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Pathologizing Crowds: Love Parade 2010, Death, and the Problem of Crowds

July 31, 2010

Yes, yes, I’m a bit late to be commenting on the tragedy at Duisburg. The story has been covered in print and online endlessly since the event last Saturday, and the German press has been reporting daily on the personal and political aftermath. There’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to the disaster already. In a nutshell: there was a huge turnout at the Love Parade last Saturday (July 24), which was held in Duisburg this year, and overcrowding in the tunnel which served as the only entrance and exit to the even site led to a panic and a stampede, killing 21 and wounding more than 500 (note: initial reports counted 19 dead, but two others succumbed to their wounds a few days later).

I’m not planning to describe the event in any detail. Der Spiegel has been providing thorough English-language and German-language coverage of the event and its aftermath, including descriptive details and arresting photography. I’m also not writing here to respond to the disaster from the point of view of the Electronic Dance Music community; Will Lynch has already provided a clear and concise report of the event at Resident Advisor, and Emmy over at What Time Is Your Flight? has reflected on the impact of this event on dance music/festival communities and has gathered together news coverage and video from the event.

What I want to talk about here is crowds. As those of you who are familiar with my dissertation work know (as well as those who’ve been reading this blog or my older blog for some time), I’ve read and thought and written a lot about crowds—especially in dance-music settings. And so I couldn’t help but notice a pattern emerging in the descriptions of and responses to the disaster in Duisburg last week. Numerous commentators on the web—whether in articles or user comments—seemed to be coming to the same conclusion: there’s something intrinsically wrong with large crowds, and by extension there’s something wrong with people who are drawn to them.

These assertions were mostly couched in the passive-aggressive complaint genre of incomprehension: “Why would anyone go to an event packed with over a million people?”; “I just don’t get how those people would want to put themselves in such a situation”; “I don’t see the attraction in being lost in a crowd like that”; “You know, you could have the same dancing, love, drugs, and whatever in the comfort of your own home with friends”; and so on. Sometimes, these expressions of bewilderment are prefaced by the author’s own horror of the crowd: “First of all, I can’t stand being in a crowd…”; “Crowd’s make me nervous, I can’t imagine that being any fun”; “I’m too independent / unique / fragile / different to allow myself to be swallowed up by a crowd.”

Large crowds were described as either unnatural or all too natural. Either they were inhuman consequences of modern urban living, or they were the absurd extreme of the human desire for the company of others. In either case, themes of primitivism and modernity intermingle to create an image that is uncannily both wild and artificial, savage and inauthentic.

Fear of crowds is part of a larger tradition of deploring city life that has been around since the rise of urban centers, and some have argued that such frustration is simply part of the affective fabric of urbanity. But these comments have rather particular resonances with the field of crowd psychology [psychologie des foules] that emerged in late 19th-century France. As the industrial revolution and rapid urbanization disrupted traditional social forms and practices, fears arose about the new social forms (or the lack thereof) emerging out of this chaos. The image of thousands of anonymous bodies milling about, cut from their social moorings and thus unpredictable, haunted many writers and politicians during this period. This was particularly significant for the French, for whom large urban masses recalled the violent mobs of the French Revolution (and, later, the Paris Commune). Some predicted that contemporary civilization was entering into an “era of crowds.”

The first psychological account of urban crowds appears in the work of Gabriel Tarde [1, 2, 3, 4]. Working in the then-burgeoning field of criminology, he analyzed crowds from the standpoint of public safety and criminal law, thus tending to see all crowds as latently (if not always actively) dangerous. This assumption was supported by the theoretical model he used to explain the working of crowds (i.e., how it was possible for “civilized” individuals to take part in riots, mobs, panics), which included the “laws of imitation” that he used to explain nearly all social phenomena: people naturally imitate each other and, in crowds, this imitation speeds up and turns back on itself such that the whole crowd acts in erratic unison. Gustave Le Bon would later take up Tarde’s concern with crowd dynamics [5, 6], substituting Tarde’s “laws of imitation” with a combination of cognitive erasure and “mental contagion.” For Le Bon, entry into a crowd entailed a loss of one’s rational capacities; one’s mind is “lost” and replaced by a communal “crowd mind,” whose functioning does not follow the logic of individualized human behavior. This crowd mind arises out of a dynamic of mental contagion, where the base impulses and instinctual, “primitive” drives of individual crowd members infiltrate other bodies and thus create a field of irrational, animalistic behavior. In the works of both Tarde and Le Bon (as well as many writers who came after them), comparisons are constantly being made to “primitive” societies and “barbarian” behavior.

