The Open Crowd & The Kettle

by | 16 Jun 2014

6a00d83451e1dc69e2017ee99f3ec0970dElias Canetti’s Crowds and Power pro­vides a use­ful start­ing point for this project. In it, he iden­ti­fies a wide num­ber of dif­fer­ent crowds. They are deter­mined by the tem­po­ral­ity of their aims, the space in which they man­i­fest them­selves, the ori­en­ta­tion of their activ­ity, the man­ner in which their togeth­er­ness is con­ceived. In fact, the axes of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion mul­ti­ply to such an extent that what ini­tially began as a sim­ple tax­on­omy, frac­tures and mul­ti­plies to reveal crowds as always too com­plex and con­tra­dic­tory to explain or under­stand in their total­ity. As a begin­ning, then, Canetti under­lines pre­cisely the mul­ti­plic­ity of the crowd.

Despite this mul­ti­plic­ity, let me focus on two types of crowds, in Canetti’s eyes. The open crowd is ‘open’ in the sense that it is un-boundaried. It is open on all sides and through­out. There is no point of divi­sion where the crowd could repel new-comers, no bound­ary where a sov­er­eign could exclude. It’s sim­ple rule is growth, or at least the pos­si­bil­ity of growth. The crowd has a mass, a den­sity and a grav­ity, and this grav­ity draws peo­ple in. ‘The open crowd exists so long as it grows; it dis­in­te­grates as soon as it stops grow­ing…. In its spon­ta­neous form it is a sen­si­tive thing. The open­ness which enables it to grow is, at the same times, its dan­ger. A fore­bod­ing of threat­en­ing dis­in­te­gra­tion is always alive in the crowd.’1 It is to be dis­tin­guished, Canetti tells us, from the closed crowd which is deter­mined by its boundary.

The closed crowd renounces growth and puts its stress on per­ma­nence. The first thing to be noticed about it is that it has a bound­ary. It estab­lishes itself by accept­ing its lim­i­ta­tion. It cre­ates a space for itself which it will fill. This space can be com­pared to a ves­sel into which liq­uid is being poured and whose capac­ity is known. The entrances to this space are lim­ited in num­ber, and only these entrances can be used; the bound­ary is respected whether it con­sists of stone, of solid wall, or of some spe­cial act of accep­tance, or entrance fee. Once the space is com­pletely filled, no one else is allowed in.2

The bound­ary – usu­ally a build­ing – remains even when the crowd dis­perses. As such, the closed crowd main­tains a dif­fer­ent tran­scen­dence to that of its open vari­ant. The open crowd’s tran­scen­dence hap­pens in the shar­ing out of the equal­ity of its hap­pen­ing. The build­ing or walls of the closed crowd, how­ever, allow the crowd to con­tinue even when it is not actu­ally taking-place. ‘The build­ing is wait­ing for them; it exists for their sake and, so long as it is there, they will be able to meet in the same man­ner. The space is theirs, even dur­ing the ebb, and in its empti­ness it reminds them of the flood.’3 Canetti imag­ines crowds in the­atres, in sta­dia, in churches and each of these have their own dynam­ics which I do not have space to even begin to deal with. But the open crowd, as it flows through the streets or gath­ers in pub­lic squares, is never bound­aried. There is no edi­fice which would stand in for it when the crowd dis­si­pates. While the the­atre or church stand for their audience-crowd in their absence, there is noth­ing to func­tion like this for the open crowd. Instead its flow, its den­sity and its dis­charge take place only in an imme­di­ate sense.

Canetti insists that even when com­manded by a ‘leader’, trans­mis­sion of orders in a crowd is always from one per­son to the next, and is thus always sub­ject to rever­sal, refusal or alter­ation by those within the crowd. In other words this is absolutely not Le Bon’s idea of the crowd as the uni­fied sub­con­scious of the leader, where this unity meant that like entranced automa­tons the mass would sim­ply fol­low his instruc­tions. Le Bon’s is the model of full tran­scen­dence where the leader, the dem­a­gogue and the sov­er­eign stand over the crowd and present its unity and truth. The tran­scen­dence of the open crowd is always par­tial. Within the imma­nence of the crowd, there is a reach­ing out for tran­scen­dence which is never completed.

