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Has Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Human experience is paradoxical. Probing a deeply ingrained human instinct, he takes readers from prehistoric packs of hunter-gatherers to the emergence of global religions like Islam and Christianity and the nation-state.
These book summarys help explain the paradox of why individual humans — so proud of their own uniqueness — seek refuge in the group. Every member enjoys the same standing, regardless of previous differences. Those are the general traits of all crowds, but there are also specific types of crowds. In fact, there are five different kinds of crowd according to their emotional content. This crowd has a clear objective — to kill its chosen target.
A classic example is the crowd that called for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Then there are flight crowds. These are formed when a group of people is faced with a common threat. Once the danger passes, however, the crowd dissolves.
Next are prohibition crowds. Their purpose is refusal — think of striking workers manning a picket line. Reversal crowds are also rebellious, but their aim is to overturn existing power hierarchies.
They form when slaves revolt against their masters or soldiers turn their weapons on their officers. Finally, there are feast crowds. Their purpose? Common and equal indulgence, typically in the form of lavish food-based festivals. There are four attributes that define all crowds. Third, crowds are typically dense.
Bodies are pressed up against each other, and nothing can stand in the way of this proximity or divide members from one another.
Finally, every crowd has a goal. Without a purpose, the crowd disperses and people become individuals concerned with their personal affairs once more.
Once Jesus had been crucified, for example, the crowd that had been baying for his blood left the scene, and its members returned to their normal lives. So where do crowds come from? Well, crowds are deeply rooted in an older form of human association: the pack.
Packs existed long before crowds. In fact, they can be traced all the way back to the era when our ancestors still lived a pastoral and nomadic existence. A pack is an isolated group surrounded by wilderness. Another is density — crowds are much denser than packs. What they have common are the traits of equality and direction we looked at in the previous book summary. The first and most natural is the hunting pack, which is defined by its aim of killing its prey, which is usually an animal too large or dangerous for an individual to attack alone.
Next comes the war pack. Third is the lamenting pack, which is formed when a group member dies and is thereby torn from the group. As the name suggests, an increase pack seeks growth; it wants to expand. But the world had to become quite populous and connected before this urge could be fulfilled.
The rituals of the great world religions display dynamics that hint at their origin in much older pack and crowd behaviors. Take Islam. Devout Muslims assemble for prayer five times a day, usually in small groups. On Fridays, these groups merge into vast crowds. The crowd also plays an important role in hajj , the great pilgrimage to Mecca. Once there, the crowd of pilgrims is equal and united in its pursuit of a common goal — rounding the sacred Kaaba.
But the strongest connection between packs and religion is their shared emphasis on lamentation. Within Islam, the Shia branch is a classic example of a religion of lament. Shiites, as the adherents of Shia Islam are known, believe in the supreme authority of a spiritual and temporal leader — the Imam. As they understand it, the Imam is a direct descendant of Muhammad and carries the divine light of God within him. The first Imam was Ali, the husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatima.
He was beheaded during the battle. Shiites mourn the death of Hussein to this day and place that grief at the center of their faith. As we saw in the previous book summary, lamenting packs typically form in the wake of the death of one of their members. Lamentation is especially important when the person who died is thought of as someone who sacrificed himself for those who now mourn. In such cases, the pack laments the loss of a great hunter or someone who devoted himself to higher values.
Often enough, the departed person comes to be seen as a savior. Christians regard Jesus Christ as their savior, and many of their rites and rituals hark back to the lamenting packs that gathered beneath his cross and at his grave. So where does it come from?
Nations, Canetti argues, are rooted in the crowd, and people relate to them through crowd symbols. To belong to a nation is to be part of a unit that transcends the individual — in other words, to be part of a crowd.
