Hyperpsychism: or The Myth of Collective Feeling
A lecture given at the Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC DTP Cohort Day, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, 17th May 2022.
Many of the things we say habitually, can seem, on inspection, surpassingly strange. One the strangest is the phrase, ‘lived experience’. The phrase is in much more common use among academic writers, or those engaged in the work of self-conscious reflection on experience, in law, government, religion or political activism, than among those who might be thought to be taken up in or perhaps just confined to the experiencing of lived experience. It is quite obvious from the ways in which this phrase is used that it is meant to name something that is or ought to be, immediately recognisable and so unproblematically apparent to all. Indeed, one of the functions of the phrase is to make a claim to these very qualities of immediacy and apparence, even as it also suggests that the experience in question is in some way unremarked or overlooked. Lived experience is always meant to constitute some kind of discovery or confirming revelation of the familiar.
One of the many puzzling things about the couplet is the word ‘lived’. In qualifying the idea of experience, and thereby distinguishing some particular kind or quality of it, the word ‘lived’ seems implicitly to be ruling out some other kinds. And, in acting, as it almost always does, as a kind of compliment as well as an adjectival complement, to the notion of experience, it implies that there are other, inferior or ersatz forms of experience, than those which are lived.
But all experience must be lived, precisely in order for it to constitute experience, and because only living entities can have experiences. Neither the class of posthumous experiences nor prenatal ones, can be regarded as very large, and anything that might be thought to count as evidence of them ends up suggesting that the experiencer must therefore in fact have been in some state of existence sufficiently similar to that we call being alive to be able to experience them. So, if lived experience is the only kind of experience there is, what other kinds might be left, once one has taken account of all the lived experiences?
I hope the answer is obvious and that you have been enjoying the anticipation of what is so obviously coming. For we feel that there is a large class of experiences which we ourselves have not experienced, or have no need of experiencing: namely narrated or more broadly represented experiences, experiences represented to us, or that we represent to ourselves, in all of the many modalities in which we constantly do represent experiences that are past, or passing or to come – the last ten minutes of that match were very tense, a cold beer would be nice right now, I am glad I am not currently waiting for test results, or, a personal favourite, actually attested to by a victim of kidnap in Beirut, what a relief not to have worry constantly about being kidnapped. Indeed, so large is the class of these subjunctive forms of experience that they may seem to displace experience ‘itself’, the being in-itself and for-itself of experience, unmodified by second, third or fourth thoughts.
It is, of course, this vast realm of projective or vicarious experience that ‘lived experience’ seems to stand out against, defiantly or sometimes even a touch plaintively. You might casually say, for example (though the assertion of lived experience is rarely an offhand affair) ‘you think that the experience of poverty, exposure to violence, disease, frustration with the local council, is something that can readily be understood from descriptions or statistics, but I have had “lived experience” of these things, and am here to tell the tale’. The tale in question is routinely that lived experience is more intense – arduous, trying, or (rarely) rapturous than the vicarious kind. Nobody ever seems to say of their lived experience that things weren’t too bad. It is telling that the kinds of things that count as lived experience seem to exclude so many of the actual lived experiences that human beings are likely to have. Since, in evoking lived experience one always seems to be making some claim to it or through it, nobody is likely to brood on or boast of the lived experience of being bored, or episodically contented, or feeling peckish, or chilly, or resigned, or, most revealingly of all, being treated nicely almost all the time. The ordinary experiences of life, in other words, tend not to be thought of as the things of which you are likely to have ‘lived experience’, which tends to be regarded as experience you have lived through, often in the sense that it has been heroically survived. One will only speak of lived experience when one is referring to experiences that in some sense are being lifted out of ordinary experience, or marked off from it for special attention, as when we say that something was ‘quite an experience’: something that thereby moves from experiencing to being an experience of.
Not only is lived experience the only kind of experience there is, the having of experience is ceaseless and inescapable, since we must always be experiencing something or other. Indeed, experiencing something or other is the condition of all existence, as David Hume maintains:
When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound-sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. (Hume 1985, 300)
But the work done by the modifier ‘lived’ in ‘lived experience’ suggests that this kind of experience, while being necessary for something to count as an entity, is nevertheless somehow not enough. Lived experience is something different, something more immediate, but by that token requiring special kinds of mediation. T.S. Eliot refers to being ‘expert beyond experience’ (Eliot 1973, 52), but it seems clear that we devote a great deal of time to becoming expert in experience too. In lived experience, we move from simply living to experiencing. Experience derives from Latin experiri which has the primary meaning of putting something to the test, as in an experiment, and is related to words that indicate certain kinds of probative passage, like Greek περάω to pass through or penetrate, porta, a door and periculum, a hazard or danger.
