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Flouting Civilization

The basis for critiques of civilization (in general or in any particular incarnation) has always been “nature.” Conventions and culture, if not ritually prescribed, could be other than what they are, and are therefore time bound and contingent, but nature is what is always true, and what we discover through reason, rather than via tradition. If we can know what is natural, we can judge the civilized order, its customs and conventions, in terms of how closely they correspond to nature. Nature is simple, essential, enduring, intelligible, universal; civilization is given to artificiality, fashion, vanity, sophistication. Nature is a newly discovered post-ritual sign; civilization remains mired in rivalry and the compulsion to attain distinction.

Of course, “nature” is itself a category of civilization, a way of deferring the new conflicts the civilized order generates. It emerges because civilized citizens are more or less dimly aware of the radical transformation, the deferrals and disciplines, that made civilization possible and distinguished civilized orders so dramatically from barbaric and savage ones: it is this absolute distinction between civilization and everything that preceded it that produces the blanket category of “nature.” Due to the leisure afforded a class of thinkers, relatively freed from ritual imperatives and material need, and their capacity to survey a range of uncivilized orders (to record them, discuss them, interview them, collect “samples”), it becomes “natural” to inquire into the many similarities and differences observed, and to generalize regarding what they all might have in common. Precisely for this reason civilized orders are able to convince themselves that they are, or could be, arranged more in correspondence with nature than the more primitive and seemingly irrational and arbitrary social orders—while also being equally capable of convincing themselves that they might try to model themselves on the simplicity, courage, strength and other virtues of the uncivilized.

The role of “Nature” during the civilizing process is a regulatory one, rather than a foundational one. “Civility” didn’t need so much to be justified or explained as protected from the excesses inherent in this as yet untested mode of social life—satires of civility (marking its deviation from nature) are part of civility. With modernity, and the forgetting of the civilizing process, “Nature” is presented as the basis of social order, the source of rights and legitimation, including the principle of a revolutionary re-founding if the existing order were discovered to be opposed to nature, or usurping the natural rights upon which its legitimacy depends. The assertion of individual natural rights was first deployed against the monarchies of Europe, but, since they have no intrinsic limiting principle, the notion of natural rights is a way of generating and directing resentment toward any government seen to be tyrannical in any sense.

The modern notion of “Nature” implies equality before a sovereign center, which is posited as constituted by what it in fact constitutes: the assertion of natural rights only makes sense as a polemic against some central figure that has always already expropriated them. The many antinomies of this structural assumption have been exhaustively explored, in what has perhaps been the greatest service provided by “postmodern” social and political theory. The more natural rights are presumed to constrain the sovereign center, the more sovereignty constructs, shapes, redefines, analyzes and recomposes, those minimal rights (to property, self-protection, movement, speech, worship, etc.) into “components” of a policed social order. The ludicrous notions of a “compelling state interest,” or “rational test”—self-evidently arbitrary concepts established as standards the government must meet (and, through the courts, decides whether it is meeting) in limiting some natural right—make this fairly obvious. Even more, as the natural and social sciences develop and become increasingly central to social life, the “nature” founding society becomes one to be manipulated through those sciences—diagnosis and prescription easily replace persuasion as the constituents of political discourse, as we continue to install the therapeutic order Philip Rieff analyzed decades ago. Here’s a prediction, which exemplifies the inversion of natural rights that is simultaneously its culmination: we will see, perhaps within a decade, children removed from religious homes deemed “unhealthy” and “abusive” because children are being taught the “homophobic” lessons of their parents and tradition, and transferred to same sex “married” couples whose equal right to raise children will thereby be vindicated. The current legal and political strategy of many conservatives, to argue against “relativistic” leftist politics through recourse to “natural rights” is futile because the various components of natural rights can be pulverized and recombined at will—the grotesque notion of a “protected class” (making it, presumably, open season on everyone else) both contradicts and corresponds to “natural right.” At the extreme, if the citizen’s rights are defined in terms of a pre-social nature, their expression can be reduced to pre-social venues (you can believe and say what you like as long as no one is around to see or hear or be offended by you—it can even be generously granted that you probably can’t help yourself), with violations of such strictures resulting in one’s removal from society. (All that is coming from “above”—we have known for a long time that, from “below,” any assault on customs and conventions can be justified in the name restoring some natural right or freedom.)

I have been arguing in recent posts that the only possible anti-victimary politics today would involve setting aside all these modern concepts and debates and simply arguing for civilization against barbaric and savage recrudescence. Civilization does not require a notion of universal right, much less endless cynical and acrobatic reinterpretations of supposedly fundamental and self-evident rights. A politics of civilization can focus on the praxis of individuals constitutive of the institutions and practices to which all must habituate themselves. In a university you treat everyone as a scholar and teacher; in business you treat everyone as a competent practitioner of their specialty; in economic transactions you include your partners in a zone of trust constitutive of a voluntary exchange; in neighborhood you treat everyone as—a neighbor. In some cases, specific institutions or spaces will want to codify what such treatment entails, always keeping in mind that such codification indicates, not a heightened moral awareness, but an attempt to defer potential or actual conflict (and hence a weakening of the consensus upon which the shared practice depends). Such conflict might be necessary to make it possible to see others in unaccustomed ways (and might indeed lead to higher moral awareness), but the point is always to expand and improve the civilized order that the excluded are, after all, demanding entrance to—the inclusion of new participants should be an occasion to re-fortify civilized institutions, to subordinate grievances to norm-governed work. Civilization depends upon deferral to the judgment of the “third person” I have discussed in recent posts, and it depends upon every individual inculcating the attitudes, dispositions and mentalities of the “third person,” and the desire to be take as such a person by others.

To talk about rights, and distribution, wealth and markets, participation in universal exchange, etc., outside of the defense of the fundaments of civilized order, tends to undermine that order. There can be no universal reciprocity because there is no global scene—even if there can be global spectacles. Exchange can only take place among participants on a scene, established and governed by a shared sign—to grant full membership on a scene without accession to that sign is to make the scene hostage to the marginal grievance, or the grievance that needs to be appeased to make whole the fantasy of a scene that could map the territory controlled by the sovereign. The originary scene bequeaths to us not an ever more inclusive scene, but infinite scenes, overlapping and articulated in infinite and always provisional ways—moral advances, always fragile, come through new ways of mediating between scenes that were previously incommensurable. Even the free market presupposes a civilized order, and then becomes a marker of that order insofar as it represents a mode of exchange no Big Man could usurp. But defenses, in principle, of the free market that would undermine the basics of civilized order (like the demand for a free market in labor that would allow unlimited immigrants from less civilized countries, unvetted by the civilized order, to enter the country) must themselves be resisted, if not through centralized state power than by communities organized through schools, neighborhoods, businesses, main streets, hospitals, social services, etc.—i.e., by the bulwarks of a civilized order.

So, what is a politics of civilization? It is, I think a politics of flouting civilization. I take the notion of “flouting” from the philosopher of language Paul Grice, who developed the notion of “maxims of conversation”—what originary thinkers could really consider an ethics of the declarative sentence. Insofar as we speak to each other, we presuppose certain shared obligations (the “cooperative principle”): what you say will be true, it will be relevant, it will be sufficient (you will give no more and no less information than is necessary). These are more constitutive than descriptive—much, perhaps most, actual conversation proceeds in violation of these maxims. But that’s the point—it is precisely through meaningful violations, or flouting, of the maxims, that meaning is generated (through what Grice calls “implicatures”). So, if you ask me how Jim’s new job at Wall Street is going, and I say, “terrific—he should be able to stay out of jail for at least another few years,” I am flouting the cooperative principle in several ways: I have given no reason to believe Jim has committed a crime, or is planning to do so, so the information I am giving is irrelevant and perhaps false, nor am I providing you with the information you requested which, according to convention, would concern itself with whether Jim is satisfied with his salary and working conditions, has been promoted in a timely manner, is respected by his co-workers, etc. But, I am giving you all that information and more if we share some empirical and ethical assumptions about what it means to “work on Wall Street”—that it involves activity that has lately involved well publicized criminal (or presumed criminal) activity, or that others, or the interlocutors themselves, believe much of that activity should be criminalized—and some shared assumptions about Jim (that he himself seems primed for such activity, or, perhaps, is an exception, an honest man, and that is why he should avoid jail in the hypothetical scene we must jointly construct, in order to remove Jim from it, in which Wall Street employment is a fast track to a prison cell). The more such assumptions we share, the more my flippant statement is telling you about not only whether Jim is fitting in at his Wall Street firm, but what such “fitting in” entails and, by implication, what we should think about Jim.

