By Aidan Prewett

The following is an excerpt from Woodstock at 50: Anatomy of a Revolution, a forthcoming book by Political Animal Press. Woodstock at 50 explores the legacy of the festival and its political implications, through a collection of interviews with Woodstock performers, crew, and a host of entertainment icons such as Chip Monck, Michael Shrieve (Santana), Joe McDonald (Country Joe & the Fish), D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop), and Dick Cavett, as well as scholars who look at the subject from a theoretical perspective.

Dr. Justin Clemens has published extensively on psychoanalysis, contemporary European philosophy, and contemporary Australian art and literature. He was founding secretary of the Lacan Circle of Melbourne (2004–2009), and was chief art critic for The Monthly (2004–2009). He is currently senior lecturer in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His paper Man is a Swarm Animal (2013) was of key interest in my research of crowd behavior. In Dr. Clemens’s research, he has dealt extensively with the work of Freud.

By the time of Freud’s death in 1939, he had escaped the Nazis’ annexation of Austria and was living in exile in Britain. His books were often burned in Hitler’s Reich. During the near forty-year span in which his findings were published, Freud had fathered the concept of psychoanalysis and forever changed the way we view human nature, from personality development to dream analysis, to the makeup of our psyche. He was nominated for thirteen Nobel prizes; he never won. Hollywood recognized the power of his theories and in 1925, Samuel Goldwyn requested that he consult for MGM on the psychological power of cinema. Of course Freud turned him down. Through the twentieth century, Freud continued to be a touchstone for psychology; however, his ethics are often called into question. I was fascinated to hear more about a Freudian concept: Schwärmerei — a human “swarming” behavior involving a kind of fanaticism, rapture, or ecstasy.

Aidan Prewett: Can we talk about Freud’s perspective on the crowd? I was so interested to hear of the term Schwärmerei.

Justin Clemens: One of the things that I think that gets lost is that Freud had a pretty strong theory of how human beings are forced to come together in groups in weird ways. If you think about animals of all kinds, particularly mammals, they all bunch up in different ways. So you have flocks and swarms and packs and so on. But the problem for Freud is that with humans, there are radical different forms of human groups. We’re so varied in the way that we form groups that there seems to be something weird going on, right? Human beings must have this incredible variability in them as part of their nature. So you have to find some way of explaining how people form into groups, within all of this variability.

Freud looks into a whole series of things and, of course, it’s all about sex. Sex, and the fact that we’re children for a long, long time. Some animals are born ready to leave home, like guinea pigs. And others, like humans, you stay at home with your mom and dad now, or with your family, until you’re there forever.

That forever is the time that you’re being trained to do something, and that training is not just education — it’s culture and knowledge and, actually, your relationship to the other sex. How are we going to breed? How are we going to have institutions? How are you going to meet? How are you going to fuck? How are you going to bring up your kids? And so on. These are big problems for all human societies, and every human society is a kind of version of its vision about that. And the problem for Freud is, even though we are kind of sex-mad killers — which I think is obvious when you look around the world today — they’re also sex-mad killers who deny being sex-mad killers, right? It’s that self-denial that’s so crucial to Freud’s explanation. “We’re all sex-mad killers but we can’t admit it.” That’s a form of repression. So we have to lie to ourselves constantly in order to have anything to do with anyone else even though we’re still — in our heads at least — and unconsciously, madly fucking and killing everyone else. That’s the situation that he’s interested in. It’s very interesting because he, rather than many other theories prior to Freud, which just assume humans are naturally like this, Freud wants to say, “No, there’s a real problem and an indetermination in humans and that indetermination is where sex and politics hits at the same time and why humans are such a weird species on earth.” And it’s about the problem of forming groups.

AP: In Man is a Swarm Animal, there’s this concept that you touch on that maybe perversion has something to do with it all. The depth of perversion may have something to do with egotism?

JC: Freud has a number of different explanations, but the thing that he does want to mark is that we’re a biological species, but, because of this indetermination, this kind of non-programming, this lack of programming that’s in humans, born mute and helpless and completely dependent for donkey’s years, you really are subject to your family and your society in a way that other animals just aren’t.

