Heart of Darkness

“A motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze.” Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness


Guadalajara International Book Fair. The second largest book fair after Frankfurt, and the largest in the Spanish-speaking world. Thousands of visitors gather each year to get a first glimpse at new publications, listen to internationally acclaimed authors and others aspiring to be so, and to meet personalities who would not be called proper writers but just happen to have a book published with their name on the cover, regardless if they wrote the text. Editors, librarians, and book sellers meet there for business and networking, but many people simply go to buy books and get autographs from the the authors. With luck, you might get a good selfie for your social media timeline: Me and Paul Auster (for those friends who don’t recognize the guy standing beside you).

I arrived at the fair on Thursday, the day it opened to local schools. Entrance is free for students. Hundreds, maybe thousands of teenagers arrive in school buses and form long queues at the entrance. Many of them, dressed in their school uniforms, travel the alleys of the fair looking for freebies in large, noisy groups. Exhibitors know this isn’t the best day, even if it is crammed with people. Large wholesale contracts were signed the previous three days, and the biggest sales for non-professional booksellers are on Friday night—also a busy moment. Among the teens filling every inch of the fair’s alleys, four young guys dressed like Reservoir Dogs characters walk fast.  I don’t know who they are, but I assume that they do not come from an elite school with black tie and suit uniforms. Many other teens, especially women, gather around them and take out their cellphones for pictures. They murmur with awe. I assume they are teen idols. Not teen writer idols, I guess, unless things have changed that much since I was their age. Young Mr. Pink, Brown, White and Orange look uncomfortable surrounded by this group of fans that seem not to understand the rules of flocking. Their fans are too close, dangerously close. The Reservoir Dogs characters decide to escape and run in a line, as bodyguards do beside a limo.  Crowds are unpredictable. The emotion of taking a picture of one’s idol —even if it is not your idol—can escalate to the need to touch them, to take a memorable piece of black tie, or even to kiss one of them. That’s why the Reservoir Dogs characters run. You could see it in their eyes. The fear of crowds.

The fear of being touchedis the title of the first chapter in Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power.Elias Canetti, “The Crowd”, Crowds and Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984) 15.“There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it,” writes Canetti. He adds: “Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through the naked, smooth, defenseless flesh of the victim.”Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power. Not even a Tarantino’s gangster black suit-and-tie uniform will suffice. According to Canetti, “all distances that men create round themselves are dictated by this fear.”Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power.    


The idea of creating distance reminds us of what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk called distancing techniques: the ways in which the first human communities separated themselves from the natural environment, creating their own artificial world at the same time they are “sustained from within by an emotional greenhouse effect, which amalgamates the members of the horde.”Peter Sloterdijk, Im selben Boot. Versech über die Hyperpolitik (Spanish edition: En el mismo barco, ensayo sobre la hiperpolítica, translated by Manuel Fontán del Junco, Siruela, Madrid, 1994).Distance and consistence, or separation and connection, are the two poles between which a human community is built. Consistency is the way something holds together, whether in an argument or a sauce. Distance is an issue of separation. One is material, a texture, the other spatial, a field. But both share the same latin root: stare. Consistency is standing together —cum-stare— while distance is standing apart. Consistency ties together a group from the inside; more than identity, it is built in terms of identification: not only self-awareness but the recognition of the other as such. Something could be said on this following Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages,where he states that “the natural effect of the first needs was to separate men and not to bring them together”Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the origin of languages, in On the origin of languages, two essays, translated by John H. Moran and Alexander Gode (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).. He later explains that “social affections develop in us only with our knowledge,” which, through imagination, set pity in motion and, “by transporting ourselves outside ourselves”, let us identify “with the suffering being”.Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the origin of languages. Rousseau’s ideas probably do not follow what biology, anthropology, or some sociological theories teach us about the relationship between groups and individuals. Rousseau needed, in a way, the individual to come first for his theory of the social contract to function. Therefore, he did not see individuation as a social effect, but rather as its deterioration. On the other hand, distance traces the limit of the community with the outside, even though not from the outside, as the limit is the outside, as Gilles Deleuze wrote about language.“The limit is not outside of language, it is the outside”. Gilles Deleuze, Critique et Clinique, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1993. Consistence or distancing techniques cannot be absolute. The Catalonian philosopher Eugenio Trías makes use of the image of the limes, more a zone than a border or wall that limited Roman military cities to protect, but also to allow them to grow and expand, as a metaphor for the ontological condition of the limit. We are beings of the limit, he says, limiting and articulating the difference between the world of meaning— or the world as meaning— and its outside —which cannot be grasped at or as the limit.Eugenio Trías, Lógica del límite, Destino, Barcelona, 1991. In the same way, consistency cannot be total. Absolute distancing and total consistency would make a human community collapse on itself, in the same way that a lack of consistency or distancing would dissolve it. 


