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Obama and the Politics of Crowds
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Author:  Moderator [ Tue Nov 18, 2008 4:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Obama and the Politics of Crowds

Obama and the Politics of Crowds

The masses greeting the candidate on the trail are a sign of great unease.

By FOUAD AJAMI, Wall Street Journal, October 30, 2008

There is something odd -- and dare I say novel -- in American politics about the crowds that have been greeting Barack Obama on his campaign trail. Hitherto, crowds have not been a prominent feature of American politics. We associate them with the temper of Third World societies. We think of places like Argentina and Egypt and Iran, of multitudes brought together by their zeal for a Peron or a Nasser or a Khomeini. In these kinds of societies, the crowd comes forth to affirm its faith in a redeemer: a man who would set the world right.

As the late Nobel laureate Elias Canetti observes in his great book, "Crowds and Power" (first published in 1960), the crowd is based on an illusion of equality: Its quest is for that moment when "distinctions are thrown off and all become equal. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd." These crowds, in the tens of thousands, who have been turning out for the Democratic standard-bearer in St. Louis and Denver and Portland, are a measure of American distress.

On the face of it, there is nothing overwhelmingly stirring about Sen. Obama. There is a cerebral quality to him, and an air of detachment. He has eloquence, but within bounds. After nearly two years on the trail, the audience can pretty much anticipate and recite his lines. The political genius of the man is that he is a blank slate. The devotees can project onto him what they wish. The coalition that has propelled his quest -- African-Americans and affluent white liberals -- has no economic coherence. But for the moment, there is the illusion of a common undertaking -- Canetti's feeling of equality within the crowd. The day after, the crowd will of course discover its own fissures. The affluent will have to pay for the programs promised the poor. The redistribution agenda that runs through Mr. Obama's vision is anathema to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the hedge-fund managers now smitten with him. Their ethos is one of competition and the justice of the rewards that come with risk and effort. All this is shelved, as the devotees sustain the candidacy of a man whose public career has been a steady advocacy of reining in the market and organizing those who believe in entitlement and redistribution.

A creature of universities and churches and nonprofit institutions, the Illinois senator, with the blessing and acquiescence of his upscale supporters, has glided past these hard distinctions. On the face of it, it must be surmised that his affluent devotees are ready to foot the bill for the new order, or are convinced that after victory the old ways will endure, and that Mr. Obama will govern from the center. Ambiguity has been a powerful weapon of this gifted candidate: He has been different things to different people, and he was under no obligation to tell this coalition of a thousand discontents, and a thousand visions, the details of his political programs: redistribution for the poor, postracial absolution and "modernity" for the upper end of the scale.

It was no accident that the white working class was the last segment of the population to sign up for the Obama journey. Their hesitancy was not about race. They were men and women of practicality; they distrusted oratory, they could see through the falseness of the solidarity offered by this campaign. They did not have much, but believed in the legitimacy of what little they had acquired. They valued work and its rewards. They knew and heard of staggering wealth made by the Masters of the Universe, but held onto their faith in the outcomes that economic life decreed. The economic hurricane that struck America some weeks ago shook them to the core. They now seek protection, the shelter of the state, and the promise of social repair. The bonuses of the wizards who ran the great corporate entities had not bothered them. It was the spectacle of the work of the wizards melting before our eyes that unsettled them.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Democratic senator from New York, once set the difference between American capitalism and the older European version by observing that America was the party of liberty, whereas Europe was the party of equality. Just in the nick of time for the Obama candidacy, the American faith in liberty began to crack. The preachers of America's decline in the global pecking order had added to the panic. Our best days were behind us, the declinists prophesied. The sun was setting on our imperium, and rising in other lands.

A younger man, "cool" and collected, carrying within his own biography the strands of the world beyond America's shores, was put forth as a herald of the change upon us. The crowd would risk the experiment. There was grudge and a desire for retribution in the crowd to begin with. Akin to the passions that have shaped and driven highly polarized societies, this election has at its core a desire to settle the unfinished account of the presidential election eight years ago. George W. Bush's presidency remained, for his countless critics and detractors, a tale of usurpation. He had gotten what was not his due; more galling still, he had been bold and unabashed, and taken his time at the helm as an opportunity to assert an ambitious doctrine of American power abroad. He had waged a war of choice in Iraq.

