CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 7a. Interlude (A Summary for “Elements of Power”)

3 June 2013


De Sade has his Juliette suggest, “Try your hand at a moral crime, the kind one commits in writing.”

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the forty-first entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1] and the summary for Part 7 (Elements of Power) of Canetti’s book overall.[2] A notable feature of this part: Canetti devotes only 23 pages to characterizing the elements of power; for that reason, my last post’s abstract provides a summary starting point overall:

By bogging down in historical examples of classically Machiavellian rulers, Canetti makes himself and his narrative into a tool of our current order of rulers, who do not operate from the kind of position and agency once occupied by such sovereign and Machiavellian figures. By focusing the discourse of power in terms of the figurehead (the Queen, the President), this (and Canetti’s argument) offers a lightning rod for the dudgeon and criticism of those ruled while making blurry (both by accident and design) what consequently must seem the more amorphous, diffuse, and difficult to trace lines of power currently in order. Though the terms of the game—if one may call it that—differ for those in it (politicians) compared to those watching it (citizens), nonetheless the blurring occurs for politicians as well. For all of us, and in the terms Canetti argues, we tend to find our notion of political victory in taking down the other side’s standard-bearer (the Queen, the President) rather than those comprising its command structure and even less its patrons.

I don’t pretend no one notices this; the most salient point comes up in how easily or readily we can become distracted from remembering this.

However, Canetti’s description might have proven anachronistic even for Machiavelli’s era; certainly even Machiavelli at his most succinct identified more than 23 pages[3] to characterize the elements of power. Canetti, as seemingly more of a disappointed idealist than a cynic—or perhaps simply as a narcissist—doesn’t consider (for instance) how to put a false face on for the sake of fake alliance with someone one intends to kill or betray later. The Khmer people have  word to describe this false smile of seeming friendship (or at least non-hostility), whether the one smiling carries off the duplicity of it or not: sneng.

But away from a cynical reading of power, Canetti admits nothing of fairness, cooperation, recognition, or empathy as values a leader might use (not just abuse) to get things done. Since Canetti’s notion of a leader and a psychopath stand essentially identical, it might come as no surprise that he (Canetti) doesn’t consider even autocratic applications of power except in their most bloodthirsty and entitled  senses. His vision of power seems limited to someone like Genghis Khan, though I suspect that the historical Genghis Khan would have found Canetti’s enumeration of the elements of power (force, speed, secrecy, interrogation, the power of pardon and mercy) insufficient. Where does one find coalition building in this, for instance, even of the sort practiced by that most adroit of maneuverers Otto von Bismarck. Instead, we Canetti’s text provides us with anecdotes about ancient Chinese emperors and dubious analogies with the animal world.

The fantasy of power depicted in the text has little to offer beyond that badly drawn figure from biblical myth (sometimes transliterated as) Jehovah: arbitrary, unchecked, limitless, and essentially unchallenged, all-knowing through torture and interrogation, all-self-pitying and paranoid since everyone, apparently, vie to get Him, so secretive and hidden (even from himself) as not to exist, and arrogating to himself the ultimate in condemnation, erratic patterns of pardon, and pseudo-mercy &c.

The deluded sense of adequacy that Canetti’s text belies in taking Jehovah in the foreground or the background of its argument as a paradigm notwithstanding, we needn’t lose sight of the fact that such a fantasy—to whatever degree the text subscribes to it—struck some people as positively desirable and worthy of passing off as scripture. In the biblical book of Job we may find (perhaps an atheist’s) thoroughgoing confrontation with the premise of such a deity as depicted in the Torah and Christian Old Testament, but this gives us no reason to believe that we would find any sort of quailing before the Almighty such as Job exhibits in any cultist of Ezra or Nehemiah after the Babylonian destruction of the Northern Kingdom in his (or their) elevation of a putative volcano god not simply to the point of a henotheistic claim as head of some pantheon but rather to the point of an intolerant monotheistic claim as the only real deity anywhere.  Someone not just described, but actually wanted, that image of power.

