CONFRONTING CROWDS AND POWER: 10a. Interlude (A Summary for Aspects of Power)

14 September 2013


Contra Canetti: the best revenge does not involve living well, it involves living optimistically.

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the fifty-seventh entry in a series that ambitiously addresses, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power [1] and a summary for Part 10 (Aspects of Power).[2]


In Said’s (1978)[3] Orientalism, he describes a textual attitude toward the Orient: perforce, the Orientalist’s “orient is not the Orient as it is, but the orient as it has been Orientalized” (104). Canetti, per various reports, very much belies the textual attitude, and so Power as he describes it, to rephrase Said, is not Power as it is, but Power as it has been empowered. One might say, inasmuch as Said’s book concerns discourse, that Canetti describes the discourse to oppose himself to it; this seems as false as an Orientalist claiming that his Orientalism denotes a break with tradition—certain aspects of tradition, no doubt, but still within the dominant framework—in much the same framework as the observation that Democrat and Republican denote merely two wings of the Capitalist party.

Thus, as also with Voltaire or Cervantes, Said insists, “it is a fallacy to assume that the swarming, unpredictable, and problematic mess in which human beings live can be understood on the basis of what books—texts—say; to apply what one learns out of a book literally to reality is to risk folly or ruin” (93), and this calls out Canetti’s method on virtually every page. The key point in Said’s sentence, literally, provides the distinction with a more legitimate use of books, where empiricism and speculation mutually inform one another. When Said says of arch-anti-semite Bernard Lewis that he has not set foot in the Arab world in 40 years, yet claims to speak to the circumstances in the Middle East, he points also o Canetti’s basic approach, and we wish that only folly or ruin might result from such things, but instead we have millions of deaths, hundreds of billions wasted, a Zionist occupation, and the profligate habit of wanting to try it again, now in Syria.

“It seems a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human” (93), especially when your text evinces such a loathing of humans. But whatever engagement Canetti attempts with his own experience in life, to come to terms with it, that “people have tried and do try to use texts [in a] simpleminded way” (93) recommends against this book in the strongest way, not only for the mere nihilism his admirer’s espouse at times but in the (orientalist) justification it provides for the abuse of power.

By an orientalist justification, I mean specifically the sort of qualities Said describes in this kind of thinking: “Rhetorically speaking, Orientalism is absolutely anatomical and enumerative: to use its vocabulary is to engage in the particularizing and dividing of things Oriental into manageable parts. Psychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia, knowledge of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge” (72). Canetti’s focus in the upcoming section to paranoid rulers relates this to Orientalism, which like Said I use to denote a kind of thinking, not just the specific, historically determined discipline it names formally. An orientalist justification for Power then psychologically hinges on paranoia, a kind of knowledge distinct from (empirically) historical knowledge—and this again describes Canetti’s text to a tee. We see a central feature of this paranoia in its sealed-off, isolationist, or closed “dialogue” with itself. In point of fact, it represents a sort of allegorical repletion, the term Camille Paglia (1991)[4] uses to describe the (pre-Raphaelite) habit of using of the same model for multiple female figures in a painting, a sort of neurotic multiplication. So too with the orientalist “dialogue”—it represents an allegorically replete monologue spread out amongst numerous, not necessarily disagreeing or agreeing participants. One might have a difficult time distinguishing this from an intragroup dogma, perhaps because they amount to the same thing, but a key emphasis (whether similar or not) involves reference to “the book”—to the textual body as the source of Knowledge, not empiricism per se. Thus, a Muslim might stand up and declare all violence justified via the Qur’an represents a despicable heresy, and such a speaker gets dismissed as an agent provocateur (if not a simple fool), &c. Believe that all Black men want to rob me would seem highly similar. Consequently, texts like Crowds and Power “create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe” (94).

To acknowledge this means agreeing with Said that such a discourse has proven effective and productive, though also that the “material presence of weight, not the originality of a given author, is really responsible for the texts produced” (94) by a discourse. But we must speak carefully of this effectiveness and productiveness; more precisely, we should  not lose sight of why discourse of this sort becomes effective and productive. Said describes at some length two situations that “favor a textual attitude” (93):

One is when a human being confronts at close quarters something relatively unknown and threatening and previously distant. In such a case one has recourse not only to what in one’s previous experience the novelty resembles but also to what one has read about it. Travel books or guidebooks are about as “natural’ a kind of text, as logic in their composition and in their use, s any book one can think of, precisely because of this human tendency to fall back on a text when the uncertainties of travel in strange parts seem to threaten one’s equanimity. Many travelers find themselves saying of an experience in a new country that it wasn’t what they expected, meaning that it wasn’t what a book said it would be. And of course many writers of travel books or guidebooks compose them in order to say that a country is like this, or better, that it is colorful, expensive, interesting, and so forth.

