...and no one will suspect us.


Joan Key

The many are erupting onto the scene, and they stand there as absolute protagonists while the crisis of the society of work is being played out.

Paulo Virno, Virtuosity and Revolution1

According to the King James Bible, Jesus "preached to the multitude". In the New English Bible this would be transliterated as "addressed the crowd"2 . Various sensitivities are at work in such changes, avoidance of Latinate expression, modernising of terminology, a vernacular consideration. However the question of whether crowd=multitude, and the question of how the multitude, as opposed to the crowd, may be addressed, forms the topic of this paper.

If the modern multitude is addressed in any medium, it may be through popular music. The figure of the rock-star in performance is the avatar of multitude aesthetic: the voice transformed electronically, the figure bathed in coloured light, high up on the "mountainside" of the stage. The reality of the voice and actions of this figure, have become synthetic in the distortions of amplification and the brilliance of luminous projection. The figure is paradoxical: mediated to the multitude so many times, in so many forms, it has become both exotic and intimate. The "star" is profoundly familiar, yet contact with that figure would constitute a strange and miraculous idea to the individual of the multitude. Such fantasies of contact are managed through personalised fetishistic tokens, messages to the ether via the internet, or reliquaries of items touched and discarded which memorialise a fleeting descent into mortality of the star-body.

The rock-star has residual powers in daily life, the essentially uncanny sound of a recorded voice echoing in myriad settings "cut away, in separation from its arterial body".3 This "being amongst the multitude" as an immaterial presence, is the mark of the alienation the star represents, indicated in the empathic appeal of the proximity of the electronic voice to the member of the multitude. The airy transmissibility of sound represents the mass of alienated individuals more powerfully than visual representation ever can. It speaks to the indecipherable aspect of the individual in the multitude, the uncertainty about its appearance, as distinct from the individual in the crowd, whose styles, and whose existential condition, are well documented in modernist icons and narratives.

Football fans, concert audiences, migrant workers, tube passengers, are examples of collectives of people, crowds that operate in relation to real space/time events. The multitude does not operate in this way, its collectivity is an abstraction that operates in the epistemological space between such groups; the categorical names of crowds become empty, disembodied within the multitude. Struggles between classes, interests, ideologies, are disempowered in the spectacle of the "permanent opium war"4 that is the current economic climate. The multitude is essentially disenfranchised because of the entropic relation it bears to political and economic developments beyond its collective grasp.

If the individual of the multitude is not that of the crowd, neither is it the member of the consensus of individuals known as civil society. The imaginary of massed individuals as multitude may contain threat, (as Virno suggests) but before the question of disobedience can be considered, the question of structure: rights, laws, the nature of human subjectivity and its wants and needs must be evaluated. Even allowing for "virtual simulations and technological bifurcations",5 the intervention of the mechanical into the world of the natural subject, qua Rousseau, was already well established, as was the potential for appearances to dissolve into inexplicable illusion (the empiricist anxiety) by the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, the conception of human subjectivity as a core unit around which the social could be organised was not threatened for the member of civil society in the way it would become threatened in the multitude.

This modern form of the multitude emerges with the idea of the secular state, and perhaps the first evanescence of its form is that of the masses lining the streets of Paris day after day as the secret workings of the revolutionary proto-state, its minions and informers, supplied an endless stream of victims to the efficiency of the guillotine (accompanied by the massive sound effect of the multitude). Ever since this time, the spiritualised collective will of the multitude has occupied a special place in French literature and political life. Even so, the abstraction of the multitude cannot legitimate a sense of direction in political struggle. Derrida, in "Specters of Marx" cites the description of the barricades in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Hugo asks, "what was June 1848?" and answers himself: "A revolt of the people against itself". A senseless political form, "almost impossible to class in the philosophy of history". Speaking of the building of the barricade of St. Antoine, Hugo exemplifies this lack of definition as an indefinable political will: "You might say: who built that? You might also say: who destroyed that?" No-one knows the suspects...no one will suspect us.

