From crowd to collective body

, par Erinç Aslanboğa

In the dictionary, the first meaning of the French word « foule » (crowd) refers to the action of « fouler » (to tread), which signifies to « compress and squeeze something by means of pressing repeatedly with the hands, feet or mechanically »1. La foule (the crowd) is the result of this action. The term is used in the field of textile as « to weave » and « to print ». Derived from the verb « fouler » (to tread), « fouloir » (press) is both the name of the instrument which is used for treading sheets, fabrics, leathers and one of the workshop where this operation is made. Furthermore, in the terminology of printing, « fouler » (to tread) refers to the « action of pressing on leaves that are being printing »2. It’s about « letting an embossed on the back of a paper when the pressure is excessive »3. All these specific uses of the French word « foule » (crowd) in the field of technology and industry are not unrelated to the second meaning of the word which indicates, first, the press resulting from the « great multitude of people », and then the multitude itself. In the epilogue of The work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, W. Benjamin shows the relationship between the « increasing proletarianization of modern man » and the « increasing formation of masses »4 as two sides of the same process.

Following their proliferation in major European cities in the late 19th century, the crowds became a concern of governors and a security problem as well as a juridical subject. How are these disparate masses with incontrollable movements and fortuitous reactions governed ? What the ways of controlling these anonymous communities that are considered a threat to state and to peace of « honest citizens » ?

It is no coincidence that the first two areas that took the crowds as the object of study were criminology and psychiatry. Lombroso - with his theories of « born criminal » - and Sighele -with his early works, especially with The criminal Crowd- contributed to intrusion of criminology in collectivity and to proliferation of dangerous, violent and destructive image of crowds. Psychiatrization and criminalization of crowds, of citizens and workers were used for framing the crowds by stigmatizing them as composed of individuals with pathological instincts, poor rationality and without moral awareness and responsibility for others.
The notion of crowd refers to various forms of human agglomeration. For example, a group which is gathered in front of a movie theater, the fans at a football stadium, the striking workers, a cohort of admirers, a demonstration ... Heterogeneous and versatile, the notion of crowd often suffers from extremely broad and reductive framework that blurs its nuances and obscures their differences by turning it into a catch-all concept. Yet, the ideas and objectives of crowds, their patterns of behavior, the reason for gathering, the links which creates individual’s attachment to community, places of their grouping, events or reasons that encourages them to be together differ in many aspects. As Maupassant said, « All these people side by side distinct with their bodies, minds, hight of intelligence, education, passion, belief, prejudice, by the mere fact of their meeting form a special being [...] a new way of thinking, common and which seems in no way formed from the average all of the opinions. It’s a crowd and the crowd is someone, a vast collective individual, distinct from another crowd as man is distinct from another man »5.

It will be simplistic and wrong to propose a single definition, a unique model of crowd which will be valid for all other. However, theorists have often preferred to emphasize the similarities rather than discern crowd’s difference, track their singularity. The sidelining of differentiation task by G. Lebon, by Freud, but also by other theorists produced, in addition, quasi-identification between the psychology of crowds and that of fascism. According to Adorno, this simplistic association which blurs the field of reflection on the masses must be questioned. « Why is the applied psychology of groups that we discuss here rather more specific of fascism than the other movements that seek the support of the masses ? »6.
Confusion, sometimes deliberate, between various forms of crowd serves as a pretext for governors to stigmatize the crowds as robbers, thieves and criminal and to penalize those who cannot be governed. In Turkey, during the events of Gezi7, we witnessed the strategic use of this deliberate confusion and its consequences. To describe the situation rather ask a question : What happens if a government closes to fascism locates itself in victim’s position by using the discourse of criminal and violent crowds ?
First of all, the transformation of a particularly quiet and peaceful resistance movement to another one which corresponds to the model of criminal crowds requires additional and ongoing effort on the part of governors. The Prime Minister (current president) of Turkey has made a hard work in order to create and solidify the picture of destructive crowds in the public opinion. However, today, statements that show and that repeat the same themes are no longer sufficient for the public accustomed to see « real » scenes. At numerous events and protests that took place since Gezi, provocateurs, plainclothes officers were put to work in order to provide « beautiful » images of looting, vandalism and breakage. Surveillance cameras broken down while the police were beating and killing protesters, the camera of the most famous television chains arrived to capture close-up the jet of a Molotov cocktail.

The results of both municipal and presidential elections that took place before recently in Turkey are proofs of the success of this work. Not only a large part of population met against a supposed danger but also the case of corruption in which members of government have been involved have lost their credibility in some part of public opinion. Obviously, the election results are not reducible to this and they should be analyzed in conjunction with many other factors. However, reducing the community Gezi, its peaceful resistance to destructive model of crowds by systematic disinformation, by diverting images and intrusion of provocateurs among resistants reminds us a double movement evoked by Benjamin : « mass production is especially favored by the reproduction of the masses »8.