So he said that this indetermination of humans has to be linked to what he calls in children their polymorphous perversity. Little kids, they stick fingers up their nose, in other people’s eyeballs, they eat shit they shouldn’t eat. Their libidinal impulses go every which way. There’s something a bit undirected or unfashioned about humans, and that’s why there’s so much training for humans as we grow up; whether it’s toilet training, or school, or how to act, etiquette in public, and so on. And that training is very, very hard to push onto kids, and you have to constantly repeat and belabor, and hit it, and hit it, and hit it again until, after a couple of years, maybe, a kid will poo in the right place, right?

But that’s part of group formation for Freud. That’s part of the development of our ego, where our ego developed out of this structure of both dependency and bullying and so on…. We then have to direct and guide ourselves around the world using this silly little ego, which is then constantly menaced on all sides by its repressed desires, by the persecutory nature of some laws we’ve had to uptake in order to be who we are, and just by the everyday happenstance of the world being inimical or indifferent to what we want to do.

Our consciousness … we’re constantly at threat from ourselves and from other people, and it’s those people who plug into that in different ways who can sway us into different group formations. And so we see these kind of political demigods. Some people are political geniuses at speaking to hundreds of thousands of completely different people with almost nothing in common. All of a sudden, some figure will be able to coordinate them through their speech, through their gesture, through some incredible political power.

But that power is also, to come back to a great myth, an Orphic power, which is the power of the rock ‘n roll god, who just plays music so amazingly that people who have nothing in common start to be coordinated, start to coordinate themselves around that beautiful voice, incredible guitar, or just fancy attitude. And so you do have something very close between the political demigod and the poetical or musical rock star. And I think there are things that Freud would be very interested in…. What is it that these great figures of demagoguery or rock are able to do to address themselves towards humans? It must go far beyond our consciousness.

AP: If you look at a cult leader, somebody like Charles Manson or Jim Jones, or one of these people — they seem quite able to tap into this unconsciousness, as well. Do you have any thoughts about how they might do that?

JC: Well, it’s pretty interesting. I mean, I think to Freud that possibility is always present for almost all human beings. So it’s not just a few dupes or a few unlucky people in the wrong place at the wrong time who can become subject to the force of cult leaders. Particularly, the really terrifying guys, Manson and Jones, David Koresh of the Branch Davidian…. These charismatic figures were able to just totally control and dominate groups.

But Freud … there must be something in all of us, at least in the very indetermination. Because we could have been something other than we are. That polymorphous perversity, which is infantile, but hard-wired — even if our lives are settled and well ordered, they’re always susceptible, very deep down, to looking for a leader figure, for a parent. Someone on whom we’re still dependent. And a very wide range of events can shake us from our normal complacency. At particular times of life you’re particularly susceptible. As a little kid where you’re totally dependent, or when you’re an adolescent — where you’ve got this shock of hormones … Bang! You can’t control what’s happening to you, and there are people around who’ll pick up on that, whether it’s the cult leader, or, in fact, the socially acceptable form of the pop or rock star.

AP: The other thing that really sparked my interest is where you spoke about Freud talking about telepathy as a concept. I think, in terms of a mass crowd situation, that’s really the root of what I’m trying to investigate.

JC: I would say that Freud was very interested in that. One key term for Freud is identification. He wants to say, Humans are definitely part of the natural world. The idea that we think we’re special is lunacy. If we are special, what makes us special? At the same time, insects move in this incredible coordinated way…. I mean, Freud was before all the pheromones and a whole lot of twentieth century science gave us answers around chemical trails, about the way in which insects can respond to these sorts of cues. But he’s still interested in How the hell can you have hundreds of thousands of insects all working together in a coordinated way? Like in an anthill, for instance? It’s like telepathy.

So what Freud was interested in about telepathy is how is it that it seems that people in a crowd can communicate with each other — even though they’re totally different, they may have just come together, they’ve never met before, no one really knows what’s happening. But there is a kind of, I guess one would say now, pheromones or some other thing also.