This election is the rematch that John Kerry had not delivered on. In the fashion of the crowd that seeks and sees the justice of retribution, Mr. Obama's supporters have been willing to overlook his means. So a candidate pledged to good government and to ending the role of money in our political life opts out of public financing of presidential campaigns. What of it? The end justifies the means.

Save in times of national peril, Americans have been sober, really minimalist, in what they expected out of national elections, out of politics itself. The outcomes that mattered were decided in the push and pull of daily life, by the inventors and the entrepreneurs, and the captains of industry and finance. To be sure, there was a measure of willfulness in this national vision, for politics and wars guided the destiny of this republic. But that American sobriety and skepticism about politics -- and leaders -- set this republic apart from political cultures that saw redemption lurking around every corner.

My boyhood, and the Arab political culture I have been chronicling for well over three decades, are anchored in the Arab world. And the tragedy of Arab political culture has been the unending expectation of the crowd -- the street, we call it -- in the redeemer who will put an end to the decline, who will restore faded splendor and greatness. When I came into my own, in the late 1950s and '60s, those hopes were invested in the Egyptian Gamal Abdul Nasser. He faltered, and broke the hearts of generations of Arabs. But the faith in the Awaited One lives on, and it would forever circle the Arab world looking for the next redeemer.

America is a different land, for me exceptional in all the ways that matter. In recent days, those vast Obama crowds, though, have recalled for me the politics of charisma that wrecked Arab and Muslim societies. A leader does not have to say much, or be much. The crowd is left to its most powerful possession -- its imagination.

From Elias Canetti again: "But the crowd, as such, disintegrates. It has a presentiment of this and fears it. . . . Only the growth of the crowd prevents those who belong to it from creeping back under their private burdens."

The morning after the election, the disappointment will begin to settle upon the Obama crowd. Defeat -- by now unthinkable to the devotees -- will bring heartbreak. Victory will steadily deliver the sobering verdict that our troubles won't be solved by a leader's magic.

Mr. Ajami is professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and an adjunct research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Author:  John R. Schedel [ Tue Mar 31, 2009 7:35 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Obama and the Politics of Crowds

There is much to be said for Ajami's analysis.

An extension of this analysis might be found in Jung, where he describes Hitler as being a vessel/manifestation of the archetype, Wotan. While it may be unfair to compare Obama to Hitler in most respects (though Jonah Goldberg might describe Obama's persona and politics as manifesations of "Liberal Fascism") there is obviously a strong nonrational component to "Obama-mania".

Author:  kevinjrogers [ Mon Apr 06, 2009 11:31 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Obama and the Politics of Crowds

It is interesting to review this in the light of all that has happened since the inauguration of President Obama. Whatever one's political persuasion, I think it's clear that the president has displayed what Oliver Wendell Holmes saw in FDR: a "first-class temperament" (although Holmes claimed Roosevelt combined it with a "second-rate intellect", a claim which I don't think any reasonable person could honestly make about our current president). I think it is this very quality of temperament--and the charisma that goes with it, a trait which, let's be honest, is not a bad thing for a president to have--which forms the foundation of the president's mass appeal. And the fact that he has come to inhabit the office with a degree of comfort his predecessor was not able to achieve in two full terms should be taken as a sign that he is much more than someone with a rock star's appeal. The man is clearly not in over his head. That's a lot to say for a president who has been in office for, as I write this, seventy-six days. There is substance here that belies the characterization of the president as a blank slate--and it is important, too, to make the distinction between the candidate and the individual who suddenly has to govern. From what we have seen President Obama was able to make that transition effortlessly. (A partial disclaimer: I had serious doubts about Barack Obama the candidate myself, until the night he clinched the nomination. The man who took the stage in MacArthur Park had miraculously been instantly transformed from a somewhat opaque and oblique figure to a leader. The sense of gravitas was palpable.)