What unites the crowd psychology literature from this period is its pathologizing stance: crowds are treated first and foremost as an illness, as an aberration that needs explanation and treatment. It’s no surprise, then, to discover that this scholarship was aligned with the conservative anti-democratic political wing in France at the time. Opponents of universal suffrage used these analyses to support their arguments that a nation ruled by the masses could only lead to atrocity. Why leave the nation in the hands of an “electoral mob,” when an elite aristocracy could handle it with cool professionalism?

And so, I was both unsurprised and disheartened to see this pathologizing stance cropping up again after Duisburg, such as in the following comment posted on a MetaFilter thread devoted to the topic:

Love, peace, music and dance can all be experienced in the comfort and safety of your home with small groups. There is absolutely no need to involve hundreds of thousands of people except for the fact that human beings are attracted to crowds of other human beings like moths to flames because of their intrinsic inability to find value in their own accomplishments and the desire to feel a part of something historically important so that they, by proxy, can feel historically important, despite having contributed anything but their presence.

—posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:39 PM on July 25

There are a lot of things wrong with this reading of crowds and crowd psychology. Although I could agree with the claim that people rarely join crowds out of a sense of individualism or narcissism, there are at least two substantial problems here:

  1. The love, peace, music and dance one can get in a domestic space with small groups is simply not identical to the kinds of love, peace, music, dance and whatever else one can experience in a (partying) crowd. Part of the experience of being in a crowd can’t be reduced to a calculus of personal achievement and social warmth; it’s also about the sheer thrill of feeling one’s affects or emotions being mirrored / amplified / circulated a thousand fold. It is also about the exhilarating (and sometimes terrifying) experience of being opened up to emotional energies that come from outside of you and aren’t in your control. Crowds are affective echo chambers where size does matter.
  2. Maybe the individual subject isn’t the point of crowds, anyway. Why is individual accomplishment the primary / proper / healthy way to organize one’s significance in the world? One of the possible pleasures of partying in a crowd is the sensation of coming undone, of feeling your sense of a bounded, unitary self unravel and fray at the edges. (Note: this is a concept that I’ve been developing in one of my dissertation chapters.) For some people, this sense of being temporarily relieved from the compulsion to be a consistent, coherent subject can feel like total bliss (for the Lacanians among you: I don’t quite mean jouissance here, but maybe Jouissance Lite™). And so I end up supporting a part of the above analysis by thinking that those people for whom the world of the fully sovereign individual subject holds little hope are more likely to see in crowds the potential for something better, something full of potential. The anonymity and de-personalization of crowds can sometimes feel protective (just look at the histories and memoirs of queer nightlife, for example).

The arguments I’m making here are not only in response to that comment posted on MetaFilter, but also to the wide swath of anti-crowd comments made since the tragedy at the Love Parade last weekend. Crowds are capable of more than just stampedes and riots, and those who flock to them are not necessarily mindless nor are they somehow defective.

I’m not one to argue that crowds are the answer to human ills or even that they are necessarily good or bad. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that the only difference between people who party in a small clusters and people who party in teeming masses is a damaged ego. People can feel good about themselves and still want the company of a thousand friends they’ve never met.

Works Cited

  1. Tarde, Gabriel de. 1890. The Laws of imitation. Translated by E. W. C. Parsons. Paris: Félix Alcan. Reprint, Gloucester, MA: P. Smith, 1962.
  2. Tarde, Gabriel de. 1890. Penal Philosophy. Translated by R. Howell. Boston: Storck. Reprint, Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1912.
  3. Tarde, Gabriel de. 1892. Les crimes des foules. Archives d’anthropologie criminelle 7:353-58.
  4. Tarde, Gabriel de. 1901. L’Opinion et la foule. Paris: Félix Alcan. Reprint, Paris: Sandre ; Distribution l’Harmattan, 2006.
  5. Le Bon, Gustave. 1895. Psychologie des foules Paris: F. Alcan. Reprint, Paris: F. Alcan, 1905.
  6. Le Bon, Gustave. 1897. The crowd : a study of the popular mind. 2d ed. London: T. F. Unwin.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 24, 2010 15:50

    thanks for the shout out luis!!! :)

    because of what has happened recently … i think it has weighed heavily on LovEvolution to be set in SF early Oct

    the usual location is in front of City Hall… they are now debating if to move the festival from this location

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