In their revisitation of earlier fieldwork done by anthropologist Margaret Mead and her husband Reo fortune on gender identity, Errington and Gewertz (1987)[4] specifically describe male politicking in terms of bluff and confrontation. This describes Jehovah’s revisionist fantasists—those men who imaged their own bluff and confrontation in intolerantly monotheistic form—as well as the point of view embodied in Canetti’s text, which reprises and exhibits the traits of bluff and confrontation in a more bookish or literary mode. We neither have to go on a fishing expedition to speculate why one might sign up for this sort of thing—why it might have  positive psychological appeal, I mean[5]—nor adduce proofs with respect to the outright lying, come-hell-or-high-water dogmatism in the face of contrary facts, bogus scholarship, and the like woven either into the biblical myth of Jehovah or into the bluff and confrontation of the cultists of Ezra or Nehemiah themselves; Canetti’s text gives enough evidence of this stuff already to make the point. Doubtless Canetti and the cultists had their reasons for such resorts, perhaps as survivors (in Canetti’s narcissistic usage of the word), but for this summary we may simply see in the composition of Canetti’s text  the elements of power Canetti’s exposition fails to mention.

To frame what follows, later I write:

At this point, it seems clear that whatever further detail I might pull out of Canetti’s narrative as a mirror of his text about narcissistic leaders (i.e., power) in general, this would only add ornamentation to the limited, limiting, and unnecessary generalization it proposes for all leaders (i.e., power in general).

In other words, Canetti’s narrative insists on a narrow vision of power that not only fails to invite but seems actively to close off consideration of any further (and actual) elements of power. For the purpose of this summary then, my focus shifts from on the one hand any attempt to offer (from my own perspective, since Canetti does not) an enumeration of actually prevailing elements of power and/or to contextualize what elements Canetti does list (when they actually seem relevant as elements of power) to on the other hand a textual examination of how Canetti’s narrative embodies and reflects his assertions about the nature of power.[6]

We may take bluff and confrontation per Errington and Gewertz (1987) as comprising two of these elements of power (as Canetti narrativizes it). Insofar as a part of the sociopath’s[7] practice of power can involve the control of the flow of information, Canetti cites a few sociopathic leaders who went out of their way to keep their “subjects” on their toes. Drawing as he does on Roman examples, one would think Tiberius cuts a more adroit and extensive manipulator of information toward the end of maintaining his imperial status for as long as he did compared to the example Canetti cites.[8] The text does describe one aristocrat who so excelled at being contrary, i.e., manipulating information, that Canetti (wittily) describes him as perhaps trying to keep secrets even from himself—a perhaps unfortunately neurotic example.

In part because I read Todorov ‘s(1984)[9] Conquest of America during the same period as Canetti’s “Elements of Power,” Todorov’s far more entailed and insightful investigation into the byways of the cliché “knowledge is power” threw the inadequacy of Canetti’s characterizations into an even starker relief. We overread Canetti’s narrative, I say, to turn what little he suggests about “bluff” (without even naming it as such) into a reflection of those details properly associated with understanding how knowledge and power intersect—this, most of all in the fact that Todorov examines actual epistemologies for generating knowledge whereas Canetti’s narrative merely repeats anecdotes from history about (supposedly) adroit knowledge-generators.[10] In a similar way, “confrontation” may appear in Canetti’s examples, if only because it often represents simply another mode of bluff, whether as a riposte to bluffing by someone else or as a Plan B when one’s bluff fails to go off, &c.  Only human imagination limits the possible variations here.

Canetti’s narrative itself exhibits “bluff” when it reflects misquotations or cherry-picked quotations from sources, at times without noting these as citations.[11] These constitute bluffs to the extent that they seemed premised on the assumption that no one would ever fact-check the claims or compare them against the original.[12] That Canetti’s text reflects a particular variety of literary bluff does not exactly propose a new element of power, although the significance of bluffing in text rather than in person does matter.[13] Similarly, the text displays “confrontation” in a feature of it favorably cited by Canetti’s fans: that the text “aims” to prove nothing but simply leaves an intellectual turd in your lap—the phrasing is mine here, not Canetti’s fan’s—and then attempts to remove the author from any responsibility for that act or for the demand for his participation—his requirement of doing the intellectual work—in determining of the worth of the turd. When confronted about an inept example left in Adorno’s (1972)[14] lap, for instance, Canetti simply ignored Adorno’s material objections and proceeded to give a second, equally inept example.  Canetti deploys this habit systematically in his text.

