Deindividuation, Mobs, Disease and Drugs

The new March 06 Harper’s arrived the other day and this is one of the really good issues that come along every few months. I enjoy Harper’s more than most other magazines for the good writing, the humor and resilient humanness, and the topics they dedicate serious resources to. In this issue they take up two things that hit home with me: the AIDS-Big Pharma connection, and the hilarious story of Flash Mobs as told by a Harper’s editor who claims to be the originator of the phenomenon.

In “My Crowd,” Bill Wasik outs himself as the founder, and ponders at length the deliberate vacuousness that his scheme was meant to reveal and highlight. He brings in Stanley Millgram’s experiments in the 1960s, which he recasts as art projects (the most famous is the one where people are asked to push buttons inflicting pain on subjects when they don’t “comply”. At the time it was a big shock to realize how readily people would follow orders and cause great pain to others.) Wasik looks at studies that show people are much more likely to engage in anti-social and criminal behavior if they are in a mob, citing a study of kids stealing Halloween treats from each other.

Wasik has us revisit by way of introduction the concept of “deindividuation” which was defined in 1952 as “a state of affairs in a group where members do not pay attention to other individuals qua individuals.” He wants to resuscitate the concept and apply it to today’s cohort of “hipsters,” who “make no pretense to divisions on principle, to forming intellectual or artistic camps; at any given moment, it is the same books, records, films that are judged au courant by all, leading to the curious spectacle of an “˜alternative’ culture more unanimous than the mainstream it ostensibly opposes.” This same crowd of trendsetters is enormously fickle and what’s popular one day or hour is soon dumped and scorned. This all rings familiarly to me. I’m a bit older than the hipster generation he’s describing, but I’ve lived at the front (chronological) edge of this world my entire adult life.

Wasik goes on to describe his thinking behind the flash mob: “it should be theoretically possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene” meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work”¦” He gives funny accounts of each of the first half dozen mobs that convened in New York, including the prayer-to-T.Rex in the rotunda of the Times Square Toys’r’Us, dryly describing how the fundamental emptiness of the idea gave it its allure and simultaneously produced confusion and frustration among many.

When the idea appeared in San Francisco, there were plenty of folks ready to jump in. After all, we started Critical Mass here, and the flashmob seemed a variation on that theme of gathering in an organized coincidence that we’d been doing since 1992. But in fact, Wasik had something different in mind, which was to illustrate the fundamental emptiness of today’s culture. If the event were “pure scene” then the lack of content was its precise meaning.

I get his idea and see that by the time Ford and Sony co-opted the flash concept to promote a heavy metal band and a new car, his ploy had fulfilled its inherent purpose, which was to create a house of marketing mirrors with nothing being reflected back at itself. But the concept, depending on this idea of deindividuation, actually triggers a whole other set of feelings and yearnings, in my opinion. Because the hipsters he scornfully and playfully manipulated were actually not a bunch of empty ciphers, but real people whose whole lives have been focused on individuation (albeit perhaps too much through the empty rituals of fashionable self-adornment and shopping).

The breakdown of the social structures of late capitalist life is well underway. Family, work, neighborhood” all fragmented and spiraling away as meaningful points of human community. Instead, we are busily constructing new identities and new forms of association. Of course people want to find the “˜new’, the exciting, the different”¦ doesn’t the whole edifice of marketing shape us to be novelty seekers? But novelty for its own sake has a limited appeal, and the quick rise and fall of the Flash Mob showed that people wouldn’t just mindlessly repeat a ritualized behavior because it was “cool” unless it gave them some additional meaning. The curious problem of a hyper-individuated society is that moments of deindividuation are limited and untrustworthy for most people. We want to maintain our individuation, our fierce independence (which is of course highly dependent on an elaborate infrastructure of a social and cooperative modern life), our sense of self, but we ALSO want to find love and connection and community. In fact, there is a widespread craving for a life outside of the reduced shell of existence that passes for life within market relations. Thus, Critical Mass continues to thrive in dozens of cities worldwide. Similarly, a broader movement for cultural creation outside of monetary reward or business structures continues to provide a fertile field for new kinds of community, even if the DJs, street writers, poets, and others all face the contradictions of trying to make a living and keep their art alive.

Ultimately I loved the article for reasons that don’t appear in it. Not long ago I caught the last few minutes of NPR’s “Philosophy Corner” and they were wrapping up a discussion about how community had broken down in the late 20th century U.S., due in part to the hyper-individuation that had been going on since the 1960s, and that the task before us was to pass through to “the other side’ and reconnect to communities that were composed of self-conscious, self-directed individuals. I think this characterizes a very important piece of our historic moment, and sheds some light on the loss of meaningful forms that I’ve been obliquely blathering about over some of my recent posts. Finding the new forms that give our new subjectivity a political voice, that make sense to a newly complex sense of society and individual, is clearly something many of us are grappling with. I suspect it will emerge suddenly and we’ll wonder why we didn’t see it all along”¦ though calling it “it” is probably already oversimplified!

The other piece in Harper’s that I want to quickly comment on is “Out of Control: AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science” by Celia Farber. She tells a horrifying story (reads like The Constant Gardener) of a drug test in Uganda for nevirapine that is so mind-boggling corrupt that it’s impossible to believe that the government and drug companies continue to defend it and use it to justify the administering of a drug that is clearly extremely toxic. But they do. And then she goes on to discuss the lack of proper scientific testing for a whole range of AIDS drugs, including AZT, and talks about the way people who have raised these questions have been attacked and dismissed by the burgeoning industry of nonprofit AIDS advocates.