Jean-Paul Sartre deploys a phrase that can help us get hold of this, in his transitive use of the verb to ‘exist’, as in his expressively goofy-sounding phrase ‘I exist my body’ (Sartre 1984, 351). Sartre uses this term as a way of indicating that, in experiences like illness, one is never merely subjected to what happens to happen to one. The experience of illness for example must always be understood, made sense of or lived out in some way. It is not enough to exist, as Beckett might say, and very likely somewhere does, one must actively exist one’s existence, and, for Sartre, always through some kind of choice, either through active exertion on our part or through what something hidden from us chose. Living is not enough: one must live what is known as ‘a life’, for example, by making what is still, sweetly and weirdly, called ‘a living’.
Here we might wonder why we refer to ‘lived experience’ and not ‘living experience’, which we might perfectly well do, and which, given the kind of immediacy and intensity that is supposed to be being attested to in lived experience, might well be expected to. The passive perfect participle ‘lived’ makes the experience in question something completed and over with, something capable of being recognised, that is literally, known again, or, in the temporal pucker involved in the idea of recognition, known for the first time to be being known again. Even in the case of somebody declaring, rapturously, ‘to think I am having the lived experience right now of watching Adele on stage’, a strange but syntactically conceivable utterance, the present-tense experience to which the speaker is bearing witness has nevertheless been framed off from pure or simple experience, allowing the person to practise living to tell the tale of what they are experiencing in the very quick of experiencing it. This is partly because representing experiences as we have them can be a way both of intensifying them and, peculiarly enough, in the case of unpleasant experiences, also objectifying them and so holding them at arm’s-, or mind’s-, length.
Lived experiences are therefore experiences that must be had or be have had, by someone, some one, meaning some entity, normally a living one, capable of having experiences, which to some extent means with some experience in having them. Things incontestably occur to brick walls, light bulbs and cheese flans, but even the most devout animist – though their ranks are swelling daily – is unlikely to believe that it might occur to these objects themselves that such things are occurring. They will undergo the experience without being able to experience it as a subject, a word which literally means undergoing, but must always mean in some way concurring with what occurs. An experience that had never been, as we say, tellingly if you like, ‘had’ by any such entity, could not sensibly, or nonpoetically, be called an experience. Things not being sensible or being unconsciously poetic are of course no impediment at all to their being said. Trust me, I am a professor of literature, just. We should probably be on the qui vive for involuntary poetry just as zealously as for unconscious bias, with which it often lies down. And this gets me, if not quite yet to the heart of the matter, then at least into its whispering vicinity.
For we are not only cognisant of the fact that only entities qualifying as living can experience things, we, or the things we say, if I can be permitted a little animism of my own, also seem content with the idea that certain other kinds of entities are also capable of having experiences. The entities I have in mind, and which I will try to keep in range for what remains of my time, are collectivities, and collectivities of a specific kind, that, unlike the material collectivities constituted by dust clouds or snowflakes or corpuscles, are made up of reflexive entities capable of having experiences, that is, roughly speaking, groups of people. There is a philosophical doctrine that the features of mind or soul are not restricted to living, self-conscious beings, but must also be present, in however residual or incipient a manner, all the way down through the different grades of matter. The doctrine is known as panpsychism. The doctrine I mean to reflect on, in order to discredit it, is that gatherings of living entities who are all individually possessed of ideas, appetencies and feelings, may themselves retain or inherit those capacities, projected as it were upwards. This opinion may conveniently if not particularly beautifully be designated hyperpsychism. Those who believe that rocks and stones and trees are not only rolled round in earth’s diurnal course but also might be contributing in some way to the process, perhaps through the magical capacity we call agency, will have no difficulty at all with this high-end form of animism, but with such persons I would always prefer an amicable pint to a disputation.
So the question at issue will be whether aggregations of conscious, sentient beings are capable of forming collective entities that inherit their consciousness and sentience. I have said before (Connor 2013) and will try to carry on saying. in different ways and for different reasons, that they cannot. What is more, I say that some looming but mute part of us knows full well that they cannot. If I am right, there might be some interest, if not necessarily much else in the way of dividend beyond it, in wondering what we might be up to in thinking like this, or what our unsupervised thinking might itself seem to be getting up to when we are not looking.
