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.


Consciousness as multiple drafts

Daniel C. Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, has kept me entertained and interested for a couple of days now. How could I refuse a book with that title? And Dennett–whose conversational writing style appears to toss off one idea after another in quick succession–actually stays mostly true to classic philosophical reasoning in his arguments as he endeavors to make claims for what consciousness is. He begins with phenomenology as one way to initiate the concatenation of empirical science (physics, biology, neurological research) with logic. He dispenses with Husserl and the early Phenomenologists but invents his own form–hyperphenomenology–breaking phenomena into three divisions and exploring each until he arrives at a way to destroy the long-held concept of the mind, hence consciousness, as “Cartesian Theatre,” and replace that model with a construction more biologically sound.

The book is far too complex to summarize, but the concept he develops that most appeals to me is what he calls the multiple drafts theory of consciousness. Dennett draws upon neurological and psychological research as well as past and current philosophical thinking to propose that what we term consciousness may consist of multiple narratives created through physical input, memory processing, and other processes that result in fraction-of-a-second “revisions” in thinking. Narratives! Revisions! As a writer, I can certainly relate to this idea. The theory of multiple drafts consciousness would explain many phenomena, such as the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the repression and re-constructing of traumatic experiences, the embellishment of stories (as Dennett puts it, “What I should have said at the party becomes what I said at the party”)…and it has examples in the way we “tell” fiction, movies, and family stories.

Currently, I am engaged in the work of revising dozens and dozens of poems. Many drafts. Many narratives, many layers. Subtle shifts in perspective or story or language or style–which version is the real me? All of them, across a continuum.

Derek Parfit’s Reasons & Persons suggests some of the same conclusions through a more traditional philosophical approach (harder to read than Dennett’s often-humorous prose which is geared more toward the non-philosopher and which employs considerable neurological and psychological research as part of its rational evidence).

Although these texts intrigue, and are convincing, they remain speculative. For me, the science aspects of the inquiry remove none of the mystery or delight I experience in terms of my own consciousness. Nor do they negate my sense of myself as individual, unique as to perspective, or whole in myself and in the cosmos. I know that many people resist the idea that consciousness is not soul, who feel that scientific research somehow diminishes human beings into–what? Fancy hardware for intelligent software? Automatons with the illusion of free will? Purposeless life forms? Robotic zombies with no moral bearings?


A continuum version of tao

Apparently, we desire awe; but knowledge doesn’t have to kill awe.

I find myself fascinated with the ideas posed by Douglas Hofstadter wherein he theorizes consciousness-as-continuum (see this post). People love to default to a black & white way of analysis, thinking, and judging, but everything in nature contradicts that concept. No doubt our brains, wired to make quick decisions using the simplest shortcuts, sieve out a great deal of content and then justify later (Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow covers this process in fascinating depth). It’s simply easier to think of balance as tao, perfectly harmonious black and white, or to sort people or objects or ideas into yes-or-no categories. But the distinctions are seldom so clear–there’s a continuum that stretches from the black to the white, as in the spectrum, as in the fringes of a forest or a meadow, as in the so-called races of human beings, as in places where societies and cultures meet and often intermingle, as in the coastline of the sea or a riparian environment. And all of those things are awesome, even miraculous.

In Dennett’s Chapter Five, “Multiple Drafts vs. the Cartesian Theater,” he offers this diagram:


dennett003It’s a proposed version of what happens when we think.

You will have to read the book to decipher this illustration; but I recognize in it the way I tell a story, think about a story, remember an event, record an experience, and the narrative method of the many kinds of stories (many genres, many media) that I love.

One thing it is not is straightforward. We have all those revisions to make, to layer our experiences with, to explore along the fringes of, and to find deeply miraculously awesome. Wading among my drafts now, I feel revitalized. These reflections and revisions are part of my Self as a conscious being in a physical and wonderful world.




Blame & fear

Amazing, the human brain, consciousness layered over instinct, habits of thought, the ways we feel, rationalize, justify, seek for why. In the wake of tragedies, we tend to react with fear and blaming; it is as if we could only discern who or what to blame, perhaps we could learn how to prevent it. So we “reason.”

But all too often, what we are doing is not using reason. Instead, people tend to blame whoever or whatever best suits their own, already-decided view of the world and use “reason” to justify their feelings, a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias” on which Daniel Kahneman has much to say. Cognitive biases inherently interfere with objective analysis, which is sometimes a lovely and rich part of the human experience but which also leads to terrible misuse of analysis. We usually act based on biases rather than on logic (see this page for a long list of biases). So many ways to justify our often-mistaken and uninformed beliefs or responses.

