Monday, June 17, 2013

Echoes of Le Bon

The events of the Arab Spring failed to do so. And the Occupy Movement that began in New York also failed to bring back the memory. But now, with the events in Turkey, suddenly I remembered Gustave Le Bon. I must have been in college when I read him, thus at the latest about fifty years ago. His book, The Psychology of Crowds, but in English translation The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, left a deep impression in my mind—probably because it had a right mysterious flavor. Here is a quote, which I take from the Wikipedia article on the book:

An individual immersed for some length of time in a crowd soon finds himself—either in consequence of magnetic influence given out by the crowd or from some other cause of which we are ignorant—in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotizer.

The flavor of the nineteenth century (the book appeared in 1895) is there in those words: magnetic, hypnotized. Le Bon’s crowd, certainly as I pictured it reading his book, was of masses jammed together in a square. He did not say that the name of the square ought to start with a T, as in Tianaman, Tahrir, or Taksim (ht to Brigitte, whose middle initial is T); nor did he extend his analysis to turning that crowd into an instant settlement with plastic tents and mattresses. He was interested in the peculiar deformation of reasoning powers and judgement that come to the fore when masses gather.

I suppose that Le Bon is no longer on the curriculum. The prevailing view of the crowd has taken on a semi-religious aura over time, perhaps beginning with Woodstock. A deeper wisdom is supposed to rise from vast assemblies of like-feeling people, capable of being aroused and maintained by electronic media.

We need a new Le Bon to update the The Psychology of Crowds, which, these days, has been falsely promoted using labels like direct democracy. But would an update find a publisher today?

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