CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 9. Transformation (The Figure and the Mask, the Power of Unmasking)

5 August 2013

Abstract

Canetti writes, “Whether raising men up or abasing them he determines their place; no-one must dare to move on his own” (378). This very amply describes Canetti’s grotesque habit of overgeneralization; “he dislikes all transformations in others which he has not enforced on them himself” (378). Here we have unintentional self-diagnosis.

One thing I may say about Canetti’s text, then: it partially succeeds in describing a certain kind of self-pitying discourse that power carries on with itself (usually solipsistically), all the while resorting almost exclusively to the kinds of tropes that that self-pitying discourse of power employs.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the fifty-second entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1] and the third to address Part 9 (Transformation), which Canetti breaks up into several sections.  Here I address sections 6–7, “The Figure and the Mask, the Power of Unmasking. ” [2]

The Figure and the Mask

Canetti begins by starting anew again, introducing the notion of the figure as that “which is not susceptible of further transformation and which manifests itself only after transformation has been completed” (373). However this might generalize or not, the points to the figures of Egyptian mythology—the lion-headed Sekhmet, the jackal-headed Anubis, &c. He refers to the “clear, immutable” (373) shape of these figures.[3] My footnote quibbles with this, but we may simply say that, between gradual transformation on the one hand and enduring stability on the other, Canetti emphasizes the stable aspect of figures in his exposition, albeit too exclusively.

However, he also attempts to misname traditions elsewhere to support his contention.[4] Specifically, he claims that the totems of the people of aboriginal tribes in Australia were hybrid man/animal forms. If Canetti adduces this from Spencer and Gillen (1904)[5] (bearing in mind that I’ve not read everything by them) then by my reading of that text I can specifically reply that he errs.[6] What most stands out in the transcribed totem narratives in Spencer and Gillen precisely involves the indeterminate ambiguity of totemic ancestors. The original totemic ancestor wanders the countryside, begetting spirit-children (the spiritual ancestors of current humans) and totem life-forms (animal, vegetable, mineral, or the abstractions of the Old Man or Laughing Boy), so that the distinction as it points to a metaphysical entity in the life of actual people remains clear enough; moreover, most of the tribes Spencer and Gillen observe describe people as having two souls, which we might designate as animal and non-animal.

But in the totem narratives themselves, one cannot tell in a verbal description if one “sees” (say) a kangaroo, a human being (identified with the kangaroo totem) or something else. Like the nose in Gogol’s famous story, a massive percentage of the story’s effectiveness derives from the ambiguity in sentences like, “the nose got out of the carriage and went into a church to pray.” What did I just “see?” Similarly, when Unkurta (a lizard totem ancestor) lays down to sleep and wakes up with a copy of himself lying beside him, what do we “see” two of? The very desire to make it either/or may rune exactly contrary to the whole (surreal or numinous or symbolic) quality of the totem figure as these tribes maintain it. Lévy-Bruhl foreswore, at the end of his life, his sharp, racist distinction of participation mystique as an essential irrationalism always present in “primitive thinking,” but his acknowledgment of the capacity of “primitives” to rail against insuperable contradictions just as ferociously as “non-primitive” people does not mean we must then throw out the (literary, narrative) experience of the sort of surrealism (numinousness, symbolism) captured by Gogol or Warramunga storytellers.

In any case, the aboriginal aesthetic sense Spencer and Gillen record notably almost never features anything “realistically” representative—no images of koalas, &c. Maybe in this insistence, Spencer and Gillen have some secret (or open) agenda to deny a kind of cultural attainment to aboriginal tribes, but I see in the articulation of symbolic or geometrical forms—in place of facile attempts at “photorealism” or “representation”—more “creativity” than, say, the cave painters of Lascaux, if we must insist on such comparisons.[7] More precisely, I do not recall anything in aboriginal aesthetic decoration—on implements or in ground painting, &c—that depicted or embodied the man/animal hybridization that Canetti emphasizes in Egyptian iconography. Critically, then, the aboriginal data offers a refutation of Canetti’s notion of figure, rather than additional conformation of it.

Canetti tries to get at this when he writes, “The figure which men cling to, which becomes a life-giving tradition enacted and spoken of over and over again, is not the abstraction of an animal species, not Kangaroo or Emu, but a kangaroo who is also a man, or a man who at will can become an emu” (374), and had he stopped before that last phrase (“or a man who at will can become an emu”), I might not have to say anything, but if Canetti means that last phrase as parallel to the one just before (“a kangaroo who is also  man”), then I see him as having gotten it wrong. The “man who can become an emu” (at will or not) oscillates between two distinct states, emu or man, while precisely such definitive and distinct states remain unavailable as a conclusion when encountering in a narrative a totem ancestor, in the original and spirit-child forms.[8] Thus, in the phrase “a kangaroo who is also a man,” we may see the presumption of these two distinct categories, animal and human, which Canetti imaginatively fuses in whatever way he has, whereas in the totemic narratives, the distinction does not get assumed in the first place. Thus, when Canetti stresses here how in illo tempus everything remained fluid and non-fixed, but then came the figure as something that set for all time the chaos or flux of events in a given representation, that, again, standards in marked contrast to aboriginal phenomenology so far as it even might get reconstructed.[9]