Par­a­dig­matic of the open crowd is the mass protest. This crowd, ini­tially flow­ing through the streets, churn­ing through the city, sud­denly hits a bar­rier. ‘The urban space [as we know] has always expressed the inequal­ity of social rela­tions and offered a site of con­flict.’4 The bar­rier can be any­thing, it might be the end point of the march, but more likely it is the police lines. In the UK recently, large protests have been ket­tled. That is the mass of peo­ple, first open and grow­ing, are sud­denly con­fined in a large area. They are penned in. The anti-globalization May Day protests of 2001 were penned in Oxford Cir­cus, theG20 protests in 2009 were con­fined in Bish­ops­gate, or the stu­dent protests of Novem­ber 2010 were ket­tled in Trafal­gar Square and the fol­low­ing week in Par­lia­ment Square. The crowd, whose only law is of organic growth, is sud­denly delim­ited. It now splits, with frenzy small groups of rad­i­cals, anar­chists and agent provo­ca­teurs con­front the police with vio­lence. While the mass of peo­ple stand back. In Bish­ops­gate and Trafal­gar Square there was song and dance. All the while peo­ple gather just out­side the ket­tle, some seek­ing to watch this ever grow­ing spec­ta­cle, oth­ers seek­ing to join. I saw the police ket­tle being itself ket­tled as fur­ther pro­tes­tors out­flanked the police’s cor­don san­i­taire.

Inside the ket­tle the open crowd is already gone. The ket­tle, as it detains those within, stealth­ily destroys the growth, move­ment and open­ness of the crowd. The ket­tle explic­itly releases peo­ple in a ‘con­trolled’ man­ner.5 ECHR 459, at para 23] The police describe the ket­tle as a mat­ter of ‘con­trol’ and ‘pro­tec­tion’. The unruly mass must be con­trolled and the indi­vid­u­als and prop­erty within and with­out must be pro­tected from its wrath. But the ket­tle itself is an appa­ra­tus of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. In effect this means divid­ing the vio­lent ‘ele­ments’ from the peace­ful – a nice chem­istry metaphor. The ket­tle is a mat­ter of puri­fy­ing com­pounds, so that the vio­lent are not mixed with the peace­ful. The ket­tle seeks to get the crowd to a boil­ing point – at this point of frus­tra­tion cer­tain ele­ments will be brought to vio­lent action, thereby express­ing their ‘truth’ as vio­lent indi­vid­u­als. And with this the snatch-squads can go hunt­ing. In this way the crowd can be refined, detain­ing the vio­lent and releas­ing the non-violent. There is, of course then the prob­lem of appear­ance and real­ity – it may be that those who did not vio­lently respond to the increas­ing pres­sure within the ket­tle are nonethe­less ‘vio­lent’ or ‘dan­ger­ous’ indi­vid­u­als, wolves in sheep’s cloth­ing who will go on to wreak havoc out­side the con­tain­ment, but there is sur­veil­lance for this. Thus the police con­stantly mon­i­tor and col­lect the iden­ties of those who attend via video, iden­tity and photographs, maintaining exten­sive data­bases of the ‘ele­ments’ of the crowd.

This idea of a crowd as being made up of dif­fer­ent ele­ments which must be puri­fied by inten­sive polic­ing tech­nique is entirely dif­fer­ent to the logic of the open crowd. We might con­trast an idea of a sta­tic essence or nature of these indi­vid­u­als with a shift­ing and mobile equal­ity of the crowd. The crowd presents a col­lec­tive equal­ity in which one takes-part. This taking-part is never a pos­ses­sive act, but a shar­ing in the equal­ity (and the free­dom of dis­charge) of the crowd itself. As such, when the police talk about split­ting up crowds and divid­ing dif­fer­ent ele­ments, they demon­strate their very dif­fer­ent sense of the crowd, as merely a col­lec­tion of indi­vid­u­als.6

Details of the Crowded Sovereignty Project can be found here, along with all previous posts.

1 Comment

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