Who Are the Masses?
A Changing Representation of the Masses in Movies
The Conclusion of Raymond William’s Culture and Society portrays an interesting idea on the different cultural and sociological function of Masses. ‘Mass’ was the new word for a ‘mob’ which became popular during the concentration of population due to Industrial Revolution and urbanisation. This was a physical massing. Work relations increased due to large scale production. This was a social massing. The development of organised and self-organised working class also occurred around the same time. This was a social and political massing. But a mob is known for its gullibility, fickleness, herd prejudice, lowness for taste and habit. (Williams 287) Thus, the term ‘Mass’ came to denote a group of people from the working class who did not have the same intellectual prowess as the bourgeois. It was seen as a negative or derogatory word.
Masses formed a perpetual threat to culture. Mass thinking/ prejudice/ suggestion would threaten to swamp individual thinking and feeling. Mass democracy was seen as majority rule of the mob or mob-rule which was harmful for a society or government. We think masses denote the working classes- therefore the problem with the masses are not the lowness and gullibility but the power to alter society and to change the capitalist economy- and this is why masses are abhorred by rulers and the makers of law and society. The leaders of the capitalist economy will do everything to prevent a Revolution and the working classes do not want their conscience to be awakened but most importantly nobody wants to acknowledge that true power does lie with the people. (Williams 288) Marxist sociologists argue that the tyranny of Capitalism ‘will eventually lead to a class conscious proletariat’ This involves a complete awareness by members of the working class of the reality of their exploitation and this will spark a Class War or revolution which the Capitalists want to avoid. (Haralambos 61)
Williams also asks an important question – ‘Who Are the Masses?’ He goes on to answer it himself, saying ‘Masses are other people’ and ‘There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.’ (Williams 298) What he tries to explain is that since the very term ‘Mass’ has become associated with something that is low and fickle, it is difficult for us to comprehend that for someone else who doesn’t know us, we too are a part of the nameless, fickle ‘Mass’.
The study of Masses has been incorporated in many theories of Sociology. They have brought to light certain universal characteristics of a Crowd or a Mass. ‘A crowd is a physical presence and ceases to exist the moment it is dispersed.’ ‘It is a temporary and ephemeral social group.’ ‘It is unorganized. It may have a leader; it has no system of statuses and no division of labour. The implications of this trait are far reaching.’ It means that a crowd is uncontrollable, ‘spontaneous, amorphous and unpredictable’. It also means that as everyone ‘has the same status in the group, it is made up of uniform units.’ ‘This situation at once provides them with anonymity, as their social identity does not carry over into the crowd. It also robs the interaction of whatever unique qualities individuals might possess and gives them a character that is notoriously crude and unrefined.’ (Davis 347-48)
What is interesting is that the birth of cinema happened around the same time that masses were given birth to by the Industrial Revolution. The Lumiere brothers in 1895 were successful in playing the first film reel. Early cinema aimed at being realistic and wanted to portray people as they were- the masses were portrayed in various crowd scenes ranging from a simple documentary by the Lumiere brothers of A Train Arriving At La Ciotat, where the presence of the camera was not disclosed to the ‘actors’ to movies with political motifs such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation that had epic war scenes and a heroic depiction of masses in the American Civil War. (Dirks ‘Greatest Crowd Scenes) Early cinema aimed at being didactic instead of simply entertaining. Some directors even used cinema as a medium for political propaganda. Directors Sergei Eisenstein and Fritz Lang were two such people who used their art to portray political, social and economic conditions of their countries in their own aesthetic style.