Where the totem serves as a stability involves its complicated network of relationships with other totems. If one possesses membership as a kangaroo, this entails a vast number of obligations, prohibitions, and relative zones of self-expression an innovation, but even in all of this the negotiations that go on (even within totems) regarding innovation in ritual behavior, &c, plays just as much of a role as any notion of fixed behaviors according to a given totem. Nothing suggests the figures of Anubis, &c., cannot or did not function at one time, ever, or always in a similar way.  Since this all emphasizes representations, not writing per se, the issue does not devolve only to what we gain or lose (in either direction) by fixing a human experience (of Anubis, of one’s totem) in writing as (arguably) distinct from representing that experience. More precisely, writing seems to introduce certain kinds of values and criteria to representation that seem to materially transform the function of the (previous) representation. However we carefully separate this, the difference at play between Egyptian figures (likely as “writing”) and Australian totems (as verbal representations) seems worth not losing sight of, and certainly not presuming an identity of, as Canetti has. This, despite the fact that he openly states, that the totem “is thus quite different from our modern conception of a figure. Originally it expressed both the process of transformation and its result” (374), but nevertheless continuously treats it in “his” “modern” terms anyway.

This matters, because Canetti insists on calling the aboriginal totem the prototype for the figure. He speaks of flux and change, and the eventual emergence of that one that gets fixed. It seems gratuitous to mention, but the aboriginal totem likely preceded and definitely outlasted the formal, imperial forms of classical Egyptian mythology, i.e., the “before” and “after” Canetti attempts to assert here remains historically incoherent as he presents it. Immediately one begins to feel the veer of racism—why did the aboriginal people never “get on” with things like the Egyptians (descended from the Ethiopians, as Césaire’s Discourse assures me) did with their “figures”? I say this to take nothing from the Ethiopians, of course; Canetti’s slander lands on non-African people this time, even as he seems galvanized and excited that this prototype embodies a “free figure” (374, emphasis in original).

Here we have again Canetti in a nutshell. He proposes these (inadvisable and) sharp distinctions—the notion of the figure as a fixing of an otherwise unnamed flux[10]—and then immediately tries to cram counter-examples into his Procrustean dichotomy, for the sake (in this case) of establishing a chronology. Originally, chaos prevailed; then civilization arose—first the “more primitive” Australians had their figure too, but a “free figure”—on that belies a bit of slushiness and sloshiness, not yet quite so etched in stone (literally) as the Egyptian figure. This appreciation for Egypt notwithstanding, it has a double-edged quality as well, and perhaps Canetti will address it soon, but since he hates civilization to begin with, this credit to the Egyptians counts as blame (i.e., may get taken as such), just as the judeochristian habit (Jewish and Gentile alike) of putting (some version of) the bible at the beginning of the world opens the Hebrew people to the charge of culpability for history (never mind that old slander of their participation in the assassination of the completely fictional Yeshua bin Yusuf, of course).[11] And so, in attempting to elaborate some chronology (aborigines first, Egyptians second, with their unfree figure, whatever gain or loss this meant for civilization), those forms have again since that time been superseded by others, placing both of these dark-skinned versions in an inferior light. This remains true even if Canetti dreams of returning to these good old days, though Césaire—as someone who does not occupy the place of a white European—vehemently and adamantly insists that such backwards nostalgia precisely deserves that term: backwards (regressive, reactionary).

In some civilizations the freedom of the face is largely restricted; it is thought improper to show pain and pleasure openly; a man shuts them away inside himself and his face remains calm. The real reason for this attitude is the desire for personal autonomy … A man is supposed to have the strength to stand alone and also the strength to remain himself” (375, emphasis added).

Even as a diagnosis of European culture, this arrogation by Canetti to declare what people’s real motivations consist of, apart from what they understand for themselves, marks one of the most insufferable aspects of Canetti’s exposition. As the Algerians and Martinicans (as well as countless others) know very well from their historical experience, one does not only hide one’s pleasure or pain out of a desire for personal autonomy. The colonialist has long since preempted personal autonomy, and one hides one’s sometimes  to avoid arrest, detainment, torture, i.e., the repercussions of an offended colonialism, or to avoid being dismissed in white late-order capitalism as uppity, a racist, too flamboyant, too political, too uncivilized (savage, barbaric), or simply angry.

He says a bunch of stuff about how the mask represents a conclusion, the final fixing of all transformations; “the thing it expresses cannot change” (375). Considering that standard practice in masked Japanese theater,[12] in part thanks to strategic lighting, precisely vary the expression on a mask, one can only point to the dogmatic insistence of Canetti’s statement, rather than its content.