In characterizing the elements of power as force, speed, interrogation, and juridical license (whether as condemnation or mercy), Canetti’s narrative continuously and curiously underscores only forms of behavior. With interrogation this skirts the “knowledge is power” theme, but the force with which the narrative “attacks” the topic and the speed with which it “seizes” and then “drops” it points self-reflexively more toward to the description of power offered by the narrative as a behavior rather than any knowledge of the generative knowledge behind that behavior. Thus, just as the examples Canetti picks for his account of power come from those who get little held to account, his narrative similarly “acts” as if no one will or can hold it to account as well.

This affinity between example (the example’s Canetti selects to illustrate his point) and the narrative his method creates also creates the sense, seemingly against Canetti’s intentions, that he approves of this power in this sense. Thus, just as the sociopathic ruler deals fast and loose with his subjects, so Canetti’s narrative deals fast and loose with his subjects. Canetti’s narrative appears to suggest that we should take the method and aspiration of the French writer Stendhal, of which Reiss (2004)[15] writes, “of all writers it is only Stendhal whom [Canetti] both loved and envied (73),[16] as the “out” from this problematic sense of support for such a view of power. Canetti’s description of the man and his method makes Stendhal seem rather like an assimilated sociopath, but at least he (Stendhal) offers an alternative, in Canetti’s estimation, to the undesirable rigors of power practiced by (all) sociopathic and narcissistic leaders.

At this point, it seems clear that whatever further detail I might pull out of Canetti’s narrative as a mirror of his text about narcissistic leaders (i.e., power) in general, this would only add ornamentation to the limited, limiting, and unnecessary generalization it proposes for all leaders (i.e., power in general).  So I have little reason to continue down this path.

Whether one meets the clinical criteria for sociopathy or only acts like a sociopath, the sociopath’s (or survivor’s) thesis, “I have suffered, so I’ll treat you like shit” warrants a short social tether, if any at all—or perhaps, in Pink Floyd’s words, the provision of “a little place of their own” (read here or see here).

I don’t mean this to sound snarky: somewhere where someone might get such poison out of their system without inflicting it on others seems needed; there used to be rooms in houses, called growleries, where one could go an vent one’s frustrations, so this offers neither a brand-new proposal  nor a new discovering of a new problem. The biblical narrative, both the Christian and Jewish portion, make heroes of people who survived utter calamities, and then decided they were among the elect; consequently, they begin behaving badly toward other people around them—even Jesus, in his violent return of the repressed as he turns from the Lamb to a destroyer in the book of Revelations. This kind of response to disaster gets on the news every time a “natural’ disaster strikes—a camera or microphone allows someone to state on air their thanks to god that they were spared, as if those who died in the event were unblessed or, worse, deserved it.

Most people who experience such catastrophic losses simply on a statistical basis will have little social power, but people like Abraham, Lot’s daughters, Moses, Esau, Paul of Damascus, Noah, (the historical) Josephus that Canetti cites, even Jesus—these all constitute people already well-heeled people and in the limelight—or, as fictional creations, their narratives grant them that kind of prestige or celebrity—so that the extent of disaster they can inflict or that someone may inflict in their name out of a bogus sense of election in the face of disaster can have (and tends to have) far greater reach.[17]

The emphasis on “in their name” requires specific emphasis, as Klein’s (2007)[18] Shock Doctrine makes explicit. The biblical narrative (and others like it) shows how survivors of disasters survived because they possess divinely apportioned destinies, which then provides the justification for anything they do, whether the first genocide of Canaan by Joshua or the second genocide of every country by Joshua II (Jesus) in the book of Revelations. Whatever Abram’s actual state of mind in the face of his disaster, he affords an occasion (for other descendants of those who experienced the disaster of exile first-hand) for inflicting apocalypse on other people, specifically the people of Canaan both historically and currently.