It is interesting to consider how much of President Obama's character comes from a profound self-awareness, a consciousness of both his own identity and the reality of the circumstances in which he finds himself, and how much of it is a reflection of the attention the Public Man receives. I would hazard a guess that it's a great deal of the former and very little of the latter. That it may have been difficult to see is more a function of the electoral process--it's a big country--than any fault in projection on the part of the candidate. (In fact, the Obama Campaign was one of the best-run I've ever seen.) But it is nevertheless an interesting question to ponder: do the best and the brightest among us get that way because of their internal self-awareness or their external projection of an image? In other words, are they really better and brighter?

Author:  John R. Schedel [ Tue Apr 07, 2009 1:12 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Obama and the Politics of Crowds

I suspect that I can determine how kevinrogers might have voted, his former "serious doubts", notwithstanding. His rather fulsome praise for Obama seems to reflect the kind of "sobbering love affair" with Obama that Bernard Goldberg describes as being common in "the media" as well as in academe. (I suppose that I now might have provided some indications concerning how I might have voted.)

Specific political considerations aside I think that kevinrogers raises an excellent set of issues for "Jaynesian consideration": i.e, "What is 'charisma'" and, "Where might 'charisma' come from"?

The earliest sense of what is now called "charisma" is derived from the Third Article of the Nicene Creed. The term is a description of one of the "signs" that indicate that the Holy Spirit is working through a person. In this sense, the "projection" is that of the WORD of God "speaking through" a "prophet". I suspect that Jaynes would have had no problem with considering such a phenomenon as being at least "residual bicamerality".

As time passed, the concept of "charisma" became secularized. As the process of secularization progressed (regressed?) a continuing controversy arose concerning whether "charisma" is a "trait" or a "projection" and, if it is the latter, who (or what) is doing the "projecting".

Thinking of "charisma" as a "trait" is very common. For example, considerations about the "charismas of" such indiduals as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King have almost become cliches.

However, to most scholars of human communication, such a conceptualization of "charisma" is unsatisfying because it does not take into account basic processes of human symbolizing. Simply put (and, putting aside his rather "clunky" terminology, Julian Jaynes seems to have agreed with this) human meaning is, inherently, a process of "projection", i.e. "the attribution of symbolic significance". Therefore, in this view, whether a "trait" exists "in itself", or not, it will remain "meaningless" unless some person "projects" a relevant symbolic denotative and/or connotative cluster of symbolic significances upon it. This view appears to be consistent with Jaynes' conceptions of "subjective consciousness". In other words, to use the "com-cliche", "meanings" are in the people doing the "projecting" instead of (or, at least much more so than) the "thing" being "projected about". In other words, would Barak Obama "have charisma" if the term and its cluster(s) of meanings did not exist? In the "consensus 'com. theory view' (if there is such a thing!) most likely he would not. This is not to say that Obama might not have "credibility" in forms that seem to be shared across cultures but "charisma", no.

So, if "charisma" involves "projection", who (or what) is doing the "projecting"?

Kevinrogers seems to think that Obama is the source of the "projection". For all anyone knows, there might be some validity to such an assertion but, even if such validity were to exist, it is doubtful whether much could be done with it aside from attempting to detect, measure, and evaluate something like "energy fields".

What the student is left with, then, is a "who" and, maybe, a "what" as bases for "charismatic projection".

The "who" is the "audience" that is described by scholars of communication from COM 101, on up. In this view, people like Barak Obama "have charisma" because people, themselves and/or others, perceive that they do. End of story.

However, there have been "charismatic individuals", Hitler, for example, where such a "nominalistic" view of "charisma" seems to have been insufficient. In such a case, an "older" view of "charisma" can be posited; i.e. that the "projection" that is going on may have its source in an extra-personal (transpersonal?) "entity". In Hitler's case, for example, Carl Jung described Hitler's "charisma" as being based, at least in part, on a "projection" of the archetypal "god", Wotan, a description that was, by most measures, more "elegant" than the more "secular/symbolic" characterization that Kenneth Burke attempted at about the same time. Could Barak Obama and "Obama-mania" be in Hitler's class (at least in this respect)? Only time will tell. Stay tuned.

