16 May 2008

The Swarm

[This is a continuation of the series of blogposts on Swarms. Of course, what prompted this sequence was the set of posts on recent natural disasters beginning here and the initial sense of a unified outpouring of sympathy.]

We've seen what it's like to be caught up in a disorienting swarm of other animals and wondered what force united these fish, insects, birds, bats, etc. We've speculated that, in human beings, it is akin to such primitive emotions as fear, hate, etc. Nathanael West has shown us what it's like to be a part of a swarm of our fellow humans: the helplessness of being caught up in something that is greater than ourselves, the vain struggle to extricate and differentiate one's self from the swirling chaos, the heedlessness of the crowd to the individual's pain, the amorality and disinhibition of those who are caught up in an anonymous herd, the grasping for comfort in memory and art to help explain what's happening to us. West even suggests some causes of this sort of swarm behavior, pulling in everything from movie star hype to moral outrage. It is too easy to lose one's self in the swarm, to let go the lonely struggle to set one's self apart—dare we say it, to transcend.

Others have observed and commented on this phenomenon in various contexts:
"there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own." J.S. Mill, On Liberty Ch. 1.
"Inasmuch as at all times, as long as there have been human beings, there have also been herds of men (clans, communites, tribes, peoples, states, churches) and always a great many people who obeyed, compared with the small number of those commanding—considering, then, that nothing has been exercised and cultivated better and longer among men so far than obedience—it may fairly be assumed that the need for it is now innate in the average man, as a kind of formal conscience that commands: 'thou shalt unconditionally do something, unconditionally not do something else,' in short, 'thou shalt.' ... In the last analysis, 'love of the neighbor' is always something secondary, partly conventional and arbitrary—illusory in relation to fear of the neighbor. ... The highest and strongest drives, when they break out passionately and drive the individual far above the average and the flats of the herd conscience, wreck the self-confidence of the community, its faith in itself, and it is as if its spine snapped. Hence just these drives are branded and slandered most. High and independent spirituality, the will to stand alone, even a powerful reason are experienced as dangers; everything that elevates an individual above the herd and intimidates the neighbor is henceforth called evil; and the fair, modest, submissive, conforming mentality, the mediocrity of desires attains moral designations and honors."  F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil Secs. 199, 201.
"Differences only arise through individuation ... The unconscious consists, among other things, of remnants of the undifferentiated archaic psyche, including its animal stages. The reactions and products of the animal psyche have a uniformity and constancy of which we seem able to discover only sporadic traces in man. Man seems to us far more individual than the animals. This may perhaps be a delusion, since we have in us a convenient tendency to discern differences mainly in the things which interest us. ..." C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation p. 176.
"the facts of man's collective life easily rob the average individual of confidence in the human enterprise. The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with all of the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior. Sometimes they are as anxious to offer moral justifications for the brutalities from which they suffer as for those which they commit. The fact that the hypocrisy of man's group behavior ... expresses itself not only in terms of self-justification but in terms of moral justification of human behavior in general, symbolises one of the tragedies of the human spirit: Its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command." Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society pp. 8-9.
"Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious, but he did not see clearly, he did not see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd. ... Elias Canetti distinguished between two types of multiplicity that are sometimes opposed but at other times interpenetrate: mass ('crowd') multiplicities and pack multiplicities. Among the characteristics of a mass, in Canetti's sense, we should not large quantity, divisibility and equality ofthe members, concentration, sociability of the aggregate as a whole, one-way hierarchy, organization of territoriality or territorialization, and emission of signs. Among the characteristics of a pack are small or restricted numbers, dispersion, nondecomposable variable distances, qualitative metamorphoses, inequalities as remainders or crossings, impossibility of a fixed totalization or hierarchization, a Brownian variability in directions, lines of deterritorialization, and projection of particles. Doubtless, there is no more equality or any less hierarchy in packs than in masses, but they are of a different kind. The leader of the pack or the band plays move by move, must wager everything every hand, whereas the group or mass leader consolidates or capitalizes on past gains. The pack, even on its own turf, is constituted by a line of flight or of deterritorialization that is a component part of it, and to which it accredits a high positive value, whereas masses only integrate these lines in order to segment them, obstruct them, ascribe them a negative sign. Canetti notes that in a pack each member is alone even in the company of others (for example, wolves on the hunt; each takes care of himself at the same time as participating in the band). 'In the changing constellation of the pack, in its dances and expeditions, he will again and again find himself at its edge. He may be in the center, and then, immediately afterwards, at the edge again; at the edge and then back in the center. When the pack forms a ring around the fire, each man will have neighbors to the right and left, but no one behind him; his back is naked and exposed to the wilderness.'" Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus pp. 29, 33-34.
"Baudelaire had the true intuition of number as a tactile hand or nervous system for interrelating separate units, when he said that 'number is within the individual. Intoxication is a number.' That explains why 'the pleasure of being in a crowd is a mysterious expression of delight in the multiplication of number.' Number, that is to say, is not only auditory and resonant, like the spoken word, but originates in the sense of touch, of which it is an extension. The statistical aggregation or crowding of numbers yields the current cave-drawings or finger-paintings of the statisticians' charts. In every sense the amassing of numbers statistically gives man a new influx of primitive intuition and magically subconscious awareness, whether of public taste or feeling: 'You feel better satisfied when you use well-known brands.'" Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media p. 107.
[More to follow]

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