One of Durkheim’s recurring arguments is that the individual does not precede the society in the chain of creation, but rather, society shapes the individual. According to him, societies themselves create individuation–we would not have personality traits if we didn’t have a group upon which to base them. This is reflected in the ways our society advocates for an assessment of self defined by the group: for evidence, one need only turn to Buzzfeed, which has published a host of quizzes that claim to explain our individual characteristics based on groups. Sometimes they are our groups (“Can We Guess Which Friend You Are in Your Group”), sometimes they are other groups (“Which Supporting Character From Friends Are You?”), and sometimes they are not human groups at all, but rather organizations of non-human entities that nonetheless form a group, (“Which Type of Buzzfeed Quiz Are You?”). In the case of the first quiz, questions ask users to choose which TV characters they identify with, what activity they’d mostly likely be doing at a party, and which values are most essential. The result is a personality designed to fit squarely into a functional niche of the group, like “the responsible one” or “the party animal”.
The significance of these types of quizzes is not that they propose a new way of thinking about our personalities, but rather that they reflect an existing tendency within us to think about ourselves in terms of the roles we play within a group. How can we know that we are responsible or party animals if other people aren’t around to define the standard? In a section on soul, Durkheim explains how elements of individuality within the soul are decided and defined by each individual’s unique perspective and position within the group: “Since bodies are distinct from one another, since they occupy different positions in time and space, each is a special milieu in which the collective representations are gradually refracted and colored differently. Hence, even if all the consciousnesses situated in those bodies view the same world–namely, the world of ideas and feelings that morally unify the group–they do not all view it from the same viewpoint; each expresses it in in his own fashion” (273). In this way, individual is explained in terms of the group, providing a logical basis for the argument that the traits that set us apart and make us special are dictated by the traits of others around us. The BuzzFeed personality quiz approach towards individuation and personality is not new or unique: rather, it is an expression of the Durkheimian view that we establish senses of self through our groups.
One illustration of the power and control that a totem, and by implication, society, can impose onto individuals is the case, among many others, of the Lancaster, New York school district. The Lancaster schools used the mascot of the “Redskins” for over seventy years, until, after years of criticism from surrounding communities, the school board unanimously voted to change the mascot to one that was not overtly racist. In an effort to prevent backlash, they allowed district students to propose ideas for and vote on the new mascot. While the thirteen year old girl who submitted the winning idea of the schools going by the new name of the “Lancaster Legends” was proud that she was going to be a part of this period of change in her district’s history, many did not share her same sentiment. Current and former students and parents not only protested the change by holding signs and wearing shirts reading “Bring the mascot back!”, “Change it back!” and “Keep Redskins!” to school, sports games, and school board meetings, but many individuals went as far as shunning the young girl who suggested the new name and her family.
While the behavior of these adults and children alike is unacceptable, the argument that Emile Durkheim advances in his work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life provides an explanation for why there was such backlash from members of the Lancaster community. The idea of the community coming together under a new name, one that does not insult an entire culture of people, while logical in theory, in practice, received much more backlash than just changing a traditionally used image. The people of Lancaster identify with the old mascot as a totem because it is their collective personified, and part of that collective lives within each individual. So, by changing the mascot, the individuals in the group feel as though they are losing a part of themselves. They no longer identify with the thing that is supposed to be representative of their collective, and, by effect, themselves. They see this new identity as something profane that is replacing their sacred totem, and their integrity as a group feels threatened as a result. In their backlash, the collective even went as far as to shun a thirteen year old girl for being responsible for the new, profane image. Durkheim explains that a society feels vulnerable when their totem is jeopardized because “their unity arises solely from having the same name and the same emblem…from practicing the same rights” (169) and the group “could not have come into being without the totem” (169). The symbol of their mascot functions as more than just an image, which is made evident by the fact that the members of the Lancaster community are experiencing a veritable identity crisis as a result of the loss of their totem.
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On December 6th 1969, the Rolling Stones performed a free concert at the Altamont Speedway and hired the Hell’s Angels for security. Instead of paying them in cash, the Stones paid them in $500 worth of beer. When this infamous(and now drunken) motorcycle gang was called upon to corral an unruly and drug-fueled crowd of thousands, things turned ugly, and the night resulted in an apocalyptic disaster. It also happened to provide a good example of Durkheim’s idea of a collective “effervescence” (213).
The crowd’s excitement began to effervesce even before the Rolling Stones went on, agglomerating an inexorable tide of glee and rage. During a set played by Jefferson Airplane, fights broke out, but the Hell’s Angel’s did nothing to stop them. When Mick Jagger got out of his helicopter to go back stage, a crowd member punched him in the face. Durkheim explains the inspiration behind this irrational action, in his description of collective effervescence in which the individual transcends himself in the presence of a crowd. Durkheim writes:
“The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation….This effervescence often becomes so intense that it leads to outlandish behavior; the passions unleashed are so torrential that nothing can hold them. People are so far outside the ordinary conditions of life, that they feel a certain need to set themselves above and beyond ordinary morality” (217-218).
When the teenagers thronged to Altamont and took their drugs and heard the music, they entered into a realm of delirium, freeing them from notions of right and wrong. Everything was suddenly sacred and permitted. However, expression of rebellion, freedom, and hipness swelled to a bursting point, when a fan punched one of the Rock Star deities he had come to worship. Durkheim describes this effervescence as violent but ultimately harmonious event where everyone shares their reckless passions, but the Altamont concert exhibits an effervescence full of violence. Not only did a crowd member punch the libber-lipped limey star, but many people rushed the stage, resulting in the knife wound death of 18 year-old Meredith Hunter. Hunter had tried to climb onto the stage along with many other teenagers, but a drunken Hell’s Angel’s member stopped him. In response, Hunter pulled a gun which prompted the Hell’s Angels member to tackle him and stab him at least six times.
Hunter pulled a gun on a motorcycle thug not only because he was on acid, but also because he was steeped in the collective effervescence which delivered him from a world of clearly delineated right and wrong. In the glare of collective effervescence, the profane body of the individual fades away and he becomes a purely spiritual being permitted to do anything as long as instructed by the passion of the collective. Durkheim writes: “Feeling possessed and led on by some sort of external power that makes him think and act differently than he normally does , he naturally feels that he is no longer himself” (220). Amidst the clamor of other people breaking rules, Hunter was free from inhibition, so he did as passion compelled him. However, the Hell’s Angels had been hired to provide some idea of order, so they fought the effervescent current. The resultant tragedy reveals the importance of unity in collective effervescent. The Hell’s Angels and the crowd proved two separate collectives competing for the dominance of the same space.
Most central to Durkheim’s understanding of the individual’s connection to the society in the throes of collective effervescence is the idea of channeling the sacred excitement of the masses through the body of the individual, transporting, overwhelming, and in this case, destroying him.
Topic: Individual/Collective (Section 20)
Contributors: Sylvia De Boer, Theodore Davis, Seychelle Mikofsky