There are many different kinds of collectivities, or classes of classes of being: nations, tribes, teams, parties, platoons, cliques, classes, sects, sub-committees and so on. In fact, so infinitely on, for there are as many collectivities as there are conceivable ways of collecting things together, including Kenyans, Keynesians, Carthusians, collectors, obsessive-compulsives and things that from a long way off look like flies. And, given the fanatical, rising to psychopathic, interest shown by higher primates like us in classifications, there seems no way to put a limit on the ways of chopping things up and clumping them together that might arise or seem salient to somebody, either currently in existence, or yet to taste its joys.
At the same time, and very likely for this very reason, only a relatively small number of collectivities seem able to occupy our attention at any one time, the point of collectivities being to make things manageable, and the point of thinking by and large to economise on having to think. As soon as you start wondering why there seem to be wider and more dramatic internal differences between the groups of persons swept up in a category like BAME than there are differences on average between members of that group and non-BAME persons, the category shatters unnervingly like a blob of liquid mercury.
This is not to say that there is no collective dimension to feelings. In fact, what I have to say must sleep head-to-toe with a larger, but different argument that all feelings are collective in the sense that as soon as we can have ‘lived experience’ of them, we have rounded up (in both senses, that of the mathematician and of the marshal) a fissiparous multiplicity of different things into a kind of that’ll-do-for-now coherence. What is more, we will have learned what it means to identify certain experiences as nameable and coherent. But in broader terms, I think the collectivity of feeling has three aspects, which I will characterise as distributive, assimilative and attributive, though the greatest and busiest of these three is the attributive.
Distributive feelings relate to the more or less measurable quantities or intensities of particular feelings. These are the kind of things that are measurable in a spot-check sort of way in opinion polls and other kinds of statistical enquiry and may even one day be susceptible to large-scale, real-time endocrinological assay. When we speak of taking the temperature of a meeting, or of a larger group like an electorate, we are working with this kind of distributive model, which suggests that there might be certain degrees of assent to a proposition, estimable through aggregating and averaging the degrees of individual assent.
One of the practical demonstrations of this kind of aggregation of feeling is the crowd, especially the crowd in full voice, chorality of this kind being a large part of the reason for forming or joining a crowd. Crowds demonstrate the principle that proximity to others giving evidence of particular kinds of arousal often causes the transmission and imitative amplification of that arousal. In this, the aggregated state of feeling begins to acquire the assimilative force of collective feeling. Being the kind of higher primate we are involves the tendency, when those around start to roar ‘Stand up, if you hate Tottenham’, to think ‘Count me in’ rather than ‘Get me out of here’. It seems to be a rule of crowd-feelings, as I have just said it is of collective feelings more generally, that they are actually very limited in their number. Crowds are characterised by what Emile Durkheim called ‘effervescent’ feelings, meaning that they are highly contagious, or apt to boil over (Durkheim 1915, 214-18). Hence the primary-colour nature of crowd-feelings like rage, terror, triumph and amusement, and the comic absurdity of the idea that a crowd might be capable of feeling and internally propagating more qualified, diminished-seventh type feelings like bittersweet melancholy, ironic resignation, curiosity, puzzlement or remorse. Even commendably self-deprecating chants like that heard at the Emirates Stadium in the gloomy early days of the 2021-22 season – We lose every week/We lose every week/ You’re nothing special/We lose every week’ – manages to turn humiliation into contemptuous taunting.
Attributive feelings are feelings that we assign to entities, whether singular or collective. They are acts of projection, which assume that collectivities are capable of experiencing particular states of feeling, comparable to those of the members of that collectivity. Such attributions are fictions, or projections, the uses of which depend on us pretending to believe that they actually exist as the feelings entertained by the collective entities that they help to personify. The most economical example of this, appropriately enough, the financial panic. There are veritably circumstances in which large numbers of individual people may be driven into a state of panic by the prospect of losing all their savings, but these circumstances need not obtain for a financial panic to be in evidence. All that takes is for a large number of people to take certain coolly prudential actions, like moving their investments from one institution to another, more or less at the same time. When observed at the right focal length this is enough to give the impression of an hysterical stampede. The ailing Mrs Gradgrind, in Dickens’s Hard Times, is asked if she is in pain and memorably replies that she thinks there is a pain somewhere in the room, but she could not positively say that she has got it (Dickens 2003, 193). In the case of financial panic, there is panic somewhere in the picture, though it is hard to locate precisely where. As this example may suggest, many forms of attributive affect are in fact statistical effects or artefacts, and their irresistible rise doubtless has much to do with the conjoining of the ancient habit of mythical thinking to the torrential amounts of statistical evidence which we are now capable of generating.
