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Sunday, February 12, 2012

the crowd and the public

In Antonine Albalet’s Souvenirs de la vie Littéraire there’s a portrait of Gabriel Tarde from his Paris years. Tarde arrived in Paris late – he was 51 when he found a post at the Ministry of Justice and moved there. By this time he had become famous in the world of criminology, even though he did not have institutional backing; rather, he’d become famous for his ideas while still living in the provinces – in Sarlat, in Dordogne. Albalet’s portrait captures Tarde in around 1895, when he was becoming celebrated in the broader circle of Paris intellectuals who were associated with certain magazines and coteries. Tarde was now on the course that would take him to the Chair of Philosophy at the College de France, when he was chosen over Bergson in 1900. However,  he died shortly thereafter - in 1904 - and thus never did leave his footprint on any particular institution. He didn't have successors, or Tardians, the way Bergson had Bergsonians.

Tarde spent his fifties in the Paris that Proust writes about, the Paris of Salons and the uneasy mixtures that came about when various aristocracies – Bonapartist, Orleanist, traditional – came into contact with rich bourgeois professionals. As it happens, both Proust and Tarde were fascinated by the formation of “circles” and of conversation. Albalet catches that aspect of Tarde in his portrait. He first met Tarde through Henri Mazel, a social psychologist, who frequented the circle of the symbolists around Jean Moréas, who included, at the time, André Gide.

“It is through Mazel that I knew the philosopher Gabriel Tarde. They often came to the Café Vachette together [This café was where the symbolists met. It was located on Rue St-Michel, on the left bank], Mazel with his air of a smiling joker, Tarde with the silhouette of the conductor of a gypsy orchestra: large, thin, an artistic air, long dark hair in a weeping willow cut, a small moustache and sparkling eyes bying his spectacles. This philosopher had passed almost all his existence in Sarlat, the Perigordian town where he was born, where he married, and where he exercised, time out of mind, the office of a juge d’instruction. The descendent of an old family, Gabriel Tarde counted among his ancestors a canon who played a role in the Renaissance Papal court, upon whom he had published a pamphlet which he always listed in his works, while he suppressed a book of stories and poems. Tarde, in fact, was only a stranger in sociology; professional psychologists never figured in his world than at a secondary level. Above all, he loved beautiful poetry. He had written a lot of French and Perogordian verse. A feebleness of vision obliged him to restrict his reading. Tarde only read good authors. A phrase of Taine’s had led him to discover Cournet, who oriented his ideas towards social philosophy. As for his habits, Tarde remained young at heart; he loved balls, dinners, cicles, the theater and the cafes. A charming conversationalist, he didn’t hesitate to take the floor and to deliver himself of all kinds of fantasies of the most ticklish improvisation.” [174]

Tarde’s journey from the provinces to Paris in his life has been symbolically reenacted in his afterlife, where he seems to be perennially forgotten and rediscovered. The last two big rediscoveries were in the sixties, when Deleuze mentioned him in Difference and Repetition (claiming that he was a great disciple of Leibniz and a philosopher of difference)  and in the 1990s, when Bruno Latour saw in him an ancestor of actor network theory.

I am not so much concerned with Tarde's view of difference, or his theory of imitation, except in as much as it surfaces in his book, Opinion and the Crowd, which appeared in 1901. The consists mainly of three large essays which had first been published in the Revue des Deux Mondes and Revue de Paris – which were not specialized sociological journals, but signalled Tarde's niche in the larger world of Parisian intellectuals, not in the world of academia. However, as these works are connected to the great theme that is at the heart of all of his work – the theme of imitation, and they also take on board themes that traverse Tarde’s work in criminology, a word is in order.  Tarde figured  among a group of criminologists – perhaps the best know of which, today, is Lombroso – who were applying certain notions having to do with disease and psychology – the notions of contagion, epidemic, hypnotic suggestion, in Tarde’s case – to the phenomenon of crime. There was a perception that Europe was undergoing a crime wave – and an uneasiness that there was a whole criminal class that existed just below the surface of bourgeois life.

