The end of hypnosis
by Chetan Parikh
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In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on crowd psychology.


“Hypnosis is not included in that picture, as it has become a pointless hypothesis. It may still be a hurtful enigma, but it is one that we can do without in accounting for the dynamics of the masses. Psychoanalysis has taken over from it and provides the necessary concepts and images for the crowd. In crowd psychology, we are no longer dealing with hallucination, somnambulism, a procession of waking dreamers or intelligent automata, but with the realities of desire and amorous, imitative individuals grouped round a leader. For each of them he is a consciousness and causes each to regress to a primitive state such as childhood.


The principle of the endless conflict between Eros and mimesis has been very explicitly formulated. That it has been insufficiently explained, I accept. But the change is of major importance. The complacently-perpetuated magical element in crowd psychology has been removed, as in the past gravity removed the Cartesian vortex from mechanics. In its place, we now have more observable and intelligible notions. That is the progress - and I use the word very hesitantly - that Freud enabled crowd psychology to make. That progress has been so great that a whole mass of earlier work and writing is now out of date. Freud showed his aversion to all anti-rational thinking and rejected such ideas or combined them with others that were easier to handle. Although he took over Le Bon's descriptions and Tarde's analyses, he completely changed the current image of the masses. Their irrationality, i.e. their submissiveness and their strange indifference to reality, was a result of symbolic thinking, of the ‘blind or still symbolic thinking’ (cogitatio caeca vel symbolica) that Leibniz speaks of.


That is true, but it is now clear that it is now a matter of something other than automatic thinking. The almost amorous veneration that the crowd feels for the leader and the fact that the individuals making up the crowd identify themselves because of him are the ideas that that thinking expresses. Seen in that light, he is no longer a de facto phenomenon, something patched onto the situation, but the basic datum of the crowd. He seems to be its ‘onlie begetter’, but in fact is simply a part of it. We now know why the masses reign but do not rule.


In crowd psychology, the leader is the common element, the universal and indispensable super-ego and social ego around which men unite. That discipline simply repeats what Mao Tse-tung used to say, that there will always have to be leaders.


Choosing between the weakness of the masses and the strength of the leader (and hence of the Party, the Church, the army and so on) is, of course, not choosing between heaven and hell or truth and error. The choice is between two evils of which neither is the lesser, between the plague and cholera, since with regard to individual freedom every mass is irrational and every leader despotic. But for everyone who sees things clearly, that is the essence of any choice. If we choose that which gives strength, we overcome weakness and ensure the survival of our society. All the classical crowd psychologists, including Freud, adopted that position. Unlike others, however, the latter shored up the discipline with a coherent theoretical framework, hence his criticism:


But we shall venture, even now, upon a mild reproach against earlier writers for not having sufficiently appreciated the importance of the leader in the psychology of groups. (Freud: XVIII, 118)


We should add that since everything is now explained in terms of love and identification, subjectivity has its place in crowd psychology. The puppets of Liebeault and Tarde, influenced by suggestion, have gone, stored away in the same cupboard as hypnosis. Their place has been taken by thronging, passionate hordes, the characters of ancient tragedy and the heroes of Shakespearean drama, as we shall shortly see. Our contemporary horror - American, of course - of the affective and subjective has hidden these changes. But their impact on reality is a much deeper one than that of the whole of calculating cogitation. But why bother about it?


While such a transformation is taking place, the political equation, which is a form of rational exploitation of the irrational substance of the masses, follows quite obviously. Indeed, it could not be otherwise, since it is the strategies designed to handle the two major desires that give power now to one, now to the other.”