Were I to make it my business to map out the whole sorry sphere of attributive feelings, I might want to differentiate them further: for example, into what might be called the hortative (feelings we urge others to feel), the obligative (feelings that we feel others should feel), the normative (feelings that we are morally convinced others cannot but feel), the optative (feelings that we wish others would feel), or more generally assumptive (feelings that we take others, individually or severally, to be feeling). I have sometimes described these as meta-feelings, since they seem as a class to consist of the sorts of feelings about different kinds of feelings. But in general attributive feelings have something in common with the kinds of experience known as lived experience, which is to say that they follow a certain law of restriction, as characterised by Beckett’s formula of having been ‘distorted into intelligibility’ (Beckett 1970, 86). Collectives in fact, like crowds, seem only to be capable of ethos-feelings. Ethics concerns the realm of what we should do, though I incline to the sourer, more Nietzschean understanding of ethics as what we should do, or else.
The idea that entire nations are capable of experiencing what is called trauma, along with what Michel Serres expressively calls the ‘libido of belonging’ (Serres 2003, 141, my translation), or the invigorating impulse to annihilate other nations, is an indication that the experience of trauma has been added to the catalogue of approved ethos-feelings. The fact that trauma was at one time characterised as the Mrs-Gradgrind experience of an experience that you do not quite know how to have, or even know for sure you have had, makes the idea that there can be a collectively lived experience of trauma a sophisticated one, to put it mildly. There is a link between the familiarity of expressions like ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’ and the fact that collectivities are often thought to share in burdens of shame, or remedially exhorted to do so. It is remarkable how often collective feelings seem to enact moral – by which, you know by now, I mostly mean punitive – feelings about feelings that we think collectivities by rights ought to feel. Collectives are largely corrective. We might aptly recall W.B. Yeats’s formula: ‘We had fed the heart on fantasies;/The heart’s grown brutal from the fare’ (Yeats 1950, 230).
Powerless people must often for example have consoled themselves with the fantasy that those in power over them are surely in a continuous condition of anxiety as to the legitimacy of their power, and its fragility in the face of insurrection by the powerless. Over the last four or five decades, cultural historians have developed a dizzyingly versatile set of methods for demonstrating the ways in which literary and other cultural forms may be made to come clean about their gnawing perturbations. We should be much more puzzled than we are by the fact that the anxiety of the wicked people of the past at the knowledge of their own wickedness should so infallibly seem to come to light on our inspection, having failed to come to light, or occurred to the wicked themselves, before. However gratifying it may be for contemporary academic omnicompetents to think that pompous and extravagant displays of class and imperial power are really feeble Wizard of Oz overcompensations, we might also suspect it of being a self-soothing failure of historical consciousness on the part of the analyst.
Francis Bacon famously distinguishes four kinds of cognitive illusion, that he calls idols. The four kinds are: idols of the tribe, or general aptness to be deceived, as for example by the limits of sense perception; idols of the cave, sometimes translated as den, or illusions caused by our limited positions or perspectives; idols of the market-place, or illusions induced by the imperfect conditions of our expression and communication; and idols of the theatre, induced by the distorting effect of theories (Bacon 2000, 40-2) There is always a great deal of cross-infection between these different kinds of cognitive idolatry, but I am inclined to assign the idolatry involved in the idea of collective experience chiefly to the last two, as the interbreeding of the idols of the market-place and of the theatre. This is perhaps particularly true at the present moment, given the way in which our contemporary media seem to provide us with something that seems like the lived experience of mass or group utterance, apparently bearing witness to forms of experience held in common.
In collective feelings – appetites, dreads, anguishes, intendings, – it is not only the feelings that are in Bacon’s sense idols, it is also the collective entity itself, that is thought to be the one doing or having the feeling, and in so doing constituted and kept going as a collectivity. The collectives which are thought to be capable of, say, collective guilt, are zombie-formations, outsides without insides, pantomime-horses, put-up jobs. Jacques Lacan refers to the psychoanalyst as the one-supposed-to-know, supposé à savoir. (Lacan 1998, 232). Collective entities are increasingly constructed, or, as the reasoning assembled here leads me to prefer to say, projected, as the ones-supposed-to-feel, supposés à sentir.
