Law in Contemporary Society

The Importance of Nonsense

The Mob

This summer I witnessed the running of the bulls in New Orleans. A man dressed as a bishop with a bullhorn yelled from the balcony: "For he that drinks Sangria with me today shall be my brother!". Hundreds of people dressed in white and red ran screaming down the streets of the French Quarter chased by roller-derby girls with curved horns and baseball bats. Men wore shirts that said "NOLA bulls 2009. Por Qué no?".

An essential feature of individuals is that they have an infinite capacity to contradict themselves. This capacity is only amplified when lots of them get together. The bulls are actually women on roller skates. New Orleans is not Pamplona. There is no danger of goring. And yet everyone becomes what they are not for a day and runs screaming down the street. The NOLA running of the bulls is a cathartic experience for its participants because it eliminates the practical needs of the group and opens up a space where its OK for the group to contradict itself. Pure ceremony -- Por qué no?

Thurman Arnold explains that we need our leaders and the organizations to which we belong to reflect the contradictions we all feel. Bill Clinton was such a successful politician because, not in spite, of his foibles. Organizations need to reflect the full spectrum of forces acting between and through individuals: "Thus the American industrial organization is a hard-boiled trader, a scholar, a patron of modern architecture, a thrifty housewife, a philanthropist, a statesman preaching sound principles of government, a patriot, and a sentimental protector of widows and orphans at the same time." If nothing else, we need our organizations to reflect the full spectrum of our drives at all times.


Things become more convoluted if you want an organization to work towards a practical goal. Your ceremony needs to strike a balance between holding a group together and directing their activity towards that goal. You need a creed or a constitution. Arnold argues that as the practical needs of a group and their ceremonial image of themselves diverge, bodies of metaphysical learning and split organizations develop. But different actual needs will always diverge. So what Arnold is describing is a pathological state where a society's ideal image of itself isn't succeeding in reconciling the contradictory needs that animate it. This pathological state leads to a constitutional crisis.

The end of Robert Altman's movie Nashville dramatizes the resolution of a immanent constitutional crisis. The movie is set in 1976, the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. During a concert sponsored by a political candidate the diva of Nashville's country music industry (who has been slowly disintegrating mentally) is shot. It looks like a riot is about to break out. The fallen diva's male counterpart, who has political ambitions, grabs the microphone and yells: "This is Nashville, you show 'em what we're made of. They can't do this to us here in Nashville. Okay, everybody, sing!" A young woman picks up the microphone and leads the crowd in singing: "You may say I ain't free. It don't worry me."

Music is an excellent tool for forming an organized group out of a mob. Music works because it doesn't obey the law of non-contradiction. Thus music can (temporarily) resolve the contradictions that run through a group -- unifying them. In fact, music can be understood as an art of pure organization. Composers create anxiety and satisfaction by approaching and receding from the edge of the tonal worlds they create. The tension produced in the middle of a classical sonata is the fear that the composer wont be able to successfully "bring it back" to the tonic, and that it will all "fall apart". The satisfaction is created by the composer pulling it off. But music is never played in a vacuum. The tension felt in the middle of a piece is also the anxiety and excitement created by the possibility that the audience will turn back into a mob -- a group of pure contradiction. The first performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is an instance of this reverse transformation of group into a mob.

  • You are making a pretty risky decision, aren't you, in accepting the end of a Robert Altman movie as a depiction of reality? There's no basis for doing that.

The idea was that the end of this Robert Altman movie presented an image of a part of reality in a stark way, so that it functioned as a good illustration of the point I was trying to make. But re-reading it I see what you mean. In a short essay it takes up a lot of space, and seems less like an illustration of a point than the point itself.

The Law and Contradiction

Some people go to law school hoping to obtain the tools that will allow them to change the world. Their first year they are met with the full array of intractable conflicts that run through social groups. They come face to face with Arnold's insight that thought cannot create or even change groups of people -- since much of what we need is not logical: "Men--even learned men-- cannot 'think up forms of social organization". There will always be contradiction and conflict and the law cannot eradicate them or even determine what the conflicts are. Furthermore, law school pushes everyone towards consistency and rationality. We are thrown into the heart of these contradictions, and then tasked with the Sysiphusian labor of rationalizing them. This work can be deadly because of its sheer volume, and also because it removes the aesthetic and ceremonial apparatus that normally softens the contradictions. Perhaps the extinguishing of spaces where these contradictions are allowed to coexist without being rationalized explains the rigid hierarchies and alcoholism in much of the legal community.

Lawyers need more nonsense -- both for their own sanity and also in order to be better lawyers. In order to get things done in groups of people, a healthy tolerance for irrationality and contradiction is essential. Groups are held together both by ceremonial nonsense and the actual satisfaction of the needs of their members. The nonsense element can never be eradicated, since people are always going to have contradictory drives. We need to be able to function on both planes in order to get anything done.


Patrick - I just read this paper for the first time. I really think you're onto something, and I look forward to reading and discussing your final version. Like you, I have been thinking a lot about "mob thinking" or group mentality over the last few years, and I agree that understanding this better is the key to a lot of societal problems. In my third paper, I tried (but so far failed, will rewrite this weekend) to explore this issue as it relates to crime. What fascinates me about this is that a seemingly minor change in social norms has the power to trigger a surge in mob thinking. Our personal code of ethics is flexible and changes depending on our environment. I recently read the book "Machete Season," which is a fascinating exploration of the Rwandan genocide from the eyes of the killers - mostly farmers who were somehow "mobbed" into hacking their neighbors to pieces with machetes. How is it that most people tend to lose their capacity for independent decision making when swept up in a collective movement? How can we, as individual members of a collective society, maintain our ability to act intelligently?

