Sharing & Authority

crowds

The workshops yesterday and today—about visualization, crowdsourcing, audiences, etc.—led me to consider some classics for a summer reading list:

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart, 1962, Gollancz; originally Masse und macht, 1960). Canetti was a Bulgarian sociologist, chemist, and playwright who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1981. Crowds and Power draws on folklore, sociology, and psychology to analyze the evolution of crowds, crowd instinct, the power that crowds can wield, even in the form of mob rule, and the paranoia of rulers. One of his main arguments is that crowds maintain their power, especially contra rulers, when they have no ruler. The moment that crowds have the need for a leader they become the contingent that they have opposed.

Canetti’s work is still important, especially in light of the Occupy movements across the U.S. The Occupy loci, in public areas such as parks and areas that are little used is noteworthy because these are the areas that urban historians point to as the areas of contention, the areas not specifically planned for with intentional activities, the so-called dangerous areas where spontaneous activity can develop and erupt.

This recalls Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961, Random House), a critique of the urban planning policies of the 1950s that led to the decline of neighborhoods and community spirit. Jacobs offers curatives to reverse the effects of powerful planners such as Robert Moses and urban renewal policies. Only recently have mixed use developments begun to bring neighborhoods back to some communities.

In The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (1997, The MIT Press), urban historian Dolores Heyden discusses architecture and neighborhoods as public history and art with the potential to engage different publics in collaborative projects. Heyden’s examples come from Los Angeles, when she taught at the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning; she discusses the histories of the Women’s Building and Japanese-American, African-American, and Latino neighborhoods as living sites of history and memory that continue to resonate for divergent Angelenos. Heyden also discusses place-memory, or the power of place and location to instill and spark memories. More powerful than the sense of smell, memories are embedded within places (think of the famous Chinese and classical memory palaces).

These sources all distribute authority to the public in varying ways, Canetti to crowds, Jacobs to neighborhoods and not to experts, and Heyden to community members who live/once lived in areas of study. Publication is one way of bestowing academic authority, but the content of these books illustrate that people have power to challenge authority and be authorities. Although professors have the authority of the grades, what are ways to share or redistribute authority as part of the education process?

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