BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Elias Canetti’s (1960) Crowds and Power

21 October 2013

Abstract

To oppose the instrumentalization of the egoism of victimization might describe Canetti’s primary theme if only his text were not an instrumentalization of egotistical victimhood in the first place.

Pre-Disclaimer

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

I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Elias Canetti’s (1960)[1] Crowds and Power

Introduction & Disclaimer

This is the sixty-third and last entry in a series that ambitiously addressed, section by section over the course of a year+ Canetti’s  Crowds and Power  and a summary of this series as a project overall. In total, I suspect my responses to Canetti’s text have exceeded in length the original, but whether or not, I have no intention here of reprising anything in detail. I invite readers to wade through the morass themselves here.

Postliminary Matters: An Encomium to Gratitude

In love and relationships that end, we often tend to have a bitterness over the mistake of the whole venture in the first place. We entered into love or relationship, sometimes naively with the hope of it being the one, and when this turns out not the case, a sense of self-recrimination for that now too self-evident naiveté may come out and dominate all of our thoughts about it.

But on the contrary, given that we often learn in the first place terrible patterns of love and relationship from our parents while growing up—or, even when not terrible, then not necessarily the kinds of patterns in love and relationship that actually would or will work for us—then much of our career in this domain may finally involve an often painful enough process of unlearning, a dropping away of those terrible or inappropriate patterns, opinions, beliefs, and expectations in love and relationship that we learned in order that the marvelous or appropriate patterns, opinions, beliefs, &c., may finally come into view. If coming to love and relationship involves a journey—or, rather, if we take the view that it comprises one—then every relationship, whether “good” or “bad”, marks a steppingstone along the path of that journey.

This means that each steppingstone portends a “lesson,” whether we understand that lesson in a positive or negative sense. With positive lessons, where the love or relationship has given us the experience of loyalty, commitment, caring, &c, any sense of gratitude we might have toward these experiences as lessons gets made more painful often because we no longer have access to that loyalty, commitment, caring, &c. The luxurious “good” of the relationship or love while we had it can turn embittered for its loss, and this makes cultivating a sense of gratitude about having had those experiences more difficult, but not impossible. Similarly, with negative lessons, where the love or relationship has given us the experience of betrayal, broken promises, callousness, &c., even to advocate that one might have a sense of gratitude for having had these experiences seems absurd; it seems one stands wholly justified in asking, “why should I feel any gratitude that he cheated on me?”

Indeed, why shouldn’t one? In the retrospective view of this particular love or relationship, his heating only signals officially the end of what did not—contrary to all hopes otherwise—have any actuality as the one. I don’t have to thank him for turning out such a callous bastard, if I simply can’t stomach the thought, but his action, whatever his excuses, has spared me whatever further wasted time I’d’ve spent making this case of love or relationship (try to) work. Or, to use an autobiographical example, following the final dissolution of the most idiotically non-physically destructive relationship I have experienced, a relationship far and away the most flagrantly unsuitable for me, I found myself soon after our break-up sitting my ex-partner down, an saying to him, with absolutely no irony at all, “I want to thank you for being completely and utterly incapable of having even the most minor or minimal discussion about our relationship” and several other like sentiments. I remember him looking at me with considerable confusion, since the thank you of my statement stood just as wholly sincere and self-evident as the criticizing portions of my thank yous.

I had the luxury at the time of having bounced from my anti-relationship with him to another, so that emotional “safety net” (along with the heady blush of the new relationship) especially permitted me to quickly find and express my gratitude to him for the long-manifest and impressive failings as a human being he had exhibited.[2] The luxury of this notwithstanding, I found that learning the “negative lesson” of my anti-relationship with him very helpful, as it demonstrated to me in absolutely unambiguous terms that I should expend no effort on a relationship that lacked clear lines of communication about the relationship. By the standards of cultural platitudes, this lesson gets iterated often enough, but we tend to forgive in our mates what we criticize in others;  we make excuses in other words: “he’s just very inward” or “he’s the strong silent type” or …. We can tease me for my unregenerate naiveté that went on thinking my ex-mate’s utter incapacity for emotional presence should have warned me at the outset, that I should never had put up with it, even for a moment, but such judgment belongs more on whatever equally absurd excuses or passes or exceptions we make for whoever we count as a mate now, and so forth.