Importantly, Canetti seems to believe the “counter-case” to this involves productions where one wears a second mask beneath the first. He seems to mean this metaphorically at first, but no; he means literally, and feels compelled to insist that this two-leveled mask circumstance does not undermine his (dogmatically insisted upon) point. Indeed, it does not, nor does it make the inanity of the initial assertion any less instance. One can hardly miss how he raises the theme of masks, but insists on caricaturing their theatrical (and religious) sue and significance by pretending to isolate them, even after he admits, “The real use of the mask is not in isolation, but in ceremonies [&c]” (376).[13] Besides whatever “symbolic” value a mask portends, by wearing it, the distraction that comes from seeing the (pretty) face of and actor gets removed from the stage, more or less. We might still remain distracted by the delightful play of the actor’s body, but costuming serves in a similar role as mask in that case. Masks may throw attention on other bodily movements, &c. Or may serve yet some other brilliant or stupid end as far as a human cultural endeavor concerns itself.

More generally, the mask—let’s remember, I claim no thoroughgoing theory of theory off the top of my head—represents a special case, and maybe not even that, of costume, which itself serves the end of bringing about the desired theatrical effect.[14] Or perhaps we could say the reverse—costume represents the general (or special) case of the mask. Either way. Either way, a statement like, the mask “threatens [the viewer] with the secret dammed up behind it” (376) has to get reckoned amongst the various pronouncements of someone desperate to make a kind of false case. We know that Canetti likes to keep secrets—he refused to answer questions put to him by a researcher (Reiss, 200), elsewhere makes a great deal about the necessity of keep secrets—especially in the domestic sphere, where one’s affairs might get subject to interrogation by one’s wife, Sod forbid!—and promises, at one point, if you penetrate a secret, you’re bound to get a nasty surprise; “anyone who comes near it is liable to receive an unpleasant surprise” (286).

Whatever all of this entails autobiographically for Canetti, its extrapolation into the truth-telling domain of theater (and masks) offers an especially ugly piece of lying propaganda that fundamentally slanders that domain. This sort of mindset informs:

One arrives in a country knowing nothing of the language and is surrounded by people talking. The less one understands the more one imagines; one attributes all sort of things to them, one suspects hostility and is incredulous, relieved and even a little disappointed when their words are translated into a familiar language (376).

Insisting of the mask that “part of the strength of its effect is due to the fact that it reveals nothing of what is behind it” (376)—this can only apply to certain kinds of masks, not all, especially since eyes are frequently visible, but Canetti also ignores entirely in favor of hyperbolic fearmongering the imaginative eros that can occupy audience members regarding who or what rests behind the mask, especially when we already know the actor, &c.[15] “The mask is perfect because it stands alone, leaving everything behind it in shadow” (376). “While it is in action it cannot be touched” (376) and to hazard doing so risks death; which reminds me the French king Louis IX, who took the porcupine as his emblem, along with the motto _.[16]

Even at the level of attempting to cut through the hyperbole to find the sense that Canetti rives at, it seems too overstated, too narrow, to salvage. The general picture Canetti wants to insist upon involves terror, power, domination, separation (of viewer and wearer), &c., and if this description of the mask has any applicability whatsoever—this by no means seems the case reading the full text by Canetti—it will apply only in a very limited or comparatively rare number of cases, one place being occasionally in the psychiatric ward maybe. And since a mask has two sides, Canetti turns his attention to the wearer next.

But listen. Lately I’ve become further dismayed by an apparent inability of people to recognize that how they say something comprises at least as much a part of what they say as what they say. For example, a white woman with a history of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of men (I got told later) posted an online video of someone doing an ASL (American Sign Language) rendition of a Chris Brown song. So far, no problem—or, more precisely, one may easily imagine the questions one might raise about the propriety or desirability of advancing Chris Brown’s social cache in this way, &c. But that did not prompt me to say anything; rather, she posted the video with the following text:[17] “I know Chris Brown is a turd, but this video is so awesome I don’t sore. Sory I’m not sorry.” I objected, sharply (to be sure), that something other than privilege and entitlement should get invoked to justify such  post, something other than “I don’t care” and “Sorry, I’m not sorry,” and the ensuing shitstorm of abuse lavished on me and the knee-jerk defenses of the original poster all completely reiterated that sense of privilege and entitlement. But at no point, it seemed, could anyone involved grasp that my point had nothing to do with the posting the video itself (a whole different critique gets called for for that) but that I emphasized the privilege and entitlement behind posting such a video, even though the poster herself admits when she posted it that it seemed in some sense problematic. (The way the video increases or decreases Chris Brown’s social cache, and what to do about that also forms a completely separate critique.) The whole thing amounts to the poster in effect declaring, “I know this is wrong, and I’m going to do it anyway, because I like this so much I don’t care what consequences it has on anybody else, even though I know it is, in some sense, wrong.” But apparently the flags of self-righteousness were wrapped too tightly to allow oxygen to the reflective part of the brain, ‘cus that got lost in the mix. Also lost in the mix—Christ Brown used his hands to beat Rihanna, and an ASL interpretation of his song needs his hands. If someone had raised how this transformation of abusive hands into artistic hands might get leveraged for the purposes of healing, or at least addressing, the issue of domestic violence, I’ve found that more socially responsible. But doing something you know is wrong just because you like it—seems to me that represents pretty much the very core of patriarchal abuse of power in the first place, which of course those of us lower in the hierarchy may take up to the degree that our own privilege allows (and our sense of entitlement tries to justify). Of insoluble human problems, immorality may prove one, but not hypocrisy; as such, to then use privilege and entitlement to marshal a gang of people to silence (or kill) those who call us out on our hypocrisy adds a third layer and moves into the domain of social violence per se. We see exactly this in much behavior of white people on the left and right (especially surrounding the wake of the Zimmerman verdict).