Distancing is not only a trait of collective behavior, but also works on an individual level. Canetti writes of “the repugnance to being touched” by strangers and not only by the unknown, by others as well as the other. “We avoid actual contact if we can”, he says, and if we do not, it “is because we feel attracted to someone”.Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power.   His proof is “the promptness with which apology is offered for an unintentional contact”. Edward T. Hall’s idea of proxemics and social distance is based, in part, on this repugnance to being touched.Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, Anchor Books, New York, 1969.Hall explains that “social distance is not always rigidly fixed, but is determined in part by the situation”. When consistence exceeds the need for providing distance and the repugnance of being touched is forgotten, it is in a crowd. “It is only in a crowd”, according to Canetti, “that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. The crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose psychical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses him.” To be pressed one against the other, without feeling repugnance of that other. In Littré’s dictionary, one of the definitions for the word foule (crowd) is “pressure which results from a great multitude of people, and, consequently, this multitude itself”.Littré’s dictionary 


In his work La Psychologie des Foules,Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd, a study of the popular mind, Macmillan, New York, 1896.first published in French in 1895, Gustave Le Bon writes that “the age we are about to enter will in truth be the era of crowds.”Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd. He explains that “scarcely a century ago […] the opinion of the masses scarcely counted, and most frequently indeed did not count at all”, while today —that is by the end of the 19th century— “the voice of the masses has become preponderant.”Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd.   For Le Bon, the preponderance of the crowd was in no way something to cheer. The crowd, he wrote, is not only a bunch of people:   


“Under a certain given circumstances, and only under those circumstances, an agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it. The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes.”Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd.   


In other words, Le Bon points to what we now call an emergent behavior: “a collective mind is formed, doubtless transitory, but presenting very clearly defined characteristics.”Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd.    In a way, if we understand flocking as “the phenomenon in which self-propelled individuals, using only limited environmental information and simple rules, organize into an ordered motion”Daniel Sinkovits, Flocking Behavior, 2006., we could say that the crowd as a formation of a collective mind is a kind of mental flocking. But for Le Bon, this mental flocking is rather directionless without a leader: “a crowd is a servile flock that is incapable of ever doing without a master.”Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd.     Le Bon also believed that the leader was “himself being hypnotized by the idea whose apostle he has since become.”Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd.      Sloterdijk also uses the idea of hypnosis to describe worlds, which in a sense are their own kind of crowds. He states that worlds are “fields that successfully regulate themselves through collective self-hypnosis”.Peter Sloterdijk, Im selben Boot. For Sloterdijk, self-hypnosis is a proper definition for politics: convincing us that we are ourselves, and want to be that way. The crowd’s auto-hypnosis without a hypnotist was for Le Bon a problem of authority, not a benefit of autonomy or emancipation. This is perhaps what Mark Bray, writing about the Occupy Wall Street movement, calls mimicry of the elite: “Movements can only be taken seriously [by the elites] once they become mirrors in which the elite can recognize themselves” and where there is “an unquestioned assumption that leaders, in the hierarchical sense, are essential to political action.”Mark Bray, Translating Anarchy. The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street, Zero Books, 2013. 


In another one of Sloterdijk’s books, Contempt of the Masses: Essays on the Culture-wars in Modern Society,Peter Sloterdijk, Die Verachtung der Massen. Versuch über Kulturkämpfe in der modernen Gesellschaft, 2000 (Spanish edition El desprecio de las masas, ensayo sobre las luchas culturales en la sociedad moderna, Pre-textos, Valencia, 2002).he also speaks of the era of crowds, the age “when the masses become subject and are endowed with a will and a history”, when “we can see the end of idealist haughtiness, of a world in which form believed to be able to organize the amorphous matter according to its own desires”.Peter Sloterdijk, Die Verachtung der Massen. Instead of a group of people organized by someone giving orders —that is, ordering a formation by someone that is not part of that group— the crowd organizes itself from within. In the crowd, each individual makes its own decisions as long as they add up to the formation of the crowd. Flocking is a natural way of limiting autonomous individual decisions. That is a paradox of the crowd, and a reason why we fear the way it behaves. In gaining autonomy as a crowd, it is said that individuals lose their autonomy as individuals. However, perhaps the fear is not (only) of individuals losing autonomy but (most of all) of specific individuals losing authority. In our first scene —the scene of the teen idols dressed as Reservoir Dogs characters—the distance imposed by the stage as a form of authority dividing performer from audience collapsed when the teen idols were in the same space at the same time, within a crowd in which they did not belong. According to Canetti, there is a moment in the formation of a crowd —which he calls the discharge— “when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal”.Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power.   The teen idols in black could not feel equal;  their status, their own identity as idols, depended on maintaining inequality. Therefore, they ran. As Sloterdijk comments following Canetti, “when all differences are torn down, the bourgeois imperative to make the effort to become one self, is at risk.”Peter Sloterdijk, Die Verachtung der Massen.   


