Shattering Wholes: Creatively Subverting the University and Other Mobs—A Fragment

The University is not an alma mater, but a milk-cow.   Not just scoundrels can milk it. Neither to believe it, nor to believe in it, nor to serve it, but to serve oneself to it, should be the order of the day. To place in doubt, though it be only by detour, one, several, or all, facile universals—that program is not easy, and not without risk. But being wise doesn’t preclude being sly. It is possible for the wise to shatter the mass.

— Jean-Claude Milner, “De l’Université comme foule”


When I finally sobered up a bit over a quarter of a century ago, one of the things that first hooked me on sobriety was the sheer freedom of it. No one but a happily abstinent alcoholic can experience the joy of the freedom sobriety brings with it.

One way my newfound sobriety freed me was in my driving.

I am not proud of having done so, but during the years of my drinking I often drove “under the influence.” Once I embraced sobriety I no longer had to contend with at least one constant anxiety that accompanies any dedicated drinker who drives after drinking, even if is that drinker and driver feels no real anxiety about a possible accident. That is the anxiety that, however attentively one minds the road, one might not detect every lurking unmarked (or even marked) police car, and might get pulled over and risk arrest for drunk driving.

In fact, I got so hooked on the wonderful freedom of not having to care about being pulled over by the police, that I even went through a period of challenging them to pull me over.   Most of the time most of us (drinkers or not) will automatically slow down if we are driving along and suddenly notice a police car sitting somewhere up ahead. We have long grown accustomed to doing that even if we are not exceeding the speed limit at the time. So anxious have we become before the representatives of that which claims authority over us that we often relate to ourselves as criminals even when we are being the best-behaved, most law-abiding citizens. If we are indeed breaking the law by driving “under the influence,” that anxiety is exponentially heightened.

Well, for a while not long after I embraced the life of sobriety, when I would come over a hill on, say, the 50-mile drive along the interstate between my home and my office at the university where I taught, and spy a police car waiting down the road a bit, instead of slowing down I would actually speed up. What did it matter if I got pulled over for speeding? At most, I’d have to pay a few (maybe even quite a few) bucks for it, but so what? What did such trivia matter? It mattered nothing to speak of, so far as I was concerned in my newfound exuberance of abstinence. Because I was at last free of the guilt of being me, I was also free of any concern—or at least any crippling concern—for what “the authorities” might do to me.

Thus, sobriety not only set me free not to drink any more. It also set me free to break the law—with, in effect, a good conscience.

I’m glad to report that soon, so soon that I never even got a single speeding ticket from such doings, it dawned on me that sobriety also set me free not to break the law—and to do that, too, with a good conscience. Indeed, I saw how much more important the freedom not to break the law was than the freedom to break it. That was because the freedom not to break it gave me the chance creatively to subvert it.

One way of putting it is that I saw how obeying the letter of the law could be a skillful means for subverting the law’s whole spirit. That is the spirit of subservience. It is the spirit, that is, of spiritlessness.

The point is not subservience. It is subversion—or, rather, the freedom that makes skilful subversion possible.

*     *   *     *     *     *

Only in the freedom recovery brought me was I able clearly to apprehend something of my preceding bondage, and of just what role my addiction itself had played in it. For the powers that be, and that would have us serve them, addiction is a very socially useful tool. It puts us addicts in service to power despite ourselves, however hard we may try to make ourselves unserviceable. It puts us at the mercy of power. Especially in our consumer society today, addicts make perfect subjects: obedient to the laws even in their very efforts to disobey.

*     *     *     *     *     *

At one point in Ghandi’s Truth (New York: W. W. W. Norton and Co., 1969) Erik Erikson describes how challenging it was for Gandhi to maintain the vow of vegetarianism he made to his Jain mother when he left India for England, that land of ubiquitous beef and mutton, to study at Oxford. Erikson writes that, to preserve his vow, Gandhi had to learn to do something more—and, indeed, completely different from—just resisting the temptation to eat meat. He had to learn, instead, to make not-eating meat itself into a definitive positive goal all on its own. As Erickson puts it (on page 145, emphasis in original), Gandhi “had to learn to choose actively and affirmatively what not to do—and ethical capacity not to be confused with the moralistic inability to break a prohibition.”

As I have pointed out before (in my Addiction and Responsibility, page 143), using that same reference: “The only proof against addiction in general is the sort of active and affirmative choice of ‘what not to do’ that Erikson mentions, the sort of choice involved in Gandhi’s vegetarianism or genuine calls to celibacy.” After noting (on the next page) that abstinence is “the general term for refraining from some common practice or pursuit,” I go on to observe:

What allows us to transform abstinence (whether from meat, from genital sex, from heroin, from child molestation, or whatever) from negative avoidance into positive embrace is this element of self-restraint at the heart of all abstinence. If we abstain from doing something merely because we fear the consequences of doing it, either on practical or moral grounds (Erikson’s “moral inability to break a prohibition” . . .), then we remain at the level of negative avoidance. However, once we begin to abstain from something for the sake of exercising our own self-restraint, we pass over from a negative abstinence to a positive one. From that point on, abstaining becomes its own, ever-growing reward.


Then it’s just for fun.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The citation from Milner with which I began this post is from the third of his “short political treatises,” L’universel en éclats: Court traité politique 3 (Verdier, 2014, page 114). The quoted lines are the closing ones of the fourth of six essays in that book. We might translate the title of the essay as “The University as Mob”—in the sense, for example, that organized crime is called “the Mob.” Foule, the French term Milner uses, is the same one used in the standard French translation of Freud’s Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse. Freud’s work provides Milner with a basis for his thinking about the University.