Its members feel themselves to be equals and constantly seek to grow and expand. Take the English. They identify their country with the sea. Famous for their individualism, the English see themselves as captains of small ships, plying the ocean of society in isolation from other ships and their captains. The German crowd symbol that emerged at the end of the First World War, by contrast, was the army. That was related to the idea of a marching forest — a symbol that harked back to a longstanding German affinity for woodlands.
Germans take a mysterious delight in the parallel rigidity of upright trees. They contrast the vertical orientation of such forests with the uncontrolled growth in all directions of tropical jungles. And every nation has its own crowd symbols. Perhaps the most complex and interesting case, however, is that of the Jewish nation. The symbol that many Jewish people find compelling is that of the Exodus from Egypt. In this case, the nation is united by its wandering in exile and its search for the promised land.
These book summarys are about crowds and power. So what is power? Think of it this way. Physical force can only act in the here and now. Power, on the other hand, exceeds the limits of such immediacy. The origins of power can be found in the acts of seizing , killing and eating , actions performed — and thus also symbolized — by the hands, fingers and mouth.
The first act of power is to seize. Next come the fingers, with their pointed tips and armor-like nails. Fingers, especially the index finger, are used to jab and point — actions that resemble stabbing. The powerful are always in a position to stab and kill. When the prey is consumed, it is broken down and absorbed by the body of the powerful eater, who literally sucks the substance out of it.
The latter are natural instruments of power and have long been potent symbols of the powerful — just think back to the image of lions and tigers.
Whoever eats the most is also a champion; after all, food is often the product of killing other animals. In other cases, power is associated not with the act of eating a vast amount of food but simply possessing it. Imagine a battlefield shortly after the fighting has ceased. The survivor stands upright, surveying the fallen and slain at his feet.
His survival is a triumph over the dead and gives him a sense of his unique status. He now feels invincible. Those around him are also likely to attribute power to him because of his survivor status. One of those ideas paints the ruler as a survivor — the paranoid king, for example, who sees threats lurking behind every corner and maintains his position by means of bloody tyranny and executions. Take the tribes of Polynesia, for example, which believe in what they call mana.
Mana is essentially a supernatural power that warriors carry with them. According to their sacred history, there was once a great epidemic. It wiped out all but three people: a man, a woman and her daughter. In the myth, the man takes the daughter as his wife, thus founding the Kutenai tribe.
Have you ever seen a cat catch a mouse? Before that, it plays with the mouse — releasing it and letting it run away before slamming its paw down at the last second. Here, the mouse has fallen victim, not to the former, but to the latter.
Crowds and Power Summary and Review
And yet our world is largely an ecosystem of crowds — nations, faiths, political ideologies, art movements, fan bases. But no one has captured the paradoxical psychology of crowds more elegantly and dimensionally than Elias Canetti July 25, —August 14, Born in Bulgaria like myself , Canetti emigrated with his family at the age of six, living in various places across Western Europe before settling in Vienna at the age of nineteen, where he immersed himself in the literary world and began writing in German. Canetti begins by considering the deepest psychological driver beneath our conflicted attitude toward crowds — the common root of our aversion and our attraction to them:. There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown.
Crowds and Power
Has Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Human experience is paradoxical. Probing a deeply ingrained human instinct, he takes readers from prehistoric packs of hunter-gatherers to the emergence of global religions like Islam and Christianity and the nation-state. These book summarys help explain the paradox of why individual humans — so proud of their own uniqueness — seek refuge in the group.
Crowds and Power German : Masse und Macht is a book by Elias Canetti , dealing with the dynamics of crowds and "packs" and the question of how and why crowds obey power of rulers. Canetti draws a parallel between ruling and paranoia. It is notable for its unusual tone; although wide-ranging in its erudition, it is not scholarly or academic in a conventional way. Rather, it reads like a manual written by someone outside the human race explaining to another outsider in concise and highly metaphoric language how people form mobs and manipulate power. Unlike much non-fiction writing, it is highly poetic and seething with anger. On asking questions: "On the questioner the effect is a feeling of enhanced power.