Thus, Klein’s (2007) book makes clear how disasters afford opportunities for imposing unpalatable or reprehensible courses of action on a populace at large both for the allies and enemies of the perpetrator. Thus, the acts undertaken in the name of dealing with whatever disaster has occurred—for “us” in the United States, we may count the various suspensions of civil liberties and violations of privacy following 9/11, while for “them” we should not ignore the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—the former on only the slimmest of possible pretexts, the latter on outright lying, bogus scholarship, and come-hell-or-high-water dogmatism in the face of facts to the contrary; all of this shows the actual harvest involved in the sociopath’s premise, “We have suffered, so we’re going to treat you like shit.”

Thus, the most glaring and obvious absence from Canetti’s limiting, limited, and unnecessary survey of the elements of the power emerges in the imperative element: “write it down”.[19] It appears that a lie at least these days means something more in print. I don’t mean simply that it has more permanence and thus perhaps more reach for that reason, but that writing it down adds a measure of authority that speaking a lie less frequently has. The dubious figure and so-called father[20] of public relations Edward Louis Bernays apparently expressed astonishment that his own work formed a principal element in Goebbels’ library of propaganda, but the history of intolerant monotheist scripture—or, more broadly, the transformation from a spoken form of mythological tradition to a written one—might have already made unambiguously clear that things change when they get embodied in media.[21]


[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] Borges in his (1963)* Ficciones argues (persuasively) about the undue and unnecessary overelaboration of a notion that one might sufficiently embody in a few pages. The key word in his description: “sufficiently,” which characterizes the primary lack in Canetti’s exposition here of the “elements of power”. But on the flip-side of this, a dominant or ideological insistence on brevity, i.e., “brevity is the soul of wit,” assumes that one may embody a sufficiency or an adequacy (of a discussion of an idea) in a brief amount of words. One may certainly find little economy of words in Burton’s (1621)** Anatomy of Melancholy, which runs some 1.5 thousand words; in Jung’s writings, by contrast to a certain degree, he stays more thematically focused but does not stint on verbiage while laying out his arguments. (In point of fact, a distinction with Burton shows in how long he stays on a point in contrast to Jung who will move on to his next point generally or of an argument more quickly.) If we take the sense of “brevity is the soul of wit”—we may as well remember, as we do, that this phrase gets uttered by a dubious fool (Polonius) in Shakespeare’s Hamlet—then this suggests something like “There’s no briefer way of expressing a thought … making further explanation redundant” (borrowed from here). But let’s get the whole of Polonius’ remark here, which runs: “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief: your son is mad:” (Act II, scene 2, see here). We may ask if the phrase “and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes” amounts to brevity or tediousness, however Shakespeare has clearly engineered one of the classic forms of wit: the long-winded preface followed by a blunt, punchy summary. When delivered between two as a dialogue, we have the long, rambling description, interrupted by the other person saying something to the effect, “What are you saying?” And the reply, “We’re screwed”. In this case, the wit hinges precisely on the wrong proportion between the lead-up and the summary. Huxley’s (1932)*** Brave New World has a few moments of such wit, such as:

“The lower the caste,” said Mr. Foster, “the shorter the oxygen [to the fetuses].” The first organ affected was the brain. After that the skeleton. At seventy percent of normal oxygen you got dwarfs. At less than seventy eyeless monsters.

“Which are no use at all,” concluded Mr. Foster.

Whereas (his voice became confidential and eager), if they could discover a technique for shortening the period of maturation what a triumph, what a benefaction to Society!

“Consider the horse.”

They considered it (13, emphasis added).

I would especially recommend the phrase “you got dwarfs” as exemplary in this respect, but “consider this horse / they considered it” stands as excellent as well, obviously.

