GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 17, 2014

Civilization, Violence, Oblivion

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:48 am

Humanity presupposes the deferral of violence; society presupposes shared norms enhancing and regularizing the capacity to defer violence; civilization further presupposes entire zones of existence in which the deferral of violence can be taken for granted, which is to say that means of deferral and rules for their deployment, need not be posited, even tacitly. This is the way most of us live now—for almost anyone reading this, if you were to invite me to your home, there would be absolutely no need for either of us to be aware that certain motions, phrases, or expressed desires, would trigger a physical confrontation. This is extraordinary, even though we take it for granted; indeed, its utter unremarkableness is part of what makes it extraordinary, and also part of what makes it fragile.

In order to create such violence free zones, the most pervasive form of human violence needed to be so thoroughly uprooted that we have become unaware of its existence. That form of violence is that characteristic of honor societies: the vendetta. The vendetta is far more intuitive than our everyday peaceful interactions, even though most of us feel spontaneous disgust at exposure to it—much like the disgust we would feel at seeing the cow whose flesh we are to eat as “steak” slaughtered and carved up at the dinner table. When someone transgresses against you, the obvious response is to answer that transgression in kind; a further development of this principle is to answer in kind “plus” so as to defer by deterring the next violent act in advance. But which side can out-deter the other? This can’t be known in advance, since it depends upon non-quantifiable factors like anger, courage, shame, patience and so on. So, social organizations emerge that oscillate between bouts of tit-for-tat violence and periods of peace once all sides agree that the price to be paid for continued escalation is too high—until someone decides, once again, to try their luck. The periods of peace, though, involve their own forms of violence, perhaps in their way even more disgusting: for example, each side is obliged to take care of its own transgressors, or to turn them over, so as to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining the peace; each side must control its own so as to limit the possibilities of potentially uncontrollable provocations—I assume that the most horrific manifestation of honor society, the honor killings of young girls who have transgressed the strict sexual norms of honor societies, even by being raped—follow from this need to demonstrate that possible disruptions will not come from one’s own side, whether through weakness or carelessness.

Under such conditions, everyone’s protection is bound up through family ties to the honor system in such a way that it is very difficult to see how change is possible. And, indeed, change is only possible through much greater violence, that exercised by the “Big Man” who rises from the pack of petty lords and overawes all the rest, destroying those who resist and subjugating and defanging those who submit. From this process emerges “courtesy,” the beginning of “manners,” which doesn’t so much defer violence as involve us all in a shared pretense that violence is so far from our minds that we experience only those desires that can be satisfied without risking it. The kind of human subjectivity that emerges can be understood by analogy to the distancing of eating from the processes of slaughtering I just alluded to—just as we eat our meals, and can only eat our meals, without giving any thought to millions of penned up, systematically slaughtered, chopped up, chemically preserved, shipped, packaged, etc., animals, we freely interact in our violence free zones on the condition that rather massive forms of violence lie in wait for those who cross certain boundaries, not only of legality, but of normality—and that it will never be me who is caught in those traps.

I don’t really need, I think, to tout the virtues of civilization, although a brief expression of gratitude is appropriate—without civilization, trade, art technological innovation and all the rest of our human created cocoon would be impossible. Only breaking what we can now see as the “addiction” to tit-for-tat violence has made our world possible. But the work of civilization is never complete (international relations, for all the efforts of internationalists and pacifists, still works largely on various systems of deterrence), and civilization generates its own resentments (what Freud called its “discontents”), along with fantasies of a thoroughly completed civilization and the return to a carefree, egalitarian primitivism (with the two seemingly opposite fantasies often synthesized into one—modern views of “free love” being such a synthesis, I think). Most dangerous of all, though, is the oblivion induced by civilization, an oblivion much explored by Lee Harris, which, as Harris has argued, makes the category of the “enemy” seem a pathological symptom of the diseased thinking of some of our less civilized compatriots.

I have one question: can we imagine a form of civilization without that oblivion? To do so, we would also have to imagine a civilization without the state, which, for all its democratization, liberalization, and taming through human rights protocols, is still the direct descendent, and still shares the cultural DNA, of those absolutist monarchies that first established civilization throughout Europe. The state, going back to the absolute monarchs of early modern Europe, civilizes and barbarizes, displacing violence from the center to the margins, the imperial margins then and the biological margins now (as the state increasingly deploys health policies to distinguish between more and less worthy forms of life) and, most importantly, imposes oblivion upon us by claiming to have always already (through its control of intelligence, military, financial, punitive, scientific, etc., levers) made us safe. At this point, it would be hard to imagine the results if the state were to simply turn to us, its citizens, and say, “here are the kinds of security I can directly and measurably provide; the rest is up to you”—such straightforwardness would induce massive panic.

There is a libertarian anarchist argument to the effect that the state has always been an agent of barbarism, and that civilization has always been the result of free exchange within and between peoples—free exchanges that the state has always interfered with and exploited. There is a grain of truth to this argument, but I believe it is ultimately wishful thinking—what would have protected peaceful traders from the whims and rivalries of the various honor societies, if not a monarch interested in the wealth of the realm (to, yes, of course, wage war on his fellow monarchs, and to commit other barbarisms we might not like to think about too much)? It would be nice to think that in transcending the state we would be returning to a more natural human existence, one that has been deformed by the state. In fact, a civilized society, especially one as advanced as ours, without a state, would be an innovation, or the result of a series of innovations, as significant and improbable as human history has seen.

A series of innovations, in the social realm, means a series of renunciations. Here, what would need to be renounced is the invocation of the state on one’s side in conflicts with others (without, needless to say, regressing to the level of the vendetta). This would place the onus of keeping peace on all of us, all the time, a thing that is only possible if the responsibility we, and we alone, would bear for failure were to be present with us constantly. The difficulty of such a renunciation should not be underestimated, now that the state has interposed itself in every conceivable human conflict: between husband and wife, parents and children, school and parents, doctors and patients, etc., not to mention within the human conscience itself, that is, our quarrels with ourselves. Such a renunciation would be the moral equivalent of the early Christians’ self-extrication from the debasements of Roman society, involving the establishment of new institutions, including legal ones. It would be far more difficult than the veganism that results for many from the shattering of our oblivion regarding our uses of animals. There would be no point in predicting the likelihood of such a development (even if it is worth pondering which conditions might make them more or less likely), but that doesn’t change the fact that there is no other way of abolishing the oblivion that civilization can no longer survive, because both the enemies of our civilization, and those who aid those enemies because they consider us not civilized enough, are preying upon it.

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