A second situation favoring the textual attitude is the appearance of success. If one reads a book claiming that lions are fierce and then encounters a fierce lion (I simplify, of course), the chances are that one will be encouraged to read more book s by that same author, and believe them. But if, in addition, the lion book instructs one how to deal with a farce lion, and the instructions work perfect, then not only will the author be greatly believed, he will also be impelled to try his hand at others kinds of written performance. There is a rather  complex dialectic of reinforcement by which the experiences of readers in reality are determined by what they have read, and this in turn influences writers to take up subjects defined in advance by readers’ experiences. A book on how to handle a fierce lion might then cause a series of books to be produced on such subjects as the fierceness of lions, the origins of fierceness, and so forth. Similarly, as the focus of the text centers more narrowly on the subject—no longer lions but their fierceness—we might expect that the ways by which it is recommended that a lion’s fierceness be handled will actually increase its fierceness, force it to be fierce since that is what it is, and that is what in essence we know or can only know about it (93–4).

In theory, Canetti’s book appears to originate primarily out of the first motivation, from the standpoint of an individual who “confronts at close quarters something relatively unknown and threatening and previously distant”, i.e., crowds and power through the middle of the twentieth century; at least, Dr. Patch Adam’s experienced the book that way (as noted previously). The main use of Canetti’s book, as of any (ostensibly) non-fiction book in (a kind of) general, falls into the second category, where a certain amount of prestige or sense of (perceived) competence leads onto new efforts, which themselves get taken as authoritative. Thus, we have Canetti’s “popularity” with the type of lazy cynic identified long ago at the beginning of this series (and at later times throughout), who sees Canetti’s’ rhetoric as a justification for his own misanthropy.

While arguably a kind of par for the course, this habit becomes very problematic when the topic involves “the masses” (crowds) and the management thereof (by Power), as I have stressed repeatedly. Canetti does not constitute a groundbreaker in particular as far as crowds and power go; the topic of mass psychology already had lots of pundits and nabobs. To repeat Said from above, however: “A book on how to handle a fierce lion might then cause a series of books to be produced on such subjects as the fierceness of lions, the origins of fierceness, and so forth” (94). With Canetti, we have more or less an “origins of fierceness” kind of book, so that we should remember also “as the focus of the text centers more narrowly on the subject—no longer lions but their fierceness—we might expect that the ways by which it is recommended that a lion’s fierceness be handled will actually increase its fierceness” (94).

I don’t know if Said means this statement as pungently as it seems to read; taken as a kind of slogan, it exposes the roots of terrorism in Occidental orientalism; it unambiguously makes clear that the Occidental paranoia of the Orient caused—very materially participated in laying the groundwork—for increased hostility, just as George Zimmerman’s prejudiced mindset precipitated a situation where he “had to” murder an unarmed Black male. It points also to the fact that in this paranoid anticipation of hostility, everything peaceful about the Orient gets ignored, just as George Zimmerman’s prejudiced mindset failed to see the Black non-criminality in the neighborhood he became so concerned about.

Anyone who knows house cats knows that many do not like getting trapped in corners with no escape route. Placed in such a situation, they issue warnings: bunch up, flatten their ears, start to growl, raise their fur, and finally start yowling and swiping with their claws. An idiot who traps a cat this way might readily decide the cat seems hostile or mean. Voila, orientalism in the domestic sphere.

And this capacity of Crowds and Power as a cultural object readily usable to increase fierceness—especially in its takeaway point: if you would avoid being a victim, become a victimizer; something Arendt (1964)[5] warned against a few years later—as something to enhance the neuroticism of Power and contribute further to its orientalism, if you will, denotes one of the book’s least appealing features, itself practicing Power with (as Orientalism assures me) an Oriental despotism.

[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] Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

[4] Paglia, C. (1991). Sexual personae: art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

[5] Arendt, H. (1964). Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. Rev. and enl. ed. New York: Viking Press.


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