14 May 2008

More Swarms

The profundity of my disorientation while in the midst of the swarming bait ball, I'm sure, was a function of the amount of fish, the intensity of their swirling behavior, and their proximity to me. Tens of thousands of silvery fish engulfed me in a flickering whirlwind of erratic activity. I panicked. What's more, no matter how hard I tried I couldn't follow them with my eyes, much less keep up with them. I was a radically alien species and could neither receive whatever signals kept them moving in unison nor react and move as efficiently through the clear blue Caribbean waters. My neurons did not fire nearly so rapidly.

Our premise is that these simultaneous behaviors in fish, swallows, and bats (and others such as lemmings, locust, jellyfish, bacteria, etc.) are somehow evolutionarily akin to human emotions. More primitive, perhaps. More direct. More powerful. But different only in degree, not kind.

The swarm, it seems, perceives and responds as one. It makes sense that in the human animal—whose responses are capable of being mediated by thought or imagination or memory, for example—for the response to come close to being so unified, the stimulus must be powerful and primitive. Put another way, the more direct and primitive the emotion stirred, the more unified the community of feeling (to borrow Scheler's term).

What are the more primitive emotions? Awe, surely. Fear, yes. Anger, likely. Lust. Pride. Distrust. Disgust. Sorrow. Joy. All these are good candidates. But we're not so much interested in a taxonomy of the primitive emotions as in the power of these intense emotions to provoke an unmediated response in us.

The significance of human emotional responses, it seems to me, is governed by two factors: intensity and proximity. The more intense the cause, the less proximate it needs to be to arouse our sympathy. Thus, the shock of 100,000 instantaneous deaths in a flood or tsunami occurring anywhere in the world will affect us strongly and prompt a response, though the deaths of 10 or 100 or even 1000 occurring remotely might not. Whereas, one person killed in a swollen creek in our own neighborhood catches us up.

Similarly, intensity is a feature of two factors: time and presence. Thus, 150,000 deaths in England or France or China (any country which has a media presence and an ability to publicize its disaster—one whose affairs are deemed 'newsworthy') will affect us more than, say, half a million deaths in Rwanda or Congo. Or, 150,000 instant deaths in Southeast Asia will affect us more than, say, 150,000 deaths in the U.S. this year due to lung cancers resulting from cigarette smoking or 43,000 deaths due to automobile accidents in one year. Though, one death to a family member or close friend or work colleague due to any one of these causes affects any of us profoundly.

We end today with a quote from Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power:
Men's feeling for their own increase has always been strong. The large numbers of the herds they hunted blended in their feelings with their own numbers which they wished to be large. They expressed this feeling in a specific state of communal excitement which I call the rhythmic or throbbing crowd.

Their excitement grows and reaches frenzy, until they are all doing the same thing. They all swing their arms to and fro, and shake their heads. In the end, there appears to be a single creature dancing, a creature with fifty heads and a hundred legs and arms, all acting in exactly the same way and with the same purpose. When their excitement is at its height, these people really feel as one, and nothing but physical exhaustion can stop them.

The fact that wars can last so long and may be carried on well after they have been lost arises from the deep urge of the crowd not to disintegrate; to remain a crowd. This feeling is sometimes so strong that people prefer to perish together with open eyes rather than acknowledge defeat and thus experience the disintegration of their own crowd.

[More to follow]

No comments: