When I was eight or nine, growing up in the far eastern suburbs of Melbourne, my lunchtimes were filled with games such as ‘round the world, 40-40, tiggy and cops and robbers. Cops and robbers was a version of tiggy that began with half the group being cops, and half robbers. As the cops tagged the robbers, they were sent to jail. Only one robber had to be touching the ‘jail’ at any one time, and they could form a chain of robbers by linking arms, which other robbers were able to run through, freeing those incarcerated. This moment was always jubilant and freeing, with bodies scattering in every direction.
Around this time, kids started experimenting with crushing and making out at school. Rather than linking a sprawling chain to freedom, groups would gather in a tight knit around pairs of emboldened children, both providing a screen of privacy from teachers and a surveilling panoptic voyeurism. I remember watching one of these knotted groups from afar with a friend, and discussing how gross it was that they were kissing with tongues. My friend asked me who my crush was and I didn’t have one, so disinterested I was in the pursuit of another unless it was on foot, at speed. I went home that day and wrote a list of people we knew with pros and cons for each, and chose my crush.
As I got older, crushes became less pragmatic, yet it seems that it is still often the shallow surface of a person who is remembered. In an article on fashion website Ssense, a number of writers elaborate on past crushes through memories of their clothing, poeticising the physical characteristics that focus our attention on the desired.1 This person and how she laughs, talks, or how her body enjoys the first notes of a song, how he wears his t-shirt sleeves folded neatly once over, all of these little adjustments and mannerisms, centre your world for a period. As I grew up, I observed:
- A boy that in my memory was like, a metre tall, and for whatever reason I can only picture him wearing the football jersey with emphasized padded shoulders like sporting armour.
- The only kid at the junior high I attended who wore his hair in liberty spikes.
- A friend’s cousin, who wore his hair in greasy spikes and wore a pink polo shirt (long before millennial pink was a thing) with a popped collar and frayed edges.
- The first friend I made at my new school who also listened to pop-punk and with whom I shared tiny gestures of middle class rebellion—popping holes for thumbs through our jumpers, a black hoody worn under a school blazer.
- The only guy at my high school who had a bright orange mohawk, a sunset in 5 spikes.
When I was 16, I went to my first Big Day Out and experienced my first mosh pit. As the band came on stage the whole crowd surged forward a few metres, I couldn’t help but be carried along by the bodies. The crush was intense and pulsing with heat, the sun glared off sweat on naked backs. Big men pushed forward and even bigger men yelled backwards, pushing small young girls overwhelmed but the crush backwards to safety. I, too, was small, young and overwhelmed, but protected by the male presence of my boyfriend behind me and the courteous people surrounding us. A few years earlier, at the Big Day Out in Sydney during Limp Bizkit’s set, Jessica Michalik died as a result of asphyxiation five days after being crushed in a mosh pit. She was 16 too.
I’ve been thinking lately about figuring crushes/crushing as a form of social ventriloquism—how the act of crushing projects outwards, is entirely interior and self-involved yet casts a heightened attention onto those around you. More specifically, thinking about how crushes both capture the body, as well as the imagined anterior projection of the desired: an unreciprocated forecast of potentiality onto one that is absent from the equation. Socially, this operates when the crush is enacted by a crowd or mass of people in the form of celebrity worship or fandom. I think here of the band, the sports team, the deity—figures of worship and celebration which evade classification as a singular body onto which the crowd’s desire falls.
Ventriloqual processes find their origin in religious practice in Ancient Greece, in which the practice of listening to the sounds one’s belly made was thought to be a means of listening to the undead. The word, ventriloquy, comes from the Latin words venter (belly) and logui (speak), meaning literally to speak from the belly.2 This presents a model for an attention towards what the gut says—as in listen to your gut, the stomach being seen medically as the second brain. If I encounter a crush, my stomach flips into my mouth, becomes liquid—how do I listen to this? To consider how this occurs this en masse, the gut’s expression is projected onto the ventriloqual host of the crowd, amplifying desire yet erasing a crusher’s individual autonomy. Forms of celebrity worship present instances of social ventriloquism in which desire becomes untethered from a single body, causing the mass of people to act as one screaming crowd, mosh pit or rally. Mosh pits originated in the early 80’s hardcore scene in Washington D.C., and were initially referred to in the communities as a mash, describing a literal pressing together of bodies.3 In the mosh, logic and caution are cast aside as the impetus of the crowds desire becomes more important than the individual’s livelihood and safety.