A classic case is that of Peter Duesberg, or “douchebag” as my now-deceased friend Michael Botkin used to refer to him. I won’t go into it here, because it’s such a long story, but after reading this article I’m reminded of how suspicious I’ve always felt about the whole AIDS/HIV story. Primarily I always felt really strange, even as I had close friends who were sick and dying, that so much of the advocacy energy was focused on trying to force more money to be spent on drug research and development. This article casts some reasonable doubt on the legitimacy of the explanations of how the disease (if you can even be sure that it is A disease, and not a whole range of symptoms that are being explained by the presence of a relatively common and not very dangerous virus) has been defined. The author, Celia Farber, has apparently been attacked herself, like Duesberg, for questioning the whole edifice of the AIDS/HIV connection and the automatic assumption that the drug regime backed by the pharmaceutical industry is the obvious way to treat it.

I can’t say one way or the other. But I certainly felt very uncomfortable with a lot of the rhetoric and behavior of AIDS advocates who put so much faith in drugs and high tech medicine. Maybe I’ll hear from some folks who want to let me know Farber is untrustworthy, and the basic approach to AIDS/HIV is correct, and I’d be glad to look into that argument further. But read this piece in Harper’s and see if you don’t want to step back and reconsider a lot of the assumptions that have become commonplace now. As we face new and scary epidemics and pandemics in the coming years, breaking with a world view dependent almost exclusively on giant multinational pharmaceutical companies to solve disease seems really urgent.

8 comments to Deindividuation, Mobs, Disease and Drugs

  • yer host

    Hi Terry,
    just to clarify: I guess I can be held accountable for it since I did include it in what I wrote, but I was trying to show how some AIDS activists had characterized Duesberg, nothing else. In fact, one of my good friends who died of AIDS was the one who made that comment to me repeatedly… fwiw. Of course it’s childish! That’s obvious.

  • Terry

    Your comment on DR. Dusesberg as a

  • Rocco Pendola

    Hi Hugh-

    You should read the Young book, she is pretty good. There is a plentiful literature on the subject that I would be happy to point you towards as well.

    To clarify, since I study this subject quite intensely, I am looking at “community” and the essentially interchangeable “sense of community” as it has been defined in academia in classic sociology and more contemporary community psychology. In these definitions, a key component of community is basically homogeneity. Similarity among group members is typically stressed in order to create group indenity and hence, community. This creates a fundamental problem if we hope to embrace diversity. This might just be semantics since when Chris uses the word we know he is not promoting homogenous groups formations with little room for difference. But, I do think it is a worthy issue simply because the word is often applied and the notion of community is longed for in all circles of life; as you put from left to right to radical.

    In her book, Young decries community and argues that the social ideal we should strive for is one she terms, “the ideal of city life,” which she posits as “a theoretical alternative to community.” I could make this an even longer post, but the chapter I mentioned in Young’s book is worth reading, right from the Jane Jacobs’ quote she used to open it to the very last page.

    And anyhow, I think “the ideal of city life” sounds better than “community” anyway! But what if you don’t live in a city? Aha!


  • “At the basis of community, as I understand it, is a core need for group members to fuse together as one essentially.”

    I find Rocco’s comments interesting, and I’d like to dig up a copy of that book just to look it over. I also agree that the word “community” is often over-used. Everyone, it seems, is for “community”

  • “At the basis of community, as I understand it, is a core need for group members to fuse together as one essentially.”

    I find Rocco’s comments interesting, and I’d like to dig up a copy of that book just to look it over. I also agree that the word “community” is often over-used. Everyone, it seems, is for “community”

  • Terry

    “A classic case is that of Peter Duesberg, or

  • yer host

    Hey Rocco,
    good question. I cringe on that word too, even though it’s hard to find a good replacement. I have done about 50+ interviews for my next book and I always ask “what does community mean?”, but nobody ever asks me!

    I use it to mean a kind of freely chosen association, people gathering on various bases, sometimes related to habitation or avocation or passion, but offering a combination of camaraderie, mutual aid, shared curiosity, creative and practical connections, critical engagement… I reject the idea that it requires, or even necessarily promotes, any kind of fusion and narrowing of heterogeneity. That’s not to say that in many human communities that doesn’t happen, because it clearly does. But I use the term ‘community’ partly to promote this very discussion, to make transparent what we want and need from each other, and the ways that different types of association help or hinder those aspirations…

    any clearer?

  • Rocco


    I am enjoying the posts. Just a question – you use the term “community” quite a bit, how do you define it? There is an interesting body of literature that rejects the notion of community as one that promotes/encourages sameness and conformity. Start with Iris Young’s “Justice and the Politics of Difference” for one, Chapter 8 on “City Life and Difference” especially. There are other good sources on this that I can pass along as well.

    Not to split hairs, get too technical, etc, but I often cringe at the word “community” being thrown around for reasons Young and others put forth. At the basis of community, as I understand it, is a core need for group members to fuse together as one essentially. Whatever, maybe I am reading too much academic work on the issue. Just an angle, though.


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