--AnjaHavedal, 8 July 2009

Patrick - I too think that there is much to learn here. I think that the turn away from 'grand theories of everything' is very productive. A rejection of grand unifying theories is one of the underpinnings of the Pragmatism movement itself, which formed the foundation of much of the early reading this semester. If you are looking for curious pieces on group thinking and how it gets manipulated, I would recommend Bill Wasik's article describing how and why he invented flash mobs. There is a link here but Harpers charges for content so I would go to a library and get the March 2006 issue; the article is short. The world is changed by small courageous acts, not by grand unified theories.

--AndrewCase, 8 July 2009

Thanks for the support. Anja, I'm not sure how we can maintain our ability to act intelligently in groups. There's probably not a simply answer. But I don't think the answer is to completely forgo group thinking. I just don't think that that is something we can do. I think that we are inevitably part of a social body, and if we cut ourselves off from it in the name of reason or intelligence we will die. So the answer must lie within the group itself. Perhaps the distinction is between good and bad group thinking. I wonder what kind of horrible but subtle change in the way those farmers communicated caused them to kill their neighbors.

Andrew, I'll take a look at that article. Just looked at Wikipedia on Flash Mobs. Looks interesting.

--PatrickCronin, 8 July 2009

Patrick - While I really enjoyed reading this, and I think you've got some really interesting thoughts, I kind of feel like you have two essays going here - one on mob mentality, and another one on your realization that changing the world does not require you to first develop a theory to explain everything. In my opinion, you're not really doing either one justice. I think the connection is that your wish to understand the workings of collective desires has previously served your wish to change the world by yourself (right?) but this is not a self-evident connection. You lose me on the logical leap from mob mentality to theory of everything. Why does mob mentality have to explain everything? Is it not valuable to understand even if it only explains SOME workings of the world? At the end of your essay I am left a bit confused.

On a completely different note: I'm not sure that the Michael Jackson hysteria fits into your analysis - are you sure that this is an example of mob mentality, or is it rather just a bunch of individuals each mourning Michael Jackson because they feel like they have a personal relationship to him? (maybe you've read that study about how we care about celebrities because our brains are tricked to think that they are part of our "tribe")

I think exploring the "herd mentality that lies dormant in everyone" would be a valuable excercise. What brings it out? Under what circumstances does it spread? How do we prevent those who know how to manipulate it from using it for detrimental purposes (think Nazis or Pol Pot)?

Hope you're having a good summer!

--AnjaHavedal, 14 July 2009

Yea, I see what you mean Anja. Thanks for the honest criticism. I've been really struggling with narrowing down my topic in these 1,000 word assignments. I'm going to cut out the "theory of everything" stuff. Although it was cathartic to write, after looking at it for a week I agree with you that the only thing that ties it to the first topic is a perhaps idiosyncratic personal issue. I'm going to do some research on a particular example of the mob phenomenon. That should produce a more focused and substantial essay.

-- PatrickCronin? , 16 July 2009

  • Though this is evidently still a draft in transition, it seems to me that I ought to say something about its travel thus far. The essence of this essay and the first one has been a call for the recognition of the contingent and the irrational, rendered in a sufficiently loose and associative rather than logical style to create some discomfort in readers. Methods of construction less rigorous and classical, in which the style shares the contingency, irrationality or incoherence of experience can be made to function effectively in larger works, but—as you have commented yourself—they don't work easily or well at 1,000 words.

Point taken. I wasn't trying to cause discomfort in my readers. To be honest, I was trying to keep the essay interesting. Its hard to tell if what one is trying to do is made impossible by the medium one is working in, or simply because one hasn't done it well enough yet. I'll change tacks.

* On the substance of your draft as it stands, I have two comments. The theory of the contradiction of self requires a unitary self to be contradicted. I think it's therefore at best unestablished and almost certainly wrong as stated. Crowd psychology has been a subject of great interest since Gustave Le Bon. I've mentioned before the impossibility of being a cultivated lawyer today without a good knowledge of Freud. In this case, the work is _Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego_ (1922). What puzzles me about the theory advanced here, aside from its choice to proceed as though no one else had ever thought about these issues before, is that the theories it resembles in emphasizing the irrationality of the crowd (from Le Bon to Edward Bernays) conduce to a belief in the inevitable necessity of propaganda: they lead directly to modern PR and they are, to put it softly, not very democratic in their political implications. So far, you haven't dealt with that except by ignoring the issue and those who have raised it.

I am not a great researcher, as I'm sure the various drafts of this and other essays have made clear. Research is something that I am gradually learning as I go through law school. I was not aware of Gustave le Bon nor Edward Bernays. Let me read them, and I'll revise this once more. I think there's no doubt that recognizing the irrationality of crowds doesn't naturally lead to democracy. But what I am trying to think through is some way that we can recognize that groups are irrational without becoming PR people and propagandists. I'm sure that this is not a novel idea.


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r21 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:43:17 - IanSullivan
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