Brevity, adhered to militantly, would delete the 1.5 lines of Polonius’ speech that run “and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes / I will be brief”. We would have, “since brevity is the soul of wit: your son is mad”. Even here still, however, the preface “brevity is the soul of wit” functions gratuitously in terms of the necessary information Polonius means to convey to the king and queen. But then, of course, we’d have no wit. Nonetheless, while “since brevity is the soul of wit: your son is mad” has punch, has emotional impact in its very bluntness, I think we’d find it harder to call this ‘wit” (whatever we define “wit” as). [Additionally, since this phrase occurs in a drama, the fat that Polonius would resort to “wit” when informing a mother and father, much less a king and queen, that their son has gone mad, creates its own set of problems for someone trying to parse the scene.] With the fully expanded line, “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of with / and tediousness its limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief: your son is mad” still carries the emotional impact of the shortened line but surely inserts an element of wit. Moreover, the problem of “why would Polonius be witty when reporting this terrible development to Claudius and Gertrude?” gets its answer as well. The rest of Polonius’ speech here runs, “Mad call I it; for, to define true madness, what is’t but to be nothing else but mad? But let that go.” In case one misses Shakespeare’s gist, he has Gertrude reply to this, “more matter, with less art.” And Polonius then insists, “Madam, I swear I use no art at all.” Referring to the Queen as “Madam” certain demonstrates he uses no art in the sense of “intelligence” at all. But his definition of madness has made this clear as well, since true madness is to be nothing else but mad. More briefly, Shakespeare’s writes Polonius as an arch-babbler—he knows all the platitudes “brevity is the soul of wit” but amounts to a living exemplar otherwise.

This, to my mind, appears most notoriously in Polonius’ most notoriously repeated platitude, “But this above all: to thine ownself be true” (Act I, scene 3, see here). This ostensible summary comes after a whole litany of directions to betrays one’s ownself, and thus to repeat Polonius on this point amounts to inadvertently accruing to oneself his own incognizant lack of self-awareness. Now, a broken clock gets the time right twice per day—whether this moment for Polonius represents a case of that remains open to debate; it certainly represents a piece of advice that resonates agreeably with “our times”. But this same quality of foolishness in this speech of Polonius informs “brevity is the soul of wit” in the other. Does this amount to his broken clock getting it right again or should we reject the foolishness of the saying from a fool? At a minimum, if brevity is the soul of wit, Polonius lacks wit—Shakespeare makes that abundantly clear. His tediousness comes from an excess of focus on the limbs and outward flourishes—the clichés—of wisdom without appreciating the “soul” (or inner meaning) of those clichés, two of which we cannot ignore considering as outward clichés in “and this above all: to thine ownself be true” or “brevity is the soul of wit”. In both of these cases, Polonius assumes a mechanical efficacy to these clichés, and even says so in the former: “this above all: to thine ownself be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” (Act I, scene 3). Certainly, merely to mechanical repeat verbal formulas will earn you getting run through behind an arras (as it were); merely to be brief for the sake of brevity will not achieve wit; and merely above all being true to one’s ownself will not guarantee against acting falsely to everyone. On those occasion when we mechanically reproduced these verbal gestures and platitudes, we got dwarfs.

Brevity (as a soul of wit) will never amount to a word count; it may take 800 pages to describe sufficiently a given idea, especially when that idea amounts to a personal or human experience—thus fiction may run on at great length. Thus, in his mere shibboleths—I call them shibboleths (“A common or longstanding belief, custom, or catchphrase associated with a particular group, especially one with little current meaning or truth”—see here) rather than platitudes because, while expressing commonplaces they have not entered into public usage in the verbally ossified way a platitude or cliché has—Canetti offers Polonius-like phrases, mechanical reproductions of outward limbs and gestures of at times observable cultural phenomena but missing entirely the “soul” or social meaning of those phenomena. By “social meaning” (or “soul”), this may unfortunately suggest some kind of metaphysical and mysterious sense proposed as “behind” these phenomena. To the extent that all explanation proposes and rests on some kind of metaphysics, this points to where a discernible sense of metaphysical overtone arises that I point to. But more simply, to miss the “social meaning” (or “soul”) of observable phenomena means nothing more an nothing less than to abrogate the necessary responsibility of the intellectual: those “who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world” (Suttner, 2005, 130).**** Merely to report “this happened” (never mind perhaps centuries in the past) or, worse still, to offer some metaphor (“man is a wolf”) without further doing sufficient work “to transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position into a coherent account of the world” represents one of the worst moral failings humans may do. To the extent that allowing the rich to persist in and act upon the belief that they owe no one else except who they designate anything perpetuates an essential injustice in the world, so does allowing the intelligent to persist in and act upon the belief that they owe no one else except who they designate any benefit from their ability to transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world.

