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Body to Body: On the Political Anatomy of Crowds*


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    Address correspondence to: Christian Borch, Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Porcelaenshaven 18A, DK-2000 Frederiksberg, Denmark. Tel.: +45-3815-3627; Fax: +45-38153635. E-mail: The author would like to thank Henning Bech, Uffe Lind, and the anonymous reviewers for valuable comments. Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Carlsberg Foundation.


This article challenges the negative image that, since the late 19th century, has been associated with crowds, and it does so by focusing on a number of bodily-anatomic aspects of crowd behavior. I first demonstrate that the work of one of the leading crowd psychologists, Gustave Le Bon, instigated a racist body politics. As a contrast to Le Bon's political program, I examine Walt Whitman's poetry and argue that the crowd may embody a democratic vision that emphasizes the social and political import of sexuality and body-to-body contact. Further, I dispute classical crowd theory's idea of an antagonistic relationship between crowds and individuality. Following Elias Canetti, I claim instead that the bodily compression of crowds in fact liberates individuals and creates a democratic transformation. The analysis results in a rehabilitation of crowds and briefly suggests how a reinterpretation of crowd behavior may inform current debates in social theory.