Tarde didn’t embrace pseudo-Darwinian theories of degeneration, but he did find, in crime, an exaggerated instance of social dynamics that he believed operated throughout society. Crime, by being outside of the norm, gave us a certain laboratory insight into what the norms, submerged in our daily life, were about. When we turn to Tarde on crowds and the public, we find some of the same themes reworked. In particular, the metaphor of contagion helps him separate crowds from publics, and leads him to certain characteristic insights.

The crowd, according to Tarde, is centrally dependent on physical proximity, or haptic space. For Tarde, proximity is not a contingent fact about individuals in a crowd, but rather the fact that roots these individuals in a larger natural history. Physical proximity in a crowd tends to dissolve the historic human quality of the individual, and release his animal nature.  Unlike Canetti, who in Crowds and Power confounds, to an extent, publics and crowds (under the notion of the invisible crowd), for Tarde the crowd is a natural event and the public is a social one:

In the lowest animal societies, association consists principally in a material aggregate. As one ascends the tree of life, the social relation becomes more spiritual. But if individuals are distanced to the point that they cannot see each other, of if they remain apart for a certain very short time, they cease to be associated… Thus, the crowd here presents something animal. Isn’t it a bundle of psychic categories essentially produced by physical contact?  [9]

The spiritual or intellectual portion of association  comes about in the play of proximity  that, while still operating under Hesiod’s “talk”, individuates the sense of belonging. Tarde, in the 1890s, naturally turned to newspapers and ‘circles’ for his examples, fished among celebrities, fashionmakers, writers and politicians.

“When we submit, all unawares, to that invisible contagion of the public of which we form a part, we tend to explain it by the simple prestige of actuality. If today’s newspaper interests us to this point, it is because it only tells us the latest facts, and it would be the proximity of those facts, and not at all the simultaneity of their knowledge by us and others that impassions us by the report.  But analyse this sensation of actuality that is so strange, the growing passion for which is one of the refined circumstances of civilized life. What is reputed to be the “news”: is it only what is taking place? No, it is everything that inspires a general interest in current events, even if it is an old fact. Everything about Napoleon has been in the news these last few years; everything fashionable is news.”

Tarde, here, approaches the moment that we saw figured in Works and Days: the source of talk is, mysteriously, based in itself. What marks the famous or the infamous is not, firstly, the deed, but the talk about the deed.  News, as Tarde points out, makes new what it reports, even if it is old.

Tarde did not have, as Marx and Simmel did, a firm and, as it were, external sense of modernity. He was, as Deleuze puts it, a pioneer in the exploration of ‘micro-sociology.’ It is this that helps him see that the public – this self-identifying crowd form that forms around abstracted physical proximity and identifies with a certain form of social time – the new, which authenticates itself as a simultaneous experience – required tools that would coordinate that experience. Thus, until the appearance of the printing press in the West, Tarde claims, there was no real public or publics. And thus no real public or public opinion.

The public, in Tarde’s view, is a sort of phylogenetic extension of public opinion, and thus, the different publics are different phylogenetic extensions In the 1890s, conversation in Paris was being tracked not just by Proust, but by Tarde, both of them trying to understand the diffusion of commonplaces and opinions – but in Tarde’s case, his background was a small town, Sarlat, in which the voice of the public was much more easily tracked and fixed. For what was said among the town’s visible elite soon made the rounds – a social fact that was picked up and used by the great realist novels, as for instance in Lucien Leuwen, or in many of Balzac’s studies of the ‘provinces’. Here the circle – half crowd, half public – was more visibly at work, and more visibly stratified – between the receptions given at the house of the bourgeois rich, the circles of the Catholic pious, or the cafes that had their clienteles and newspapers – one for the military officers, one for the liberals, one for the royalists, etc. How opinion became ambient, in these cases, was easier to visualize, took on a human face.


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