*Borges, JL. (1963). Ficciones (trans. A Kerrigan). 1st Evergreen ed. New York: Grove Press.

**Burton, R., Jackson, H, and Gass, WH (2001). The anatomy of melancholy, what it is: with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, and several cures of it. in three maine partitions with their several sections, members, and subsections. philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up. New York: New York Review of Books.

***Huxley, A. (1998). Brave new world. 1st Perennial Classics ed. New York: Perennial Classics.

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

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

[5] The psychologists who invented narcissistic personality disorder contentedly assert a massive interior inferiority complex which all the bluff and confrontation supposedly compensates for, but that seems too pat to me. Someone might find it emotionally satisfying to display superiority over people like serial killers Ted Bundy or the Night Stalker (Richard Ramirez) as, deep down, merely and only loathing themselves as one giant nothing, but that doesn’t seem too consistent with the fellows.

[6] As an interpretative framework for examining Canetti’s narrative, I do not propose to have “discovered” the secret or inadvertent geography of his text; right or wrong have no place for grounding in this (or other similar) kinds of endeavors. But the demonstration also does not devolve to the merely snarky or psychological. Canetti’s narrative does not represent a merely subjective embodiment of his point of view and the resorts of his narrative do not arise merely from his own psychology, whether neurotic, healthy, or otherwise. It certainly seems ironic, if Canetti desires to take a stand in opposition to power, that he resorts not simply to many of its main tropes but specifically to the most antique varieties of its main tropes so that his narrative seems anachronistic to the point of reactionary—or reactionary to the point of anachronism. In any case, my analysis serves a larger purpose than merely to “defame” Canetti and reading it as such asserts aggressively a deliberate misreading of my text, which one would do well to examine why you wish to misread this that way.

[7] I use the word “sociopath” to bring out the sense that Canetti ascribes to the “survivor”; narcissist would do just as well and I think one could sell him on the term or that he at least would not object to it.

[8] This involves one particular parlor-trick evening Domitian put on display for his (unfortunate) guests. But simply as spectacles go, one would with more justice point to the use (and abuse) of the Circus and the Roman games that emperors resorted to as specific feints in the power game. Between the misinformation of Tiberius and the spectacle of the Roman games, Canetti’s narrative does not simply conflate but confuses the misinformation and spectacle of Domitian’s evening, thus losing the heuristic benefit of either concept (misinformation and spectacle) vis-à-vis Canetti’s narrative.

[9] Todorov, T. (1998). The conquest of America: the question of the other (trans. Richard Howard). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, i–xiii, 1–274.

[10] Canetti often provides an extensive quotation—however mangled from the original—and then appends a paraphrase; within that paraphrase, one may find some analysis, but always in a smaller proportion than the paraphrase. This often creates an impression (in me) leaving me wondering why he presents the original at all, when its granularity and particularity seems so disregarded either in the paraphrase and the even slighter analysis. His cavalier treatment of the original text—misquoting, editing out portions that stand not simply as irrelevant to the point he wishes to make but often that contradict the point he wishes to make—adds to this sense of irrelevance. Canetti’s fans insist he has no ax to grind—he simply presents an observation and leaves it to you to decide its truth or merit—but his cherry-picking of examples, itself an excusable gesture sine the world of texts confronts us with far too many to address with in toto, revels a concerted selectivity to make only certain kinds of points. Were one not to consult the original passages he bowdlerizes, this might not seem to obvious.

[11] Plagiarism, of course, represents a kind of intellectual bluff, on the premise that no one will check the source of a claim. I remember again, as quoted in note 14 below, what Goethe wrote on a letter about Stendhal—the only writer whom Canetti “both loved and envied” (Reiss, 2004, 73)—“’he knows very well how to use what one reports to him, and, above all, he knows well how to appropriate foreign works. He translates passages from my Italian Journey and claims to have heard the anecdote recounted by a marchesina’” (from here).

