The article I read was a conversation between Theodor Adorno and Elias Canetti after Canetti’s publication of his book Crowds and Power in 1960. Adorno asks Canetti about the close relationship between crowds and power, survival and self-preservation, and his idea of the “invisible crowd.” Adorno begins by commenting that Canetti’s anthropological works reveal a usually neglected theory about human society and its power structures. This essay was meant to diagnose the key problems of contemporary post-World War II society.
Canetti speaks about death and survival: “the moment in which one person survives another is very concrete…I believe that this experience is obscured by convention, by the things we are supposed to feel when we witness the death of another human being.” (Canetti, 183.) Hidden beneath these conventions we feel satisfaction and triumph and this dangerous accumulation of experiences of other people’s deaths is one of the essential seeds of power. Adorno says that when self-preservation grows “wild,” when it loses its relationship with those around it, it turns into a destructive force—it is always a self-destructive force. This points to an objective reality that has sprung from our contemporary crisis—the crisis of self-preservation, of an instinct for survival gone wild. Canetti then brings up what he calls “the fear of being touched,” referring to the moment where individuals feel threatened by other people, and because of that, they try to protect themselves from contact with the unfamiliar by creating a space around themselves and by striving to keep other people at a distance. (Canetti, 184.) People never entirely lose this fear of being touched, and yet somehow people are able to lose themselves in a crowd; this presents a paradox. A person loses his fear of being touched only when packed in a crowd, and at this moment his fear of being touched reverses itself into its opposite. Canetti believes that one of the reasons people like to become part of a crowd is the relief they feel at this process of reversal. (Canetti, 185.) Adorno digs deeper and inquires about Canetti’s thought on self-preservation and man’s drive to reproduce (in terms of having children.) Throughout the conversation, it is clear that both Adorno and Canetti are trying to both piece together myths and ideologies from the past only to re-evaluate them and deconstruct them with critical objective and subjective reason. Adorno’s founding critical work on the functioning of power and political thought is illustrated well with Canetti’s anthropological work serving as examples of mass movements from different time periods and from different subjective perspectives. Canetti’s research is an imaginative study of mass movements, death and disordered society which drew on history, folklore, myth and literature. Canetti explores the idea of the “invisible crowd” by pointing to “primitive” societies and their religions that are full of “crowds” people cannot see. I think that here Canetti is using the term “crowds” to signify a sort of general mentality, or ideology that were (and arguably still are) present in many societies. There are many instances of people genuinely believing that the air is full of spirits that manifest themselves in massive quantities. For example, Christianity, during the Medieval period, had many followers who thought they saw the Devil. (Canetti, 185.) Canetti points out that such “invisible crowds” still exist today and compares this invisible fear of the Devil with the modern day fear of bacteria. Most of us haven’t looked through a microscope to see bacteria, but we all know it is there, and that it is a real threat. This could also refer to threats upon huge masses of people—an example of this could be the constant possibility of natural disasters. The fact that people act upon their feelings brought on by “invisible crowds,” or more logically put, ideologies and beliefs, suggests that the influence of “invisible crowds” enacts real reactions and real events that cannot be ignored. (Canetti, 186.) Canetti believes that “crowd symbols” are actually collective identities that do not consist of human beings (no physical, bodily mass) but are nevertheless felt as crowd-like; these symbols are experienced as something we can all relate to, for example, fire, the sea, the forest, etc. These symbols function as “mass” symbols in the minds of individuals. These mass symbols were important for the formation of national consciousness: “When people think of themselves as belonging to a nation at moments of national crisis, let us say at moments of national turmoil such as the outbreak of war, when they think of themselves as Englishmen or Frenchmen or Germans, what they have in mind is a crowd or a crowd symbol, something that they can relate to themselves.” (Canetti, 186.) Adorno says that Canetti focuses on the concept of the symbol and categories too much and that they are already internalized and directed towards the imagination. Adorno then poses the question of whether Canetti believes that these symbols really are the key problems of contemporary society and whether or not the real masses, with the implications of real political pressures, has an even greater importance for society rather than these factors of the imagination. Adorno asks Canetti, “In your conception of society and the masses, what importance do you attach to this pressure, this living weight of the masses, in contrast to the entire realm of the symbolical?” To this Canetti responds that the value and importance of the real masses is incomparably greater. (Canetti, 188.) Canetti says that without the conscious artificial stimulation of larger and larger masses, the power of dictatorships would be inconceivable: “Any human being, any contemporary of the events of the last fifty years, anyone who has witnessed wars…will surely feel the importance of masses.” Adorno goes on to say that movements like fascism and national socialism, no matter how destructive and inhumane, they still possessed an element of compromise in that even in these forms of domination, a certain concern for the real interests of the masses have shown to break through, however subterranean they may be. I don’t think that Adorno is trying to reduce or trivialize these forms of domination, but rather I think he is pointing to the fact that without a compliant mass, such a totalizing dominating system could never be in place, and that is what we need to try to fix. The essay then turns to a closer analysis of how the categories of crowds and power are deeply intertwined. Adorno says that the individual finds it extremely difficult to resist or assert himself as individual. This increases the symbolic significance of these categories. In their (individuals) inwardness, in their emotional life people seem to revert to an archaic stage in which these internalized categories have such a corporal significance that they become fully identified with them. The only way for individuals to be able to agree or consent to their own disempowerment is for them to reinterpret these complementary categories so as to make them seem meaningful, even irrational, and therefore sacred. Adorno says that this is the link between the growing symbolic significance of these things and their reality. The irrational symbolism that then recurs is not