Toronto-born writer Tiana Ried writes of crushing being dangerously ascribed as teenage fantasy, rendered cute and pathologically girlish instead of passionate, enraged, and at the core of what keeps us going:
Crushing lays bare the potential of boundless desire, enabling us to embrace brutal vulnerabilities that are often subordinated to everyday expediency… Like your next cigarette, a crush is often unrequited.4
This vulnerability is experienced as physical danger when crushing operates on a mass scale. A throng of fans is both a challenge to crowd control and a collective expression of the most unrequited desire. Fans seek to profess their love en masse, becoming a moving multiplicity of boundless bodies. This collective action performs the ceaseless state of crushing and the ways that the many meanings of being crushed fold in upon themselves: to smash, stutter, break into pieces; to overpower, subdue. Or, colloquially, a brief but intense infatuation for someone. A crush is the pathological vulnerability to destruction by the distant, unobtainable subject. When figured en masse, the power and danger of the crush is not just pathological but corporeal in its urgency. Pluralised crushing possibilities play out: shortness of breath, your stomach seems to flip in on itself, your cheeks flush, sweat drips from your pores, you are physically pressed up against the bodies of others, unable to turn your attention away, unable to move away, compressed, surrounded, trapped.
In 1989, at the Liverpool v. Nottingham Forest football match, in Sheffield, England, 96 people died in the Liverpool stands when the police allowed crowds to surge into the already overcrowded standing pens, crushing other fans against the tall metal barriers that fronted onto the pitch.
In 2000, during Pearl Jam’s set as the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, nine people were killed in the mosh due to asphyxiation, crushing, and trampling, as the surge of the crowd pushed people into the spaces made by those fallen, so that they were hopelessly standing on top of them.
The day after Thanksgiving in 2008, Queens resident Jdimytai Damour died while working at a Walmart in Long Island during the Black Friday sales. Having only worked in the stockroom for a week, Damour was assigned to help with crowd control due to lack of police presence and was trampled by the crowd of shoppers as he tried to render assistance to a pregnant woman.5
In 2010, at the electronic music festival Love Parade in Germany, 21 people were killed by their ribs being crushed, when one of the entrances to the festival was closed, preventing people from coming in but also causing a crush amongst those who believed the gates were opens and moved to get out.
Also in 2015, in Mina, Saudi Arabia, over 2400 people were killed during the yearly Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, making this the deadliest Hajj disaster in history. The list of crowd disasters associated with the Hajj is, in short, devastating. In 1990, 1,426 people were crushed to death, in 1994 is was 270, in ’98 it was at least 118, in 2001 it was 35, in 2003—14, in 2004 it was 251, in 2005 it was three, in 2006 it was at least 360.6
The 2015 Mina disaster is best described as a progressive crowd collapse: when individuals are pressed so closely against each other they are unable to move independently, and shockwaves can travel through a crowd which behaves somewhat like a fluid. If a single person falls, waves of bodies can be involuntarily precipitated forward into the open space. Unable to draw breath, people in a crowd can also be crushed while standing still.7
The other type of crowd disaster, such as at Hillsborough and the Love Parade, is called a crowd crush. This happens when more and more people are pushed into a confined area, or are attempting to get out of one. It is often those pressed against the wall that are crushed, literally asphyxiated as their bodies are so compressed so that their lungs cannot expand to breath.
Crowd disasters are a political problem. The usual reaction to a crowd crush is to evoke the image of an uncontrollable mob, of mass panic or stampede. To blame the victims. After the Hillsborough disaster, police falsely blamed the Liverpool fans for rowdiness and hooliganism. After Mina, the Saudi government blamed a group of pilgrims for the crush, stating that they were unruly and went the wrong way. After Damour was crushed in the Black Friday sales, politicians and newspapers derided the shoppers as barbarians. The truth is, people are not mindlessly pushing and prepared to crush others: people are only crushed by those who have literally no choice in the matter. Political powers and governments do not want to take responsibility for crushing, instead assigning blame to those that lost their lives and heightening political tension. This reveals a state-level denial of the vulnerability of crushing. The crowd is portrayed as a single, unified entity, which acts according to a self-preserving mob psychology. But in most crowd disasters people are usually moving toward something they want or desire, rather than away from something they fear.
Crowds are a condition of contemporary urban life, often seen as an inconvenience of city living. Elias Canetti, in his 1960 book Crowds and Power, sees these times of physical communion with strangers as essential to transcending the fear of being touched: “The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other.”8 This conception of a crowd as a means of literally becoming intimate with ones fear’s in order to lessen them, is flipped on its head in the instance of a crowd crush. By pressing together fiercely, or even violently—as in a mosh—the edge between what is reassuring and what is dangerous becomes precarious. A communally cathartic physical experience can suddenly shift into one of physical danger. In the case of too much reassurance via touching, the crowd can flip from one of community to one of suffocation and fear.
Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of short stories and essay collections at once. I’ve had a desire to move through many—or a crowd of—voices at a time without becoming too committed or invested in any one idea, perhaps allowing these diverse images to touch in my mind. I read this yesterday in a collection by Fiona Wright:
The psychologist Peter Freund describes emotions as spatial in their expression, we feel up or down or level-headed or flat, as if the body is oriented and placed by how we feel. And the reverse too, he argues, may well be true—the how we feel positions our sense of the body in space. The more complicated of these spatialisations have to do with unity or disunity—I feel collected, I feel grounded, I feel complete; or else a bit scattered, all over the place, beside myself, utterly lost.9
What stuck with me while thinking through this essay, is that positioning a body spatially in relation to a crowd and its dangers implicitly involves a consideration of unity or disunity. How the crowd moves is jubilant and complete, a fluid collaborative whole; or it is analogous to the breakdown of a singular object: going to pieces, falling apart, disintegrating and collapsing. This unification of the crowd as one creates the conditions for the disunification of the singular body. While playing cops and robbers as children, nebulously unaware of the allegory of violence we enacted, the collaboration of the massing bodies in the game mirrored mosh pit’s performance of touching as a means of entrapment and release. In a mosh, the crowd moves collectively in their celebration of the desired, yet this consideration of the crowd as a whole breaks apart in chaos when things go awry.
To have a crush presents an impossible ownership of the idea, or surface of a person, particularly pertinent in a capitalist society which operates by way of desire. Yet in the instance of the crowd, the people have a favourite team, the rock star has fans. Personal crushes antagonise reciprocity in their singular direction, yet the surface one-ness of the crowd professing desire presents a communality in which emotion, ecstasy, fear and danger are equally shared across the singular bodies that make up the crowd. The way these conditions spread virally through the singular host of the crowd is parasitic in its effectiveness, and the key vulnerability when the emotion shared is a desire that presses one forwards. Likewise, it is a tension of instability that gives personal crushes their power: they too, are a means to press against the idea of someone in order to overcome fear. This vulnerability of wondering whether you are liked back provides life with an “absorptive intensity and persistent survival that might help us work through the [daily] rhythms of rapture and loss.”10
- <p>Ssense. <em>Obsessed with you: 11 writers on crushes and clothes</em>. Ssense.com. <a href="https://www.ssense.com/en-au/editorial/fashion/obsessed-with-you-eleven-writers-on-crushes-clothes?utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=social&utm_term=crush-clothes_editorialcollabshare_04_06_2018">https://www.ssense.com/en-au/editorial/fashion/obsessed-with-you-eleven-writers-on-crushes-clothes?utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=social&utm_term=crush-clothes_editorialcollabshare_04_06_2018</a> (assessed February 18,2019). <a href="#fnref1:1" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>"ventriloquy, n.". OED Online. December 2018. Oxford University Press. <a href="http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/222297?redirectedFrom=ventriloquy">http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/222297?redirectedFrom=ventriloquy</a> (accessed February 18, 2019). <a href="#fnref1:2" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>The word <em>mosh</em> is thought to have been made popular due to the Jamaican-accented pronunciation of mash by Bad Brains lead singer H.R. <a href="#fnref1:3" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Tiana Ried. <em>Crushed</em>. The New Enquiry. <a href="https://thenewinquiry.com/crushed/">https://thenewinquiry.com/crushed/</a> (accessed February 18, 2019). <a href="#fnref1:4" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>John Seabrook. <em>Crush Point</em>. The New Yorker. <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/07/crush-point">https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/07/crush-point</a> (accessed February 19, 2019).  <a href="#fnref1:5" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Leo Benedictus. <em>Hajj crush: how crowd disasters happen and how they can be avoided</em>. The Guardian Online. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/03/hajj-crush-how-crowd-disasters-happen-and-how-they-can-be-avoided">https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/03/hajj-crush-how-crowd-disasters-happen-and-how-they-can-be-avoided</a> (accessed February 18, 2019).  <a href="#fnref1:6" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Jack Moore. <em>What Caused The Hajj Tragedy?</em>. Newsweek Online. <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/what-caused-hajj-tragedy-376267">https://www.newsweek.com/what-caused-hajj-tragedy-376267</a> (accessed February 18, 2019). <a href="#fnref1:7" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Elias Canetti. <em>Crowds and Power</em>. London: Gollancz, 1962. <a href="#fnref1:8" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Fiona Wright. <em>The World Was Whole</em>. Sydney: Giramondo Publishing Company, 2018. <a href="#fnref1:9" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Reid. <em>Crushed</em>. <a href="#fnref1:10" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>