Looking back at my 35 year old self – #13

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

27 december

Am I leaving my life as a tourist? And am I just watching myself live? Or am I looking for impact? I am not extraordinarily busy, actually, I have lots of time to explore. It is unclear what my profession is, or how I make money – partly, I rely on various subsidies, rent from a place I bought, my partner’s income. And I live off the remains of an exam I passed years ago in what is now a foreign country.

Yet there is still new places to visit and understand better – this short trip – Guangzhou, Changsha, soon Wuhan.

It is an odd characteristic of intellectual life – or writers. We remember Stendhal, La Bruyere, Marx, and others, for just a few books they wrote, or ideas they spread. Their ‘professional’ life is irrelevant, retrospectively. Yet we have equated the worth of a person so much with their means of gaining income, that it takes a lot of effort to resist.

28 december

I’ve always enjoyed repeating, since reading that book by Kierkegaard. Today, I returned to Shamian island, and walked again in areas of central Guangzhou that I saw yesterday. The theme of these few days in Guangzhou might actually be – repeating!

On discharges

Elias Canetti’s Mass and Power may be the most insightful book ever written on collective dynamics. In the opening chapters, he describes how individuals, who show a natural tendency to avoid each other, come together to form what he calls ‘masses’.

“The most important process that occurs within a mass is discharge,” Canetti writes. “Before it occurs, the mass does not exist properly; only the discharge really constitutes it. Discharge is the moment when all those who belong to the mass get rid of their differences and feel equal.”

Our societies are intricate webs of differences, classes, ethnicities, customs, accents. Each of us has integrated gestures and phrases that assert our individual stance, and keep us distinct from others. These very distinctions determine our unique position and limit our freedom. They restrict our capacity to move anywhere, anytime, forming new connections at will. They weigh upon us.

The emotional moment of collective discharge that occurs in a mass blows away such limiting distinctions, and for a moment, redefines all participants as equals. For a moment, everything seems possible. This might occur during concerts, political demonstrations, religious ceremonies, or more banal rituals of collective production and consumption.

The relief experienced is high. These are desirable experiences. The danger, however, is that masses are inherently unstable. They break down easily, leaving a fleeting sense of loss behind them. Unless the one thing happens that will prevent their dissolution: to grow, to grow, to grow.