And I mention all of this to speak to the value that gratitude holds for me in the face of such negative relationships; for me, precisely gratitude turns them into lessons worth learning. I could very well have taken the experience of my anti-relationship and grown simply embittered about it or, since I quickly wound up in the arms of another, a whole bunch of self-righteousness about what he’d lost and all of that. I would not want to call that a lesson for my life. If someone harms me, even as I subsequently avoid them forever after, if I allow their bad behavior toward me to distort or corrupt my own character, then I punish myself for their bad behavior. To remain bitter about my ex-mate would constitute self-punishment; he failed as a human (in a very human way), why punish myself with bitterness? Why deny myself all future relationships altogether (in an effort to avoid disappointment) rather than take (what I can only call) a more mature approach and simply learn what error I made in suffering such a kind of mate in the first place and learning, instead, how to pick or choose a better mate instead? Or, in the other case, why distort or corrupt my character with an absurd and superior vanity after the fact, waxing self-righteously how I have found finally someone who really appreciates me and all the rest. Such self-aggrandizement not only clearly belies (to anyone watching) the still-attached character I exhibit by throwing my new victory in the face of my “old loser,” it also makes me less forgiving (if not also less understanding) of human frailty in the first place, which may ultimately come to ruin or erode my new relationship as well. To punish my former mate, to humiliate him publicly, from the swaddled warmth of my new relationship models cruelty I can hardly find admirable, however “deserved” I want to persuade myself it seems. And this ignores completely that my emotionally crippled ex-mate likely remains unaffected by all my histrionics anyway.

So, rather than punishing myself with bitterness, with arrogance, or with delusionally pretending I can ignore any tremors resulting from the breaking of this past anti-relationship, I prefer to practice gratitude, to try to find the thank you I might extend, not only to those who gave me some of the best times of my life—even though I no longer get to experience them in person—but also for those who gave me some of the worst, even though I breathe a sigh of relief that I’ll never spend time in their presence ever again.

A Summary of Crowds and Power

I partly understand in Arendt’s (1964)[3] phrase the banality of evil a rhetorical attempt on her part not to give more credit than due. To call German National Socialists “the worst” has the unfortunate consequence of embracing a superlative, and anything superlative will seem to deserve or draws social attention. We need only think of the devil to see how this plays out socially.

Crowds and Power thus does not offer the worst book I have read. And even if I would say I hate it, this would more illustrate my taste than any actually worthiness of the book to such a strong response. An acquaintance recently said of the first two Twilight movies as she subjected herself (and us) to them, “When I hate something, I can talk about it for days,” and this in no way argues secretly or openly on her part for some actual critical mass of worthiness in these movies for generating such strong animus on her part. The animus originates, it seems, more from sheer bafflement that anyone could take such tripe seriously. Ditto Crowds and Power. And while she never did explain why she subjected us to these two movies (besides that misery redeems misery with laughing company), she may have felt at least some sense that remaining ignorant of this cultural phenomenon would allow those who enthusiastically wallow in it to go on wallowing unchallenged. That, at least, informed my own refusal months ago to throw this piece of pseudo-intellectual populism that genuinely warrants a comparison with Twilight aside and, instead, to try to look more closely at what the fuss about it hinges on.[4]

What then may I find gratitude for now that I no longer will subject myself to the abusive relationship of Canetti’s text?

