Essay

Out of Many, One: The Far-Reaching Touch of the Crowd

Photographers, and their employers, shape so much of how we view crowds.
Photographers, and their employers, shape so much of how we view crowds. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The crowd is back.

Not the usual crowds, the cherry blossom tourists or the throngs that come for the annual season of rallies and protests. But rather The Crowd , the living organism, the perpetual phoenix of civilization, that gathers to sway the course of human events. In France yesterday, an embattled silver-spoon government responded to weeks of protests by crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands and backed down from a controversial youth employment law. In Nepal, people have taken to the streets to protest King Gyanendra's autocratic government. And all across this country yesterday, hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters gathered to demonstrate for their rights. The crowd as historical actor is acting again.

The crowd image generally reflects the latent fears inspired by those who have gathered in the streets. Photographers who pick out an individual marcher choose a face that reflects the emotion the photographer, or his employers, finds most compelling. Just as the eye scans the multitudes in a Bruegel painting, the lens scans the crowd, and finds it festive or restive, attentive or dull, emotional or over-passionate. But those are really metaphors: The individual stands for the crowd.

It's the photographers who stand back and try to capture the expanse of a crowd -- and yesterday the crowds were enormous -- who make the real crowd images. They have, in general, two choices. The crowd is a tapestry, an abstract pattern of color and shapes; or it is something like an engulfing sea of humanity that threatens to overwhelm. Within those two categories, there are other choices. Is the abstraction an organic shape, that flows like blood in the veins? Or is it regimented and linear, something suggestive of a military force gathered for battle? And does the oceanic crowd attack fragile markers of civilization and good order? Or does it cleanse the decadent vestiges of an old and unjust regime?

The photographer (or photo editor) decides, though not entirely. In 1960, the Nobel Prize-winning author Elias Canetti published an extraordinary analysis of mass gatherings called "Crowds and Power."

It was his effort to do for mass psychology what psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung had done for the individual mind, to limn its contours, classify its variety, expose its motivations. Canetti looked at religious crowds, military crowds, crowds that gather for executions, sport and concerts, and crowds that bring down governments. He published it after witnessing the horrendous consequences of the totalitarian crowd -- as a Jew, he was forced to flee the Nazis.

While he devoted special attention to the French crowd ("people who are just as little free, equal and fraternal as in other countries can for once behave as though they were"), the Spanish crowd (he compared it to the closed-in violence and spectacle of the bullfight) and the German crowd ("the crowd symbol of the Germans was the army "), he had little to say about the American crowd. His central thesis, however, seems as true of the American crowd as any other Canetti analyzes.

The Crowd, he argued, is a place where human beings are free of the primal fear of being touched. As crowds gather, there is a moment (he called it the moment of "discharge") when suddenly a horde of people exists as a crowd, where everyone is effectively equal. It can be a terrifying or exhilarating sensation -- listen, for instance, to the intoxicating and horrifying energy unleashed in Bach's "St. John Passion," when a dignified collection of singers, the chorus, becomes a "turba," or crowd, screaming "Crucify him, crucify him!"

Anyone who was on the streets yesterday knows the difference between watching, and being in the midst of, a crowd. There is no discharge, no thrill of equality, in looking at an image of a crowd. If anything, the horror of being touched is all the stronger. The more remote the viewer is, the more horrifying the crowd seems. One crowd image that likely seeped deep into the American consciousness was Yasser Arafat's funeral, because the crowd violates a double taboo, against touching, and against touching the dead.

The taboo Canetti singled out is deeply woven into our peculiar sense of the crowd, and may explain why a nation born in revolution demands that its crowds be dignified, well-behaved and disperse in a timely fashion. In the national psyche, very little positive is associated with the touch of strangers. When people feel crowded, touch becomes associated with dirt and contagion, with things that must be cleaned up or held at bay (and the people who do this work become "untouchables").

An abundance of space ("give me land, lots of land," goes the cowboy song) means that the taboo has, historically, been easier for us to avoid than other countries. But when necessity forces confrontation, there is a tendency to violent resistance. Our national epic, "Moby-Dick," begins with a man hemmed in and neurotic, who knows that whenever he wants to be "knocking people's hats off -- then I account it high time to get to the seas as soon as I can."

For us, a crowd image doesn't even require an actual crowd; the crowd's imprint and remains, dirt and trash, are enough. Newspapers often use photographs of the trampled grass, the overflowing trash cans, the abandoned banners and posters lying on the ground. In King Vidor's 1928 film "The Crowd," a young American who hopes for a better life battles two different crowds, what Canetti would call the "closed" crowd of the office, with dehumanizing lines of desks that signify conformity, and the ominous "open" crowds of the city, which threaten to pull him into the gutter. And as the crowd pulls him down, as it does to so many characters in American fiction, he resists . . . by trying his hand selling vacuums.

Plenty of Americans throw themselves happily into crowds, into throngs of shoppers at Christmastime, into the subway at rush hour. We are not immune to crowd psychology. Even when utterly defended inside the metal carapace of our cars we obey the law of the pack: What else would you call those traffic jams caused by our morbid desire to see an accident up close? Even so, we don't think of ourselves as a people that does crowds. On some primitive level, with the memory of Civil War prisons and the squalid world of New York tenements echoing inside us, the crowd makes us ask, impatiently, will we never be clean ?

Very little has changed since Emma Lazarus wrote her poem, the one that welcomes immigrants to our shores even as it calls them "the wretched refuse of your teeming shore." An immigrant is still something to be cleaned and scrubbed and molded into an American. That the people who have gathered in the streets in the past weeks are often the same people who clean for us, who do the so-called "dirty jobs," only reanimates the longstanding fear that someday this country will be full up, that we will have to rub up against each other in a way that sullies us. And so the pundits ask, again and again, the big question of the political season: Does the immigration issue really touch voters?

Along with his taxonomy of crowds, his analysis of their moods and character, Canetti suggested a series of "crowd symbols." Some are like rivers, characterized primarily by direction and flow, and others like sand, endless and infinite in their parts. Even prosaic things, such as "a heap of fruit or grain," suggested nuances of a crowd.

In this country, for all of our dark ideas about crowds, we may already have a crowd symbol that also captures our fantasy of how immigration should work: Think not of a heap of fruit, but of rows of vegetables, neatly laid out at the supermarket, beautiful and orderly. For they have been ripped from the ground, made to glisten, and dispersed across the country, where they are eventually incorporated inside us. Our fantasy crowd is domesticated, festive and colorful, and it safely expires after a brief time, but even this modern version of the crowd as cornucopia retains the thing that many fear: the touch of those who do the picking.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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