The latter approach to "charisma" has obvious "resonance" with Jaynes' views concerning "residual bicamerality". In point of fact, since Jaynes wrote, there has arisen a controversial body of scholarship that claims to have identified a structure in the right hemisphere that might act as a "receiver" for the communications of "archetypes"/"gods"/God(?). In any event, the study of the "charisma" of such individuals and phenomena as Barak Obama and "Obama-mania" would seem to be very much potential "grist for the Jaynesian mill".

Author:  WS1 [ Wed Apr 08, 2009 5:38 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Obama and the Politics of Crowds

John R. Schedel wrote:
What the student is left with, then, is a "who" and, maybe, a "what" as bases for "charismatic projection".

The "who" is the "audience" that is described by scholars of communication from COM 101, on up. In this view, people like Barak Obama "have charisma" because people, themselves and/or others, perceive that they do. End of story.

I would agree. Projection is an unconscious mechanism of the psyche and it could be said with some assurance that the psychic content of the mass man is being projected onto the rather prosaic near blank slate that is one Barack Obama. He is articulate, measured, and photogenic; but beyond the campaign machine behind him the grand activating myth that propelled this man to the Presidency was the fact of his race allied to the singular "Change" motif.

I say this not to stir controversy, but I believe his colour gave the sort of boost to his campaign that politicians usually only dream of.

Obama is not projecting in the true sense of the term, politics is the realm of cynical manipulation of the voter and he was a symbolic trigger for the activation of the archetypal projection from the collective unconscious of the American population.

I've employed too much Jungian terminology badly here, especially on a Jaynesian forum, but I shall leave it as it is.

Author:  kevinjrogers [ Sat Apr 11, 2009 4:44 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Obama and the Politics of Crowds

Was that supposed to be "slobbering"? I never slobber. Unless I have been victimized by a sudden and unexpected encounter with a bottle of tequila.

And strictly between you and me, Bernie Goldberg is a funny little man.

Anyway, I have a lot of trouble projecting the return of Wotan or archetypal triggers or any of that other stuff onto the election of Barack Obama. It looked to these eyes more like the ascent of a politician who played the right game in the right way at the right time than some sort of primeval appeal to the amygdala, or a Wagnerian opera played out on the stage of national politics. The incumbent president was rapidly fading from view, his Administration crumbling, and his partly crumbling with it. The presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party had broad support but elicited little enthusiasm, and worse yet was acting already like the presumptive nominee, truly a rookie's mistake that made her more vulnerable than she realized at the time. (People don't like to be told who they're voting for.) And the challenger, young, photogenic, articulate, and--dare I say it?--charismatic, had a unique story with which he could distinguish himself from every other candidate in the field, and which translated beautifully to the new media tools his campaign needed to deploy to raise enormous funds across a broad spectrum of the electorate. This was simply a technically brilliant campaign, managed with both tactical and strategic finesse.

And as far as being a blank slate is concerned, I thought Mr. Obama was pretty clear about his intentions should he become president, and since being elected he's consistently returned to the same themes: renewable energy, education, and health care.

In any event, Professor Ajami's article was written before the election and now can only be viewed in hindsight, which was exactly my point. It would be difficult for me to believe that someone could see the president's performance in Europe without acknowledging, in their more honest moments, that his performance was, well, presidential. One could talk about the fawning press all they like, but the tangible results he achieved should at the very least reassure anyone, whether they agree with his politics or not, that he is up to the job, and not just an empty suit who was able to turn a good set of marketing metrics into a Presidency. And as an aside, I think the real source of "Obamamania" (a phenomenon which has noticeably faded since Inauguration Day) was relief: a failed and deeply-unpopular Administration was about to expire, and rather than being forced to replace it with a tired retread the electorate was suddenly offered a demonstrably more charismatic (that word again) choice. They leaped at it, especially after the Collapse of September 18th. (That was really the last straw.)