Much as I’d sooner banish this to a footnote, perhaps it belongs here in the main body of the text—by which I mean the acknowledgment that all relationships occur mutually but not necessarily (rarely even?) equally. I’ve certainly slung round enough baffled and carping recriminations at Canetti’s text to invite similar charges in my posts. All other points that might get raised aside, in any case my imperfect research does not excuse Canetti’s, and berating the faults of my analyses does not defend the vacuities of his. Or one might read, over the course of these sixty-three posts, an increasing erosion of whatever goodwill I ever had for Canetti’s text, however slight, and accuse me of malice aforethought. Factually, from the very first sentence, Canetti struck me as utterly wrong, and that initial impression continued and continued even as I grazed about in the book before ever deciding to read it in earnest. And by the time I arrived at beginning of this project, the positive reviews I had from a couple of friends I respect and the grandiose claims on the back of the book (which I recognize as facile ad-text meant to sell the book quite apart from any worth or value in the book’s contents) had already rung with a cistern-like hollowness. So I did not pick up the book with an ax to grind, but it took precious little time to find reason to. From that point forward, Canetti’s text continuously gave cause to not extend further good faith: discovering, in particular, the grossly cavalier attitude toward basic criteria in scholarship made for a lapse almost impossible to overlook or set aside in a work more properly described as masquerading (I don’t think the word does any injustice at this point) as nonfiction.

But, as I noted above, why punish myself for the misbehavior of another? I only demean myself finally when I get involved in precious-minded quarrels about the minuscule dynamics of the relationship, and I apologize that I gave Canetti’s text the occasion to humiliate itself in a similar way as well, if you will. I own my own faults in this relationship and disavow your attempts to defend him (or his text) by my faults, which in fact comprise our faults (i.e., the faults of our relationship). Consequently, I ask again, what may I find gratitude for now that I no longer will subject myself to the abusive relationship of Canetti’s text?

I find myself grateful that Canetti’s unscholarly abuse of quotation and citation of texts led me to check his sources, particularly Spencer and Gillen’s (1904)[5] Northern tribes of Central Australia, which I subsequently read and reviewed (see here).  With all due caveats for reading Occidentalizing ethnography from more than a century ago in mind,[6] this 800-page book opens up a number of themes that I subsequently explored further in Errington & Gewertz’s (1987)[7] ethnography as well. In the mix of this, Todorov’s (1998)[8] The Conquest of America: the Question of the Other also got in there helpfully as well, and these books, as well as more tangentially related ones as well, contributed to and prompted numerous conversations with friends and acquaintances.

It may sound small-minded to point this out, but in none of these conversations did anything observed in Canetti’s text offer a positive or material contribution to such work. In every case—at least, I can think of no contrary occasion—Canetti’s text served only as a point of departure to find corrections for its errors. This does not mean, of course, that Canetti never writes anything descriptively adequate, but only that nothing in the text itself prompted additional reading or research (on my part) to elaborate points in the text.

I would like to say that I do not find myself grateful for the impoverished way that Canetti attempts to make his points—I say “make his points” because almost never does any formal construction of his text actually finish itself argumentatively; sometimes it doesn’t even start argumentatively and typically only hovers in the domain of mere rhetorical assertion.  As a synecdoche for this, I might point again to the passage where Adorno (2003)[9] eviscerates a bad example Canetti offers in place of an argument for his point, and then instead of acknowledging the poverty of it when pointed out, he blandly goes on to offer a second example, which Adorno similarly rejects. Or I might point to how his fans make a virtue of this approach, claiming that Canetti aims to make no point but simply drops a truth in our lap and then walks off—a claim ridiculously untenable given the declamatory overgeneralizing Canetti resorts to (e.g., “there is nothing man fears more than the touch of the unknown”), even if we disregard his avowed “method” that would substitute his subjective reactions to historical events in place of a description of such events.[10] Or I might point to my friend’s very generous suggestion that perhaps Canetti, in effect, means for his text to serve as a blatant piece of anti-knowledge, which he means for his readers to resolutely reject in order to go questing after some better elsewhere in the world or other texts—a position one likely can maintain only by not having read the book or encountering the text directly. Or, one might declare the text simply polemical, which such a “subjective approach” as Canetti appears to take up will tend to embrace—but, in the first place, one might not only read something like Aimé Césaire’s (1955)[11] Discourse on Colonialism to see how a “subjective” and “polemic” text may still nonetheless present persuasive, not merely rhetorical, arguments to understand how extremely infrequently one finds anything of the sort in Canetti’s text, but one might also, in the second place, find fault with even the very position of subjectivity and polemicness Canetti takes up. For example, if Richard Ramirez, the psychopath who terrorized Los Angeles from June 1984 to August 1985 by breaking into homes and raping and murdering elderly women (amongst other things), were to provide a “subjective” and “polemic” view of the events of his deeds (history) as he saw them, this gives us no grounds to accept them as having the same social weight or value as a different subjective or polemic view. When Canetti deploys at length his meandering discussion of a paranoiac’s self-representation in text, we see his own substitution (of his point of view) in place of the paranoiac’s own subjective and polemic description of his experience of nervous illness. This doesn’t deny the validity of the experience for the paranoiac (Daniel Schreber) or Richard Ramirez, for that example, but only means that as a matter of an input to “public policy,” the adequacy of the description for human experience generally falls short of sufficient.

