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«Andrea Mubi Brighenti University of Trento, Italy Abstract A discussion of the works of Tarde, Canetti, and Deleuze reveals some common insights into ...»

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Journal of Classical Sociology

10(4) 291–314

Tarde, Canetti, and Deleuze © The Author(s) 2010

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DOI: 10.1177/1468795X10379675


Andrea Mubi Brighenti

University of Trento, Italy


A discussion of the works of Tarde, Canetti, and Deleuze reveals some common insights into a social epistemology that rejects both methodological individualism and methodological holism. In this respect, the debate on crowds in the last quarter of the nineteenth century is particularly interesting because it is the historical context within which the individualist and holist epistemologies took shape. Arguably, that debate is still rich and inspiring today insofar as it can be said to open the problem field of the relationship between the individual and the group in social thought and sociological theory. Despite several differences, Tarde, Canetti, and Deleuze converge on a concept that can be termed ‘multiplicity’. It includes phenomena like crowds and packs (or ‘sects’, in Tarde’s terminology) that are properly speaking neither subjects nor objects.

The concept provides a prism that also has relevant consequences for an understanding of the processes of imitation and leadership.

Keywords Canetti, crowds, Durkheim, epistemological pluralism, holism, Le Bon, methodological individualism, sects, social epistemology, Tarde Crowds, social thought, and political options Gabriel Tarde, Elias Canetti, and Gilles Deleuze do not form a school of thought, or an intellectual descent.1 Yet there are notable points of resonance in their respective theorizations which can be said to constitute a valuable source of inspiration for all attempts to develop a new epistemology for the social sciences. Here, I would like to explore some crucial passages – some ‘lines of force’, as Deleuze himself used to call these explorations – in their conception of social formations, focusing in particular on the phenomena of crowds and packs.

The background for my discussion is the idea that the real stake for social theory today is to find out precisely how to avoid being dualist (including well-known troubled dichotomies such as social phenomenology versus social physics, agency versus structure, and so on) without becoming monist (neopositivism and social constructionism

–  –  –

serving as two examples of monism). This is, in other words, the challenge of radical epistemological pluralism. Radical epistemological pluralism is not a metalevel or second-order claim: it does not consist in saying ‘one can be a monist, the other can be a dualist’. On the contrary, radical epistemological pluralism advances a claim to the number of entities or orders of the social that should be considered and researched. More precisely, it takes a position on the type of nexus one should look for between different social entities or orders. From this point of view, epistemological pluralism differs from both epistemological individualism and epistemological holism. Instead of individual or group entities, pluralism is based on a type of social entity which can be called ‘multiplicity’. A multiplicity is neither an individual nor a group, yet it is to be regarded as a social formation. In this paper, I argue that multiplicity, in the ways in which it has been variously described and explored by Tarde, Canetti, and Deleuze, can be an important benchmark for developing a social theoretical perspective capable of sailing between the Scylla of dualism and the Charybdis of monism.

Epistemological choices are not matters of mere intellectual fashion trends. Rather they stem from immediate and concrete problems. Concepts are never created for their own sake; on the contrary, they are introduced to face the puzzles we engage with during our research into the social, its configurations and its dynamics. The case of crowds, or masses, and packs, or sects, can be taken as one such problem.2 Urban crowds emerged as social actors and, simultaneously, as matter of deep concern in the wake of the French Revolution. Most observers regarded crowds as excessive and dangerous.3 They were represented as inherently unsettling and potentially revolutionary (McClelland, 1989). A crowd, it was argued, is never far from a mob and potentially very close to an overthrowing force. Fear of crowds is almost a topos in mid-nineteenth-century novels: to take one among many illustrations, recall the assault on the Grucce bakery in Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi (The Betrothed, 1840–1842 [1822]). Subsequently, in the last quarter of the century the crowd became the object of an intense reflection and a lively intellectual production which included, among others, positivist criminologists (Cesare Lombroso, 1876; Enrico Ferri, 1884; Scipio Sighele, 1891, 1897), physicians and neurologists (Hippolyte Bernheim, 1884; Alexandre Lacassagne, 1890; Henri Fournial, 1892), historians (Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, 1876–1894), psychologists (Pierre Janet, 1889; Gustave Le Bon, 1895) and sociologists (Gabriel Tarde, 1901; Émile Durkheim, 1912).4 In the majority of cases, the nexus between crowds and crime is significant: for most of these authors the study of crowds had to support the attempt at controlling them.

From a Foucauldian perspective, one could say that these authors were the intellectual shore of the governmental practice that, since the late eighteenth century, had been developing a series of technologies of security for the government of the population (see in particular Foucault, 2004). In Le Bon’s conservative variant, for instance, the main political task – in which he was actively involved, organizing regular meetings with prominent political figures of his time (see van Ginneken, 1992) – was the construction of a strong nationalist myth capable of subjecting the masses to a strong leadership in order to curb the danger of uncontrollable crowds.

Historically speaking, this moment corresponds to the dawn of a topic of inquiry which was later to be developed into different specialized disciplines, notably social psychology and communication studies. It is the study of social influence and mass Brighenti persuasion. In this context, Georg Simmel acutely remarked that the birth of a discipline such as sociology was to be considered as a side-effect of the rise of mass society itself.

He wrote: ‘… the claims which sociology is wont to make are the theoretical continuation and reflection of the practical power which, in the nineteenth century, the masses had gained, in contrast with the interests of the individual’ (Simmel 1909: 290). During the course of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud (1921) and Elias Canetti (1960), with their conflicting yet intimately related theses, are probably to be counted as the last two major classical contributors to this debate on crowds as a distinctive epistemic object.

