This essay examines a central problem in historiography: how are radical social changes and political transformations represented in history? This problem concerns the figuration of agency and causality in historical explanations of revolutions and periods of sudden social disintegration and reintegration.
A brief look at historiographies of modernity and modern society shows that ”the crowd” or ”the masses” – or, more generally, popular revolts and uprisings – are often introduced as explanations of such moments of transition. How do such explanations work, in which “the masses” are referred to as a historical causality and agent? To which extent can such explanations be seen as a general feature of histories of modern and contemporary history? These will be important questions in this essay.
I draw examples and cases from 19th- and 20th-Century European historiography, historical sociology, history of literature and the arts. In my earlier studies of the category of “the masses” in European political and cultural history, I have noted many such instances, from the French Revolution onward (Canetti offers a very interesting example, which I will perhaps focus on.) To make my discussion more relevant, I will also discuss reports and commentaries on the change and transformations that, allegedly, were generated by spontaneous collective movements in 2011–2013. What can a picture or an eyewitness account of the Tahrir Square in February 2011 tell us about historical causality?
Underlying the notion of the crowd and the protesting collective as a historiographic motif in histories of modernity, there seems to be a certain understanding of collectivity as a trope or figure that, in a paradoxical sense, is introduced as a device for representing historical moments characterized by radical singularity – moments which are therefore ”unrepresentable” in an epistemological sense. Since masses and multitudes are plural agents marked by boundlessness and heterogeneity, they have apparently served historians well as explanations or causes of events that break existing political and social frames.
The essay investigates whether this mode of explanation is empirical or figural, or both. Simply put, do crowds and collective revolts really explain historical transitions? Or do they serve mainly as tropes and substitutes, which impute some kind of causality and agency on events that are so complex that they surpass the explanatory power of historical categories or, indeed, of historiography as such?
Stockholm: Makadam Förlag, 2016. 291-319 p.
Collective action, social movements, social protest, aesthetics and politics, crowds in history