A whole load of things come together for Freud to think, Well, there must be something like an unconscious telepathy going on.

It is a bit occult, as well … most of our daily lives are pretty occult (i.e. unconscious identifications of determining what we do with relations to other people). We don’t really know it. Under certain extreme or stressful situations like the formation of crowds, for instance, then this really primal thing comes out. It leads to a kind of perverse identification and a suppression of the ego, actually, at this point, you know? You’re just moving as if you were part of a dark, violent, great, much greater mass, and the whole crowd sits as one organism, which is often said, and, I guess, you’re underlining in your film a bit.

AP: Absolutely. And the concept of hypnotic suppression, I suppose, ties in with that perfectly.

JC: Exactly. I mean, human beings — always, even with the domination of our ego — we’re very, very close to some extreme sort of behavior. Even the phrase hypnotic suppression: other people are doing things to us by weird hypnosis, magic, telepathy, so to speak, all the time. And, look, music is a kind of telepathy, right? As one of my friends says, who’s played in a lot of bands, “Even as a musician, how is it that we’re all working in time together? We’re hearing and we’re playing and we haven’t yet rehearsed this, but we must all know something about what to do…?” You know what I’m saying, right?

AP: Absolutely.

JC: There’s something mysterious about it and that’s … I mean, you may as well use the word telepathy. It’s reasonable, but it’s also more hypnotic suppression, as well. There’s also something violent about it. Let’s not forget that even in this ecstatic communion with the rock god, there’s something Dionysian where you might wake up having ripped off someone’s arm or slapped someone. You’re pretty close to some violence.

AP: What would Freud have thought of Woodstock?

JC: The image of psychoanalysis is someone lying on a couch with a bearded guy sitting behind them going, “Ja, tell me about your mother.” So it’s a very individual practice. It’s just about you, and your absolute singularity. You have to talk and talk and talk for years in order for all that to come out. At the same time, Freud is always wanting to say that there’s no individual without others. It’s your unconscious identifications and relationships to these other people, that is really at stake in your unconscious. So every individual is already a kind of multiplicity of ancient and unconscious identifications.

In Group Psychology, Freud talks about how, after a piano performance, all the women cluster around the performer — in a schwärmeristic way. He already has a definite image of what that looks like, that you’re all together in your love for this one leader-figure. So Freud is very aware of that phenomenon. The crowds that you’ve focused on here, the size of them are unprecedented. These huge festivals all over the world — of which Woodstock is the very emblem — the size of it is incredible. The mechanisms of that scale — I don’t think Freud would be surprised, but he may have been a bit shocked by the scale.

AP: These mechanisms — what mechanisms can be exploited in these large-scale crowd systems?

JC: Freud picks up on the work of an extremely odd and yet influential — not always in a good way — theorist, in terms of crowds of the nineteenth century, called Gustave Le Bon. Le Bon was originally a doctor; he gets into anthropology. He’s exceptionally racist, and a theorist of post-Darwin, racial evolution — in a quite disgusting way. But he also writes a book on the psychology of the crowd, in which he tries to give what he thought of as scientific explanation of how crowds form. One of the things that Le Bon had seen was the great crowds of the Paris Commune of 1871, after the French lost to the Prussians in the war.

In the spaces of crowds, architecture and cities are very important. The thing about Woodstock is that you get a massive crowd in the countryside, which is very interesting and rare because crowds mainly start in the city. Baron Haussmann had very famously destroyed medieval Paris in the mid-nineteenth century and rebuilt it with the wide boulevards that we know today. Part of the reason for those wide boulevards was not only for nice people to go walking so that they could be painted by impressionists, but if there was any civic trouble, cannons could be wheeled into position and it would be very difficult for a mob to protect themselves in those open boulevards. So even the city planning of the nineteenth century has the fear of the crowd in it. One of the things the commune did was develop a whole series of new forms of urban guerrilla fighting, and they managed to re-barricade, or create new kinds of giant barricades and ways of fighting in the city, as a way of taking back the streets. Le Bon saw this and he went berserk. He hated it; he was very reactionary. But it did inspire him to think about these sorts of mobs.