But let me add, the anal retentiveness of the copyright era does not color my remarks here about plagiarism. I do not count it a grievous sin, on the author of Eliot, who insisted that good poets borrow while great poets steal. Milton in Paradise Lost aspires partly—so says Frye (1957) in Anatomy of Criticism, if memory serves—to plagiarize (i.e., import into itself) as much of the New Testament as he can. Many, if not most, of the greatest haiku in the Japanese language achieve their greatness exactly and by intention in minute, almost negligible, changes to previously acknowledged monuments of haiku. Mathematically, this amounts to accepting as a new manifestation of genius and only 5% modification to previous work—a grossly inadequate amount of “original work” by the edicts of contemporary plagiarism-horror. Bloom’s (1973)* Anxiety of Influence makes this plagiarism-horror into a constituent element of modern literature (poetry specifically), where his epithet of “strong poet” he applies only to those new poets who have successfully sublimated (i.e., hidden) the 95% of previous originality they responded to when offering their own 5%.

So whatever objection to plagiarism I seem to register here does not arise from a preciousness about attribution, even as I overzealously delight in citing my sources as best I remember at length and in detail, and even less in any sort of silliness about “stealing” from the work of others, but rather to the misprision involved in how Canetti plagiarizes. In a work of fiction, except that one plays a social power game of attacking real people under the plausible deniability of fiction—a gesture, for example, so evident in Bulgakov’s (~1937)** The Master and Margarita that it distorts my ability to enjoy what I do admire about that book—the brash utilization of an idea, however decontextualized from its original, constitutes a major and usually unobjectionable part of the intellectual project of trying in art to give a coherent meaning to the experience of life. But such convenient misappropriation and misprision in a nonfictional setting has ethical consequences that usually get tagged as agenda-driven, ideological, or dogmatic. The conceit of nonfictional work, still as a form of intellectual work, involves providing a coherent vision of the world. Obviously, nothing in this statement suggests that that vision must be humanistic, that it cannot serve the powers that Be, &c. Nor that only bad-intentioned people will misappropriate arguments or data for only viciously anti-human programs.

In Canetti’s present case, however, he himself in this specific case under consideration misappropriates and misinterprets data to create an (as yet nonetheless incoherent) vision of the world that reflects the same kind of “dehumanization” that Lévi-Strauss accepted as a valid description by Ricoeur, 1973 of his structuralist agenda, as Pettit (1975)**** demonstrates. Whatever the reason for this, in Lévi-Strauss as in Canetti, we may reject this dogmatic misappropriation of other work—in Lévi-Strauss’ case, Jakobson’s phonology, which itself takes its cues from Saussure’s linguistics in the first place—as undesirable.

* Bloom, H. (1973). The anxiety of influence: a theory of poetry. New York: Oxford University Press.

** Bulgakov, M. (1997). The master and Margarita (trans. R. Pevear & L. Volokhonsky). London: Penguin.

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

[12] More than once, I have wondered if the Nobel prize committee for Literature actually read crowds and Power.

[13] One could impute a kind of cowardice in one sense or brazen audacity on the other: the former because the one bluffing won’t find himself confronted (in the text at least) and so may attempt to evade responsibility for it; the latter because by committing the bluff to paper it has far less reversibility than when one plays a bluff-gambit in person and it blows up. One can get out of such a blow up in person (sometimes) by a grinning, “I was joking”; not so with misleadingly presenting a text in the wrong light. Of course, the “I was joking” card may work for texts as well, if one finds oneself dragged before the Inquisition or a Soviet review board. Bakhtin (1984)* notes how Rabelais asserted the most outrageous blasphemies in print at a time when people were burned at the stake, but lived to die peacefully in old age—in part, one must admit, thanks to political connections. By contrast, “Rabelais’ friend, Etienne Dolet perished at the stake because of his statements, which although less damning had been seriously made. He did not use Rabelais’ methods” (269)—and also perhaps not his connections. However, at the point that one stands before the Inquisition, Soviet review board, or one’s CIA interrogators, the milieu obviously has shifted from in-print to in-person. How these bluffs play out in-print or in-person, in any case, involve and pleasantly bewildering amount of variety.

*Bakhtin, M (1984). Rabelais and his world (trans. Hélène Iswolsky). Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

[14] 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.

[15] 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.