But to say that I do not find myself grateful for these things dodges my imperative and desire to express gratitude in the first place. Rather, this kind of non-argumentation, which seems something worse than mere sloppiness to me, not only models what one should not do—this makes merely for a negative lesson—but provided me an occasion to stick with something I actively disenjoyed for the sake of counteracting it. In other words, I may my express gratitude to Crowds and Power for how it sharpened my self-discipline, even if that discipline in any number of places involved flogging a dead horse or becoming mealy-mouthed or over-precious about niggling details. Although beginning from an expectation for—and what fairly quickly proved a dereliction of—intellectual comity from Canetti’s book, my desire to address it specifically point-by-point also generated a habit of various blog-series otherwise, i.e., my nearly 60 book replies, my commentary on Nichols’ (1980) Jungian commentary on the Tarot, and my currently stalled set of reflections on the Bhagavad-Gītā. This discipline itself—never motivated solely in reaction against, never inspired by any sense of responding to other texts in the world not as Canetti did with his or in his book—supported as well my (sometimes broken) commitment to read no less than ten pages per day and to write a book reply for any book I finish.

Some time ago I wrote a ply where I took to task various biblical figures, most of all Abraham, using his son Isaac as a leverage point for such a critique, since if anyone has grounds for complaining against that sociopath, Isaac has grounds. In researching that play, I encountered those (sometimes Islamic) pious versions in which Isaac, up on the mountain about to have his throat slit, asks his father to bind his hands tightly, since to have to die can make one struggle, and to cut his throat swiftly, so as not to get blood on his father’s robes—and upset his mother when Abraham gets home. Obviously, that Abraham should instantaneously set out to murder his son when the divine says so, filial obedience—long a much more glorified and insisted upon virtue—must find this kind of sentiment from Isaac.

Isaac in my play sticks more to his depiction in Genesis, complicated by his half-brother Ishmael’s return, because Abraham has finally died. But in the course of the play, the stories of Noah and his family, Lot and his daughters (and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), the humiliation and exile of Hagar (and Ishmael), as well as Abraham’s, get retold to expose two kinds of human response to a loss of world. Abraham provides an exemplary picture of the negative survivor, but Noah illustrates it more succinctly: because he survived, he must number among the select. Out of an overweening, hyperegotistical sense of entitlement, ostensibly grounded in or excused by grief, Noah (for example) arrogates to himself the gesture of condemning one of his son’s to slavery; Abraham, more grotesquely, out of his own loss of world, out of which he claims that the king of Ur personally sought his death, he arrogates to himself—in his voice-hearing schizophrenia—the gesture of murdering his fully grown son; and Lot’s daughters (for historically satirical reasons, if one looks into it) use the occasion of the destruction of their home to have sex with their father.