The standard English translation of the same work is called Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Etymologically, the German Masse and the English mass are the same word. Die Massen would be translated by “the masses.” The translation of Freud’s title by “group” can weaken his meaning. The French foule, which can be translated by “crowd,” “mob,” or “mass,” depending on context, comes closer.

What Freud is talking about in the essay at issue, as he tells us there, is not just any grouping of diverse individuals. Rather, what concerns him are assemblages that arise when diverse individuals come to identify themselves with some group, and with others insofar as they also so identify themselves. Above all, in his essay Freud is concerned with such assemblages insofar as they arise from diverse individuals coming to identify with one another insofar as each in turn identifies with one and the same leader, who comes through such identification to take over the role of what Freud calls the “ego ideal” for each individual.

Freud’s own discussion focuses on two “mobs” or “masses” as paradigms: the Army and the Church. Both are examples of what he calls “artificial masses.”   An artificial mass, as the name implies, is one that has to be brought about and then maintained by some external force—with all the hierarchical organization and directorial leadership that typically entails. The Nazi Party (NSDAP, from the German for “National Socialist German Workers Party”), the rise to power of which was eventually to drive Freud out of Vienna in 1938, seventeen years after his book about mass psychology and ego-analysis first appeared, would be another example, to go along with the Army and the Church.

Freud distinguishes such artificial masses from “natural masses,” which form spontaneously of themselves and, left to themselves, eventually dissolve. Often natural masses do not last for very long. We could use the mob that stormed the Bastille in 1789 to inaugurate the French Revolution as an example of such a natural mass of relatively brief duration. Another example would be the crowd that congealed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and overthrew Mubarak in the Arab Spring of 2011.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Just while composing this post, I came across an interesting case of what strikes me as a creative subversion of one “artificial mass (though we don’t normally think of it that way): an orchestra. On the third page of the arts section of the New York Times for September 18, 2014, is a piece by critic James R. Oestreich about conductor Roger Nierenberg bringing his “Music Paradigm” program to the Lincoln Center for the Arts, before “an audience of nursing directors from New York-Presbyterian Hospital.”

Mr. Nierenberg began (“without apparent irony,” writes Mr. Oestreich) by remarking: “An orchestra is a great place to model organizational dysfunction.” According to Mr. Oestreich, the conductor, 67, had only rehearsed the 26 string players he brought with him for an hour before the performance—of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings—but had otherwise left them unprepared for what was going to happen next, which was that “he continued to rehearse them in public, running through snippets and discussing those with players and audience alike, drawing lessons in leadership from the work of the conductor and the interactions of the players.” In the process, says Mr. Oestreich, Mr. Nierenberg did indeed “model dysfunction,” by showing “how a performance might be adversely affected if the conductor micromanaged with his baton, eyes and gestures, or if the conductor were simply disengaged or fidgety.”

But then he went on to model something else—or at least so it seems to me, though Mr. Oestreich does not himself say this: He modeled a fine, creative alternative to the organizational dysfunction by way of bad leadership that he had already displayed. Instead of having all the players focus their attention on his augustly conducting—albeit potentially micromanaging and/or disengaged and/or fidgety—self. Mr. Oestreich writes:

He had the players shift their focus to a particular colleague and attune their playing to complement one another’s. He had them perform with a conductor, then without a conductor and with eyes closed, to show how adept they were at intuitively adjusting to others on their own.

He had them start the piece at different tempos of their choice and alter tempos spontaneously, slowing down, perhaps, in midstream. The musicians were called on to speak as well as play, and audience members were occasionally drafted into action.

The watchword throughout was listening: players listening to one another and to the conductor, but just as much, the conductor listening to the players, how they sound, what they said.

This went on for some 75 minutes. Then the orchestra, with Mr. Nirenberg in place, performed the Adagio complete, beautifully, and departed to huge applause.

Later, toward the very end of his review, Mr. Oestreich quotes these lines from Mr. Nierenberg’s Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening (Portfolio, 2009), an attempt to present his Music Paradigm idea in the form of a novel. Mr. Oestreich quotes the maestro of the novel as saying: “Every word I speak, every inflection in my tone of voice, every gesture is directed toward the goal of creating a feeling of community. A community simply acts faster, more intelligently, more creatively and with more joy than a group that is primarily focused on its leader.”

Since even before I ever started my own career as a teacher, I’ve always thought that the job of teachers was to make themselves unnecessary as soon as possible. To me, that’s always been a corollary of Nietzsche’s great line that students who always remain only students are repaying their teachers poorly. Taken at his own word (as well as Mr. Oestreich’s), in his Music Paradigm program Roger Nierenberg is in effect modeling how conductors in turn can—and should—model themselves on what I would call Nietzschean teachers.

What a wonderfully creative way to subvert the orchestra as mob! What a way to lead out of dependence on leaders!

What a way, too, to turn a mob into a community—but more on that in my next fragment.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. YEOWZA! After hearing the story about the freedom to break the law several times, I finally understand! (I’m a little slower than the other children, but eventually I catch up) And not only that, I think I may even finally understand some of what Paul is saying in Romans about the connection between law, grace, and sin. THANK YOU!!!

    • Not slow, just thoughtful! Paul–along with his modern-day disciple, Alain Badiou (and various others)–were looking over my shoulder as I wrote. In fact, in final revision just before putting up this post, I deleted a paragraph in which I mentioned the connection you point to.

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