And this seems the lifeblood of Canetti’s exposition as well, by which I mean he completely arrogates to himself the tropes of abusive power even as he at least claims to, or gets claimed as doing by his admirers. No doubt, some Canetti lover will insist he stands opposed to this kind of use of the mask—that I just as wooden-headedly and stupidly misread his intention as I misread the poster’s intention in sharing the video—all the more so given that in the next section and also in the closing part of this section (below) he alludes to the fear of being unmasked. In the same way, the lover might attack me for stupidly failing to grasp his opposition to the survivor (the leader as malignant narcissist), especially as he offers at the end of his book what one of his admirer’s calls a piece of wishful thinking in “The End of the Survivor.”

Against the (white-originated) idea of fighting fire with fire we may oppose the (non-white originated) notion that we can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools (or that we may use the master’s tools, provided that we transform those tools and put them to a different, non-oppressive use). At a minimum, Canetti fully—whether deliberately or accidentally—embodies in writing all of the fire he denounces as fire. He dehumanizes we humans (as subjects) as surely as sexists dehumanize women, as surely as the overwhelmingly unspoken object that seems very much in the back of Canetti’s exposition, even as he seems sometimes at unnatural pains to keep it out of the picture. If one may take Marx as a handbook for predatory capitalism, Crowds and Power offers a (shoddily argued) justification for Palestinian genocide. Certainly Marx, and presumably Canetti, would deny this, and with Marx at least (as also Nietzsche and the third Reich), the idea that their work does not afford by design such a use has more plausibility, if only because neither Nietzsche or Marx took the practice of power as a central theme. Just as the inventor of the chair might have felt awful to learn the invention had been turned to a murderous purpose by someone, the ex-post-facto grief by those who invented the atomic bomb seems rather grotesque and inexcusable in a way; Bernays’ being “shocked” that Goebbels had  copy of one of his books in his propaganda library falls into a similar grotesque.[18] One’s work may wind up put to unforeseen ends, but when you set out to describe how to deceive and manipulate people, how to instantaneously reduce them to ash, or assert that one has no alternative to power except to victimize others, then all that clutching at pearls and protests otherwise ring hollow, hollow, hollow.

With that in mind, loathe as I feel to quote at length, a summary or paraphrase will not, of course, capture the impression made by Canetti’s distorted fantasia on life behind the mask:

The mask is something put on, something external. As  physical object it remains quite distinct from the man who wears it. He feels it on him as something foreign, something which never wholly becomes part of himself; it hinders and constricts him. As long as he wears it he is two things, himself and the mask. The more often he has worn it and the better he knows it, the more of himself will flow into the figure it represents. But there is always one part of which necessarily remains separate from it: the part that fears discovery, the part which knows that the terror he spreads is not his due. The secret he represents to those who see the mask from outside must also have an effect on himself inside it, but it clearly cannot be the same effect. They are afraid of the unknown; he is afraid of being unmasked. It is this fear which prevents him abandoning himself completely to the mask. His transformation an go a very long way, but it is never complete. The mask is a limit set to transformation. Because it can be torn away, its wearer is bound to fear for it. He must take care that he does not lose it; it must never be dropped and must never open. He feels every kind of anxiety about what may happen to it. Besides playing a part in his transformation, the mask is also a weapon or a tool which its wearer has to handle. He must manipulate it, remaining his everyday self, and, at the same time, must change into it as a performer. While he wears the mask he is thus two people and must remain two during the whole of his performance (377).

The first thing I would stress here involves not that Canetti cannot possibly mean “mask” in a literal sense (or, frankly, even a metaphorical one finally), but that he ceases even to speak of a “mask” at all. We may recall that Jung uses the term persona to refer to that outward sense that a person presents to the world, and he finds justice in that usage in that persona itself derives from the theatrical sense of a “mask”. Insofar as Canetti uses “mask” (I will say) quasi-metaphorically in something like the sense Jung means by persona, his exposition leaves out what Jung’s concept includes: that our persona functions critically in a dialogue with public perception, with the social. Canetti seems to act here as if one can simply put on a mask and then accrue all the benefits or dangers thereof, and by overlooking this, I particularly sense that his exposition here does not warrant thinking of “mask” even in a metaphorical sense. His emphasis on fear—one might also link this with the kind of paranoia characteristic of closeted homosexuals (before coming out)—fundamentally re-centers this exposition about “mask” on something else.