Hugo's evocation of the futility of the great barricades is not without glamour and grandeur. The aesthetic of the multitude may not have a point or a sense of direction but: "...it was great and it was little. It was the bottomless pit parodied upon the spot by chaos come again...This barricade was furious...It was huge and living; and as from the back of an electric beast there came a crackling of thunders. The spirit of the revolution covered with its cloud that summit whereon growled the voice of the people which is like the voice of God; a strange majesty emanated from that titanic hodful of refuse. It was a garbage heap and it was Sinai."6

The guillotine's multitude witnessed the mortality of the aristos, being committed mechanically to a vast spirit world, populated on an industrial scale. The communion of the faithful was a discredited intermediary in the enlightenment, but Parisians could immediately commune with a fantastic multitude of their own making. Great multitudes need great "hauntologies" as if they must find themselves reflected in mythic form as a kind of guarantee of their own abstract existence. (In a later evanescence, the symbolic meaning of the Wagner of Bayreuth to the epic spirit of the Nordic multitude?)

The picturing of the individual's relation to the state is formed in a myriad context of legal and economic transactions that in the modern period is only possible with the spectral mediation of technology. Marx's great insight is that social relations are not simply an aggregate of all human relations; social relations also include the objects fetishised within those relations. This social animation of objects introduces a strange thematic to Marx's economic explanations: if the wooden table may have a grotesque brain, where does that place it in a society based on rights monitored by the apparatuses of the state? The commodity is a citizen of this world. (Perhaps this observation is also played out in the double animate/inanimate form of the numerous automata participating in the literature and filmography of science fiction, a hyper-real social order.)

The fetish possibility of commodities is founded in the avoidance of reference to practical use in the calculation of exchange value, and also the magical elimination of any trace of productive labour in their finish. Human subjectivity has no essence, but is formed in relation to its sensuous experience of the world. Alienation of the human subject is vested in this continual eradication of those sensuous traces, of use, of labour, a repressive hygiene in which sensuous engagement itself becomes a ghostly activity, an obscenity. The human essence, in the shifting values of commodity exchange, becomes a jelly, a ghostly residue of all transactions. As Marx says of the individual in the multitude "each one of them completely resembles the other. They all have the same phantomatic reality, metamorphosised into identical sublimates, samples of the same indistinct labour".7

How to address that invisible, hybrid multitude of alienated subjects? The rock-star, at once human and commodity, reflects back to the individual of the multitude its own sensation of ghostly presence within the multitude. It is the possibility of abstraction in the star's appearance in light and sound that allows for the process of abstraction in the individual to find relief in expression. In the presence of the star, the multitude itself enacts its abstract character, its own rhythms and responses, a carnival of the individual's loss in a system that trades through endless comparative substitutions.

The weakly messianic presence of the star/spectacle addresses the multitude in parodic form: "what has been passed off as authentic life turns out to be a life more authentically spectacular".8 What does the avatar of the multitude say? The power of the primitive rhythms distorts the message, but the message is instant, and one-way: "Separation", says Debord, the great theorist of the aesthetic of the multitude, "is the alpha and omega of the spectacle". "The generalised separation of the worker and product has spelled the end of any comprehensive view of the job done, as well as the end of any direct communication between producers."

The multitude failed to make good its disorder, by asserting a permanent outcome of revolution, in 1848. The motif nevertheless persists in sound effects, the interplay of chaos and the emotion of the bottomless pit, accompanied by the thunders of the "electric beast". In Marx, the "crisis of the society of work", in itself becomes an aesthetic idea, and that grand catastrophic thought is the basis of the aesthetic of the multitude.

Photographs of images in the studio, taken at the time of writing, March 2007, courtesy Jill Vaux.

This text develops ideas first explored in collaboration with Keith Gifford, in the work "Mozart in Cambodia", commissioned by Artlab, performed Imperial College, 2004.


  1. Quotation in text supplied as provocation to write about "multitude", Issue 5, Handbook for Disobedience, Peter Lewis

  2. See Mark 5.31; Luke 12.1; 22.6; 22.47

  3. Peter Lewis, op. cit.

  4. Guy Debord, "The Society of the Spectacle", Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Zone Books, New York, 1995, p.30

  5. Peter Lewis, op. cit.

  6. Jacques Derrida, "In the Name of the Revolution, the Double Barricade", in Specters of Marx, Trans. Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, London and New York 1994, p.95 For the term "Hauntology" see p.10: "This logic of haunting would not be merely more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being...It would harbour within itself, but like circumscribed places or particular effects, eschatology or teleology themselves. It would comprehend them, but incomprehensibly. How to _comprehend _in fact the discourse of the end or the discourse about the end? Can the extremity of the extreme ever be comprehended?"

  7. Thomas Keenan, "The Point is to (Ex)change It", in Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, eds. Emily Apter and William Pietz, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1993, p.168

  8. Debord, op.cit. p.20