Author:  John R. Schedel [ Tue Apr 14, 2009 12:08 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Obama and the Politics of Crowds

Both Winston Smith and kevinrogers made good points. To respond:

Winston provides a "commonsense" view of "projection" that is consistent with the "meanings are in people" view that I described. His description of the Obama campaign is also "spot on" as far as it goes. What Winston does not account for is the "Obamamania" that the Obama campaign touched off and rode to victory upon. Certainly, Obama's personal attractiveness and race had much to do with his campaign's success. However, such factors do not seem to me to be sufficient explanations of the remarkable "rock star reaction" that the Obamas have evinced.

I am not entirely sure what Winston might be referring to when he referrs to "projecting in the true sense of the term". I hope that he will flesh out this claim a bit more.

However, I believe that Winston may be a bit "cynical" about "cynical manipulation of the voter". It is true that, the human condition being what it is, that there is a fair amount of cynicism afoot in any political process and that such cynicism can inform unethical political communication. Political communication is also inherently "manipulative" in that it, along with all other forms of rhetorical communication, involves strategically pursued attempts to induce change in peoples' attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. However, such attempts to "manipulate" are not, ipso facto, either "cynical" or unethical. To claim this confuses processes and motivations.

There may be something to Winston's characterization of Obama as "a symbolic trigger for the activation of the archetypal projection from the collective unconscious of the American population". If nothing else, Winston's statement mirrors the position that I have taken. However, Winston's statement gets one no closer to the questions concerning. "who/what" and, perhaps, "how" and "why".

I cannot agree, though, that Winston has, necessarily, "employed too much Jungian terminology". The issue seems to be one of whether and/or how one can "square" Jaynes and Jung.

Kevin might be making a good point about tequila. I wouldn't know. I'm a craft-brewed beer man, myself. I have never seen a good reason to imbibe "agave squeezin's" when, say, Negro Modelo was available. I have been told, however, that tequila can "sneak up" on a person.

Bernie Goldberg is funny. (I don't know about "little".) He can be insightful and fair, too, witness his interacton with Sean Hannity about the "takedown" of the hostage-taking pirates.

Kevin's descriptions of what went on during the presidential campaign also have merit. However, as with Winston's comments, they seem to be insufficient.

Where I part company with both Winston and Kevin is in my hypothesis that there may be something "Jaynesian/Jungian" about "Obamamania". While this hypothesis would require at least a paper to develop (and it is possible that I might try to write such a paper) the widespread visceral ("thrill up the leg"[?]) and even hormonal reaction to Obama would seem to indicate that there may be a "charismatic process" that has involved not only peoples' "projecting upon" Obama but also something (or "someone" [?]) "projecting through" Obama in a fashion that the United States, along with much of the world, has not experienced since the days of JFK. To conflate Jaynes and Jung, a bit, I submit that this process might involve a "psychoid" archetypal "god" that (who[?]) operates independently of the people who participate in the "residually bicameral" archetypal process. I attempted to describe what such a process might involve in my conference paper on Hitler.

A problem that developing such a hypothesis might run into has to do with "finding the name" of the relevant archetypal "god". "Wotan" would most likely not be that entity. However, a "god" along the lines of, say, Dionysus, might be a more likely candidate. In such a case, the proper dramatistic expression for the the resulting "archetypal/bicameral" process might be less Wagnerian opera than it might be Greek tragedy.

Author:  WS1 [ Tue Apr 14, 2009 3:12 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Obama and the Politics of Crowds

John R. Schedel wrote:
I am not entirely sure what Winston might be referring to when he referrs to "projecting in the true sense of the term". I hope that he will flesh out this claim a bit more.

It was not clear in what I was referring to there at all, no. It was a reference to Kevin Roger's notion that the source of the projection was one Barack Obama, and the definition of projection in the usual sense entails it being an entirely unconscious process. Obama was consciously utilizing his persona to appeal to the masses.

Whilst perhaps being a confirmed cynic I see that Barack Obama's entire campaign was of necessity conducted in an entirely conscious manner, though under further consideration Obama's personal unconscious containing all his hopes, dreams, and desires as presidential candidate would almost certainly have resulted in projection. In the stricter sense of the term.