Anthropologist and philosopher René Girard offers insights into the desire to blame–a sociocultural desire, deeply rooted in the way humans behave when in groups and, he believes, one of the foundations for the development of religious rituals, among other things. As we endeavor to “make sense of” impossible events, to “discover why” they occur, we seem naturally to turn to blaming. Apparently, designating a scapegoat consoles us somehow, allows us to believe we might have some control over what is terrible, not unlike sacrificing a calf to propitiate an angry god.


I lived just outside of Newtown, CT for a few years in the 1980s. I still have friends there and I know the area well. It was a safe town, and it is still a safe town; only now, it is a safe town in which a terrible and statistically-rare occurrence happened. That sounds rather dry and heartless: “a statistically-rare occurrence.” Yet from the logic standpoint–if we are being reasonable–it is simple to discover that by any measure, U.S. schools are the safest place a school-age child can be. Fewer than 2% of deaths and injuries among children ages 5-18 occur on school grounds. I got these numbers from the US Center for Disease Control. Keeping an armed policeman at every U.S. school (as recently proposed by the president of the NRA) might possibly make an incrementally small difference in that tiny number. Might. Possibly. Rationally, would it not make more sense for us to address the 98% and decrease that number? Though I am all in favor of hiring more people to safeguard our cities, the only real value of such a move would be to reduce a mistaken sense of public fear.

Because we are afraid, and fear is keeping us from rational and compassionate behavior. Fear can be useful–it probably helped us survive in the wild, and it continues to serve good purpose occasionally; but human beings ought to recognize the value of fear is limited in a civilized, community-based, theoretically-rational society. Rational, compassionate behavior on the part of our nation would be to remove the lens of public scrutiny from the people of Newtown and allow them to deal with grieving in the privacy of their families and community. We cannot come to terms with private loss, nor ever understand it truly, through network news, tweets, photographs on our internet feeds, or obsessive updates on ongoing police investigations.

Fear also keeps us from finding resources of our own. It blocks us from our inner strengths. The families and friends of the victims and the killer need that inner strength more than they will ever require public notice, no matter how well-intentioned the outpourings are.


Blame. Whose fault is it? Children and teachers and a confused and angry young man and his mother have died violently, and I’ve been listening to the outcry all week–even though I have tried to limit my exposure to “media sources.” Here are the scapegoats I have identified so far: the mental health system; semi-automatic weapons; violent computer games; the 2nd Amendment; the media; autism; school security; the killer’s father and mother (herself a victim); anti-psychotic drugs and the pharmaceutical industry; divorce; god; U.S. legislation concerning weapons and education and mental health; bullies in schools; the NRA; the victims themselves, for participating in a godless society; poor parenting; narcissism; the Supreme Court; President Obama; the CIA. I’m sure I have missed a few. (Andrew Solomon’s recent piece in the New York Times also touches on our default blame mode; his list coincides pretty closely with mine; see this article.)

Scapegoats serve several purposes. They allow us to say we, ourselves, no matter how guilty we feel, are not at fault. They give us an excuse for disaster, something to punish or something to attempt to change through controls we can think through and develop (“logically”). And in fact some good may eventually come of the changes and the control we exert, but such change is likely to be small and long in arriving. Mostly what scapegoating achieves turns out to be bad for us, however, because what it does well is give us something to fear.

Fear motivates us to read obsessively every so-called update on the killer’s presumed (and, ultimately, unknowable) motives, to argue over the best way to address the complex and intertwined issues that each of us perceives to be the root cause of any particular tragic event. Our fears make us consumers of media, and our information sources respond to our need to know why and our desire to blame. Our fears drive us to purchase guns to protect ourselves even though statistics continually prove that more U.S. citizens are killed accidentally or intentionally by someone they know intimately (including themselves, especially in the case of suicides–which Solomon also addresses in the essay I’ve cited) than by strangers or during acts of robbery, terrorism or massacres. “News,” as we have come to know it, is predicated on reporting things that are dramatic and therefore statistically unlikely. Suppose our information sources kept an accurate hourly update on weapons-related or motor vehicle-related deaths…would we become immune to the numbers? Would we say “That’s not news”? Would we be less avid consumers of such “news sources”? Would it comfort us to know we are more likely to be struck by lightning twice than to die in a terrorist act on U.S. soil or be killed by a deranged gunman in a mall or school?

Can we delve into our inner resources of rationality in order to fight our fears?


I think not. Fear is not easily swayed by facts. Instinct trumps reason psychologically and cognitively in this case. Fear is so emotional that it requires a deeply spiritual, soul-searching response perhaps–instead of a reasoned one. Perhaps that is why so many of the “great religions” include stories of human encounters with a god, godhead, or cosmic intelligence which humans “fear” (though the term is used to signify awe and recognition of human insignificance rather than the fear of, say, a lunging tiger). In these stories–the Bhagavad Gita and Book of Job among them–a human confronted with the godhead recognizes such fear/awe that he can never afterwards fear anything this world has to offer. In the face of what is beyond all human understanding, there is no reasoning, and no human “feelings” that psychology can explain.

