Critical Theory

Collective Desire and the Pathology of the Individual, Part 2 (Jodi Dean)

The following is the second installment of a two-part series.  The first installment was published on October 10 and can be accessed here.

If we do not give normative priority to the individual, that is, to the individual as the proper or exclusive form of subjectivity, then we could read the evidence Turkle offers differently. We could read it as an indication that a political form of separation and enclosure is changing, mutating, becoming something else.

To say that the individual is a form with a history is not particularly controversial. It is also widely acknowledged that the setting that produced the individual has changed. Hardt and Negri, for example, follow Gilles Deleuze in describing this change as the passage from disciplinary society to the society of control.

They point out how disciplinary logics worked primarily within the institutions of civil society to produce individuated subjects.[1] Michel Foucault is explicit on this point in Discipline and Punish where he notes how the crowd is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities.[2]

Very briefly and schematically, by the end of the twentieth century, disciplining and mediating institutions—the nuclear family, the prison, the school, the union, and the church—were in crisis. The spaces, logics, practices, and norms previously coalescing into social and economic institutions have broken down and apart. In some instances, the release of an institutional logic from its spatial constraints has given it all the more force; in other instances, the opposite has occurred.

Thus, corresponding to this pervasive dissolution is an “indeterminacy of the form of the subjectivities produced.”[3] Consequently, Hardt and Negri conclude that the bourgeois individual—the citizen-subject of an autonomous political sphere, the disciplined subject of civil society, the liberal subject willing to vote in public and then return home to his private domesticity—can no longer serve as a presupposition of theory or action. They suggest that in its place, we find fluid, hybrid, and mobile subjectivities who are undisciplined, who have not internalized specific norms and constraints, and who can now only be controlled.

Networked communication technologies facilitate this control (together with other mechanisms like walls and weapons). As the decline of discipline weakened individuating structures, new techniques of individuation took their place. An easy example (one prominent in Turkle’s discussion) is the adoption of mobile phones as personal media devices for kids. Enabling parents to keep track from a distance, phones fill-in for the direct supervision and contact that has diminished in the wake of increasing work demands on parents, particularly, mothers.

Additional such techniques and technologies of individuation include competition in intensified labor markets as they induce a marketing relation to oneself; targeted advertisements that urge consumers to differentiate and specify themselves; locative technologies associated with mobile phones and GPS; cookies and other data-gathering techniques associated with transactions on the internet; political injunctions to personal participation; and, in the US, a rights-based political culture focused on personal identity, harm, and exclusion as opposed to common, collective, and systemic injustice; within this culture, systematic problems such as exploitation in the workplace and amplified personal indebtedness are treated as the effects of individual choices, preferences, and luck.

The fluidity that Hardt and Negri observe, then, is accompanied by technologies and practices that try both to pinpoint and to push, that try to fix and that try to sway. The result is that the expectation of unique individuality exerts demands that are as constant and unyielding as they are impossible to meet.

That the young people Turkle interviews express anxieties associated with autonomy and connection is not surprising. They are enjoined to individuality, told each individual is self-same, self-creating, self-responsible: one is born alone and one dies alone; you can rely on no one but yourself. Yet the technologies that further individuation—personal smart phone, music player, laptop—and the platforms that encourage it—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumbler—provide at the same time an escape from and alternative to individuation: connection to others, collectivity.


Elias Canetti’s weird yet compelling anthropology of crowds (Adorno described it as a crowd-of-faces-1421158572jposcandal) addresses an anxiety different from the one that concerns Turkle.[4] He considers not the fear of being alone but the fear of being touched: “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown.”[5] The one place where man is free of this fear is in a crowd. “The crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body,” Canetti writes, “a crowd, too, whose psychical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him. As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch.”[6]

Turkle thinks that people’s aversion to talking on the phone (as opposed to texting) and conversing face-to-face reflects their need for filters, ways to handle overload. They reflect, she suggests, not only a longing for solitude but also the way that in a simulation culture we have become cyborgs.[7] This explanation does not ring true (not least because of the archaicism “cyborg”).

Canetti suggests an alternative: we may be coming to prefer the crowd, the presence of many that opens us to collectivity and relieves us of anxiety. One-on-one conversations may feel too constraining insofar as they enclose us back in an individual form. Rather than part of a group, of many, we are just ourselves.

If this is plausible, then we have an alternative way to think about preoccupations with numbers of friends, followers, blog hits, shares, and retweets. They do not indicate personal achievement, fame, influence, or popularity. They mark our absorption in the crowd, how densely we are enmeshed in it. So, to be clear, we can think of these counts in the individualist terms given us by capital and we can also recognize them as something else, as markers of belonging to something larger than oneself. In this latter sense, they reassure us that we are not unique but common.

For Canetti, the relief we feel in a crowd is paradoxical. It arises from a fear of others, a feeling that others are threatening that “reverses into its opposite” in the crowd.[8] In a discussion with Adorno, he explains that he believes that people like to become a crowd because of “the relief they feel at the reversal of the feeling of being touched.”[9] From this vantage point, the craving for dopamine Turkle describes seems more like the relief we may feel when we shake off the fears associated with individuation, such as isolation, exposure, and vulnerability.

One might object that Canetti’s crowd is physical and the networked crowd is virtual. This objection is absolutely right and compelling – part of the power of the occupations of Tahrir Square, Syntagma Square, and Occupy Wall Street’s multiple parks and sites is in the force of bodies out of doors in collectivities authorized by neither capital nor the state. But this is not the end of the story.