One of the richest repositories of, or receptive screens for, collective feeling is traditionally that entity known as ‘the people’. The people are almost always themselves the subject and outcome of projections, as satirically noted in Bertolt Brecht’s poem ‘Die Lösung’, written after the 1953 protests in East Germany sparked by increased work quotas and quelled by Soviet tanks:
After the 17th June uprising
the Secretary of the Writers’ Union
had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
which made it known that the people
had forfeited the confidence of the government
and could only win it back
by redoubling their efforts. Would it not
be easier for the government
to dissolve the people
and elect another one? (Brecht 1964, 9; my translation)
The people, like other entities supposed-to-feel, are always being resolved and dissolved in various ways. Collectivities like ‘the people’ are represented, or may even, through various kinds of ventriloquial contrivance, like plebiscites or Twitter epidemics, made to seem to represent themselves, as having experiences in common, indeed, as coming into being spontaneously through the having of those experiences or their articulation. Articulation is of the essence, just as the congregation of the crowd is an essentially choral calling-in. It is the various ways of speaking for or giving voice to collectivities that produce through back-formation the sense that there might be collective subjects possessed of will, desire or apprehension that is capable of being so expressed. But this means that ‘the People’ are never the people, because whatever is taken to be the subject of a proposition like ‘the people have spoken’ must always be the object of an act of subject-making, or making-subject by others. This is a paradox pleasingly and teasingly, and even a little menacingly, dramatised in G.K. Chesterton’s reactionary-anarchist poem ‘The Secret People’, which gives a voice to this very predicament of never having been able to speak in your own voice:
We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark, with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget. (Chesterton 1927, 176)
There is a related form of attributive function of collectivities that is especially worth our attention, though it does not involve collective feeling so much as a particular form of collective cognition. This is a little more difficult to dispose of by the kind of guying I have been attempting here because there are obviously many ways we have developed in order to conduct cognitive operations collectively. I have personally witnessed in operation a computer made out of a class of primary schoolchildren, who were divided into a series of pairs performing simple logical operations and transmitting their output sequentially to provide input to other pairs of children performing other operations. Organised like this into a series of logic gates, or as we more mystically like to say, an algorithm, it is possible for a class of children to perform collectively a calculation of which none of them would be capable on their own, and of which none of them are actually sensible. So computing really can be achieved by what the etymology of the word suggests it is, com-putare, thinking-with, or collective cognition.
But the capacity of what is called ‘collective memory’ is not exactly cognitive, or is enough of a cognitive-affective sherry trifle to be worth considering alongside the attributions of collective feeling, as examples of imputational rather than computational thinking. Indeed, if there is one thing I hope to achieve in this talk it will be to make your eyes widen just a little (or preferably narrow) when you next hear the lunatic locution ‘collective memory’. Hardly a day goes by without my encountering a funding application or research proposal that offers to map the appearances and operations of different varieties of collective memory. Sometimes – very rarely, though – collective memory seems to have to do with memories that seem to be shared by people who do appear to be able to recall similar experiences. I recently shared with somebody of comparable antiquity to me the memory of getting dressed on a frosty morning in a council house without central heating in front of a bar fire – a curious sock-to-necktie reverse-striptease floor exercise. However pleasant and companionable this convergence of memories was, though, I have to say that it still seems to me to be a classically distributive phenomenon of duplication, something severally rather than collectively remembered, and so coincident rather than genuinely held in common.
But in the vast majority of cases nowadays what is called collective memory can be guaranteed to be an experience of memory alleged to be had, or readily able to be induced, in people who have had, and can have had, no experience at all of what is alleged to be being remembered. In this delirious kind of prosopopoeia, a collectivity is thought somehow to be remembering something of which not one of its members can possibly have any memory at all, because they were not there, and indeed were yet to be anywhere. The delirium is redoubled in references to what are portentously referred to as ‘sites of memory’. Sometimes these are cemeteries, museums, or other contemplative places designed to make people think about past events, almost always of a painful kind, or rather to pretend to themselves and others that they are capable of being reminded of them. Sometimes they are just locations – battlefields, for example – which are thought somehow to have soaked up the experiences that have been had in them, like a mnemonic storage heater, to be exhaled on demand for the benefit of forgetful future generations. But the reminding in question is phantasmatic: at best you are being reminded of other alleged reminders you have encountered, like other monuments, or records like photographs and films, in something of the way in which one’s own early memories tend to cluster around scenes that turn out to be photographs. I do not remember dressing up aged 7 as the Milky Bar Kid, but I have looked at the photographic evidence of the legendary event so often it is just as if I did.