[16] From Wikipedia: “If the plagiarisms of Stendhal are legion, many are virtually translations: that is, cross-border plagiarism. Maurevert reports that Goethe, commenting enthusiastically on Stendhal’s Rome, Naples et Florence, notes in a letter to a friend: ‘he knows very well how to use what one reports to him, and, above all, he knows well how to appropriate foreign works. He translates passages from my Italian Journey and claims to have heard the anecdote recounted by a marchesina’” (from here).

[17] Canetti himself came from a distinguished family, however down at its heels by the time his father, who owned a major manufacturing firm, died when Canetti was still young.

[18] Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt.

[19] Todorov would rightly connect this to the “knowledge is power” axis again, examining the value and variable of polemical lying. I’d venture Canetti neglected to mention this because it didn’t occur to him, though one might more delight in the idea that he daren’t not bring it up, because one could hardly ignore his vocation as a writer.

[20] One may note how often certain kinds of intellectuals get named ‘fathers” of various disciplines: Émile Durkheim (“the father of sociology”), Claude Lévi-Strauss (“the father of modern anthropology”; more accurately, “father of structuralism”), Franz Boaz (“the father of American anthropology”)—one may wonder if this does not propose two fathers for anthropology in the twentieth century—Sigmund Freud (“the founding father of psychoanalysis”), and so forth. The necessity of adding adjectives to allow multiple fathers should not get overlooked, i.e., the distinction between the father of American anthropology and modern anthropology. This makes for some comedy for Ferdinand Saussure (“one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics” and “one of two major fathers [together with Charles Sanders Peirce] of semiotics”). I realize, of course, the metaphorical intent of such language but that doesn’t negate the silly sounding quality of “one of two major fathers”—especially as this proposes a potential host of minor fathers as well, in some duck-like variety of gang-rape on some intellectual mater. Excuse me if that seems gross; claiming fatherhood while denying motherhood seems still grosser to me.

Because when encountering the resort to this kind of social discourse about disciplinary fathers, we will seek in vain for any acknowledgement of, much less any identity for, the mothers of these disciplines. Since James George Frazer also “is often considered one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology,” we have to wonder at the (sublimated) non-masculinity involved in this—I mean that while single woman may beget multiple offspring (disciplines), multiple fathers never contribute to any one single offspring. Shared paternity, rather, more frequently involves issues one encounters on Jerry Springer. I must also note that founding father status needn’t always be ascribed; for Karl Marx, his “work in economics laid the basis for the current understanding of labor and its relation to capital, and has influenced much of subsequent economic thought” and for Carl Jung, “His work has been influential in psychiatry and in the study of religion, literature, and related fields.” This denial of paternity, but only contribution, subtly denigrates their work—or, perhaps more accurately, the “bluff” of calling something a father aims to enhance the luster of a given disciplinary field. And since, to no small extent, one may deem the putatively scientific conceits in twentieth-century linguistics, sociology, psychoanalysis, and structuralism as fundamentally erroneous if not deluded endeavors—ones that supposedly replace or offer an alternative to Marx’s political economy, Jung’s development of psychology (that of course grew in part out of a rejection of Freud’s approach), Boaz’s “American” anthropology as an expression of Las Casas’ considerably older anthropology of the Americas, and, in linguistics, the wholesale replacement of philology, a discipline so well-established in human practice that it has no father whatsoever.

[21] Sometimes, when examining atrocities, commentators marvel that the heinous butchers of history bothered to note and keep archives of their atrocities. On the one hand, such documentation merely provides a trace of the activity at the time of its occurrence; no one assumed that such a “good thing” would ever end. Certainly various sociopaths at Wall Street—or J. Edgar Hoover when he left the FBI—understand the necessity of shredding all the evidence. But some don’t, even when they have the time and opportunity to do so. Taking these details into account, we may also point out how writing it down offers a crucial element in the practice of power—that, even apart from the mere logistics and pragmatics involved in the accomplishment of such atrocities, (simply) to leverage the ongoing activity (if not the consent) of those asked to commit those atrocities may depend entirely on the physical, written evidence of the thing, as a command, as a record of the thing done, and thus, underneath all of that, the final legitimating authority for both.


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