But the most depraved part of such narratives less involves the gross or minor offenses or peccadilloes of these and other like figures—one could say that Abraham, Noah, and Lot’s daughters find themselves in obscenely reduced states due to truly painful circumstances—although I would still hesitate to cut Abraham too much slack; while most assuredly an exile, the real circumstances of his banishment or simple flight remain obscure and his subsequent behavior—giving his wife to Pharaoh to fuck, bedding or raping his slave (at his wife’s behest) and then banishing the slave (and his legitimate male heir) when his wife gets jealous later, and exhibiting no resistance to the command to slaughter his grown son—require a diagnose of mental illness to invoke exculpable factors. What Palaver (2010)[12] notes of this remains relevant:

Far beyond Islam as such or specific developments in this religion there is a general tendency towards a “cult of the victim” in our world that easily leads to violence (Lasch 67-68)[13]. Terrorism is closely connected to a vengeful instrumentalization of victimhood. It is part of what psychiatrist Vamik Volkan called the “egoism of victimization” (Volkan 176)[14]. Volkan explains plausibly, how a certain view of one’s victimization, the inability to mourn properly, and one’s own weakness may lead quickly towards terrorism: “The individual who perceives his group as victimized and whose own sense of self is threatened by that perception may be drawn to terrorist activities in the same way that a nation that perceives itself to be victimized may go to war.” (Volkan 176-177) What makes our situation today even worse is the fact that counter-terrorism, too—especially Bush’s war against terror [as also Zionist discourse against Palestine]—has been strongly influenced by the temptation of a vengeful religious lament (cf. Tönnies 46-49)[15].

That “terrorism is closely connected to a vengeful instrumentalization of victimhood” points to the wider social plane for how the egoism of victimization gets constructed; in its expression by individuals, it shows up in the sort of entitlement, violence, an depravity that Abraham, Noah, and Lot’s daughters exhibit. So the most depraved aspect of these narratives concerns how we construe such egotism of victimization. In its biblical guises, this means making heroes of such figures;[16]  they get placed at the center of an unapproachable or inviolable circle; Silk and Goldman (2013)[17] raise this premise not simply to an approach but to an ideology, a demand—a command even—for how we must treat those who suffer:

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. … Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. … Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. ¶ Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. … That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring. ¶ Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings (emphasis added).[18]

The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. … That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring. In this autocratic declaration on Silk and Goldman’s part, we find exactly a central component of the instrumentalization of the egoism of victimization, and thus terrorism. But once this discourse exists, once scripture dignifies the psychotic degree of entitlement in Abraham, Noah, or YHWH, it exists not simply as a story, but as a model. And so we see Rebecca—following Abraham’s example of dispossessing his elder and legitimate son—actively inflicting a loss of world on Esau, by conspiring with her favored son (Jacob) to deny him Isaac’s blessing. And whatever (unfortunate) truth this ugly story contains—that parents will play favorites amongst their children—the more depraved element of the narrative involves the pious commentary that attributes spiritual discernment to Rebecca and claims to justify her action as right, if not holy.

In this, we see the discourse of the survivor—not as much in the victim turned victimizer (like Abraham, Noah, Lot’s daughters, Josephus, &c), but more in the (scriptural) authority who places the palm on these victimizer’s heads and says, in effect or in consequence, “if you would avoid being a victim, become a victimizer”. Canetti assures us that one should finish his section on the survivor with a sense of disgust and he states—whether we think facilely or not—that the end of the survivor may come about sooner than later. If this smacks of self-deception, it pales in comparison to the self-deception that one cannot (much less should not) read from it the moral: if you would avoid being a victim, become a victimizer.