The absurdity of the idea that, because memory seems in some ways to be like an internal archive, or consultable ledger, external archives can reciprocally be regarded as raidable larders of general memory (‘Eat me’) is truly impressive. Really, though, the verb to remember has no first person plural. Memorials, despite what the word itself seems humidly to intimate, are not memories, but the opposite of memories. They are the proof that we need reminding of things, because we have forgotten them, or have never experienced them in the first place. To molest T.S. Eliot’s phrase, memorials are the proof that we had the meaning, but missed the experience (Eliot 1973, 186). Much of what is written about collective memory, which, I must honestly admit, causes people honestly to think they believe what they are writing, suggests that memorials and sites of memory are not just prompts to the work of remembering, but delegations of it, objects and apparatuses that are thought, in our absence, or indifference, to be able to do our remembering, or the remembering that we optatively think ought to be done by somebody or other, for us.
I am of course labouring this point mightily and, equally obviously, labouring in vain. The elaborate theatres of memory recommended by Roman rhetoricians (Anon 1954, 208-9) and documented by historians like Frances Yates (1999) suggest that we are too accustomed to using material objects as prompts to memory to be able to forgo at this time of day the idea that memory might somehow be capable of passing across into material objects that can then act as memory-engines: the rosary beads give way to the prayer wheel that can perform our devotions for us. Material objects and objects that become quasi-objects, in Michel Serres’s pregnant term (Serres 1982, 225), take up more and more of our automated and automatous lives.
And what, of course, of all these second-person plurals I have myself been calling up from the vasty deep for purposes of public incrimination (I count 47 wes so far)? Am I not guilty of just the same kind of idolatry as those I am so prudishly arraigning, and the phenomenon of affective projection on which I have been blowing the whistle itself no more than my own fevered hyperpsychic projection? I enter no plea beyond the squeak that succumbing to a temptation is rather confirmation of its force than disproof, along with the exculpatory whimper that my focus has been less on how things are with regard to the collective thinking about collectivities than on the phenomenology of how they seem. I do not assume or of course recommend taking the patterns of language and behaviour I have been discussing as evidence of the workings of any contemporary anima mundi or humming hive-mind, only as evidence of habits and tendencies that, if you were to take them as that kind of evidence, would also be evidence that the hive-mind was out of its mind.
It is hard to say quite what the origin might be of this kind of upper-level animism or pathetic fallacy at scale. Why do we do it? This does not mean, what deep, shared, possibly unacknowledged motivations does any kind of we have for it, but rather what local rewards does such hyperpsychism tend repeatedly to provide. I am going to offer an explanation that I believe has the considerable advantage of being true without the advantage of providing any kind of unlooked-for revelation, at least not for utilitarians of my accursed stripe. We conjure collective entities, keep them at work in solemn and fantastic dramaturgies, and establish imaginary relations with them, because we like it, just as we like mercy, or cruelty. We like populating the world with human-like entities, with whom we may play, that is to say, play out subject-object relations, shuttling, as in Freud’s primal fort-da game, between playing the subject to an object and playing the object to a subject. We like conjuring collective entities to play patball with because they are, in Samuel Beckett’s words, an ‘addition to company’. But the entities with which we seek to play out relations seem to be subject to the rule, as in play, that they should be restricted and ultimately subordinate kinds of substitute for ourselves: play-things, that is. This principle is articulated in Beckett’s text about self-socialising, Company: ‘In order to be company he must display a certain mental activity. But it need not be of a high order. Indeed it might be argued the lower the better. Up to a point. The lower the order of mental activity the better the company. Up to a point’ (Beckett 1980, 15)
So then to my over-anticipated QED: collectives cannot actually have feelings of their own, except through forms of projection, because only subjects can have feelings, and collectivities are pseudo-subjects. So we would be much better off giving up thinking they can have feelings or wishing they could, or saying they can, just as most of us have given up, at least for the time being, thinking that rocks and stones and trees have our interests at heart, or even their own, or that rain and ultra-violet radiation have got it in for us. Is being philosophically better off enough for us to forgo the gratifications of the animation racket? I would not count on it.
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——————- (1980). Company. London: John Calder.
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—————- (2003). L’Incandescent. Paris: Le Pommier.
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