Roosevelt said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Words well worth recalling in times like these.



Finally, this:

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Namaste, Shalom, Peace, Al-Salam. May your find the strength within yourself to make your way compassionately through this world.

5 good things

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes psychological research that strongly suggests human beings have stronger responses to negative events or stimuli than to positive ones. That makes sense; for survival reasons, it is “wise” to be able to recognize threats or aggression rapidly. Once humans understand this fact of our natures, however, we ought to be able to put its effects into rational perspective…if we are rational human beings.

Kahneman cites a study that looked at marriages and found that, in a marriage the spouses described as “happy,” each partner said or did five pleasant things for every one unpleasant comment or action. The five-to-one ratio turns out to be a steady one in other types of psychological research into mood, threat-response, and attitude assessments among employees, family members, and groups.

In other words, we have to do five nice things to outweigh the emotional effect of one unpleasant thing. Which is, by the way, irrational. A rational equation would be one-to-one for a neutral emotional grounding, and two nice events would (rationally) make up for one nasty remark. Philosophers would agree, but given that human nature is not as rational as we often like to believe, philosophers also readily understand the problem of what Stephen Covey has called “the emotional bank account.” That one negative situation taints our moods pretty severely, even though it should not. The emotional bank account draws down very rapidly if we consider that 5-to-1 ratio.

I propose that we learn from this research to practice five actions as we navigate the challenges of getting along with other people:

1) Try harder to do those so-called random acts of kindness. Smiling is a good start.

2) Repress at least a few of our negative markers (frowns, sarcastic remarks, resentful sighs).

3) Identify more good things people do so we realize that good things do occur.

4) Try to teach ourselves to be more rational when negative things happen.

5) Remember that others are recalling the one bad thing, just as we do, and let it go.

It’s harder than you’d think, but it isn’t impossible. Neither easy nor hard: the middle way.

Here are five good things I encountered today:

Pansies (viola × wittrockiana). Daffodils (narcissus). Chickadees (poecile atricapillus). Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55. Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3 (1932).

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael

More difficult books

photo by Ann E. Michael

Some weeks back, I posted about reading “difficult books.” It occurs to me that there are different kinds of difficult books, and perhaps different kinds of motivation for reading them.

In my previous post, I addressed why I read philosophy. I also read books on subjects like string theory, fractals, physics, economics, psychology, and other topics that might be considered difficult, especially for a person who is not a scholar in any of those areas. One example is the book I’m reading now, Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics, and this book explores how human beings make decisions, are rational or irrational depending on circumstances and how information is presented, make judgments, develop intuition and biases, and learn or fail to learn from mistakes. He’s a fairly good writer for the layperson, staying away from jargon and taking pains to explain his work clearly for the non-psychologist, non-economist, and non-mathematician. Nonetheless, this book–while wonderful!–is not easy material to read. One reason is that the text is about thinking, so (like philosophy) the endeavor is entirely metacognitive. Also, Kahneman’s findings directly challenge many of the things we think we know about ourselves. That sort of book is inherently difficult.

Another book written in lively anecdotes avoiding too much technical language but that I found difficult all the same is Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe. Kauffman explains Boolean logic in a way that helped me to understand not just the basic premise but how Boolean operates in terms of randomness and the development of algorithms. His book, however, takes for its subject complexity theory. You can tell by the name of the theory that this material’s a little challenging. Furthermore, he begins by writing about chemistry, a science in which I have almost no foundational understanding. I learned much from his work about self-organization of things like molecules and stellar systems, and this book enabled me to read his more theoretical text on “reinventing the sacred” with deeper understanding (and even a bit of skepticism). But easy to understand? No.

Joao Magueijo introduced me to the research and theories of young cosmological physicists through his book Faster than the Speed of Light, a book that is laugh-out-loud funny in places and written with the casual tone of having a conversation with an enthusiastic and possibly jerky scientist while at a university-neighborhood pub (there were more than a few asides in his narrative, most of which dealt with university or science politics). I know more physics than chemistry, but I can’t do the math. I had to re-read some of the pages in Magueijo’s book to figure out where he was going with his potential discoveries. I read the book years ago, yet it stuck with me; recent news about possible faster-than-light particle movement reminded me instantly of the work this team was doing in the late 90s.

Science and philosophy are difficult; and while books that involve the relationship between the disciplines (such as Hofstadter’s now-classic Gödel, Escher, Bach and Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred, to name only two) are not necessarily twice as difficult, they cannot be categorized as easy-to-read, even when the author is a marvelous writer. True “System 2 thinking” (see Kahneman) means constant engagement with the text, and our brains simply get tired. But they also get exercise and plasticity from the enjoyable work of reading what is hard, a workout I find exhilarating.