In order for me to be clearer on the questions you are asking, what exactly do you mean by the four points you mentioned? I'll try and put my interpretation on them beforehand.

Who/what - revising my previous post I would say that we have a possible case of transference here between Obama and his electorate. Barack projects onto the electorate, the Obamaniacs projected onto him.

How - But of course there could well be a Jaynesian element to the entire electoral phenomenon, not just the Obama phenomenon (though that was an exceptional case) where the candidate stands in for the god, as Hammurabai to Marduk. But if Obama was akin to Hammurabi then what god was he representing? Obviously not in a full bicameral sense but the vestiges remain, I'm sure. It may be the whole foundation to modern pop culture idolization, of which Obama is fully an example.

Could we say that Obama is a type of sun god, in terms of an archetype? There was much sun symbolism in his campaign. Take note of his rising sun logo in red, white, and blue.

We could also go for historial equivalences to ancient Egypt: Bush as the heretic king Akhenaten and Obama as the redeemer Tutenkhamun?

As for the why, it may be an unconscious, residual hangup of the breakdown of the bicameral mind to conduct these huge rituals, the election campaigns, that the people who take part believe that it is a conscious, rational process; but the ins & outs, twists & turns, and the psychic cacophony of the thing belies what may be it's true purpose: harkening back to the bicameral hierarchy.

Author:  JBrubaker [ Sat Sep 03, 2011 11:47 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Obama and the Politics of Crowds

As an introduction, I'm a cultural anthropologist, and somewhat regret that I didn't hear of Jaynes' book and theory until after I had selected my dissertation subject 16 years ago. As it was, my dissertation was on how specific behaviors of individuals in a subculture are informed by the ideological and religious constellation of world views contained in their ancestral and contemporary culture. At any rate, I am happy to have found this site, and though circumstances at present do not permit me to do serious research into applying Jaynes' theory to "real life" (as my students call it), I often relate ancillary studies of ancient cultures in terms of Jaynesian theory.

I also am working on a book investigating the ideological and religious roots of modern liberalism, and this thread drew my attention. In the course of studying political movements in the US, it seemed to me many years ago, that what I would term "collectivists" (so as to remove any political connotations) as opposed to "individualists," have a crowd mentality easily directed by authority figures and symbols. Ann Coulter, in her recent book Demonic, argues in her off-beat and semi-serious manner, that collectivists (in the political sense) are easily persuaded by chants, repetition of simple sound-bites, and graphic symbols to act as one without conscious intent or even awareness. Now as a Jaynesian adherent, this immediately struck a chord with me - are collectivists in general retaining some pre-conscious mental forms that individualists don't?

Add to this how so many of the 60s liberals (hippies as called then) delved greatly into Taoism, Buddhism (whose aim is to essentially remove oneself from conscious thought), hallucinatory drugs (to hear that inner child or voice), and expressly sang about wanting to "get ourselves back to the garden [of Eden]", a metaphor for a pre-conscious, bicameral mentality.

On the other hand, there are the individualists (variously called conservatives, right wingers, libertarians, etc.) who reject external authority, mob psychology, charismatic figures, and chants. As someone put it (I don't remember who), leftists use repetitious mnemonic devices (hypnotic) to get their points across, right wingers use logic and long drawn out explanations (boring).

I think this may serve to partially explain the large attraction of Obama to many collectivists, not to mention the emotional reaction to his presence. I am not sure where or how the meme of Obama being the "Messiah" arose, but it would fit with this explanation - collectivists, in their pre-conscious mentality, see him as a living god, not much different from the god-kings in bicameral times. Of course, this is not to say that collectivists are constantly in a pre-conscious state, but they are more susceptible to the bicameral mode. An interesting question to pursue in the study of people who are easily hypnotized, or of schizophrenics, would be their political affiliation.

Author:  Moderator [ Fri Sep 16, 2011 3:51 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Obama and the Politics of Crowds

Sounds like an interesting book... keep us posted on your progress. You may be interested in the psychologist Steven Pinker's chapter on politics in his book The Blank Slate.

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