The Nature Of The Crowd

Will Glovinsky reflects on attitudes toward crowds in literary history and digital modernity:

[A]mid the talk of “the riffraff” and the pervasive anxiety that from this rabble the revolution might spontaneously recur, [19th century French poet] Charles Baudelaire stood apart with his famous dictum épouser la foule (literally, “marry the crowd”). Baudelaire could register as well as anyone the terror of the crowd, but what made him different was his wish to be truly at home in the dirty, swarming city, and to do that he needed to embrace the frisson of crowds. Above all, it was Baudelaire’s willingness to explore the often erotic allure of anonymity and the pleasure of suppressed individuality that allowed him to investigate the logic of crowds — a logic that bears equally on our digital throngs.

In particular, Baudelaire was acutely sensitive to the fantasy of escape into otherness that crowds provide. In one of his prose poems he writes that the man who marries the crowd “adopts as his own all of the professions, all of the joys and miseries that circumstances present to him.” The person in the crowd takes up cares, pleasures, and tasks without a thought of one’s personal business or even one’s credentials. The bricklayer fights in the revolution; the butcher helps dislodge a cart from the mud; and so too the Redditor plays detective by heatedly comparing the eyebrows and jawlines of Tripathi and Tsarnaev….

For denizens of the digital space, the lesson of épouser la foule is not that we should all spend more time in the bowels of Reddit, but rather that we must recognize that we, like Baudelaire, wish to be at home in our new, crowded world. This entails coming to terms with not just the wisdom but also the idiocy, hyperbole, and prejudice of crowds. It means that we need to know beforehand the feverish, speculative nature of the virtual crowd, so that when a slanderous rumor is tweeted at least established news outlets will check their sources.