the unconscious activities of the mind’ [1958, p. 59]” (Pettit, 1975, 76). These propose freedoms as well—or rather, solace from the prison of subjectivity at least in offering an alternative. Similarly, when Lévi-Strauss insists that “the time of myth … is reversible” (c.f., 1958, p. 209–12) and that “the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (n impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real” (ibid, p. 229, qtd in Pettit, p. 81), these too betoken an escape from what Eliade (1954)** describes as the terror of history that the linear advance of time proposes and an escape from the (for some experientially) unbearable contradiction of the Self in Jung’s sense as simultaneously ego-consciousness and the unconscious. One may sympathize over the desire to avoid the terror of history or the contradiction of human existence, but to respond in opposition to an existential or phenomenological understanding of human beings by describing human beings as an “intolerable spoiled child who for too long has held the philosophical scene and prevented any serious work, drawing exclusive attention to itself’ (1971, p. 614–5,*** qtd in Pettit, p. 77) sounds an awful lot like a petulant temper tantrum thrown by an intolerably spoiled child.

*Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963). Auteur de la Pensée sauvage: réponses à quelques questions, Esprit (November 1963). Available online in French here.

** Eliade, M. (1954). The myth of the eternal return. [New York]: Pantheon Books.

*** Lévi-Strauss, C. (1971). L’homme nu, Paris: Plon.

[20] Lévi-Strauss, C. (1958). Structural anthropology. Harmandsworth: Penguin.

[21] Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. [New ed.]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

[23] In a pleasant irony, Pettit’s chapter critiquing Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism quotes the Frenchman that if structuralism may at present sleep, it will one day wake up in the natural sciences. Pettit responds, “on the day when semiological analysis awakes it will not be in the natural sciences” (78).

[24] Pettit insists, broadly, that a selectional violation generates something at least metaphorical if not a metaphor itself. So the objection that “sleeps furiously” and “colorless green” do not propose metaphors but simply some unusual combination of words specifically betray as a commitment—justified or not—to a particular sense of metaphor.

[25] To the extent that “golf plays John” means differently than “golf plays Joan” shows the patriarchal biases of language.

[26] Thus, a degree of linguistic acculturation changes the meaning of “golf plays John”—a detail that gets marshaled in by assumption in the form of linguistic competence or cultural competence, &c. But we needn’t assume this; rather, we might stop pretending that language stands separable from users of it.  Sentence in a foreign language I do not speak “means” precisely non-sense to me. Here, I encounter no hesitancy a la the fantastic whatsoever, but simply the non-sense (and non-sensical premise, the supernatural premise, that an Other might speak and encode the world differently than I do).

[27] One may rightly object that I have changed the verb tense to permit the rearrangement. You might experiment with rearrangements that do not change the verb tense to read off your own hangs of meaning in the sentence so deranged.

[28] Taylor, PJ (2005). Unruly complexity: ecology, interpretation, engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press