The business of judgment

“Let us start with…the pleasure of pronouncing an unfavourable verdict. ‘A bad book,’ someone says….and he appears to be saying something objective. His face, however, betrays his enjoyment of his words…We constantly catch friends, strangers, or ourselves at this business of judgement, and the pleasure of an unfavourable verdict is always unmistakable.

“It is a cruel pleasure…there is no mercy in it and no caution and it accords best with its real nature when it is reached without reflection. The passion it conceals is betrayed by its speed. It is quick, unconditional judgements which excite the pleasure visible in the face of their author.

Gavel Clipart 31006.jpg“…It consists in relegating something to an inferior group while presupposing a higher group to which we ourselves belong. We exalt ourselves by abasing others. The existence of two opposing kinds, different in value, is assumed to be natural and inevitable. Whatever the good is, it is there to be contrasted with the bad. We ourselves decide what belongs to each.

“For it is only in appearance that a judge stands between the two camps, on the borderline between good from evil…he invariably reckons himself among the good…the things he judges are quite definite and factual; his vast knowledge of good and bad derives from long practical experience. But judgement is also usurped by those who are not judges, whom no-one has appointed, and no-one in his senses would appoint to such an office. No special knowledge is thought necessary…

“At the root of this process lies the urge to form hostile packs, which, in the end, leads inevitably to actual war packs…It depends entirely upon circumstances whether one or the other of these groups engenders enough inner heat to become a pack and attack the opposing group…”

From Elias Canetti Crowds and Power (1960 Masse & Macht; 1962 English tr. Carol Stewart)

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Crowds & Power

I am reading Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960 translated into English by Carol Stewart). About a quarter of the way into the book, I realized how oddly apropos this particular text is to this particular moment–the November 8 election here in the US.

The book I teach in my freshman composition class, Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent, synthesizes with the election season and with Canetti. Pack behavior, herd behavior, individuality and individuals, crowds, rituals, outliers and dissenting voices and the hero and the martyr…anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and philosophers who study group behavior note the paradox of wanting to be acknowledged as an individual and wanting to be comforted by the press of the accepting crowd.

I hate crowds, but they are indeed compelling. I experienced the crush and sway and direction and growing of crowds as a much younger person, in city life, on subways, at large demonstrations and, most frequently, at the phenomenon of the rock concert (for other people, it might be the phenomenon of the sports arena).

A crowd is equal. A crowd is dense. A crowd wants to grow and has direction. Yes, watch the behavior of the people in “the pit” at a Bruce Springsteen concert, for example, where the rock star becomes one with his fans, and equal, amid the density and the cheering and the hands-on excitement of the crowd. Aside from our religious rituals, we have other ways of expressing our need to be close together, we humans.

Here’s a crowd-surfing moment with Bruce Springsteen, Paris, 2016.

The power aspect–that is what relates to the presidential campaigning. But I feel too exhausted by the media mayhem to want to draw those parallels to Canetti at this time.

Believe me, though–they are there.

Here is Maria Popova (of Brainpickings) on Crowds and Power. A fine overview. Canetti’s insights also complement the work of such diverse scholars as René Girard and Daniel Kahneman. Much here to contemplate, as I contemplate the weirdness of the present moment.