He gives three main reasons where he talks about the alteration of psychology of individuals in crowds.

  1. The sheer number of people — the individual develops, paradoxically, a sense of invincibility. And individual, even though they’re nothing in the crowd, and could be destroyed immediately, somehow develops a sense of invincibility.
  2. Le Bon calls it a kind of contagion. One person gets excited, another gets excited. Mao in China used to have this famous statement, “One becomes two, two becomes four, four becomes eight,” about the production of revolutionaries. But a similar principle holds for Le Bon.
  3. The hypnotic suppression of ego.

These became very influential ideas all over Europe in the twentieth century. All sorts of different people are influenced by Le Bon’s work. But Freud himself starts to think about a new theory of identification, which is we can identify with other people in all sorts of ways. Freud is very clear that the peculiar thing about when we identify with people is that sometimes it’s an imaginative appropriation or takeover of their power. So even unconsciously, even imaginatively, we model ourselves on other people. And sometimes we copy people, not because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that imitation is an attempt at a hostile takeover of the power of the other. So one of the things that Freud starts to develop is these mechanisms of identification after reading Le Bon and a lot of other anthropological stuff. He wants to say that these mobile traits can be picked up, they have been translated as unary traits.

A unary trait, in principle, can be almost anything. Some people are masters of it — the rock stars, the tyrants — but sometimes it can be quite accidental and contingent. For example, he talks about a girl at a boarding school who receives a letter and bursts into tears. All the other girls in the school are wondering is it a breakup letter, has something terrible happened; they all burst into tears too. Freud says that it’s the tears that are important. They’re not identifying with the girl, they don’t feel sorry for her; they might think they feel sorry for her. What in fact they’ve been captured by is this kind of weird physical hysteria. That’s Freud thinking about contagion as a form of unconscious imaginary identification. Sometimes when people cough in a meeting, and then everyone else starts coughing. You start mirroring some of the other gestures in a kind of mimetic way. You mentioned this in your film with the mosh pit — where you were thinking aren’t these people embarrassed moving their arms around like this? only to find that you yourself had been taken over by this weird spontaneous trait that seems to transmit itself across all sorts of diverse bodies in order to unify them in a very odd way.

You were really affected. An effect that that’s physical, but also you’re thinking don’t they feel shame? Oh, I am part of the thing feeling shame. You’ve been bonded together by the rhythm, by the gesture, by the sound, by the situation, but also by the shame. Embarrassment or humiliation can be one of the key emotions of crowds.

AP: I believe Goebbels studied Le Bon quite intensely.

JC: This is one of the things about Le Bon. He was very influential because of his absolutely revolting “race science”. This was very appealing to the worst elements of European demagoguery, of the early twentieth century in particular. And part of the problem is that at the same time, Le Bon says some very interesting and incisive things. And those things can be very clearly listed. Any good manager, like Hitler’s propagandists were, knows how to instrumentalize them. So it’s the managerializing of Le Bon’s observed phenomena. And Goebbels is one of the guys who says what things do we need to do? This is where Albert Speer and Leni Reifenstahl come in. It comes back to the problem of urban spaces, but also of the design of spaces to force crowds, or to induce crowds, or to suggest to crowds, to channel them one way or another, to organize them around particular points, whether focal or disperse. These are all part of Hitler, Goebbels, Speer, the entire panoply of goons. They’re very attentive to the special managerial design particularities of crowd unification. And Goebbels in particular would take cues from many different places. Hollywood cinema, Busby Berkeley’s Girls — the careful aestheticization and orchestration of diverse bodies into a compelling image or picture or structure. Riefenstahl is obviously right on to that.

AP: In a generational kind of way, all these parents who fought World War Two are watching their kids grow their hair long and suddenly they’re off to Woodstock. Was there some kind of generational trauma that these generations were facing?

JC: One of the things that I took from your film was the differences in all of these situations. You made this point around Vietnam in particular — and Woodstock — about the nature of anti-authoritarianism as opposed to the authoritarian crowds of the classic dictator or the leader.

