20 May 2008

Swarm Sense

Some crowds form spontaneously. People are swept up into them and lose themselves within them. In our brief quotes from The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West gave us a portrait of what it was like—from the point of view of the resister, the individual who is unwilling to give over his identity to that of the swelling mass. This is an American type. He makes the choice to resist, but larger forces carry him against his will, wounding him in the process. West seems to be telling us this is the fate of the willful individual in modern times (much as Elias Canetti does, to a more tragic effect, in his brilliant novel Auto-da-Fe). Remember, too, Ayn Rand's explicitly polemical novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged—unsubtle reactionary paeans to unabashed selfishness.

But these situations are less interesting than the situation where the individual willingly gives over her identity to that of the crowd; chooses, that is to say, to go with the flow of the crowd, to abandon himself for the sake of the group identity. Some examples we've identified: religious services, the march to war, lynch mobs, sporting events, musical performances, movies. I'm sure there are others. What is the trade-off? What do we get out of it when we abandon ourselves? There must be some reward.

Paradoxically, Canetti locates this reward in the complex, deep-seated fear of being touched:
There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. ... It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. The crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose psychical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him. As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest." Crowds and Power, pp. 15-16.
This seems apt—as far as it goes. It helps to explain situations like the one pictured above from Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will. It works for riots, mobs, rock concerts and raves, and other similar immediate crowd phenomena. It does not explain the atavistic desire to be part of a unifying crowd where one is not forcibly thrown against other bodies: most religious services and operas and movies, for example. Sporting events too, for the most part. Nor does it help us get our arms around the crowd sense formed by the use of mass media for political, commercial, or aesthetic purposes.

We will call "crowd sense" those cultural phenomena that create (for the most part) non-physical, non-touching type crowds formed around a common emotional experience. Political propaganda musters a populace to embrace a particular point of view. Advertising creates a receptive crowd of potential consumers. Recording artists, poets, novelists, movie-makers, painters, sculptors, etc. attempt to create a unified "aesthetic experience" in their viewers, readers, and listeners. Television evangelists create crowds of hopeful donors. These are, for the most part, non-simultaneous and non-physical crowds; but they are crowds nonetheless with all the attributes we've been examining. No doubt there are more. But the point we keep returning to is the metaphorical point of the West snippet: what is the fate of the individual resistant to the main cultural forces crowding him into a political position (however well-considered), consumer products, artistic tastes, and benefaction/faith?

Is there ever a "swarm sense" or common sense that makes sense? Is there such a thing as the "wisdom of the crowd"? Homework assignment: read this article "The Genius of Swarms" from National Geographic magazine before we reconvene.

[More to follow]

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