MOB #2. Bill sent an email inviting participants to meet at 7:17 on June 17, 2003, in different places in New York.  They got instruction to gather, ten minutes later, in Macy’s rug department, and were to “inform clerks that they all lived together in a Long Island City commune and where looking for a love rug”.Bill Wasik, And then there’s this, Viking Penguin, London, 2009. A couple of weeks earlier, MOB #1 had been an aborted mission. The email that prepared that first and failed mob began: “You are invited to take part in MOB, the project that creates an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for ten minutes or less. Please forward this to other people you know who might like to join.”Bill Wasik, My Crowd, Harper’s Magazine, March 2006, //harpers.org/archive/2006/03/my-crowd/ Bill was Bill Wasik, then editor of Harper’s Magazine and confessed inventor of flashmobsa “coming together for no reason at all.” He describes that it was a project born of pure boredom, as well  as “an art project consisting of pure scene.” A scene, “a subdivision of an act or a play”, from Greek skene, “wooden stage for actors, originally tent or booth, related to shadow, shade.” More a covered space than an enclosed one, however separated somehow. Not a shed but a shade, “comparative darkness and coolness caused by shelter from direct sunlight.” But to shed, as a verb, means “to divide, separate, part company; discriminate, decide”. The dictionary says that it is close to discern, linked to secret, but also to the root skei, which means to cut, split. Let’s not get lost in translation. A pure scene. The flashmob opens or cuts its own space within another space. A closed space. Wasik explains that “only in enclosed spaces could the mob generate the necessary self-awe; to allow the mob to feel small would have been to destroy it.” The destiny of a crowd depends on its density. 


Canetti prescribes two basic categories for crowds: open and closed. He says that “the natural crowd is the open crowd” where “there are no limits whatever to its growth”, and that “it does not recognize houses, doors or locks” and therefore “it means open everywhere and in any direction”.Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power. This  does not mean open crowds are strictly anti-architectural, rather their architecture is not that of enclosures. Its openness is a risk for its permanence: “the open crowd exists so long as it grows; it disintegrates as soon as is stops growing.”Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power.   In contrast, Canetti explains that “the closed crowd renounces growth and puts the stress on permanence”, and that “it creates a space for itself which it will fill”.Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power.    Open crowds conquer space, but disintegrate in the face of time; closed crowds attain permanence by limiting their space. Again, a matter of distancing and consistency. Flashmobs, which could be the model for contemporary social-media-generated crowds, are a mix of closed and open, whether they occur in the space of Macy’s rug department or in the physically open but socially closed space of a public square. The crowd is a sudden congregation of people that, even if they behave as a subject of emerging or flocking behavior, if questioned, do not know what has happened and have no answer.  Flashmob participants, on the other hand, plan ahead – they know the precise answer to give, or if not, the precise attitude to assume before the crowd is formed. 


That is the darkness that Sloterdijk speaks of, playing with the words of Canetti: “Suddenly everywhere is black with people” (schwarz von Menschen).Peter Sloterdijk, Im selben Boot.  The crowd supposes not only “the collapse of the romantic-rational vision of the democratic subject,” but also “the dream of a self-transparent collective fades.”Peter Sloterdijk, Im selben Boot.   Today crowds dream of another kind of transparency, paradoxically mediated by social media, as if the square, black with inadvertently-formed people, was not a social media in itself. If, as Mark Fisher described it, the call center is a sort of emblem of “a system that is unresponsive, impersonal, centerless, abstract and fragmentary,”Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, 2009. could a leaderless crowd or a flashmob be not emblems but actual forms of political action in late capitalism? In the face of a flashmob or a crowd that everybody has tweeted about before it even happens, do we still feel like potential participants, or do we stare, as if in front of a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze?

Color within the XXXI International Book Fair in Guadalajara

Color within the XXXI International Book Fair in Guadalajara, Mexico, Friday, December 01, 2017. (© FIL / Nabil Quintero Milián)

Guardalajara International Book Fair

Guardalajara International Book Fair. Photo credit: International Publishers Association


Crowd. Image courtesy of James Cridland.

XXXI International Book Fair in Guadalajara

FIL 31, aspects of color; of the XXXI International Book Fair in Guadalajara, Mexico. Thursday, November 30, 2017. Photo: © FIL / Gonzalo García