When you have a master or a leader, there’s always another master somewhere fighting them off or trying to contest them. The masters of other people can look pretty annoying to you, if not contemptible, irrelevant, reprehensible. I think about Beatlemania, where people were just horrified — What the hell is going on? These four guys with weird floppy haircuts. Or with Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, or any of the other rock stars. The disgust and terror that people have that others are caught up. And you don’t understand it yourself, it’s almost incomprehensible.
But there’s also another thing that you talk about — there’s also a technological thing. New technologies that were previously not there, for example the television. Yes, we have radio in the twentieth century, yes we have film. Two great inventions of around 1900. But post-war it’s all about TV. It brings people together and it disposes them quite differently. And it establishes different sorts of relationships between host, camera, audience. So, rather than just generational, there’s also a technological transformation.

AP: I was interested to hear that you’ve written about the concept of antiphilosophy. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

JC: I read a lot of philosophy and psychoanalysis. Some of the people I was reading, like the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, almost explicitly calls himself an antiphilosopher at various points. And I was thinking, well, what does this mean? For Lacan as a psychoanalyst, he thinks to Freud, he thinks of a number of other quite strange conceptual characters like Søren Kierkegaard — also an antiphilosopher of this time. What they see in philosophy is always an attempt — precisely — to legitimate the return of the tyrant, or the return of the master. Lacon himself says philosophy is a master’s discourse. Why? He says that we can take observed phenomena — paradigmatically, the labor of slaves. We, the philosopher, turn that into clear and organizable propositions for you, and therefore we can use that knowledge to better exploit the slave. In a thumbnail, that’s what Lacan says about philosophy, and why he says psychoanalysis is against all forms of mastery, and that antiphilosophy is one way to characterize it. Because you’re anti the extraction of knowledge from slaves in order to turn that into a managerial tool of productivity. Or as Goebbels does, to take a theory of the crowd and turn it into an actual intervention into the crowd. That’s not what psychoanalysis does. Even though I’m very interested in lots of theories and forms of thinking, I do like that as an orientation toward what I want to do. It’s anti-philosophical in that way. I’m not extracting knowledge from anyone in order to better exploit people. I see our job as the opposite.

* * *

The master/leader concept is key to most crowd scenarios. It is also key to the extraction of knowledge from human subjects. One example of this is the Stanford Prison Experiment, led by researcher Philip Zimbardo. This became a hugely controversial clinical study into the human capacity for violence.

In August 1971, Zimbardo set up a detailed mock prison at Stanford University. Twenty-four vetted applicants were selected and split into two factions: prisoners and guards. The experiment was expected to run twenty-four hours a day for seven to fourteen days. It was abandoned on the sixth day when psychological abuses from the guards became overwhelming. In his report, Zimbardo concluded that the roles expected of participants, and reinforced through uniforms and prison bars, led participants to become dangerously absorbed in their new roles. Experimenters reported that approximately one-third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies.

Much criticism has been leveled at Zimbardo for the experiment’s dubious ethics and the psychological trauma endured by participants. The controversial research raised more questions than answers. What power is contained in mere roles, rules, symbols, group identity, and situational validation? How easily can people be led to engage in deeply antisocial behavior?

Aidan Prewett is a documentary filmmaker and the author of Woodstock at 50: Anatomy of a Revolution, from Political Animal Press.

Upon completion of his Master of Film & Television in 2009, Prewett was presented with the coveted Victorian College of the Arts Best Achievement in Direction, as well as Best Documentary Script. Carrying on his work in personal documentary storytelling, he soon found himself flown to a number of film festivals in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, where his films have picked up various awards and honors.

Prewett’s films often feature a strong music focus, from the historical Me and the Devil Blues, about the legendary Robert Johnson, to the ‘60’s rock/politics documentary A Venue for the End of the World and the aural addiction of Me, Myself & iPod. His non-music documentaries include Selected Works of Uncle Neill and most recently The Trump Antidote. Prewett’s films have been shot on location across the globe and feature a host of entertainment luminaries.

Find his films at

Image: Route 17B traffic heading towards the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, copyright James M Shelley, 1969