In Crowd Psychology, G. Le Bon defines a middle character of the individual in a crowd. This character is sketched by means of opposing it to that of the isolated individual, separated from the group. According to Le Bon, under the influence of invincibility feeling that is caused by the crowd, the individual surrenders to the instincts, lose the sense of responsibility and he uses of irrational and violent acts. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud retakes the theories of Le Bon and he reformulates them in psychoanalytic terminology. According to Freud, this new character emerging into the crowd goes with the manifestation of the unconscious. When consciousness gives way to unbridled movements of instincts and impulses, with the words of Freud, « all that was evil in the human soul »9 arises. G. Le Bon constitutes his theory on irreconcilable and unquestioned opposition between individual and crowd. While all that is considered as rational, being conscious, moralist, civilized and normal are associated with the individual ; but on the other hand, the domain of the irrational, being unconscious, immoralist and the pathological facts are reserved to the crowd. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud agrees with Le Bon on the presupposed decreased mental activity and intellectual level in the individual in the crowd. According to them, the more we advance from the individual to the mass, with their own words, the more we « descent step on the ladder of civilization »10. A cultured person is transformed into a barbarian in the crowd. In this context, the crowd becomes incapable of persevering will because of his impulsive, malleable and uncritical character. In addition, Freud creates an analogy between the soul of crowds and that of primitives. « Among the crowds, the most opposite ideas can coexist, without disturbing each other, without a conflict resulting from their logical contradiction. But psychoanalysis has shown that this is also the case of the child and neurotic individual »11.

In this context, we do not even see the need to point out all the problems implied by the thesis proposed by Le Bon and Freud. Rather than to maintain the exclusive opposition between the individual and the crowd – besides ; which itself carries other forms of extremely problematic oppositions just mentioned above – we would propose to consider their mutual deployment. The crowd does not match to the sum of the individuals who constitute it. On the other hand, the isolated individual in the area of ​​home or a lonely man in the crowd cannot be reduced to a state of pure externality. Speaking of Baudelaire, of loneliness that he experienced in his childhood, « despite the family, amidst the comrades », W. Benjamin points out that « this feeling, beyond his individual significance, carries a social footprint »12. Thus, we should propose to think, the individual and the crowd, in their mutual relation and not held as divided.

The report crowd/individual or mass/individual occurs always in a space/time that can be real, virtual, fictional and utopian or composed of their articulation. On that, first open a parenthesis to mention the distinction done by Michel de Certeau between « place » and « space ». According to the author of The Practice of Everyday Life, « a place is an instantaneous configuration of positions »13. So, it implies an indication of stability and univocity. However, space refers to « vectors of direction, velocities, time variables and to intersection of mobile elements »14. Animated by all the movements and directions, space is, with the words of De Certeau, « the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities »15. So, space is a practiced place and it exists while it is practiced, habited, transformed. While thinking in both senses of the French word « foule » (crowd) that we mentioned at the outset ; streets, squares, parks can be considered as supports on which the crowds leave invisible traces of their trajectories. Like sheets of paper, places receive printing press applied by passers-by. And then, the place, measured, calculated, defined by the architects and planners is transformed into a space by the residents, citizens and wanderers. That said a place can remain as a place without turning it into a space. The reason why it is impractical is diverse and complex and sometimes it remains undetectable. It is not always easy to tell the reasons why one bar is full of people while the other one in front remains empty and sad.

Yenikapı Area, this artificial polder which was before recently planned, made designed and inaugurated in March 2014 is the sample of impracticable place, of place that does not turn into a space. It is located on the Coast of Marmara Sea and was built on a plot of 270,000 m2, won on the water through the embankment of rubble and debris from the demolition and the construction of buildings. This new sterile place that is far from the city center and obtained by accumulation of the wastes of real estate economy has been configured and presented as a concert, assembly and lawful protest place. Thanks to its geometrical and geographical location that facilitates the control and surveillance, Yenikapı was constructed as an alternative to Taksim Square. Unlike the latter which is the symbol of struggle and resistance in Turkey, the new place in question is neither in memories nor has got history, it is stripped of actual experience. After the events of Gezi, the Prime Minister made ​​his show of force in this new place which broadcast a message to the collective unconscious, « the history of this geography is in the past, of new Turkey starts with us ».

On 1st May, the government banned all demonstrations that may take place in downtown and especially in Taksim Square. Access to squares was blocked by the police, means of transport were canceled while buses and boats that were going in the direction of Yenikapı enjoyed tariff holiday. The next day, a newspaper dared to put a picture of the Yenikapı place which showed an area of ​​270,000 m2 with a solitary raven in the middle.

