Effervescence and Susurration in Solidarity: A Miniature Tangential Con Report

This past weekend I attended Socialism 2014 for the first time. It was a lot of fun, and quite tiring. I went to some panels and I’ll be turning some notes and thoughts from each one into blog posts over the next few weeks.

First, there’s something else I want to talk about. At both plenaries (and almost certainly the final rally, which I had to miss for a prior obligation), before the thing proper started there were chants led by audience members. Some samples, as I remember them:

Foreign wars of occupation/will never lead to liberation/that’s bullshit/get off it/this war is for profit {this one was great fun to chant; it has a delightful rhythm and, of course, swearing}
They say get back/we say fight back {apparently this one’s from Occupy}
LGBT/we demand equality
They say death row/we say hell no//death row/hell no
Our land/our water/deep beneath our feet {this one could use some scansion work}
Long live Palestine/free free Palestine/long live the Intifada/Intifada Intifada
Back up, back up/we want freedom, freedom/fuck those dirty racist cops/we don’t need ’em, need ’em {This one might have been in a different order and/or had another component. also quite fun to chant; it has a sort of melody or tune reminiscent of trucks beeping while backing up}

The keen-eyed may notice some assumptions embedded in these chants. The only one here I wasn’t quite sure about was the Palestine one; I understand why the ISO stands in solidarity with Palestine and I don’t object, but I’m also not comfortable having my own opinion about the issue. At any rate, massed chanting falls into the category of phenomena that produce what Émile Durkheim dubbed “collective effervescence,” which is that feeling you may get when you can lose yourself in a crowd, in the action, in a feeling being collectively expressed (examples: religious group singing, sports events, riots). It can be dangerous, especially if the collective is effervescing around something you aren’t quite sure of or that’s ultimately problematic (see: a lot of people’s feelings about religion).

I largely actually didn’t experience the chanting as upsweeping and overwhelming, though; I could consciously choose to play along, or I could sit back and watch. It helped that around me were many people not chanting; both groups were big enough to join, but small enough to not join.

More insidious was the hissing. Socialists, apparently, often hiss to express disapproval (for example, when Sherry Wolf mentioned Secretary of State Thurston Howell III, I mean John Kerry {this is apparently a cultural reference I don’t get}) without interrupting the speaker. Several times, I found myself unthinkingly adding my voice to the susurrus (“whispering, murmuring, or rustling”), even when I didn’t have that reflexive disapproval the others were expressing, but rather wariness or even neutrality.

Because hissing is a visually subtle action, I couldn’t tell who or how many people around me were hissing at any given trigger. Which is as good a theory as any for why it was so easy to reflexively join in. At any rate, it made me uncomfortable to notice (and I did stop). I described it to a friend as “seems very infectious and deeply hazardous;” he reminded me that “not every political opinion deserves a respectful hearing.” Yes, but I’d rather not make that determination reflexively.

It seems to me that the collective expression and effervescence is a big contributing factor to effectiveness of radical rhetoric and organization, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se… but it may be that individual caution is warranted. 

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2 thoughts on “Effervescence and Susurration in Solidarity: A Miniature Tangential Con Report

  1. At the end of the closing session, there was the always powerful and inspiring Internationale singalong which you unfortunately missed. I think it might add something to this discussion as another example to consider.

    Fortunately for us, it seems so have ended up on youtube.

  2. So this is the first time I’ve actually listened to the *words* of the Internationale? Like, I’ve probably heard it before, but I don’t *know* it. (The video title says that’s the 2013 Internationale singing but that’s fine, it was probably very similar :P)

    Facts that may surprise those who know me: one of the more meaningful moments in my winter holidaying is the candle-lit Silent Night singalong at church. Music has all the power of chanting and all the power of hissing, I’d say: it fills the space, with enough participation, more effectively than chanting, and it’s an affirmative act rather than a negation. More than that, too, it has the mysterious power to move the human soul, as it were, provoking mysterious swells of emotion and thrills along the nerves. But it requires you to know the words to participate, which is a higher buy-in cost. I guess I’d say that music has a terrifying power to cement once-learned or once-instilled ideas and values if you let it, but it’s harder to accidentally come under its effect.

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