Sometimes this book seems so right and so intuitive and intelligent, and sometimes it seems goofy as hell and completely arbitrary, unserious, and light. This is a kind of grand theory on “crowds” and “power” as you can imagine, and how they relate. And while Elias Canetti is a quite thought-provoking writer in so many ways, this book is split down the middle on that original characterization I give it above.
So what is it? Essentially is a kind of philosophical text that seeks to first name, categorize, and then explain how groups form (using the two primary categories of crowds and packs), and then how those two groupings explain so much about the groupings of people in various settings and for various purposes. So you’ll get a long description and breakdown of how “hunting packs” work, and how they are different from “warring packs” as an example. This difference, here, means the difference between a group set on seeking after and destroying and singular prey, versus two hunting groups who encounter each other, and a battle happens. These also differ from say a lamenting pack, and so forth.
The second part of the book describes the forms of power and the exercise of power both initially and then related to groups and crowds. So while some of this section is also very good: his description of the power and validity one gets from offering a negatively critical view of something is spot on, it has the same issue of being grounding in a kind of false originary spirit and not based in reference and reaction. He offers a lot of examples, many of which I don’t think he’s nearly as expert as he suggests.
The final result is an incredibly mixed bag. It’s as close to the book that Causabon works on in Middlemarch that I’ve found in the wild, and it’s as both falsely and truly brilliant as that book portended to be. My biggest issue is that at around this same time we have Hannah Arendt writing much more erudite and well-researched understandings of power, and we’re less than a decade from Foucault. So this feels both unnecessary at times, and wholly self-indulgent.