Paris of Baudelaire, Paris in the process of haussmannisation was a city that was changing at an increasing rate, with the words of Benjamin, a city « undermined, fragile and frail »16. Today in Istanbul, each day we see a skyscraper being built higher and higher. While the former class neighborhoods become places of luxury homes, the inhabitants are forced to leave the centers that are now reserved for those working in the buildings. Unlike the speeches of leaders, building new road circuits, new bridges and airports are far from solving the problem of traffic. New residential areas which agglomerate around these highways increase further the number of inhabitants, pushing the limits of the city by destroying the last forests, watersheds that have survived so far. For those who leave Istanbul, even for a short time, the city becomes unknown and a stranger place. In this environment, the Paris of Baudelaire read through the detailed documentation of Benjamin shows the current importance of the issues he raised. Via the term of Benjamin, Istanbul is at the peak of his period of « strategic embellishment »17 prompted by real estate speculation, legitimized by the discourse of progress, of modernization and safety.

Although urban areas are organized to guide the crowds and citizens, to border their movements, to prevent or cause their meeting, there will always be some action that subverts the rules of the place, which reverses their standards or their organization. This means, practiced place involves a tension between obedience and disobedience. There is no one way to live in a location and the boundaries of these areas are open to change. Under the light of this information, let’s ask a question : How can a place that is redesigned by a securitary and mercantile rationality, with the words of Benjamin, a place that is « strategically embellished » can be countered by different ways of life ? We propose to think about this issue by referring to community of Gezi that has formed, first, by the occupation of a public park which is bearing the same name and that has expanded and transformed by other forms of resistance such as temporary manifestations, street demonstrations, forums in neighborhood parks, expansive performance.

Gezi events began in late May 2013, to counter the construction of a barracks in the middle of Gezi Park, one of the few green spaces that is located in Beyoglu district in Istanbul. Following the violent police actions against protesters, the protest movement has expanded to other cities in Turkey and has converted to a popular insurrection against the government and its repressive measures. On 1st June 2013, the park was occupied by the resistance fighters who gradually set up tents, a library, a kitchen, an infirmary where volunteers were working in turns. Gezi community, made ​​up of many diverse groups, resulting from dissimilar social strata, with quite different political views, met around the resistance movement against the government. The occupation of Gezi Park resulted in a unique experience of living together.

Unlike both a political rally and a demonstration are repeatable but limited in time, the duration of the occupation of a public place is not set in advance. While resistants demanding to be heard, waiting for a satisfactory response to requests from the governors, the occupied areas began to be lived in, practiced and becomes a communal space while transforming their practitioners. Thus we can speak of an actual experience that is neither predictable nor definable in advance, but that is woven throughout its evolution. It is not an individual experience even if it is incorporated by those who has experienced and shared it, nor it’s a collective experience in which individuals participate. The experiment in question is that of a collective body has to be thought in its own becoming. What was most disturbing for the governors is this experience of gathering together and acting together rather than the occupation in a public place itself.
When the park occupation was interrupted by the police intervention, the collective body that was formed subsisted during demonstrations, forums and expansive performance. This collective body has little in common with the description of violent, destructive, unreasonable crowds which is designed by theorists that we mentioned above. Instead, we ask ourselves : Until a short time ago before Gezi, most people used to jostle one another in these streets ; however, today I wonder what happened to them suddenly ? : They are extremely delicate, careful. Today they apologize when they touch a bit, they take care of those who are in trouble ; they help others even in times of panic and danger…

Before concluding, we propose to discuss what we meant with the « expansive performance ». At the end of that two weeks time, the park occupiers and visitors were expelled with an extremely violent intervention. The day after this event, one man kept to stay without moving, in an almost meditative state, in the middle of the Taksim square. His action or his inaction was doubly subversive. Because, first, it was opposed to the act of passing that characterizes the cities and urban movement. The ratio of urban temporality was interrupted both by refusal of the action and speed. Secondly, the performance of the « man who stands » was a quiet and peaceful response to this shattering intervention. Because the operation was carried out under very unfair conditions. The day before, the governor of Istanbul had publicly stated that there would be no intervention. So, that Saturday evening, the park was populated by people including children and the old. Unlike other days, people were not protected ; most did not have a gas mask, neither helmet nor products against the effects of pepper spray. Besides, the intervention was achieved despite a joint decision to end the occupation of the park and leave a symbolic tent instead. The result, many people were seriously injured and put into custody.

In these circumstances, there was nothing more to say and to do than stay inert. At the same time, the first performance which lasted for six hours, continuously symbolizes a quiet and persistent force. It was also a gesture which baffled the police. These revolved around a silent, motionless, unarmed man and they did not know what to do with. Filmed by bystanders and already seen by thousands of people within a few hours via the Internet, the gesture of the « man who stands » spreads. The next day, in different cities in Turkey, we saw frozen peoples everywhere, in the corner of the street, in front of a store… The community that has formed in Gezi Park comes out of its geometric limits ; it spreads and transforms other places in practiced and lived space.
In Turkey, the results of the last two successive elections, certainly, created greater frustration not only among those who were part of the resistance movement but also among much of the population. Nevertheless, the experience of the collective body that was formed during the occupation of Gezi Park, which has taken on new forms in the forums, through the expansive performances is now embodied in our memories. « All original experience keeps in his breast some germs that are promised further development »18.