The George Zimmerman verdict prompted changes in me; and that, more than Crowds and Power, moved Said’s (1978)[19] Orientalism up my reading list. Nonetheless, my understanding of those kinds of survivors who become, for want of another term, (malignant) narcissists—as opposed to those survivors of a loss of world who do not take up the egoism of victimhood, such as Isaac, Noah’s wife and sons, Ishmael, even Lot (to stick to the narratives mentioned above)—intersected with Said’s book and Canetti’s construction of the survivor, and this provided a far more articulate rejection of Canetti’s weak opposition to, if not collapse in the face of, Volkan’s egoism of victimization. Canetti’s disgust at the survivor—let it seem genuine and not disingenuous even—so squint-eyed views its subject, that it helped make clearer the opposing view—already expressed artistically, but not discursively, in my play and fully laid out by Said. In the same way, as Said describes orientalism psychologically as a form of paranoia, this also reframes the dangerously misleading invocation of mental illness (specifically paranoia) in rulers and/or survivors.

I find myself grateful for the egregiously slap-dash “individualization” of the survivor Canetti supplies, because the incoherence of his non-argument makes seeing a more desirable position easier, just as Swiss cheese allows one more readily to see what stand behind it than cheddar. Contra Sontag’s glib blurb on the back of the book that “Canetti dissolves politics into pathology, treating society as [mentally ill],” no close reading of the text permit such a conclusion, which should more justly say that Canetti (erroneously) dissolves pathology into politics treating mental illness as a society. From the very first sentence to the blurb on the back of the book then, Crowds and Power shows itself 180 degrees wrong, and thankfully never consistently or cleverly enough that one begins to wonder seriously if the rhetoric has some validity, much less desirability.

Stephen Colbert speaks of truthiness; we might also speak of toolishness. As an orientalist, which to some extent we all cannot avoid in Occidental culture, Canetti’s text eschew reality, preferring a retreat into books, into levels of representation often more than one degree removed from any actuality. On the personal plane, as a matter of autobiography, Canetti might very well react this way out of the trauma of the twentieth century, but what kind of survivor does he paint himself as? And, more importantly still, what kind of discourse does he limn his egoism of victimization with?

Doubtless, reader, you know what I will conclude, after all of this. And when one of his fans takes Canetti’s text s license for his own (already existent) cynicism, we may dub that fan just one more Rebecca. If Canetti truly held the problem of the survivor of central importance, he should not have published Crows and Power, even if he could not stop himself from writing it. Having done so, however, I can find gratitude in the fact that any opposition not so much to the egoism of victimization itself but to its instrumentalization (whiter in a text or toward the creation of a terrorist cell) offers the chance to rehearse a more authentic or correctly grounded opposition to egotistical victims.[20]

Ultimately, I find myself grateful for the ways Crowds and Power has failed me, in form, content, and example, not only because those failures drove me to find not counter-arguments but rather a more adequate framing of the topic itself but also because it clarifies the kind of place where the need exists to resist the instrumentalization of egotistical victimization, i.e., the further elaboration of the discourse of Orientalizing power. If we understand terrorism as closely connected to a vengeful instrumentalization of victimhood, then clearly we understand that not only terrorism results from such instrumentalization. We understand the hypocrisy of a war on terror, when such a war itself represents a vengefully instrumentalized victimization; one that places the blame, as Said suggests, for Palestinian violence—or 9/11, we might add—on the either the instrumentalizing victims themselves or the Rebeccas who mimic the discourse an exemplars. We see how orientalism, in its imperialist and Zionist forms, becomes synonymous in function with  vengefully instrumentalized victimization.

Endnotes

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

[2] All of which, of course, were rooted in his own sad and troubled history, &c.

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

[4] Another friend might berate me for taking the fans of Twilight or Crowds and Power as a basis for criticizing the book. If I found that the cheap cynicism that some Canetti fans find support for in his book were likely more pre-convinced than swayed by the bulk of content in Canetti’s book, nonetheless no shortage of egregious defects permit criticism of the book as well. I imagine that most more friendly critics actually do the intellectual work Canetti does not in order to save his text from itself.

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

[6] I tracked as well some of the controversy or debate between Spencer’s work and Strehlow’s work, as Nicholls (2007)* analyses as well.

