CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 8. The Command (The Domestication of the Command, The Recoil. The Anxiety of Command)

16 June 2013


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).


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