They were, of course, not the only ones. Recently, Christian Borch (2006, 2008) has explored in detail the theories developed by the sociologist Theodor Geiger and the intellectual and writer Hermann Broch. Whereas the former focused on a distinction between latent and actual revolutionary crowds, thus allowing him to link actual crowds to more general socio-economic conditions and identify the proletariat as the ‘human material of the social association of the crowd’, the latter focused on the phenomenon of Massenwahn, mass aberration or mass delusion, and the dangers inherent to rationality impoverishment without concurrent irrationality enrichment.5 In the course of the debate over crowds that occurred throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the moral and the epistemic dimensions constantly criss-crossed and overlapped. Because manifestations of crowd phenomena were extremely powerful in this period, some of these theories were conceived out of traumatic or even tragic biographical experiences, ranging from lynch mobs to mass extermination,6 as well as in

strict connection to political ideologies and political orientation. It is Canetti who, recalling his first reading of Freud, has best captured the hatred of crowds that had long dominated intellectual discussion:7

The first thing I found in it, typical for Freud, was quotations by authors who had dealt with the same subject matter; most of these passages were from Le Bon. The very manner in which the topic was approached irritated me. Nearly all these writers had closed themselves off against masses, crowds; they found them alien or seemed to fear them; and when they set about investigating them, they gestured: Keep ten feet away from me! A crowd seems something leprous to them, it was like a disease. They were supposed to find the symptoms and describe them. It was crucial for them, when confronted with a crowd, to keep their heads, not be seduced by the crowd, not melt into it.

(Canetti, 1999: 407) It is not simply a matter of theoretically re-evaluating the crowd vis-à-vis its demonization undertaken by conservative and elitist authors alone. Otherwise it would be impossible to explain, inter alia, the success of the theory of crowd proposed by a conservative like Le Bon among both nazi-fascist and democratic leaders: Mussolini, Hitler, and Goebbels, on the one hand; F.D. Roosevelt, De Gaulle, and Giscard d’Estaing, on the other – not to mention the Zionist leader Herzl (see Moscovici, 1985). Similarly, Bendersky (2007) has documented the success and impact of Le Bon’s work on US military thinking and practice through World War II.

Whereas the nineteenth-century conservatives feared revolutionary crowds and thus endorsed theorists who hated crowds, almost all populist movements during the twentieth 294 Journal of Classical Sociology 10(4) century attempted to exploit crowds and their powerful desire investments.8 After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Western European right-wing movements were quicker than left-wing movements in exploiting such social forces, and the revolutionary upsurge theorized by Marx was in fact in some way anticipated by fascist movements since the early 1920s but especially in the 1930s. The problem is explicitly discussed for the first time by Wilhelm Reich (1946 [1933]), who asked how it was possible that pauperized masses embraced extremely reactionary ideologies, instead of revolutionary ones. The masses, he argued, were not cheated by fascism; they truly wanted it. This means that fascism was able to offer them something that they desired. As contended by Deleuze and Guattari (1972: § I, 4), fascism led the masses into a perversion of desire; it exploited their desire, and desires produce realities. In this context, Le Bon’s success is due not only to his plain writing, his clear-cut sentences and his simplifying view – all suitable for propaganda purposes – but basically to his attitude, no longer merely defensive, but rather proactively exploiting crowd desire.

What is an individual?

Even beyond and apart from these historical facts – whose relevance may always be criticized, to some extent, on the basis of their contingency – there lurks the real stake of our inquiry, which is the epistemic nature of collective phenomena. Indeed, behind the fear and hate of crowds as politically destabilizing actors, there lies a much deeper concern, namely the fact that the crowd is a type of social entity that inherently threatens the physical and psychic boundaries of the individual. Not only is the crowd a dangerous political subject, it is also an outrageous epistemological object. This is the great discovery and the great concern of the rich interdisciplinary debate that took place during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.9 During the course of the twentieth century, the various disciplines concerned with collective phenomena settled the issue of the epistemic nature of collective phenomena mainly in conventionalist terms.10 From this point of view, at least part of the originality of Tarde’s, Canetti’s and Deleuze’s views on these issues derives from the fact that their contributions cannot easily be confined within a specific academic discipline. While all of these three authors have resisted disciplinary specialization, Tarde and Canetti are even more difficult to locate than Deleuze. Tarde was a lawyer, judge, criminologist, statistician, social theorist and fiction writer (as, for instance, in Tarde, 1890a and 2003 [1893]). His own attempt to create the new discipline he dubbed ‘psychological sociology’ failed and he could not even manage to change the title of the course he taught at the Collège de France (which remained a course in ‘Modern Philosophy’ and was subsequently taken up by Bergson at Tarde’s death).11 Canetti, an independent thinker originally trained as a chemist, who never pursued an academic career, is possibly among the most deterritorialized intellectuals ever. According to Ishaghpour, ‘He was not the representative of any country, of any school, of any movement, of any single genre of writing’ (1990: 13).12 Deleuze himself, though a professor of philosophy all his life, dealt with an astounding number of topics and fields, including science, politics, psychoanalysis, literature and the arts; and his theorizations have had an impact on an equally wide range of fields and audiences, from social movements, to contemporary artistic avant-garde Brighenti and technological applications (including, incredibly, military strategy: see Weizman, 2007).

Deleuze also insisted on the necessity of granting and allowing for a double reading – a professional reading and a lay reading – of every philosophical text, thus contributing to keeping the field of philosophy open vis-à-vis the tendencies towards formalist specializations in the analytical vein.

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