The Majority as Mob and the Individual as Narcissist

by Barry Drogin

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I'm no historian, but I know that the United States Constitution, with its intricate system of checks and balances against the abuses of power, could not be ratified without the guaranteed approval of the Bill of Rights, the first set of amendments which attempted to define where the will of a democratic majority could not obstruct the freedoms of an unpopular minority. In the centuries since its adoption, the constitutional republic has been challenged, by yellow journalism and political action committees and corporate lobbyists. Similarly, the Bill of Rights would be just a piece of paper if it was not for the vigilant efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union, and freedom itself has been challenged by propaganda and pop psychology and demagoguery. Outside of the United States, history has seen other countries struggle at the extremes, with dictatorships, communist revolutions, civil wars, and anarchy.

Although culture is a different battlefield, it, too, has its institutions and its rebels, its groupthink and its manifestos. Religions have always played an important role, with secularist movements being just other forms of religion, anti-religion religions, as it were. Rather than use the language of theology, with its concepts of belief and holiness and tradition, a writer about culture is forced to adopt alternative terminology, so I write about assumptions and taste and repertoire, although, in my mind, secular culture has always been just another religion.

It is, perhaps, this transparency between religious belief and cultural imperative which has led, inevitably, to my outsider status and heretical way of thinking. Judaism is fixated on the liberation of slaves, on ethical behavior and charity, on the preservation of individual life and liberty, on the meta-textual consideration of text, and on the subversion of power by prophets, the subservience of prophets to G-d, and, surprisingly, on G-d's frequent subversion of tradition. There is, in Judaism, no separation between ethics and religious belief, which is why, undoubtedly, when I voice ethical problems with cultural policies, my arguments may appear incomprehensible or pathetic.

The Jews weren't simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when the anti-semitic parties rose to pre-eminence in Germany and set the stage for Hitler to grab power and establish a fascist state. Judaism is a religion of upheaval, of continual redefinition, and, paradoxically, of doubt and humility. Judaism could never organize a Nuremberg rally, could never imagine an Aryan ideal, could never create a Wagnerian temple. Although Jewish prophets have stood against the Jewish people in the Name of G-d, they have never commanded the Jewish people in their own name. As the truism goes, the Jews always vote against their own self-interest.

We live in a cultural moment where our institutions are collapsing, and as a Jewish thinker it is not surprising that I should celebrate their downfall, while remaining wary of what may rise to replace them. As the years have passed, it has appeared less and less likely that anything will come; the technologies that have been created will not disappear. Unfortunately, the ideas, the cultural memes, as others have written, have left their vestiges, and so Romanticism, and the music appreciation racket, and the masterpiece theory, and art for art's sake, and other religions too numerous to list, continue to have their adherents, their preachers and indoctrinated youth, despite their uselessness and irrelevance.

But the "truth" of a cultural belief is, like a scientific fact, buth mutable and immutable. As my title states, I wish to address the extremes. I will not be addressing the shades of grey, those corners where cultural memes collide, co-exist, and contradict.

At one extreme is the dictum that bigger is better, that biggest is best, that mass popularity is de facto a sign of worth and importance. This is the realm of the masterpiece, of greatness, of timelessness, of universality, of edifices and institutions and economies and scale. Aesthetically and morally, I have always been against these aspects of culture, both in taste and in philosophy. This is where the majority turns into a mob, where power sustains for its own sake, where the specter of Orwellian groupthink holds sway.

Technology is irrevocably changing the nature of the large. As a substitute for architectural scale, we can create small immersive environments. Cinema has made nature itself feel like a matte. Where an orchestra and the opera voice were needed for audibility, we now have interior and exterior speaker systems that can project the quietist whisper as well as the loudest roar. Images, text, movement can be created, distributed and experienced as DIY entities, without formal institutions and gatekeepers. Word-of-mouth and buzz compete with advertising and publicity tours.

I understand that a chorus sounds different than a single voice, but we have technologies that can turn a single voice into a chorus of sorts. I understand that a full orchestra sounds different than a chamber orchestra, but, again, we have technologies that can re-create a full orchestra of sorts. These are not substitutes, but they are sufficient, just as a decent alcoholic beverage may not be a substitute for a very fine (and expensive) wine, but may be sufficient.

I am suggesting that we lose, to continue the metaphor, the ability for most, if not practically all, of us to be able to appreciate a fine wine. Of course, a major difference between a bottle of fine wine, like a painting or sculpture or antiquity or jewel, and a live performance is that the former can be possessed, can be bought and sold, and the odd systems that attach monetary value to them can be easily criticized, whereas the latter involve the mustering of significant human resources for their realization (unlike recordings of performances, and other mass produced items like books and digital images), and institutional inertia supported by significant diversionary propaganda clouds the understanding of the critique. The other day I said to someone, "You cannot flash mob an orchestra." In that statement is the essence of my criticism of giant institutions, whether they be concert halls and opera houses and Broadway theaters or giant museums and sports stadiums and temples and skyscrapers.

But in expressing this moral condemnation of mob rule, I recognize the moral difficulties that lie at the other extreme. The auteur can be a dictator, the iconoclast a narcissist, the soloist so self-absorbed, obscure and elitist that, as an alternative to the mob, it is morally bankrupt as well. You need a village or, as Judaism has put it, you need a minyan.

Here, there is a distinction between work that reacts against a culture but still engages it, that reacts against some aspect of it in order to uncover something that may exist but never have been revealed, and a work that is so alien to the culture, so isolated from the culture, so as to constitute its own self-contained universe. An Ayn Rand justification of that would, for me, be equivalent to justifying that the psychopathic pleasure of a serial killer is acceptable since it is merely a self-actualization of the individual’s desires. The audience, to put it another way, has rights, too. And, no matter what YouTube may make you think, not every individual has a right to an audience.

Somewhere in-between is the proper path – work that is small but not too small, work that may be large but somehow still has room for individual expression. The best example of this is the animation studio. I cannot come up with an argument that somehow makes the possibility of the existence of such an entity immoral or unjustified. Yes, it is big, but not too big. And yes, within its work ethic, individual voices can be heard.

I live in the age of Aardman and Pixar. May their cultural memes not congeal into a new form of groupthink and conformity. And may the small voice that wishes to stay small be allowed to stay small and still be heard.

(My thinking has been a little cloudy lately. This essay may be subject to revision or implementation at a later date. Any comments that may lead to its improvement are welcome. BJD 1/17/09)

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Last Updated: February 21, 2011