Friday, January 23, 2009

Thomas F. Bertonneau Gets It

The just-completed American presidential campaigns, the election, and the inauguration together have taught us a lesson about crowds. Our electronically mediated presidential campaigns thrive on crowds and on the social phenomena that attend them: one might list unified cheering, rhythmic repetition of slogans, emotive activations of the body, swooning, flag-waving, and an eagerness to respond, in “Simon-says” style, to broad cues from a designated leader. Our political spectacles differ hardly at all in their outward appearance from our sportive entertainments. Another word for a crowd is a mob, a mass of people mobilized in unanimity and thus demoting itself freely and spontaneously from the status of the responsible individual to that of a collective instrument of agitation or coercion – and for a purpose more than likely not its own. Crowds are mobile, but they are also motile, that is to say, fickle. The crowd that shouts “Ave Rabbi!” will swiftly transform itself into the crowd that shouts, “Crucifigatur!”

Both Guy LeFort and René Girard identify the crowd with primitive religiosity and things sacred. As Girard points out inveterately, the sacred is related to sacrifice. As the crowd militates against individuality, it militates against conscience; but it also militates against clear perception and straight thinking. Crowds subsume the individual and they foster delusion – projective delusion. Crowds hallucinate visions of deity and enmity at the same time; moved in a panic fashion, they reify their movement in the figure of an agency that drives them, and that, in its power, seems to transcend them in the hierarchy of being. In the same moment as they feel driven, crowds also yearn to see revealed an object of their compulsion, for any movement must have a goal as well as a cause. Thus crowds seek a malefactor, an irritant whose pranks or transgressions justify the violent lust that comes from a clash of elbows within the throng. As Girard as made explicit, in this manner the victim is born. The etiquette of “Hail Rabbi!” is inseparable from the demand to “Crucify him!”
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