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

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

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

[9] 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.

From my previous post: “With many animals it is the armed mouth itself which does the seizing, instead of the hand or claw” (204); “It is true that in some archaic cults the victim was still clawed, but the actors were disguised as animals and what they did was deliberately bestial. For the real job, men came to rely on their teeth” (205). The imaginative veracity of this could at least be dignified with consistency or enough intellectual thought to make the case coherent. This kind of sloppiness—“just say anything and move on without regard to coherence”—is the sort of nonsense his swooning fans appreciate (see here), and which Adorno (2003) flags down as being an grossly subjective approach (see here).

What strikes the thinking reader of your book, and may even scandalize him, regardless of whether he calls himself a philosopher or a sociologist, is what might be called the subjectivity of your approach. … The reader of your book cannot quite rid himself of the feeling that as your book develops [that] the imagined nature of these concepts or facts [i.e., the concepts or facts about crowds and power]—the two seem to merge with each other—is more important than the concepts or facts themselves (184)

Significantly, Canetti does not address this point at all, but defends his notion of invisible crowds instead. This procedure is typical apparently. Let us remember:  A particularly obvious case of Canetti insisting upon his view in the face of its genuine contradiction occurs where he offers to Adorno what he believes to be an example of an archaic society, i.e., the invocation of locust repeated from the section “Invisible Crowds” (Crowds and Power, 46), at which point Adorno interrupts:

Adorno. But doesn’t this come from a very late stage of society that is already organized and institutionalized, that has a state and an organized religion—in contrast to natural conditions? ¶ Canetti. That could be argued. The Shih Ching is very ancient, but … ¶ Adorno. But it still presupposes a highly developed and even a hierarchical society. ¶ Canetti. That may well be true. That is why I would like to give you another example.” (Adorno, 193–4).

The fact that his example is refuted by Adorno has no meaningful acknowledgment from Canetti; rather, he just blusters ahead into another example, and offers two full paragraphs of material about the origin of the bandicoot totem in aboriginal culture, after which Adorno replies,

I would say that this takes us too far afield. I do not think we can fully discuss the matter here since we are dealing with an ambivalent phenomenon. There is undoubtedly an archaic element that gives rise to diversity, to the amorphousness and the multiplicity of forms. But there is also the opposite element, and it is probably no longer possible, or so it seems to me, to distinguish clearly between what is primary and what is secondary, as indeed it is in general difficult to separate them so that such discussions tend not to lead very far (194–5, emphasis added).

Here, Adorno is specifically questioning whether Canetti’s reversal of the native people’s understanding (what is primary and what is secondary) may be untenable.

[10] See Adorno (2003), but also 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.

[11] Césaire, A.(2000). Discourse on colonialism. (trans J Pinkham) New York: Monthly Review Press.

[12] Palaver, W. (2010): The ambiguous cachet of victimhood: Elias Canetti’s “religions of lament” and Abrahamic monotheism, Forum Bosnae, 49: 19–31 (available here).

[13] Lasch, C. (1991). Liberalism and civic virtue. Telos, 88:57–68.

[14] Volkan, VD (1988). The need to have enemies and allies: from clinical practice to international relationships. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.

[15] Tönnies, S. (2002). Cosmopolis now: auf dem Weg zum Weltstaat. Hamburg: Europäische Verlagsanstalt.

[16] Again, with the caveat that the story of Lot’s daughters involves a piece of intertribal insults.

[17] Silk, S., an Goldman, B. (2013, 7 April). How not to say the wrong thing. LA Times [online] Accessed 3 October 2013 from here.

[18] For completeness, the deleted material here included:

When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator. ¶ Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Additional material that follows from this passage includes the further commands:

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.” ¶ If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

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

[20] In fact, I might hesitate to call such egotists victims, at least to the extent that Abraham’s woes may originate in his sociopathic character, not vice versa, just as the arch-survivor Canetti cites, Josephus, clearly has a Donald Trump-like capacity for bullshitting.

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