This may seem to split a hair. Sure. But not only do I think of the vast range of theatrical possibilities that masks afford, and which Canetti completely distorts by his description of “masks,” I remember also the use of masks at festivals like Mardis Gras or Carnival. There, a vital function of the mask included a (temporary) destruction of an otherwise seeming inviolable hierarchy. During those times (of festival) when all the usual social bets were off, during the time of Fool King (and others) when otherwise strangling constraints in a society were loosened, doubtless people discovered that merely to announce all bets being off did not automatically encourage those “down” in the hierarchy to act toward those “up” in the hierarchy as equals. Doubtless people found it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore or forget entirely that, once the festival ended, everyone involved would still have some memory (intoxication notwithstanding) of various acts that occurred—in particular, the king or the queen or the ruler would remember not so much that some peasant launched an insult (and got away with it), but that the political opponents of the ruler would remember that “weakness” and use it, at the very least, to erode the vanity or luster of the ruler. &c.

Thus, the temporary character of festival needed something to make its operations more enduring; or, to say the same thing in another direction, to ensure that the behaviors and acts that occurred during festival made their effective contribution in the social domain only during the time of Festival. Thus, all of the license and stupidity of the Fool King never touched the actual king, because no one—the day after festival—had any illusion that they’d seen a real king in action. But for interactions between individuals per se, to ensure anonymity (or at least plausible deniability) for all interactions became essential. The homosexual in the mask of drag might with complete impunity be topped by any number of non-homosexual partners, and no one could say boo after festival ended. The ruler could interact with everyone on a (masked) equal footing, and would have to learn and hear first-hand what people really said, &c.

The critique of festival insists, logically, that festival serves simply as a relief valve for the otherwise unbearable strictures of culture so that culture may continue to reproduce and perpetuate itself—that those who rule may continue to do so. It serves to neutralize resistance by ensuring that as much as 25 percent of one’s time in the world gets spent in luxurious, State-sponsored, total-license. Whether that offers a better deal that we currently “enjoy” I leave an open question. But this use of the mask—and all the other appurtenances of festival that affect a similar kind of humanization of interaction between people—stands as a total refutation of Canetti’s exclusive emphasis on the king’s (the masked one’s) fear, of being unmasked or otherwise. However alien or foreign the mask, in such settings it liberates him and loosens constraints not “hinders and constricts him” (377). If we want to say this swaps one mask for another, the swap at least offers a relief from the one swapped. If even the ruler retains in his mask “the part that fears discovery” (377), this does not support the part Canetti emphasizes as essential, i.e., “the part which knows that the terror he spreads is not his due” (376).

Insofar as this veers toward the question of unmasking, it likely behooves to move onto Canetti’s next section.

The Power of Unmasking

Before wading into Canetti’s exposition here, I would first acknowledge: if one takes a premise of mask-wearing, then this necessarily implies consequences if mask removal or slippage occurs. As a (more or less) deliberate human act, to don a mask presupposes a purpose—whatever one desires in whatever differing circumstances—and so the removal of the mask (or simply it coming off) will likely propose a problem or an issue as far as that purpose goes. If the purpose of my mask as batman entails concealing my identity, then removing the mask reveals my identity, that that likely proposes a problem. If the purpose of a mask during Mardis Gras or saturnalia entails enabling my activity due to anonymity, then removing the mask like impacts my ability to act because my anonymity has gotten compromised. If the purpose of the mask in a theatrical setting aims to create a certain theatrical effect, then my mask falling off affects my ability to achieve that end.

This being so, we then also confront the question of how we respond to the removal or slippage of the mask, and in this we cannot pretend any necessary relation between whatever impact the mask slippage affects and our (personal or cultural) reaction to that event. When the actor’s mask slips off, we might laugh and thus have the whole mood of somber tragedy the drama aimed ruined; the actor might brilliantly play it off, so brilliant we even believe she intended the loss of the mask, and so forth and so forth. The festival-goer at Saturnalia might suffer laughter or humiliation when discovered in flagrante delicto or he might find himself imprisoned or executed for offenses against the dignity of the rulers, and so forth.

In no way should we conflate as necessary any connection between the interruption of the intended effect of the mask and however we personally or socially respond  to that interruption. The consequences may turn our comic, tragic, horrific, or rejuvenating, but this response always has (at least in potential) the full human range of cultural alternatives available; we can construe no outcome as inevitable or necessary, an doing so implicates a neurosis at best but more likely a draconian desire to oppress.

So, against a more adequate understanding of masks, Canetti begins this section, “A despot is always aware of his inner malevolence and therefore must dissimulate” (377); here we have Canetti’s notion of a mask wearer. Significantly, having acknowledged that despots have political rivals, Canetti then ascribe to the despot the power of tearing “the mask from their faces” (378); once again, his mesmerization with power makes his first resort a description of abuse of power—the postglacial violence of destroying others (one’s rivals) to find behind the mask of those rivals “the malevolence he knows so well in himself” (378).

Canetti asserts that unmasking illustrates “the exact opposite of transformation” (378). Bare assertion proves nothing, and his example comes from how Menelaus unmasked Proteus, “when Menelaus refused to be frightened by any of the forms he adopted to escape, and held him fast until he became Proteus again” (378). Let’s remember that Canetti describes two types of transformation, and the one involving Menelaus signals the one associated with raping women. Menelaus stands as the interloping adventurer, intruding unasked into someone’s world and, on the basis of self-entitlement, claiming an obligation from someone that has no basis. To use hyperbole, Menelaus psychically rapes Proteus; he (all but literally) pins him down. So I count it no wonder that Canetti would confusedly smash together his (heroizing) example of Menelaus and his (demonizing) description of the despot’s unmasking. Stated this way, how transformation and unmasking illustrate “exact opposites” seems exactly opposite of what Canetti writes.