Likewise, very little civilized behavior is actually comprised of individuals directly presenting themselves as the disinterested “third person”—we are all much more likely to refer to pretensions to objectivity, broadmindedness, and altruism ironically and disparagingly even, or especially, when we ourselves could be seen as entertaining such pretensions, or if we are acting in a way that would earn us such a description. A respected judge will, if adequately self-aware, gesture towards the feebleness of his attempts to meet what are also admittedly inadequately understood norms. Indeed, there wouldn’t be that much for us to talk about otherwise—if we didn’t question one another’s and our own credentials as civilized beings in innumerable ways. Civilized beings very often mean what they say, but in very indirect ways, intelligible only to those schooled in such indirection, which is to say, other civilized beings. Modesty, almost by definition, flouts the cooperative principle, but no trait is more attractive in a conversationalist; similarly, the most civilized beings are those who gesture to all the ways in which they are not.

In other words, most of civilized behavior consists in flouting civilization. Civilization is the continuous work of distancing our interactions from the possibility of violent combustion, and that means concealing all kinds of impulses, reactions, and desires that present a visible pathway to the feared violence. All the things that we hide, and would be utterly humiliated to have uncovered, and that pre-civilized orders are untroubled by—to take a most obvious example, what we do in the bathroom—aim at maintaining the needed degree of distance and compartmentalization. And we don’t talk about these things, other than with people we are very close to (even then…) or doctors. The simplest way of flouting civilization is to stage the collapsing of these distances, which is what most of our jokes, entertainment and art are about. Most of the radical, avant-garde art of the past century has been a sustained flouting of civilized conventions of private and public life. (Even the modest judge of the previous paragraph lets his defenses down, makes himself vulnerable, invites attack—thereby testing the civility of others on the scene.) All this is healthy—as with Grice’s implicatures, such flouting makes visible the norms we are flouting, tests them, stretches them, gives them a workout, provides them with new applications, abstracts from them, reminds us of what we have forgotten, teaches us to navigate them, and reinforces the deeply embedded assumptions underlying the principles of cooperation we adhere to.

But civilization has its enemies as well. The jihadis at war with us are not flouting. The Left, for some time, perhaps to some extent since there has been a Left, is doing something other and more than flouting (and this is true of some of the avant-garde as well, which overlaps significantly with the left—but the more an individual’s concerns are artistic, even if the goal to abolish art, the less he or she is an enemy of civilization). The whole business of a politics of civilization, then, is to distinguish flouting from enmity—or, more precisely, to treat all transgressions of civilized principles of cooperation, to the extent possible, as flouting one could participate in. Where it becomes impossible—where we can’t imagine a joke that would follow up on the one just made, or an artistic innovation that would deepen the implications of a previous one, or a style of personal appearance that could signal reciprocity with some new one that seems offensive—then we have intuited the boundary between flouting and enmity. On the other side of the boundary we find either the utopian/totalitarian desire to engineer the center of a global scene or, more prosaically, the vendetta—indeed, the former usually “presents” as the latter. It is worth considering the extent to which the Left is one long vendetta against civilization, nursing a grudge against each and every injury inflicted by the civilizing process. In a vendetta, one doesn’t really want to destroy the other side—one just wants to even the score. But since there are no scoreboards or referees, the compulsion to even the score can easily lead to mutual destruction. Vendettas can be deflected and thereby treated as mere “flouting,” but only if one is familiar with and ready to deploy all the means of civilization, which comes down, as my previous post argued, to delaying and reconfiguring the paths back and forth between declarative and ostensive.

De-naturizing discourse on civilization can make it possible for “nature” to subside as a political category, retreating, perhaps, to one of its more innocuous meanings (which can nevertheless do some heavy duty ethical work): “natural” as unstrained, in sync with one’s setting, familiar enough with conventions and trusting enough in one’s fellows to play around a bit with both, in accord with what one’s habits and history have prepared one for, without pretense or self-coercion, happy to share whatever attention one receives or one has cultivated. A thoroughly civilized nature, in other words. Of course, appreciation of the awkwardness of the learner, and admiration for that of the innovator are intrinsic to a civilized disposition, but a sense of naturalness is what enables us to tell when something has actually been learned, or an innovation has actually “took” (or is that “taken”?).

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Pursuing my distinction between hostage-taking, as the form of politics characteristic of barbarism (or the gift economy, or honor society), on the one hand, and submitting to the third party, as the form of civilized politics, I note an imbalance. Hostage-taking absorbs whatever form of “political” interaction that we can imagine having preceded it […]

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