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.

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Alexithymia

Alexythymia–a term used in psychology and psychiatry. Dictionary.com defines it: “difficulty in experiencing, expressing, and describing emotional responses. … Inability to describe emotions in a verbal manner.

It means having no words to describe or express feelings.

Or, experiencing feelings and having no verbal expressive methods to convey the feelings.

As to this 2016 US presidential campaign cycle, I am experiencing alexithymia. My feelings are just not something I can find words to explain. I will therefore rely on logic as much as I possibly can, but I admit that this year my vote is entirely based upon gut feelings that I cannot adequately organize into good prose.

It’s nice to know there’s a word for it.

 

Resilience & interpretation

I know many of the readers who follow this blog are not citizens of the United States. Perhaps you have been hearing about the contenders for our upcoming presidential election and feeling some dismay. Perhaps you are particularly concerned about calls for identifying citizens based upon their ethnic background and religious choice.

If so, I assure you that there is push-back here from people who recognize that persons such as Mr. Trump embarrass the nation. It appalls us to see a person who feels he can ignore the U.S. Constitution running for the presidential office simply because he has money and recognition…although the free and open laws of the country permit him to proceed.

Trump’s proposal to identify some of our citizens by creed or heritage violates the Constitution in several ways. It violates Amendment One’s provisions for freedom of religious expression, and Amendment Four, the right to privacy; and the section of Amendment Five that relates to being held answerable to a crime and deprived of liberties without due process of law; also, Amendment Fourteen Section 1. Many, many U.S. citizens know that such proposals are merely rabble-rousing slander and could not be enacted without completely controverting the Constitution. These people are not wealthy entertainers, and they do not make the news, but they exist and–with any luck–they will vote.

A person running for the highest office in his country should know its laws thoroughly, but nothing in our Constitution says he (or she) must. We citizens are to blame, as clearly many of us are not terribly familiar with the laws of the United States of America, either. U.S. citizens should become more aware of our responsibility to learn about the Constitution, the importance of the vote, and the need to be rational thinkers when we go to the polls. Our democracy’s founding documents were drafted by people who earnestly, if perhaps idealistically, believed that human beings are capable of rational decision-making.

Granted, they also thought they were granting voting rights to property-owning men. The Constitution has been altered over time; it is a resilient, flexible, and enduring piece of prose that’s been the source of frequent interpretation.USConstitution From a literary standpoint, resilience and interpretation are what keep “classics” alive and relevant as works of art, though close readers can also use context, history, and speculation about original intent to examine a piece of writing they love and respect.

I have no idea of how I will vote next November. But I do know I will consider, more than personal values, the values of the nation under whose laws I currently reside. I’m reminded of the wisdom-teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew–

He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” Matt. 22:21

The people listening to Jesus went away “amazed” (Matt. 22:22). There is something ambiguous in that response that speaks to me today, something worth meditating upon, something worth interpreting.

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Local vs. National

Election season is upon us, and this being a non-presidential voting year, US citizens tend to avoid the polls in droves. I’ve been talking with my students about herd mentality, informational cascades, and the pros and cons of non-conformity recently; local elections make a good example of the theory that people tend to do what they think others are doing (see this post for more on conformity and dissent). Which may include not doing what others are not doing, such as going to the polls.

This train of thought got me thinking about poetry, oddly enough. Years ago, when I was more ambitious for myself, I spent considerable time and effort trying to get my work published in national journals. There was, for me, a sense that the cachet of publication in certain “top tier” magazines would somehow confer legitimacy on my work (vocation or avocation, depending upon how one defines being a poet in the USA). But I am not strongly suited to the organization, persistence, and promotional oomph required to get my work into the limelight; also, I may have lacked the required talents as a poet. At any rate, during that time in my writing life, I was advised to avoid ‘local venues’ of publication because these were not top-tier and might devalue my work.

To which I now say: humbug!

Annshumbug1

Humbug by Steve Barr, cartoonist

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Local voting is crucial to a democratic society. Local politicians and local legislative changes affect a voter’s life more immediately than national elections do.

By the same token, local arts potentially have more impact than nationally-known artists and art events; yet citizens are often rather clueless, and often woefully unsupportive, of regional arts and artists. (To visit Steve Barr’s website, click on the humbug.)

I am no longer a young, ambitious poet who aspires to national prominence. My ambition revolves more around becoming the best poet I can be given my abilities, education, and circumstances. Furthermore, I now firmly believe that local is a crucial step in global: the two can no longer be separated, as parts of the environment, the social and economic and cthonic ecosystems that are intricately dependent upon connections and relationships.

I am happy to report, therefore, that I am one of three regional, if virtual, “resident poets” for the autumn season of the online e-zine Lehigh Valley Vanguard–a local journal devoted to the “subversive arts.” Several of my poems will appear among its posts over the next three months. Please check occasionally for poetry postings! The first of these is “Post-Exodus,” although an earlier poem, “Regional Conflicts,” appears here.

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My ambitions for my own poetry center, these days, on what I want the words and the work to accomplish regardless of status or publication. My aesthetics have perhaps changed along with my assumptions…and my evaluations of the value of local and national and global recognition.

Local is where I live. Local’s good. Check out the Vanguard, and take a little time to find out what’s happening wherever it is you reside.

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Here’s another bug. 🙂