what it was previously, but rather a product of their actual situation in which humans find themselves regressing to the images with which we have been implanting in people’s minds for centuries. These connotations (“leader” and “masses”) are present because we are not really dealing with the archaic societies in which they had some validity, but instead these archaic societies are somehow conjured up and anything that is conjured up from the past, but holds no contemporary truth, is transformed by its own untruth in the present into a kind of poisonous substance. (Adorno, 188.) Canetti discusses four concepts or types of the “pack” which Canetti defines as a small group of people who are easily excited and influenced by each other. Furthermore, Canetti believes that these packs are equivalent to our modern masses, except for the difference that masses strive to grow while packs do not generally strive for numeric growth. The four types of packs are as follows: (1) ‘hunting pack,’ (2) ‘war pack,’ (the war pack evolved from the hunting pack) (3) ‘lamenting pack’ (when a member of the pack is dying they try to hold him back from leaving them, but once he dies they will turn to some rite to detach him from the group, reconcile him to his fate, and prevent him from becoming a dangerous enemy to the group), and (4) the ‘increase pack’ (the drive to grow in numbers.) The first three packs are all elements of archaic survival and no longer apply to the modern world (we no longer have to hunt, we no longer have to ritualize each death.) However, the ‘increase pack’ has undergone serious qualitative changes since its archaic past; it has changed in relation to production, consumerism, and industrialism, and as such the ‘increase pack’ has survived our modern existence. Adorno critiques the category of the ‘increase pack’ and says that he believes that the ‘increase pack’ is based on property, especially inheritable property (which has to be maintained, fetishized, and passed down to an heir.) This act of solidifying and marking one’s territory does not only come from the self-preservation imperative but it also comes from an economic imperative. Therefore growth and reproduction is a secondary factor and not primary factor. Property is the imperative for humans to reproduce, as it supplies more bodies for the culture industry to appeal to. Adorno goes on to talk about the widening fear that with the rise of consumerism of all forms, the growing population will shorten the time-span of humankind on earth. “…Mankind can sense in its quantitative growth the danger threatening its survival within the existing forms of organization.” (Adorno, 195.) Adorno points to the economic relations that are imposed on the value of a human life: “In other words, under existing conditions the apparatus of production, and with it the relations of production as a whole, can be kept going only by constantly creating new lots of buyers for their products, thus creating that curious reversal of primary and secondary in which human beings, for whom allegedly everything exists, are in fact just dragged along by the machine that has been made from them.” (Adorno, 195.) Adorno goes on to say that Canetti’s theory fulfills a very useful function, because Adorno just doesn’t buy that this ‘cult of production’ would thrive everywhere on earth (from “primitive” aborigines in Australia to highly developed Chinese societies) considering the many differences in political systems and religions. This points to something in human subjectivity, in people’s subconscious, in their entire archaic inheritance to which this idea makes a powerful appeal. (Canetti, 196.) In this ambivalence there is a very profound consciousness that on the one hand all possible forms of life actually have the right to exist but that on the other hand, because of the self-preservation instinct present in all humans coupled with the institutional apparatuses in which we live, every new human being that arrives represents something of a threat, no matter how miniscule, to the existence of all other human beings. (Canetti, 195.) Adorno continues to ask Canetti to compare his ideas of command to Freud’s theory of the civilization of man and the authority of the father. Canetti derives the notion of command—biologically—from the order to flee. He relates that a lion on the prowl that reveals its presence to other animals by its roar has the effect of making them flee. The command to flee or vacate is in our origin. It drives a threatened animal from the source of danger, and this fact has been built into our society. Orders are handed out without people suspecting that they are simultaneously receiving a death threat. Here Canetti explains that in every command there is the threat of death (You are warned that if you do not comply with orders from above, something bad will happen to you, like death for instance.) Through his study of command, Canetti concludes that a command can be broken down into its impulse, the motor energy that carries it out, and something he calls “the sting,” which refers to the slight sting that comes from a command that remains stuck in the individual, and over time, they accumulate, leading him to a suppression of festering rage against authority. People want to free themselves from these stings, and that is why they often seek out situations that are the exact reverse of the original situation in which they received commands, in order to get rid of the sting. Canetti finally answers Adorno’s initial question and explains the difference between his own theories and those of Freud. Canetti explains that for Freud, there are two concrete “crowds” that he uses as examples: the church and the army. For Canetti, the army is not a crowd at all; in fact, the army is a group of people held together by a specific chain of command in such a way that it can become divisible at any time, in correspondence to a specific command. Adorno later agrees with Canetti’s belief of armies and churches and says that the church and the army are not really crowds but rather a negation of crowds in that they both operate within a rational hierarchy whereas crowds are always subject to irrationality. Instead, the army and the church must be regarded as reaction-formations, namely regressions to social stages that are no longer reconcilable with present realities. (Canetti, 199.) Canetti concludes by saying that the threat of direct force (from some higher authority or maybe even your neighbor) survives in all mediations, and that every attempt to escape from it remains under the spell of the mythical circular process of doing to others what has been done to oneself. Repression leads to rebellion which leads to “wild” self-preservation which leads to death and destruction. Adorno reconciles Canetti’s conclusion by saying that by speaking about this feature of humans, by writing about it and critically analyzing it, we might find an escape from the spell. Some considerations… Is this idea of the “invisible crowd” relatable to the idea of a mass subconscious? How do we see this paradox of the self-preserving individual reverting to his herd-like mass mentality in relation to Nazism? Works Cited 1. Canetti, Elias and Theodor Adorno, “Crowds and Power: Conversation with Elias Canetti.” (1972)
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