For one, Canetti also describes invisible crowds of the dead and spermatozoa, perhaps a pedantic point but one that opens up nonetheless a connection to virtual crowds. I should add that he is not unique here. Gustave Le Bon’s influential (albeit notoriously reactionary) work on crowds treats the crowd primarily as a psychological concept. He goes so far as to claim enigmatically that “crowds, doubtless, are always unconscious, but this very unconsciousness is perhaps one of the secrets of their strength.”[10] For another, technologies of presencing have developed significantly so as to make our mediated interactions feel all the more present and intense; we are interacting with others, not just screens.

The experience of flow that overwhelms the conscious experience of self that Turkle finds so threatening, then, might also be understood as a breaking out of the illusion that the individual is and can be a subject of action (rather than a form of enclosure and containment) and a giving over to a crowd.

Freud, drawing heavily from LeBon—and by drawing heavily I mean including and positively commenting on large sections of LeBon’s text—notes the obliteration of the “particular acquirements” of individuals in crowds.[11] What is distinctive vanishes, what is common appears. Freud observes how immersion in a crowd resembles the “state of fascination” experienced in hypnosis where “conscious personality” is also lost. The crowd manifests the unconscious; the unconscious is the crowd, disenclosed from its individual form.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

Freud, through LeBon, writes: “We see, then, the disappearance of the conscious personality, the predominance of the unconscious personality, the turning by means of suggestion and contagion of feelings and ideas in an identical direction, the tendency to immediately transform the suggested ideas into actions; these, we see, are the principal characteristics of the individual forming part of a group. He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.”[12] The crowd flows through the individual. Hence, there is in the crowd a feeling of invincible power, checked and restrained in the individual. Sentiments and acts spread “to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest.”[13]

The crowd has a sense of omnipotence, knows “neither doubt nor uncertainty,” desires passionately, demands strength, and respects violence.[14] We could also say that the subject is a crowd effect, a spontaneous, destructive, and creative force necessarily exceeding attempts to contain and enclose it. Rupturing the individual form and releasing affects and energies to the common, the crowd “strips away inessentials so that the social subjectivity becomes open to desire.”[15]

In a critique of Althusser’s account of ideological interpellations, Mladen Dolar writes, “For Althusser, the subject is what makes ideology work; for psychoanalysis, the subject emerges where ideology fails.”[16] As a Lacanian, Dolar emphasizes the remainder resisting symbolic idealization, the foreign body decentering the subject designated as objet petite a.

We might understand this foreign body as a remnant and sign of the crowd repressed persistence as well as of its forced enclosure in the individual form. Although I ca not go into here, such an understanding would involve the examination of ongoing efforts to incite disavowal of belonging to groups (being like others or having things in common with them). How is it that people are induced to made to detach themselves from sources of strength and see themselves as isolated, vulnerable, and alone rather than conjoined in common struggle and collective strength?

Here it might be useful to think differently about castration, in terms not confined to genitals and family. It would also be useful to invert Althusser and analyze how the subject is interpellated as an individual, that is, how demands for and processes of individuation fragment and dismantle collective strength even as collectivity subverts, exceeds, and even employs these processes and demands.

Such an analysis would also entail investigation of techniques and dynamics that install reflexivity, whether via what psychoanalysis refers to as ego-identity (the other before whom I see myself acting and to whom I transpose the experience of fascination), in the form of self-possession, self-presentation, self-branding, or the more fundamental and uncanny reflexivity of the drives.

This kind of an investigation could help answer questions concerning the politics of the crowd. For example, Freud treats the submission to the crowd as submission to a Leader. Even if this is a result of his use of the reactionary LeBon, does not the figure of the Leader suggest the importance of some kind of crowd reflexivity, some other in relation to which the crowd takes form? In this vein, mass media such as cinema made crowds visible to themselves as a unity, providing the crowd with an imaginary collective body.

If networked personalized communication media not only dissolve the crowd in ever-accelerating circuits of images, impulses, fragments, and feelings but also reproduce it as an effect of circulation, how does the crowd become more than just an aggregation of effects? Differently put, how does collectivity come to exceed collective bryanfeeling and become a solidarity that can persist through disagreement and override divisions?

I have suggested at least part of an answer already. Undersood as itself a pathology, the pressures on the individual form suggest that attachments to individuality are as ambivalent as they are intense, fragile, and fleeting, as easily discarded as they are intensely held. Perhaps, then, some of the attachments that undermine organizing in common are loosening, losing their attraction and releasing not just collective desire but desire for collectivity.

Jodi Dean is ‘Donald R. Harter ’39 Professor of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.  She is the author among other books of Crowds and Party (Verso 2016), Blog Theory (Polity 2010), The Communist Horizon, (Verso, 2012), Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies (Duke University Press, 2009), Zizek’s Politics (Routledge,  2006), Reformatting Politics (Routledge 2006) (coedited with jon Anderson and Geert Lovink), and Empire’s New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri (Routledge 2004) (coedited with Paul A. Passavant).  She is the former co-editor of Theory and Event.


[1] Hardt and Negri, Empire, 329.

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979) 201.

[3]Hardt and Negri, Empire, 197.

[4] “Elias Canetti: Discussion with Theodor W. Adorno, Thesis Eleven 45 (1996): 1-15.

[5] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, translated by Carol Stewart (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1984) 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Turkle, 209.

[8]Discussion with Adorno,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gustave LeBon, The Crowd (1896) (Kitchener, Ontario: Baroche Books, 2001) 6.

[11] Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, translated by James Strachey (London: The International Psycho-analytical Press, 1922) 9.

[12] Freud, 11.

[13] Freud, 10.

[14] Freud 13-14.

[15]Guattari, 202.

[16] Mladen Dolar, “Beyond Interpellation,” Qui Parle 6, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 1993): 73-96.

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