Crowds and Power

4. VII 2020

The very time I thought I was lost

My dungeon shook and my chains fell off (James Baldwin)

Unlike other senses whose organs are localized (eyes, ears, nose, tongue), our sense of touch, our skin, is everywhere – it envelops our entire body. We feel touch no matter where it comes from. Touch frightens us much more than any other stimuli because of its immediacy. When felt, someone has already intruded into our personal space. We can sleep through a powerful thunderstorm, but are instantly awakened by even the gentlest touch when our personal space and sovereignty have been violated.

Because of this deep rooted fear, neighbor has always been perceived as an arcehetypal traumatic intruder, someone whose different way of life disturbs us, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails, whose proximity often gives rise to an aggressive reaction and an impulse of getting rid of, or at least getting isolated from[1]. All the distances, physical, social or intellectual, which men create around themselves, are dictated by this fear. They are perceptible in architecture through symmetry, which derives in part from man’s attempt to create uniform distances all around himself — safety is based on distances and is emblematically expressed by them.[2]

Crowds play a dual role in the context of their interaction with our fears. People avoid crowds because of the fear of being touched. However, it is only in crowds that man can become free of this fear — as soon as man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch.[3] There is a singular point in crowd formation: when they swell to a certain size, they begin to attract people as they realize that the only way to overcome the anxiety of touch is to be totally immersed and allow touch to be everywhere.

That decision is triggered when those who belong to the crowd decide to abandon the comfort of their rank, status, and privilege – everything that defines ones social universe – and feel equal with others. Those distinctions are deeply embedded in their subconscious; they keep them firmly apart from one another. In every sphere of life, firmly established hierarchies prevent man from touching anyone more exalted than himself or descending, except in appearance, to anyone lower.[4] This moment of annihilation of differences and surrender to a single collective, which Canetti calls Discharge, is the tipping point in the process of creating the medium of power.

With discharge and the surrender to the crowd, the fear of alien intrusion into our personal space disappears – its sanctity no longer matters, our neighbors no longer frighten us. Through this symbolic gesture, the old power, which derived its strength through our division, loses its magic spell and is no longer capable of functioning as or impersonating power. It has lost its space and, exposed for what it has always been, is retreating into the bunker. In its place, a new space of different power is being created.

James Baldwin

To this day, the poetic take of James Baldwin offers the most eloquent and accurate summary of this moment of social and political inflection in American history[5]. For years, white Americans, even the most progressive – the alumni of the civil rights movement and the 1960s protests – despite having their hearts in the right place, have remained essentially bystanders, their well-meaning actions unable to change the course of things. They have been trapped in a history, which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. Throughout the 400-year history of America the Black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.[6]

Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. The danger in the minds of most white Americans is the loss of their identity.[7] That fear of the end of the (white) universe has defined the space of the masquerade of power that has been maintained through extraordinary violence, which in turn provided the lifeline to that fear. The fear and violence fed on each other until they were both exhausted and began to collapse under their own weight.

As we commemorate 244 years of unprecedented violence, the American white man finally appears to be ready to overcome his fear of the end, of removing the static barriers to change, the historical constants and the pillars of his universe. More than half of protestors in the Black Lives Matter Movement have been white[8] — not a victory, but definitely progress! The white man has overcome the anxiety of being touched by immersing himself into the crowd, by allowing each square inch of his political body to be touched. After being lost in it for 400 years, he is coming to terms with his history. The fixed star is beginning to move, the earth is shaking and the universe is changing. A new space of power is exploding. This is 1968 redux, only this time it is no longer a battle against the two alternative sources of political violence, but the showdown with the only remaining one.

Happy 4th!

[1] Slavoj Zizek, Violence, Profile Books (2008)

[2] Elias Canetti, Masse und Macht, Claasen Verlag (1973)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Vintage; Reissue edition (1992)

[6] ibid

[7] ibid.

[8] For example, in Atlanta, 75% of protesters were white, in LA 78%, in Minneapolis 85%, and in NYC 76%!

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