This claims—Canetti’s claim—involves a false opposition. He says that Proteus practiced transformation while Menelaus pinned him down with unmasking; therein lies the supposed exact opposition. Let’s change example. The woman who tries everything to escape from and then resist an attacker’s attempt at rape practices transformation, while the rapist unmasks his would-be victim—and so “transformation” and “unmasking” illustrate “exact opposites”. Even if this made sense, it seems an undesirable and inadequate lens for analyzing these sorts of situations.

Someone may object the examples form no parallel. To say so means asserting that Menelaus actually has some claim on Proteus for the satisfaction he (Menelaus) desires, so that one must similarly assert that the rapist has some claim on a woman for the satisfaction he (the rapist) desires. What claim does Menelaus have other than his selfish, situational desire to get out of the pickle he finds himself in? On what grounds does Proteus owe this colonial adventurer satisfaction? This precisely describes the “mindset” of a rapist, who “enthusiastically” undertakes to take from an unwilling person something he wants. Canetti even employs language reminiscent of the rape apologist, when he says “Menelaus simply wanted Proteus’ counsel” (378), so that makes it okay.

Also, I’ like to say I do not wax indignant merely by choosing a rape example. We need to have a way to approach the (systemic) issue of rape and rape-culture if we ever intend to do something material about it. I don’t fault Canetti for invoking a situation where abuse of power occurs—although he clear approves of Menelaus raping Proteus, which I do object to. Unless we grasp that patriarchy requires rape, just as capitalism requires poverty, and just as power requires oppression, then we will remain stuck in the rigors of patriarchy, capitalism, and power. And this third term becomes key, because while feminism and Marxism both offer thoroughgoing critiques of patriarchy and capitalism, and hazard to propose alternatives as well, the total rejection of power as a paradigm much less thoroughly has its anti-champions in the world. By this, I don’t mean no one has said anything; I mean, ask yourself, what terms denote alternatives to patriarchy or capitalism; what worlds (utopian or otherwise) have people proposed where patriarchy and capitalism no longer operate as the dominant discourses? Meanwhile, even in the most anarchic settings, the terms we have available that analogously vision an alternative to power in the way that we see patriarchy or capitalism alternativated seem not so concrete.

One could put together a reading list to refute this claim, yes. That reading list would not include Canetti’s Crowds and Power, most assuredly, because it wholly entrenches itself in the rigors of “power” and utterly rejects any possibility of any kind of valid alternative. Thus, when one hopes Canetti will show us unmasking the despot, instead he shows us the despot (hypocritically) unmasking his opponents. What does this do for us politically? At best, I might unmask the despot, but by Canetti’s analysis, I could only do this as an (aspiring) despot myself, and in any case, it presupposes that my own inner malevolence drives the act in the first place. Thus, in that self-entitled frame of mind, I will rape women or torture locals (Proteus) for the sake of my own satisfaction or, even more grotesquely, out of fear of being unmasked myself, as a preemptive act of destruction. In the example of language I cited above, immediately after the paranoid “the less one understands the more one imagines; one attributes all sort of things to them, one suspects hostility” (376), one becomes “incredulous, relieved and even a little disappointed when their words are translated into a familiar language. How harmless, how innocent it all was!” (376).

This points to a discovery that the preemptive destroyer never makes and informs the argument for nonviolence in Tolstoy’s (1894)[19] The Kingdom of God Is Within You; that whatever “evil” one claims to prevent with preemptive violence, we may the only say with certainty after that moment that the amount of evil in the world has increased by exactly the amount of that preemptive evil. One cannot really deny this, but let us note even in Canetti’s description of the translator’s “discovery” that he describes one as incredulous, relieved and even a little disappointed” (376, emphasis added). We see here what I can hardly resist calling a truly childish peevishness—all the more horrifying and dangerous in its consequences when it plays out in the world through people who have access to great mechanisms of power—that the fantasized or imagined hostility of others turns out false.

Besides the fact that one may, on humanistic grounds, find disgusting a prejudicial hope that everyone around you harbors you ill-will and then to express disappointment when that ill-wishing of one’s own proves discounted, besides the belligerent snottiness that this expresses in its desire to go on pretending and acting toward everyone that everyone around me has hostile designs against me, the far more offensive consequence of this rapist mentality—what else could one call it, given the sorts of exposition Canetti has laid out—concerns how it informs racism, racial profiling, and the sort of presumption of criminality that whites inflict on people of color, and especially African-Americans.

To describe myself as “even a little disappointed” when the black youth I see across the street asks me for direction rather than mugs me doesn’t get to go in the category of harmless error—“how harmless it all seemed”. No.

No, no, no. “It is part of the nature of this process of unmasking that the perpetrator always knows exactly what he will find” (378); except that he does not—9 out of 10 young black man aren’t criminals at all—and in most cases, the preemptive racist judgment ensures in the first place that no interaction takes place at all. Whites avoid interaction with non-whites to avoid getting mugged, and thereby “prove” they avoided being mugged? No. Canetti wants to expatiate on the grotesqueness or tragedy of the paranoid mindset and says “all leaves on all the trees are the same, and all dry as dust; every ray of light is extinguished in a night of suspicion” (378), and yet he constantly reduces all possibilities to one in his vast generalizations and religiously insists on the ill-will of everyone (the unconscious, instinctually driven ill-will of everyone, without exception). Rightly he says, “This disease is Paranoia” (378, capital letter in the original), but drawing attention to it in this way, naming it, does not remove the paranoiac topos from Canetti’s exposition. More precisely, Canetti links paranoia to unmasking; “it can be repeated until, in the end, unmasking becomes a passion” (378).

He further identifies the two critical features of (clinical) paranoia as dissimulation, or dissembling, and unmasking. I don’t know that I could more succinctly characterize Canetti’s text. This takes on truly awful/comical dimensions; the paranoiac “has the gift of seeing through appearances and knows exactly what is behind them” (378); how often has Canetti informed us what the real motivations of people, rituals, cultural phenomenon consist of? “The position he imagines he occupies and the importance he arrogates to himself are certainly fictitious as far as others are concerned, but he will none the less defend them by constantly applying the two linked processes of dissimulation and unmasking” (379).

I don’t find this fascinating even as a piece of self-annihilation. In other contexts, the way a text falls apart under its own analysis, a trope dear to deconstruction and immanent critique, rarely models or addresses power—particularly where it links to racist power—and so genuinely colors the whole topic in an interesting way, even as we admires the ruins of the thing. One can hardly ignore how this diagnoses George Zimmerman or Johannes Mehserle,[20] but the diagnosis proves worse than the cure. The framing of the diagnosis, to keep up this metaphor, already goes off the rails, since it proceeds in the present case by dissimulation and unmasking.

Or, to put it in less fancy-schmancy terms, lying. This particularly makes a key difference. If the paranoid ruler, which Canetti addresses later in his book (wonder of wonders, choosing his examples from African and Muslim rulers!), bears any resemblance to anything in historical terms, then they too might illustrate arch-liars, but if any material distinction exists between the relatively ultra-rare person (who actually sits on some kind of major throne of power) and all the rest of us, then it warrant the term lying to insist that the everyday person’s experience of other people (powerful or not) warrants examination through the lens of paranoia. Moreover, for all that Edward Bernays offers a highly dubious legacy in the social domain, nonetheless he admits, “Goebbels, said Wiegand, was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. … Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign” (from here). Disingenuous as this shock reads—dissimulation , perhaps?—he at least recognizes that German National Socialism “was no emotional outburst … but a deliberate planned campaign”; i.e., not a neurosis-formation arising out of terror as Canetti misrepresents it—that part of wearing a mask that “necessarily remains separate from it: the part that fears discovery” (377).

Canetti closes this section insisting that “a precise and valid examination of the workings of the unmasking process is possible only in the context of an actual individual case of paranoia” (379), and he notes to have provided one such case from the psychoanalytic record, but we may see it as well in the whole apparatus of his book itself.

And lest anyone become confused, I point again to the earlier observation that how one presents a discourse deserves attention as much as what one presents. If anyone thinks the above accuses Canetti of mental illness or paranoia, let’s call that a convenient dodge on the part of those who desire to maintain abuses of power. Canetti’s discourse exists, as a social fact, apart from his construction of it. He bears the responsibility for writing like such an manhole, but that does not prove his status as an manhole. Nor does it excuse the seemingly willful disregard for the way he has taken up the apparatus of power—dissimulation and unmasking in particular, if you will—without registering any counter-narrative. From Suttner(2005), [21] again, the intellectual has the responsibility to provide a coherent account of the world, &c., and this not only offers no coherent account, it rarely even addresses the world at all. Moreover, insofar as Szasz (1973)[22] vehemently rejects the coercive labeling of mental illness, we see that mental illness functions as an accusation, something like the modern equivalent of accusations of witchcraft or diabolical possession; he insists:

The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself. In the typical Western two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground: whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives; his adversary is shot and dies. In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words; whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim. For example, in the family, husband and wife, mother and child do not get along; who defines whom as troublesome or mentally sick?…[the one] who first seizes the word imposes reality on the other; [the one] who defines thus dominates and lives; and [the one] who is defined is subjugated and may be killed (24–5).

One thing I may say about Canetti’s text: it partially succeeds in describing a certain kind of self-pitying discourse that power carries on with itself (usually solipsistically), all the while resorting almost exclusively to the kinds of tropes that that self-pitying discourse of power employs.

If we imagine the distance between Stalin’s view of reality and reality itself, then we will understand the distance between power’s view of crowds and power and power itself. The world and humanity at large does not get served at all (except on a plate) by pretending that Stalin’s view of the world provides a template for public policy. Hence, we should even must resist the discourse of this book as a basis for understanding crowds and power as a matter of policy—and practically everyone does (by ignoring it), but insofar as paranoid and preemptive violence can get taken up whenever someone wants to turn force into violence, this book becomes complicit in that effort, as Germany times past and Israel at present (to say literally nothing of elsewhere of course) make obvious.

One might imagine Canetti, discovering that his book has been put to awful ends, uttering Bernays’s “I’m shocked,” except it seems more likely he’d say, “I’m not surprised.”


[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] Obviously, this desire to pretend no modification or evolution or variation in such figures makes an untenable premise; to the extent that such figures also propose pictograms or hieroglyphs, it no more means anything that the figure of Anubis, &c, remained clear and immutable for hundreds of years as the letter A, in all of its variations in printed text, remains “clear” and “immutable” as well.

[4] Also, any time a European starts denying the uniqueness of Egyptian culture, especially to compare it to cultures that commentator has already described as primitive, then we should go on the alert for cultural bigotry.

[5] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from here.

[6] Or lies.

[7] The notion that wavy lines represent the motions of snakes, or snakes themselves, offers a lame thesis, since this provides no clue how to connect the square-wave-type figures with anything (much less a creature) in nature. Moreover, every instance of wavy lines in non-aboriginal culture should get read as “representing” the motion of snakes. I’ll add also that the aboriginal people, who have many snake totems because they encounter a large variety of snake species, would likely tell us that not all snakes move in wavy lines; that, in fact, each species has its own distinct motion, which they can distinguish, and which cannot (even abstractly) be reduced, even if one wanted to for some reason, to a single form of representation.

[8] Arguably, the actual, physical kangaroo (animal) who also (in principle) constitutes a human offers a poor “carrier” for the kind of surrealism or numinousness present in the verbal narratives of totem ancestors, precisely because we can see, unambiguously, with our own eyes the actual kangaroo. We can project the idea of “human being” into it as well, but we do so from the starting point of “animal” and we do so in a context where the sharp distinction (between human and animal) already plays an elemental part in our very imaginative process. When in a totem narrative, the totem stands up and speaks to other totem creatures, we may collapse this into a mental image of “talking animal” or “human being identified as a member of the totem creatures totem,” but the stories themselves, as one hears them or reads them, does not generally encourage, rationalize, or support such a move; it remains an impermanent conclusion, i.e., one’s mind might change in the next instance, sometimes involuntarily. In any case, the starting point of such narratives does not simply assume that the categories human and animal remain distinct, they do not assume those categories at all.

[9] The narratives of the aboriginal people of Australia do not exist monolithically. Eliade (1973)* notes of the Arandan tradition:

… the earth and the sky had always existed and had always been the home of Supernatural Beings. The western Aranda believe that the sky is inhabited by an emu-footed Great Father (Knaritja), who is also the Eternal Youth (altjira nditja). He has dog-footed wives and many sons and daughters. “They lived on fruits and vegetable foods in an eternally green land, unaffected by droughts, through which the Milky Way flowed like a broad river…” (30).

I mention this to emphasize the emu-footedness and dog-footedness.

*Eliade, M. (1973) Australian Religions. An Introduction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[10] In the absence of any distinction to name what this flux consists of, as distinct from what the figure represents with respect to that flux, it becomes easy to see how one begins to speak of participation mystique, for if one does not posit some kind of representation between one’s experience of the world and one’s reflection upon or description of that experience of the world, then this exactly describes participation mystique.

[11] In an absurd variation on this, I’ve heard atheism described as antisemitic because in its denigration of the claimed historical veracity of the Torah this denies the Jewish historical experience.

[12] I refer to Japanese theater only because of my relative familiarity with it. I assume that all theater resorting to masks includes the possibility, if not always the technical realization, of the expressive qualities even of the masks themselves.

[13] Once again, Canetti declaration of what a “real” use of something purports carries his gross overstatement, but here it also annihilates what he has already written, since by such a  description we should gather that what he described before was an unreal use of the mask—exactly so.

[14] By this, I explicitly do not mean that the costume must represent something in some ‘realistic” correspondence with reality, just as the aboriginal aesthetic decorations do not have any obvious photorealistic” criterion at work.

[15] Where the purpose of the mask serves—precisely—to mask that sort of presence of the human, this imaginative eros constitutes a problem or a failure of the mask’s function in that setting.

[16] This resonates, of course, with the insistence about secrets, that “anyone who comes near it is liable to receive an unpleasant surprise” (286)

[17] (the original thread seems to have been deleted, so I reproduce it from memory)

[18] Let us remember also: “Bernays’s most extreme political propaganda activities were said to be conducted on behalf of the multinational corporation United Fruit Company (today’s Chiquita Brands International) and the U.S. government to facilitate the successful overthrow (see Operation PBSUCCESS) of the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman” (from here). His willingness to and enthusiasm for participating in a Guatemalan program of extermination colors any claim of “shock” in other arenas.

[19] Tolstoy, L. (2006). The kingdom of God is within you: Christianity not as a mystic religion but as a new theory of life (trans. CB Garnett). [Rockville, MD]: Wildside Press. (complete text here)

[20] The policeman who murdered Oscar Grant.

[21] 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.

[22] Szasz, T. (1973). The second sin. Garden City: Doubleday, Anchor.

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